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What Were You Thinking When You Wrote That?

Writers on book tour are often asked questions along these lines: "What were you trying to do by making X happen in your book?" Or "Were you planning that this would happen?" Or "Did you map your book out?" In response to these questions writers often look befuddled, in large part because they are. One issue is the simple problem of lag time. A novel can take five, 10 years to write, and then it goes into production and finally comes out, at which point the writer is often on to the next book and the book that he's being asked about can seem like a distant memory. What were you doing on page 274? And the writer thinks, Huh? I wrote that?

But I think the issue goes beyond that. Flannery O'Connor famously wrote in her wonderful book of essays Mystery and Manners: "There's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without," and I agree. A novelist can be too smart for her own good.

Another way to look at it is this. A friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, whereas the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. In fact, I'd go further and say that the process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of usthe process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of us. Adults think in terms of category, in terms of concept. In order to buy dessert for my family in the most efficient way possible, I need to understand that apples and bananas are generally housed together. But what makes for a good dessert purchaser doesn't make for a good fiction writer. Adults think in abstractions, and abstractions are the death of a fiction writer. Kids, on the other hand, don't think in abstractions. Consider a toddler learning to talk. She speaks almost exclusively in concrete nouns and verbs. Although she doesn't realize it, she's following Isaac Babel's dictum to eschew adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. I'm always telling my graduate students to think monkey-banana, not apple-banana — so much so that the last night of class one semester they showed up to workshop wearing T-shirts they had made with a monkey and a banana emblazoned across the front.

I often don't know why I did what I did, because the process of doing it, at least in the first draft, is deeply intuitive and subconscious. I don't map my novels out in advance, because if I do I will get what a friend of mine calls Lipton-Cup-a-Story. I'll be injecting my characters into a preordained plot, and that's not how good fiction gets written. In fiction, there needs to be a complicated and symbiotic relation between plot and character. We both create our own stories and are created by them.

How, then, does the writing come about? How does a writer get his "ideas," if "ideas" can even be a word used to describe fiction? I'll give you an example from my last novel, Matrimony. In Matrimony, Julian meets his eventual-wife Mia after having spotted her in their college Facebook. He dubs her "Mia from Montreal." I wrote that phrase instinctively, probably because my own girlfriend freshman year of college was named Laura, and my roommate called her Laura from Larchmont. I liked the alliterative sound of those words. Before I wrote "Mia from Montreal," I had no idea where Mia came from. But she had to come from somewhere, and Montreal seemed as good a place as any. But then I had to own up to what I'd written. How did Mia's family get to Montreal? Had they lived there for centuries? Were they expatriates, and, if so, from where? And how did Mia end up back in the States, in western Massachusetts, for college? I could have chosen Mia from Madagascar or Mia from Maryland, and if I'd chosen Mia from Maryland, there might have been, for all I know, a long section in Matrimony about her family's tangled relationship with the clamming industry. But she wasn't Mia from Maryland, she was Mia from Montreal, and so I discovered that her father had gone to teach physics at McGill, forcing her mother to abandon her career in the process, and that Mia, out of loyalty to her mother, who had since died, decided to retrace her mother's steps back to Massachusetts. I knew none of this until I wrote the words "Mia from Montreal," and then, because I'd written those words, I had to own up to them.

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Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts. His latest novel is The World without You.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Matrimony (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  2. The World without You
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  3. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
    Used Trade Paper $8.95

Joshua Henkin is the author of The World without You

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