The other week, on Twitter, the writer Austin Kleon shared an excerpt of a Joy Williams interview in which Williams describes writing a guidebook about the Florida Keys in the 1980s. If you’re not familiar with Williams, she is one of our most celebrated contemporary fiction writers, and here she was telling the Paris Review that she had once written a guidebook for money, and that it had been kind of a disaster:
Random House was doing this series—Virginia, the Hamptons, the Keys. The Keys were still kind of strange and unspoiled in the eighties. I went around the state and wrote things down, but nobody talked to me. Nobody! I’d limp into these bed-and-breakfasts and people would snarl at me and not want to talk. I mean, honestly, it was terrible and I had no idea what I was doing. And it wasn’t edited, nobody edited it. Have you seen the afterword, the final edition, when I didn’t want to update it anymore? Here I am, worn out and saying how shitty everything in the Keys has become, and Random House just went ahead and put the afterword in there. Isn’t that amazing? That’s the only book I’ve ever made money from.
I love everything about this passage: Williams’s exuberant (and at the same time exhausted) voice, her admission that the guidebook is the only book she’s ever made money from (!), and especially the sentence right in the middle: I mean, honestly, it was terrible and I had no idea what I was doing. Isn’t this, in fact, the starting point of so many ultimately terrific projects?
That Williams line reminded me of a similar admission from Joan Didion, in the preface to her first book of essays, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem: