Emily Barton is the author Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron. She’s most recently the author of The Book of Esther, and joins Signature to talk about how a simple dare morphed into a full-fledged novel.
The day I slipped on the ice, fell, and shattered my left wrist was the last day of a hard teaching semester and what should have been the beginning of five weeks of writing time.
Instead I found myself in pain, then in surgery, then unable to lift my toddler or pull a fitted sheet over a mattress—or to type. This meant I could not work on my then-current novel, which had been progressing slowly anyway.
I don’t remember how my family made it down to my dad’s house in New Hope, PA over the holidays. I was weaning myself off painkillers after surgery; my husband, Tom, must have packed the car, driven, and possibly even buckled my seatbelt. I do remember that right after New Year’s (by which time I was off the painkillers), we sat talking in the sunny den while my dad and stepmom played with our son. When I bemoaned the loss of writing time, Tom asked a question whose import was, “Could you write something else instead?”
Whatever the question’s exact wording, it irritated me, because Tom is a short story writer. He can start and finish “something else” at the drop of a hat. Much of the time, he has four small pots bubbling along on the creative stove. By contrast, I tend to have a single ten-pound brisket in the imaginative oven. Probably I made a face at him like the face your cat makes to let you know you’re beneath her notice.
Unable to read minds, he went on, “I dare you to write a fifty-thousand word potboiler in the next month. It’ll be simpler than what you’ve been doing, you can just write it by hand.”
Dare, did you say? My ears pricked up. Tom often exchanges dares with writer friends. You can afford to take risks if you work in short forms, because you don’t have to devote your entire life to the project; you can pop in, try the dare, and go back to whatever you were doing. But a 50,000-word potboiler. To me, that kind of was a short form. (My novel Brookland, the most recent project I’d completed, clocked in at about 190,000. So only a quarter of that size.) Potboiler also sounded easier than a literary novel. I could rely on tropes, on the conceits of a genre. People wrote entire drafts during National Novel-Writing Month, I reasoned. To bring those projects to full flower, they might work much longer than thirty days, yet I knew (from NaNoWriMo and Anthony Trollope) that it was humanly possible to write fifteen or sixteen hundred words a day. Also? I’m kind of competitive. If you dare me to do something that isn’t life threatening, disgusting, or actually mean, there’s a good chance I’ll try it.
I said, “Okay.”
“Great,” Tom said. “What are you going to do?”
Out of nowhere, I said, “Khazars versus Nazis.”
“Oh, that’s good!” he said. “That’s a great potboiler. An adventure story.” We had become interested in Khazars a few years before. When Tom had converted to Judaism, he’d read Rabbi David Max Eichorn’s Conversion to Judaism: A History and Analysis, a book that detailed historical conversions from around the world. We’d marveled over the elite Khazars—Turkic warriors who’d ruled the Pontic-Caspian Steppe in the Dark Ages—converting en masse to Judaism. Let me just put some of those words together for emphasis: Turkic warrior Jews. When Tom and I—two Jewish fiction writers, both with a taste for arcane detail—had learned about the Khazars, they’d fired up our imaginations; more, it turned out, than I’d known. I’d already read Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road and its fine afterward. In that essay, he talks about how his working title for the book was Jews with Swords, which made everyone laugh. When people heard that title, he writes,
. . . nobody seemed to flash on the image of doomed Jewish troopers at Inkerman, Antietam or the Somme, or of duelling Arabised courtiers at Muslim Granada, or even, say, on the memory of some ancient warrior Jew like Bar Kochba or Judah Maccabee, famed for his prowess at arms.
They saw, rather, an unprepossessing little guy, with spectacles and a beard, brandishing a sabre: the pirate Motel Kamzoil.
How incongruous “Jewish” and “swashbuckling” seem to contemporary Americans, Jewish and gentile both. Stereotypes of Jewish people range from Shylock to Woody Allen’s nebbishy protagonists, from a nice, dutiful son to a rabbi to a shmata salesman with greasy hair, from a bubbe wearing an apron and a tichel to Gilda Radner’s still-hilarious sendup of a Jewish-American Princess in the skit “Jewess Jeans.” An inner voice must have encouraging me to offer up some radical new (and old) thoughts on how people—women in particular—can be Jewish.
“What’ll it have in it?” Tom asked. My mind was already rolling ahead, but he and I were still sitting in a quiet room, talking. “What’s the cool technology?”
“Maybe . . . mechanical horses?” I said, speaking the idea aloud in the same instant it occurred to me. But it made sense: The historical Khazars were steppe warriors, expert horsemen. If they were to invent a war technology, it might well be horselike. And why has no one ever invented a mechanical horse? Up until a hundred-odd years ago, it would have been a good idea. “And a girl hero, a young girl, fighting for her country. With a boy sidekick.”
“You’re all set,” Tom said. “Might as well get cracking.”
I was giddy with excitement and with Tom’s blithe confidence that I could get something so uncustomary done. I knew three things about my potboiler-to-be—Khazars vs. Nazis, mechanical horses, girl hero + sidekick—and that I was going to draft it in a month. Though that much writing might sound daunting, especially when it was kind of an assignment, it seemed freeing, compared to the slog of toiling through the novel I was then writing at an average rate of a paragraph per week.
The next morning, I snuck a few minutes of free time (now that I have two children, this part of the story sounds implausible; I dimly recall that it was easier to find time with one kid), sat down with my lucky pen (which, yes, I have one) and a wide-lined white legal pad, and wrote a version of what still remains the novel’s first paragraph. I felt pleased with that; under my then-current work circumstances, that was a whole week’s work, tossed off with minimal effort. The name Esther sprang right to mind, one of many suitable names for a Jewish hero but one that resonated because it had been my mom’s Hebrew name and I’ve always admired the biblical character. I simply did what novelists do, imagined a person into a world. I felt tingly, satisfied, and less despondent about my wrist and about writing than I had the day before.
I kept going, a little at a time, day after day. Things about the book snapped into focus. Within days its working title was The Secret Pool, because I knew that somehow, a mikvah had to become an engine of magical transformation. As often as a character or image became clear, I bumped up against a difficulty. I knew little about Khazaria, for starters, so I went out and bought Kevin Alan Brook’s The Jews of Khazaria and Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe. Then there was the issue of the mechanical horses: they don’t exist. So at first, in order to preserve my momentum, I skipped over the details and kept going. After a week or two of writing, I emailed Robbie Rhodes, a friend of a friend and the owner of Scooter Bottega in Brooklyn, to ask if he could teach me to drive a Vespa. (I knew how to ride an automatic motorbike, but a WWII-era mechanical horse would have a manual transmission.) He agreed. When, a few weeks later, I needed more help, my friend Max Leach drove me all over Brooklyn talking our way through every shift. When I needed more help still, musician, teacher, and really good illustrator Adam Snyder drew up a diagram.
Soon enough I realized that this wasn’t a 50,000-word potboiler. Shortness and potboilerhood had given me the courage to start the project, so I felt attached to them. Still, I recognized that if something different emerged from that impetus, that was writing’s unpredictable nature. I kept making progress, despite a busy semester. I asked a writer friend, Paul La Farge, if he’d be willing to write with me at the public library, to hold each other accountable for a few hours. We got so much done during our test run (the only rules: no phone, no Internet), we decided to meet twice a week. We kept up that schedule for about eleven months, until December, which turned out to be enough time for me to write an almost-complete draft of the book and for Paul to rewrite his novel Luminous Airplanes. With the help of a gift-from-heaven two-week stay at Yaddo, I finished that handwritten draft almost a year to the day after I began it.
Writing a draft of a novel in a year is not remarkable, either for writers in general or for me. I’ve done it three times now, once for each book I’ve published. (I’m more inclined to think that something was wrong with my approach to the other novel I was writing than with the premise itself; I’ll find out this autumn when I revisit it.) I like to race to the end of the first draft—which has the outline of the plot and a basic sense of who the characters should be and become—and then take my time to get the details right. Anne Lamott explains this aptly in her inspirational writing book Bird by Bird. She writes, “A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.” Even as I was writing that first draft, I was able to learn some of what I needed to write it (all about Vespas; how a crossbow works; that horse equipment is called “tack,” not “tackle”). Finishing the draft helped me understand what more I’d need to learn in order to write the novel better.
But the Khazars themselves were, paradoxically, the element of the book about which I was finding it most difficult to speak with authority. Brook’s and Koestler’s nonfiction works contained a myriad of facts, but I lacked the odd, telling detail that, by triangulating with others, might make the fictive world pop from the page into three dimensionality. I reread Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, for inspiration. I don’t know Chabon, but I reached out by email to ask him if I was missing any important sources. I asked if he had advice for someone working on a project so far outside her comfort zone and sphere of knowledge. His response, pithy and generous, has stayed with me as some of the best writing advice I’ve received:
“The good thing about the Khazars,” he wrote back, “is that so little is known for sure that you can just make shit up!”
At the moment that message swooshed in, I felt like a Zen monk hearing the gong of enlightenment. One of my favorite authors was telling me to trust my instincts and go for it. Chabon was confirming something I already thought I knew, and the confirmation was exactly what I needed.
Because the truth is, being a writer is often risky and requires you to take dares. Other kinds of work are also risky, of course, in different ways and frequently even moreso—firefighters, MSF volunteers, and school teachers navigate risk and complexity daily in ways that would cause many writers to hide under our desks. (Some of us, of course, work as ER nurses and embedded reporters. I envy their bravery.) But even if they are small on a global scale, there remain risks: to your financial security, for example. Writers tend to be motivated and intelligent; some of us might have chosen careers that could bring more regular and larger paychecks. Though books can make money, for most writers, writing them doesn’t bring in enough to keep a roof over your head and food on your table. When I was single, I seldom minded tightrope walking over the abyss of an empty checking account, but as a parent, I’d be happy to have a more tightly woven safety net. The risk of failure overhangs all writerly endeavors: failure to finish the book, failure to finish the book to your own or your editor’s satisfaction, failure to find an agent, failure to sell the book, failure for the sold book to get published, failure for the publication to make a ripple in the public consciousness, failure for the book to be received well. Then there are the artistic risks. Even after you’ve written one book, there remains the great mystery of how to write the next one. Completing—and, if you are fortunate, publishing—a book teaches you many lessons (the value of perseverance and faith in yourself, most of all) without, in most cases, providing blueprints for the next book. Issues of plot, structure, tone, diction, and character development are unique to each project. The ways you tackle them are likely to be idiosyncratic and non-transferrable.
So when Chabon wrote those words to me, they came from the perspective of a writer who’d somehow managed to complete more books and earn a living, and they were immensely cheering. “Making things up” has always been what I’m good at; when my first two novels were published, some reviewers remarked on their lack of autobiographical content. Yet I find it funny when I get praised for my “meticulous research,” because I’m less meticulous than good at figuring out how much research into a topic I need to do to make myself able to invent things about it believably. E. L. Doctorow practiced a more imaginative method of investigation. Asked in his Paris Review interview about the research he did for Ragtime, he responded, “The main research for Morgan was looking at the great photograph of him by Edward Steichen.” When the interviewer pressed him, he went on: “I meant it when I said everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J. P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography.”
Benjamin Rosenbaum, in his short story “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum,” defines what he calls Plausible Fabulism (I’d call it counterfactual or alt-historical fiction writing) even as he enacts it. Early on in the story, his writer main character says, “Most shadow history proceeds with the logic of dream, full of odd echoes and distorted resonances of our world. . . . I am experimenting with a new form, in which a single point of divergence in history leads to a new causal chain of events, and thus a different present.” For my alt-historical Khazars, that point of departure would have happened more than a thousand years ago. During all that time—the Crusades, the Black Death, the African diaspora, the First World War, the harnessing of electricity, the invention of jazz—there would have been a nation of Turkic warrior Jews on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. How might that have changed the outcome of Napoleon’s march into Russia? Or the development of world Judaism? Or the rise of the state of Israel? These were huge questions to rest on the shoulders of what had started out as a potboiler.
Yet with words of casual encouragement from an almost-stranger, and with the discipline of the twice-weekly writing time with my friend—and with Tom rooting for me, which in the long run may be what matters most after my own drive and commitment—I started to figure out how to do it. I stumbled along the way: made decisions about Khazar culture and religious practice that later felt false; couldn’t figure out how to wire the mechanical horse; messed up the topography of that part of the world and put a mountain range where there wasn’t one. All of those things I was able, through research and imagination and hours writing and rewriting, to set right. What cannot be fixed, I’ve learned in twenty years of being a writer, is not writing. When you don’t write, you never end up with a book. When you’re willing to go into uncomfortable territory, or write something badly and then dredge up the moxie to redo it later, or write only twice a week when you’re able to see your friend, sooner or later you end up with a novel. Tom’s mantra is, “Fifteen minutes of writing is infinitely better than no minutes of writing.” The key thing about those minutes is that you have to be willing to take a risk, large or small, starting with the risk of sitting down without knowing what comes next. In fact, there’s no possibility that you can do your minutes without one.
Now the book that I began that January day on a dare—the title morphed from The Secret Pool to The Book of Esther, also by kismet (I was having a public conversation with Darin Strauss at the NYU reading series when I tried out the new title; the audience liked it, so I kept it)—is out in the world. Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life, praised the book’s “sheer boldness;” Anna Solomon (Leaving Lucy Pear) called it “wild.” I’m grateful for both of these compliments, which are also ways of saying that the book is willing to take a gamble—the very thing I want to encourage my students, and every other writer who’s wondering how and if she can do it, to do.
I have a new dare for myself, regarding the novel I put aside to write this one: Can I keep the parts that I love and let go of everything else, no matter how hard I worked on it? I don’t know for sure; it may be a challenge. But having taken one dare, I’m willing to try another. This may be the main thing one learns from completing a novel: that another, whatever its terms and oddities, is almost always possible, one way or another.