To celebrate the paperback publication of Game of Secrets, author Dawn Tripp shares her journey—years in the making—of how she came to write her latest book.
Several years ago, in the late spring, I was in the midst of working on something else—a historical novel—when I found myself writing poems. At the time, I hadn’t written poetry since my twenties. When those poems came, they came out of nowhere, and kind of knocked me over. I wrote about a mother and her son, about a friend who died abruptly, a girl crossing over a bridge, an illicit love and its consequences, a car accident, a dream stubbed out, I wrote about an unconscionable act of cruelty, and a young man staring at a woman across a moving street while the rest of the world fell away.
After a month, I had a series of thirty poems. And what I noticed is that those thirty poems were all digging into things I couldn’t quite bear to write straight out in narrative, and so they surfaced, in bits and pieces. It didn’t take much to see that those poem-fragments had a certain life, a certain dreamlike immediacy that the historical novel I’d been working on did not have. So I ditched that other book—almost four hundred pages of it—because I could feel that these fragments were the grains of a larger story, and that was the story I wanted to walk into. That was the story that I was on fire to tell.
Out of those pieces, there were three that I couldn’t stop thinking about: the image of a fourteen-year-old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a stolen car, heat in his hands on the wheel because he loved a girl; the image of two lovers, a man and a woman, meeting in an old Cranberry barn; the image of two women playing Scrabble. I didn’t know their names or the details of their lives, but I could feel the high stakes of that game and an uneasy tension between them, and I knew that this would be the last time they would meet. I had already filled a notebook when an older man I knew from town told me the real-life story of a skull that surfaced back in the 1960s out of a truckload of gravel, a neat bullet hole in the temple. The moment that story was out of his mouth, I knew that skull had everything to do with those two friends playing Scrabble. It had everything to do with those two lovers in the Cranberry barn and with that boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a stolen car.
My best fiction starts in this place: with fragments that are burning, sharp, acute. They might feel intuitively linked. I might glimpse the larger arc of the story they belong to. But curiously, the longer I can resist the impulse to pin everything down into place, the more necessary the writing becomes. That doesn’t mean the order isn’t there. It doesn’t mean some dark underside of my mind hasn’t already figured it out. I have faith that there is such an order. And I write to discover it.
As I was writing Game of Secrets, I felt like I was continually being overturned. And I knew in my gut that I had to stay open to that. Again and again, I would discover some new element that was not in my original vision for the novel, and often in consequence, the arc of the story would change, and I would have to let it change.
I wrote what I thought was the ending of the story early on. I fell in love with it. It became that kind of horizon a strong ending can be that drives you, day in, day out, to create the three hundred pages leading up to that moment. What I did not expect, and could not have foreseen, was that in fact that ending was not the climax. The most powerful revelation was something I was writing toward without even realizing it, until all at once, I did. A story can do that. It can all turn at the end.
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