Friday, December 11, 2009


#345, National Print Museum, Dublin

Every January for the past four years, I've taken off from cold, windy JFK to cold, windy Dublin Airport for one of many "research trips." Such is one of the joys of being a fiction writer -- whatever it is that seizes you, you must listen to, you must use, you must take and create. And if what seizes you happens to include Dublin pub-hopping ("researching the Guinness" -- very important), impromptu visits to tattoo parlors, and long afternoons of cycling through the docklands, why then, you have to listen to that. And so I have.

And now, after four years of work, four years of research, four years of living with these funny, ruined, confused, brave characters in my head, I am done. What began as a feverish thirty-day writing experiment (a novel written in a month during NaNoWriMo in November of 2005 -- That's National Novel Writing Month, for those who haven't heard of this exercise in giddy shared madness, it's wonderful) -- then stretched into a year-long project, and then it just kept piling on after that. For every page of finished writing, there are thirty to forty pages of stuff kinda like it that got thrown out, hundreds of frantic Post-it Notes scrawled with urgent, sudden bursts of prose or grim instructions for revision (I am a cruel editor), and -- perhaps my favorite part of all -- a few small, carefully kept notebooks that served as my constant companions on these research trips. The stuff behind the scenes.

It's a long road, this novel-writing, and you find at the end of it that the whole thing is like one of those covered wagon trips out to California during the Great Depression. You started it mostly to get the hell out of the Dust Bowl, then got all starry-eyed thinking of that golden coast full of promise, then worked night and day through sweat and toil to make this gosh durn thing happen. (You should probably put on some Woody Guthrie real quick, before I change metaphors on you.) Then when you get to the end, you find the trip is nothing like what you'd thought it would be, and some people died along the way and new ones got picked up, but it's all OK because it's fiction and that's just part of the journey.

But back to the notebooks. There is certainly something very satisfying about the sight of a clean, typed, 241-page manuscript on a table -- that thing you made for other people to read. But then there's these little black notebooks with maps in the front, the pages stitched together with thread, the pocket in the back stuffed with ticket stubs, scraps, and odd things that just felt "important" -- that you've filled with all sorts of stuff that's never going to make it into any novel.

I could tell you stuff about this #345 -- and the monotype machine it was taken from -- that would out-rain Rain Man. Is it important to know that the monotype was used in printing processes around the 1890's or that the slugs used for the machine are a combination of 80% lead and an alloy of tin and antimony? Of course it isn't. Not to the novel, anyway. But it's in the notebook, and the tiny streak of smudged ink on the same page reminds me that it was raining that day I went to the museum, and it reminds me of the vegetable soup I had in the little café beside it, and how I looked out the rain-streaked window, an Irish Times on my table and my head full of my made-up characters and full of ideas for Chapter 7, and all of a sudden, what was useless one moment suddenly contains the whole universe.

That's why you wrote it down. That's why you write.


Adam said...

Fascinating insight.

Anonymous said...

This made me teary-eyed!
How drama queeny.
We'll be raising a glass of Irish whiskey to you tonight with good cheer and warm thoughts sent your way.

Jackie said...

"four years of living with these funny, ruined, confused, brave characters in my head" -- Yes. Just-- absolutely, yes.

This made me teary-eyed too. So beautiful. We need to get a celebration drink, my friend!

Therese Cox said...

Thanks for the kind words, all. Sending you all warm thoughts in return from the bottom of my whiskey-drenched, drama queen's heart. Have a wonderful weekend.

Julie said...

Lovely writing. Just delightful. Thank you.