And Foreign Boy Meets Foreign Girl, I Know

Now that I have finished Conventions, I’m in the midst of something of a writing “hiatus.” Although I prefer to think of it more as a rest. I need a breather.

That said, I have also been pre-planning and doing some reading for a new book. I have another vaguely in mind. However, I’m not entirely sure right now what the road ahead will reveal.

Street view, Hertfordshire, England, around 9pm last night. Long spring evening. [Photo by me, 2017.]

In my post the other day on Philip Roth, I had not addressed this. He gave an interview in 1984 to The Paris Review. Having read this that follows from him, I feel a bit better about where I am now – and if you write, you too may find this part quite illuminating and perhaps familiar:


How do you get started on a new book?


Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

As acclaimed as Roth’s writings are (although I have not read him), I also get an impression from reviewers and online sources that he has his “predictable” themes and style. That’s not usually a criticism. And, to be honest, it’s not surprising either.

After all, we all have “a voice” and that voice will permeate everything we write. Every author comes at writing with a worldview that is uniquely their own. That one does is therefore bound to imbue the writing – no matter how hard a writer seeks to sideline it.

I skimmed through my first three novels for this post. They are a series. (In a sense, they could have been a single book; and you may have noticed I even chaptered them as “one” tale.) It is a perfectly valid question: What might they reveal about my worldview?

Some of my books on my desk. [Photo by me, 2017.]

I know I have said some of this before, but think it’s worth addressing in more detail here.

Looking back at it from four years on, Passports reads to me a lot like “spring” – boy meets girl, and it’s almost sweet in spots. Early on it’s even rather “young adult.” Its title comes from – you may have noticed – a focus on a “passport” as necessary for travel to places beyond your country and meeting new people that is noted repeatedly in the text.

In Frontiers, we have it confirmed that these are not “kids” merely out to sightsee; they are clearly adults. That volume I feel also reads more like a gorgeous “summer” day when everything seems possible . . . and suddenly storm clouds start to appear on the horizon. That title comes from – perhaps unsurprisingly – crossing those borders dividing us and encountering each other in our own lands.

Excerpt from Distances, paperback version. [Photo by me, 2017.]

Lastly, Distances strikes me now as almost “autumnal”: there is laughter and warmth around the fireplace so to speak; but the nights are perceptibly closing in, much as life closes in on all of us eventually. Its title stems from the sense that while we may find ourselves from different countries and backgrounds living closely interlinked lives, even while we seek honestly to try to understand each other there will always be distances between us that we cannot ever quite entirely bridge.

I hadn’t consciously planned the novels to read that way. That is merely how they evolved as I wrote them. I suppose they did so because they must reflect to some extent how I see life.

If I consider Conventions, without giving too much away, it is such a “big book” that within its single volume there is also another discernible “springtime” perhaps, as well as a distinctive “summer” and “autumn” once more. This time arguably there is even added a nadir, too: a “winter.”

And I am sure some must say: “There are lots of similarities between this novel and the ones before it even though they are set 200 years apart.”

Yes, initially foreign boy and foreign girl meet – yet again. Amidst those “seasons,” other boys and girls also meet. There are I’m sure other echos of the “familiar.”

And lives are lived amidst a backdrop that eventually sees a ruling family executed. War breaks out. Disorder and murder become commonplace. Comfortable, ordered existences crumble as a new order arises. Lives may be extinguished in moments – and sometimes are. The title comes from a combined play on words: the American constitutional convention of late 1787, the French Convention of 1792, and those “conventions” – rules – that always affect our lives and which we sometimes strain against.

So, yes, I won’t argue. I know it. As much as I sought to venture into writing realms I have not previously, there are – there must be – certain similarities between this novel and its three predecessors.

Because, well, I’m me.

Knowing yourself as a writer is, I have learned, vital. While I will always seek to push the envelope with each new novel, in the end my fingerprints will be all over it and those fingerprints must identify me based on what I have written before. Only a first novel is truly “original” because, naturally, nothing appeared from you before it.

Put another way, when I tap my iPhone playlist for Frank Sinatra singing covers of “Yesterday” or “Something,” I don’t expect to hear the Beatles. I expect Frank Sinatra singing the Beatles – and Sinatra of course as we all know did not sing like the Beatles. He sang like Frank Sinatra singing the Beatles.

We all want to avoid, as Roth states above about his own efforts, “an unconscious parody” of a previous book and to write a “breakaway from it.” Yet there are limits as to how far we may go in “reinventing” ourselves. Originality is found fundamentally not in each subsequent novel, but lies truly in ourselves as one of a kind people.

Yes, we may improve as writers over time – we should – and broaden what appears on our pages as compared to earlier books. But at the core of any novel is the same you, the same writer. Don’t fear that, embrace it.

You might as well: it’s inescapable anyway.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.