My first novel, The House of God, after being turned down by a number of publishers, was sold to one. I had sent in 50 pages of first draft. It was single spaced (I didn’t know you had to double space!), and covered with cigar pipe ashes, burns, rings of coffee, beers and scotches etc.
After working on it for a while with the editor, the great Joyce Engelson who was in the running for “toughest editor in the world,” told me I wasn’t writing a novel.
“How do I write a novel?” I asked.
“These characters are great, but they don’t move.”
“What does that mean?”
“A good novel is where characters move through an experience and change.”
I never forgot that. It is at the core of what I believe we novelists do.
The bad news is that it’s hard to do well—without copping out into melodrama (more of that later). The good news is that when you do this, you really create something fine.
Except for crap writing to make money, and a current literary trend to work as hard as you can to make sure nothing much happens, and totally nothing changes in character, all good novels all do this.
Characters in a novel have to move
In writing change/movement, the easiest thing is to start with a character, and then destroy him or her. It’s easy to destroy, there are a million ways to bring people down. It’s hard to write fully-rounded characters, and then take them through often hellish experiences, and then bring them through better. (without melodrama).
Deep down I believe there is hope, that going through suffering—especially with others—can bring understanding, awareness, and even awakening.
In my new novel, At the Heart of the Universe, I do this. As one person told me: “It’s Heart of Darkness with a happy ending. (Conrad’s novella, and Marquez’ Of Love and Other Demons, are favorites of mine, textbooks of the perfect novellas).
At the Heart of the Universe started in a real incident in China when we went back with our 10-year-old adopted daughter to the orphanage and police station where she was abandoned as a baby. The four main characters—the three American adopted family members and the bio—the Chinese birth mom—don’t meet for the first half of the novel. They all are going through hard times and changes, and the writing of all of them went well.
Halfway through the book I came to a dilemma: the four meet in the midst of the wild Mount Emei, one of the four sacred mountains of China, where we had been. But Clio, Pep, and Katie, the Americans, only knew maybe three words of Chinese, and Xiao Lu, the Chinese birth mom, knew no English. The only others on the mountain were a small group of Buddhist monks and nuns.
How in the world was I going to write the second half of the novel?
And then, letting it brew, something else happened. I myself didn’t find the answer of how they spoke to each other, something else came in that was real, and right, and kept them moving through the experience, down to a horrific place, and then through it to a happy ending.
So in order to do the right hard thing in a novel, you need some outside help. The self, the I can’t think it, or plan it, or read it in a book or look on a screen for it.
If you are truly in it, in the reality you have started to create, and which the characters are moving through, eventually they will move on their own, and you will just have to write it down. It is, in the words of Wallace Stevens, “a thing beyond us, yet ourselves.” It is whatever each of us calls the spirit.
That’s the joy of writing novels, that’s the great feeling I have of getting it right, right to the heart, of At the Heart of the Universe.
And please join us @ the book launch for At the Heart of the Universe:
Samuel Shem in conversation with Adam Pertman, Adoption Nation, and with Katie Surrey-Bergman and Janet Surrey. At Soho Playhouse, 14 Vandam Street, NYC. November 14, Monday at from 7 to 8:45. Free.