I don't know how other novelists come upon their subjects. The subjects of contemporary novels I read seem to me, variously, obvious, derivative, or inconceivable. I don't mean to be evaluative here, only descriptive. I don't know how other novelists determine which of the many possibilities for subjects I assume they entertain is worth committing two or three or more years of their time and energy to. Nor do I know how, once they've decided a subject is worth commitment, worth elaboration, other novelists work it up. In his prefaces to the 1910 New York Edition of his work, Henry James
was at great pains (it goes without saying) to tell us how he came upon the subjects for his stories and novels, and ? less anecdotally, more usefully ? how he investigated, elaborated these subjects before executing the work in question. These essays were collected in a single volume aptly called The Art of the Novel
, with an introduction by R. P. Blackmur, and published by Scribner's. To my mind, it's the only how-to text (it's much more than that, of course) any writer need read. Scandalously, this collection is out of print. I don't keep a notebook of "novel ideas." The way I know if a subject that somehow presents itself is worth further consideration is that I don't forget it.
If pressed, I can articulate the subject, the "concept" of The Bradbury Report, in one or two sentences. That I can thus reduce the book was, and is, worrisome to me, though apparently it makes the book, before they've read it, attractive to agents and publishers. Old man meets his young clone and, at the same time, reconnects with an old, lost "love." The three of them spend a year together on the run. Something like that. I'm not good at this. My gift seems to be in making things longer, not shorter, than they ought to be.
I am, fundamentally, and despite my unwarranted luck in my wives and children, an unhappy man. I have lived so many places, loved, and lost/left behind so many people, done so many stupid, hurtful things to myself and others, that some days I feel as if I can't move for all the baggage I'm carrying. I am preoccupied ? this has long been the case ? with issues of sin and damnation and, I'm embarrassed to admit, in a quite literal way. Accordingly, I am also preoccupied with the business of redemption. I feel deficient in matters of courage and honor and sensitivity. To put it plainly, I am a wacko of a very old-fashioned, puritan (read: Jewish) sort. Before the moment of my book's conception ? this occurred in a conversation with my sons, both of whom are smarter than I am ? I'd had no special interest in the issue of human cloning. I knew about it pretty much only what every reasonably sentient non-expert knows, and maybe less. After an extended period of unsystematic brooding, I'd persuaded myself this subject would not only allow, but compel me to address ? contemplate and complicate ? the aforementioned preoccupations, would afford me the chance to think and write, again, as always, about the subjects that matter most to me. However expediently, I believed I had found a subject worthy of my commitment and faith, worthy of three or more years worth of work, and one that with luck might repay the effort, both in artistic and financial terms.
On page three of The Bradbury Report my narrator, who authors the report that is the book, feels compelled to say:
This book, if one can call it that, is not science fiction, or fantasy. It is, at its heart, the account, manifestly true, of a young man, and of his courage and generosity.
His claim here that his report is truth and not fiction is, on my part, a fairly conventional move: a fictive writer of a fictive text claiming ontological status for his work. A move employed by me as a not-so subtle way to assert that the reality of my book, The Bradbury Report, is coterminous with the reality of the reader. In this case, the narrator is also at work for me, somewhat indecorously, in another, less conventional way, addressing a concern I'd had since I first came upon my subject, and which I carried with me to the finish. I was worried that my subject ? simply put, "cloning" ? was what is called a "high" concept, and that it was so high it might overwhelm my treatment of it. I was at great pains throughout to subdue the concept, to domesticate it, believing ? I still believe this ? the better and more gracefully I could do that, the better the book would be.
I had another concern. I have not read much science fiction. As I boy I read Tom Swift, but not H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. If there is a canon, I can only guess at it. I have not read Asimov or Heinlein or Philip K. DickWilliam Gibson or Arthur C. Clarke< Samuel R. Delany or, until very recently, Ray Bradbury. For whatever reason, I have never been drawn to science fiction. I know nothing about the conventions or the delights of the genre, nothing about the expectations readers bring to it. There is no science to speak of in The Bradbury Report. I was worried the word "cloning" used in any way connected to the book would mark it ? inaccurately, misleadingly ? as science fiction, a promise on which the book could not deliver. I am a fan of what is now called "speculative fiction," a term I won't try to define, and, undefined, one on which I find myself relying in conversations about my book. When I use the term I have in mind such instances as (to cite a few): 1984 (to my mind a novel about the possibilities for love in extremis), The Handmaid's Tale, Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life, and, most salient in this context, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a book, for obvious reasons, I didn't read until I'd finished writing my own. I am pleased, perhaps deluded, to think of The Bradbury Report as a book like these.