A while back I started to save stories as a new document each day I worked on them, allowing me to see how long I've been sweating over a piece and also what changes I've made with time. Somewhere along the line, I also took to creating a document to accompany some stories called "Origins of. . . ." Today, I had a hankering to go back and do some work on a story that I was wrestling with earlier this year. I'm surprised to see I started it in 2005. Here's what I had to say about how it came to be.
I started The Book Collector after talking to my mom last weekend, after she told me yet another story about Vic Hass, this one which I had never heard before. She told me about how he had been so disappointed when none of his children wanted his library and how he eventually came to meet a local book seller who bought his entire collection and how Vic later filled in at the bookshop when the owner went out of town. The Hass’s were long time friends of my parents. There are many details of their lives which have always fascinated me. I have thought about writing an essay about Vic, who was also the book editor of the Omaha World Herald for thirty years. But the essay form does not lend itself to me the way that fiction does. With fiction, I can change and create. It is like a puzzle. I have all these pieces, details of the Hass’s life, plus my own memories. How to put the pieces together with the glue of imagination? I am gathering even more details from reading his collection of his best articles, Leaves from a Bookman’s Notebook, which has sat on my parent’s top bookshelf for as long as I can remember.
The first writings are trial and error. I let my instincts take over, the first few days, just trying to write 1000 words each day, just letting the words flow out, not worrying about structure. Today, I was attempting to figure out a structure. What should come first? What last? I know that I want it to be a story about his great disappointment that his children did not find value in those objects he dedicated his life to. But what else? How should the story telling unfold? Do I start with Vic in the book shop and then tell his story as a big flashback? Do I start when his wife died or before that? Do I begin with his mother reading stories to him after he filled the kitchen wood box?
The great and scary thing about writing fiction from real details about real people is that in the telling, you make up details and then those details become so real to you that you don’t actually remember what details are the original ones, and what ones you made up, thus, they all become real in a way. What is history but storytelling, and what is storytelling but arranging details in compelling ways?
I am reading Alice Munro’s Runaway. Two things I’ve noticed. One, her stories are series of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. She gives a lot of details. She outlines whole lives in single paragraphs. Her stories move along so swiftly you can’t imagine that the words were actually worked over and worked over. It seems to just flow out of her. And when the important part of a scene is finished, she double spaces and goes to the next thing. She doesn’t worry about making her characters exit. These are a few things I’ve noticed. Reading her while attempting to write this story, I think is a good thing.
One funny thing: I don't remember ever reading Alice Munro's Runaway. Another funny thing: I worked on that story for 4 days in 2005, one day in 2007, one day in 2008, and so far, 13 days this year. It seems to me that it might be finished soon, if I keep working on it. If I don't wake up tomorrow thinking it's terrible as I must have thought at various point in 2005, 2007, and 2008. I'm hoping that the act of publicly posting its origins will spur me to find its conclusion.