by Alice Mattison
Novelists complain that no sooner do they turn their backs than their characters run off and do things on their own that the writer never even thought of, much less approved of (but which, they add, chuckling with fake dismay, often turn out to be the best things in the book). True, I guess, but as a novelist I’ve more often had to deal with characters who can’t seem to do the simplest things on their own. Much that takes care of itself in life, without fuss, requires laborious planning and tracking in a book. Babies, for example. Maybe you start a novel knowing two things about your story: the lovers will conceive their child on a moonlit night on the beach, and later they’ll drive to the hospital for the birth in a blizzard. Fine. Your book is set in Massachusetts, so you take your characters to Cape Cod for a vacation, bring them onto the beach one warm August night, and after a midnight swim, presto—a kiss, a sheltered spot behind a dune—pregnancy.
Wait a minute. Nine months after August is May. No blizzards in May. Even if you move the lovemaking to July (though you had other plans for your characters in July) a blizzard in April is unlikely. There could be a blizzard in March—but a midnight swim in June? The water’s too cold.
After running into that kind of trouble with a few novels, I made up my mind to write one in which virtually no time passed. I ended up writing about two separate weeks, fourteen years apart, in a woman’s life. The fourteen years didn’t give me trouble—I knew what had changed for her, what hadn’t. But being her constant companion, minute by minute, for a week at a time, turned out to be a chore. She didn’t eat meals on her own—I had to provide them! I had to remember if she’d had lunch, and supply her with at least a snack. I even had to send her to take showers and put her to bed at night. If you follow someone hour by hour for a week, you can’t just say, “Two days later . . .” Significant things happened to her every day—I needed every day. I just didn’t need meals and bedtimes every day, but I was stuck with them. Since my character’s purse had been stolen at the start of the book and she had almost no money, it wasn’t even clear what she was going to eat when she did eat—so I not only had to remind her it was mealtime, but figure out how a meal could be secured. The woman was helpless.
I thought I’d learned my lesson with that book, so I decided the next one would follow my characters through their entire adult lives—sixty-eight years, as it turned out. Wonderful. They had meals on their own, they used the bathroom without prompting, they took showers and put on clothes appropriate to the season when I wasn’t around. I could zoom out and zoom back in when something exciting happened: “Two years passed before he saw her again. Then, one windy afternoon as he bicycled near the river. . .” I’d write whatever scene I wanted and zoom out again.
The only trouble was that in sixty-eight years quite a few babies were born—so there I was again, finding appropriate weather for babies to be born in, depending on when they’d been conceived. Also, the babies turned into children and the children went to school—and when I’d zoom in because some adult’s happiness was at stake, some little kid would be hanging around, and I had to know whether she could read, whether she might try out for a team in high school—or was she only in eighth grade? Remember, please, that school grade depends not just on when the child was born but what month it is right now, since children are promoted halfway through the calendar year. After the book was done I kept finding scraps of paper listing the names, ages, and school grades in different seasons of different years for a set of imaginary children, who would have proceeded through school without such calculations if only they’d been real people.
The Baby-and-Weather problem occurs in writing fiction when something that takes a predictable amount of time has to jibe with something else, something that may be a hundred or more pages away. It’s a nuisance, but only one of many nuisances in this generally ill-paid, stressful, and thankless profession. Why do we go on doing it, then? It’s our own fault. Nobody was ever forced to write a novel. We choose this occupation. I’ve chosen it again and again, when nothing else satisfied the wish to make up and tell a story, to live for a long time with people nobody knows but me, to find words for their good times and trouble.
When my sister and I were little, we played with paper dolls, dressing them and then changing their clothes, cutting out dresses from a paper-doll book or the Sears Roebuck catalogue. I don’t think we made up stories using the dolls. It took too long to get them dressed—that was the game. We got them ready for a story. But we did talk—in low voices, interrupting each other, not listening much. A fizzy hum of possibility, the mental equivalent of a cell phone set on vibrate, carried us along as we handled and described the dolls, choosing yet another hat and coat, and another. I guess I write novels for the hum.