A couple of days ago I had an email from a friend in Russia, who made the comparison between writing a book and giving birth to a child. This is not an uncommon metaphor, of course, but she could perhaps speak of it more knowingly than some, as she has given birth and has experience as a writer. Comparing the arrival of a child to the “birth” of a book, she said (I’m translating from the Russian), “As for a book, I think you answer so much more for what it will be.”
I’ve been thinking lately about the emotional relationship to a book when you write it. I was not thinking particularly about having to answer for it, though of course that’s true in some sense. Years ago I realized from looking at the art of other people that when you put something out in the world, it’s no longer yours. People will do with it and make of it what they want, and you might as well just accept that and move on.
The topic of what other people do with a book is not what I was thinking about lately, however. I was more particularly thinking about the relationship of the writer to the characters of a book. I’ve been moved recently to ponder this because about a week ago I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on.
I’ve been writing this book for about four years, now living in the third state where I’ve worked on it. The book at one point had four major characters, now two, and the story launched off in multiple directions, with philosophical insertions. While I was writing it I read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and that gargantuan novel had a bad influence on me. It took me a while to figure out I’m not writing in the century before the invention of TV.
The relationship of a writer to the characters is a bit strange if you think about it. In some ways, those characters are the writer, as they came out of the writer’s head. No matter what the writer might say, everything on the page began as the writer’s thoughts, so as a writer you might say, “I’m not really a serial killer, you know,” but um, you’re able to think like one.
In some ways the characters are projections of the writer, what the writer loves, wants, hates, fears, is bored by, and so on. People who know a writer personally can see a lot of that in the writing. Yet in the mysterious way of art, the characters of a novel gradually become something that is not the writer, become people the writer never met before and is now getting to know.
The characters in my books, although I made them speak and think and do what they do, they become real people to me. And think about it—if you spent four years with someone, not just hanging out once in a while, but thinking their thoughts and deciding what they will do, you’d become very close to that person.
From writing several books, it has been my experience with each of them that when a book is finally done, along with the joy of AT LAST! there is also a little melancholy, realizing that the time is coming when I will never talk to these people again. When all the revisions are done, however long that takes, there is going to be a time when the book is truly finished, and I will never read it again (or I certainly hope not). And that will be that—those characters are gone, no matter how much I liked them or found them entertaining.
Perhaps it is partly this sense of missing the characters that causes some writers to write sequels to books, wanting to spend more time with the people. That won’t be the case for me, as I don’t write sequels, nor will I ever. This week, however, I’ve been revising the opening of an older novel, after the reaction of the literary agent who said the pacing is off. I didn’t necessarily want to do the work—and yet, it’s been such a pleasure to again spend a little time with those people. I can say I missed them.