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Dawn Tripp’s GAME OF SECRETS Journey: From poetry to a novel

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

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.

Game of Secrets pbGame of Secrets is a literary mystery about a small-town murder that gets played out through a Scrabble game. But it didn’t start that way.

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.

Author Photo of Dawn Clifton Tripp by Jack TrippAs 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.

Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets: a letter to book clubs

Monday, July 11th, 2011

tripp_dawnDear readers,

Was there a special game you played as a child? A game you still love now because of what it meant to you then?

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother and my father played cards. They taught me pitch and gin. When my aunt was visiting, they needed a fourth, and so they taught me bridge. But the game I loved was Scrabble. Before I really knew how to play, I would sit with one of them—usually my grandmother—and I would watch her form those disparate letters into words and lay down those words to catch the colored numbered squares and fill the board. It was by watching that I learned the rules. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. We would play after lunch and after a game or two, my aunt and father would drift off to something else. “You want to play again, Nana?” I’d ask. And my grandmother would nod, light another cigarette, and start flipping over the tiles. We would play game after game after game. Until it was time for her to fix supper. Then we’d eat, clear the table, wash the dishes, I would dry them for her and then I’d ask to play again.

When I graduated from college, and moved to New York, I would drive to Connecticut to spend the weekend with Game of Secretsher. We’d play a game the night I came in, usually late, we’d only have time for one. The next morning, I’d go for a run while she had her coffee-cake and tea—then we’d start in, and play game after game. We’d pause for lunch and sit together looking out the window at the swans on the lagoon she loved. Then we’d play until supper, then again after, as the light fell. She had been a concert pianist. And sometimes she played Chopin for me in the evenings—I would beg for that—then she’d have a drink, another cigarette, it would be night by then, I’d grab two cookies from the kitchen, and we’d come back once more to the board still laid out the table. One last game.

The idea for this novel came to me years after she was gone. But as I wrote the scenes of the two women, Ada and Jane, playing Scrabble, I remembered the long sweet hours of those childhood days: the stillness of the house, the light tick-tack as she lay down her tiles, the smell of her cigarette balanced on the ashtray, just resting there untended, dwindling down.

And I remembered too things I did not know I had forgotten, things she had taught me over the years as we played. She played Scrabble for the words, as many women in her generation did. I always played for the numbers. How we play a game can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. In Scrabble, some play to keep the board open, some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own score. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a really good player, a canny player—and she was one of those—will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.

As I wrote the scenes for this novel, the game for me became the perfect lens for a story about two women, two families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets—a brutal past, a murder, a love story. Because what are words if not a bridge? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present, present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.

So reader, tell me this:

What was the game you played as a child? Who did you play that game with? What did it mean to you then? And what has it taught you about life as you are living it now?

Consider these questions when discussing Game of Secrets.
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