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‘Oh, I’ve got to write? Time to clean the stove first’


EO Media Group

CANNON BEACH — Kevin O’Brien is running out of ways to kill people.

In his novels, that is.

His admission came during a Q-and-A with five professional novelists gathered at the Coaster Theatre on Sunday before an audience of a few dozen literature lovers. It was the final plenary event of the third annual “Get Lit at the Beach: A Gathering for Readers,” the Tolovana Arts Colony-sponsored book bash that began Friday.

Alongside O’Brien, an author of 15 thrillers, sat Brian Doyle, Robert Dugoni, Whitney Otto and Terry Brooks, who moderated the panel.

After two days of talks, book signings and an author reception, the five literary heavyweights bantered candidly about the triumphs and tortures that many dedicated writers experience during the creative process.

Bad habits

At times, the discussion felt almost like a confessional.

“I’m always late with my deadlines,” said O’Brien, who – on top of having to come up with ever more horrible and inventive deaths for his characters – struggles with procrastination. “I’m an ‘unreliable author,’ according to my editor.” And for a writer who wrote his first two thrillers without the Internet, being so close to “all that great, distracting information” has become dangerous.

“I decided to look up how to handle a razor for something, and then, before I knew it, I’m trying to look up all the songs of Trini Lopez,” he said.

Brooks, a Cannon Beach resident and fantasy author, called this “the curse of the Internet.”

“You’d never have done that if it was encyclopedias on a wall,” Brooks said.

The biggest stumbling block for Otto – the author of five novels, including “How to Make an American Quilt” – is confidence, that “inner critic that’s telling you, ‘This isn’t any good. And if your mother dies, no one’s ever going to buy your books.’” “Also, just worrying that it’s never going to be as smart as I want it to be, or as eloquent as I want it to be, or just all of the things we strive for as novelists,” she said.

“It’s like, every time you write a new book, you have to prove yourself all over again – if only to yourself,” Brooks responded.

Doyle, the editor of Portland Magazine and author of several books of essays and fiction, tries “not to be lecturing or homilizing or opinion-ating or editorializing.”

In other words, whether in fiction or nonfiction, he tries to let the story tell itself, let the characters be themselves and “to get ‘me’ out.”

“When I was writing ‘Mink River,’ I vividly remember, there was a moment when I was trying to make the characters do stuff, and they were all giving me the finger. It was really disturbing,” he said. “I know it sounds like stoner muck, but it’s true.”

Dugoni, who specializes in the legal thriller, has trouble paring down his ideas, which always begin grandiose – such as an exploration of Seattle’s Russian mafia – until he figures out what his story is really about.

See AUTHORS, Page 10A

Kevin O’Brien, center, the author of 15 thrillers, discusses the writing process during Sunday’s author panel, the final event of Get Lit at the Beach. He is flanked by Whitney Otto, left, author of “How to Make an American Quilt,” and Robert Dugoni, author of the David Sloane legal thriller series.


Brian Doyle

Continued from Page 1A

“When I started out as a young author, everybody always (said), ‘You gotta have a high concept,’” he said. “What’s a high concept?”

“High concepts are overrated,” Brooks said.

It took Dugoni a long time to realize that the best stories are simply about characters with something personal at stake, something they want that drives them – and, thus, the story – forward.

What does Brooks, author of more than 20 New York Times bestsellers, struggle with?

“It’s dialogue,” he said.

A ‘benign neurosis’

Brooks asked the panel if writing brought out any strange idiosyncratic behaviors. When Brooks sits down to write, all of his pencils need to be lined up and “things have to be ‘just so.’” Before Dugoni starts writing, “I try to find a book of an author who’s better than me, which isn’t hard,” he said.

He regularly rereads passages from John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” and Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” Even though his style is nothing like theirs, “just that feeling of somebody that talented inspires me.”

Doyle feasts on Orwell, Steinbeck, Twain and E.B. White to “clear the pipes” before putting pen to paper.

O’Brien, on the other hand, needs to answer all of his emails first. And, if he isn’t feeling deadline pressure, other things may suddenly take priority.

“Oh, I’ve got to write? Time to clean the stove first. Or rearrange the sock drawer,” he said.

Doyle, quoting his late friend George Higgins, called writing “a benign neurosis.”

“Don’t think when you write. Don’t think. Your head is probably your worst enemy,” he said. “Just sit down and play. And listen to what needs to be said.”

Writing, he said, is “taking an idea out for a walk.”

He added that many writers write not knowing how their story is going to turn out; they write to see what’s going to happen, what the characters are going to do.

Writing novels, for example, “are great, long adventures. It’s like you’re living in them,” he said. “I find it really pleasant to be in a novel for a year or two. You just show up every morning and you’re living with these characters.”

In Otto’s view, one’s writing is often intimately tied to one’s identity.

“When it goes your way and everything is great, there’s no better life I can imagine,” she said. “When It doesn’t go your way and it falters a bit, it’s terrible.”

At one time or another, each of the authors has received bad reviews.

“I got some great ones,” Dugoni said. “One of them was: ‘John Grisham used to be the worst writer on the planet. But now it’s Robert Dugoni. Thank you for that, Robert.’” But when someone “rips you apart” on Amazon, one shouldn’t take it too personally; how a person responds to someone else’s art is very subjective.

“Look, I’m the guy who went to the Louvre in France, walked in to (see) the ‘Mona Lisa’ and went, ‘Meh,’” he said.

— Brian Doyle


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