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What is the trigger for the novel you’re writing?

January 25, 2011

As part of my MFA, I’m reading a new book conceived by the folks over at 826 Valencia called The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook. Daniel Alarcon put together a series of questions, then sent out a bunch of emails (I could be imagining the email part) to a wide range of novelists and they wrote back with their answers. Emphasis here on quantity: questions, novelists, answers, lots.

On my writing days this month, I’ve been reading the book while I eat lunch, and dreaming of my own answers to the questions. (I hope I’m not alone in this! Haven’t all the writers reading this secretly imagined being interviewed by Terry Gross?) I thought it might be fun to put some of those thoughts down by taking the occasional intriguing question from The Secret Miracle and answering it in my blog. This is my first go at it, and the title of this blog is revised version of the first question I’d like to answer.

What was the trigger for your last novel? Or, in my case, the novel you’re currently working on?

I hadn’t intended to start another novel on the heels of handing China Between Us to my agent. In December, 2009, I was in the middle of researching low- residency MFAs and had been warned by many, including faculty in the programs, that I might benefit more from a two-year program if I took a break from novel writing and used the time to write short stories. Because I like to follow informed advice, I tried to get interested in writing stories again. I brainstormed a list of things I might want to write about. I wrote down names of characters, and pulled interesting pictures out of magazines. I did timed freewrites. I wrote the beginnings of a story long-hand. Then another. But each time I came bumping up against two ominous road signs. One said: This is way too much work to put into something that is only going to be twenty pages long (the character development, the research, the finding of the voice). The other said: There’s so much more to it than that. The signs were distracting. The signs were interesting. The signs seemed to be pointing me in the same direction, and it was not in the direction of the short story.

The week before Christmas, my then-ten-year-old daughter came down with what looked like the flu. She missed the last couple of days of school and lay in bed with a terrible headache and a low fever. On Friday of that week, we went to see Mark Morris’ gender-bending take on The Nutcracker, The Hard Nut. My daughter had been the one to select the performance so she dragged herself out of bed and came along. Half-way across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley, she wanted to go home. We encouraged her to continue. At the performance, she sank lower and lower into her chair. We hustled out when it was over, wanting to get her back into bed. On the way home, as we were speculating as to who in the performance were men and who were women, we kept having to ask my daughter to repeat. We couldn’t understand what she was saying. Painfully slowly, it dawned on me: she was slurring her words.

I am the daughter of a neurologist so the red lights immediately began flashing. What followed, in the next week, were tediously long doctor visits, scary tests, and finally a diagnosis. My kids are seen at a teaching hospital so my daughter’s first examination began with a medical student, then a resident, then the attending, then the neurology resident, then, about three hours later, the ultra-serious team of four neurologists who had been called over from the hospital. They plonked her knees with the rubber hammer. They made her follow the movements of their fingers. They asked her to repeat certain sounds.

On the first day, they sent us home, thinking she was having a severe migraine. But she wasn’t getting better, even after the mega drugs they prescribed. She was even more out of it, and still slurring. One kind doctor had given me her card, which included her email, so I wrote to her, asking for help. She got her in for a CT scan, which didn’t show anything. A few more days. No improvement. The doctor ordered an MRI, giving us the choice of waiting until the pediatric anesthesiologist returned from holiday–most children, she told me, need to be sedated in order to lie still long enough–or to go ahead and try it.

Scared out of our minds at that point, we decided to go ahead. I offered my daughter a present for every ten minutes that she could lie still in the big white tube. She, a huge stuffed animal fan, wanted an animal for every ten minutes. She did the math–that could add up to six stuffies. She was willing to try. I asked my husband not to come inside because I didn’t want her to realize how serious the situation was. If both of us accompanied her to the doctor, she’d know something was up. Her older brother sensed it, pulling me into his bedroom the day before and saying, She’s really sick, isn’t she. My sister and her family took my son, and we went to the hospital. An hour later, my daughter had won her stuffies, all of them, and we got the diagnosis: cerebellitis, or swelling of the cerebellum.

Again, the team of neurologists, including the department chief, gave us this news. They tried to calm us; these results answered their questions, which was good. And fortunately, in my daughter’s case, her body had already started to recover, and the swelling was going down. My sister had said, when we were at our most afraid, that she was convinced it wasn’t going to end badly. Each of us has to have our own weird neurological scare, she said, because of Daddy.

My daughter recovered, slowly but surely. The only lasting and unfortunate physical result was that the cerebellitis triggered migraines. But migraines run in our family, so who knows–she might have gotten them anyway.

During her illness, I missed my father, who died ten years ago, terribly. If he were still around, he would have gotten on the next plane and come to San Francisco to push the doctors and explain things to us. Not that it wouldn’t have added its own stress–it would have. He probably would have pushed too hard. He might have suggested bringing her down to UCSD, where he worked. He probably would have been scared himself. There isn’t a lot you can do for swelling of the brain.

On January 4th, 2010, the kids went back to school and I still had a few weeks of break before the semester started at  SF State. I sat on the blue couch in our living room, wanting more than anything else to lose myself in a story, in writing. And so I started with an idea I’d had for a long while but had been attempting to ignore. It was an idea for a novel. In my weakened and emotional state, I could no longer attempt to follow the smart advice to write short stories. I had to just follow the thing that pulled at me.

It had to do with my father, with neurology and other types of medicine. It had to do with immigration, and with the large German family my father left behind. It had to do with illness, and death, and fear of close relationships. It had to do with men.

But if there was one trigger, as the question asks, for the novel that I’m provisionally calling Bird and Timo Choose Life and Death, it was this. A while before he died, maybe even before he was diagnosed with lung cancer, my father said, in all seriousness, that he wanted to get on the Winfrey Oprah show. I can’t remember who else was there, but I remember laughing, and telling him that she was called Oprah Winfrey, not Winfrey Oprah. But Winfrey sounds like a first name, my father insisted. And we both realized why he thought that–his youngest brother is called Winfried, a name which sounds a lot like Winfrey.

That’s how I started, a bit over a year ago, writing the story of a man who begins by believing that getting on the Winfrey Oprah show will give his life meaning.

Now, if I had really been a recipient of an email from Daniel Alarcon, I would have had to limit my answer to a few sentences, a paragraph at the most. This is a lot more fun!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 7:20 pm

    You mean to say that getting asked to be on the Winfrey Oprah show WOULDNT give my life meaning? Your father and I had something in common, then. And you and I do to…fantasies of being interviewed by Terri Gross (you aren’t the only one)…though I think my subconscious tries to sabotage these interviews and I can’t come up with any good responses!

    Your inspiration for your novel in progress is both horrifying and relieving! I was holding my breath even though I know that your daughter is fine! Thanks for sharing that with us. Whew! I’m glad you are comforted by your gift. I can’t wait to read it….I hope I will be able to breath while I read it!

    • Karen permalink*
      January 26, 2011 5:46 am

      Sarah, I thought of you when I wrote about seeing the neurologists. I know you’ve been through it with Atticus. It does feel kind of amazing to put this stuff down… I guess I’m getting a tiny taste of what thrills you CNFers!

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