Questions I’m asked about writing:
How do you go about writing a novel?
I find the process to be very difficult and very interesting. I think ideas for character and plot from the unconscious—which is another way of saying they just come to me, mysteriously, when I sit down to write. I begin every morning at nine and just write and write without judgment, until I have at least 50,000 words.
For me, the time for editing and judgment begins now, with the second draft. I’ll throw out sentences, develop others, revise the structure, moving chapters and paragraphs around. Writing the second draft is like molding good clay and much easier than writing from scratch. As my characters come alive I’ll write down what they do and say—sometimes I dream about them. In the same way, if my plot is vivid enough on the page, it will tell me what happens next.
Here is how Roxana Robinson does it:
“I write about the things that trouble me. I write about the things that disturb me, the things that won’t let me alone, the things that are eating slowly into my brain at three in the morning, the things that unbalance my world. Sometimes these are things I’ve said or done; sometimes they’re things I’ve heard about or seen. Sometimes they’re only sentences, sometimes scenes, sometimes complete narratives. I carry these things around inside my head until I’m compelled to write them down to get rid of them.”
Novelist Richard Ford:
“Clearly, many writers write for reasons other than a desire to produce great literature for others’ benefit. They write for therapy. They write to “express” themselves. They write to give organization to, or escape from, their long long days. They write for money, or because they are obsessive. They write as a shout for help, or an act of familial revenge. There are a lot of reasons to write a lot. Sometimes it works out OK.”
Writer Hans Koning on reviews:
“You don’t inquire what is selling those days. You don’t worry about what editors or reviewers may like or not like. You don’t read chapters to friends or to a long-suffering spouse in order to get an independent judgment. Your own judgment is independent.”
Next: excerpts from “Lost And Found:” a memoir.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
These are some of the questions I’m asked about writing a novel:
Where do you get your ideas?
For my last novel, THE HAT, I started with the idea of setting the story in the era of Prohibition with its bootleggers’ and speakeasy’s, jazz and glittering gowns— terrific particulars of a dramatic period of American history.
Then, once I start writing, I get ideas while walking my dog, or being in the shower, or in some other mindless activity. That’s because when the conscious mind is quieted from its usual clutter, good ideas can emerge from the unconscious. And that’s where the gold is.
Do you use an outline?
Some writers do, but I don’t. Instead of working from the top down with an outline, I try to write organically. In other words, if my characters come alive on the page, they will tell me what they do and say. And when I sit down to write, if my last scene is vivid enough, I know what the next one will be.
Where do you get your facts?
From basically four sources:
Google. For a quick response to questions.
Memory. As I write, I’m always surprised when facts comes to mind that I didn’t know I knew, as if my characters bring back what I had “forgotten.” Meanwhile, I’ve learned that we all retain in memory more than we think we do.
Outreach. For a courtroom scene in the novel I’m working on now, THE SCARF, I will hire a trial lawyer to review it for accuracy.
References. There are many books about Prohibition and the Great Depression providing me with ample sources of information.
What is your novel-writing process?
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Although President Hoover assured the country that prosperity was just around the corner, the fact was that so many customers were being laid off they only bought day-old bread, and Mrs. Shapiro had to let Mr. Ornstein go, get up in the middle of the night and do the baking herself. And I was next. Three months after Vivian and her trunks left for
, Mrs. Shapiro put her arms around me and told me with wet eyes that Friday would have to be my last day. When I began to feel tears gather behind my eyes, I swallowed them back--I felt as if I had somehow accumulated a reservoir of tears that lay ancient and unshed from before history, and I was afraid if I let go and started crying I would never stop. I had to keep my finger in the dike. Pembrook College
But my eyes kept filling up anyway and I was still wiping them on my apron and Mrs. Shapiro was blowing her nose like a foghorn, when Ben Gold strode into the bakery. He asked Mrs. Shapiro for a loaf of rye and stood staring at me while she wrapped it. Snapping the string smartly, Mrs. Shapiro took his money and handed him his bread and change, but instead of leaving with his bread under his arm as he usually did, he walked over to me and stretched his hand across the counter. "Ben Gold," he said with his splendid smile.
“Kate Brady," I said, taking his hand.
"Would you let me see you home some time?" he asked, smiling.
But I was too shaken to speak. Where was I to find another job when the newspapers were full of the threat of plant closings and foreclosures? This morning’s Plain Dealer had an article about the fear of actual hunger and soup lines. What was I going to do? The person I had trusted above all else since I was ten years old had just fired me, the sweet smell of coconut bars and macaroons lined up on the counter was making me sick, my life was making me sick, the scholarship I was about to lose was making me sick, Vivian was gone, everyone else I knew from school was scattered and were never my friends anyway, I had no idea what to do after Friday or with the rest of my life and I felt such an appalling convulsion of rage and grief that the floor seemed to move under my feet. I held onto the counter. Aware that this Ben Gold was standing there smiling at me, I began wiping the display case again and told him that I wouldn't be coming to work after Friday.
"So how about today? I sure do waste a lot of bread on account of you, Kate Brady," he said, grinning. "That's a shame in times like these. And it's all your fault."
Of course I had noticed him come into the bakery for days staring at me while Mrs. Shapiro wrapped his bread and counted out the change in his palm. But that stored-up avalanche of tears was threatening me again and all I could do was wonder what on earth he saw in me that kept him coming back for bread he didn't want in such desperate times. Just fired by my mentor, the kind, deep-voiced widow Shapiro, unemployed and unwanted and nowhere to go, I felt too thin, my hair too curly and red and unfashionably long, my skin too white, my eyes too pale, not to mention the haughty manner that inspired Mrs. Shapiro, to call me the Queen of Sheba. (Don't forget Mrs. Robbins owes for three loaves, Miss Queen of
Sheba; or the front case needs cleaning today, Miss Queen of , she would say when she left for her coffee and corned beef sandwich at Feldman's Delicatessen each afternoon at one.) Sheba
“Cat got your tongue?” Ben said, smiling. I looked up at him. He was wearing a tan double-breasted suit, pale mesh wing tips, a yellow shirt and a tie of pastel paisley, topped off with a skimmer. An April sun dappled his dark hair and pastel hues with light and shadow; his amber eyes had golden lights, which (I learned later) upon certain occasions of anger or other inner heat would actually turn yellow. He reminded me of a movie star, Rudolph Valentino or George Raft, someone like that. Staring at his gallant and exotic appearance only moments after I lost everything suddenly had for me the magic of a fairy tale and I had a swift seductive fantasy of rescue. I did not know then that self-deception is the child of confusion and pain; I breathed the air of sentimental delusion as if this smiling stranger was a hand pulling me back from the edge, and I flirted back as if I were Joan Crawford in the movies, or deep in a sweet daydream.
But I couldn't let him take me home. My mother embarrassed me. It was as if her years of drinking had eaten a permanent rut of shame within my heart, leaving it like a damaged liver. A casual reference to my mother by someone could still make my heart stop with mortification as if they knew about all the times Mr. Blum called the school office with a message that my mother was spending my father's occasional check in Blum's Grocery Store on unlikely assortments: five jars of Hellman's mayonnaise and six loaves of Wonder Bread, or eight tins of red domestic caviar, or a dozen cans of Tabby Cat Food (we had no cat) and a bag of onions, among other fanciful combinations. Once she bought nothing but six cabbages.
The monitor would hand me the folded note, and face flaming, I’d slip out of class feeling the weight of my mother’s failings as my own. After riding the streetcar to my neighborhood I would walk toward Blum's as slowly as I could, looking over my shoulder, my heart pounding with a terrible humiliation and an appalling fury that seemed to hold the very bones in my feet captive. I would usually find my mother halfway home by now, cradling her grocery bag to her breast like a baby and trailing her familiar gin-smell. She made the watching neighbors feel, I knew, superior and virtuous, in spite of their own bottle kept discretely under the sink with the Brillo pads and scouring powder; in spite of the roll they would swipe from the open bin (I saw them) when Mrs. Shapiro wasn’t looking.
But my mother was on the wagon now and if I brought Ben home she would change into her polished white shoes with the Cuban heels and put on her best dress--a print of small lilacs on a brown background. My mother would make tea and arrange fig newtons and ginger snaps from their boxes in neat rows on a scalloped paper doily. She would talk about the weather and look apprehensive and distracted, and her hands would tremble the way they never did when she drank, and I would not be able to understand my own confused and guilty rage, or why I felt so wretched.
“So, how about it?” Ben was saying.
Blushing from this dapper stranger’s persistent attention, feeling moist from the heat of the ovens and my own blush and the unseasonably warm April afternoon, I saw Ben Gold’s car through the storefront window, a shining black Packard. Except for Vivian’s parents no one I knew had an automobile, not even Mrs. Shapiro.
Mrs. Shapiro got up from her stool where she had been sitting pretending not to listen. She opened the cash register and handed me my week's wages of eight dollars. "Go," she said, giving me a hard little shove. "I'm closing up early.”
I took off my apron. "Lets go over to Hansens," I said to Ben Gold.
The next day I told my mother I was going job-hunting and took the streetcar downtown to meet Ben for lunch, as we had arranged when we sat drinking lemonade in a torn booth in Hansen's Coffee Shop. It was the warmest April on record, the radio said, and from the streetcar window I watched stray newspapers tossed about by a gritty warm wind. Inside, people in their seats pulled off coats and stared out on the bare winter trees, looking hot and uneasy.
Ben was waiting for me when I arrived at
's Department Store, slouched against the glove counter, looking around in that observant, arrogant way of his. From the pearl-gray wide-brimmed fedora on his head to his brown wingtips he looked as if he owned the place. I looked down at my cotton blouse, plaid skirt and the coat over my arm and thought about the beautiful clothes Vivian’s mother bought her for college. I imagined the feel of silk on my skin, the way Vivian’s blue chiffon prom dress would look with my hair. Damn. When Ben saw me he flashed his grand smile, and without speaking, took my arm and steered me past the cosmetic counter out the door to his car at the curb. The knot of people who had gathered around the car scattered while the doorman sprinted ahead, opened the door and handed me inside. Halle
When we arrived at the restaurant, Mr. and Mrs. Wong greeted us with smiles and bows and Mrs. Wong led us through the nearly empty restaurant to a white-clothed table next to a window. Ben ordered grandly, seriously. First there was egg drop soup, then egg foo yong, chop suey, chow mein, thin crispy noodles, rice, tea in tiny cups, and almond cookies. Ben sat quietly across the table from me, but I felt his presence powerfully. There was something melodramatic about my attraction to Ben—as if he were someone in the movies, someone unreal, someone you made up because you didn’t have a job or a boyfriend. Years later, there were times when I thought he was in the next room, or with me in the dark. Sometimes I imagined his breath on my cheek.
Ben talked while I ate, eating little himself, speaking rapidly, as if trying to cover much material in a short time, as if he had to rush off to another appointment. (I noticed him glance at his watch.) He said he was 26 years old, that he had started his own insurance business when he was eighteen and built it up during the boom years. He told me that when everyone else was riding the stock market he took his father's advice and sewed his money in the mattress. He was now buying properties all over town at a fraction of their value, he said, as well as gold and diamonds. He had two employees, an accountant and a general helper who served as driver, premium collector, errand runner and whatever else had to be done, and they all worked from offices in his house.
I told him about school and about my scholarship and about Mrs. Shapiro. I told him that I didn't know where my father was and that my mother used to work at Irene's Beauty Shop setting her customers’ hair in the latest style. But my mother was an invalid now, I told him, needed me home to take care of her, and didn't want me to go away to college or out on dates. I didn’t know why I lied. Ben listened with a kind of amused attentiveness as if he knew I was lying. His fingernails were shiny and immaculate, his hair was clipped and brushed, he smelled of a pine forest.
After lunch we drove out of the city toward the Heights. I opened the window and let the wind blow my hair back--the only time I got to ride in an automobile was when Vivian’s chauffeur picked her up at school on rainy days and gave me a lift home. As we drove into Vivian’s neighborhood, the houses grew larger, more elegant and farther apart; the trees taller and grander, the lawns mysteriously weedless. Even the shrubs were as perfectly shaped as on a child’s board game. Order and tranquility seemed to float from the proud silent streets into the car and the fragrant breeze I felt on my face, like the invisible people who lived here, never seemed to come to my neighborhood. There were no signs of children or dogs or dirt, as if the houses weren’t for real people at all, just facades on a movie set.
Ben slowed the car as we approached a large red brick house with white pillars that reminded me of pictures I had seen of antebellum Southern mansions. It was set back from the street and almost hidden by a range of hydrangeas, viburnums and rhododendrons. He pulled the car into the circular driveway, came around to my side of the car and opened the door.
I sat on the soft white leather seat staring straight ahead.
"Come on in," he said. "I want to show you my house."
I didn't budge.
"Come on," he said again, smiling, his urgency crackling the air. "I don't bite."
"I have to be getting home."
He slammed the door, got back behind the wheel and started the car.
"It's just that my mother's strict," I said, wishing it were true.
He drove without speaking, fists on the steering wheel. His obvious intentions and my own excitement that escalated with his heated presence bothered me and I moved over to the window. I glanced at his flushed profile. He was no longer a safe distance across a lunch table, no longer a romantic idea of rescue. He was too real, too old for me, too sure of himself; I was over my head and I knew it. He would take me home and I would never see him again.
But I did not want to go home. My mother was there, clattering around in the unlaced oxfords that she wore two sizes too large to accommodate the big bunions that rose like pink marbles from her crooked disfigured toes. This was from her years of working in the Chinese laundry over on
Chapman Street. This was before she drank, before I remembered. The klopity noise my mother always made on the thin rug in her oversized shoes was a familiar sound to me from early childhood, a comfort, telling me that my mother was near. Remembering how I longed to be near my mother then, it was impossible to believe how much I longed to be away from her now.
My mother had been pretty once; in the mornings when she was fresh, after she did up her hair, if I squinted my eyes I could see beyond the ruined face to her chiseled features and wide extravagantly blue eyes. Or I could look at the photograph of her at the age of fourteen on the wall. She is standing second from the right between her sisters, behind her seated parents and brothers, all of them staring out of their sepia tones at my half-Catholic self with their virtuous, grave Jewish faces. The father, his hands on his thighs, has a splendid mustache and my own pale eyes; the mother has tightly combed hair and sits severely in a high-necked dress stretched over a weighty bosom. (My mother's wedding picture, which I only dimly remembered, had been removed long ago, leaving a neat, pale square on the wall). Even at fourteen my mother's prettiness was clearly defined, but later, when I knew her, drinking, or at night when she was tired, her hair hanging down long and gray, her skin the color of putty, she looked bad to me, like a witch, and it seemed dangerous to look at her. So I fastened my eyes on her bosom, level with my eyes then; later, her breasts seemed to sort of disappear, but back then they were fleshy and voluptuous.
That face reminded me of the relief I felt when my mother left for her first day of work at Irene's Beauty Shop and the hopelessness that followed an instant later when I saw the empty gin bottle in the waste basket from the night before. And of the way my mother stood so straight when she was drinking that she tilted slightly backward. And of the time she decided to make my clothes. (She did things like that.) She sat in the light, humming to herself, looking maternal and virtuous, sewing an entire dress by hand, ordering me to turn this way and that with a motherly, bossy frown. I stood patiently for the fittings, glad to have a regular normal mother who sewed. The dress, flowered chiffon with a stiff collar that scratched my neck, was meant for the Christmas dance but was never finished. By that time my mother was drinking again and didn't notice that I didn't go.
Thinking about my mother made me want to sit next to Ben and I slid over on the seat until our bodies touched.
He looked at me. "So when will Mama let you out again?"
"I'll pick you up at eight."
"No, tomorrow afternoon."
"You can't go out at night?"
"I'll meet you at
's glove counter again. Same time," I said, too much my own parent for too long to drop my guard. I got out of the car at the bakery and watched it roar away. Later I wondered about losing my job and meeting Ben within minutes, as if all the while I thought I was making choices, there were cunning, mysterious forces out there planning the life I would have. Halle
Walking home, the warm April air seemed somehow menacing, as if seasonably cool, benign streets belonged only to the employed. The air seemed so thick and steamy, my skin so damp and my limbs so heavy, I felt as if I were trying to walk under water. No one else was on the sidewalk, only an occasional car rumbled by, the streetcar tracks were abandoned; there was only silence and a burning sky. Where was everyone? It was just past four o'clock and yet the forsaken neighborhood and motionless air seemed to be trapped in a sealed bottle like a preserved and lifeless specimen shimmering in an eerie light. I passed the tailor shop and saw Mr. Haefner, alone in his store, bending over his sewing machine, but next door, Oscar's Fresh Fish was darkened and empty, a big hand-lettered OUT OF BUSINESS sign propped up on an empty milk bottle in the window. Passing Feldman's Delicatessen the tantalizing smell of pickles and pastrami drifted out into the street, but inside, the tables were empty and Mr. Feldman's son, Arnold, was slowly mopping the floor.
Just ahead a line of men stood as quietly as obedient children waiting their turn at the new soup kitchen that had been Blum's Grocery Store. Some men wore hot black suits. Some wore hats. Were the beads of sweat on their cleanly shaved faces under the brave fedoras a final humiliation? The fear in their sagging bodies and gray faces seemed to emit a stench and I hurried past, averting my eyes as if they were naked.
I had never been on a regular date before--just the dances at
, or an after-school coke with Tommy Leblanc, and the afternoons when Vivian and I and a bunch of kids from the public school squeezed into Frieda Norton’s living room and played spin the bottle until Frieda’s mother was laid off and was home after school. I was relieved when we had to quit because Harvey Rheinhart always pressed his lips too hard against my teeth and tried to get his hand in my blouse. But Ben was good-looking and polite; we went for country rides after our lunches, and then to Shraffts for a soda before he drove me back to my street corner. Sometimes we went to the movies. I didn’t become suspicious of his grand attentions and gentlemanly behavior. University School
It was a sexless deliverance I wanted back then, like when the movie star still had her clothes on before disappearing behind the closed door with the man, before the camera averted its eye toward the sunset. When I was nine or ten I remembered hearing a man’s voice from my bed at night, laughter, the clinking of ice in glasses. The next day my mother looked younger, prettier, as pretty as the picture on the wall. Even then I recognized the signs. The extra whisky glass. The rose he brought her. The scent of a male mixed with the sort of flowery gentility my mother had in those days. Once there was a whole bouquet in a vase; he was a sport my mother said. The man was always gone when I got up the next morning and I wondered if maybe he was married or something. But I pretended my mother didn’t let him stay because of me. I was relieved when he stopped coming and my mother started to look old again.