I’m writing a novel. I’ve never written one before. I’ve started this one several times.
First there was a man fishing in a river in the far north. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kill him off. One scene had his foot being pulled into a narrow northern boat by another fisherman who might have been the murderer. In another that man had vanished. One beginning has a girl at a tea table with her grandmother. She was in love and had left her lover.
At one point all the characters seemed to speak at once. I started out with the girl who was me and changed her name over and over until she was someone else. Now the book begins with a girl who’s now a woman looking at the village, seeing herself in the little northern settlement where she fell in love. This version has a detective and letters. Each time I came up with a different focus, the way the characters spoke changed. I wanted a simple story and now I have several versions. The detective and the girl in their own tale.
The novel was so tiny at first. Short pieces that fit into another book of short pieces, characters speaking to the camera. Before that, I think it was an essay, a series of poems, notes in two notebooks. Before the story was a novel, it was real. And that was one of the problems. That witches’ brew of salmon soup: eyes and silver skin; the sound of the gravel crunching as someone walked across the road to fetch milk in a white jug from the dairy; the smell of the vidda in the spring; the soft hands of a tiny baby.
I feel like an imposter writing this book. I’m not supposed to write a novel. I don’t know what I’m doing. But certainly, my good angel says, you’ve read lots of novels, you’ve even studied them, for goodness sake. Sure, but I’m not really a novelist.
I wanted to write a girl’s book, but suddenly there was the detective, tall and fair—so predictable, I thought, so much like a prince in all the old stories. And he was stuck in his own mystery, reading a book his great-uncle had written: Muittalus Samid Birra. His uncle was a wolf hunter in the far north of Norway. I had all these stories. Some were true and some were not.
The book the detective was reading was one I’d been carting around for thirty years. The translator was a woman called Emilie Demant Hatt, I noticed one morning as I worked. Her name jumped out at me from the worn cover of the book. Why didn’t I notice that years ago, I wondered. Now I had another character who spoke to me from her cabin near where I once lived in Finnmark. She was prodding Johan Turi to tell her about his life. What did the reindeer eat when the snow was so deep they couldn’t get to the succulent moss?
You must be courageous and impulsive, my friend Karen, who read the last version, said. How do I know what that means, I said to my husband. Does it mean I have to kill off a character I like, or expose some secret I don’t want to expose?
It’s like a spit cake, I read about it in The New York Times, you just keep dipping the skewers into the batter and then toast it over the flame until you have the thickness you need, another friend, Elaine, said. Both agreed my novel was not done yet.
Did you think you were finished? Karen asked.
Before all this, there were meetings with my friend Mary Ann in my small hot office at the university where I teach.
Why was she on the river? Why was he fishing? There has to be a journey to find something. Why don’t you just follow the plot of a classic tale? A band of buddies searching for the grail. Challenges, reward.
You’re going down another rabbit hole, my husband said yesterday. I was reading about Carl Nielsen, the famous Danish composer and his wife, a sculptor, and their three children and Nielsen’s two “out of wedlock” children. He was in love with Emilie when she was 16. I know because she wrote her own version of the story when she was an old woman, too sick to travel. The manuscript sat in the Royal Library in Copenhagen for over 50 years. A bundle of letters and jewels, musical scores, “All of the gathering shadows,” and her “Spring Torrents.” Hidden treasure.
But it’s really interesting, I said. Anyway, I think I’ve filled that rabbit hole.
Sometimes, it feels as if I’m trying to erase myself from the book. There I am with my grandmother in England. I’m wearing that awful striped sweater. Look, there I am again like Where’s Waldo, peaking around the corner of the sauna, a pile of bottles in a pail from Father’s night out. There I am in the garden at Portmeirion looking out at the sea.
Sometimes as I write I’m trying to see the edge of the waterfall now so many years later. The thundering water and the flat stretch of land going out to the north. I’m trying to call forth the taste of his mouth. The blood on the snow, the bodies of willow grouse torn apart by the eagle. But I can’t. The world is a different place. There are two men talking below the window. I can hear them as I pour tea into a cup. My grandmother is dead now. One of many deaths. The milk is so cold it cools the tea down so I can almost gulp it quick.
You’ve got to cut that scene at the club, Karen suggested when I talked to her on the phone.
It went something like this:
She sat across from Mrs. Carlson at a table in the club. Rose poured water into the goblets, sloshing a bit on the white tablecloth. “You always do have something there on your chin,” Mrs. Carlson said and pointed at Kathryn’s face. “Always some kind of problem there.”
“Yes,” Kathryn said and frowned. She had noticed this morning that a pimple had appeared overnight. She knew Mrs. Carlson would say something.
“They were really worried about you. They’re always worried about you,” she said and sipped the water.
“Was it fun, all that adventure?”
“It was great,” Kathryn said. She looked closely at the menu. She knew she’d order the tuna sandwich with tomato and lettuce, but she didn’t want to look at Mrs. Carlson right now. She was beautiful and wore her long hair up in a knot on her head. Her mother was from Hungary and taught her how to make delicious tortes. “I remember seven layers of that torte all spread out on the tops of tables and chairs in the dining room and the thin dough for napoleons,” she told her the last time they had lunch.
Today she had a shining necklace around her throat. “What did you eat there? Your mother said you put on some weight.”
“I was eating sour cream with berries and didn’t know it was sour cream,” she said.
“That’s funny,” Mrs. Carlson said. “You know you’re old enough now you should think of something to do, like a profession.”
Kathryn could see Mrs. Monahan with her bridge group behind them. Some of the women were turning around in their seats and looking at her. Or maybe they weren’t looking at her at all. She wasn’t sure about that.
She steadied her glass against her left fingers as she brought the water up to her lips. Her hands were shaking and once the sandwich arrived she knew she’d have trouble swallowing. She didn’t want Mrs. Carlson to notice.
“You know,” she said, “you should stay home now and find a job.”
“I have a list,” Kathryn said. “A friend of Dad’s sent me a list of places in New York that might have openings. Or at least some kind of internship.”
“That’s good,” Mrs. Carlson said and started to eat her chicken salad, piled high on a bed of pale lettuce.
It’s after the story you’re writing, Karen said, and she was right. So I sliced and diced, chopped and cut, piled all the slivers into a pile in some folder on the computer and here I am. I have almost 300 pages. Long enough for a novel, I think. Everyone seems to be in the right place. The cake is pretty fat now. This week I’m going to look up someone in Criminal Justice at the university and ask him how long it takes for a body to decompose and what one would look like if it had been torn apart by wolves.
You’re having fun, aren’t you, my husband says now and then to remind me.
Yes, I respond.