There is a phrase that has always intrigued me: "on the cusp," meaning the time leading up to the moment when you know you're on to something important, be it a formula, an invention, a new painting, or a novel. Years ago I saw Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile
, which brilliantly explores this idea. The play imagines a fictional meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in a bar in Paris in 1904, each of them on the verge of an amazing discovery (Einstein will publish his special theory of relativity in 1905 and Picasso will paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
in 1907). But that afternoon in Paris they do not yet know they are on the cusp of these great works, and it's a time of restlessness and doubt for both men. They debate the value of genius, art, talent, and, after initial skepticism (and a lot of jokes), ultimately recognize the value in each other's work. When the play ends, only the audience knows where their lives are headed.
I saw the play in Washington, D.C., circa 1997, at a time when I very much wanted to write a novel but didn't have an idea for one. I'd written and published a few short stories, but I felt like the only short story writer in the world who couldn't figure out how to turn one of them into something longer. An editor had told me that my shortest story to date was, of all my stories, the one that sounded the most like the opening of a novel. Thrilled, I spent many mornings at a little desk in a garret window overlooking a Safeway grocery store trying to pry that four-pager open. When my husband and I left the theater after Martin's play, I desperately wanted to know, is this it? Am I on the cusp? Is a breakthrough around the corner?
It was not.
Fate intervened before too much damage could be done. My husband and I had a chance to move to London, and there I settled on trying to write a novel based on the friendship between James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. For reasons having to do with my work-study job in college, I'd retraced their 1773 tour of the Hebrides and had a notebook full of thoughts I was sure could be culled for material. Research was going well when, taking a break from writing one afternoon, I wandered into the bookshop at the British Library where Beryl Bainbridge was giving a talk about her recently published novel, Master Georgie. I thought it would be interesting to hear her, given that she approached historical fiction the way I hoped to. Unfortunately, toward the end of the event, she spoke about her novel-in-progress, another work of historical fiction, based on the life of... Samuel Johnson.
It's true that nothing is new under the sun, but writing a first novel knowing that a master novelist is tackling similar material? Another writer may have been able to soldier on, but I could not. I surrendered (not that the late, great author ever knew) and According to Queeney was published in 2001. It is an excellent book, a favorite of mine.
A little while later, on the radio one afternoon, I heard a story about the Schumanns. Clara, a famous concert pianist, needed to practice, but her husband Robert, the Romantic-era composer, needed complete silence in order to compose. This seemed like an insurmountable contradiction and yet they were allegedly passionately in love. Here it is, I thought, the novel material. I'd studied the piano as a child — had even wanted to be a pianist for a time — so once again I thought certain themes in my life were pointing the way toward the novel I should write. (It's wonderful how good biographies reveal the way someone makes it to the cusp. Threads are unraveled, influences revealed, and the path, once obscure, becomes clear. Life itself is never so helpful.)
Taking a break from my Schumann work one day, I found myself wandering into the British Library bookshop once again (a habit, obviously), just in time to hear a man talking about a new series of pamphlets, Uncovered Editions, that would present in popular form previously classified government reports. He held up one called "Tragedy at Bethnal Green" and spoke about it for a few minutes. I bought a copy then went to have a cup of tea.
That is not how I thought it would happen.
Did I have any on-the-cusp feelings? Not one. Did I leave the library that afternoon tantalized by the subject I'd just found? Nope. In fact, if someone had told me that this would be the material of my first novel, I would have vehemently denied it. I took a few notes and thought there might be something for a short story in it someday, but how could I write a whole novel set in London's East End during WWII? I knew nothing about it.
I can picture Martin's Einstein and Picasso shaking their heads years later at the men they were in the bar that Paris afternoon. I can see my character, Laurence Dunne, in the novel that became The Report. When Dunne is asked to open an inquiry into the accident, he has an inkling of the challenge ahead ("With ashes on his forehead, holding Morrison's note, he felt doubly marked: for Lent and for history"), but has no way of knowing what the assignment will do to his life. Being on the cusp is something that can be understood only after the fact, it seems. It took four more years for me to recognize what had happened in the bookshop that day and what I might make of it.
Before I wrote a novel, it seemed to me there were two kinds of writers in the world: the ones who could write and write and always seemed to have a novel-in-progress underway and the ones who were slower, who hung back, who wondered if they were in the right place at the right time with the right idea. I wanted to be the former (it has advantages) but I suspect I will always be the latter.
I came across a new idea recently. I'm not sure about it yet, but I like the way my mind is turning it around and can't seem to let it go. Early signs, but good ones. When I mentioned it to a friend, another writer, a wise person who knows how these things work, she heard the tone in my voice, and she looked up suddenly, and I saw the spark in her eyes that was reflecting the spark in mine. I had to stop talking before I said too much. Is this it? Am I on the cusp? How I wish I could know.