In the UK, Scarlett Thomas recently came out with a book on writing called Monkeys with Typewriters, but that’s not expected to be released in the US until December today yesterday*, so Thomas’s American readers are forced to create their own lessons if they want to learn to write from Thomas until then.

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately with Thomas’s novel, The End of Mr. Y.

One of the most valuable things I learned from my time in the MFA program at Goddard was how to learn to write by reading books. I was an English major in undergrad, but it’s one thing to analyze a text in order to say something smart about it. It’s something different entirely to read a book because you admire the writer’s work and want to learn, and anyone who’s been reading this blog for very long at all will know that I’m a big fan of Thomas’s work, which is why I’ve picked up The End of Mr. Y again while I work on my own novel.

So, what have I learned?

As I’ve said before, the thing I admire the most about Thomas’s work is the way that it feels like we’re just following the protagonist around while they share their thoughts and experiences.

One of the reasons for this in Mr. Y, I think, is because the book is written in present tense. Being forced to write the immediate present would, naturally, make everything feel more immediate, but the present tense also forces you to slow down and pay attention. You can’t just say, “I pick up the paper and read an article about the stock market and drink my coffee and go downstairs and take a shower and sit at my desk and write an expense account.” Well, an account of writing expense accounts would tend to be pretty boring, anyway–unless you’re expensing cocaine and zoo animals or something–but that’s just the thing. You could be walking us through the process of diffusing a bomb step by step, but it’s not going to be interesting without details.

Details are the reason it’s interesting to watch Thomas’ protagonist Ariel bake potatoes. She isn’t just baking potatoes. She’s baking potatoes with capers and olive oil, and while she bakes potatoes and with capers and olive oil she lets us in on an inside joke that she has with her roommate that helps keep them light-hearted about being poor.

Sometimes, though, just specifying that the path to work goes past a dilapidated house with a cracked terracotta roof isn’t enough. It’s interesting to follow Ariel around because she’s an interesting person with a rich inner life. When she sees the sun setting, it reminds her of a “orange-robed Buddha in a documentary about the meaning of life.” She free-associates to interesting places. She spends the time she has to wait for her lover talking about why she prefers sleeping with older men. The mention of a popular science writer leads her to present her theory on acceptable subjects. (“You can have as many dimensions as you want, as long as none of them contains ghosts, telepathy, anything that fucks with Charles Darwin, or anything Hitler liked (apart from Charles Darwin).”)

Details and interesting characters are important in fiction of all kinds. It wasn’t until I started trying to write in present tense with Thomas as my guide that I noticed just how much more room a writer has writing either in past tense or third person. Both allow more opportunities to jump, either out of the head of the character or forward in time, but I’m enjoying the challenge of first person for now. After a long heat-wave, I think the season might finally be changing, and I can’t think of a better way to spend the rainy months than the mind of my protagonist and a cup of tea.

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