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Original Essays

On Falling in Love (with Novels)

by David Treuer
  1. The Translation of Dr Apelles: A Love Story
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "A novel that is so intellectually rigorous and emotionally stirring, we've already told everyone who will listen to read it." Time Out Chicago
  2. Native American Fiction: A User
  3. The Hiawatha
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    The Hiawatha

    David Treuer

  4. Little
    $4.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist


    David Treuer

In his essay "On Falling in Love," Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that, "there is only one event in life which really astonishes a man and startles him out of his prepared opinions. Everything else befalls him much as expected." He was speaking of love but I like to believe he was also speaking about writing novels. If so, novelists are the most extraordinary lovers in the world — we allow ourselves to be astonished and startled and jolted out of our prepared opinions every time we conceive of a new book and then attempt to bring it into the world.

There is a crucial difference, though, between falling in love with a person and falling in love with the idea of a book. In the case of humans, lovers are blessed with the advantage of being able to behold the beloved, to have the other present and active and alive. One must be receptive to human love, able to sense its vibrations and then harmonize with them. The process of falling in love also brings with it some sorrow. Like the lilting lofting tail of an elusive mermaid many mistakes and wrong turns and fortuitous coincidences form us and make us who we are at precisely the right moment (if we are lucky) or precisely at the wrong moment (if we are cursed) to grasp what life has offered us. Sometimes we never manage to see what we need to see in order to grasp joy by its tail. How much harder it is to fall in love with the idea for a book! Not to fall under the spell or the thrall of this or that bewitching idea — that's always easy enough. Bewitchment, false love, is a danger to book and people lovers alike. Rather, it is difficult to fall in love with the potentiality of an unformed thing, and to have that thing be the right thing. It takes work and intuition. Productive, fruitful potentiality is the watchword for book love.

Given the similarities between falling in love and writing a novel it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the first faint pulses of what was later to become the heartbeat of my novel The Translation of Dr. Apelles occurred while I was on my honeymoon in Portugal nearly five years ago now. Actually, that's not true. The very first heartbeats beat pitter-pat roughly a year before that fateful honeymoon. I was far from home, in Paris, walking down some street or another. And what I was feeling — while being lucky enough to be alive, lucky to be doing what I felt I was born to do, lucky to be in Paris — was sadness. A crushing kind of sorrow threatened to overwhelm me, a sorrow I had only previously experienced upon the death of someone or something close to me. I stopped and stood and tried to find the source of my sadness but could not. I wondered whether I had received without knowing some message through the empathosphere or if I had simply stumbled into someone else's sadness left behind on the sidewalk like a lost glove. After much searching and sifting and thinking I think I found my sorrow's source. I was at that moment, standing on that forgotten street in Paris, thousands of miles away from anyone who could speak the language closest to my heart, the language in which I find my fullest (even though not my most fluent) expression. The Ojibwe language of my home and homeland. Without being able to speak Ojibwe to anyone and have it spoken back I would have no one who could see me or interact with me as I was, in my language. I felt invisible in a way beyond the invisibility that somatic misrecognition can bestow — I felt painted in hues that blend so delicately and remotely on the spectrum that they are invisible to the naked or untrained eye. This unique impression of my own nonexistence (and where else to dwell on that than Paris?) gradually transformed itself into a speculation on how many unique people and worlds and thoughts sidle by in popular disguise — how we continually mistake one thing for another and don't recognize the treasures with which we are continually surrounded. The best books, the very best books can alert us to the unseen and unremarked upon — they find language the unnamed and unloved. And then, the feeling faded, life's soundtrack resumed, and I was happy once again. I began writing what would become Apelles but it was all wrong and nothing came easily. I had one part of the thing but I needed the other parts for it to work.

Fast forward to my honeymoon in Portugal. I was in the National Museum with my wife, Gretchen. While she was entranced by a Hieronymous Bosch triptych of the Temptations of St. Anthony I found myself staring at a very large, nondescript, and somewhat homely tapestry. If it wasn't so big and in the National Museum I could easily imagine it hanging behind the couch in the trailer home in which I lost my virginity many moons ago. Moving on. It (the tapestry) depicted Apelles painting Alexander the Great. As the story goes, Apelles was the best painter in Greece at the time, so skilled that when he was painting horses and real horses were led past his studio window they neighed at their brothers on the canvas — mistaking the fictional for the real. Apelles was also the only man allowed to paint Alexander's portrait. Alexander was so pleased with his portrait he gave Apelles his most prized and beloved concubine, Campaspe. Apelles and Campaspe fell madly in love and lived happily ever after as husband and wife. I realized, suddenly, that I had found the missing piece for my Apelles — a man who wins reality by way of artifice. That is, by making something not real (a portrait, a story), Apelles gained something much more real (love, a language for himself) and more lasting.

The resulting novel is, I am told, challenging. It has as its noble goal the desire to help the reader see what usually remains unseen. Like the real Apelles, my Apelles tries not so much to recreate reality or a real condition but to make reality (the sum of what we know and what we imagine) bigger; to add to it, not simply to reflect it. Which brings us to a species of love that we have not covered yet, but it is the most important kind: the love readers have for stories. As readers we love books for a number of reasons — they make us feel, they make us laugh. But we can also love them because they make us feel, laugh, and think. I was told by not a few publishers and not a few friends that I had written a very good book that no one would read because it was too challenging. I said to these helpful people (while still harboring my own private terrors that they were right) that they underestimated the good readers of the world, for whom the love of books, as with the love of other human beings, can be complete. I maintained that readers are being shortchanged these days by popular novels that entertain but do not transform. Readers are all too often treated to lapdances rather than true romances. But, I argued, if presented with a novel that was moving and thoughtful, readers would rise to the challenge, and like champion lovers, they would love that challenge; they would love the marriage as much as the book they married. I've swung it — to write the best valentine I could, dedicated to the struggle of reading and being read, to write a book worthy of being read — but this, ultimately, is up to the reader to decide. And so now I will sit and wait to see if the marriage will last. spacer

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