Christopher Barzak is one of my favorite writers in the whole world and one of my favorite people–you have to love it when things work out that way. His work is thoughtful, engaging and always beautifully written. Today is the release date for his dynamite first novel One for Sorrow; there’s lots of celebration going on in both their honor today and you can follow along at the Mumpsimus. Because I’ve been too swamped to do the post the book deserves yet, I asked Chris to give y’all a big dose of write porn. He delivered. I give you, Chris Barzak on his publication day, about how he writes and how he wrote this (dynamite!) book. (BONUS: I have included a somewhat goofy picture of the two of us from wayyyy back in 2001 at Wiscon, taken by the lovely Barbara Gilly, at the end of this post. But you have to read the whole thing first or it’s invisible.)
First of all, thanks, Gwenda, for having me over here on Shaken and Stirred for a little bit of fun on this really cool day for me, the release date for my first novel. And since you are a writing process aficionado, I’m going to write a little bit about not only the process I went through in writing One for Sorrow, but also the process I went through in learning how to write short stories.
I’ll start with short stories, since that’s what I started writing first. I’ve always written, ever since I can remember. Before I could read and write, I used to draw sequential pictures that told stories, then punch holes in their pages and string them together into little books for my parents. After I learned how to write, I stopped drawing, which I wish I hadn’t done, but I was more interested in words in the end, I guess, and I went on to experiment through elementary school, junior high and high school in a variety of modes: stories, plays, poetry. Around the time I turned seventeen I decided I was really going to try to write. I mean to be a person who made books like the ones I read from the library. So I started writing stories with more serious intentions. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. Unfortunately this is still true. No matter what, I loved the voice I could hear in a story. That was something I found I could do when I wrote too. I believe writers have some innate writing gifts, but that other aspects of writing they need to learn how to do. Voice was a gift for me, but things like plot and structure weren’t. I knew I was going to have to do a lot of work to figure those out.
So when I went to college, I spent a lot of hours in the university stacks reading story collections by authors who perhaps had a story I’d read in an anthology for one of my literature courses, or who I’d run across in a magazine on my own, or whose book I just happened to pull at random from the shelves, which I often did. I liked being up in a tall library tower where I could sit in a corner and look out at the downtown in the valley below and read and think about reading and writing. I still go there sometimes, just to get in touch with that feeling of discovery, that determination I had to understand how a story makes magic happen in a reader’s head.
So I read heaps. Reading, I think, is essential to writing, to feeding the part of yourself that wants to create story. I filled up on short stories of all genres, old stuff and new stuff, stories by writers from all over the world. Sometimes Latin American magical realism, sometimes British Social Realism, other times Science Fiction or Modernist Surrealism, German Romanticism, Southern Gothic, ghost stories. Anything I could get my hands on, I’d read. And in the process of reading, I absorbed a lot of various storytelling structures. Eventually, I noticed that I not only would receive a voice for a story as inspiration, but also a kind of shape would come with the voice. I think this had something to do with the time I spent reading for structure specifically. Suddenly I was able to see a shape as well as hear a voice, and from there on I started to be able to play around with other aspects of storytelling as well. It was once I understood how to hold a story in my head all at once that I began to be able to play with things like point of view and plot more purposefully. It was as if once I had a frame, I could paint a picture, and I spent the majority of my early twenties trying on different hats, different kinds of stories. I still like to write in a lot of different genres, just like I spent all that time reading in different genres. And I like find the seams in a story where various genres meet and feel as if perhaps all stories, despite genre differences, are all the same story in the end.
When I was twenty-seven, I decided I’d spent a good ten years writing nothing but short stories and thought it was time I took what I’d learned about writing fiction in those years and see if I could sustain a narrative at novel length. At the same time, though, to write anything at all, it has to be something that is emotionally engaging for me, and right then I was sort of in a sad place in my life, and the novel I wanted to write had to do with a short story I had written when I was twenty-four. The story was “Dead Boy Found,” which Kelly Link had published in an anthology she edited called Trampoline. At the end of the story, the narrator, Adam, a fifteen year old boy whose family is falling apart and whose classmate has been found murdered at the beginning of the story, comes to feel as if he too has died in some interior, spiritual way, and that the rest of his life would be a sort of zombie-like existence of going through the motions of living only to die. It took a while, but eventually I reread that story and was really not happy with how the story resolved. It felt right, but at the same time I wanted him to have a better future. And since at the time I was trying to figure out how to have a better future for myself as well, I decided I would continue writing from Adam’s point of view until he found his way out of the dark place of that short story ending. Since there were a lot of problems he was facing in his life–alcohol abusing parents who were not happy with their own lives, a casually cruel older brother, the loss of his grandmother, who he’d been close to, and the loss of his mother’s mobility after she is paralyzed in a car accident–I knew this was going to take a longer narrative form. But there was a problem. That shape thing I’d gotten used to having when I wrote a short story? It wasn’t there when I tried to imagine Adam’s story as a novel.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t read a lot of novels already. I’d read tons. It’s that I hadn’t consciously tried to understand their form the way I had with short stories. And so I hadn’t absorbed various novelistic structures because of this. So I spent the first few months before I even started writing by pulling out books I felt were in some way related to the kind of book I wanted to write, and I looked at how their authors had organized their stories. I kept this stack of books by my bed, and I’d read from one or two of them every night until I finally decided to start putting down words of my own.
It took me a year to write the first draft of One for Sorrow. At first it was really messy. Even after gathering my guiding spirit novels and trying to learn from them before setting out on that journey, it was hard. Novels, I realized, had a different kind of pacing. Short stories are closed-off things, they shut doors, they hint at the larger texture of life outside of them, they’re almost hermetically sealed worlds, like snow globes with a little cities sitting behind glass. Novels, though, need to open, to unfurl, like flowers. They open doors, they go forward and forward, and they must keep doing this until the very end, until they’re completely open and in bloom. Characters need to keep changing and changing. They can’t remain static. Though portraiture can be used as a technique in novels, it can’t be an end in and of itself. And there is so much time passing, so many characters in novels–those timelines, all of those characters and their lives must be accounted for in ways that short stories don’t always touch upon. And this lends itself to the messiness I say beginning this novel was for me. I ended up getting halfway through and decided to draw a chart that showed a sort of timeline for each character and what was happening in their life, and how each of their stories paralleled or connected with the other characters. Then I went back and rewrote the first half, excising plot threads and characters who I felt by mid point were dead ends. From there, I moved forward again, until I reached the end. After a couple of months, I went back and read it, made notes about more things that no longer seemed interesting in it, and revised the book once more. Shortly after that I sent it to an agent whose client list I admired, and I got lucky: he liked the book and thought other people would too.
I then moved to Japan and wrote a second novel. A much different novel from the first one. It’s set in Japan, and its structure was more delicate and versatile, told in a variety of points of view and narrative forms, but all of a piece. The second time around felt easier in some ways, but giving myself a new structure to work with also presented me with new challenges of how to keep that feeling a novel has of opening up and shedding new light on its story when its narrators and narrative form kept transforming from chapter to chapter. It took a lot of energy because each chapter felt almost like starting over from square one, but it also generated a different sort of energy that kept me interested. I loved watching the shape of the book morph from chapter to chapter, but retain a shape all the same.
Eventually the first novel found itself in the hands of my editor, Juliet Ulman, who also loved it, but felt there were a couple of decisions I’d made that didn’t ring true with the majority of the book’s vision. We talked through emails about these spots, and I was really amazed because they were all spots that were difficult in the writing process for me, places where I wasn’t sure how to proceed, and was afraid that my own instincts were perhaps faulty, and so I’d made choices that were perhaps more dramatic in the hopes that drama would hold the reader till I could get to the next place where I felt confident in what I was doing again. My own instincts in those places were for quiet things to happen, but I thought quiet things would be boring. After telling Juliet some of my other ideas for those spots, she told me those all made more sense for the book, which was really freeing. Previously I didn’t trust myself completely because I was writing in a form that was new to me. Working with her felt like receiving permission to trust my intuitions, and I rewrote several spots in the book until we were both satisfied.
And now here it is finally, on this Tuesday in late August of 2007. This thing I made that technically took four years to find its final form, but really took my whole life to make. I can describe the process I went through in writing it, but I can’t describe all of the things that go into writing a book that aren’t “technical”. So much about writing stories and novels really remains mysterious and magical to me, things that can’t be articulated, processes that are of the imagination, and I think it’s good to honor the mystery behind those processes by not trying to explain them. Otherwise, that magic that a story makes happen inside a reader’s head can’t happen. Maybe I’m superstitious in this one particular way, but in the end, technique can only get you so far. The rest is sort of letting the story tell itself to you, guiding it however you can through technique while honoring its own, separate existence.