April 5, 2020
Writing a novel is a threatening process…to your self-esteem, even in some cases to your emotional health. First, you have to deal with the task itself, which can take years and may be filled with false starts, page-wasting erasures of poor prose, and long periods of authorial silence spent in self-censure. There are moments when writing a novel is fun, but self-doubt is usually an issue, no matter how much you’re enjoying yourself.
So, you’ve finished one, and think “Gosh, there’s another story here. The one I’ve finished is not yet complete.” You ponder the problem, sometimes for years, and then begin another novel, and even sometimes that one doesn’t tell the whole tale. So, fatefully, you start a third.
In my own case, that was not the plan. I wrote a novel titled My Father In The Night, which was published by Mercury House (hardcover) and Ballantine Books (soft cover) in the early 1990s, and is about to be re-published in a new edition. The main character is a boy named Pearse, who lives in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco in the mid 1950s. He becomes enamored of the Beatniks who populated upper Grant Avenue at the time, a major no-no for Pearse’s Catholic conservative parents. A subplot involves Pearse’s grandfather M.J., who immigrated to the United States during the Irish Rising in the midst of World War I. The memory of his involvement in the murder of an Irish policeman has plagued the rest of his life. Therein lies the story.
In 1992, I finished the first draft of a novel titled When Clara Was Twelve. It tells of young Clara Foy, an American girl on vacation with her parents in Paris in the 1950s. She learns that her mother, while a girl herself in the 1930s, had a baby out of wedlock who was given up immediately for adoption. Another Catholic conservative family, for whom such an event is a major scandal. While they are in Paris, that baby, now a young woman named Emma, shows up again. Clara, thrilled, has to become the go-between in the troubles between Emma and their mother, and therein lies the story. (Setting the novel in Paris, of course, provided me with the thrill of writing about that city.)
That draft had taken me seven years, and I did not like it. It then sat in a drawer for twenty-five additional years, until I brought it out and read it again. It wasn’t bad! But it was way too scattered and overlong, with too many characters. (I am by profession an editor of fiction and nonfiction and concluded that, if a manuscript like this came to me, I would charge extra for helping this poor sot out of the hole he dug for himself.)
I edited it with little kindness. Three times, with help from some others. It finally became publishable and When Clara Was Twelve comes out on April 15, 2020.
These two novels share no characters. They are completely separate. Each stands on its own.
A year and a half ago, I was thinking about the two books and thought that maybe there was another story here. My emotions did sink with the prospect. One that took a few characters from the first and the second, and involved them in…a third?
I have an adult son who is a lifelong epileptic, and my father was an epileptic who died during his last seizure. I’ve written about them, an essay titled “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures.” Epilepsy provides a kind of literary metaphor that fascinates me (Dostoevsky, et. al.), and I decided to write a novel that uses a certain aspect of the affliction as a metaphorical tool to understanding how one particular creative mind operates.
The particular mind in this novel is possessed by Yvette Roman, a Parisian artist who is the daughter of the lost Emma who showed up in When Clara Was Twelve. It is now the year 2000, and Yvette is a renowned painter and printmaker who has come to New York City for a grand exhibition of her work in the Guggenheim Museum. Her mother Emma accompanies her, and they are visited in Manhattan by Pearse and Clara, who are now married to each other and are successful actors. Pearse himself has directed several plays and films, and they are both appearing in New York in a Pearse-directed version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The plot revolves around a mysterious painting that arrives in New York, which everyone thinks must be by Yvette, although she herself has no recollection of having done it. Was it her epilepsy that intruded on her creativity and blotted out her memory of the painting? Or, is it a finely done forgery? Therein lies the story, and the novel is titled The Moment Before.
I’m writing it now, and part of the task is to present the previously appearing characters in fresh ways, so that the reader who reads just this novel will not be left wondering where these people came from. It’s reasonably straight-forward, this novel, except when it comes to the idea of epilepsy as an artistic metaphor. I myself am not an epileptic although, as you can imagine, I know a great deal about it. (My son, by the way, is now forty-eight years old and remains thoroughly afflicted.) I have to write about Yvette’s seizures, and I have to write about making a fine painting, of both of which I have no direct experience.
But that’s where being a novelist comes in handy. You’re making it up, which for a novelist is the very playing-field itself. It is where the story resides, and therein is a story in itself.