Jul. 16, 2010

Starting Over

Tuesday I got the very good news from my editor, Kate, that my manuscript is finally finished — “nailed,” in her word. For those of you who have been following the stuttering process of bringing this book to completion, you will recall that I have reached the finish line several times before, only to have the manuscript returned to me for more changes. For the last month or so, I have been making a last round of corrections. The ending was particularly troublesome. I completely rewrote it several times, not to change the story but to fine-tune the storytelling. This time it really is done.

There remains just one nut to crack: the book still does not have a title. In my desperation, a couple weeks ago I took a very unscientific poll of my friends and family to pick among the likeliest candidates. The winner in a landslide was “Line of Descent,” a title my editor has already judged insufficiently attention-grabbing. At this point I admit I have lost interest in the whole subject. My publishers can call the damn thing whatever they want. I’m sick of thinking about it. In my own mind I have already moved on to the next project.

So what is the next project? That is not entirely clear to me yet. Here is what I do know.

I want to write about the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, in the bicentennial year of 1976, an epochal moment in Boston. I have wanted to set a story there for a long time. I have written about the Zone before. A few years ago, I even tried to sell Kate on a novel set there. She did not buy it, and I wound up scavenging the proposed novel for the bones of a story that ultimately became my just-completed novel. (Lord, it would be easier to talk about that book if it had a name.)

Why the Combat Zone? There are a few signature Boston crime stories: the Strangler, the Combat Zone, the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger, the pedophile priests scandal. To me, it always seemed like bullshit that local writers kept churning out generic hard-boiled detective stories that had nothing to do with the real Boston when these true, epic stories were hanging there, ripe for the taking. Imagine the audacity of the Combat Zone experiment: in order to contain an intractable, spreading trade in prostitution and adult entertainment, Boston created a lawless zone — a sort of mini Tombstone or Dodge City — right in the heart of downtown. What writer could resist that?

Still, fascinating as it was, I had long ago given up on the idea of writing a story set in the Combat Zone. That sort of novel would inevitably be perceived as a “crime novel,” I thought. Mainstream readers would not even consider reading it. And what is the point of writing novels nobody reads? (I know, I know: it’s never stopped me before.)

Two things changed my mind. First, I found a way into the story, a way to make it relatable to ordinary readers. Actually, it found me. In 2005 or thereabouts, when I first began to research the Combat Zone, I found a message board where habitués of the old Combat Zone met to talk about the old days. I posted a message of the “author’s inquiry” sort: “Writer researching a novel set in the Combat Zone seeks information. Please email if you would be willing to speak with me and share memories of the Zone.” Something like that. That one message has continued to generate lots of great contacts. Years later, I still get emails from people happy to talk about the Zone. In March 2009, I got an email from a guy I’ll call “Peter.” He told me about how he had come to the Zone as a teenager in the mid ’70s. A clean-cut freshman at Harvard, desperate to get laid but hopelessly awkward and naive, he began to haunt the Combat Zone in the afternoon after class.

I can’t say he received only a sentimental education there, but Peter’s story reminded me of a device that so many authors have used to make an alien or forbidding place more accessible: the naive and relatable narrator who ushers the reader into the Special World, as Virgil escorts Dante through the underworld. Obvious examples are Ishmael in Moby-Dick, Nick Carraway in Gatsby, or Stingo in Sophie’s Choice. We are introduced first to a likable narrator whom we invest in, identify with, who will be our avatar in the story, then we follow him into the Special World. Peter’s story was the perfect way into the underworld of the Combat Zone.

Then I read David Benioff’s wonderful City of Thieves, which uses this device to overcome the forbidding grimness of its setting, Leningrad in winter during the Nazi siege. Benioff might have opened his story in the cold and starvation of wartime Leningrad. But if he had, readers would have to make a huge leap of imagination right from the start. So instead of tossing the reader into the icy water on page one, Benioff eases the reader in. We start in the present day with Benioff himself, appearing undisguised in his own novel, ostensibly hearing the story from his own grandfather, now retired in Florida. It is disarming and great storytelling, and Benioff carries it off with great charm. The hesitant reader is coaxed along: “Don’t be put off by the fact this story is set in such an uninviting place as Leningrad in 1943. This is a coming-of-age story, Reader, not a war story, and you will be able to relate to it even if you have no interest in Russia or war.”

I would even suggest that this constitutes a sub-genre of the semi-involved narrator story. Call it the “as told to” story, in which a writer is ostensibly told the story by a participant, as Benioff pretends in City of Thieves. Other examples: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I’m sure there are many others. It’s a wonderful device to bring a faraway place closer.

So, now that I have my framing device, how do I start? What exactly do I do in those first few days when I sit down to write a new novel? Alas, I have no idea. Mostly I’ve been spinning my wheels all week. It is a humbling thing to say, just a few days before my 47th birthday, that I really don’t know exactly how to do my job. But at least I am in good company. Here is Philip Roth, in a rare TV interview that I have posted here before:

Without a novel, I’m empty — I’m empty and not very happy. So when I get to work on a novel, I begin to do, um, [here Roth pauses uncertainly] what I’m supposed to do. It’s a long process. It usually takes between two and three years to write a novel, for me, and the first six, eight, ten months can be very difficult because you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you have. So the work is difficult in the beginning, and it’s also difficult in the middle and it’s difficult at the end, as well.

Amen. “Empty and not very happy” is exactly how I feel when I don’t have a novel to work on. It doesn’t get much easier when I do have one, but the uncertainty and blind groping that come with the early stages of finding the story are a special flavor of the writer’s misery. Beginning a new book always spoils the joy of finishing the last one.