My first novel started with a writing exercise. I was doing an evening class in Dun Laoghaire and my teacher would take out the paper – I think it was the Irish Independent – and read us the short news items from the margin. The idea was to take these kernels and grow them into our own stories. That week, she read one about two brothers who’d robbed a house together, an armed robbery. The story caught me instantly: I saw one brother, reluctant, holding the family hostage, while the other ransacked the house with a kind of glee. What kind of person was he, the first brother, this unwilling accomplice? I could see already that he was younger, softer. Why was he there? How had been coerced into this? We had fifteen minutes, maybe twenty. I started to write to find the answers to the questions that bubbled in my head.
It took me more than twenty minutes to find the answer – a few years, all told, tens of thousands of words. There might not be an armed robbery in the published version of The Other Boy but there’s no doubt in my mind that the characters who came to life on my page in that classroom in Dun Laoghaire, were the first iteration of J.P. and Dessie Whelan.
Before I wrote The Other Boy, I used to think the plot for a novel would emerge fully formed, that a story needed to have a beginning, middle, and an end before I could start to write it. I heard about authors who plotted everything out on wall charts before they ever wrote a scene. That idea scared me. I didn’t know how to do that.
I still don’t.
These days, I’m lucky enough to teach creative writing. Mostly my students are homeless and many have never written much of anything before. Like my teacher back in Dun Laoghaire, I use writing prompts to get them started – a line of dialogue maybe, or a photograph of a room where their scene has to be set. And after fifteen or twenty minutes, some of them have three pages and some have a paragraph and some will have a rap song, and even though the prompt they all started from was the same, the pieces will be as unique as their fingerprints.
Lately, I’ve used some of the prompts myself, I write along as my students are writing, I’ve even started putting the prompts on Twitter. You see, I’m at that place in between novels, the one that some people call “the hallway”. Behind me, the door to my last novel has closed and the new one hasn’t opened up yet.
I don’t mean for it to sound like a bad thing, by the way, that the door to my finished novel is closed. For me, it has to close before it can open up for anyone else, before it can occupy space on bookshelves and on Amazon and hopefully, too, in people’s minds. Around now, my editor starts to ask about my next novel. Do I have an idea? A synopsis? A delivery date? For better or worse, this is the world of publishing where the focus is always on what you will write tomorrow just as the rest of the world focuses on what you wrote yesterday. And standing here, in the hallway, I don’t have the answers to those questions. Because it’s not just that the door hasn’t opened – it’s too dark to know which direction I need to walk to find it.
One of the benefits of having written more than one novel – or more than one of anything I suppose – is that even though I can’t see the door, I know that it is there. I can trust the dark, and trust knowing that my job now is to be patient and not get scared, and most important of all, to pay attention. On a good day, if I am able to do these things, ideas are everywhere: a line in a song, a second hand clothes shop, a packet of cigarettes left empty on a table, save one. On a good day, inspiration will rise from these details as easily as breath, creating characters, plots, stories, waiting to be told.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all these details will be in my next novel, or that any of them will. Some might be poems or blog posts or tiny stories or writing prompts for other people on Twitter. Some might be nothing at all. But if I listen and pay attention, I’ll probably find one that’s a bit more urgent, a bit more insistent than the rest, a detail that might call to be jotted down straight away, in my phone or on the back of a receipt or the side of a Starbucks cup. And maybe after I write that detail down, it’ll make me think of a book I read once that I need to read again, or a place I need to visit. And my job then, is to track that book down and read it, and make a trip to that place, even though I won’t yet know why I’m going.
My latest novel, How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? is told through letters and when I was at the very, very start I found myself drawn to Columbia University, some sixty blocks north of where I lived. It was a time of transition, my first few months living in New York where nothing was the same, only writing was the same, and I followed that little voice telling me to take the 1 train, trusting that I was in the right place, even when I knew, for sure, I was lost. I listened and did what that voice told me to do on sunny days and foggy days and days when it seemed stupid, a waste of time. I tuned in to that voice on days when a louder one was telling me to stop messing around and get to the library and do some proper work.
It became a huge part of the novel in the end, Columbia University. Scenes are set there but beyond that, Columbia is what links my main character, Rhea, to her future and to her dead mother’s past. Did that happen because I went there? Did Columbia work its way into the story because it was all around me or was Columbia always part of the story, waiting to be found? I’m inclined to believe the latter but I don’t suppose it really matters. Whether I find the story or the story finds me – the important thing is knowing it will be told in the end.
As for the next novel, I’m still here, in the hallway. Nothing big has happened since I wrote the first draft of this piece last week. I’ve taken a long bus journey, watched a little girl dancing in a neon pink onesie and a white hat. I’ve listened to the sound of a baseball being thrown and caught, seen a New York taxi crushed under the axle of a truck on Broadway, its bonnet peeled back to show the engine underneath.
These things probably don’t sound like inspiration to you – they wouldn’t have to me. I don’t know which details might remain in my mind, in my notebook, on my phone, longer than just today. I don’t know yet, what’s important, but maybe something is.
And it could be a trick of the sunlight in the park today, but in the darkness of the hallway, it seems like it’s getting easier to see. Right over there, it looks like there’s the faintest trace of something – I think it could be the outline of a door, even if it’s still too dark to find the handle.
(c) Yvonne Cassidy