One year after the publication of my first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, I dreamed that I had finished writing my second book. And I realized, much to my dismay ? how had I failed to notice this? ? that I had accidentally written my first book all over again. This, I knew, was something you should never do. It was one of the golden rules of creative writing. Don't repeat yourself. (Also, never write about your dreams.)
When I woke up (and never begin a story with a character waking up in her bed), I was alone in my hotel room in San Francisco, on the second-to-last leg of an eight-city book tour for the paperback publication of Emperor. I was often asked during that tour, and many times in the months and then years that followed, if I felt a lot of pressure to write my second book. And my answer was usually, "No, not really." Or, "In the beginning, yes, but then later, no."
The hardest part about writing the second book was not the actual writing of it, but coming up with the idea for it. When I finished writing my first book, I felt emptied out, used up, like a part of me had died. And I didn't have a whole slew of ideas lined up on the second-book queue. All I had were a few discordant, stray thoughts ? mass arrests (repeat theme from book one), "we" the town (unfinished business from book one), picture brides (something I'd been thinking about for years), girl skipping (image from an old notebook ? see my Powell's "In the Café" essay ? that I had sketched out, but for a long time these thoughts remained, well, discordant and sketchy. They seemed to add up to nothing. Which was worrisome. Because what if they never added up to anything?
Then, one morning ? it was February, I remember, and all winter long I had been breaking out in hives all over my body once and sometimes twice a day, not because of the second-book pressure, but for a different reason altogether (the allergist, who tested me for everything and could find nothing wrong with me, no irritant to which I might be even faintly allergic, finally looked me in the eye and said, "Is some guy busting your chops?") ? I sat down at my desk and everything I had been thinking about for the previous year and a half reconfigured in a new and unexpected way and I could suddenly see the arc, the shape, of my next book. It wasn't ABCDE, but more like ADBCE (I had my beginning and end, A and E, worked out from the start) with some extra plot twists ? N and Y ? tossed in, just to mix it up. So I felt alive again. I was back in business. I had my idea. Now all I had to was write it.
The great thing about writing a first book is that you are invisible. Nobody knows you are writing it, or that you are even a writer, or hoping to one day call yourself a writer. Nobody is watching you or asking you (politely, but still, they're asking) "How's it going?" and you can take as long as you like ? in my case, six years ? before springing your book, fully formed, on the world. It's a very private space from which to write.
The trick to writing the second book, I figured, was to continue, in my day to day life, to feel invisible and unwatched. I had to maintain my first-book state of mind.
This was not really a problem. Because basically, except for when I'm standing in front of an audience, talking about my first book, I feel invisible and unwatched anyway. It's my preferred (and utterly fallible) stance in the world: I can see you, but you can't see me. I get to do the watching. I'm the anonymous person in the back of the café, quietly sipping her coffee, staring off into space, every now and then swatting at a fly or jotting down a phrase (raw milk, halo effect) or overheard snatch of dialogue (And we fought. We fought all the time. She was dying, and we fought.) into her notebook before getting up to refill her coffee. It pretty much looks like I'm doing nothing all day long. I don't bring my laptop with me, and I'm not a furious scribbler. My per day output is meager, at best. No one who didn't know me would ever guess that I was writing a second book, or even a book.
One day, about two years into the writing of the second book, a man, another regular at the café, an academic at the university whom I'd sat next to or in the vicinity of ? we were both back-of-the-shop regulars ? for years, said to me, "Well, maybe one day you'll get a real job like the rest of us, who have to work for a living," and I replied, "But I do have a real job," because I do, I am fortunate in that I can actually support myself as a writer. (Also, I've had real jobs in the past: For years I answered a telephone in an office in the MetLife building with the word, "Marketing," which, if you say it enough times, begins to sound almost surreal.) But I understood why he had said what he'd said. I knew that, from the outside, I appeared to be an indolent idler. And I appreciated his subsequent flustered apology. He felt bad about having made a less than flattering assumption, and I felt bad that he felt bad. I mean, really. Such a little thing. So he had mistaken me for a lazy person. Worse things could happen. So that was that, apology made, apology accepted, the air was cleared, and we continued to sit in the back of the café, not speaking to one another, for another five or six years, he, grading his history papers and preparing his manuscript for publication (I knew, because I had been watching), and I, writing my second book (he never knew, because he had fallen for my overly relaxed, first-book, just-doing-nothing persona) while pretending not to.
That second book, The Buddha in the Attic, is due out tomorrow, from Knopf. The hives have stopped. The chop-buster is long gone. The historian has vanished (tenure at another university? Changed cafés? Moved to Brooklyn?). I have an idea in mind for my third book, but don't ask me about it just yet. I'll let you know when I'm finished.