The Pulitzer Prize—winning nonfiction writer (for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) and self-described "gregarious recluse" is back with her first novel since The Living. It's a love story called The Maytrees (Reviews, Feb. 5).
You're primarily known as somebody who writes nonfiction about the natural world. What made you want to write this novel?
I was looking for a really good story, the kind you can tell to somebody else, the kind that Frank O'Connor wrote. I asked my students: does anybody know a real, real good story—nothing negative, nothing cynical. An older man came up with this story.
It's a pretty simple story, and pretty short. Was it easy to write?[Laughs]
I have a theory that the novel is being ruined by the computer. You're so bored with the story after nine years that little side stories get more interesting, and you devote many more days to them and they're completely peripheral.
Is the process of writing a novel different from writing nonfiction?
The process is very much the same. I decided to set the book on Cape Cod [where Dillard has spent time for many years], and then I started doing all this research. I gathered a whole bunch of data—I must have had 300 pages of files of historical data on the time and the place. Pretty soon, the thing was up to 1,400 pages. But the story wouldn't bear it; it's a simple little story. You can't pile all this stuff on the back of a frail couple. So I cut the whole first half and wanted to cut it down further and further and further. I'd look at each character: do you have to be here? Are you necessary or optional? If you're optional, then off with your head!
Isn't it hard to kill off your own characters and writing?
I've made the decision many times. Of course, I always save them in a file. And then I got to the part that was really interesting: shaving the book by the syllable. If there was a three-syllable word, I'd say, is there a two syllable word for this, etc. That was really fun. And then I told my husband, Robert Richardson [author of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism], "I'm having so much trouble." And he said, "Decide what the book is about and take away everything that isn't about that." That's a really good guideline. I always put a little index card above my desk that says: "This book is about THIS!"
So, what is this book about?
It's about the marriage of these two people. It's about their lifelong love. I wanted to call it a "Romantic Comedy about Light Pollution." Sadly, my editors made me remove my joke.