My fifth novel, The Sisters Montclair, has recently launched and I’ve been visiting a lot of book clubs. I’m always slightly apprehensive at these face-to-face meetings, because I have the impression that Cathy Holton in Person, is somehow less impressive than Cathy Holton the Writer. Looking around at the polite faces as I drone on about some event that colored my last novel, I often wonder if I’m on the verge of putting my listeners to sleep.
Flannery O’Connor once complained, when discussing an upcoming television interview, that she was afraid she’d stare blankly at the camera and utter such memorable lines as “Huh?” and “Ah dunno,” to the interviewer’s questions. I know exactly what she meant. On the page, writers can make themselves sound witty and erudite. We have the advantage of that most essential tool of good prose; the rewrite. We can sit in a darkened room for days constructing and reconstructing one line until we get it perfect. To a reader it may seem that our perfection is innate, a lucky coincidence of fate and natural-born talent, but I can tell you it’s actually the result of a great deal of hard work and determination. It takes a lot of effort to be funny, or philosophical, or blindingly lyrical. Any writer who tells you otherwise is bluffing. There are few geniuses among us. Most of us are just competent liars with a good work ethic.
At a recent book club meeting, an admiring reader read out several lines she had bookmarked in one of my novels.
“Did I write that?” I deadpanned. Much laugher. (Occasionally, I can be entertaining.)
The truth is, I remember that passage very well. I must have worked on it for weeks, rewriting, deleting, rewriting, circling back with a frenzied determination that only a true obsessive compulsive could appreciate. But in the end, I wrote something that was good, something that I can be proud of for years to come. A passage that makes me appear, to the casual reader at least, like something of a literary genius.
Now if only I could rewrite my personal appearances.