Watch Out Now, Take Care, Beware

I am not naturally a novelist. The form strikes me as an artifice, even above and beyond the artifice of short fiction. Short stories make more sense to me. I’ll wake up and see them, mostly: the first sentence, the last sentence, a sense of the middle. Novels are never easy that way. They have to be assembled from components, slowly, over time, with ebbs and flows in my confidence in the process.

Despite my suspicion regarding the novel, I have written a few. My newest, The Slippage, comes out in May from Harper Perennial. When people ask “What’s it about?” I turn and walk the other way. If my escape route is blocked, I answer, trying to conceal my sense of defeat. The novel is about a man and a woman and their marriage. It’s about the way that fidelity, emotional and sexual, is understood and misunderstood. It’s about suburban life in America, and how it’s filled with emptiness. Usually by this point in the process the person who has asked is sorry to have done so.

Sometimes people ask about the characters rather than the plot. This is firmer ground to stand on, and so I am less likely to feel terror standing there. The reason I am more comfortable discussing characters than plot is that most of the characters were born from short stories. The protagonist, William, is a copywriter at a financial services company, though a few years ago a version of him was an aging rock star in a short story called “Oh Lord Why Not?” His wife, Louisa, was a minor character in a story called “I Put It On The Counter And When I Turned Back It Was Gone.” Louisa’s brother, Tom, is a graph artist, and he emerged out of “Plot,” an experimental short story told as a series of graphs. Some of the stories were published, some were not, but to understand these characters, I had to put them in short stories first. It was how I came to know them.

One of the main characters, Emma, was an exception. She is, briefly, William’s lover. The plot turns on her to some degree. And while other characters are forthcoming about their younger years, she is mysterious to William. For most of the time I was writing the book, she was mysterious to me as well. She was always half in shade, because she was the only main character who didn’t emerge from a short story. I made her up as I went, which made her more impulsive, less stable.

And then I found out that I was wrong. Last winter, after finishing the novel, I was looking through old folders, and I discovered a story I had written about Emma years before. I had no memory of writing it. I did not consult it during the process of composing the novel. And the Emma in this story, a decade younger than the one in the novel, is considerably different. Her world is darker and more menacing, more painful but also more efficient at extracting pleasure from that pain. There are explicit (if fantastical) issues of control that are implicit (and realistic) in the novel. Still, it is clearly the same woman, not just in name but in temperament, in appearance, in her tendency to act from a tricky mix of self-annihilation and almost thoughtless daring. Rereading it—which felt like reading it for the first time—clarified certain things about her, and made other things even more satisfying in their mystery. I was happy to have found it.


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