As We Mean To Go On

I don’t know how to begin this damn thing, I say. She grins and answers, Honey, don’t faff about. Just tell the story.

Eight words might not seem like much to run with, but they are all I need, coming from the one who knows my work as well as she knows my body, and who for seventeen years has touched both with grace, with skill, with good intent, with passionate curiosity, with fierce intelligence, with love. After more than six thousand days of living, writing, and talking about it all, I can unpack those eight words automatically; and over a third glass of iced tea I’ve written this in place of the highfalutin’ designed-to-impress opening I had. I find this more clear and honest, much as I find myself after seventeen years with her. It’s what we do: we make each other better.

The English say, Start as you mean to go on, so perhaps it’s luck we met at a writing workshop. People warned me these workshops were rough: if I showed weakness of words, of confidence, of self, the other students would bring out the long knives and leave me collecting the leftovers of myself and my precious work in a bucket. But for me, the chance to spend six weeks in the company of students and professionals was like the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, where the boy Digory stands in front of the bell and the plaque that says “Make your choice, Adventurous Stranger/Strike the bell and bide the danger/Or wonder, till it drives you mad/What would have followed if you had.” I’ve typed all that from memory because it burned into my adolescent brain the first time I read it, so many years ago, when I understood that I would be faced with such choices in my life: that I would have to draw back, or reach out and grab. That’s what the workshop felt like. So I quit my job and got a loan, and drove from Georgia to Michigan with a left ankle sprained blood-black, bandaged rigid so I could work the clutch pedal with my heel. I was scared witless: of debt, of writing, of not writing. Of those knives. Of finding myself too fucked up to create work that connects rather than distances, and having to go back home with a withered dream, a longed-for identity popped like a balloon.

And then came Nicola. The first time I saw her, in the hallway of the unairconditioned dorm, close and hot as a greenhouse, I opened my mouth to say How was your trip? as if we were already each other’s friend, lover, partner, joint explorer. I knew in our first three sentences that she would be the best writer there; that I would help her be better; that all my assumptions about how my life would unfurl were wrong; and that I would someday be the writer I yearned to be, because she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sometimes people think it couldn’t have been that sudden, that this is just a story we tell. And it is — the first story of us — but it also happened, and is happening still.

– – –

Books — the ones Kelley and I had read, the ones we wanted to write — drew us to the place where we would meet, and made it possible for us to understand each other when we got there. We were born only nine days apart, but also eight thousand miles, on different continents and to different cultures. Our meeting and life together should have been one long cultural car crash, but though there are times when our common language puzzles us extremely, books have formed for us a parallel universe, a world where we learnt the same things at the same time from the same characters, though sometimes with distinctly different flavours.

I remember that verse from The Magician’s Nephew. Vaguely. What stuck in my mind wasn’t Digory’s moment of choice, but what happened next: the awakening of Jadis, the great and terrible Queen of Charn, in all her six-feet tall, bare-armed, knife-wielding glory. She immediately became both an eroticised image — like the eponymous magician, part of me sat up straight and thought, “dem fine woman… spirited gel” — and a facet of my self-identity. Even today I find bare arms and a desire to take over the world a reasonable response to some situations. And, oh, I like knives.

By the time we met, we had both read the quintessentially English C.S. Lewis, and the resolutely American Jack London. We had both read Lord of the Rings and internalised it to such an extent that even from that first day we could quote it wryly (“It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!”) and understand a variety of meanings, heartfelt and ironic, wistful and smug, depending on context. We were connected by story; we came together in that space where character and plot illuminate and influence each other, much as Kelley and I do.

I have fallen in love with Kelley many times — watching her eat fried chicken with her hands, watching her cry at some sentimental film, the first moment I saw her limping down the corridor on crutches in 98-degree heat — but the third or fourth time was about a week into the workshop when we were driving to a bookstore for a reading. Kelley was behind the wheel of her smart red Toyota SR5. A stoplight was lasting a long time, and she shifted impatiently and said, “Jan jan jan,” a command and an invocation from Frank Herbert meaning “Go! Go! Go!” and I had come home. I knew that she, too, had sat curled up on the floor of her bedroom as a teenager, reading about St. Alia of the Knife learning to slow her breathing and move her consciousness through time; she too had paused and tried to move a muscle beside her nose or imagined fighting an automaton stark naked in the moonlight. In that moment I knew so much about her it was like swallowing the world.

– – –

So how could we not be together? We make story, it makes us. Like the Worm Ouroboros, swallowing bits of ourselves, bringing it all back up again. I’ve always disliked the pictures that show the Worm lying still, looking vaguely pissed: I prefer to imagine it giving itself a push and rolling exuberantly out of frame. Hooping it up. Off to eat ice cream or go dancing, and tell a good story when it comes home.

It’s a human thing to tell stories about how we’ve become ourselves, to put experience into an ongoing context, so that here’s what happened becomes here is who I am. That’s what Nicola and I did when we met. Then we spent a year apart, she in England and I in Georgia, courting by mail. We always make a point of telling people this was before email, so the listener understands it was a serious business, involving much hand-cramping — twelve months and a quarter million words of everyday details, philosophical musings, personal history, dreams, hopes, fears.

Seventeen years later, our lives are webbed, hyperlinked by shared experience, woven into an ongoing conversation of our selves and the two great bindings between us: our love and our work.

What’s it like living with another writer, people ask. That’s a large question. Inside it, some people pack their need for our life to be the stuff of their dreams, storybook-perfect, magic instead of sweat. Others are looking for confirmation that one of us is the Real Writer and the other is Mrs. Real Writer. It’s a basic cultural assumption: someone leads, someone follows; one shines, the other smiles bravely and makes tea. And there’s the occasional truly nasty questioner who can’t quite hide the hope that writing and love are two horses fighting in harness, pulling in opposite directions, that our work is the slow bullet in the brain of our relationship. Don’t you ever worry that she’ll be more successful? I mean… Yes, sunshine, we know what you mean. Fuck you.

I know, I know: it’s a fair question, if fairly asked. But that negative baseline enrages me, the default assumption that people aren’t capable of living joyfully with ambiguity. What a stupid story that would be. As with all life-altering moments — love, sex, dying, failure, success — the more interesting question is, how do you do it?

For one thing, we talk. A lot. Elephants don’t loom long in our living room: we can’t afford to tiptoe around the hard things, because there are too many of them. We talked through the publication of her first three novels, when I was struggling to get a hundred words a week on paper, and felt left behind and frightened to my core. We talked through the short fiction contest we both entered where I won the eleven thousand dollar first prize, and she didn’t place. We’ve articulated our agreement that we are each the Real Writer (we feel about writing space the way we feel about everything we own: it’s 100% hers and 100% mine, none of that 50/50 nonsense. Why would we settle for half the space?) She’s won a dozen national and international writing awards. I’ve been shortlisted for a half-dozen and never won. Publisher’s Weekly loves her work and hates mine, but my first novel was a New York Times Notable Book. And so on. The truth is, few people would find any meaningful comparison in our careers, or our work, if we didn’t rub up against each other in daily life. Proximity and its cousin, influence, turn us from purely individual writers into something else. We map a jointly-traveled internal landscape. We have different process and voice, similar definitions of good writing, sometimes-overlapping concerns, and a root system of shared influences.

And we have an identical determination to write stories that touch people, transport them, bring them closer to themselves. So what we do, besides talk, is help each other make that happen.

– – –

The single most important thing we do is tell each other the truth, because writers can’t always be trusted to do that for themselves.

Writing is a rush. It’s blindingly, incurably addictive. I will do almost anything to dive and swim in that gushing word stream. When the sentences purl forth, when I can do no wordly wrong, it’s like being god, or that moment in sex when you step from the rolling hills of hunger onto the vast plain of orgasm, knowing that nothing can stop you now.

So I turn on my music, and I start writing, and I’m lost — Oh, I think, that phrase is so sharp it’ll take their fingers off — and then I start wriggling uncomfortably in my chair: Yes, but would that character really do that? Oh, yep, it’s all very cool and exciting, but, really, would she do that?

And, like all addicts, I lie to myself, just to ride the high a little longer. Yes, yes, I say, it’s fine, don’t worry, just keep going. You can make it look right later. And I can. Like all expert writers, I can spin enough gorgeous sentences and narrative drive to paper over any crack and make the story look good. The crack will still be there, though; on some level, the story won’t be true.

True fiction rings pure and clear when you flick it, like a crystal wine glass. If it’s flawed, it doesn’t matter how good it looks, it doesn’t matter whether the prose gleams or the metaphors are as perfect as circles: when you flick it you get nothing but a dull buzz.

Fiction writers churn out flawed story all the time. We lie to ourselves about the essential viability of the work, and then fake it with consummate skill. These cracked works might look good, they might win awards or go on to bestsellerdom, but they are still broken.

So Kelley flicks the novel or the story and tells me what she hears. Most of the time, what I give her rings true but could be improved: word choice, metaphor system, character motivation, sentence structure, pacing and so on. She tells me so. Naturally, I hate that; there are times when I could cheerfully throw her in a tree chipper.

When we were first living together, and I was writing Ammonite, I was so grumpy about her comments that she would leave the marked-up manuscript on the dining table and flee to work. For the next nine hours I’d swear, kick furniture, and walk five times around the lake venting my spleen at squirrels and frogs and dragonflies, so that by the time she got home, I could say, You know, you might be right about that part, with the thing. This nifty little sentence, though, I don’t understand why you don’t think that works. And then we would talk.

The normal, everyday way that we work together has remained essentially unchanged: we gird our loins, take a breath, and say, Ummm, it’s not quite there yet. Needs a bit of polishing. Seventeen years of practise has made us better at it. The comment-to-acceptance curve is much shorter, and sometimes we can go through six iterations on the same manuscript without me hurting the furniture.

Every now and again, though, we have to deliver seriously bad news. We have to tell each other that something is broken.

I have told Kelley, once, that the novella she had slaved over was irretrievable: the characters, the premise, the plot were all wrong, and nothing would do but to throw it away. I felt like a monster, as though I had told a new mother she should throw her baby back into the hospital pool and try again. Every time Kelley hands me something new, I wonder, just for a moment, if I’ll have the courage to do that again if I must.

Twice, Kelley has done the same thing for me, once with a story, once with a novella. The story was of no real consequence: I saw almost immediately that she was right. I was a bit miffed, but these things happen. I shrugged, stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it. With the novella, I nearly didn’t listen.

It was a very personal piece — about a woman who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — and I thought it was both brave and beautifully written. (I always think that about a newly-finished work: my baby really is a genius.) I handed it to Kelley, beaming. She read it, looked troubled, and said, I don’t think this works. I frowned. I stayed calm. I asked why: was it the imagery? The character? No, no, she said, they were fine. What, then? She frowned and said she needed to think about that. Two days later, she was still thinking: she was sorry, but she couldn’t pinpoint the flaw; I’d papered it over so well she couldn’t find it, but it was there. The story didn’t ring quite true.

At this point we’d been living together seven years. I trusted her. So I took the novella apart looking for the flaw. I held it up to all the bright critical lights I could bring to bear; I hefted it, emotionally, and found it pleasing; I ran through the phrases in my mind, and I couldn’t find anything wrong. Not a thing. I agonised: I believed Kelley, but I couldn’t find the flaw. Maybe she was wrong. So I sent it to a small magazine and by return mail got a contract, for what at the time was a princely sum, and a letter of fulsome praise. I signed the contract and cashed the cheque. But I felt uneasy, as I usually do when I rationalise. That unease grew, and grew, and grew, until one day about three months after I’d sold it, I took the novella out of a drawer, and flicked it one more time, and listened, and heard a sickening buzz. I still didn’t know what was wrong with it, but clearly something was, so I returned the money and told the editor I was very sorry, but I was pulling the story. Why? he said. I don’t know, I said, but it’s not right.

Now, of course, I know what the problem is — but it’s taken me years to figure it out. And one day I’ll rewrite the piece, only it won’t be a novella, and everything in it will be different.

So Kelley and I try to keep each other honest. We don’t always manage it with equanimity. But we keep telling each other what we think, and we keep listening because we know and trust each other and each other’s work.

It also helps that we’re extremely aware of the differences in that work. We often joke that our worldview and our writing — process and product — are diametrically opposed. I write from the outside in, and Kelley writes from the inside out. My focus tends to be physical: the character moves through her environment, and what she notices about that environment becomes a reflection of her internal journey. My metaphors are geophysical, environmental, physiological. Kelley’s focus, on the other hand, is emotional. Her characters have nuanced, delineated interior lives. Her metaphors are cultural and pop-cultural and interpersonal.

It’s been fascinating in the last few years to see the beginnings of a crossover in our work. Kelley’s is becoming more environmental, mine more interior. I don’t think we’ve lost anything by this; I prefer to believe we’ve enriched and deepened our skill set. If I’m lying to myself I’m sure Kelley will tell me. Sigh.

– – –

I will always tell you, darlin’, the same way I will always be honest about the work, although there are days when I’d rather jump in the tree chipper all by myself.

This persistent, sometimes ruthless clarity has become part of our bedrock. It’s not just in service of each other, although that’s a good enough reason: it’s in service of the work itself, and our shared belief that writing can, and should, be true rather than clever. Glam prose is like salt-and-vinegar chips: easy to eat, hard to stop, and tastes so good that it’s only later people realize all you’ve really fed them is a giant potato. And yet, I yearn to be a rock star of writing, I really do, and my constant challenge is to strut, to wail, to put my guts on parade, to grab the reader’s heart and head and hips, to create meaning that makes them move not just because it is a pretty noise. Pretty doesn’t make my meal. Perhaps it would if I had not met and married as I have, but it’s too late now: someone who loves my love of rhythm and riff, and understands how it can slide out of tune, sits across the table from me every day and holds me to my own center. That’s the crux of it: Nicola doesn’t help me make my work more like what she thinks it should be, but what I think it should be. She helps me reach for my vision of my writing, as she helps me reach for my vision of my self.

So here we are in this marriage where love and work are inextricably connected. Behind it, as with all marriage, is our constant effort to define the lines between self and other in professional as well as personal terms, and our trust that these lines will hold no matter how far into each other we step: boundaries that are not necessarily barriers, permeable but not passive. We’re strong people. We could push each other to our own image as people and writers, but it’s better that we don’t: it might be more comfortable to have identical notions of how words best weave together, but it’s better that we don’t. Our differences allow us to give to each other without losing ourselves.

All our influences come together in the stories we tell. It’s an exciting time to be a writer, with so much fodder for story available, only a mouse click away from the hopes, dreams, fears, and experiences of others. People are webbed together physically and psychically in ways whose consequences we’re only beginning to understand, with such potential for resonance and connection. Story is no longer the preserve of the few: anyone can make a blog, a website, a movie and the soundtrack to go with it. This can be troublesome for writers: public dissemination of text, formerly the great divide between the amateur and the professional, is now possible even for folks who couldn’t find a felicitous phrase with both hands. As a result, the writer is becoming less separate from the writing: the edges of public and private identity are blurring. As we have more access to the world, it has more access to us.

I think this frightens some writers: that which was a barrier is now only a boundary, more permeable than is perhaps comfortable. But this narrowing of the gap between writers and readers is a joy for people like me and Nicola, who are accustomed to the tension of self and other with regard to our work, and welcome the chance to connect with readers in ways that enhance their experience of our text. Which is the key: as much as I want to be a rock star, I’m resisting the impulse toward the Cult of Me. My connections with readers are about the work: how it is to read, to write, to become part of each other’s story for a little while.

Nicola and I manage these connections primarily through our websites. (Why doesn’t every writer have a website? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.) The heart of these sites is not the information about us, or our work: it’s the forums we’ve set up to interact with readers. People who submit questions or comments to Ask Nicola (hers) or Virtual Pint (mine) will get a response from us, and sometimes from other readers. What started for each of us as a random Q&A is becoming a conversation, as questions build on one another and ideas cross-connect.

I love Virtual Pint. I knew when I began that many readers who enjoyed my work would delight in safe access to me (it’s less vulnerable than raising one’s hand in a bookstore). I didn’t expect to find the same joy in it that I do in conversation over beer and a Philly cheese steak sandwich in my neighborhood pub. But perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise: after all, it’s just another way to connect. To share story.

– – –

But what story? We are complex creatures; the stories we build and tell are overlapping, contradictory, and always under construction. The story I tell in a novel isn’t the same story I tell on my website, which isn’t the same story I share in a deep conversation with a friend. The telling and listening changes us, which changes our story, which changes us: on and on, as endlessly as a fractal.

I think of the text of a novel as a blueprint and the novelist as architect and builder. I might specify where the walls and windows go, the height of the ceilings, I’ll decide on the elevation and orientation, but the readers provide their own experience and tastes and furniture. They paint the walls and move the doors and put in light fixtures, add the hideous horsehair sofa and hang wishy-washy watercolours over the fireplace. One person moves into my text and turns it into a chintzy cottage; for another it becomes a minimalist temple. Every reader inhabits a different novel.

One of the things I love about a truly great novel is that if it is built well, I can read it over and over: as the years pass, as I change it does, too. I discover in it new truths.

Our experience changes our truth. In that sense, the influence Kelley and I exert over each other and our work is enormous. We bring each other bits of the world the other might otherwise ignore. She surfs blogs and tells me what’s going on in the pop culture world; I devour The Economist and explain the (to me) hilarious English sniping. She gives me the lastest mashup to listen to, I bring her gosh-wow science news about developments in quantum teleportation or ambient information delivery. I drag her off to watch wide-screen historical epics where people whack each other’s heads off with swords, she persuades me of the value of seeing Serious Films about Anguished People.

We share with each other, we change each other, and then every day we have to decide how much of ourselves we share with the rest of the world. Most novelists wrestle with the question of what to put in or leave out of our fiction. It’s a paradox: we want to tell people our truth, but we’re terrified of being seen and known. Here’s another paradox: I believe firmly that it’s a mistake for a reader to assume she knows the details of a writer’s life from reading her work, but I also believe that if you have read all of my novels you have an essential grasp of how I regard the world. The details are fictional, but the essence shines through. I can’t hide it: most of me doesn’t want to. Trying to hide is probably the major contributing factor to bad fiction. (Impatience, and lack of talent, are the other two.)

Fiction isn’t the only forum to consider. I started Ask Nicola on my website a few years ago and now have hundreds of thousands of words addressing questions ranging from academic and philosophic esoterica to “I think my granddaughter is a lesbian, what should I do?” I have to learn how to answer using only my own internal compass and long conversations with Kelley — because there are no guidebooks about this stuff, it’s too new. How honest should one be? How guarded? What do my readers deserve to know? What do I want to tell them?

The Kelley and Nicola you meet via Virtual Pint and Ask Nicola are not quite the same Kelley and Nicola you might meet at a party, but if you’d read even a handful of our answers, you would easily connect the person with her text. I’m sure that shocks no one. What shocks me — despite experiencing it with Kelley on a daily basis for the last seventeen years — is the extent to which answering truthfully questions about my work influences that work. For example, a couple of years ago a reader wrote in and asked me about the role of music in Stay and The Blue Place, and the stance from which the narrator, Aud, thinks about music. I didn’t know the answer; I’d never even thought about it. I said so. But I knew that was the easy way out. So I promised the reader I would think about it, and I did: while brushing my teeth, while stroking the cat, while chopping vegetables. And I was amazed at how little I knew about Aud, and this realisation led to discussions with the reader (it turns out she’s a composer), which led to several scenes in my new novel where we learn more of Aud’s past, her relationship with her mother and her attitude to the world — all through her interaction with two different pieces of music. All because of that initial question and the train of thought triggered by trying to answer it truthfully.

What this reader did with a query about my work, Kelley and I do for each other every day. We reflect and illuminate, we ask the hard questions of each other and expect deep, considered answers. Asking and answering changes everything.

Meeting Kelley changed everything. I felt it, the first time I saw her. There she was, limping down that corridor — I could barely breathe it was so hot; the air was like warm potato soup — and I saw her and thought, Oh. Every single cell in my body lined up like iron filings and pointed at her. She is my magnet. And she is my book. I read her over and over.

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