David Dobbs: “Exquisite wisdom can be hard to follow”

Bobbie Johnson
Jun 20, 2013 · 7 min read

David Dobbs is absolutely one of my favourite science writers: the author of great features and essays for the New York Times, National Geographic, NewYorker.com, Slate, and other publications. He’s currently writing a book about the genetic and cultural roots of temperament with the working title “The Orchid and the Dandelion” (Crown). You can find more of his work at daviddobbs.net.

I asked him about the way he writes.

Was there a specific moment that made you follow the path you’re on? An inspiration? A revelation?

First semester at college, when I really started to read. In particular, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway got me entrenched, to take up your metaphor, on my slippery, often sloppily walked path toward being a writer.

Many others energized and sometimes rerouted the way: Shakespeare, with what someone (Hilary Mantel? Damn me for not writing it down) recently termed his “roughing up” of the language; Updike and Nabokov, with their fluid elegance and exacting precision; and later, waving encouragingly from the Path of Nonfiction, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm, who are two powerful, abiding influences and inspirations (there’s no one I re-read more than Malcolm); and David Quammen, whose Song of the Dodo confirmed that science is as rich a subject as any for serious writing.

Do you have a specific routine or approach you take?

Once I reach the writing stage of a longer article or a book, such as the one I’m writing now, I follow a fairly regular daily routine. I work 9 to 5, at least. If I’m smart, I turn off the internet as soon as I walk into my office and leave it off until at least lunch; afternoon I’ll either fill in reading or research or work on any shorter pieces I’m doing. Plus, you know, tweak the Twitter.

I like to map a piece out pretty thoroughly before I start. I’m with John McPhee: the right structure makes everything else easier. And once I start writing, I try to follow Hemingway’s dictum to end each day’s writing in the middle of a passage or even a sentence, someplace where I know what is going to happen next, so that when I sit down next day I know exactly what I’m going to write.

This exquisite wisdom can be surprisingly hard to follow, Why stop when it’s going well and I’m having so much fun? But assuming I’ve worked well for a while and hit or passed my day’s word target, that’s actually a great time to stop, because I’ll enter the room next day aching to hit it and will know exactly how. Even Twitter can’t compete with that.

But that steady desk time is just one part of the work — absolutely necessary, but not entirely sufficient. Over the years I’ve come to rely too on sudden insights or ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, usually when I’m technically not working: when I’m walking or riding a bike or skiing or paddling or reading.

These sudden connections with the material — quickies — can take two forms. One is the much-needed burst of language that was sought earlier in vain but now appears unbidden: the opening sentence, or the last, or a short phrase that suddenly makes a transition work. Carry a notebook.

At other times, though, some non-writing diversion will allow entry of a solution to some structural or tonal problem — some adjustment so simple but fundamental that it solves many problems all at once. It might be some formal adjustment — a different approach to voice, or language, or substructure. It might be as simple as moving a section to a different part of the work.

“It’s only the second or third or fifth time through that I’ll see how the writer strings a story’s less apparent lines of force and tension”

These often come while I’m reading or (more likely) re-reading something rich, laden, and intense — something like Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman the third time through, or Gatbsy a fifth, or John le Carré. I re-read such works for the re-experienced pleasure, but also because it’s only the second or third or fifth time through that I’ll see how the writer not only structures the tale, but strings its less apparent lines of force and tension.

So in Smiley’s People for instance, I find the story’s magic not just in the mixed victory that le Carré’s rotund spymaster George Smiley experiences when he finally discovers the weakness of Karla, his Russian arch-rival and nemesis; nor in the delicious fact that Smiley finds this weakness by reading (yet again!) every last bit of original-source material on the man; nor in my recognition that the book’s structure and solution hinges on how an aging Russian refugee in Paris named Ostrakova, narrowly surviving an attempt on her life ordered by Karla, enters from the bottom, gun in hand, the same hellish labyrinth of ambiguous evidence and mystery and danger that Smiley is negotiating from the top.

It’s not just those things that make the book hum and throb so dangerously, though they’re gifts enough. It’s that with those things in mind and the opacity of this world accepted, my mind more at ease and less confused on this repeat read, I suddenly see how le Carré uses not just structure and plot, but modulations in language and diction and narrative distance and sentence structure to multiply exponentially the tension about whether and how the two paths — Smiley’s ponderous, cerebral, opaque, and controlled, Ostrokov’s earthy, urgent, fleshy, and furious — will converge in time to save them both.

It’s the nature of such things that you’ll miss them — I will, anyway — if I’m trying too hard to see them. I must perceive them in not the center of my vision but its periphery, where subtle motion and faint light most easily register.

Alec Guinness as the screen’s definitive George Smiley (sorry Gary Oldman, but it’s true)

And so I see it, in this case, while reading le Carré and drinking whiskey in the garden.

I’m relaxed but in suspense. I’m reading the part where Smiley is climbing the stairs to Ostrakova’s apartment to rescue her, and she, listening to his footsteps, is watching the door with a pistol in her hand ready to shoot him — damned likely to, in fact — for she feels certain Smiley’s footsteps are her killer’s. I’m not tootense, for I’ve read this before and pretty much remember how it turns out. Yet I don’t quite recall how they avoid this looming disaster, or rather, how Le Carre works this.

Thus riveted, and attending now less to what happens? than to how does he work this?, I see what I missed the first time: that Le Carre first signals Smiley’s and Ostrakova’s mutual rescue not with action or revelation, but by reconciling the two languages, and thus the two paths, along which these two have thought and spoken and operated up to this moment.

For 200 pages the stylistic differences with which their stories are rendered have created a worrying and increasingly dangerous distance between Smiley’s, layered, elaborate, latinate world of memory and mystification and detection, codes and ephemera, and the harder hewn, starker world Ostrakova plods through, related in more stark, Saxon, even sexual language: a world of burning cords, screeching tires, aching legs, and old revolvers.

These worlds and vocabularies have been heading for a collision for a while, lately accelerating toward it as the two narratives alternate more frequently. Now, with Smiley climbing the stairs, they will join in either safety or disaster. Yet they join not in the moment in the key dramatic moment, in which Ostrakova finally lowers her pistol and lets Smiley in. They join two pages earlier, when we peer with Ostrakova through the peephole and see not the Smiley who operates in a multisyllabic world of allusion and deception, but the Smiley who appears as “a small gentleman in spectacles, who in the fish-eye was as fat as the Michelin tyre man.”

The language in which Ostrakova sees him, his successful presentation as a man she can understand, tells us, even before she knows it herself, that she will trust him.

And with that realization, my head jerks up and I simply cannot find my pen and notebook fast enough — for in this meeting of not just two paths but two lines of structure and language and stylistic force, I see instantly how to solve a problem in my own book that has tormented me for months.

Which is why I love this job. In what other realm can you do some of your best work sitting in your garden reading a thriller and sipping Bulleit?

A short version of this interview first appeared in the email newsletter from digital longform publisher MATTER. Sign up for an account today to receive a weekly dose of great stories, enthralling links and insightful tips.

    Bobbie Johnson

    Written by

    Causing trouble since 1978. Former lives at Medium, Matter, the Guardian.

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