In her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes the undramatic way that a new book comes into the world. When her first book was published, she recalls, she expected her publisher to arrange for a Blue Angels fly-by over her house, or at least some kind of literary débutante ball with champagne and caviar and reporters, like in the movies.
Very little about writing is like in the movies. Maybe in the 1920s, writers sat and smoked while staring at a blank piece of paper in in their typewriters. Maybe they really did try a few lines only to rip the paper out, crumple it up furiously and toss it into a wire wastebasket. Personally, I suspect that movie wastebaskets filled with crumpled sheets of 20-pound bond are as unrealistic as the spinning newspapers that movies always use to signal “Time passes.”
I work on computer. I back up early and often. Once, we had a power-outage during a thunderstorm, and I lost a single paragraph that I still mourn for. It was brilliant. It is gone. (It probably seemed brilliant because it was gone, but that’s another story about writerly self-delusion…) At the end of each day, I email copies of my drafts to my husband’s computer at work, so I have off-site storage of the latest version. There are always earlier drafts to go back to, just in case I ruin a passage by tinkering with it too much. Even in the 1920s, I bet writers kept those failed attempts in a nice safe pile on the floor in the corner of the room, uncrumpled and available for reference, in case a paragraph or a sentence or even a felicitous phrase could be salvaged later.
Motherhood metaphors for a new book come easily. Sometimes the idea of a book is conceived by accident, in a single moment of inspiration; often it takes many months of “trying” before the idea really takes hold and begins to grow. Some writers (like the insufferable Frederick Forsyth) need only 45 days to gestate a novel; others require years before a manuscript is both complete and finished.
After the quiet, solitary gestation comes the labor of pushing that book into the world, and suddenly a whole team of people are involved: agents, publishers, editors, book designers, dust jacket designers, marketing departments, publicity teams. The writer is not passive in all this effort. Long ago, I learned that nobody cares as intensely as I do about the book I’ve written. Even when the agents and the publishers declare with convincing sincerity, “I love this book!” they don’t love it the way its mother does. Like a good obstetrical team, they care about each book they deliver to the marketplace. The author loves this one.
At this very moment, sitting on my desk, just to my left, there is an unopened Fed Ex package containing a copy of Doc, almost warm from the printing press. I’ve worked hard on all my novels, but I have not loved a book so much since The Sparrow. I have not loved a character so much since Emilio Sandoz. If anything, I love John Henry Holliday more.
In a recent interview, John Connelly remarked, “Obviously it is different to write about, say, the real Doc Holliday than about an imaginary Jesuit in space like Emilio Sandoz. How does writing about a historical figure compare to writing about a fictional one?”
“Well,” I answered, “as terribly as I treated Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow, I was able to bring his crisis of faith to some resolution. At the end of Children of God, Emilio has gotten past his anger and bitterness. He has learned to put his pain to work on behalf of others. He has discovered a daughter he didn’t know he had, and she has an infant son for him to love. I could leave him with the prospect of a contented and useful old age.
“John Henry Holliday spent 15 years – his entire adult life – dying of a debilitating and painful disease. Nothing I wrote could change that.
“It comes down to this: John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. I couldn’t give him a better life or a longer one. So I’ve told the story of a single season of happiness – the summer of 1878 – when he felt well enough to resume the practice of a profession that gave him great satisfaction in a place where he made a few good friends. I have tried to win him the compassion and respect I think he deserves.”
There. The cord is cut. I just took the book out of the package and held Doc in my hands for the first time. Beautiful. Bigger than I expected! Not perfect, of course, and soon reviewers and readers will be searching for flaws, pointing out weaknesses, quibbling over decisions the author made about how to tell this story. At some point, children go off on their own into the world to be teased and tested and judged. In a few weeks, Doc will be getting comments on Amazon, the way seventh graders get snarky remarks on Facebook. Even so, like any fond mother, I dare to hope that my child will find others in the world who will love him almost as much as I do.