Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When Your Fictional Characters Wake You Up at Night

Well, I haven't experienced this since 2004, the last time I was totally immersed in fiction writing (a novel, unpublished). For the past 4 nights, I've woken up in the middle of the night, either hearing my fictional characters talking to each other or having solved a puzzle of how various characters relate to each other.

I hadn't planned to be working on this project. Once I had a 40-50 hour a week office job, I assumed my days of fiction writing were over. I just didn't feel like I had time to write a novel. And the last short story I wrote was in 2003, and I have only had one short story idea since then (do I exaggerate? perhaps).

Last Monday, I went to the library at school and picked up the latest copy of BOMB. I love that magazine. I read an interview with Jennifer Egan, who wrote the book I can't seem to forget, the book that will likely be the reading highlight of my summer (perhaps the year, perhaps the decade), A Visit from the Goon Squad. You can go here and scroll down to read the first bit.

When asked if she wrote the stories in the order in which they appeared in the collection, she said, "No, not at all. In fact, four of them were written years and years ago. They were just written as stories and published, all four." She continues, "I had no sense that they linked up at all. And then I started working on 'Found Objects,' and it all kind of followed from there in a strange way because I wasn't even planning to work on this book, I was trying to work on my goddamn Brooklyn Navy Yard book, which I still haven't started" (page 84). Later she says, "One of the great moments, for me, was realizing Sasha, from 'Found Objects,' was the same person as the protagonist of 'Good-bye, My Love.' I couldn't believe I had written two stories about women who steal wallets without realizing they were one person" (page 85).

I started thinking about the short stories I've written, about how many of them seem to revolve around the same characters. In fact, there are some people I've resisted looking up on Facebook, because I realize that I'm really searching for the characters I've created based on earlier versions of themselves. Is it fair to launch myself into their lives when I'm really after something else? Philosophical questions for another day.

I've had this realization before, about how many of my characters might be one and the same, and once, on a long, long November drive to Mepkin Abbey, I had this flash of a vision of how I could make my short stories connect into a book of linked stories. But I got home and got stymied.

The interview with Jennifer Egan made me ponder again. On Friday morning, I printed out copies of my two favorite short stories, the favorites of all I've ever written, and took them with me to a meeting. And there, in the midst of meeting madness, I had an epiphany. I figured out how the two stories worked together. I'd been trying to make the 2 male main characters in each story to be the same guy. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The major male character in one story is the transformation of the mousy minor male character in the other story. He goes to college and transforms himself based on the behavior of the main male character.

That realization has made the other stories fall into place; I've spent the whole week-end figuring out timelines and rereading other short stories I've written. I'm surprised at how many of them fit together, as minor characters in one story become main characters in another. I'll have to change some details here and there. But I can make it work.

I'll need to write a few more short stories. But I'm looking forward to it. I love these characters. I love the idea that they could exist in a book. I love the linked short story form, and I've always wanted to write something like The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Who knew that I already was?

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