Editor Chat

The Thief of Words: Starling Lawrence

Legendary editor Starling Lawrence talks about his novel The Thief of Words, his Peace Corps experience, and the works that inspired him with his colleague editor Jilly Bialosky.

Jonathan Kantor/Gettty,Jonathan Kantor

Starling Lawrence’s new novel, The Thief of Words, is fiercely intelligent and intimate, written with elegance, urgency, and an incredible command of language. Owen, a writer, is trying to uncover the mystery of his doomed love’s past in Sierra Leone as he grieves for his dying wife. Moving backward in time, we learn about Nora Fenton, an American innocent whose life is shattered by the complexities of race, religion and the hidden politics of the diamond trade. Owen, who is writing his own book about Africa, must ultimately ask himself what continues to drive him toward a woman who keeps him at arm’s length.

As his longtime colleague at book publisher W. W. Norton & Company, where he is editor-at-large, Jill Bialosky, talked to Star about the form, intent, and influences in the novel.

What was the genesis of The Thief of Words?

In the simplest formulation, the novel grew out of two things: the experience of my wife’s death, and the rediscovery of a mine of memories from the time I spent in Africa many years ago. They were both very powerful emotional experiences, but I never imagined I would be writing fiction about either one. There is a lot to be said, as a writer, for being ambushed by your material.

At the opening of your novel, the narrator, Owen, is a writer who has a draft manuscript about his time in Africa. His editor suggests that he meet with Nora, a copyeditor at the firm. She also has a connection to Africa, a troubled summer as a volunteer in Sierra Leone. What draws these characters to each other? What are you saying about the pull of the past and how it shapes our experience?

It would be difficult, and presumptuous, to attempt any improvement on Faulkner’s statement: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Think how many powerful stories—Faulkner, Proust, the Brontes, or even successful genre fiction—are based on something or someone rising out of the past to haunt a character or shape a plot in the present. And what could be more compelling than to discover, accidentally, someone whose experience of a resonant place mirrors one’s own, even if the experiences are separated by years, as they are in the case of this novel. It would be only natural, or human, to see such an accidental encounter as the working of fate.

At the opening of your story we learn that as a boy Owen stole a set of 1933 Sierra Leone stamps from a cousin, and it was his infatuation with the stamps of British Africa that led him to spend three years on that continent. Do you see a relationship between being a collector and a writer?

Obsession is a great motor in any kind of writing, fiction or non-fiction, because it is characterized, in part, by a fascination with details and minute distinctions. The obsessed person, in this case a collector, is the most painstaking observer, and likely to spot things or make connections that others, less intensely interested, may miss. As an editor, I can’t remember a single instance where I suggested to an agent that so-and-so write a book on such-and-such. What I look for is the writer who has to write the book, or die trying.

Owen self-consciously plays the part of storyteller in the novel, even going so far as to address the reader directly, in the second person. Can you talk about this choice?

The novel is cast as a one-sided conversation between Owen and Nora Fenton’s father, whom she has sent to protest the impending publication of Owen’s book. But in a more general way you’re right: Owen is addressing the reader indirectly, through the vehicle or convention of his one listener. Another writer might have made a different decision about how to use the same material, but it seemed to me that having Owen tell the story as an explanation or even a defense of his feelings and actions has the effect of emphasizing the element of obsession underlying any intense emotional attachment. Whatever sympathy we might have for Owen should be tempered by the realization that we have only his word, his point of view, to work with, and although his account appears to be meticulous and chillingly rational, a man unhinged by love must be about as unreliable a narrator as one could find.

I understand that you spent some time in the Peace Corps. How much of the novel is autobiographical? Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” What might this mean in terms of your process as a fiction writer?

The Thief of Words is certainly not autobiography, though I sometimes think it would be a simpler task to write such a thing. Simpler, but less interesting to me. On the other hand, the novel certainly grows out of my life experiences, otherwise I don’t see how I could have written it persuasively. The strangest things happen in the writing of a novel. Characters suddenly pop into your head when the story calls for them, characters whose identities were completely unknown to you only a few minutes earlier. One of my favorite examples of the odd mix of fact and invention in fiction is the early work of the French novelist Jean-Christophe Rufin, who later won the Prix Goncourt. In The Abyssinian he tells the story of a diplomatic mission from Louis XIV of France to the King of Abyssinia. It is a fantastic Arabian Nights sort of tale, full of wonders, adventures, and characters who seem mad as hatters. At the end of a sequel to The Abyssinian, Rufin, no doubt in response to many questions, tells the reader which parts of his story are fact, and which fiction. As you may have guessed, the most outlandish material is the history, and the seemingly normal storylines and characters are invented.

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Owen refers to his story at one point as a palimpsest. Indeed, Owen and Nora seem to reveal themselves to one another, and to the reader, in layers upon layers of storytelling. How do these two characters come to unveil one another, as it were? Can you talk about how the palimpsest informs the structure of your novel?

What a wonderful and resonant word that is. I was sorry that I couldn’t use it more than once (unless I did so by accident). The word refers literally to a manuscript, usually parchment, that has been scraped to remove the writing so that a fresh text can be laid down, though often the original writing can be made out. In a figurative way, palimpsest refers to an object or place that reflects its own history. Owen sees Sierra Leone as the place where Nora’s story is over-written upon his own earlier experience, and that’s as good an explanation as any of the magic between them. There is also an odd sort of textual ambiguity or confusion about the book that the reader holds in his hands, and about the factuality of the story in dispute between Owen and Nora’s father. To what extent has Owen appropriated Nora’s diary material for his own use? Certainly the book that Owen intends to publish is wildly different from the draft that he originally showed to Nora.

In the novel Owen reads Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa to Nora. Did that novel influence your writing of The Thief of Words? I hear echoes of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter in your novel. What writers or novels, if any, influenced this work?

It is hard to imagine anyone who has experienced Africa not responding to Dinesen’s voice and luminous perceptions, though I know that some people feel that the book posits a dream of Africa rather than any reality present or past. However you characterize it, the book is beautiful and sad in equal measure, something I never tire of rereading. My subject matter and setting do necessarily have echoes of the Graham Greene novel, though that is a pretty different take on the dilemma of the European in Africa. I cannot sympathize with the religiosity in his book, and I probably don’t even understand it. An excellent argument against Roman Catholicism I would say, and Greene might well stare in blank incomprehension at my pages. But to pick out a book that I would like to think had influenced my work, I would mention, humbly, The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. I can’t make a strong case for this comparison, but I so admire the associative leaps in his writing that I declare myself his disciple anyway.

Why does Owen call himself a thief? What is the significance of the title of your novel?

The only theft that Owen admits to is that of the stamps in the opening pages of the book, but that can’t very well explain the title. Were you to you put the question to Owen, he would finger Nora as a thief, as she stole from him his “understanding of the words that flowed so freely between us, the vocabulary of love,” words now useless to him, emptied of significance by her casual or insincere use of them. But the reader and Nora understand the title differently. Owen’s access to Nora’s bitter experience can come only through two sources: what she tells him—a halting, partial version at best—and what he learns from an unauthorized reading of her diaries.

I keep thinking back to Nora’s innocence at the time of her love affair with Aurelia – of all that she learns from her about Sierra Leone and Africa, about harsh realities and about love – and then I think of the horrors to come. Would you characterize The Thief of Words as Nora’s coming-of-age story?

I would, though it is hard to know what she has learned from it, or how it has affected her life in any but the most obvious ways. Coming-of-age stories need not be the exclusive property of the young, and I’d say that The Thief of Words is such a story for Owen too, though he is much older than Nora, and learning things about life that he perhaps regrets not having learned earlier. Owen sees the writing of his book—telling the truth slant—as a way of closing the circle on his own losses. Perhaps reading it will have something of the same effect on Nora.

You are a critically acclaimed author of four works of fiction including The Thief of Words and a former editor-in-chief and now editor at large at W. W. Norton & Company where you have published authors such as Michael Lewis, Patrick O’Brian, Graham Robb and Sebastian Junger. Has being an editor helped you as a writer? As editors we think about whether a book is going to be a critical and/or commercial success and about how the marketplace might receive a book. Do you think about those concerns when you’re writing? How do you negotiate the two worlds of being an editor and a writer?

I don’t really think that skills acquired or exercised in my day job have been very helpful in writing fiction. In fact, the opposite may be true, because thinking like an editor—worrying about problems before they exist—may make it too hard to get anything down on paper in the first place. As for commercial success, I suppose I should have paid more attention to that. On the other hand, it is not clear that I would have written better books—by any measure—with that goal in mind, and I suspect that the results wouldn’t have been as satisfactory to me. The thing that matters most when I am working on a book is whether it interests me, line by line, chapter by chapter, and so on. The editor lurking at the writer’s shoulder has lots to do once the words are on the paper, and I am always grateful for intelligent advice from an outside source. But a bitter memory is having been forced by the editor of Story Magazine to take a phrase out of a story I had written. The words were neither libelous nor offensive; this was simply a matter of taste. She was standing in my office, and made it quite clear that unless I did as she directed, the story would not be published in her magazine. I cut the phrase, perhaps thinking that this was the sort of compromise one had to make to get along. I now regret that I did not request a couple of burly fellows from the mailroom to remove the woman from the premises. My hope is that there aren’t many writers out there who feel the same way about my own editorial advice. So let’s turn the question around: Has being a writer helped me as an editor? Possibly so.