While I’m sure that few things are more boring to read than posts about work on my own novels, I am compelled to write them because they help me make some sense of what I’m doing with the books. Also, I just read an interview with Zadie Smith about her new one, NW, and that interview made me want to talk about writing. So blame Zadie Smith.
I am probably a little past the halfway mark of my work in progress, a short (I’m hoping) novel called Mona in the Desert. Just now as I type that title I realize that there is a sort of recurring image in the novel, of enclosed spaces within sorts of wildernesses. Huh. I don’t know what that’s about but there it is. Which sentence (I don’t know what that’s about but there it is) could serve as a motto for the writing of this novel. I have no grand plan for the book, no outline at all, and only the barest idea of what “happens” in the story. The story, the plot, assembles itself around the writing as I go along, clinging to the idea-of-the-moment and growing thicker and more textured before my eyes. I have scribbled a few notes in the back cover of the spiral notebook in which I’m writing the first draft, a list of sentences to incorporate or images to expand into scenes, but I have no idea where I’ll use these sentences or images until the moment arrives when I see that I can build them into the narrative. So I’ve got no program, no vision for this novel. What I’ve got is voice and memory, mostly.
Mona in the Desert is a novel about memory, real and created. It began with me trying to remember my earliest memories, to remember my family when I was a kid, and then it expanded into trying to remember the family myths, the stories we’ve been telling about ourselves and each other for decades, and trying to decide if those myths are based on fact or on a shared set of assumptions we’ve made about our family. What facts have been excluded from the family myths, and why. Who are these people, really, and why did they make the choices they made? All of this began as autobiography, but the characters quickly transformed into a fictional family that bears only a passing resemblance to my real family. This is in part because I have a lousy memory and I found myself having to make up a lot of events to fill in the chronology, and also because I found my fictional family to be pretty interesting on its own. One of my few hard-and-fast rules for fiction is that when the story and the facts are at odds, the story always trumps the facts. I’m a novelist, not a historian. It also became interesting to incorporate into the narrative the knowledge that a lot of what I was saying to the reader was made up, and I’ve been explaining as I go along which parts are wholly imaginary and which parts are facts. My mother was a Pisces, that’s a fact. My aunt spent years living on a mountaintop in a recreation of Noah’s Ark as part of a religious cult is an invention. But the Ark on the mountaintop, while fiction, is a necessary device to get at certain truths about life (that’s how fiction works, you know), so my narrator won’t apologize for lying to the reader.
My narrator (who is not me, because he and his family are fictional people) has a point to make, which is why he must keep talking about his family history even if it means making up that history as he goes along, because he’s working his way slowly toward his point. I don’t know what the narrator’s point is yet. I assume he’ll tell me when he gets to it. I have just referred to a fictional character as if he’s a real human being. I hate that sort of thing, because I know that the narrator is actually me, and all the other characters in the book are actually me, as the whole thing is growing from my own imagination, even the factual historical events I’m putting into the book. Because those facts exist in my mind and they do not feel any different, any more “real” than the things I make up, so how am I to know which of them are in fact statements of truth, eh? Riddle me that.
What’s this post about, Mr Bailey? I’m not sure. I’m writing about the church of the sleepy God right now. It’s a little church that harms nobody, and wants only that its members sleep as much as they can, because God is asleep and we are made in His image so plump up your pillows, kids. That sounds like a nice church to me. Possibly I was going to write something about how Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is a great book but I don’t see my novel in progress being influenced much by it, and that surprises me. The section I just wrote reminds me of Dubliners-era Joyce, truth to tell. So I don’t know. It’s a long way until revisions and my job right now is to just keep the narrative moving forward, keep the three or four timelines going in overlapping segments, and eventually get to the scene hinted at in the opening paragraph of the book. I also need to sit down soon and type all of this into the Word™ document before I do something stupid like lose the notebook I’ve written all these words into. There is no way I could reconstruct this novel from memory.