I always knew that this draft of my novel would be about six chapters and fifty thousand words long (yes, it’s short, but this is within the realm of acceptability for a literary novel). This is one of my talents. I generally know, to within two or three thousand words, how long my books are going to turn out to be.
Coming to the end of a book is a bewildering thing. For so much of the book I’m worried it’s going to fall apart. Then suddenly it becomes easy. The number of options closes down. Everything has an air of inevitability. In fact there’s a mathematical precision to every scene. It’s simply the firing of each gun you’ve placed on each mantle. If a character hasn’t been seen in awhile, then it’s time for them to come back. If a thread has receded into the background, then it must be foregrounded (however briefly). You cannot introduce new characters or new elements. The most you can do is juxtapose characters who’ve never previously been seen together.
When I come to the end of a novel, I’m always struck by what a momentous achievement it is. A novel is fucking immense. It’s an entire world, created, nurtured, and brought to fruition. What’s most interesting are all the things that a novel leaves out. My current book contains no mention of the main character’s family relationships. They exist. She has them, but they have no relevance upon the plot. Nor does she fully describe her rather substantial history with the other characters. All of these people have so much life, and yet they exist so briefly and in such a limited fashion.
A friend and I were recently discussing why we write. I said that maybe we write in order to connect with other people. But she commented, correctly, that when people actually come up to an author and want to discuss their work, it’s almost always pretty uncomfortable for the author. Moreover, most readers, even fans of the book, tend to have only a shallow appreciation for its subtler and more impressive accomplishments.
For instance I’ve been reading domestic thrillers, and one particularly good one was Michelle Frances’ The Girlfriend. I went online and read several interviews with the author where her interlocutor was like, “OMG did you hate these characters as much as I did?” And you can almost hear the sigh on the part of the author, who’s like, “Actually, no. I liked and sympathized with them both very much.”
Which, to me, is obvious. She clearly loved these people, and that’s the main accomplishment of the book. But readers often don’t get these things. Perhaps on some level they’re responding to the book’s intricacies, but they rarely understand them.
So if it’s not to communicate, then maybe we write simply for the pleasure of it. Those very few days when the writing is going very well are definitely quite pleasurable. But I don’t know that this encapsulates it.
I think some people just enjoy the daydreaming aspect. I like to create stories. The characters do, to some extent, come alive. I can hear them. I can feel them moving around and trying to do things. But they’re never really my friends. Even the briefest of my acquaintances is more real, to me, than any character I’ve ever created.
For me, at this late date, my purpose in writing (aside from the wish for fame and fortune) is that I know things which nobody else seems to. In some ways, they’re very simple things, but I can’t summarize them in a few words. Mostly I think that I simply tackle the stories that other people tend to always mess up. For instance, I’ve for years wondered, What happens if a young woman moves to the big city, and doesn’t find an intimate circle of friends? What if she remains forever on the outside?
When other authors write this story, it always turns into a tale of dangerous obsession. But that implies that loneliness is either a result of pathology or inevitably causes pathology. And yet that is simply not the case. Looking at the world, one can see that the vast majority of lonely people simply learn to bear their situation. They grit their teeth and survive. This is something we all know, but it’s very difficult to write a story about it, in part because such a story is inherently lacking in drama and in part because the protagonist of such a tale is usually in this situation in part as a result of her own weakness. And if there’s one thing a reader can’t forgive, it’s weakness.
But because of the mechanical difficulties of constructing such a novel, writers often find themselves taking the easy way out. I don’t do this. And it hasn’t been easy. To create a situation that is natural, dramatic, and complex is beyond the resources of many writers. Either they resort to contrived situations, they create boring stories, or they simplify the inherent complexities of the situation. In some cases, they do all three.
For my part, it’s dishonesty that I really hate. For instance, if in modern times, someone has no friends and no community, they generally bear a certain measure of blame for the situation. They want something, but they’re too weak to go out and get it. They are afraid of rejection. And it’s totally understandable. People armor themselves with self-deceit, but an excess of rejection either destroys that self-deceit or requires so much additional self-deceit that it propels you into another world entirely. So a person needs to carefully manage their rejection levels.
But on the page, this rejection-management reads as weakness. Yet how can such a basic part of ordinary human life be a weakness? These are the sorts of conundrums that have occupied literally years of my life.
I think that if there’s any reason I write it’s because somebody needs to solve these problems, and very few people seem to even be trying. In fact, the status quo, where the heroes and heroines of most novels find themselves dealing with problems that are utterly dissimilar to those of any normal human being, doesn’t even seem to be a problem for most people in the publishing world.
And this is not a matter of genre. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing Bridget Jones or Luke Skywalker, the essential problem of life is still: how can I find the strength to survive? And if you simplify that problem, you might create a gripping or iconic story, but, to my mind, you’re abrogating your duty as a storyteller.