The overture: two epigraphs
A good play, like a good lasagna, should be overstuffed: It has a pomposity, and an overreach: Its ambitions extend in the direction of not-missing-a-trick, it has a bursting omnipotence up its sleeve, or rather, under its noodles: It is pretentious food.
Tony Kushner, from the essay On Pretentiousness, in Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, A Play, Two Poems and A Prayer, pp. 61-62
A picture without composition slights its most precious chance for beauty. . . . there may in its absence be life, incontestably, as “the newcomes” has life, as “Le Trois Mousquetaires,” as Tolstoi’s “Peace and War,” have it; but what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?
Henry James, Preface to the New York edition of The Tragic Muse (1908)
First movement: What I like in a novel
What I like in a novel… is everything.
Henry James and I have a long-standing quarrel, ever since my eighth-grade English teacher told me that I wrote like him. (My love affair with the subordinate clause began around age 12, and shows no signs of abating.) And he had at one of my favorite novels here, in the name of some theory of literary order and decency.
Kushner’s view of the matter immediately resonated with me: fiction should feel larger than life, and one should stuff into it more than can reasonably fit. The most masterful cooks know that disparate ingredients can work together, if they spend enough time in each other’s company. Hence my own culinary notion of the “cookpot,” the container within which one tosses the disparate prompts or ingredients. Then there’s the behind-the-scenes exploration, interviewing the characters, who immediately sprout siblings, parents, romantic interests, old school-friends, obsessions and hobbies, family history, and so forth. Necromancer and Barbarian began with a cast of two, and ended up with a nominal cast (by appearance or by significant mention) of thirty or so.
Then there are the research files, which grow out of the prompts. It really helps to begin from obsessions, because then research feels like entertainment rather than grim duty. How it all comes together, that’s another question. When I began the work for Necromancer and Barbarian, I had no idea of how Chernobyl and the Iron Age bog bodies were going to fit into the same fiction. The connection grew quite naturally, in the course of the interviews.
All that rich detail doesn’t have to appear on stage; the character interviews and the research files are a place to download all of it, so that everyone just walks onto stage assuming it. Nothing in the background is mentioned unless it comes up in conversation. I’m surprised at the number of things about which I was silent in the story, but which the beta readers have been picking up. This is the way that playwrights and actors prepare: 99% of the work is below the surface and behind the scenes, and it makes the characters solid and real: all of their actions (which is to say, the plot) grow out of a fully formed personality with a history and a living presence.
Second movement: This summer’s writing dare
This summer, I’m going to take up the challenge of writing a novel using only the character interview and a rough plot skeleton. Right now, I’m going to start throwing things into the cookpot.
And I’m going to do it in public.
Look for the lasagna recipe in coming posts.
Third movement: My own Loose Baggy Monster
For the next few months in Six Sentence Sunday, I’m going to be posting excerpts from my 2009 NaNo novel, The Reincarnations of Miss Anne, which is a true work-in-progress. It has six viewpoint characters, spans 150 years, and takes on American slavery, the eugenics movement, scientific racism, the study of ‘inferior races’ in Nazi-occupied Poland, scientific fraud in the social sciences, contemporary American attitudes toward work, female middle management since the Bronze Age, and the overall probability of Utopia. It’s a true Loose Baggy Monster, which scares me because it wants to be finished and has a certain terrifying authority, only some of it second-hand from its historical sources. It also has a deep subterranean connection to the universe of The Shape-shifter’s Tale, though large tracts of it read as historical fiction in the classic tradition.
Except for the stone angel that flies, and the interludes in Utopia, and the time-slips. But that sort of thing is business as usual in my fictional universe. Fantasy is one way to cope with the horrors of real history, a magical mirror in which we may view the basilisk or Medusa, or the pinhole through which we may project the solar eclipse without staring into the blinding fire of the corona.