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October Letter from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

OLYMPOS is finished. The large concluding volume to the epic story begun in ILIUM was finished at 12:45 a.m. on September 22nd and is now being read and judged by my agent and by my editor at Harper Collins. For the time being I am in that rare state of grace for a writer – basking in the interval after the creative part of the work is completed but before discussions of revisions, criticisms, or the need to review copyedited manuscript or proof pages, long before the need to consider interviews or book tours to promote the work – in other words, enjoying that rarest of pauses in the book-creating process where the work actually feels completed.

I thought I’d talk to you a little bit about what it feels like to finish a project that has consumed the majority of my attention, effort, and time for more than three years.

On the first day after typing in corrections, printing out 1,300 pages, taking them to be copied – one for my editor, one for my agent, one for my film agent – and FedExing them off, there is a certain sense of unreality. In a very real sense, there is something missing. An elaborate movie that’s been running in my head for more than three years – each scene with a hundred alternative editings – has suddenly gone dark and quiet.

Someone once said and it’s been repeated often – “No novel is ever completed, merely abandoned” – but I think this is bunk. The statement is a testament to the need for infinite revision, but just as in any creative endeavor, there comes a point where revision needs to end and a finished product to emerge. Too many modern novels don’t end but rather seem to just wander off, as if the novelist has become tired of the whole thing and did indeed abandon it. This has its equivalent in too much contemporary music where the songwriter doesn’t know how to end his composition and just has the last phrases repeating themselves over and over again as the volume fades. In a novel, this results in the reader feeling dissatisfied -- as well he or she should. Personally, I’m tired of novels and songs that don’t have the decency of knowing how to end themselves properly.

But even though OLYMPOS most assuredly ends, the effect of that finality on this novelist is disconcerting. The day after I ship the manuscript off, I wander into my office – there are plenty of other business-related projects that need catching up on – and look around with fresh eyes. My old roll-top desk is stacked four feet high with reference books and materials – sources I’ve lived with intimately for months and years, and which soon can be reshelved. Although ILIUM and OLYMPOS owe their primary credit to Homer’s Iliad, a reader of even just the first volume of the ILIUM-OLYMPOS saga immediately knows that my literary debt runs much wider – to Robert Browning, to Shakespeare, to Proust, to Tennyson, to Aeschylus, to Shelley – to a score more of literary sources. These books are piled high, as are street maps of Paris, Jerusalem and other locations, engineering diagrams of the Golden Gate Bridge, reference books on the Eiffel Tower and other structures that will show up 3,000 years hence, a stack of books, files of photographs, and maps (and one globe) of Mars, half a dozen books on the excavation of Troy complete with photographs and maps, a dozen books on black holes, particle theory and chaos theory, as well as a heap of science magazines. There are world atlases, more collections of poetry (Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Browning, etc), biographies of Shakespeare, annotated copies of The Tempest, half a dozen translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey as well fragments of Homer by dozens of other translators, not to mention a small pile of more modern “biographies” of Odysseus, Achilles, and others.

In addition, there are books and diagrams about modern ballistic missile submarines and one wonderful non-fiction book called PROJECT ORION by George Dyson about the atomic spaceship that his father, Freeman Dyson, helped design for General Atomic back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Those were the days! Spaceships to be propelled by a series of small atomic bombs being kicked out the stern and exploded every few seconds! Ships the size of huge office buildings carrying dozens or hundreds of explorers traveling the solar system in shirtsleeved, fat-sofa, one-g comfort! It suited my fancy to have my moravec characters travel from Mars (Phobos, actually) to Earth in such an Orion-class atomic spaceship, the mini-bombs being ratcheted around and around and expelled using the machinery from a 1959 Coca Cola bottling plant.

Across the room from the old rolltop desk, on my writing desk itself, is a disintegrating, dog-eared paperback of Fagles’s translation of The Iliad and several much-annotated copies of ILIUM, as well as yellow legal pads and thick notebooks filled with my own notes on characters, locations, quotations used, diagrams of cities or surroundings, and rough outlines of what’s to come. One list of about 75 Greek and Trojan heroes simply keeps tabs on who died where or when and how – not only in Homer’s Iliad but in my own two novels. It’s always embarrassing to have some character who had been killed 300 pages earlier come wandering back into the action. There are similar lists of the “old-style human” characters in OLYMPOS.

These references weren’t the total of what I used, of course – every day of writing demanded some running to my other bookshelves or encyclopedias (I distrust much of what I find on the Internet) – but these stacks of books and magazines have been with me through most of the writing process. How very strange to think that I won’t be needing them again until the revision and proofing begins. (But I’ve learned not to set them all away even after the book is published – as soon as I do, I begin hearing from my French or German or Russian or Israeli translators, demanding to know exactly where that quotation was from.)

The point of this recitation is not merely to discuss reference materials, but to note that this small mountain of poetry and other literature on my desk is one of the main reasons I chose to do ILIUM-OLYMPOS in the first place – rising from a promise I made myself some years ago to find a way to immerse myself in the Iliad and related works. And since much of western literature flows from the Iliad, finding the “related works” was little problem.

 

Some writers react to finishing a novel – a normal-sized novel, much less the 2,400+ manuscript pages of ILIUM-OLYMPOS – with the blues, sometimes even with an active sense of depression. I don’t feel that myself, but I certainly understand the source of it – those characters, events, locations, and thoughts one has been living with, day and night, for long months or years on end, are simply gone. To some writers, it’s as if members of one’s family have died – or at least moved away.

I find that I don’t feel that if the final effort was successful – if the novel built to the proper climaxes and ended with the thump of satisfaction I was looking for. But there’s still an emptiness there.

We’ve all worked hard on some extended project and enjoyed the sense of satisfaction of seeing it to completion, perhaps with some regret at the engaging work being finished. So why is finishing a novel different? Why does finishing a novel make some of us reach for metaphors to describe the feeling of that experience? Perhaps it is because novels need to be created from whole-cloth, from imaginative elements of one’s own devising, using only language to complete the structure. Or perhaps it’s because novels deal more with human beings and human emotions than many of our other projects. Or perhaps it’s simply because as readers first, even writers remain under the sway of the magic of the unopened, unread book.

The most common simile for producing a book is childbirth and that works to some extent – at least as far as the parallels to the author’s discomfort, pain, anticipation, and inconvenience to those around him or her goes. But when the book actually arrives, there all comparisons to having a baby fall apart. That is, unless one is used to taking the newborn out to the street, handing it to strangers, and asking everyone to criticize it for the rest of its life. But like children, books do have a way of growing up, of going out into the world on their own, of learning languages their author can’t speak, of dressing up in shocking covers no father would allow his offspring to go out of house in, and of making their way – or failing to – outside the concerned parent’s ability to help or hinder their destiny.

But mostly books aren’t so much like children or like paintings or pottery or sculptures or other works of art that an artist can hang onto for years or sell to a single patron. Perhaps writing and launching a book into the world is most like building a boat.

A serious shipwright – someone working on, say, a sailboat built from natural materials, perhaps in one’s barn – has to weigh about as many variables as a novelist does before starting work. What’s the purpose of this craft – for fun, for serious adventure, for long voyages? Designing a two-volume epic novel may require some of the same careful thought that the builder of a ship has to put into a sailing craft that will ply not only inland waterways and harbors, but may have to spend months in the open sea in all weather. What design can offer the greatest beauty with the most function? There are a hundred possibilities in each choice as construction proceeds, but which choice follows the most elegant line or produces the most pleasing and efficient curve? And while modern narrative engines might power the telling of the tale full speed ahead, why not honor the tradition of more than two centuries of novels and unfurl sails to allow the craft to move on the breeze of its own telling whenever possible?

The metaphor isn’t perfect – may even be strained – but all of us who read know the uneasiness we feel while embarked, even on the shortest voyage, in some much-ballyhooed, Oprah-approved bestseller that has not been carefully assembled and caulked and properly rigged . We know we’ll probably survive the trip, but we don’t enjoy it. We know too much about better books – we’ve sailed on too many beautiful ships of the line – to enjoy even a short outing on some indifferent scow built only for commercial towing purposes.

And finally, this is where the metaphor does work. For books, although always encountered as a solitary pleasure, are not works of art destined for solitary appreciation. No novel is ever properly honored by one patron, however serious a collector he or she might be. Books are communal constructs. They are built to carry many people with them and to do so with comfort but also with a sense of communal joy. More than that, they are perfect creatures of voyage – constructed precisely for the joy of their own travel.

Sometimes it’s hard to see white pages and not think of sails.

 

Right now, for this shipwright, it’s odd to see the space empty where so much construction went on for so long. The sense of the handcrafted vessel being gone – gone from one’s mind, gone from under the hand of daily work, gone from the visible pleasure of its own slow accretion toward completion – is very strong, but equally strong is the knowledge that it’s not yet been launched. Only a few feet have trod the decks and tested the lines and the verdict’s not in yet – won’t be in for many months and until many others have come aboard to try out the accommodations and to feel the whole creation come alive – or not – under the firm winds of their own imaginations.

I’ll abandon ship on this metaphor now before we all get a little seasick. Back to the local sailor’s bar for this ‘wright – time to swap tall tales and begin thinking about the next hull to lay down. Perhaps a racy little sloop this next time . . . .


Sincerely,


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