Saramago on Writing

This interview with Jose Saramago in the Paris Review finds him saying many things I absolutely agree with. It feels good to know such a great writer had some of the same approaches to writing. I have to put some of the quotes down here just for my own future reference.

Once I have reached the end of a work, I reread the whole text. Normally at that point there are some alterations—small changes relating to specific details or style, or changes to make the text more exact—but never major ones. About ninety percent of my work is in the first writing I put down, and that stays as is.

If a story were predetermined—even if that were possible, down to the last detail that is to be written—then the work would be a total failure. The book would be obliged to exist before it existed. A book comes into existence. If I were to force a book to exist before it has come into being, then I would be doing something that is in opposition to the very nature of the development of t

he story that is being told.

I don’t believe in the notion that some characters have lives of their own and the author follows after them. The author has to be careful not to force the character to do something that would go against the logic of that character’s personality, but the character does not have independence.

A story is inseparable from the characters who appear in it. The characters are there to serve the structure that the author wants to create. When I introduce a character, I know that I need that character and what I want from him; but the character is not yet developed—it is being developed. I am the one developing that character, but in a sense it is a kind of self-construction of that character, which I accompany. That is, I cannot develop the character against itself. I must respect the character or it will begin to do things of which it is not capable.

That is what I mean by respecting the integrity of the character—not making him do things that would fall outside of his own personality, his internal psychology, that which the person is. Because a character in a novel is one more person—Natasha in War and Peace is one more person; Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is one more person; Julien in The Red and the Black is one more person—literature increases the world’s population.

As has been the case with all of my novels, Blindness emerged from an idea that suddenly presented itself to my thoughts. (I am not sure this is the most precise formula, but I cannot find a better one.)

What is important to me is that I do my job well, according to my standards of what a good job is—that the book is written in the way I want it written. After it is out of my hands, it is just like everything else in life.

I will not say that my books deserve to please readers because that would mean that the worthiness of a book depends on the number of readers. We know this to be untrue.

Sometimes I think to myself, I hope we are never able to leave this planet because if we ever do spread out into the universe, it is not likely that we will behave differently there than we have here. If we could in fact inhabit the universe—and I do not believe we will be able to—we would infect it. We are probably a virus of some kind that fortunately is concentrated on this planet. I was recently reassured about all this, however, when I read about a supernova that had exploded. The light from the explosion reached the earth about three or four years ago—it had taken a hundred and sixty-six thousand years to arrive here. I thought, Well, there is no danger, we will never be able to go that far.

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One thought on “Saramago on Writing

  1. I agree with everything he says, but that about characters. I know when I’m writing, there are times when the characters seem to write themselves. Though I know I’m doing the work, it feels as if something else has taken over. I’ve went back and read some of my work and thought, “Did I write that?”

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