Learning to ‘Pack a Punch’ in 150 Pages

Shortly before finishing his most recent novel, “The Humbling” (2009), Philip Roth sat down with a yellow legal pad and drew up a list of the historical events he had lived through, knew well and hadn’t yet written about. One of the words he wrote down was “polio.” Several days later, he glanced at the pad again. This time, he circled the word polio.

When Mr. Roth, 77, was growing up in Newark, N.J., in the 1940s, polio’s ability to cripple and even kill without warning was one of the greatest fears. What would have happened, he wondered, if an epidemic had struck his neighborhood?

On Oct. 5, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish “Nemesis,” the fourth novel in the author’s quartet of short novels that includes “Everyman” (2006), “Indignation” (2008), and “The Humbling.”

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Building Blocks of a Book

• When he’s working on a project, Mr. Roth is a dedicated note-taker. “Once I’ve started on a piece of work, then I’m good at keeping a notebook and record of what’s coming,” he says. “But if I’m not working on something, whatever comes into my head goes out of my head.”

• Mr. Roth made his main character a javelin-thrower because he was interested in the sport. He watched DVDs to study the sport’s mechanics. “I love the research part of it,” says Mr. Roth. “It’s the journalist’s side of being a writer.”

• He decided against using a child who gets polio as the main character, because he didn’t want to write the book from a child’s perspective. He also considered a doctor as a protagonist, someone who had to treat children as they were struck down. He eventually decided the role would better fit the father of Bucky’s girlfriend.

• Why the Poconos for the summer-camp setting? Mr. Roth worked at a camp in the area for several summers when he was a college student.

• In both of his home offices—in New York City and rural Connecticut—Mr. Roth maintains the exact same set-up, including the same computer, desk and chair, and even the same lamp.

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In “Nemesis,” Mr. Roth tells the story of Bucky Cantor, an athletic, javelin-throwing 23-year-old who is a playground director in the summer of 1944 in Newark. Not eligible to serve in the armed forces because of poor eyesight, Bucky becomes a devoted gym teacher. A fellow teacher falls in love with him, and the two appear to have a bright future.

But after a polio epidemic breaks out during the summer, Bucky quits his playground job at her request to join her at a camp in the Poconos. The story then takes a brutal turn.

Early in his career, Mr. Roth would write through an entire novel on his typewriter and then go back to polish it. Now, he says, the computer has made it so easy to make changes that he typically writes five pages and then rereads them. “If it’s too poorly written, I back up and rewrite,” he says. “Not so that it’s necessarily polished and finished, but so that I can decently go ahead.”

When he’s working on a book, he writes every day. He’s satisfied with a single page, although he’d rather have more. “If I have less than a page, I want to slit my throat,” he says.

He writes in New York City and in rural Connecticut, where he also lives. When he’s deeply into a project, he’ll usually start to write at 9:30 in the morning and work until 4 p.m. or so, when he takes a break to exercise. If he’s in the country, he’ll sometimes go back to work after dinner for an hour or two, typically looking over that day’s work.

The work itself is still hard, he says. Perhaps 10 to 15 days a year he simply decides that he’s not getting anywhere and gives up. Mostly, however, he prefers to struggle on in hopes of getting something written down that advances the story. If he quits, he says, he knows he’ll have to face the same problems the next morning.

Mr. Roth says he doesn’t map out the whole story in advance. While he has some inkling as to what may happen next, he basically “feels my way going forward. The book educates me as I write.”

As he thought about the story for “Nemesis,” Mr. Roth remembered how much he and his friends had loved their summer playground director, somebody who directed their games and looked out for them. The kids were in his charge, but they weren’t his kids. He was right in the heart of the action, susceptible to the same risks as the children around him. As Mr. Roth puts it, “The danger was in his face.”

Philip Roth working on a manuscript in December 1968.

Many of Mr. Roth’s works are flavored by autobiographical details, and occasionally he has heard that people he has written about have been upset. But the process of turning a real person into a character is more complex than most people think, he says.

“The person is a model who then develops into somebody,” he says. “You may begin with a real person, but you have to come to inhabit that character yourself, and at that point, at least the way I do it, you leave the real person behind.”

Mr. Roth began to think seriously about writing shorter novels about six years ago. He admired the shorter work of Saul Bellow, and at one point discussed it with him. “I said, ‘How do you do it? I know how to write a novel, and I like the amplification that goes into writing a novel, but how do you pack a punch in just 150 pages?’ ”

Mr. Roth started with “Everyman,” where he says “the punch was death and disease.” In the second book, “Indignation,” a “boy screws up and winds up getting killed.” In “The Humbling,” says Mr. Roth, “The guy loses his acting power and then he altogether loses his power and does himself in.”

The short novel, he says, requires different skills, which he didn’t realize when he began the series. “You have to be able to compress and condense,” he says. “That’s the skill, to condense and pack a punch at the same time.”

All four books, he adds, are about suffering. “The nemesis is that which you can’t conquer,” he says. “Do you have one?”

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704654004575517782933600268.html