Living in the world of the book

A strange thing happens when I’m writing fiction; I start living in the world of my book. That might seem either false to you, or, alternatively and diametrically opposed, inevitable. But I don’t think it’s either.

When I used to read writers’ claims about their writing process, I often thought they were either liars or into self-delusion. A typical claim that left me flummoxed, for example, was that a character could surprise an author—a character could just up and do whatever, without the author controlling the scene. This has to be false in the logical world; after all, the writer is the one whose fingers touch the keyboard. Come on, are writers claiming that someone else is controlling their fingers? But writing doesn’t have to happen in the logical world—corny as it may sound, it can happen in the psychological world, I think. Some writers form a pact with the process, if you will; they surrender themselves to the story. And the true owners of any story are the characters. I have gaped at my characters’ behavior before—and realized these characters aren’t, in any meaningful sense, “mine” at all. So if this particular conceit is self-delusion, I’ve been co-opted.

Which means that I now believe it’s true that characters can surprise an author (it happens all the time to me). So at the very least please believe that I believe it when I say equally illogical things about writing—such as my opening claim that I live in the world of my books as I’m writing them.

As for whether or not my claim is inevitable, I think it clearly isn’t. Some writers are extremely organized about the process. They write at fixed times of the day. And/or they outline their stories before they begin. And/or they know (or think or say they know) what their story is about (whatever that means). For such writers, the writing experience need not be a psychotic episode. This kind of clarity of purpose as one writes might well allow a writer to maintain an integrity totally apart from the world of the story. I wouldn’t know, since this is not how I work, but it does seem possible to me.

Therefore I think it bears saying, and then thinking about, my original claim: I live in the world of my story as I write it. If you’re a writer, watch out what world you (think you want to) create; you might turn out to inhabit it.

This very fact made writing The Wager unique for me. With all my other stories, I began them when I knew I could take a long period of time to do pretty much nothing but write. (I teach at a small college, so my breaks from going to the office are in summer time and over the winter break between semesters.) I work steadily, getting up early in the morning and going to bed late at night (well, actually, not night—instead, usually around 2am the next day), and I don’t allow myself any breaks from the routine until I’ve finished a first draft. I mean that—I write a full first draft sometimes in just a matter of a few weeks; this is possible, of course, only because my first drafts are terrible. Stunningly awful. My working motto is: Anything can be made better. So rather than spin my wheels (perhaps forever) trying to make a perfect first chapter, I just put the pedal to the metal and race to the end of a hideous first draft—which I have faith I then can slowly rewrite (again and again) to make closer to something I don’t hate.

I started writing The Wager in early December of 2004. I was plowing along very productively, writing about a tsunami that was caused by a massive earthquake in 1169 in Sicily (a real event that year—Mount Etna erupted; the ensuing earthquake leveled Catania and the accompanying tsunami washed away a large part of Messina), when on the 26th of December a major tsunami hit many countries on the Indian Ocean. The results were devastating and tragic. I couldn’t return to my story. I simply couldn’t. I didn’t know what was going to happen next in my story, and I wouldn’t take the chance that something dreadful would happen in the world of my story and then something dreadful might happen in the real world I lived in. I didn’t return to that story for years. So the first draft of The Wager took me over four years—a huge contrast to my other stories.

I’m not entirely sure why I was spooked. I know that writing is powerful—the pen is mightier than the sword and all that. I believe that people can change others and be changed by writing. Without that belief, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t write. Maybe I’m power hungry. But I also know that writing about a tsunami does not cause a tsunami. I don’t indulge in magic thinking; I don’t throw salt over my shoulder when someone nearby sneezes, or shudder with fear at the sight of birds indoors. I think in a modern way.

Sometimes.

But not when I was writing that story. I was inside 1169, a time when ideas about the way the world worked were laced with mysterious forces that could turn you and your family and anyone you loved upside-down at the slightest provocation, and there was hardly any way of knowing for sure what counted as provocation. Evil beckoned from behind rocks on a foggy shore and from ditches and goat horns and dew drops and places I can’t even imagine now. I was vulnerable to that evil.

What allowed me to return to the story was the very passing of time. In fact, enough time for Don Giovanni to get to the point where he could take the wager and then win it. Enough time for me to know that nothing that had happened in the years following the 2004 tsunami was connected to my 1169 world. But the funny thing is, I didn’t even realize that that’s exactly the amount of time that had passed—that the lapse in my writing this story matched the number of years and months and days necessary for Don Giovanni to prevail—until I sat down now to write this blog. My unconscious must have kept track. Maybe some part of me was still living in Don Giovanni’s world that entire time, patiently counting the minutes.


Donna Jo Napoli is an award-winning author of over fifty childrens’ and young adult books. Her most recent novel, The Wager, is forthcoming from Henry Holt books.

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