To my surprise . . . I’m writing a novel. Let me tell you first why this is a surprise. a) a short attention span, b) aversion to linear structures of any kind, c) I don’t know enough to write a novel, d) I’m way too busy to write a novel. Well, what gives?
Around New Year’s, when everyone is busy setting goals for the new year, I thought, “why not write a novel.” In truth, I originally thought “novella” which sounded less intimidating.
At the time, I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel, The Virgin Blue. I liked that she switched back and forth between past and present, and that there was a mystical link between the two stories, via the particular shade of blue and the allusion to the Virgin Mary. The psychic linkage between the female characters across hundreds of years’ time, was intriguing although (I felt) heavy handed.
I like reading first novels, because of their rough edges; I don’t mind if sometimes I am not entirely convinced of the “myth” of the story environment. (Entering into a story is, after all, much like immersing oneself into a mythical world, no matter the subject or genre.) I found myself considering the dialogue in the novel, which I thought did not entirely ring true, and wondered how an author creates authentic dialogue. Regular dialogue is usually boring, if transcribed exactly the way people speak. But how to spin the web of the story with dialogue that moves the story along, and sounds believable?
Another novel came to mind, and I started reading it again on Kindle: The Passion, by Jeannette Winterson. One of my favorite novels. When I first read it, I fell in love with the storytelling. I loved how Winterson introduces each character’s story, the soldier Henri and the Venizian androgyne boatperson, Villanelle, as two separate stories that she then weaves together. I loved the unreliability of each narrator. Henri, who tells the reader, “Don’t believe me.” The directness of the characters’ voices, the way she wrote the inner dialogue for a French soldier and an Italian young womn, help me to understand how I might try this, too. Winterson’s first novel was highly acclaimed, but it was this second novel written when she was in her mid-20’s, that was a financial success. She was able to make a living as an author due to the success of this book.
In both novels, I enjoyed the historical setting, was impressed by the research I imagined an author needs to do to keep the reader suspended in the myth of the tale. I started to realize that, as when creating a drawing or painting, you are really creating lines and marks in a way that suggests reality. (If the work is non-represenational, it still must create a believable “structure” of some sort, that the viewer will enter into–yet it is only marks on paper). Is writing a novel that different? How much do I actually need to know in order to write a novel?
It is different than poetry, the wholeness of the illusion that you are attempting to create (if the poet is writing in a non-narrative style, which I do).
Now I have written (only) thirty pages of a novel that was originally titled “Estrella and the Texture of Light” and is now tentatively called “Avenida Chimera”. Loosely based on the life of Leonora Carrington, para-surrealist painter and author, who escaped WWII Europe to expatriate to Mexico City, where she developed a unique and mythical oevre of painting, sculpture, and stories. After writing thirty pages, I have started over, now with the story in a radial structure, starting with three characters around a table.
I found writing the scenes that interested me the most, helped break the ice and kept me excited about the project. Over the past two months I have read, skimmed, analyzed a dozen or so texts related to the novel in progress, in diverse topics such as: Celtic mythology, Spanish Civil War, Vichy France, Provencal lifestyle, surreal novels set in Paris, the occult, kabbalah, Alice in Wonderland, art history texts on surrealism or the movements leading up to surrealism, surrealist games, the Mexican revolution and the industrialization of Mexico, etc. I have never been more intellectually stimulated and outright obsessed as when writing this novel.
The novel starts in a courtyard in Mexico City, with three friends around a table.
A candle flickered on the table between them. From above in this light, all three appear identical. From within the circle, one with an angular face. Another, a long oval, and a third, her face shaped like a heart.
The first voice makes a brief comment in Spanish. A second voice laughs a gentle, dancing laugh. Water murmurs from a nearby fountain, now invisible outside the circle of light. The third, in a sarcastic tone, says something that ends in “inolvidable”. Of the three, only one a native speaker.
The main characters are three female artists, expatriated to Mexico City from Europe. As the rest of the novel unfolds, their life stories will emerge through flashback, through dreams, through the reader’s experience of their art-making. Overall, the story is about the challenge and power of art making. The characters happen to be female, at a time when the art world was dominantly “male”, and women were seen as the counterparts of great (male) artists. Through their work, they explore their own beliefs about the nature of the world and society. The story also explores notions of nationalism, and identity, through the thoughts and experiences of these “maverick” characters.
But for now:
The three friends gather as many evenings as possible in the summer, in this high walled courtyard crowded with blue palm and bush sage.
Inside the summer courtyard, quiet music of the fountain. Outside the walls, the concrete sounds of all-enveloping Mexico City repeat at the same pace as they do every day. The conversation topic one day is Mayan mythology. Last week, Sufism. A week from now, interpretations of the Fourth Dimension. Interwoven between these conversations, memories unfold. An insatiable desire to understand oneself as a being in the world. And human comfort to hear the stories of parallel paths that bring each of them to this table.
The first, rises and walks into the kitchenette, brings back a bottle of tequila and in the other hand, three glasses pinched together in her fingers. Sets these without ceremony onto the enameled metal table top. The second pours. The third says, “Salud” and they drink and pour another which they sip slowly now.
It is now completely dark. Two smile and lean in, while the other talks. The candle adds an incantatory effect. Shadow ebbs and flows around the edges of the round table, a table with scratches in the enamel, and polished spots from elbows, dishes, bottles. Blots of wax cluster in the center, and a red wire twists in an upward knot, from the time they constructed an impromptu sculpture into the network of the table.
Picking up the thread of an earlier conversation, Stella, the woman with the oval face, says, “I just do what the painting asks of me.” Adi, with the heart shaped face, nods. Noa, the aquiline, responds, “Eso es lo unico. . .”. They each sip the tequila, and think quietly to themselves as a means to extend the conversation.
I cannot tell you how terrifying and exciting it is to start a novel; all of my fears of my own ability to complete a project arise, at the daunting nature of the task. Then, I get back to work.