Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Popular assumption is that most first novels are autobiographical so I find there is a double-take when I tell people I’ve written a novel, The Lotus Eaters, about a female photojournalist during the Vietnam war, and no, I’m not an ex-photojournalist, and I was only a small girl during the war. So I’ve been talking and writing a lot during the weeks leading up to publication about what my reasons were for writing the book. I will talk about my personal reasons later, but right now I’d like to ask, “Why that expectation?”
Years ago I was at a writers’ function, which I’ll not name, and a person, who I’ll also not name, told a group of aspiring writers that a writer can’t possibly write about someone of another race. I found this statement stunning, and it provided long hours of alcohol-infused discussions among our group. Race is always a loaded issue, so let’s change it to sex, at least as great a leap, I’d say. Should Flaubert not have written Madame Bovary? Should Tolstoy have shied away from telling the story of the adulterous Anna Karenina? In most novels there is a huge cast of characters and very few novels are about a group of identical characters, who are clones of the author. But I’d go farther and say that this kind of thinking really obliterates fiction, reducing it to autobiography, because isn’t it an act of equal hubris that I can know the interior life of another middle-class, American woman just because I am one. In fact, isn’t self-knowledge one of the most elusive things of all?
I’ve always disliked that old writing chestnut handed out to beginning writers: write what you know. Instead, I tell my students that they should write what they’d like to know. Write what they want to spend years discovering. Maybe that happens to be material close to home, close to one’s own experience. But maybe they have a burning desire to write about Marco Polo’s voyages. The only criteria is excellence — if you can pull it off, you own it.
So what were the reasons that led me to write my book? I’ll assure you it wasn’t the idea of appealing to an easy demographic. I was told repeatedly that this was men’s territory, and that men wanted to read about combat. But I had already read excellent books that covered that subject matter. I believed in Toni Morrison’s advice: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” When I discovered that a few women photojournalists had covered the war, I wanted to tell the story of a woman who finds her destiny, her freedom, ironically, within the terrors of war. What does it mean to lay one’s life down in order to bear witness? And what are the repercussions? And by not being a soldier, this woman has a chance to discover who the Vietnamese were. What did they think of this war?
Mentally I had prepared myself for the possibility that this might be one of those first novels destined for an eternity in the desk drawer. After many years of struggle, it seems like the book was “suddenly” picked up and published. For all the difficulty and struggle, I’m proud that this particular story is my first novel, and my case proves that if you work really hard, someone might take a chance on you. If you are deciding on what to write for a first novel, my advice is to write what you would be sorry not to have written. Risk it, because there is no guarantee of success in this business, but there is satisfaction in being true to your own vision, autobiographical or not. And if you decide to write that book on Marco Polo, drop me a copy — that’s a book I’d love to read.