How the Small Moments That Haunt Us Can Form the Seeds of a Novel
Steve Almond on Writing as a Means of Dealing With Obsession
At 21, I landed a job writing feature stories for the El Paso Times. As a child of the California suburbs, freshly graduated from a New England college, I had never thought about our southern border, let alone lived there. The view from my apartment was thus astounding. There before me was the murky Rio Grande, the ragged streets of Ciudad Juarez, and the sprawling colonias beyond, where the homes were made of concrete blocks, tarp, and old tires.
If I got up early enough, I could watch the day maids wade across the Rio with plastic bags on their heads. They would scramble up the concrete embankment to the El Paso side and pull their work clothes out of these plastic bags and change into them. Sometimes, a puke-green INS van would chase them through the desert scrub. I could watch all this from my balcony, as I sipped coffee. Welcome to America.
One Sunday morning, I came downstairs and found a woman named Lupe on the sidewalk in front of my building. She had come from Juarez at the invitation of my girlfriend, a part-time activist who had promised to provide food and clothing for her children.
I explained, in my pidgin Spanish, that my girlfriend wasn’t home and invited her up to our apartment to wait. Lupe shook her head. One of her daughters, a girl of perhaps seven, stood behind her, shyly terrified.I believe that most works of literature, and novels in particular, are seeded by a haunting, an event—or set of events—that stubbornly lodge in the author’s memory.
Suddenly, a blob of white liquid landed on Lupe’s head. Neither of us understood what had happened. We just stood there, bewildered, as the liquid oozed across her black hair. Eventually, I looked up. A pair of fat pigeons were perched above us on the phone wires. We continued to stand there, in excruciating silence. The little girl said nothing. Her eyes were dark and unsurprised.
I saw a lot of strange and upsetting things in my El Paso years. This is the one that most haunts me.
I mention all this because I believe that most works of literature, and novels in particular, are seeded by a haunting, an event—or set of events—that stubbornly lodge in the author’s memory.
There are obvious examples. Call of the Wild, for instance, is based on Jack London’s adventures in Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush, just as Moby Dick mines Herman Melville’s experiences on the whaling ship Acushnet.
But if you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that both novels arose from a particular haunting. During his northern sojourn, London fixated on the vital role that sledding dogs played in Canada. He wrote and published a short story about a dog who kills his master. He was then consumed by guilt. Call of the Wild marked his attempt to “redeem the species” by casting a dog named Buck as the hero of his story. London later noted that Buck was based on a dog he had met and admired in the Klondike.
Likewise, Melville was haunted by two events, which he did not directly witness, but which took root in his imagination. The first was the sinking of a whaling vessel called The Essex, after a sperm whale rammed it. The second was the pursuit of a great white whale named Mocha Dick, famed for its aggression. He based Ahab on a captain who was driven to kill Mocha Dick, and who inspired his crew to join this obsessive pursuit. Beneath the allegorical elements of Melville’s novel was the more elemental story that preoccupied him: how the natural world avenges the doomed human quest for dominion.
I observed the same pattern years ago, when I went to visit Kurt Vonnegut’s archive at Indiana University. Vonnegut made no secret of his desire to produce a big novel about his traumatic experiences as an American POW during the bombing of Dresden.
“When I got home from the Second World War 23 years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen,” he writes, in his famous introduction to Slaughterhouse Five. “And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big . . . I think of how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has been to write about.”
Vonnegut is vamping here. To be more precise, he’s bullshitting. Vonnegut’s memory wasn’t the problem. He was plainly haunted by his experiences in Dresden. His early, unpublished stories—as I soon discovered—were filled with the exact same incidents that would later turn up in Slaughterhouse Five: a man shot for stealing a teapot, a comrade consumed by murderous impulses, the grewsome burial duties POWs performed after the bombing.
The problem was that Vonnegut had yet to find the right way to write about these experiences. His early stories were terse and lifeless imitations of Hemingway. Vonnegut’s voice (his outlook on life, really) was wry and open-hearted. He saw war as chaotic and morally senseless, a cosmic absurdity that boggled the mind and shattered the heart.
In writing Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut liberated himself from the yoke of realism. His hero, Billy Pilgrim, became the walking embodiment of PTSD: a naïve veteran who becomes “unstuck in time.” Whether Billy is suffering delusions, or has actually been abducted by omniscient aliens, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the author has found a way to place his hauntings into a literary context, by inventing and extrapolating, rather than simply reporting.
Most novels, of course, are some canny blend of lived and imagined experience. What instigates them is a curiosity arising from events that remain unresolved in the writer’s psyche.
I’m thinking here of how Tolstoy came to write Anna Karenina. He was struck by the news that a distant relative (named Anna) had thrown herself in front of a train in response to her husband’s infidelity. Tolstoy himself attended Anna’s autopsy and was said to be haunted by the sight of her mutilated body. A year later, he started writing the novel, knowing its grim conclusion. What began as a bit of bad news led Tolstoy to investigate; that investigation deepened his curiosity.
The haunting need not be a personal experience at all, though. When George Saunders talks about the genesis of his 2017 novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he cites a visit to Washington, DC. His wife’s cousin pointed out a hilltop crypt in which Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, was interred after his death, in 1862. Lincoln was said to have visited the crypt on several occasions to hold his son’s body. An image of this scene “spontaneously leapt” into the author’s mind, where it resided for more than two decades, until Saunders summoned the nerve to take a run at the novel.
The book focuses on a single night during which Lincoln’s grieving is attended by a rambunctious chorus of ghosts, who reside in the Bardo, a kind of Buddhist purgatory between death and reincarnation. These fabulist elements, along with historical material gathered by Saunders, can be thought of as the context used to frame the essential story, which explores the depth of paternal love and mourning.
In the case of social novels, the impetus to write inevitably comes in the form of moral anguish. I’m thinking, here, about Megha Majumdar’s masterful 2020 novel, A Burning. There are clearly autobiographical elements in the book, which is set in Kolkata, India, where the author grew up. But Majumdar left India in 2006. The particular haunting her novel seeks to address is the recent rise of Hindu nationalism and religious bigotry against Muslims, which she tracked from afar. Of the three characters who drive the story, one exploits this movement, one is martyred by it, a third operates more equivocally.
A Burning exemplifies how social novels operate. They dramatize the toll born by those trapped within larger systems of corruption. The powerless are annihilated, while those who seek power are inevitably coopted.
An even more recent example is the new novel A Tiny Upward Shove, by Melissa Chadburn. I should admit that I’m a friend and former teacher of Melissa’s (you can read our conversation here), and was thus lucky enough to read early drafts of her book. For this reason, I’ve been able to track how Melissa’s hauntings shaped the manuscript.
Early on, the book focused on the experiences of Marina, a young woman who shared elements of her biography with the author. But as Melissa continued to revise, she became consumed by the broader theme she was exploring in her work as a journalist and activist: the vulnerability of poor children, particularly girls, both to addiction and sexual predation. What began as a bildungsroman expanded into a sweeping account of numerous characters living on the perilous margins of the child welfare system.
Which brings me back to my own novel. When I first sat down to write All the Secrets of the World, in 2014, I was inspired by an event that took place when I was 14. The father of one of my best friends, a quiet professor of astronomy, was apparently abducted, his blood-soaked Jeep found abandoned in the desert. When I went to visit my friend a few weeks later, his mother greeted me at the door. I was astonished to find that her hair had turned white.
I knew I wanted to write about this disappearance, which occurred in 1981, at the dawn of the Reagan era. But as I wrote, the context began to shift. I found myself focusing on the accidental friendship between a rich white girl named Jenny, and her classmate Lorena, whose family was poor and undocumented. It is Jenny’s father who eventually disappears, and Lorena’s brother who becomes the leading suspect.
Like my pal Melissa, I wanted to explore the larger systems that guide the fate of individuals: the criminal justice system, the media, political actors such as Reagan himself. But the more I wrote, the more I zeroed in on my essential concern, which was the relative value of human life, and how our immigration system dishonors the American dream by treating refugees as de facto criminals. As I was finishing the book ICE agents were, in fact, ripping children from their mothers and fathers at the border.
But it wasn’t those fresh images that had steered the direction of the book. It was my time in El Paso, the indelible image of Lupe standing on the sidewalk with her daughter, all those years ago, her dark hair soiled. My novel does not include any such scene. But it exists because I felt the need to dramatize the reality I encountered on the border: that those who come to the United States in search of succor can expect to be shit upon.
And that’s really what I’m after here: that all writers—and novelists in particular—must learn to heed those events and memories that haunt them most profoundly. We become curious as to their meaning, which spurs our imaginations to create a story in which these events are resurrected, rearranged, and sometimes resolved.
This is why, when young writers ask me what they should be writing about, I always tell them the same thing. I tell them to write about what they can’t get rid of by other means.
All the Secrets of the World by Steve Almond is available now from Zando Projects.