Book in a Box, or Birth of a Novel
Where did you get the idea for your novel?
The question comes up at nearly every reading I’ve ever been to. There’s a human moment, where those who aspire to write (or even those who secretly think that writing a book is easy) want insight into your process. As a guest at a reading once told my friend Rick Moody, they weren’t so much interested in the book, in getting a signed copy, or even hearing the author’s spoken interpretation of the text. Instead, he said, “The Q and A is where the money is.”
So for the next few weeks, I’ll be digging into some of the more frequent questions here. If the question about ideas and inspiration is one of the most popularly asked, it’s also the one that provokes the widest range of answers. Some writers deflect, use humor; Stephen King told an audience of grad students that he got his ideas from the children chained to the radiator in his basement.
For me, one of my favorite annual reading rituals is to read the short explications behind each short story that appears in the Best American Short Stories anthologies. A few hundred words of subtext behind the surtext.
SO…where did I get the idea for my novel?
I have a tenuous relationship at best to the telephone. From adolescence through college, I loved the telephone. I fell in and out of love over the telephone on countless occasions. In my freshman year of college, back in the era when calling another person on the other side of the state or country actually cost more money, I spent myself out of student poverty and into actual poverty, running up the monthly bill talking to my long-distance girlfriend, who herself would later break my heart (you guessed it) over the telephone.
And still, I loved the phone.
I loved picturing the person I was talking to on the other end of the line, her feet up, in an apartment or house far nicer than the one I was in, living the life of a witty and urbane woman who enjoyed nothing more than the flirting and repartee of an hour-long call. I loved the ability to be the last voice in the ear of someone I cared about, and I wasn’t exactly in a position to experience that joy firsthand. The telephone, then, became the next best thing.
I loved all of those things, right up until the moment that I got the telephone call that my father had died. The call came at 5:48 a.m. on Thursday, August 11, 1988.
In the spring of 2000, I was working in politics, helping direct political strategy for an association of companies that manufactured portland cement and other building materials. We had downtown offices that overlooked Washington’s Franklin Square park, and the whole of the city was a five-dollar cab ride or less away.
One evening, I left the office and headed to a fundraiser for a friend, a member of Congress from Tennessee who at the time was weighing whether or not to run for the United States Senate. After a stop at the Democratic Club, it was off to a restaurant, or more accurately, the restaurant’s bar, for an evening of gossip and networking.
I wandered home around 11, to find my landline ringing. The telephone, that harbinger of bad news.
It was my sister, and there wasn’t really any news, just a request. She’s older by a decade, and generally far more responsible, and she was calling to let me know that she was updating her will and doing her first complete estate plan. And she had a question.
If anything ever happens to me, will you be my son’s guardian?
My thoughts were, in rapid fire: yes, of course; nothing will ever happen to you; oh, God; I am completely unprepared for that imaginary life that you are asking me to envision.
In that moment, I had a kernel of a story.
There’s more to it than that of course. I didn’t actually write the story of what would happen if that imaginary life came to pass; instead I wrote the story of the genesis of that life. And really, that’s only about one-fifth of what the book is about. But I’d been working that idea over in my mind for years before I even began to write.
And now, that book that I imagined on California Street NW in 2000 is about to come into the world.
There’s really nothing like coming home and finding a package of the author copies of your first novel waiting there on your porch. I live in a neat little town in south Florida where the UPS guy and the FedEx guy and the USPS carrier all know our house, our dog, and our penchant for doing most of our clothing shopping online. So it’s not unusual to return home and find a few boxes stacked by the door.
I use the UPS app on my phone, so I knew we had packages coming. But even then, it didn’t quite register: two boxes from Hachette Book Group, the parent company of my publisher Little, Brown, each weighing 27 pounds. But there they were.
You can make a case that this was a moment that was thirty-three years in the making. That was the first time I’d ever confided in someone that I had the desire to be a writer. But for the most part, through my twenties and thirties, I kept it to myself.
But there it was. Two cartons. The moment of celebration. A twinge about all the people that I wanted to know about this moment who could not know.
And then, the realization that this book would soon be a thing in the world. The official release date is March 6.
And with the date creeping on me, there came the very writerly and neurotic realization that I better work faster on the next one.