In my previous blog post, "Where Do Books Come From?
", I talked in a general way about how I moved from my first novel, Heroes
, to my second novel, Dead Languages
, and in today's post, I'm going to talk about how Dead Languages
became Handbook for Drowning
— books I published in 1989, 1992, and 1996. The point here, I hope, is not to rehash the various books I've written, but to perhaps spur some interest on the part of writers and readers in how one book begets another book. A variety of things influence a writer to write his or her next book, but in a strange way, the biggest influence or one of the biggest influences is the satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction one feels about the previous book, and one is endlessly trying to write the "perfect book," but of course one doesn't finish a book; one abandons it (Valéry
). "Fail better," as advised by S. Beckett
I like Dead Languages, my second novel, more than my first novel, Heroes; Dead Languages feels more personal, more nervous-making, more risky, more idiosyncratic, more "me," for lack of a better term. And yet there were things about the book that I came to feel unthrilled about — the relative slowness of pace, the way in which that book is wrapped tightly within the growing-up-novel genre. Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories came out a few years after Dead Languages, and in some ways it's a bit of a sequel, or even a prequel, to Dead Languages, but it feels to me more fleet-footed, more boundary-jumping (mixing between essay and story, confession and reportage and fantasia), and more multi-perspective.
Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories is a novel, just barely — it hovers between stories and essays, and it hovers between story collection and novel. I thought I could and would write my fourth book, Remote, as a novel, but what I wasn't counting on was that Handbook had already pushed me over the cliff into collage, essayistic nonfiction, and genre-blurring. To the degree Handbook for Drowning gestured backward to my novels and forward toward my book-length essays, it created a way for me to write Remote. I tried to write Remote as a novel, but I simply couldn't get traction on it as a novel and wound up writing it instead as a game of 52-card pickup — a work of literary collage built of 52 chapters. It's one of my favorite books that I have written, but it began as a series of digressions to a novel that I couldn't write.
In my next blog post, I'll talk about how I came to an end of something with Remote as well — it was a beginning of something exciting for me formally, but I needed to figure out a way to not keep writing about myself, and sports — of all things — was the canvas on which I would attempt to do that.
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