Lately, I have been telling everyone that I plan to finish my novel this year. I laugh when I say this, also adding, “I’m telling everyone so that the pressure, guilt, and potential shame motivate me.” They laugh back or look at me nervously, depending on whether they’re writers or people in the real world.
I’ve been working on this novel off and on since July 23, 2002. (I know this because I obsessively don’t erase my old computer files…“just in case.”) I had started thinking about the idea months before that, collecting newspaper and magazine articles to stick in a file, writing down thoughts on scraps of paper and blank checks and gum wrappers.
What could possibly keep me (or anyone) going for all this time? When I approach a novel idea, I always need some strong characters, a setting, and a central question that can’t be answered automatically. So, I’ll start my discussion of work in progress by talking about the central question, which I envision as a backbone running through the book. I stole this idea from Arthur Miller (and undoubtedly garbled it and modified it and twisted it beyond his recognition, so please don’t get mad, ghost-of-Arthur-Miller). I saw him speak at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference years ago, and he said that he started a play with a paradox—contradictory things that both can’t be true—that is gradually defined over the course of the play. His example was Death of a Salesman, which for him started with the idea of a son loving a father, and a father loving a son; yet they can’t be with each other without trying to destroy each other. Secondly, Willy Loman lives in the richest society in the world and believes in it totally; yet that very same society destroys him and makes him irrelevant as a salesman, so that killing himself is his greatest success. Ever since hearing the idea of the paradox at the heart of Miller’s process, I’ve been trying to apply it to my own creative process, and have found that asking myself a paradoxical question is what works for me.
My novel is tentatively called Prodigal Daughters (remember what I said about titles? that I lack both skill and confidence?), and it’s based on the biblical parable in which the good son gets screwed after the bad son spends his inheritance and comes home to have a dinner of fatted calf lovingly prepared by the father. (Oops—clearly I’m an oldest child!) Anyway, there’s much more to the story than that, of course, and I’ve spent many years pondering it and the idea of forgiveness, which is at the core of the story and has become the central question of my book: Can you forgive someone who has done something unforgivable? Are certain things absolutely unforgivable?
My characters have done some very unforgivable things to one another. It’s time to face up to all that, as one sister returns home after an absence of 18 years. Time for the fatted calf…or not. And that’s what keeps me going, more than the guilt, pressure, and potential shame: pondering those questions.
(For the record, in my mine the question of Pears on a Willow Tree was, Why does one continue to want something they know they can never have? For A Year and a Day, How can people who have died be both with us and gone?)
Next installment: Setting