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Fifty-Two-Card Pickup

In my previous blog post, "Where Do Books Come From?", I talked in a general way about how I moved from my first novel, Heroes, to my second novel, Dead Languages, and in today's post, I'm going to talk about how Dead Languages became Handbook for Drowning became Remote — books I published in 1989, 1992, and 1996. The point here, I hope, is not to rehash the various books I've written, but to perhaps spur some interest on the part of writers and readers in how one book begets another book. A variety of things influence a writer to write his or her next book, but in a strange way, the biggest influence or one of the biggest influences is the satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction one feels about the previous book, and one is endlessly trying to write the "perfect book," but of course one doesn't finish a book; one abandons itone doesn't finish a book; one abandons it (Valéry). "Fail better," as advised by S. Beckett.

I like Dead Languages, my second novel, more than my first novel, Heroes; Dead Languages feels more personal, more nervous-making, more risky, more idiosyncratic, more "me," for lack of a better term. And yet there were things about the book that I came to feel unthrilled about — the relative slowness of pace, the way in which that book is wrapped tightly within the growing-up-novel genre. Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories came out a few years after Dead Languages, and in some ways it's a bit of a sequel, or even a prequel, to Dead Languages, but it feels to me more fleet-footed, more boundary-jumping (mixing between essay and story, confession and reportage and fantasia), and more multi-perspective.

Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories is a novel, just barely — it hovers between stories and essays, and it hovers between story collection and novel. I thought I could and would write my fourth book, Remote, as a novel, but what I wasn't counting on was that Handbook had already pushed me over the cliff into collage, essayistic nonfiction, and genre-blurring. To the degree Handbook for Drowning gestured backward to my novels and forward toward my book-length essays, it created a way for me to write Remote. I tried to write Remote as a novel, but I simply couldn't get traction on it as a novel and wound up writing it instead as a game of 52-card pickup — a work of literary collage built of 52 chapters. It's one of my favorite books that I have written, but it began as a series of digressions to a novel that I couldn't write.

In my next blog post, I'll talk about how I came to an end of something with Remote as well — it was a beginning of something exciting for me formally, but I needed to figure out a way to not keep writing about myself, and sports — of all things — was the canvas on which I would attempt to do that.


More from David Shields on PowellsBooks.Blog:

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David Shields is the author of 15 books, including the New York Times bestseller The Thing about Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead; Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of 2010 by more than 30 publications; and Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His work has been translated into 20 languages.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Thing about Life Is That One Day...
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  2. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Black Planet: Facing Race During an... New Trade Paper $19.25
  4. How Literature Saved My Life
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  5. Heroes: A Novel Used Trade Paper $6.50

  6. Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in... Used Trade Paper $4.95
  7. Remote: Reflections on Life in the... Used Trade Paper $5.95


David Shields is the author of How Literature Saved My Life

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