I finished the first draft of my novel back in March. I sent it out to a few friends, readers who are very good at line editing, whose taste I trust. I had some questions for them, which they answered, and I spent March and April going through, page by page, fixing line issues, strengthening the language, cutting the boring stuff. Zadie Smith had a really great piece of advice when I saw her speak this past year. She edits in the airport, surrounded by people and noise and distraction. If she can’t stay focused, then whatever is happening in the book is not engaging enough, not compelling enough. The kill-your-darlings spirit carried me through these two months of edits before I sent the final manuscript off to the folks in my Tin House workshop and the mentor I’ll be working with while I’m in Portland.
I have another set of readers, though, and I feel quite a bit of fear when thinking of them reading the manuscript…My family. While the novel is…fiction…(i.e. the definition of a novel!), some plot elements come from some experiences I had as a teenager. I can admit that but I also have to stress that I took some great advice and separated the plot of the novel with the plot of my own life. Very little of what happens in the novel resembles what happened to me – or what I made happen to others – in real life. BUT, the fact remains. The book is about a missing father. I had a missing father.
So, when my aunts – my dad’s older sisters – finally saw the printed out copy of the book, and read the first sentences (I mean, the first words of the book are: “My dad disappeared Christmas of my eighth grade year…” or something to that effect), they started crying. Of course they did. The thing that happened to me didn’t just happen to me; it happened to them too, although in a different way. I had a hard time watching them get upset. They weren’t upset with me, and if they were, I knew they didn’t really have any right to be. But I also know that, in writing this novel, I have dredged up some history that makes a lot of people – myself included – very sad.
Thankfully, my husband, who has read the book in its many iterations and drafts, reminded me that, no matter the inspiration, the book is a work of fiction. It’s a novel. It’s not a memoir or autobiography or biography. It’s purely imagination. And he’s right. The book is set in New Orleans, but there isn’t a single oak tree that I’ve described based on an oak tree I know. The oak trees in the book are all made-up trees, an amalgamation of all the oak trees I’ve ever seen in my life, in New Orleans and elsewhere. And the dad in my book isn’t my dad, as much as I’d like him to be.
Showing the book to my first readers, my husband and my friends, wasn’t hard. Showing it to my family was. If it ever makes it into print, I hope that my extended family can read it, love it, appreciate it, not because my dad is present on its pages but because it is a beautifully rendered, highly imaginative work of fiction. And because they will know that he was in my heart, my brain and my hand as I wrote.