The Novel, in Conversation....
In which I consider the ways the art I've consumed throughout the last few years has fed into the book I've been writing.
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
I am writing a novel. Now that I’m in the middle of the third draft, it feels safe to commit the idea to paper (so to speak). The novel began as a queer, southern gothic romance, but has since shifted into another register. It is about two men, writers—both married—who begin an affair. If you’ve followed me for any time at all, you’ll know that I love affairs, despite never having had one myself. Many of my favorite works over the years have been about affairs, books likeLittle Children by Tom Perrotta, Fire Sermonby Jamie Quatro, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum,Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn; films like Eyes Wide Shut, Fatal Attraction, Closer, among many others. Affairs are so interesting to me because they’re often formed out of some combination of desire and boredom. Not only that, but affairs are mostly depicted as happening in heterosexual relationships, and the dynamic is almost always the same since it’s always based around this very heteronormative idea about what relationships can and should be between men and women. The moment you bring the idea of infidelity into a new framework (a queer relationship), things take on a different light.
The novel itself began as an affair of sorts. I started it last summer, during one of the harder weeks of this newsletter, when I didn’t know how to articulate my thoughts about that week’s books, and nothing the books were saying even felt worth writing about. I’d also received a rejection letter from an agent, which made me question whether or not I was even qualified to write anything at all. It was the fourth rejection I’d received in two months, all for the memoir I’d spent nearly a decade working on, that now felt like this terrible waste of time and that served as potential proof of my lack of talent. It was something that had felt so urgent to get down on paper, my past, this delicate and dangerous thing I was trying to parse through. I remember working on each story and thinking that the writing of it felt like life or death. But what felt like life or death to me was only a question of marketability for someone else. When I closed out of my email, I asked myself, “is this your biggest fear? Rejection? Is this the thing that you would let ruin your life?” And the answer to that question felt too complicated for me to answer.
I had spent so much time attempting to reflect on my past—much of that time, I was so poor and full of debt, so delusional about the profitability of writing, that I thought it would pull me out of the hole. My Granny once wrote a novel in the hopes of becoming the next Danielle Steele, telling me that we’d one day be millionaires and build a house that didn’t shake every time we put too many towels in the washing machine. It had created this false sense of the possibility of financial success for writers. I wondered if my own desperation to escape poverty corrupted my work. Did it just read as a cash grab? Was I actually passionate about writing or was I just stupidly hopeful that it would save me? The rejection letters had spurred so many questions that I realized, despite my fear of the answers, I needed to know. The same day I got that rejection letter, I opened a Word document, abandoning the newsletter I so needed to write, and began the first few pages of what would become the novel.
It felt like an affair because it wasn’t the project I had intended to work on. One of the main reasons I began the newsletter was that, since I had finally finished the memoir, I had the time to focus on my reading and I also wanted a distraction while I waited to try and get an agent. I had also already started on three other novel projects. But this novel was about a writer who had written a memoir that was getting rejected. It wasn’t me, but it was a version of me, something that gave me enough distance to consider my situation without too much fear of what I would discover. I kept thinking about Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, about the question he posed in one of the essays: “What will you let yourself know?” This new project was an attempt to let myself know what I feared the answers to.
At first, I wrote the story with the intention of it being a romance. I’d been reading romance novels for a few weeks beforehand, a genre I had until then been resistant to, and I liked that they always offered a happy ending. Books like The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun, Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall,and Just By Looking At Him by Ryan O’Connell became my inspiration for the first draft. In every version of my story, the protagonist was married, but there was a version where he got published and a version where he did not, and there were versions where the husbands split up and got back together, different variations to see what was most narratively interesting, but eventually I realized that most romances stopped before marriage even began. If a romance does begin with the protagonist in a relationship in the beginning, it’s never the right one. They always meet someone new who they end up with in the end.
Just By Looking At Him ended up being the book that helped me figure out the story I was trying to tell. O’Connell’s protagonist, Elliott, is self destructive and at times totally infuriating, and someone who I saw myself in. Early in the novel (this isn't a spoiler, don’t worry), Elliot cheats on his seemingly perfect boyfriend. Sometimes, when people cheat, I think it’s because they secretly hope to get caught, because they’re unhappy with their lives and subconsciously want to plant a bomb that will blow their life up, giving them no choice but to start over. This idea resonated with me because, as a teenager, I used to do things like that to blow my life up all the time.
The thing I feared the most about my memoir not being published was that it would leave me so devastated, I would end up doing whatever I could to destroy the stable life I had built. I gave this fear, this self destructive nature, to my protagonist. I let him do all of the things I was most afraid of doing. I began to write a story about a person who leaned into all of my worst impulses, who ended up not getting published, who ended up having an affair, ruining his life, and waited to see if he could survive it. I realized that what I really wanted to know was, if nothing goes right, can I keep going?
The first draft of this novel was asking myself this overarching question, and then exploring all of the smaller questions it brought up as the story went on. Nothing about the first draft was actually that interesting or narratively coherent, but it was enough for me to keep myself invested through a second draft. I think it’s this stage where you begin to get a vague idea of what you’re trying to do, and then just working to do it better. For the second draft, I began to look for books that did the things I was trying to do—books like Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, which is also about a writer who is involved in an affair. You look at what you’ve done, then you look at the more successful version that another person has done, and then you try to find the technical aspects of what worked for them so you can apply it to your own work.
This is one of the many ways that a work of literature continues to be in conversation with other books, is the way it borrows and steals in order to sustain itself. I read and studied and listened and watched and admired, and I tried to take it all in and filter it through my particular lens and flood it onto the page. I’m still not successful in this particular endeavor, won’t be for a while, but part of this journey is failing closer and closer to perfection.
I’m currently on my fourth draft of this book. I’ve finally nailed down the structure of the first section, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done for the rest of the book. I’m writing this because I think that working on this novel has done a lot to shift my reading in the last few months, much like writing the memoir shifted my reading over the last several years. I also have been attempting to write the novel in a voice that is different from my own, and so writing this letter is comforting—it gives me a feeling of reentering my actual skin. Once I discover the voice of a character in a story, writing as them often feels like inhabiting the body of someone who just isn’t entirely in sync with yours, like people inhabited John Malkovich’s body in Being John Malkovich.
I hope that at some point, maybe a year or two from now, I’ll be finished with this book or close to it, and that I’ll be able to look back on this letter and think about how the project has evolved, see what I thought about the book and art in general at the time, and if any of it still holds up. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little detour today. Sometimes I can’t help but write about what’s on my mind. It’s sort of like today’s letter was a brief fling, a tiny indiscretion, before running back to my long term commitment with the NBA reading project. Don’t worry, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming next week.
This might be one of my favorite of your posts Hunter. I am really excited for your new project and I really enjoyed how you write about your process.
Is it just me or are we all enjoying this journey with you as your writing gets better and better? I look forward to the day, and it will come, when I say to everyone, "I knew him back in the day....."