The structure of Suite Harmonic is shaped by the content of the letters it is based on; Time Stamp is composed of two narratives that don’t truly join until the close and written in chapters that could be read as individual stories; Clare Loving is composed of three related novellas. In these books, do you feel you are violating assumed rules for what a novel should be?
—Carole Flint, Colorado Springs, Colorado
If I were interested primarily in experimenting as a writer, I think my answer to this question would be yes, that I hope I am violating rules about what a novel is assumed to be. But the fact is that I never start from the point of wanting to do something unusual in terms of structure or really anything else. Rather, I begin with the seeds of a story I want to tell and see how the structure develops as the story unfolds. In some cases, that structure is present from the start. In other cases, it’s not something I find until I’ve made multiple revisions. In general, I would say that, if I’m lucky, the revision process moves in the direction of greater clarity and simplicity.
I’ve talked about the multiple revisions The Second Magician’s Tale went through, and I’ll add it to the mix because it’s sort of an outlier that may help me make my point. My first idea of its structure was very complicated and rather muddied. I had it in my head that I wanted 24 chapters to reflect the 24 hour clock, why I’m not sure though I think it had to do with the fact the book had other constructs at its core like the astrology birth and death charts Nell drew for Julian and parallels to The Canterbury Tales, particularly “The Knight’s Tale.” It embarrasses me even to write this, but maybe there was enough of the would-have-been English major in me to feel that I needed things encoded in the work for future dissertation writers. It seems more than silly to me now, but I think that was part of my thinking—the borrowed belief that a story needs an intellectual infrastructure to be taken seriously.
The final structure of The Second Magician’s Tale isn’t entirely simple. The troupe chapters that act something like dividers in the book are in third person and travel from character to character; the Nell chapters are in first person and occur in groups. But that’s as complicated as it gets, and I think the shift is pretty easy for a reader to follow. I arrived at this particular structure because I wanted to keep the intensity of Nell’s story, which had always been the heart of the book, while expanding the troupe’s presence in a way that would add color and be part of the ongoing narrative. In essence, I wound up with this structure because, after much trial and error, I thought it was the best way to tell the story.
In effect, that was my one rule for structuring the other novels. With Clare, Loving, I had the intent of writing it in three novellas before I ever knew what the content would be. I wanted to tell the story of one woman as both daughter and mother at different points in her life. I’m pretty certain I had the idea for “The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter’s” first and contemporaneously with my idea of writing three linked novellas. I think I would probably have placed it first in the book since it takes place when Clare is a child and is first chronologically. But sometime after I’d written it, or at least part of it, I had a manuscript conference with Patricia Hampl, who had read a whole slew of my short stories. In talking about them, she questioned their order because she felt the stakes were diminished in moving quickly, as I had done, from an adult point-of-view in the first story to a child’s in the second. I wasn’t sure I agreed, but the idea stuck in my head and it gave me the first sense that “Nuns” shouldn’t be the place for Clare, Loving to begin, that the child’s viewpoint shouldn’t be the launching pad for a book that was about a woman’s life experience. Eventually, I became quite sure that was the case.
By the time I wrote the other two novellas, “Sylvie” and “The Beautiful Ships”—and it was much later—I had decided I would simply reverse the chronological order and start with Clare when she has a grown daughter and has just become a grandmother, then move to the novella in which she falls in love with Sylvie’s father, and end with her childhood story. It was my hope that the sum of the three novellas, with their links backward and forward, would be more than the individual parts. But it was really only when I did the first readthrough of all three novellas together—Clare in 2007 to Clare as a child—that I really felt I’d done what I’d hoped to do. The book, in effect, was an illustration of how old and hidden stories can leave significant traces in the present. That felt to me like a very accurate reflection of life.
It was perhaps a bit of a self indulgence to structure Suite Harmonic the way I did. Most of the family letters I had were written by John Given during the Civil War, but some were written to him during the war, and a few were written after the war, including a final one in 1898 from one of his relatives in Chicago. I knew I was writing a book that was primarily a Civil War novel, looking at both the field and homefront, but I also felt that I was telling the story of one man, of his sister, and, really, his whole family. And I knew from the beginning that I wanted to combine the three threads of emigration from Ireland, life in a community that was created as an attempt at utopia, and the Civil War. It was a very full plate and I found myself seriously unwilling to sacrifice any part of it, which meant I had a structural challenge. I had to discover a way to include all those things without making the book feel unwieldy or misshapen.
Basically, I found my way to a solution by just writing. It was simple enough to have chapters with John Given in the field, chapters with his sister Kate at home and, in some cases, chapters from John’s point of view when he was at home. It also felt important for me to include the Irish back story and I had various options—overt flashbacks or even chapters or parts of chapters set in Ireland. Instead, I settled on bringing Ireland into the story as bits of memory evoked by some other experience or as part of the narrative, particularly when John and Kate talk about their sister Biddy or John reminisces with his cousin Menomen. I was concerned that the part of the book that followed the war might feel tacked on. Then I decided it could feel organic if I did two things: make the beginnings of stories the book ends with an integral part of the book and things that required resolution; give the ongoing repercussions of the war and the echoes of John’s Irish beginnings a significant role in its conclusion and one that recognized what a central experience the war was in John’s life. By doing this, I felt the book retained unity though it spreads well beyond the war years that are its heart.
Of my novels, this leaves Time Stamp, and it probably has the most audacious structure of the four. Again, I did not set out to break any rules of what a novel might be, though if you think about how often work that’s identified as a novel doesn’t follow any strict narrative movement, it’s hard to feel there are any rules to break. Whether you consider Finnegan’s Wake or To the Lighthouse or the more recent novels of a W.G. Sebald, you’re looking at work that spins free from the development of story and is centered on language and voice and the mind plumbing various levels of diction in an exploration of being and experience. Time Stamp is far more traditional in structure than such work tends to be. But I realize it is an oddity to have alternate narratives, one moving forward and the other backward with stronger and stronger feints in each other’s direction until they lock together in the culminating chapter.
In retrospect, the Time Stamp structure seems fairly simple to me, but it took me years to think of it. I had Will Wheelock’s story with just bits of his daughter, Maddie, and I knew I wanted to give her story equal importance and development. I also wanted to make the 1972 Christmas bombing, which is a critical event for both Will and Maddie, the book’s climax as it had been from the earliest draft. I also felt that the story of the lynching had power not only for the book but as a foundational element in Will’s life with later ramifications for his whole family. I decided to start with it.
This has come back to me since I answered Alvin Greenberg’s question on working with time in both Clare, Loving and in Time Stamp. I’m pretty sure I was on an airplane when I thought of the scene with Maddie at her photo retrospective and her husband unable to attend because of his progressing dementia. I had not imagined her that far along in her life until that moment. In fact, I’d not imagined her life beyond the Christmas bombing. But once I had a sense of the arc of both her career and second marriage, I realized I had the parameters of her part of the story and it suddenly made sense to me to start the two narratives—Will’s and Maddie’s—at the points that were farthest away from each other and have them move toward the point where they were most tightly joined.
I had some concern that this structure would look like a gimmick. For that reason, and because I was going to be covering so much time in a relatively short book, I decided to write it in discrete episodes from Will’s and Maddie’s lives, though with various links between the chapters. As I began to write, the structure felt apt and comfortable to me and, as the book grew, I found something happening that was similar to what happened in Clare, Loving. The imprint of the past on Maddie’s story—things the reader would already know—seemed to deepen it and add both meaning and poignancy to the earlier parts of Maddie’s life as I got to them. This phenomenon underlined the sense I have that the important stories in our lives, whether they’re our own or the stories of people we are close to, pull through our lives like a thread.
I think that, finally, I would sum things up in this way. My goal in structuring a novel is to find an organizing principle that can provide an effective way to tell the story. If the varying structures of my novels are somewhat unconventional, they aren’t radically so as each book tells a clearly identifiable story. And, in any case, it’s never really felt like breaking rules because what we term a novel is always in the process of re-invention. As its name suggests, the novel is always becoming something new.