Shortly after publishing Inca I wrote a blog post explaining what led me to write about that empire and its people. A year later when I published Zulu I blogged about what drew me to the story of that kingdom and its people. I suppose now that Beginning is in the process of going live across the various regional Amazon websites, the time has come to talk about why I wrote this book.
Unlike Inca and Zulu, where my interest was first sparked by looking for more information about a civilization I did not know much about, Beginning began with me being self-conscious about my work. I suspect most writers after they have written a couple of books start worrying their stuff is all of a type, and maybe not the type they would have chosen if they had to do it over again. I have written two lengthy novels about cultures that are relatively little-known to my friends and family. If I wanted to write something much shorter with a broader appeal, what would that look like?
Inca and Zulu, much as I love them, ask for a lot of a reader’s time and attention. You cannot do a deep dive into the history and culture of people who most people are unfamiliar with while worrying about word count. They are by necessity long and dense. If I was free to write something where I knew my readers would understand everything from page one, what would I write about?
I have come up with half a dozen answers to that question so far, and most of them exist as a hundred pages or so of abandoned first draft material. One of the primary hurdles about completing a novel –long or short—is that you have to be excited about the subject matter and the plot and the characters for months and probably years of research and writing before you have a finished first draft to start editing and polishing. There were a lot of false starts as I searched for something I was sure I would finish. For maybe two years I despaired of finishing a third novel for want of an idea I knew would hold my interest.
I firmly believe writers need to read widely and deeply to develop their own craft. One of the most flattering things I have seen in the reviews for Inca is when someone says they can see some of Gary Jennings’ Aztec in my own work. Zulu was very much inspired by the early few decades of Wilbur Smith’s work. So who should I take as my muse for my third novel? Who writes the shorter novels that I adore?
I cast about through a few options, but again and again I kept coming back to Kurt Vonnegut.
Let me say categorically that Beginning is not a Kurt Vonnegut-esque novel, much to my regret. I lack his brevity and his wit. I am just telling the story of how I got started, and I started with Vonnegut.
Many years ago a friend of mine went through a phase where he hosted a monthly dinner party. They were fabulous. I looked forward to them all month, and I believe I am the only one of his friends who never missed a dinner for as long as he was interested in hosting them. Anyway, several times during this time he would give me a Kurt Vonnegut novel to read, and we would talk about it the following month. I found much to admire about Vonnegut’s style. There is a reason his stuff is always sold in the literature section of bookstores despite the amount of science fiction that runs through so much of his work. He is a writer’s writer, and his eight rules for writing fiction are definitely words to live by. You never know quite what you are going to get with a Vonnegut novel, even though all of his stories have a universal tone to them.
Two quick examples of how eccentric Vonnegut can be? Slaughterhouse Five is probably his most famous work, and it was inspired by his own experiences surviving the firebombing of Dresden as a POW during the Second World War. Rather than tell a straightforward fictionalized war memoir as ten thousand other authors of his generation have done, Vonnegut uses an unreliable narrator who becomes unstuck in time, flashing forward and backward throughout his life. At one point he becomes an exhibit in a zoo on the distant planet of Tralfamadore where the locals are capable of seeing all points in the space-time continuum at once, making death a relatively uninteresting point on a larger spectrum of existence to them. The whole book clocks in at under three hundred pages in most editions and can be breezed through in a single sitting. I am in awe of what he crammed into that book while still keeping the prose light, airy, and fun when it is not being deadly serious.
One more example: Despite the firebombing of Dresden actually happening to him, Vonnegut said in a forward that the book Slapstick is actually his most autobiographical novel, in that he was inspired by his family. Here is a quick plot summary: Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain lives in the ruins of the Empire State Building after serving as the president of the United States in a future where fossil fuels have run out and the world outside of China is declining back into an early 19th-Century economy. He is hideously ugly, twelve-fingered, and in the presence of his twin sister they together become the smartest being who has ever lived, although separately they each possess the equivalent of half of a normal brain. They spend most of their lives apart, but at one point when they come together they re-engineer American society to embrace extended artificial families so that everyone everywhere is related to people they can count on even as Western Civilization irrevocably declines. The whole book is a meditation on loneliness and the importance of family. Again, the whole thing is always under three hundred pages across paperback, trade paperback, and hardcover editions.
That is, in his opinion, a more autobiographical work than the one about a man unstuck in time who keeps revisiting the Dresden firebombing with some help from alien zoo keepers.
I believe it is worth repeating that Vonnegut is not sold in the science fiction section.
To return to the dinner parties, while discussing Vonnegut at great length with my friend, eventually the hypothetical came up, what would Kurt Vonnegut writing historical fiction look like?
I toyed with the idea for a long while, and the best I could come up with is he’d have a gimmick. There would be some theatre of the absurd framing device that would give him the freedom to say anything and do anything he pleased. The story would be about people, not events. It would meditate on issues of life and death and good and evil and fate versus free will. It would be funny in places. It would be sad in places. Whatever else it would be, it would be short.
I found myself powerfully attracted to the idea of writing a Kurt Vonnegut-esque work of historical fiction.
One day I came up with a thought that fit the criteria: A man who has been alive for thousands of years is visited by the Grim Reaper who pleads with him to be reasonable and die; in between conversations with the Angel of Death, the man who has been alive forever would dictate his memoirs as fast as he can into a tape recorder. What would he say? Who did he meet? What did he do? How did he survive? What would he say when Death literally comes knocking on his door and says his time is finally up?
Does that not sound like a Kurt Vonnegut novel?
Now I have revised and refined that quite a bit since then. Death and the Grim Reaper as real characters are just too fantastic and creatively lazy for my tastes, and I came up with a better reason for a mysterious visitor to ask a man who has been alive since the last Ice Age if he is doing the right thing by living forever, but beyond that, the basic framework still stands.
Alas, I just could not make it short.
With the encouragement of the woman I was dating at the time, I started carrying a notepad around with me wherever I went. I wrote on lunch hours and in the early mornings and in the evenings. Most of all I wrote on weekends. Every weekend I would get up, go for a long walk, and then I would sit down in a coffee shop or a pub and just write for hours at a time. I wrote about whatever interested me that I knew I would never do a whole book about. I wrote about the Ice Age and the Romans and the First World War. I filled notebook after notebook. I joined a monthly writer’s group, and one of the group members pointed out it looked like I was writing a real doorstop.
Somehow my short Kurt Vonnegut-esque story had spiraled and sprawled to the point where even at only roughly half done in first draft I was at a higher word count than the longest Kurt Vonnegut novel. I was having so much fun, it no longer felt right to avoid things I wanted to do in the first half so the back half would balance and build momentum. I wanted to go where the story took me, and the story took me all over the place.
Fortunately, the episodic nature of my story within the framing device of a man who has lived for thousands of years dictating his life’s story into a tape recorder while waiting for a mysterious visitor who might be the death of him lent itself well to breaking up into pieces.
All of a sudden instead of writing one big book, I found myself writing three short books. Three Vonnegut-length books! What was more, instead of being half done a long book, I was basically done a first draft of the first book, a third done a first draft of the second book, and a quarter done a first draft of the third book. As the cherry on top of my decision to break the thing up into a trilogy, selling the books separately means a reader who enjoys the first book is very likely to also buy the second and third books in their turn to see how it all works out. I will end up getting paid three times for what I originally intended to be a single project.
Yes, there were some definite benefits to turning my doorstop into a trilogy.
And so I now have the first book done of the Tape Recorder Trilogy. Based on what I had already written, it made sense for Beginning to run from the last Ice Age up until the end of the Greek Bronze Age. Middle will pick up where Beginning left off, and it will run until either just before or just after the rise of Islam. End will take us from wherever Middle finishes and take us up to 2015. The Intro, Chapter Eight, and Outro of all three books will take place in 2015 to allow the reader to see the narrator in the modern era, including conversations with a visitor who might just be the death of him.
I will have more to say about this book and the trilogy in the coming weeks and months, of course, but this is already a lengthy blog post. I believe I will leave it here for now. If you have gotten this far, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy reading Beginning as well!
Addendum: After a quick review of this blog, it turns out I actually reviewed a couple of Kurt Vonnegut novels including Slapstick back in 2009. I guess that goes to show I have left this blog sitting idle too long. Anyway, here’s the link if anyone wants to read more about it.
Further addendum: I have been told the dinner parties were in fact weekly, not monthly. In fact, my friend blogged some of his recipes back in the day!