It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, The dark threw patches down upon me also; The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious; My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? would not people laugh at me? — from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
If you asked me that week in April, when I stood on the shoreline of a beach in Biarritz and looked out into the horizon, watching the waves fold in on one another, what my novel would be about, I would’ve waved you away and said, I’m writing a story about a girl who sets a woman’s hair on fire. And that would be the end of it. Come nightfall, I made it my habit to visit the barnacles. They bound themselves to enormous rocks along the beach. I leaned in and desperately wanted to touch them, wondering if I too would be part of this attachment. I didn’t end up touching the barnacles for fear of infection, but I took photographs of them, watched dozens of videos online, and I didn’t stop to think about why I was fixated on these rather grotesque creatures, I just thought: there’s something here. I just don’t know it yet.
And that’s how I write. It’s instinct. It’s an image broken to pieces and rebuilt in my head. My state is one of constant reconstruction. Of voices and scenes that play out in technicolor, and then I write everything down, and the next day the voices come back and revise all the lines. So that week in France, I thought: I’m writing a book about attachments, about betrayal and hurt, as seen through the lens of two families destroyed by infidelity.
Yet, as soon as I made this novel something, as soon as I tried to define it to someone who had asked, it suddenly became the opposite of what I said it would be. In novels, and in life, I’ve learned that it never is what you intend it to be. The novel, over the course of six months morphed into something demonstrably different. Something I haven’t yet tackled stylistically and formally, but attempting to do so now. I have a few very close and trusted readers, and they’ve prodded me with pitchforks to go on my way, but three characters have emerged from the original seven (I tend to be a character writer rather than a plot writer; I create great people and see what mischief they rustle up), and I can’t stop thinking about them. Their voices are a constant, and I’m now at 100 pages, and finally, the real shape of the book is starting to emerge.
For those of you who are remotely interested in this stuff (because I can go on for days, just ask my non-author friends), I’m attempting to write a book that operates (and needs to succeed) on three levels. There’s the surface story — a family ravaged by an affair and the consequences that unfold as a result, as told through the voices of three broken children, one of whom has psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies. So there’s all this charcoal scenery and movement and things happen, people’s hair gets set on fire, things are torched and people are maimed with tweezers (it’s not that bad).
Then there’s this whole other level, where I’m trying to attribute the voices of folks like Jim Jones and lines of poetry as dialogue, giving yet another distinct layer to the characters and a richer meaning to the kind of people they are, and more importantly, what they thematically represent. In a span of 100 pages, I’ve managed to weave in Don Delillo, Jim Jones, Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Carnival of Souls, Kazuo Ishiguro, among others. Not simply as a nod to great work, but as a means to translate and understand these characters via history.
On a final level, I’m trying to create two characters who are mirrors of one another. Not doubles, per se, but an inversion of a self. And the idea here is that I’ve got to make the two selves whole. All roads must converge at the end.
Yet, if you were someone who just opened up the book and read the story and didn’t see all of this, it would be okay. However, if nesting dolls are your thing, this book would be enjoyable too.
I’m home today, recovering from a cold, taking a break from an avalanche of work, and I’m readying this book for partial submission to publishers — my close readers and agent feel that strongly about the potential for this novel, which pleases me enormously. However, I’m not insane in the fact that publishing is a tough business, even more so for experimental fiction, so I’m not getting my hopes up. It would be nice for this book to see light.
Here’s hoping the hand plays out. As a little morsel, something new I just wrote, below:
His pants fell below his ankles as he began to run. James ran to where she left her clothes – paper denim shorts and a shirt embroidered with flowers – and scooped them up and flung them out the window. The rain persisted like a victory, which staunched the blood coming from between her legs. She was behind from where she stood and found herself looking back. She thinks of the smallness of a child’s hands.
They lay in bed, glowing from a single lamp that she kept flicking on and off. The evening descended, piece by piece.
“I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I love you,” Kate said.
“They say it’s better without gloves on.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I heard you fine. You know,” James said. “You’re beautiful in all the right places.”
“What are the wrong places?”
“Ask your mother.”
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 lb ground sirloin
1/2 lb ground pork
1 yellow onion, rough chop
4 cloves garlic, rough chop
2 carrots, rough chop
2 ribs of celery heats, rough chop
1 28-ounce can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 15-ounce can organic tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
2 cups red wine (I tend to use a full-bodied Cabernet)
1 bay leaf
6 sprigs fresh oregano, chopped
3-4 tbsp of sugar, to taste (adjust based on the acidity of your tomatoes)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup basil, torn
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (you can opt to use vegan butter)
1 pound linguine
1/2 cup reserve pasta water
In a large pot (I used my Le Creuset dutch oven), heat olive oil. Make sure you have enough to thinly coat the pan, and that your pan is searing hot. There’s nothing more criminal than boiling beef, so use a large pot and ensure that it’s scorching hot. Once you have the heat of Hades, toss in your meats, flavor with salt and pepper and stir gently with a wooden spoon to break apart the met.
While your meat is browning (5-7 minutes), blitz your mirepoix — onion, carrots, celery — and garlic in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. It’s important that all of your veggies are roughly the same size because no one wants a huge hunk of carrot or onion in their pasta bowl. NO ONE.
After your meat has browned on all sides, deglaze the pan with the wine and add your veggie mix. Cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, bay leaf, sugar, water and oregano. Bring all the ingredients to a simmer and taste. Add salt and pepper as needed.
Simmer covered for about 2-4 hours. When the sauce is done, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a hefty pinch of salt to the water then add your pasta. Stir and cook until al dente. Add the pasta to the sauce; be sure to save some pasta water in case you need some. If the sauce is too thick, add the water until the desired consistency.
Remove from heat. Add the butter and basil. Drizzle each serving with some extra olive oil. DIG IN.