Anything Can Happen

Anything Can Happen” (Boston Globe-February 1, 2010)

Our twelve-year-old son tells us he’s going to be in the NBA, and then after retirement, he’ll be a writer.  He wants to know how many other NBA players became writers.  Fewer than you’d think, my husband tells him.  Huh, our son says.

Why he wants to become a writer is beyond me, given that he has two examples in the case of his parents of what can result from that choice.

This time last year, selling my fourth novel was still a possibility.  Now, not so much.  In fall 2008, I delivered it to my agent.  My previous novels could all be categorized as close psychological studies.  (One friend says they all could’ve been called The Bad Mothers’ Daughters.  That I find that appealing probably helps explain why my readership is so small.)  I thought I had plenty to be worried about.  The novel was historical and omniscient, with a voice even more emotionally restrained than my usual (always a crowd pleaser).  I’d spent four years writing it, alternating between the thrill of trying new things and the despair of failing at them all.  So when my agent liked it, I was, shall we say, relieved.  My editor also liked it.  So: given my paltry sales figures, there wouldn’t be a big offer, but there would be an offer.

            As you may recall, however, the fall of 2008 was not a good time for the publishing industry.  It turned out that upon further reflection, there would not be an offer.  Too different from my previous novel, the publisher said.  And even that had featured paltry sales figures.

This was, of course, what I’d always feared would eventually happen.  I’d spent my writing life waiting for what Charlie Baxter calls the fraud police to stand up and end the whole charade.

At least that’s how I joked through that year, as my agent sent the book to ten or twenty thousand editors.

I cried.  My husband tried to help.  I cried more.  My son would wander into the room.  What’re you crying about? he’d ask.  No one wants to publish my novel, I’d explain.  The next week, he’d wander in again.  What’re you crying about? he’d ask.  Still? he’d say when I told him.

I gave up last September.  My agent’s plan was that I’d write another book.  Something wildly successful, that would make every single publisher in the world want to publish the old novel.  As my Jewish grandmother would’ve said: What could go wrong?

Since then, I’ve written one story.  Eighteen pages of angry characters engaging in creepy sex.  Go figure.

And then my son says he wants to write a novel.  I try to put him off the way I do when he says he wants to have ninety-five friends over for a sleepover.  But he has a real idea, he says.  Please.

At first, he talks; I type.  His novel is about Hogan, a twelve-year-old who discovers that he’s been adopted.  He wants to find his real mother, my son says.  Every chapter will be another adventure along the way.

It’s not a bad premise, and I’m excited that he’s excited.  We work on the first chapter: Hogan has a pet tortoise, plays with Roman soldiers, sneaks chocolate chips.  We Google photos of the train station and schedules.  (Research! my son says.)  The first chapter ends with Hogan’s mother calling quietly for him at the station. He listens to her drive away.  This is sad, my son says.  I agree.

We finish the chapter, and he suggests I send it to my agent.  Three pages might not be quite enough for a book contract, I explain.  We should keep writing.

And, for several weeks, we do.  On our beds, the couch, the floor.  It’s play.  It’s work, and it’s fun.

And then, dissent.  I argue that one of the characters would never do or say what he’s had her do or say.  We’re equally stubborn.  Finally, he says, “It’s fiction.”  He can’t believe he has to lay this out for me.  “Anything can happen.”

And, of course, he’s right.   And I do know better.  I’d just forgotten.