Nothing but Good Ideas








My new novel, THE CELESTIALS, comes out on June 11.  By this point, I should be well into a new project.

“Should be” for a variety of reasons.  One: I finished THE CELESTIALS over four years ago  (see previous posting for history of publishing said novel).  Two: I finished edits on THE CELESTIALS months ago.  Three: I teach at Williams College, but I’m not teaching right now, and I’m not teaching next semester either.  I’m in the midst of a whole year off.  To write.  Four: I have never published a book without being well into another project at the time of publication.

“Never” for a variety of reasons.  One: the writing of a book is hard enough, but the publication of a book is a whole other beast, one that requires a different side of the brain, the side that most writers aren’t very good at (it’s the reason they became writers in the first place and not event planners or PR reps), so it’s good to be exercising the side of the brain that matters most to you when the side of the brain that doesn’t is being asked to perform well beyond its reach.  Two: writers who say they don’t read reviews are lying.  Well, they might not be lying, but they definitely have their best friends, or their mothers, or their best friends’ mothers, read the reviews, and being well into another writing project protects the side of the brain you need for writing from the concussive effects the world’s reception of your work can have on, say, your entire being.

So, what am I working on now?  (This, by the way, is the one question that I am guaranteed to be asked most once THE CELESTIALS comes out, the way newly-married couples are inevitably asked when they’re going to have kids.)  The truth is, I’ve got good idea after good idea, and I can’t seem to commit to any of them.

A few months ago, I had two good ideas: a novel based on the American woman to bring the first live panda back to the States from China and a novel about a woman who dies in a car crash who may or may not have been leaving her husband, and who may or may not have been on her cell phone telling her lover if she was going to leave her husband when she crashed.  Did I want to do a book more like my most recent novel?  Historical fiction requiring lots of research, real live people (who may or may not get annoyed at my fictional representations of them) in real live situations.  Or did I want to do a book more like the short stories I tend to write?  Sad Characters Having Angry Sex.

Turns out, no need to choose between two, since now I have at least half a dozen good ideas.  A possible rape told from the point of view of the town where it occurs.  A novel based on the women who started a program for stray dogs in prisons and then fell in love with one of the inmates, breaking him out of the prison in a dog crate.  The Case of the 22 Chinese Women in California in 1874 which led to the first Chinese litigant before the U.S. Supreme Court.

My husband, also a writer, says–not completely patiently–that many writers would feel lucky to have so many ideas, so here’s my new plan: quit writing, start a business that sells good ideas for novels to other writers.  Well, that, or quit writing and become a personal shopper.  Or a closet organizer.  Or someone who comes up with titles for other writers’ work.  Or, just quit writing, since my ability to know what I love, what haunts me, what world I want to create and immerse myself in for the next God knows how many years seems to have escaped me.  But, here’s the problem, when I quit writing (which I’ve basically done for the last several months), I’m miserable.  And when I try to do it (which I’ve also done for the last several months), I’m also miserable.  But as my husband often tells his students: you may be a writer if you need to do this in order to feel good about yourself, even though doing this almost never makes you feel good about yourself.

So, I’ve got that going for me, which is good.

The Second Trimester: On Babies and Books

So, if publishing a book is like having a baby, I’m well into my second trimester.  The new novel, THE CELESTIALS, comes out in June.  I’m past (theoretically) the morning sickness, the horror at the changes in my body, the odd glances at my refusal to drink.  (She must be pregnant.  No other reason she could be turning down a martini.)  I’ve been edited thrice-over by the brilliant Meg Storey.  I’ve been copyedited by someone even more obsessive and anal than I.  There’s a beautiful cover.  There’s an author photograph I can live with.  (In my circles of Hell, there will be trying on bikinis and author photo shoots.)  I’m past, therefore, the first ultrasound.  When I was pregnant with my first child, I ran into a colleague shortly after that first ultrasound.  Knowing that I had been anxious about any number of things (brain inside skull, etc.) she asked how it had gone.  Good, I replied.  I went on about the coolness of having gotten to see inside the chambers of his heart. She was pleased for me.  Great, she said.  Good news all around.  She paused.  Then she said, “Well, now you can start worrying about the worst possible combination of your and your husband’s personality traits.”  Then she left, tootling along on her merry way.

I stood there.  Oh. My. God.  A moody, imperious control freak.  A bossy, anal depressive.  And if you added the grandparents, things really got interesting.  So, now, in my second trimester of THE CELESTIALS, I am thinking about the Book Tour.  For a writer with my sales figures, Book Tour may be too grand a term for the handful of bookstore managers who shrug and say, “Well, I guess, if she wants to come all this way, we can set up a chair or two.”  Nevertheless, this is what we do.  So my past book tour moments are rising to the surface these days.

At a visit to my aunt’s book group, the first question about my third novel, DON’T I KNOW YOU?, was: Would you like to know what I really didn’t like about this book?  Yes, I thought.  Of course I would.  That’s why I drove three hours to be here.  Did I mention this was a visit organized by my aunt?  A.  Member.  Of.  My.  Family.

At a reading for my first novel, AN EMIRE OF WOMEN,  in California, the total audience was my college roommate and my cousin.  The bookstore employee who had arranged the reading couldn’t make it.

After a reading in my hometown, an acquaintance of my husband, the writer Jim Shepard, came up and congratulated me on having published the novel.  Then he said, “So, did you write this by yourself or did Jim co-write it?” (More on what it’s like to be married to a writer in a later post, perhaps.)

After one of my first readings for my first novel, the sole comment my mother made was that she preferred the cover of the galleys to the cover of the book.  The cover for the galleys was white.  Plain white.  Later, she added that she felt I hadn’t thanked her enough in the acknowledgements.  (More on what it’s like to have a mother in a later post, perhaps.)

So perhaps my current position in the pregnancy explains the low-level dread and anxiety I’ve been feeling recently.  A friend of mine used to say that when she had to encounter people or situations that could potentially hurt her, she would place her hand over her abdomen, protecting herself.  I imagine doing that in perpetuity, or at least for the next six to ten months.  I imagine hand as shield, deflecting the world’s disappointments and, perhaps more brutal, my own disappointments in myself.  But I also remember what it was like in those second and third trimesters: you placed a hand on your belly.  You not only felt flutter and flight beneath it; you saw it.  Literally saw it.  Amazing, you thought.  Aren’t you lucky?  Here is the news from another world and you were here to see it.