Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What is your novel about?

Whenever someone asks me this, I either 1) politely try to say nothing at all, because, like Flannery O'Connor first announced, if I could reduce it to one line, I wouldn't have needed to write all those extra pages, or 2) go on at great length, tiring out myself and the person listening to me, until I feel like a fool for talking so much and/or the other person finishes off their drink and with a tight smile slips away.

The problem is, oftentimes I have a hard time explaining what the novel's about because I have a hard time knowing myself. It's so many things at once, it's wild and it's woolly, it's A Big American Novel, it spans generations, it goes from Hitler's Bunker to the Animal Testing labs of Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark, there's 9/11 and a northern California cult, latter-day pilgrims who refuse all food additives and wear clothes no more modern than the 50s -- American Fundamentalists, the press calls them. On and on like this I can continue, unfurling one loose strand of narrative only to tie it down and let go of another, but now I've discovered a way to succinctly give my pitch, a way to boil it down to the simple and most basic truths: respond to the question -- "So what's the novel about?" in a language I only half-ass speak. Like tonight when my new Russian tutor, a 70-year-old woman who teaches me how to make my consonants soft more for the company than the profit, asked me, "What is your book about?"

This was our second meeting. She'd known I was writing a novel since first we met. Still, I hadn't expected to get into this. I only half-ass know Russian, she knows that and I know that. I speak it well enough to get back and forth in a cab, into and out of the French bakery; in no way am I equipped to discuss the finer points of narrative. So after looking at her dumbly, a look I'll call Gorbachev-in-Retirement, I at last managed this simple sentence, "An American family."

I thought to add more. I thought to describe the timing of the novel -- Y2k to 9/11, with flashbacks from 1940 on up -- but already she was interrupting me, correcting one of my endings.

So. My novel is about an American family. There. That simple.


julie ann shapiro said...

Hi Stephen,
I get asked this question a lot too. I usuallly answer it's a literary mystery. If they press me further I'll say it's a character driven story. Then if they show a sincere interest I'll share more of the story and the compelling characters. But most people I think ask to fill up space because us writers are so different than most people. Julie

katrina said...

Good answer. I'm looking forward to reading it.