Thursday, August 29, 2013
OUT OF THE DEEP-FREEZE: NOTES ON A NOVEL IN THE WORKS
Interviewed recently by French magazine Nouvel Observateur, author Richard Ford describes the months, sometimes years, of preparations that precede the writing of his novels. He says he makes hundreds of notes and stuffs them in his refrigerator, along with notes for other unfinished projects, and only takes them out when he's ready to actually start writing.
I have never tried the refrigerator method, but I find Ford's approach intriguing as I begin work on a new novel set in New Orleans. My two previous novels, The Armageddon Project (2007), and one whose name I will withhold as it is currently making the rounds of publishers, were plot-driven thrillers set largely in France. My current project (also to remain nameless at this point) is much more character-based and is set in my home town, which makes it a very different kind of novel requiring a different approach.
Consider the setting: paradoxically, coming from New Orleans makes it difficult to write about New Orleans. The more you know about a place, the more you may take for granted in terms of what general readers know about it. But if you spell out too much, describe well-known things, events, and landmarks, you risk falling into clichés. And a lot of what is written about New Orleans—or depicted on the screen—has this defect. Consider the film The Big Easy or the TV series K-Ville.
The bigger challenge is the depiction of characters. That's where Ford's approach is useful, because portraying characters requires, obviously, that the author know those characters as intimately as he knows his best friends. If characters are modelled or suggested by real people, an author can rely on observation and personal knowledge to transform them into fictional figures. Characters that are wholly invented require that the author create their personalities, physiques, and backgrounds out of thin air. Much harder. But in both cases it is necessary to fill in all the blanks, to know the complete back story of each character, sometimes going back several generations, even if only a fraction of those stories winds up on the page.
That is the stage I am at now. So I am having fun making notes on the characters, inventing their histories, anecdotes from their past, frictions with their parents, traumas suffered, hopes and dreams, quirks and flaws. Fiction writing is like playing God: whatever you want to happen, you can make it happen; whatever you want a character to do or be, you can will it. And of course, you get to decide the outcome. Real life is not like that, which is a good thing. Who'd want the responsibility?