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On Writing

Teaching What Can’t Be Taught

The ambivalent wonders of the how-to-write book

There is a law of diminishing returns in most things, and this is abundantly so with that curious genre, the how-to-write book. I’ve lost count of how many of these I’ve read over the years. I was about to say I’d read most of them, but that wouldn’t be true: there are hundreds, probably thousands…
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Do You Remember That Night With Old Charlie?

What's under your skin, not under your nose

I’ve been looking for an excuse to use the word “expatriate,” just to prove that I know how to spell it. You’ve no doubt noticed how almost everyone nowadays, including journalists for so-called quality newspapers, believes the word is “ex-patriot” – the abbreviation of which is, of course, “ex-pat” rather than “expat.” Even I have…
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Hermes of the Ways

David Rain on why he loves typewriters

The Classic Typewriter Page is a brilliant website exploring pretty much everything you could want to know about typewriters. Among its many features is a series of essays in which contemporary writers explain why they still love – and use – these great machines. David now has an essay there, titled “Hermes of the Ways,”…
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The Three Distances

How novels work (or, perhaps, should work)

I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Three Distances,” but I’ve been fascinated by the idea for many years. It’s a concept about how novels work – or, perhaps, should work – and strikes me as true. It explains why some novels seems trivial and others profound. It shows that the novel, as…
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The Butterfly Effect

Three answers to the question: "What happened to that boy?"

It was the best idea I’d ever had. Filing out of the Prague State Opera, my partner asked me suddenly: “What happened to that boy?” The boy was “Trouble,” Madame Butterfly’s son, played in most productions by a blond, Western child. In the port of Nagasaki, Trouble’s mother, a geisha, had for one ecstatic season…
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Memories of Marlene Dietrich

An early short story by David Rain

David Rain comments: “Many people over the years have told me how much they like this story, so I resurrect it here. I wrote it when I was twenty-two, and it was my first piece to achieve any recognition. It won a contest in Australia and later appeared in an anthology. I was at the…
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Alas, Poor Yorick!

The strange world of Sterne's Tristram Shandy

Tristram Shandy is a book which, famously, draws attention to the fact that it is a book; a novel which overturns all the conventions of the novel. Discussing the outlandish time scheme of the novel, it is common to point out that the hero does not get born until the fourth volume. But Sterne, or…
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Pages Left Unfilled

The secret splendours of the reading log

Do you keep a list of the books you read – a “reading log”? The world, no doubt, is divided between those who think this is a wonderful thing to do, and those who not only couldn’t be bothered but find the very idea ridiculous, boring, pathetic and all sorts of other unkind things. Not…
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This Side of Paradise

Thoughts on book titles and their magic

I always think it’s a bit odd when novelists liken the publication of novels to childbirth, but the naming of a book is one way in which the whole business is similar. The Heat of the Sun had many names while I was writing it, not all of which I can remember, but it was…
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The Greatest Movies Never Made

Ten books which really should be filmed

It’s said that only bad books make good movies. I’ve never believed it myself. It’s true that certain types of popular novels make stunning movies: The Godfather, Psycho, Giant. Whether the original books in these cases (by, respectively, Mario Puzo, Robert Bloch, and Edna Ferber) are “bad” is debatable: if a book has a terrific…
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