I’m about to finish revising my novel, The Bend of the World, which I hesitatingly call my first novel, because really, it’s my third. I wrote the first (mostly) during my senior year at Oberlin and my second a couple of years later when I was back in Pittsburgh and insinuating myself professionally into the world of arts management—still my day job. They had in common only that they were gay (I mean that in both the sexual and the adolescent insult sense) and terrible. The first was called The Atlas of the End of the World, and yes, I ripped off that title for my current work, since it was one of the few redeeming qualities. It also had a pretty good opening line: “That night we drove as if the driving would save him.” Ok, maybe a little histrionic, but not bad for a twenty-two-year-old. It was a bad pastiche of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Berlin Stories and Portrait of the Artist—I’m trying to make a joke about my Stephen Hero being a Stephen Zero. And failing.
My second novel was called Be That As It May, and once again, the title is the closest it gets to possessing a redeeming quality. Ah, no, to be fair, it has one good scene involving a drunken cop and a small-town gay bar. It also has a couple of really bad sex scenes, one in a swimming pool; sort of a fanfictive prefiguring of some of the hotter passages in Call Me By Your Name. My boyfriend’s first comment after reading the first draft of my new book was, “It’s not as sexy as your last one.” This was a compliment.
To my own credit, I guess, I pretty quickly recognized these first two forays as shitty work, although I did send the opening chapter of the second to a few agents and am to this day a little staggered by the generous restraint required to reply with a mere this isn’t really the sort of thing we’re looking for right now. I then spent a few years forgoing fiction altogether, until I started noodling around with my ongoing novel, whose opening quarter I think I rewrote six or seven times, and whose latter half kept wandering off. Literally. Like, the characters kept going to North Carolina, Florida, New York. They had no business going to any of these places, but I couldn’t stop them. I really wanted Johnny to give a talk on UFOlogy at a lousy convention center in Central Florida. I really wanted a conspiracy to involve the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Or maybe more to the point, Johnny really wanted to give that talk, and that lighthouse really wants to be part of a conspiracy. Snip, snip.
A confession. I’ve always been annoyed by writers and artists who yak on about their process, a word I associate with a cloudy concoction made of one part self-indulgence and one part self-doubt, but long before my book appears to the public, I’m beginning to see how unavoidable it is, and how it must pay to have an anecdote at the ready. My friends and relatives keep asking me what it’s like to write a book, and I don’t actually know what to say. I imagine myself gazing off into the middle distance as a NPR personality warbles in my ear, then answering bemusedly, “Well, Steve, it’s like . . . writing a book.” In fact, once I managed to get myself a deadline thanks to the hard work of an editor and an agent who seem to think that this thing I’ve made is actually somewhat better than not half bad, I found the work of it a pleasure and joy, although I can now say, months into editing, that I am getting awfully tired of the little fucker. As to what that work consisted off, well, I just don’t know. Of writing? And as for what it all means? Uh, my Corporate Sponsors have asked me to emphasize the following message: It Is What It Is.
Hang with me, guys. Thesis: there exists a desire to see the process of creating a novel through the lens of what we popularly suppose a novel is. There are preexisting narrative and psychological expectations. There’s an expected shape to the thing. Or: the form of the work is supposed to mirror the form of the work. The story of the writer’s encounter with his own writing should follow a psychic and temporal line. The author should undergo an experience of self-revision, emerging from the ordeal altered by the events. His process should itself be a story. He should, in fact, be a character. Well, as much as I bitch about the expectations of narrative and the deranging influence of too much realism, my book does have a plot of sorts, but you won’t be surprised to learn that I have an equally hard time answering the question, “What’s it about?” I don’t really know. The conspiracy narrative was the formal model. Everything ought to seem uncannily connected, but with the indelible sense that it’s all just coincident. Actually, this is my personal theory of narrative in any event: a conspiracy theory of reality.