To All the Characters I’ve Killed Off, Who Haunt Me Still
Stuart Nadler Remembers the Darlings He's Drowned
I started my latest book, The Inseparables, in Milwaukee, on a pad of hotel stationery, in a room with a view of the Menomonee River. This was October, almost six years ago. I’d woken early, I remember. My wife was sleeping. We’d come to Wisconsin after driving north from Iowa, where we used to live before we were married. We were in a room on the industrial edge of the city, close to the Harley Davidson Museum. Every few hours, a Union Pacific railcar passed beneath the window.
The initial impulse that morning was simple: I wanted to write about someone who could run very fast. I had become transfixed with the beauty of runners, and with the simplicity of a footrace. A good race, after all, requires very little. One hundred meters. Eight hundred meters. Twice around the block. You and two others. You and five others. No shot-clocks, no goals, no shoulder pads, no risk of lasting brain injury. I’ve lost that first sheet of paper. This is probably for the best. There is no more innocent and optimistic and embarrassing moment in the life of a novel than the very first moment.
When I meet writers who are working on their first novels, I sometimes say this aloud, this thing about the optimism and embarrassment, and often I’m met with an expression I recognize—it’s a look that seems to say, “that’s you and your strange book, not me and my wonderful, totally normal, easy-to-finish, un-strange book.” I recognize that expression because it’s one, I know, I wore for a very long time.
This sentiment is probably why that first morning of work on The Inseparables I also very likely wrote something like this on the hotel stationery: Do it simply. This can be easy. Write it all the way through without stopping. I have a strong hunch I did this not simply because I am foolish and naive, and perfectly content to write foolishly naive things in the privacy of my notebooks, but because I have hundreds of scraps of paper, and the beginnings of two-dozen trashed novels, all addended with words like this—moonshot prayers over unrealized plans.
Those first lines I wrote in Milwaukee were about a woman named Waverly. In the beginning, she was the fastest woman in America, the owner, for a moment, of the world’s record in the 800 meters. She was, in those optimistic early days, a rival of Florence Griffith Joyner, a lunch companion of Bill Clinton, in possession of Michael Jordan’s cell phone number. Once, Tom Cruise called her just to say hello. I wrote about this with great joy: He’d called—just because: “Hey! What’s up! This is Tom Cruise! What’s going on! I’m Tom Cruise!” But all of this greatness, I decided, bored me, and the longer Waverly lived, the less successful she became. It did not seem as interesting to write about the fastest woman in the world as much as it did to write about the seventh fastest woman in the world: really unnecessarily fast for regular human life, but not quite fast enough. In the end, Waverly collapsed during the final 25-meter stretch of the medal round at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. In some versions, she broke one leg as she collapsed. In other versions, she broke both legs. In all these versions, I could never venture a plausible enough reason why someone could be running at world-class speed and then, all at once, break apart, as if she were a shuttle reentering the atmosphere of earth with a crack in her fuselage. In nearly all of the versions in which her legs came apart, her family watched from the stands: her mother Henrietta, her sister Oona, and her father Harold. These are the characters who live at the heart of my new novel, The Inseparables. But not Waverly. In every version of her that still exists, her story ends in late July 1992, while she sits despondent inside the oval of the Estadi Olimpic in Barcelona, legs splayed out and broken in front of her. This is where she is now, still, always. The page is unfinished. So is she.
I confess to all of this with some queasiness. After all, does anyone really need to know about the invented peregrinations of these non-characters, these killed-off notions, these embarrassments of mine, these most ghostly of fictional inventions? This book, like all books, took years. I wrote parts of this book in a public library in Massachusetts, and in a house in Tennessee with distant views of a nickel mine, and in an apartment in Washington, D.C. that overlooked the city courthouse, where, one day, I got to see both paparazzi and random enthusiastic citizens chase Chris Brown’s limousine down the street after one of his arraignments. For two weeks, I wrote in a strange hotel in Paris, in a space that was half coffee shop, half decommissioned jazz club. For the last year I worked on this book, I did so for long hours in a windowless room north of Boston, which occasioned such severe Seasonal Affective Disorder that I’m sure days passed when my neighbors heard me talking out loud to my characters. In all of these places, I murdered characters. They perished in car crashes, and fell victim to global pandemics. They died because of heinous mistakes performed by drunken surgeons. They walked into the woods in the middle of winter and did not come out. They went out to skate on ponds that looked frozen but were not frozen enough, and eventually they fell through the ice and died. They chased puppies into the street, hoping the puppies would not be killed by cars, and then they themselves were killed by cars. They went up in helicopters and came down in pieces.
I performed mergings of the soul: two grandmothers became one. Three terrible ex-boyfriends became one supremely terrible ex-boyfriend, endowed with a herculean pornography addiction, incurably bad grooming habits, and all the retrograde politics I could muster. I turned living men into ghosts, and in the process, I haunted attics and dining rooms and at least one ruined hay-barn. I made far too many men bald. For a few lost months, I built a home for all the orphans in New England. Some of those orphans lit houses on fires. Some of those orphans tried to light each other on fire, or beat each other with bricks. I drew maps of imaginary towns, even though I cannot draw. I invented a police force, and gave that police force a body to identify. I followed every loose thread.
I made a list of every irredeemable literary cliche and found, in all these early, messy drafts, that I’d violated almost everything on my list. I diagrammed every level of a grand department store. It was called Oppenheim’s, and twice a year all the orphans got to come and get free clothing, and a lunch on the top floor, where there was a restaurant and a candy counter and probably all sorts of other wondrous amusements. I can’t bring myself to go back and look. But all of it exists still, in draft after draft, try after try. Already by then, I knew the book would be called The Inseparables. My mother-in-law began to call the book “The Unfinishables.” This was, as you can imagine, a very funny joke.
For a very long time, every time I started something new, I thought of something I’d read in the forward to John Updike’s Early Stories: “…my theory in general is that if a short story doesn’t pour smooth from the start, it never will.” This sentiment is probably why I implored myself at the beginning to Do it Simply. Even then, I’m sure, I knew I had no hope of doing that. I’m writing this now not far from where Updike lived most of his life, and where, I’m guessing, he wrote this sentence, and it’s not hard for me to imagine him up in Beverly Farms, stories and novels and essays and light verse and lit-crit and art-crit just pouring out of him. But for the rest of us humans, there is nothing but process, which is a simple word, I’ve come to think, for the incremental failures and disappointments that eventually, after years, eventuate in a kind of immunity of expectation. This is the beginning. This is as far as I’m going to think.
Only my wife has read that first half-draft, begun in Milwaukee while she was sleeping, and finished some 18 months later, while we were packing up our house to move. While so much did not survive, it is striking now to see what did: the imaginary book that gives my novel its title was there from the first moment. As was the dilapidated house the family lives in. Several of the most profane lines in the book live on in that early disaster of a draft. All of this is to say that at some point amid all of this writing and trashing and Seasonal Affective Disorder, ideas began to stick. Writing is terribly boring to talk about, and writing about writing is even more boring, and writing about writing a novel about a writer is probably forbidden by law in places that have a better developed sense of the comedy and wretched self-seriousness of art-making. But now that the book is done and finished, there is the question of all those lost characters. I have files on all of these people, so many files, as if this book were merely an unintended consequence of my true enthusiasm: a fervent scheme of intelligence-gathering that would make J. Edgar Hoover proud. These files cover not just this latest book, but my other two, and the all the other stalled books and stories that began somewhere, out of some small impulse, and then ended without resolution: the seventh fastest woman on earth trying to win a race; a man recognizing his father on the street in a foreign city; a man polishing the glass counter in an empty department store.
Occasionally now, I’ll go back and revisit those people. While I am tempted sometimes to pilfer a good line, or a sharp burst of dialogue, invariably I find that these vanished characters will bump up against one of the characters who ended up making it to the book. Here, maybe, is Oona Olyphant, fresh from her shift at the hospital, clad always and entirely in black, shopping for a men’s wristwatch, something for her forever stoned husband Spencer, talking for pages to a shopkeep whose entire biography is laid out, as if I might need it. Or here is Henrietta, walking outside of her old farmhouse to see her husband, still alive, throwing fistfuls of millet and sunflowers seeds across the meadow, while Waverly walks up the long driveway after a run. These are, of course, alternate iterations of an imaginary reality, people who do not exist interacting with other people who also do not exist. Maybe this is why I’ve left all these unfinished characters as they are—the store clerks, the police officers, the suburban punk rock collective, the seventh fastest woman in the world. If writing a novel is a prolonged conversation with the part of you who still creates imaginary people in your head, then maybe the characters who make it, who end up on the printed page, are somehow more real than the ones who do not. Or maybe this kind of thinking is proof that spending inordinately long stretches of time alone in windowless rooms is really quite bad for you.
My hope that first morning was the hope every writer has at the beginning, which was that I hoped it would be painless, and that I might make it to the end of the page, the section, the chapter, that I might do all of this with ease, and without encountering any of that gnawing, silent dread that anyone who has ever done this, or failed at doing this, knows well. Writing a novel is so often a years-long exercise in prolonged delusion. This, the writer tells herself, will eventually make sense, or come together, or find readers. Or this, says the version of me from five years ago in Milwaukee, full of idiotic confidence, scribbling on a square of stationery, is going to be very easy to write. Maybe one day Waverly will get up off the track, but I doubt it. Already, I have other characters I’ve started, and it’s not looking good for them.