In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfus – his brain bombarded by telepathic messages from alien vistors – begins obsessively sculpting a replica of Devil’s Tower National Monument. He doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing. He’s just eating supper one night and a lump of mashed potatoes strikes him as inexplicably compelling. He begins shaping it into something that conforms with an unknown thing he himself doesn’t recognize, adding more scoops of potatoes, shaping it more, examining it from all sides, adding more potatoes.
His wife, played by Teri Garr, looks on aghast. (No one did aghast better than Teri Garr.) She’s hoping her husband will just settle down and act normal and that when he scoops more potatoes onto his plate it will be in order to eat them. By the time she finally can’t take any more of this and leaves with the children, Dreyfus has moved way beyond mashed potatoes. There’s a truckload of fill dirt in his living room, which he is meticulously scraping, shaving, and piling into – he knows not what – but somehow he has faith it’ll mean something once he’s finished.
That’s how it feels writing a novel. There’s a lump of something that strikes you as intriguing: a juxtaposition of ideas, a snatch of overheard conversation, a man’s perplexed and frustrated expression on a subway, and you think – that’s interesting, I could do something with that. So you pile on more, you can never know exactly how much is too much, figuring, configuring, reconfiguring. It’s not entirely random; you have some notion of where you’re heading, you have to. Even Richard Dreyfus knew he was building some kind of mud and rock tower. But you don’t really know what you’ll end up with; you just keep adding, shaping, and taking away, adding, shaping, and taking away until one day, you look at your novel in progress and discover, “By golly, I do believe there’s a theme.” You turn it over, and sure enough it is a theme.
You set deadlines, but that’s just something you tell yourself to feel better. Chaucer started writing The Canterbury Tales in the 1300’s and he hasn’t finished yet.
We might feel sorry for Dreyfus, losing his family, but we recognize that this mud and rock monolith in his room has become his companion. That’s how it is with novels. Not that I think my book is a person, I’m not deluded. But for the last two years I’ve spent a little time every day thinking about it – and only it. It’ll be with me for at least another year longer. (But that’s all, one more year tops. I’ve set myself a strict deadline.) The novel grows and changes under us as we come to know the form it’s taking. We’re not always happy with it, we resent it more than once, and we sometimes actively dislike it, but it’s always there next morning, and if we don’t like what it’s turning into, it’s only because we aren’t doing it right, yet. Sometimes an angry slash at it – take that, you selfish bastard, sucking up so much of my life! – and we do something in random fury just to poke at it – make the woman next door deaf, give the detective a French accent, slap the top off with a shovel – and the potential of it strikes us afresh, like seeing the wife whose loveliness you take for granted turned half profile away and remembering how shockingly beautiful she is. And you’re back at it again.
Anyway. People ask my process of writing a novel, but I think what they really want to know is how it feels to write a novel. It feels like that. A huge mud sculpture in the living room. The furniture shoved against the wall to make space. The hardwood floor, needless to say, permanently ruined. Your family, at best, tolerant. You do not know how much more effort will be required and you have already expended more effort than you planned, more than this project can possibly justify. You wonder if you’ll be required to bust out the ceiling before it is finished.
And each day it gets a little better.
Man Martin's first novel, Days of the Endless Corvette, won him Georgia Author of the Year for 2008. His second novel, Paradise Dogs, is due out Spring of 2011 from Thomas Dunne Books. He is currently at work scooping potatoes onto a third novel.