Rebecca Stott describes the origins of GhostwalkJune 18, 2008
The Beginnings of Ghostwalk
In November 2003, while I was doing readings and publicity for my book on Darwin’s early years (Darwin and the Barnacle, Faber, 2003) I bought a copy of a new biography of Newton in order to compare Newton’s formative years with Darwin’s.
The book left me with a series of questions about Newton’s fellowship at Trinity, which he was awarded in 1667, five years after arriving at Cambridge as a young student: How had he been given a fellowship without particularly impressing himself on the college authorities? Had someone acted as a kind of patron? Unlike Darwin, who readily acknowledged his dependency on networks of fellow scientists in his early years, Newton appeared to be a legendary recluse. I found this difficult to believe – surely it was impossible for any scientist, then or now, not to be dependent on, and entangled in, networks of knowledge and power?
I checked a second biography for further information about the award of the fellowship which told me that Newton was “lucky” because there were extra vacancies that year in the fellowships, brought about by two deaths of fellows falling down stairs apparently drunk, the expulsion of another fellow for insanity, and the death of a fourth fellow from pneumonia caught from a night spent in a field apparently drunk. Was Newton really that lucky, I wondered. I marked the deaths with asterisks and a question mark in the book.
Then came the “what if.” What if Newton had been involved in some way in those deaths? What would that mean? It was an idle and speculative question at this stage. I also wondered what it might be like to be a historian who found evidence about those deaths and a possible link to Newton – what if you had a lead like that and reached the end of what was known, reached the end of the archives? What if you were really obsessed with knowing something but it was unknowable by conventional means? What would you do next?
A few days later I was supposed to fly to Spain to join a friend there for a few days. At 5 a.m. I cycled to Cambridge station only to be told that there would be no trains to Stansted airport for several hours. Just as I was about to go home, a mysterious man in a dark coat suggested that we share a taxi to the airport – a 45-minute ride. I agreed. As the taxi drove away I mentioned to him that I had read that there was a meteor storm going on up in the sky, which we unfortunately could not see because of thick fog. He was, he said, a meteorologist who was returning to Germany after a conference in Cambridge and yes, meteor showers were common in November, but meteor storms were rare and often extraordinary, even life-changing, to watch. He described the meteor storm as a series of tiny lines coming out from a still center in all directions, like wind blowing dandelion seeds from the seed head. Then he fell silent.
The image he described of the complex movements of the meteor storm worked as a kind of catalyst for all the ideas germinating in my mind over the previous couple of weeks: entanglement, love, the limits of knowledge, the tensions between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, obsession, the dangers of certain kinds of knowledge…
Between that conversation and arriving in Stansted I conceived the plan for the entire novel – or rather it came to me complete as if out of the meteor storm: a woman in red drowned in a river, the psychic, the neuroscientist, the double murder plot, the love story, the fatal entanglements.
When I arrived at the airport I wrote it all down on a scrap of paper which I later glued into a bigger notebook. The finished novel, which took two years to complete, is almost exactly as it was conceived in that taxi ride during that invisible meteor storm.
Janelle Brown gives us a list of her favorite books about suburban angst that informed her own suburban drama, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.June 23, 2008
When I was writing All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, I spent a lot of time reading books about suburban malaise and dysfunctional families. These were some of my favorites:
Little Children, Tom Perrotta
Such a minimal little book—like all of Tom Perrotta’s novels—but it manages to convey with so few words his characters’ feelings of entrapment. He draws, beautifully, the torpid quality of a suburban summer, the small-minded and insular community, the utter boredom of a life of confinement with only children for company. Perrotta is a wonderful satirist, probably because he has so much compassion for his subjects. And it’s funny, too.
Music for Torching, A. M. Homes
This book is the antithesis of Tom Perrotta. A. M. Homes’s unhappy married couple that burns down their suburban home in an act of petulant childishness are repulsive, unpleasant, selfish people, and she seems to find them as distateful as we do. And yet I found this book impossible to put down—both times that I read it. It’s horrifying, surprising, and deeply disturbing.
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Franzen’s portrait of the self-destructive Lambert clan is about as brilliant a portrait of contemporary family dysfunction as I’ve read. I love the sprawl, the humor, the surprise, the poignancy, and ultimately, the hopefulness of this book—which seems to be a rare quality among suburban novels. I never get bored with this book, no matter how many times I read it.
The Ice Storm, Rick Moody
I saw the movie before I read this book, and was surprised by how busy and raucous the novel was, especially compared to the serenely clinical hush of Ang Lee’s interpretation of the material. This book is dark, dark, dark, and sad, sad, sad. It makes me so very glad that I didn’t come of age in the 1970s, which truly has to be one of the most confusing eras in our recent history.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
One of my favorite books of all time. Yates carefully dismantles “the great sentimental lie of the suburbs”—that Leave it to Beaver world that never really existed—and sends his unhappily married couple off to their dooms. In postwar America, Mom is trapped at home, Dad can’t live up to work expectation, and their inspired plans to escape it all by running off to France are brought to an abrupt halt by an unwanted pregnancy. Their relationship is beautifully, subtly rendered and incredibly depressing.
The Complete New Yorker
Not a book, exactly—it’s the entire archive of The New Yorker on CD, and I came back to it again and again when I was writing. Here you’ve got all your classic Cheever (including “The Swimmer” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”) and nearly two hundred stories by John Updike—not to mention thousands of other pieces of short fiction by the greatest writers of the last century. When I need inspiration, I like just to browse through randomly and pick out stories I’ve never heard of.
Liza Monroy, author of Mexican High shares her experience writing autobiographical fiction.June 23, 2008
I had set out to write a memoir. What happened?
I was on the phone with my friend, the Mexican artist Ricardo Gonzalez, the other day, catching up after almost a year. We’d met while attending the same international high school in Mexico City and both ended up in New York for our careers. He’d seen that my novel, Mexican High, was about to be published.
“So how much of it is true?” he asked.
“Oh,” he said, sounding confused.
“There’s one anecdote in there I know you’d know,” I said, wanting to navigate into more concrete territory. “Remember that thing about the guy who was on acid at a party and disappeared, then jumped the fence at the Chapultepec Zoo into the hyena cage?”
Oh, yeah,” he said. “Everyone talked about that. It was crazy.”
This is why I didn’t write a memoir. My memoir of high school in Mexico City would have gone something like the conversation with Rick: “ So there was this guy, I don’t remember his name, but rumor had it he accidentally jumped into a hyena pit . . . Crazy.”
With fiction, on the other hand . . .
I spent my four years of high school attending the international prep school in Mexico City that the school in Mexican High is loosely based on. Ever since I left, I was fascinated with the setting, the people I’d met, and the freedoms teenagers had there. The student council sponsored parties with open-bar beer, rum, vodka, and tequila, as well as weeknight “cocteles”—cocktail parties—where they rented out nightclubs—again, with open bars. No one would drive drunk, because everyone had drivers and being drunk was frowned upon as déclassé, anyway. My peers’ parents were of a small, elite group that ran the country. My sophomore year, somebody’s father was actually assassinated, and he was pulled out of class to be rushed to his dying father’s bedside in the hospital. My mother went on some dates with the head of a prison where major drug lords were held. He was eventually assassinated, too. Kids took acid and streaked through graveyards or dove into the cages of wild carnivores.
The whole place and events that had happened felt rife for memoir, which, in our reality-obsessed age, seems to be a more popular form than the novel. So, at twenty-five, eight years after graduating from that high school and moving back to the States, I embarked on the project. The opening scene was my thirteen-year-old self arriving in Mexico City and feeling overwhelmed by the chaos and pollution. I’d come from Rome, and was devastated to not have been able to stay there for high school.
I got seventy-five pages in, then I was stumped. The memoir wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out why. I started again, with a different opening, then again. I began doubting whether or not I could even write a book. If I couldn’t write about this, the most heightened time in my young life, how could I ever write anything?
Before law school applications were due, I realized the fundamental flaw in my years-in-the-making memoir-writing plan. A memoir must centralize on the “I,” the most important character, the narrator. I, as a teenager, simply wasn’t the right narrator for the story. I’d come to Mexico City, witnessed a fascinating world, and left. I had no personal connection to the place, and the fact that teenagers had wild lives, easy access to drugs and alcohol, and drivers and bodyguards didn’t give enough of a reason to write my memoir. I didn’t suffer from addictions or sexual trauma (the rape scene in the book was born entirely from imagination). Nor did I have too dramatic a childhood, or come to some kind of grand epiphany in Mexico other than believing freedom was healthy for teenagers, which struck me as a more pedestrian realization, not the stuff of literature. Simply put, the story I wanted to tell wasn’t my story. So then, whose was it?
One late summer night, riding a ferry to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, a vibrant and diverse beach town off the coast of Long Island where I was spending a weekend, I remembered a necklace my mother had bought when we were in Mexico. It was made of charms called milagros, the Spanish word for miracles and surprises, which, as I wrote in the book, “were said to bring luck for whatever they represented. An arm stood for strength, a leg for travel.” What if Milagro were a person, a character, a girl? Slowly, the story came. She could move to Mexico with her diplomat mother (like me). Her mother could have sold Milagro necklaces on the beach when she was young (unlike my mother). Milagro could search for her father, a Mexican politician whose identity her mother had always kept secret (completely fictional storyline). Since it wasn’t a memoir, I no longer had to be married to, or at least in a very serious relationship with, solely true events and people. The birth of these three characters gave the story a backbone, and also turned Mexican High into a bona fide novel, barely recognizable as based anywhere near the true events of my life.
Suddenly, time—and pages—were flying.
Still, I sometimes feel like The Girl Who Cried Fiction. Many of the stories-within-the-story of things Milagro says, does, and experiences range from “precisely what happened” to “deeply rooted in fact” to “loosely based on truth.” There is an emotional authenticity to the story of Milagro’s missing father, as I also have an estranged parent. The story told in Chapter Ten, “When You Steal from Yourself,” about faking a robbery in one’s own home to get out of getting in trouble, is something that I, embarrassingly enough, actually did in high school. (The chapter’s title comes from the song “Slide” by the band Luna, which I was obsessed with in high school.) Also true is the peyote trip in the desert, rendered in Chapter Nine, “Real de Catorce,” though I went with different people. Compressing the timeline of the narrative from four years to one streamlined the story and improved the pacing, and also resolved the dilemma of what I would do with all those long, languid, and quite eventless summer vacations.
By switching to the mode of loosely autobiographical fiction, I got to have my milagros and wear them, too.
The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi CoatesJune 30, 2008