Summer_10_14_redHat_BrokenLine.indd“It was in the first place, after the strangest fashion, a sense of the extraordinary way in which the most benign conditions of light and air, of sky and sea, the most beautiful English summer conceivable, mixed themselves with all the violence of action and passion. . . . Never were desperate doings so blandly lighted up as by the two unforgettable months that I was to spend so much of in looking over from the old rampart of a little high-perched Sussex town at the bright blue streak of the Channel.”  — Henry James, “Within the Rim”

The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light. The high Sussex bluffs were a massive, unbroken line of shadow from east to west, the fields breathed out the heat of the day, and the sea was a sheet of hammered pewter. Standing at the tall French windows, Hugh Grange held his breath in a vain attempt to suspend the moment in time as he used to do when he was a little boy, in this same, slightly shabby drawing room, and the lighting of the lamps had been the signal for his aunt to send him to bed. He smiled now to think of how long and late those summer evenings had run and how he had always complained bitterly until he was allowed to stay up well beyond bedtime. Small boys, he now knew, were inveterate fraudsters and begged, pleaded, and cajoled for added rights and treats with innocent eyes and black hearts.

I lie under a stack of blankets. Day-old briefs hug my thighs. My fist makes a miniature vibrating tent of the knobby wool. I should get a life!

I’m due at the New York Hospital Fertility Clinic in half an hour. My Raleigh three-speed stands ready to hustle me to Sixty-Eighth Street and York Avenue, about as far across town as you can get from this one-room walkup at the corner of Fifty-Seventh and Tenth. Yes, I donate my semen. Though it isn’t exactly a donation. I get paid thirty bucks a shot, so to speak. I need the money and childless couples need…well, me. A pretty straight-forward transaction, you might say, with the added satisfaction of helping somebody out in a cosmic sort of way. Though I have a bad feeling about it sometimes, like this morning, the vague sense that I’m doing something wrong, and one day it’ll all catch up with me.

For the last month, I could see the end, that moment when I’d write the last sentence of my second novel. I imagined there would be exaltation, relief, a supreme sense of satisfaction rolled into that single keystroke when I’d tap the period and put an end to this work that began on August 11, 2002.

Much changed during those nine long-ass years: my father passed away, I got married, and my first novel was published. I also wrote about half of another novel that I paused (abandoned is too harsh a word – I’m coming back for you, little book, I swear!). For seven years, I did not add a single word to this eventual second work, but I did think about it often, and when I started it back up in the fall of 2008, I knew I had to bring it home. Because if I didn’t, who would? Andy Warhol once said that he wished for someone else to paint the paintings in his head. For a long time, I thought it was a goofy quote, lazy, even, but now I interpret it differently. Sometimes, I see a scene in my head that’s so perfect that the translation from brain to the written word, no matter how accurate or graceful, will still fall short. Times like these, I understand Andy completely.  I wish somebody else would write it for me, just to take away the disappointment of my eventual failure.

Writing any novel isn’t easy, and the problems are there from the start, built into its framework. The rate at which people read is not the same as the rate at which you write the work – perhaps unless you’re Stephen King – so it’s as if you’re running a race in slow motion, constantly having to gauge the pace of scenes and dialogue and make sure they’re in balance within the rest of the exposition. Unlike short stories, whose plots and logistics can be contained wholly within a manageable slice of a writer’s brain, novels are sprawling creatures, so it’s very possible to decapitate the head of a character in chapter ten and have him bake an apple pie in chapter twenty, without any sort of Frankensteinian resurrection involved. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that you yourself are changing as the years roll by, so what you might have considered to be smart and moving in 2004 might seem smart-alecky and sentimental today.

With the second novel, there are added pressures. It’s not your first, so people expect more from you, bigger and badder and important and non-sucky. Except what few seem to realize is that you really didn’t know what the hell you were doing in the first place, that the debut novel is the result of hope and faith and persevered serendipity. It’s not as if I had a specific end product in mind while writing Everything Asian; the book formed itself during the process of writing, so there were no guarantees that things would work out the second time around just because they happened to do so the first time.

Adding to the angst was that with number one, as I came to the last couple of chapters, I sped up, excited to reach the finish line, while with number two, I found myself inexplicably slowing down. After slogging through three years of steady writing, when the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel revealed its glow, I wanted nothing more than to turn into Superman and burst through at supersonic speeds, and yet each new page came as willingly as a cat going to the vet. What the hell was going on?

My theory is that the novel had become a form of Stockholm Syndrome, where I learned to love my captor and did not want to leave its confines. Because what lay beyond this book was an even blacker unknown. What if, after slaving away for all this time, I was writing a spectacular turd? Once it was done, people would read it, and the verdict would be in. And what about book number three? And for that matter, just how many books did I actually have in me? Would I run out of things to write about at some point, and then what would I do with myself? As awful as it was to keep writing this second book, there was safety in these characters and their stories.

But last weekend, I hunkered down. With my wife out of town, it would be possible to write all day and all night, something I hadn’t done since – well, never. Three hours is usually what I can handle in one sitting, but I knew that if I made this final push, I’d be done. On Friday, I managed two sessions of three hours, and on Saturday, I started at nine in the morning and finished nine at night. Of course we’re not actually talking about twelve consecutive hours of banging at the keyboard. Staring at the wall, chatting with the cat, playing with the dog, straightening up the pile of magazines on the coffee table for the fifth time – it’s all part of the process. And yet despite all of this “writing,” I did find myself on the last word of the last sentence by the time day turned to night. Which means there was only one way to end it: the final period.

I wish I could say that pushing on that dotted plastic plateau was what I’d hoped, an orgasmic release of pent-up literary forces that transformed the books on my shelves into a hundred Nabakovian butterflies, but alas, I felt none of it. I was beyond exhausted, and all I could think was the amount of rewrites it would take to straighten out this morass of a novel.

In any case, it starts with the words His father was against the idea, and it ends with and so was he, my book number two, whose vital stats are as follows: 121951 words, 404 pages, three parts, 26 chapters plus an epilogue. If writing a book is like having a child, I think it might have been a C-section. The baby remains nameless, so I got my work cut out for me.

Related Link

Check out Taylor Antrim’s excellent essay about the difficulties of writing the second novel.