I’m wondering about the time involved in creating your work. Did these stories take months or years to write? Did it take like nineteen years to do research on the Civil War, which is not a light subject, even if you’re writing fiction? Mostly, when the books are done are they done, or do you poke around them with the endless possibilities since you’re often juggling a lot of balls?
—Tom Champion, Portland, Oregon
Tom, this is a particularly useful question because it takes me back to the time you were helping with our insane project of remodeling that ancient farmhouse in Wisconsin. I’ve realized I can use that time and place as a sort of marker for my work in a way I hadn’t thought of before. As you know, I had a young family then. What you probably weren’t aware of is that I’d written one novel that had made its way to some prominent NY editors without being picked up, which I’m actually grateful for as it was a book filled with every rookie mistake imaginable. But it was a book that reflected the very large influence of the Vietnam War in my life and was the first incarnation of Will Wheelock of Time Stamp who, in spite of my youthfulness as a writer, seemed to have resonance with older men who were agents and editors.
I had also written a good chunk of The Second Magician’s Tale by that time, perhaps the entire first draft. My husband—Bob—had been doing research for a dissertation, which he never actually wrote but which had him studying the Canterbury Tales and looking at things like ephemerides and other obscure books that would help him understand the role of astrology in medieval texts. All of that had been part of the household ethos and obviously caught my attention as a writer. I also was at a point in my life where I still felt myself in transition to adulthood, convinced of the intellectual choices I had made and was making but not really emotionally comfortable with them. Early thirties territory.
When you and Bob raised the roof on the tiny attic space that became my study, I was struggling as a writer. The Second Magician’s Tale, which had not yet made the round of New York editorial offices or even entered its second draft, was a work that had brought together many different themes that interested me as a person and a writer. It had a lot of unusual elements that today seem to me to have dropped from the sky, though I can track a few. But it was a book that was too static, a problem it continued to have through many drafts. I also had a worry that because I had no publications I was a failed writer. Even my mother had told me when I turned thirty that perhaps it was time to pack in the dream and get my Ph.D, as if there were one hanging out on some tree for me to collect whether I wanted to or not. (I didn’t.) Basically, it was a difficult time for me so, of course, the perfect time to upend my life with a remodeling project that had me fighting with sheetrock and uneven floors that needed shimming. I did, however, love driving things to the dump in the pickup truck.
You probably remember we rewarded ourselves with an absolutely rock-bottom priced trip to Europe that had been a dream for years when the house was “done.” When we returned home, I began the first of many revisions of The Second Magician’s Tale, this one encouraged by Bob, who was always my first reader, and a skilled one. He told me I needed to focus more on the story. It was after that initial, yearlong revision that The Second Magician’s Tale, which was then called Read the Canterbury Tales, made an odyssey to publishers, all of whom found it too inaccessible. My agent said it was a brilliant piece of work (which flattered me, I guess) but very uncommercial. I was another year older, another year in which a hoped-for advance didn’t arrive.
I have to admit to feeling a little desperate. It occurred to me during this period that I should write short stories just to get something published, though as a reader I was much more a consumer of novels and biographies even if I’d been a voracious reader of the stories in my mother’s Ladies Home Journal when I was growing up. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t really understand what a wonderful and challenging form the short story is. Many of my early stories were not what I would consider finished today; many have been extensively revised since I first wrote them and, in some cases, abandoned if they weren’t very good at all. I began to realize that the story ideas that were coming to me I was most comfortable with shared the physical place of the world right outside my study windows, and that was the real genesis for the stories in In the Land of the Dinosaur. I wrote the early drafts of them fairly quickly, spending roughly a month or six weeks on each story. As I found my voice as a short story writer, I also found homes for many of the stories in the small literary magazines writers turn to when their stories aren’t accepted by major publications. I felt I was building something, but I wasn’t sure what.
I didn’t focus only on short stories during this period. Periodically, I returned to the two novels I’d written and tried to sort them out. If I checked my files, I could report on more trips they made to more agents and editors without finding a home. My biggest success of the time was the publication of a novella, “A Marriage in the Life of Faith Davenport,” which was showcased with some poetry translations as the only fiction in the literary journal Sands. The day I got the phone call telling me about its acceptance was memorable in another way: a creepy and angry vacuum cleaner salesman had shown up at the house when I was alone. I think I was maybe that close to becoming a statistic on some police (this was the country, so sheriff’s) blotter. I was also teaching occasionally to try to pad the family budget and raising kids in an environment that was pretty challenging physically.
Though I’d continued to write seriously as my main work, I still wasn’t sure where I was going as a writer. I kept writing short stories and then decided, as I told myself, to seek professional help. For two and half years, I commuted to the University of Minnesota to study writing and literature. By the end of that time my kids were in college or headed there and I was ready, as Bob was, to move to St. Paul. It was eye opening for me because I realized that my isolation in the country had given me story ideas but had made it difficult to actually have a writing career. Though it’s not New York, there are very good opportunities in Minneapolis and St. Paul for writers. In pretty short order, I won a number of awards and fellowships, many of them using work samples that were stories I was writing that felt new to me and more urban. By this time, I had also written the novella that concludes Clare, Loving—“The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter”—and had revised The Second Magician’s Tale yet again, had written a few poems and essays and begun work on Suite Harmonic, which I had intended to write from my senior year in high school when I first knew John Given’s letters existed and that I would have access to them. It was a very productive time for me with many story publications and serious flirtations with the New Yorker and The Atlantic.
Then I did a thing I occasionally consider analogous to what I’ve read some important central American tribe did, coming right up to the edge of a move into a new age (the Bronze Age?) but pulling back. I don’t think it was from fear or really anything conscious on my part, but I really wanted to get back to writing new novels. When I received an NEA grant to write Suite Harmonic, I stopped writing short stories and sending them out to editors and threw myself into research. It took years, as did the writing itself, and I completed the first draft in a race with my first serious illness. Various stories go with this, but the 2000s were the years of the novel for me. I finished Suite Harmonic, the biggest project of my writing life, wrote the other two novellas to finish the three that make up Clare, Loving, and returned to Will Wheelock’s story, cutting away at it, reshaping it, and adding the story of Maddie, his daughter, to make the finished novel, Time Stamp. And I rewrote The Second Magician’s Tale yet again, working at it until I felt, at long last, that I’d gotten it right.
So lots of poking around in these books, I think you could say, Tom. Lots of revisiting manuscripts and lots of juggling of many artistic ideas over many years. But, give or take a few things, I think it’s finally here: a writing life. A life’s work.