Gertie Stein: Every writer wants to be told how good he is, how good he is, how good he is.
It retrospect, it seems a cruel irony that the protagonist of my novel Subway Visions would die in an avalanche a quarter-century later in What’s Left – that is, underground. Here he was on the Roof of the World when it happened.
I never intended the parallel, really.
Best done religiously every day.
I’m amazed by the amount of sheer physical energy writing takes. Long stretches of total concentration. Back hurts. Fingers, too.
Reworking a long piece, especially.
The novel that now stands as Nearly Canaan is a much, much different book than its original draft.
The landscape itself is no longer a primary character, for one thing – a Garden of Eden for an Adam and Eve. It still provides a vivid background, all the same.
Changing the protagonist into a slightly older, career-driven woman and the suitor a younger man also greatly shifted the dynamic.
The narrative was still an epic, rambling investigation that eventually spanned across three volumes – Promise, Peel (as in Apple), and St. Helens in the Mix – but the momentum and message got lost along the way.
I needed to look at it the way Michelangelo looked at a big rock. And then start chisling to release the angel.
A clearer understanding of Jaya’s work in nonprofits – and of Schuwa himself – helped me cut the text by half or more, driving it along a stronger plot line.
Unlike rock, fortunately, it’s not just a matter of cut-cut-cut with no additions possible.
So the renamed Joshua – or Schuwa, as she fondly calls him – becomes equally central to the story. In fact, in the two middle sections, he’s now the principal figure.
As I’ve asked, in liberating him from his strict upbringing, has Jaya created a monster?
That alone adds more balance to the tale, countered by the rising pressures in her own stellar career.
Even though what was left was still a big book, I felt an additional touch was needed.
That’s when I returned to an earlier desire for a novel based on Wendy, Pastor Bob’s wife back in Prairie Depot. The distilled essence of that now became a fitting coda for the opus.
By the way, I still think Wendy’s an angel – of the living, breathing sort. No wonder she and Jaya so quickly bonded.
Somewhere along the way, I developed an aversion to “commercial” writing. Maybe it was the “hack” label I encountered, back when I was in college, when I read Samuel Johnson’s dismissal of most of his contemporaries, or maybe just a heightened sensitivity to the low esteem given journalists, which is where I spent my work life. (By the way, I’ll still argue that some reporters are better writers than what I find in many literary circles.)
Have to admit, what I aspired to was critical recognition. Respect. Self-worth.
That’s changed somewhat, especially when I consider so much of what I’ve encountered in that critically acclaimed list over time.
Gee, when it comes to admiration, which would you rather have – adoring readers or a circle of critics and academics?
A statement read long ago, that many novelists set out in their newest writing to discover the book under the one they previously finished, has long resonated with me.
I addressed it head-on in What’s Left, which picked up at the end of my first published novel and the Hippie Trails stories that followed. The nagging questions also prompted the three Jaya novels that followed Promised, which are now all compressed into Nearly Canaan.
In both cases, this effort to finally resolve the question of “what’s it about” – really about – led to my reworking the previous novels rather than writing more. In fact, it would up reducing my list.
I write to explore and discover. There’s a reason I’ve come to be defined as a Mixmaster.
If you’re a writer, let me ask. How about you? What motivates you to sit down at the keyboard? What’s your approach? How do you define yourself and your work?
Has me recalling another question. Would you rather produce one big book that delivers it all – a masterpiece? Or a bookshelf of more modest but widely read works?
Or if you’re a reader, why do you turn to the books you choose?