by Campbell Geeslin

“A remarkable thing about the novel is that it can incorporate almost anything,” wrote Thad Ziolkowski in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. He directs the writing program at Pratt Institute and is the author of a novel, Wichita.

The novel, he said, “can contain essays, short stories, mock memoirs, screenplays, e-mails—and remain a novel. This elasticity is also a sign that unlike, say, the epic or the ode, the novel is a living, evolving form. But if its outer limits are virtually nonexistent, the minimum requirement is generally that there be a narrator telling us something. In this way, any manner of book can find a way to justify calling itself a novel, but the label should not be worn lightly since it invites scrutiny of the highest and most exacting kind.”

USING A PEN: Robert Stone, who died earlier this month, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several novels including Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise. In a 1985 interview for The Paris Review, he said, “I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed—you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity.”

ABOUT MEMOIRS: Rachel Cusk is the author of a new novel, Outline. In a New York Times review of Alexandra Fuller's most recent memoir—Leaving Before the Rains Come—Cusk wrote: “A memoir often takes one of two basic forms: In the first, the writer has an extraordinary story to tell; in the second, she has the ability to tell the common story in an extraordinary way. Sometimes—Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is an example, Paula Fox’s Borrowed Finery another—the two are conflated in events on whose extremity the artistic mind succeeds in imposing literary form. I once heard the writer Aharon Appelfeld, asked why he had underplayed the savagery of his Holocaust childhood in one of his books, give the answer that extremity, whether imaginary or real, is harmful to art. What he perhaps meant was that the artist’s aim is to represent truth, and that certain experiences—those that infringe or violate the common sense of reality—can never be made to seem true. Joan Didion dealt interestingly with this problem in The Year of Magical Thinking, making the surreality of her husband’s death at the dinner table a space the reader could philosophically inhabit.”

PROLIFIC: Bestselling author Neal Stephenson lives with his family in Seattle. He has a new two-book deal with Harper Collins The first book will be Seveneves, due out in May. The novel, PW said, is about “the survivors of a global disaster which nearly caused the extinction of life on the planet.”

The second book, to be written with Nicole Galland, is set for 2017.

Stephenson has written more than a dozen novels, several of them prize winners, and a dozen books of nonfiction. Wikipedia said his novels are “categorized as science fiction, historical fiction, cyberpunk, and ‘postcyberpunk.’ Other labels, such as ‘baroque’ often appear.”

The many photos on the Internet show that he is skilled in growing facial hair.

LEGEND: In an essay for The Guardian, Val McDermid wrote: “Four writers of [P.D. James’s] generation reshaped the way we experience the English crime novel--P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter.” Once, after a book event, McDermid ushered James to the signing table. She recalled, “I shouted, ‘Make way, legend coming through.’ They parted like the Red Sea for Phyllis, in a way they would have done for few others.”

FIRST NOVELS: Lauren Groff is the author of a novel, Arcadia. She wrote in The New York Times Book Review: “I feel deeply for first novels because they often manifest so much anxiety they make me think uncomfortably of children’s bell-choirs, hands in soft cotton gloves, the proper notes rung at the proper time, the palpable sense of relief in performer and audience alike when it’s all over."

GET HAPPY: Tara Parker-Pope writes a column in The New York Times Science section. She said: “Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.

“Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing--and then rewriting—your personal story can lead in behavior changes and improve happiness.”

She quotes Timothy D. Wilson, University of Virginia psychology professor: “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.”

AUTOBIO-FICTION: Andrea Chapin is a British actress, book editor, and now a first-time novelist. As an editor, The New York Times said, she “spent more than a decade helping writers publish their fiction.”

Her historical novel is The Tutor. It’s about a woman who guides a young protégé to produce several sonnets and his first narrative poem. He then “goes on to a career as the actor and playwright we all know as William Shakespeare.”

Chapin told The Times, “I had worked with so many authors on their first books where I was part muse, part psychiatrist, part editor, part coach, I wondered, ‘What if you created a character who did that for Shakespeare, for the first book [Venus and Adonis] he published?” The Tutor comes out in the U.S. next month.

GOING HOME: Hector Tobar, a Los Angeles journalist, is the author of the bestselling The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried Alive in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free.

Tobar interviewed the men and their families and was himself interviewed on National Public Radio. He said that the mine had been shut down and it “looks like the mouth of a monster. So it’s a very haunting, dark place.”

The author is currently at work on a novel set in Urbana, Ill., and El Salvador. He said that the 33 men facing death didn’t think about money or love conquests. They thought about their families that loved them. “So my next book,” Tobar said, “will have home at its very center.”

ADMISSION: Andy Weir is the author of a bestselling novel, The Martian. It is about an American astronaut stranded on the planet Mars. Weir told CNN that his hero was “smarter and braver than I am, but the core personality that most people noticed—that he’s a massive smartass—that’s basically my personality.”

DEATH: John Bayley, 89, died January 12 in the Canary Islands. The Oxford don wrote about his wife, novelist Iris Murdoch, in Elegy for Iris (1998). His experience of his wife’s Alzheimer's was the subject of the book quoted in his obit: They went for a swim in a small Oxford river. “Once in the water, Iris cheered up a bit. It was almost too warm, hardly refreshing. But its old brown, slow-flowing, deliciousness remained, and we smiled happily at each other as we paddled quietly to and fro. . . . The water was deep, and cooler as we moved out from the bank, but we did not go out far. Looking down, I could see her muddy feet, still in their socks, moving in the brown depths.”

A Guardian tribute was written by Richard Eyre who directed two films about Murdoch, adapted from Bayley’s books. Eyre wrote that Bayley “was eccentric, droll and, in my experience, undeviatingly honest. . . .He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world.”