I’ve been interested in doing different things with chronology in my own writing and would like to hear about your choices in handling time, particularly in Time Stamp and Clare, Loving in which you do reverse chronologies and chronologies that move in different directions toward each other.
—Alvin Greenberg, Boise, Idaho
The meaning of time for a story and how we choose to order events always feel like a work’s underpinning. I can’t think of which of his novels Henry James said had time as its true subject (perhaps Daisy Miller; there’s a boating scene on the river), but it’s an interesting idea, though a bit theoretical for me even if I named a book Time Stamp. When I write, working with time is often about what events, at whatever moment, get the focus of a scene, and which are summarized or even just alluded to as deep back story. I suspect writers make these kinds of decisions depending on their sensibilities. In general I think there’s more emphasis now on the immediacy of present time action in books, yet I always want to know what happened to make the present what it is. That’s my preference as both reader and writer. So for me, time is a broad continuum for placing characters.
Al, I suspect we might approach the whole question of chronology in fiction somewhat differently. You may have a larger ability to think of how you are structuring things from the outset than I do. I tend to be a little like the combat soldier who’s not sure of where he is because of all the smoke. But I think I am able to tell you generally how I stumbled toward the chronology I settled on for both Clare, Loving and Time Stamp.
Clare first. I had known for a long time that I wanted to write a novel with mothers and daughters as the main subject. And the old Catholic school girl in me that was startled by my first experience of being taught by nuns meant I always intended to write something to explore those feelings, particularly as they involved a nun telling me at ten that my Protestant mother would go to hell if I didn’t pray successfully to convert her. Clare in Clare, Loving is very good at not telling, and a similar experience for her created the basic conflict in “The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter’s.” She doesn’t tell her mother what happened, and most of the action proceeds from that. (I, on the other hand, immediately went home and did tell my mother, which meant the personal story basically ended there.)
This was the general material I wanted to work with in “Nuns,” and it’s the novella I wrote first of the three that make up Clare, Loving. I put ”Nuns” aside for a long time when I finished the first draft, both because I felt it needed more work and because I was focused on writing short stories at the time and wasn’t ready to tackle the other novellas. When I did return to it, I was concerned about writing a novel that would have an adult as the main character begin with her as a child. I had the sense it would set the stakes up wrong and not engage the reader in the way I wanted. By that time, I also knew that I would have one person as the main character and explore her relationship to both her mother and her daughter at different points in her life. The structural challenge felt pretty large.
Then I had an idea for “Sylvie,” for which I have to give my then college-age children a nod. My daughter’s way of handling phone calls from home when she was a freshman was to listen to the messages on the answering machine and assume she would return the calls sometime. Her brother, when he got to college, was pretty good about answering the phone but generally put people (me) on hold for half an hour before coming back on and saying he had to go. This whole experience of phone frustration at some point popped as a story idea and became the running premise in “Sylvie,” which is also about larger themes in the mother-daughter relationship, particularly the way that relationship changes when the daughter is grown.
Chronologically speaking, when I’d finished both “Nuns” and “Sylvie,” I had the beginning and end of my story. What I was lacking was the middle, which was going to fit between the other two parts chronologically no matter how I structured the finished novel. Writing “The Beautiful Ships” was a bigger challenge than writing the other two novellas because I needed a story that would both work storywise as the middle and make the book complete. I seriously wondered if I’d left myself in an untenable position. For some reason, I kind of like being in that uncertain situation as a writer. I’d also had some concern that what I wanted to pull off with Suite Harmonic was going to be really tough to do but that just meant I liked the challenge. In any case, I started writing “The Beautiful Ships” without much sense of where I was going except that I had to constantly keep track of the story that preceded it chronologically and the one that followed it. I also realized as its story evolved that there were things I needed to change and develop in the other two novellas, which I did.
When I’d finished the whole novel and was dealing with agents, there was one who liked the middle novella best and thought I should place it first and just try to maneuver in the material of the other novellas in a later section. I actually tried doing that and was very unhappy with the result. By that time I’d realized that something important was happening in the book by starting with Clare as an adult, when her most intense relationship is with her daughter, then moving to the important love affair in her twenties when the intensity is focused on a man, and then going back to childhood when her mother was the most important person in her life.
There was also this: as adults, we meet other adults and get only glimmers of how they became the people they are, the way they’ve papered over old injuries and developed whatever level of confidence and competence they have. I came to realize that it was important to me to have the reader meet Clare as the somewhat unsure adult she’d become as a result of what happened earlier in her life. And I’ve always had the sense that, though I backed into the original reverse chronology to avoid leading with a child’s view, it works as I wanted it to. The reader is able to understand more about Clare by gradually adding in the stories of her earlier life until the chronological beginning of her story feels like the logical goal for the book and the right ending for it.
Time Stamp was actually a more difficult book when it came to deciding on the chronology from a structural standpoint. Large parts of the Will Wheelock section are scenes I wrote for the first novel I ever completed. In looking back at some of the comments on that book, I found that even in the very early going, at least one editor was interested in Will’s daughter and wished she was a larger presence in the book. At some point, I decided that if I ever returned to Will’s story, I would write it with his daughter having an equal presence.
When I did finally go back to Will, I was still far from coming up with the idea of the book’s actual structure. I went through the manuscript and noted how much material I needed to jettison and then settled on the scenes that still had resonance for me and still built Will’s essential story. I realized I wanted to start with the scene in which he’s on the periphery of a lynching when he’s a boy. Though Will himself is a fictional character, that scene is based on an actual lynching that took place during the tenure of Coleman Blease as governor of South Carolina. Partly because of that grim reality, and despite the fact Will takes no real action, that moment always felt like one that could reverberate throughout a life.
In the earlier book, Maddie’s character is alluded to but only really introduced at the end when she comes home at Christmas and has her first informal showing of photographs at a party given by her ex-mother-in-law. It’s during the period of Richard Nixon’s bombing of Hanoi, another critical point in Will’s story. When I was thinking of how to develop Maddie’s story, I knew I would want to dramatize her later life, particularly as a photographer but also in terms of her relationships given the information that was already established about her in the earlier, unpublished book. I also wanted to show how the stories that shape parents’ lives can affect their children, often in ways none of them realize.
I’m not sure when it was I decided on the arrows structure for the book, having the two narratives start at the points that were farthest apart—Will at the lynching, Maddie at her photographic retrospective—and moving toward the same point. Once I decided on that, it felt a little daring but the right approach. I thought I could trust readers to let the two stories, Maddie’s moving backward and Will’s moving forward, exist on their own while linking ever more closely until that pivotal moment during that Christmas season of 1972 when the bombs were falling over Hanoi. Since I wasn’t writing a really long book in terms of page length but covering almost a century of time, I also made the decision to make each chapter a unit so that readers would have some sense of completion along the way.
In general, I would have to say that my decisions about chronologies for both these books were works-in-progress. They were neither planned on from the outset nor inevitable. But I do have to say that, for me, the final structure now feels integral to both of them. Their time structures have really become part of the stories in a very fundamental way and I can’t envision them with a different organization. I’ll add that, though it was decades into the creation of Will Wheelock’s story before I decided on the structure for Time Stamp, it was a huge help in writing it that I knew the basic layout. I considered it a gift. It’s the only book I’ve written in which I always knew where I was going, and it’s the book I felt most confident in writing.