Ideas come hard for me. I envy other writers who claim to have a backlog of books they'd like to write. Every time I finish writing a book, I start with what amounts to a blank sheet of paper and an overwhelming sense that I'm drifting aimlessly through the world. For someone who likes to be productive, this is hard.
There is no secret orchard where ideas grow. Oh my, do I wish there were. How nice if I could sneak through a hidden gate into a walled garden (cue the music from the lovely 1993 Agnieszka Holland movie, The Secret Garden, especially the haunting closer sung by, yes, Linda Ronstadt, long-ago girlfriend of governor-redux Gerry Brown of California) — but yes, how nice if I could sneak through a hidden gate and just pluck something fabulous whenever the need arose.
For me, sadly, the place where ideas come from is rather more like a coal mine, into which I plunge with only a child's sandbox shovel. I spend a lot of time scraping around for ideas, until at some point something shiny catches my attention at the far corners of my peripheral vision. Eventually, I end up with a number of potentially viable possibilities.
Now, the agonizing begins. As my friends will tell you, I am a superior agonizer. Believe me, you do not want me in the cockpit of an airliner. But in my defense, choosing an idea is also a high-stakes affair. A book of the kind I like to do can take several years to research and write, and represents an investment not just of significant amounts of money but also of great hillocks of time and emotional energy. Frankly, choosing an idea is a little like choosing a spouse. You can change your mind down the road, but it's costly.
In weighing ideas, I employ a complex intuitive algorithm that subjects each to an array of tests. How much research material is available? Will the research journey be fun or a source of misery? Does a particular story embody a compelling narrative arc? Will it be satisfying to write, or an endless nightmare of pain and self-doubt? Does the story reveal something new about the past? How likely is someone else to stumble across the same idea? Is it something readers will want to read? And, finally, will my publisher go for it?
At some point, I consult my panel of primary judges: my wife and my three daughters. I can't of course let others determine what I write, but it is always helpful to hear what my judges say, if only because their views and comments help me get closer to my true feelings about the ideas before me.
This phase is a little like visiting a shrink who helps you claw away myriad delusions. It also evokes a trait of mine that, while unpleasant for those who have to live with me, has proven to be an excellent tool for guiding my career: perversity. If someone tells me to do something, I am immediately inclined to do the opposite. Suppose for example one of my judges tells me she hates an idea and I react by becoming deeply resentful, defensive, and pouty and hide the car keys. This is a good sign. It means I like the idea and feel it's worth defending. If, however, even my tendency to be perverse gets overwhelmed and I agree with my judge's appraisal, then I know for sure the idea is a dog, and in saying so, I mean no offense to doggies anywhere.
This may sound like a strange way to approach things, but any writer who is honest will tell you that he or she writes for one or more constituencies. Some write for prizes, some for other writers. Some pray that Hollywood will anoint their work and that they'll get to rub elbows with Matt Damon or Cate Blanchett or Buzz Lightyear. Some writers, typically the unpublished variety, claim they write just to write, and that if their work gets published, it's merely a dividend. These people are liars.
I write to be read. I love telling stories, the juicier or spookier the better. My 21-year-old daughter reminded me the other day of an evening when she was in elementary school when, during a school function, I took her and a group of her friends outside into the dark and told a story so scary that two of them burst into tears, and one went running back into the gym. I was delighted; my wife was appalled. I try to write about what moves and fascinates me, on the theory that others will find it moving and fascinating as well.
At some point in the idea process I simply wear myself down and force myself to choose. But here's the thing: Once I do choose, suddenly all the other possibilities wither and die, and thus I never have a backlog of well-formed ideas waiting for me when my latest book gets finished. I may retain a vague residual yearning to do something set in a particular time or locale, but once I choose an idea, there's no going back to the old list.
So how did I end up writing a book set in Berlin in the first year of Hitler's rule? A good question, which I'll attempt to answer tomorrow.