Tuesday, June 3, 2008

David Wroblewski on Surviving the First Novel

David Wroblewski's first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, has been garnering positively gushing notices, with Stephen King comparing it to Watership Down, Night of the Hunter, and Life of Pi, and Publishers Weekly claiming "the propulsive narrative will have readers sucked in all the way through the breathtaking final scenes." We've asked him to tell us about the skills necessary to survive writing your first novel.
Meet him at Common Good Books on Monday, June 16th at 7:30.

One essential survival skill of the novelist-in-progress, you might be surprised to learn, is having a reply for the casual question, “What is your novel about?” A good answer isn’t so easy to come by. For one thing, as a novelist you must believe, passionately, that the long form is the only possible way to answer such a question, that every novel comprises a braid of ideas and images that surface and submerge and surface again in some new variation. You believe that if there truly was a shorter answer then there would be no novel at all. So right off the bat, you’re stuck.

On the other hand, it’s a reasonable question, you’ve asked it yourself. So you wind up inventing rules for yourself. Your answer can’t be an outright lie; it has to convey the kernel of the truth. It can’t tell too much, or you feel either that the story leaking away, or that you’ve committed yourself to one of the several possible ideas you’re nursing along in parallel until one declares itself primary. It can’t be glib, or self-denigrating, or you risk be haunted by your own words the next time you sit down to write. A great answer would be quick, suggestive, and noncommittal, so that the person asking the question can draw their own conclusions and you’re done before they might looked bored, which is deadly—talk about being haunted when you sit down to write.

I started Edgar’s story in the mid 1990’s, and for years I didn’t have any answer at all, much less a great one, though I learned to see that question coming from a mile away. I’d been fumbling my way through each incident on a case by case basis, when one night an acquaintance reworded things slightly. Instead of asking, “What is your novel about?” he asked, “What kind of a novel are you writing?”

I was dumbfounded. By then I thought I knew what my novel was about (dogs, and a particular story of family mayhem that interested me) but I didn’t know what kind of a novel it was, or even, the longer I thought about it, what kinds of novel there were. I floundered a bit, then stammered, “Well, it’s a tragedy.” From the look on my friend’s face, I saw that wasn’t much of an answer.

“The main character is named Edgar Sawtelle,” I added, feebly.

“Is that the tragedy?” he asked.

A person doesn’t want that sort of thing to happen more than once. Then and there I decided I had to come up with something, and one day shortly afterward I found myself saying that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was a boy and his dog story for grown-ups. And lo and behold, I actually liked that answer. It rang true, it gave almost nothing away, and best of all it was just packed with meaning for me. I remember the first time I saw the inside of a golf ball, when I was maybe eight years old. I’d thought I’d been holding this simple, indivisible sphere, but under the shell I discovered thousands of miles of rubbery brown thread. I took the end and kept unwinding and unwinding until my lap was filled with a wild tangle. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think about that reply. I began to hand it over when people asked what my novel was about, and I watched them take the shell off. Oftentimes they ended up telling me stories about their own dogs, which was great fun.

As a writer, your job is to keep cracking open ideas like that. Some turn out to be empty, like ping-pong balls—all you find inside is a puff of stale air. You set them aside and try again. When you’ve gathered enough winners you take your lap full of thread and braid it into something, and if it is of a certain length, you call it a novel. In the braid of Edgar Sawtelle, you’ll find a farm I know very well, a little bit of Kipling, a love story, and yes, a tragedy. But mainly, you are going to find a boy and his dog story for grown-ups. I hope you like it. And I hope, if we ever get a chance to talk, you’ll tell me a dog story in return.

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