I set out to write a very American adventure novel that celebrated the river I knew as a kid. My grandparents owned a small island in the St. Joseph River in Michigan connected to the mainland by a piece of scaffolding laid on its side and fixed with a plank walkway. Grape vines snaked all over the thing dappling it with shade. My siblings, cousins, and neighbors spent summers in the mud and water, and in rowboats and canoes. We fished, investigated turtles, and salvaged interesting pieces of driftwood. We sunned ourselves on an oil-barrel float and ate our lunches on the screen porch.
My literary inspirations for Once upon a River were mainly The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Odyssey, both of which are episodic in structure; and, while Odysseus is not exactly an American, he belongs to all of us now. What would a river adventure be like for a teenage girl? How would it be different from a boy's journey, I wondered. My protagonist, Margo, had to have her own kind of battles, challenges, relationships. I wanted to tell the story in an absolutely realistic way, but also to make it seem, overall, like a kind of fairy tale.
It's funny how important things occur in threes. Wishes, magical animals, sisters, bits of magic. Three things came together to help me find my story. In my first book, Women and Other Animals there's a story called "The Fishing Dog," which opens with a teenage girl who is living on the river with an older man. In my second collection, in the story "Family Reunion" there's a girl who gets revenge on a molester who lives across the river. One day over coffee on my screen porch (modeled upon my grandparents' screen porch) I realized these two characters were the same person. In my novel Q Road, there's a brief appearance of a woman who lives on a houseboat in the Kalamazoo River. A lot of readers, mostly men, were intrigued by this woman and asked, "How'd that woman end up living that way?" and "What happened to her?" Once again, it turned out to be the same person in the other two stories. So it turns out that I was writing this novel for a long time before I knew it.
While I was writing this novel, more than the usual number of people were dying around here. We lost four family friends to cancer last year, one after another. The living and the dying needed attention. My novel needed attention. For long periods I didn't have time to get together with friends out in the real world, funerals excepted. And there were animals that died, my brother George's dog, my brother Tom's old yellow cat and then his mama cat, the goldfish that had lived in our stock tank for 21 years. I still remember the day we brought Orange Peel home from the grocery store and put him in the tank to eat algae.
Last year, 2010, nobody around here was having babies. This net loss made it critical that I write a life-affirming novel. This year, everyone is having babies and getting married. I'm not sure what that means for my next novel.
How to write a novel
People always ask me how to write a novel. It's simple. Follow these instructions:
Get obsessed with a character and a situation and then sit down at your desk and write. Keep sitting. Just keep sitting. Don't worry, the machine will answer the phone. The dishes can only get so dirty, and there are only so many of them, so the situation is about as bad as it's going to get already, so what's the big deal? You don't have children do you?
The best way to write a novel about a girl surviving in the wilderness without any money, with only a few clothes and the ability to skin what she shoots, is to keep your own larder stocked with gourmet coffee (my husband has taken up roasting his own in a popcorn popper), chocolate, wine, nice crusty bread from the local bakery, and fancy jams and cheeses. Especially if everybody is dying, you need that nice food, or as good as you can afford. This makes writing sound bourgeois, doesn't it. That is the first time I've ever used the word bourgeois. I won't use it again any time soon.
Choosing the right spouse can make writing a novel much easier. Because Darling Christopher fixes my old car, I can afford to buy the chocolate, wine and bread. He also remembers things, historical and personal, such as who proclaimed, "I am the State" (Louis XIV, he says) and what our neighbors' names are. He also brews up a nice pot of coffee before he goes off to work. He also bought me a Marlin 39A, a .22 rifle like the one I gave my protagonist in the book. It's beautiful.
If you're going to have shooting in your novel, you should work to get it right, because here in America, some of your writers will know more than you do. I gave my friend Gary, a Master Bullseye shooter, an early draft of my book. After he read it, I bought him a beer at Bell's Eccentric Café, and he said, "This is fine writing and all, but I don't believe it. I don't believe Margo is as good a shot as you say she is." So I worked with Gary for a few months, talking about shooting, discussing types of targets, ways of thinking, breathing, discussing good shots and bad shots. We went out shooting a few times. He was very adamant and methodical about gun safety, especially when we were with people who were drinking.
Gary says he now believes that Margo could make the shots she makes in the book. She has a philosophy of shooting that relates to her philosophy of living. She knows how to calm herself. She knows how to make her body more solid. She knows not to make shots she knows won't be good. He taught me that it's okay if you put your gun down and take a breath, shake out your arms, and start over.