Dear reader, I find myself in an odd situation, with regard to my current project, one which is giving The Maker a very hard time indeed: as mentioned in “The Maker,” Part Five, I am attempting to write a novel composed of 5 concurrent full-length novels, each one around 300 pages in length. This is not quite the same as writing a novel with multiple strands, or multiple narrators; in such books no more than one of the strands is a full-length novel; there’s a main plot, supported by subsidiary plots which lend relief. In such cases the author’s dreaming mind — The Maker’s mind — can remain focused on a central story. In my new project, the five stories, unconnected except by theme, are set in different cultures and in different centuries. In order to move forwards in the book, I have to be able to dream five very different dreams at once. Can The Maker do this?
At this point — and perhaps for a year or two to come — I am simply researching the worlds of the different novels, and focusing variously on the 21st century American Midwest, on Ancient Rome and its provinces under the Emperor Tiberius, on Elizabethan London, and on deep space travel, far in the future. (The 5th book is set in post-Second World War Europe and South America, where I am a little more at home.)
How will all of this work when it’s put together? Firstly, what form will it take, exactly? Imagine that the five books are a, b, c, d and e. Book ‘a’, whose title is Where Every Stranger (is a ghost), which is also the title of the entire book, is set in the contemporary midwest; ‘b’ (entitled Et In Arcadia Ego ) is Ancient Rome; ‘c’ (Richard’s Fate) is postwar Europe; ‘d’ (A Green Girl in London) is Elizabethan London; ‘e’ (The Museum of Violence) is deep space.
The order of the chapters, each roughly 30 pages, with ten chapters to each separate novel of what is consequently a 1500-page book, is as follows:
Abab cdcd abab cdcd ee abab cdcd abab cdcd ee abab cdcd eeeeee
The reason for this order is in part a matter of the best way to keep the reader abreast of five separate narratives, and in part dictated by the nature of the 5 books and their interactions — how they bounce off each other. As the book moves to a climax, the interaction of the separate books, hitherto only thematic, changes: books ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, and ‘d’ start to bleed into each other across the centuries and continents, in a futuristic setting which belongs to book ‘e’: deep space. The result is that the book as a unified whole starts to emerge as the novels morph, during the final 180 pages (the 6 final, consecutive book-‘e’ chapters), into a common territory.
This much became quickly clear in my head, purely as a result of the formal properties of keeping 5 full-length books going at once: the solution requires strong, clear underpinnings (against all my long-held convictions about how to let a novel find itself according to its own evolving logic), even a reduction to a mathematical form, or to a musical form, since the abab cdcd structure outlined above is in effect a rondo, in the view of my friend and neighbor, the virtuoso guitarist and composer Fred Hand, to whom I described my plan.
The intended order of chapters, along with the geographical and temporal settings of all five books and their leading characters, came to me on May 24 2014 (the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth, surely a good omen) while riding through rain and hail from Asheville, North Carolina, across the Mississippi to Raccoon Mountain campsite outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, as part of a 10,000-mile motorbike journey around the United States in the company of my brother-in-law, both of us Harley Davidson-borne. The hailstorm was my first aboard a motorbike, after 50 years of biking — but not the last of our 10,000-mile journey. Hailstones banging off the steaming metal of the bike, and off my helmeted head, made me feel at the mercy of a celestial drummer, and may have beaten some rhythmic sense into my brain as I planned the book. The chapter pattern, if you imagine it as a poetic rhyme scheme, is not original: the central 30 chapters turns out to imitate the ababcdcdee decastich rhyme scheme of the Ercil form introduced by James Gray in honor of fellow-poet Ercil Brown; and that of the Ravenfly, a form created by Amanda J. Norton, with the same rhyme scheme.
The idea for the novel as a whole had been gestating for a while, though in a totally different form. Some years earlier, I had given vent to my sense of having many more stories to tell (coiled, unformed as yet, but ready to be unleashed) than the world wanted to hear from me, by imagining taking a year off from teaching to write 50 1-hour radio plays, one a week, with no planning, starting from scratch — what in French is called partir à zé ro — each week. I felt pregnant with countless untold tales (as indeed we all are) and wanted to give birth to as many as possible, even though I had already been what a local magazine called “uber-prolific” for years, producing more than 200 scripts, novels, stage and radio plays. This would be different. I proposed to my radio producer, Georg Bühren of SüdWestFunk in Köln, Germany, that he assemble a team of six radio directors who would in turn, over a period of 50 weeks,receive my weekly play, cast it and record it. If nothing else it would be a newsworthy feat. Georg smiled patiently. It had taken all his charm, he reminded me, to persuade his radio station to broadcast one of my plays each year, never mind fifty. I knew this. I brooded. Between the early 1970s and the turn of the century I had written radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation; this was a noble horse — serious radio drama, for what was mostly a very small audience — that had died under me; the World Service Drama unit, my final stable, closed; Germany, which had translated and broadcast many of my plays, became my sole outlet, my last ride.
It then occurred to me that I had a radio station near my home in upstate New York, a station whose owner had allowed me to host a weekly interview show for the very magazine in which you are reading this, the brainchild (this magazine and the radio show) of my beloved friend, editor Tom Grasso. Simple, then: I would write the 50 plays, and each one — to make the project even more challenging, and enable the material to survive beyond the broadcast — would also be a chapter of a novel, an extremely long novel, since each chapter/one-hour play would be at least 30 pages long. A 1500-page novel. Well, why not? But how did the 50 plays, which I had originally pictured as entirely disparate stories thought up week by week, cohere as a novel, or, as it turned out when my ride through rain and hail prompted me, a stellium of novels? I was grateful when the hyper-awareness and concentrated focus of motorbiking allowed the dreaming mind to wander off and come back with the very large posy of wildflowers that was Where Every Stranger (is a ghost).
The chief site of pilgrimage on my bike journey (others were William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi, and the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio) was the cemetery at Wounded Knee. I had recently met the great historian of the West, Bobby Bridger, whose understanding of American history as an epic of denial — denial of genocide carried out on the continent’s native tribes — gave my motorbike journey meaning. Through Bobby’s words I understood afresh the place I was in, the place I was seeing. Thanks to this, my newborn work took shape. Starting in ghost-ridden contemporary America, the narrative threads would include ancient Rome, Elizabethan London, post-World-War-II Europe and South America, and deep space in the distant future, where all the threads would pull together and mingle in one weave, one variegated meditation - the ancient one, the same one that has preoccupied writers and thinkers since Aeschylus on the challenge posed by man’s hereditary inhumanity to man.
All well and good. But the last thing The Maker in the Head ever wants is to shuttle back and forth between dream-materials. Writing more than one book, script or story at once is anathema to The Maker. I’m praying that The Maker will make an exception for these 5 novels, because of their thematic unity: they share nothing, except theme — and yet that theme is all. It is the problem of how to transform the long and all-essential heritage of human violence, all-essential because each of us is descended from a successfully violent primate forebear (otherwise we and our line would be extinct) — how to transform this inheritance into a life still fruitful and rich, and not a neutered paradise. What would life be without danger? And danger is itself the threat of violence, which must be real if there is to be real danger.
I shall report on whether the Maker’s mercy is upon me — when I have ingested enough (but not too much!) research to start letting go of it all and responding to nothing but the passion kindled by the overall story, and by its subsidiaries. Maker willing, my chariot will then be hitched to five snorting horses trying to pull the reins out of my fist, and I’ll be off on the wildest literary ride of my life.
My new novel, Dog’s Mercury, is available now from Amazon.com, and from the publishers, Dr. Cicero Books, at drcicerobooks.com. It is a meditative, comic tale of a history teacher who abandons his career and his family to become a hobo, only to come across a murder and be drawn into the murderer’s life, and so back again into the world. The photo (below) shows me en route to the book launch, book in hand, and with a supporting cast of portraits painted by my masterful artist wife, Claire Lambe, and until recently exhibited at Oriole 9 in Woodstock.
Till next time, dear reader!