July 17, 2014

Letter to the Reader of 'Deep Down Things'

Claude Monet, The Reader

Dear Reader,

Oh, what I wouldn’t have given to be able to give Maggie a happy ending, to have Jes grow into a happy and healthy young man whose only scars are those left by his troubled father. It wasn’t to be, however. The logic of the story inexorably pulled me to where it ended.

That’s not entirely true. The first ending actually had Jackdaw successfully shooting Jes and then killing himself. So maybe I did pull back a little—at the behest of an editor friend. The conversation went something like this. “The ending is too unremittingly dark.” “But Jes has to die. Otherwise no one will buy it.” “Yes, but does his father have to kill him? AND THEN commit suicide?” Point taken. That same friend said she bawled in public in NYC at least four times while reading it. Now THAT is a compliment. I think.

The inspiration for this story is a friend and coworker who is one of those ideal mothers. If I could have chosen to have any mother in the world, she would have been at the top of my list. She had two boys, and then her third boy was born with severe spina bifida. Watching what she went through was heart-wrenching. When I decided to write this book, a few years after the darling boy had died at age six, we sat and talked through what had happened. She said that most people act as if it never happened and so it was good to talk about it. I hope so, and I hope I’ve in some small way been able to honor what she went through.

Another inspiration for this story is my history of infertility. My mother had seven kids including me, and one of my sisters had seven, and so I never considered that I would have problems having children. Then, my husband and I had five miscarriages, the first at six months. Medical rigmarole ensued. I’m so glad for it, though, because we were able to have our happy ending. A wonderful amazing woman—whom I’d trust almost more than I’d trust myself—acted as gestational carrier for us, and our twins were born. Our son was also born with a severe cleft lip and palate, and so more medical procedures. As much as we’ve been through, though, I can’t express how thankful I am to medical science and the wonderful doctors who made it all possible.

The first scene of Deep Down Things that I wrote, I was actually staying in a residential hotel in Denver undergoing IVF procedure for the twins. All those shots. That was August 2005. The first scene I wrote was where Maggie walks into the room and Jes just lights up. He makes her feel wonderful, despite everything, just by the way he beams at her. I finished a first draft by June 2009. I remember because I completed it for a Tin House writers conference mentorship with the legendary Little, Brown editor Judy Clain. The manuscript was an unqualified mess—four points of view with two timelines going concurrently. Bless Judy’s heart for first of all agreeing to do the mentorship and second of all giving me such great advice. Help your reader out. Chronological, chronological! More reflection to let the reader know what to take away from a scene. Her talking with me was simply the best encouragement I could have had.

So I went back and majorly rewrote it. Because of how I’d written it—two timelines—the beginning and the end were basically written and I had to write through the middle. An odd experience, to say the least, but a good one. It shaped up nicely, although I distinctly remember having writer’s block and thinking, this is the most horrible thing I’ve ever read. I do that when I write—I go through periods of loving the work and then hating it. Especially when I’m not writing, I think about all the flaws.

Having four points of view presented its own challenges. If you have a point of view, you must have a character arc. Something has to happen to that person. They have to change. And therefore all the stories have to be coherent in their own right, yet they have to meld together into this unified whole. “Ambitious,” someone called it, and at the time I don’t think they meant it as a compliment. My initial inspiration for form was the movie Love Actually. I was fascinated with how that movie was able to have all those different story lines yet work. I still love that movie. It strayed pretty far from that, though, didn’t it? Another big inspiration was William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, one of my favorite books. All those points of view tied together in a country setting. Believe it or not, I didn’t actually read Kent Haruf’s Plainsong till late in the writing process. Without knowing it, I had mirrored a lot of that wonderful book, and so when I did finally read it I was a bit thunderstruck.

I deliberately try to have all kinds of people in my books. I regret that I don’t have more diversity in this one, but I am glad I was able to have CJ work through her sexuality. Race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality are not binaries—they exist much more on a spectrum—and I find myself continually fascinated with the complexities of these subjects.

Finally, I often have an extended metaphor or theme that I’m thinking of when I write a story or a novel. In the case of Deep Down Things, it’s the story of Jesus. Many readers would not pick up on it, I think, but Jes’s story riffs on it with details large and small. I’m a spiritual person—though I’m not a religious one—and the ideas underlying the story of Jesus are complicated and compelling and timeless. Self-sacrifice, family relationships, being a good person—these all are just as relevant today as they ever were. And I find by using something like this as a framework, an extended metaphor, I can explore these subjects more deeply. I don’t think of this as a religious book or a Christian book, but I am very invested in the ideas that Christianity presents to us. I am happy, however, if this book helps someone affirm his or her faith or think more deeply about the issues presented. We all need help sometimes in being good people.

My final confession is that the ending still makes me bawl like a baby. I don’t think writers are supposed to admit that.

Tomorrow I'll wrap it up by giving you a teaser about what’s coming down the pike in the future. 

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