I find myself in somewhat of a transitional period with my fiction writing. Which is to say, something's going to change, but I'm not sure exactly where I'm headed. So I decided to do a bit of a career retrospective, providing some behind the scenes info about my novels. It might be interesting if you like my work or if you're interested in the process of novel writing in general.
Or it might be masturbatory and self-indulgent. Or possibly all of the above. Ready? Here we go!
Donorboy-- This novel had its origins in an English department meeting. My colleagues were talking about all the cool things they were doing in their classrooms, and I, in my tenth year of teaching and with a spouse with stage-4 cancer, realized I wasn't feeling any ambition to do the kinds of things my collagues were doing. But I did have some ambition to continue writing.
I took my daughter to the park one day and saw a family that had just adopted a kid, and I was really moved by how earnest and awkward the parents were. So I came up with the idea for Donorboy. At this point, in the spring of 2003, it became clear that Kirsten wasn't going to live a whole lot longer. So I was thinking about what it was going to be like for me to raise a grieving daughter, and this was the genesis of Donorboy. I wanted the girl to be a teenager because I was more comfortable writing that age than any other. My first attempts at starting this book made it just Sean's story. At some point I decided to write Rosalind's grief journal as a writing exercise to kind of find the character, and after I had about ten pages of that, I thought, "whoa. This is good." I had recently read Dracula, so that's where the idea of this as a semi-epistolary novel came from.
I didn't pick the lesbian parent situation for any reason other than I know a lot of those families, and I always had a lot of unseemly curiosity about what the arrangement was.
Eva, the dead mom who was a tv star, was kind of a salute to Dana Plato and Rebecca Shaffer, both of whom were on TV when I was young and inspired big crushes, and both of whom died tragically. (Dana Plato overdosed on drugs at age 35; Rebecca Shaffer was murdered at age 21.)
Most of the teachers and administrators in the book bear the names of 80's punkers. I did this mostly to amuse myself, but also because it struck me really hard at this point that they and I had become the older generation we used to rebel against.
Long Way Back--I started this novel right before Kirsten died, and writing it was what got me through the first stages of grief. There's some wish-fulfillment in there: I obviously wanted to be a rock star, and I really wanted an older sister to take care of me. (I'm an only child). I'm no longer sure why it was so important to me that they be religious. I guess this was really the beginning of me losing whatever little faith I had, and I really wanted to show that faith didn't insulate anybody from tragedy. And I wanted Francis to have a reason to turn against faith and towards music, and I thought he'd feel more personally betrayed if he had had a deep religious experience.
The gay club where Happy Jack played their first gig was completely imaginary. The other two club scenes take place in clubs inspired by TT the Bear's and The Paradise in Boston. The incident that the french horn player was grieving was inspired by a real tragedy that happened at a local high school. I no longer remember the details of the actual accident.
The ending of the book was kind of a magical experience for me. I had no idea how I was going to wrap it up, and then this idea came to me, and I found it pulled together a lot of threads from the rest of the book. I spent three days writing it and wept profusely both during and after. Apologies to everybody who saw me at JP Licks while I was writing and was made uncomfortable as a result.
How Ya Like Me Now-- As a full-time writer who wrote short books, I was writing more books than I could submit, so I decided to do a YA book. This was inspired by my experience as an English teacher in urban schools. When I looked for free reading books for my students, I found that even though my students really liked stories about regular high school drama, all the YA books with urban settings that I could find were all about drugs and shootings. I kind of hated the message this was sending these kids, so I decided to write an urban story about regular high school stuff. The main characters are white because I wasn't confident in my ability to write a character who wasn't white at that time. The interactions in advisory are based on real interactions that my advisees had when I was working in an urban school. The somewhat awkard kid that girls can talk to about their crushes on his more charismatic friend may have been based on someone I was acquainted with.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress--I wrote this while falling in love and grieving at the same time. I wrote about that experience for the New York Times, because I was kind of a big deal. This novel isn't so much about that experience as about how two people can be drawn together not in spite of the bad things that have happened to them, but because of them. I also had the experience while listening to Wire's "12XU" of wondering who it was written about. (Thinking here of the "saw you in a mac, kissing a man" line, which pretty clearly influences the whole "Philippa Cheats" scenario.) It just occurred to me that most musicians I've known have had pretty serious issues, and they write these breakup songs about people who probably have very different stories to tell about the relationship. So I wrote this in part to just explore the other side of the story.
Philippa's school is based on mine. Mark's camp is something I just totally invented, though the ship's bell from the Phillipines is a real thing.
The conversation Mark and Rock-L have when she apologizes plays out some of the conflicted feelings I had about hurting people's feelings with my memoirs.
This one ends at Forest Hills Cemetery. The Lantern Festival depicted in the book is a real thing and one of the most moving ceremonies I've ever taken part in.
Forever Changes--I think of this as the conclusion of my grief trilogy. While Donorboy and Long Way Back are about people grieving a loss, I really wanted to write something from the point of view of the person facing death. This was my attempt to honor the courageous and classy way in which Kirsten died.
In the first draft, Brianna was trying to take down a pervy principal before she died. This was based on the fact that a teacher who sexually harassed a friend of mine in the seventh grade turned up as a principal of a K-8 school in the same district I worked in many years later. I was and am enraged at how people who victimize children get to keep doing it, and I wanted some justice on the page even if it rarely happens in life.
This whole element got cut out at the request of my editor. I think it was probably a good call, but I would still like the whole story of this principal, whom I named Winterville in this book, to be told.
In the pre-internet era, I worked with a teacher who claimed to have been a member of a notable psychedelic rock band. Once the internet era hit, I looked up the band and found a page detailing every single person who had ever played with this band. Guess whose name was missing? I was fascinated by this, and that's where Eccles' story and character come from.
My first attempt at this had it being a parallel story about both Brianna and Eccles, with chapters from each character's point of view, but I found I could only get so far with Eccles and didn't know where else to go, so his POV got cut out.
I did research on math for this book because I never liked math much and never took calculus. I think I mostly did a credible job on the math. The ebook edition does correct a problem that remained in the original print book.
Whew! That took longer than I thought! More soon!