To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel. This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me. Here’s the first one.
I never enjoyed writing like I enjoyed writing Madhouse Fog. I set it up to be a liberating experience, a novel written mostly for fun, and that’s how that first draft felt.
I started writing it in January of 2007. It was a time of limbo in my life. In November of 2006, Manic D Press had agreed to publish Train Wreck Girl. When I’d talked over publishing schedules with Jennifer at Manic D, we’d decided that the book would come out in the summer of 2008. It was too late for the book to come out in the summer of 2007, and I could only tour during summers. So that novel was written, sold, and sitting on ice for a year. I’d also decided to go back to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. All of my applications were submitted. There was nothing for me to do but wait on those. My teaching schedule was hectic that semester, as it is every semester, but I didn’t have to be on campus on Mondays or Wednesdays. Writing on novel on those days seemed like a good idea.
I wanted to do something different, too. Before I had an idea of what I wanted to do, I had an idea of what I didn’t want to do. Specifically, there were two things I wanted to avoid. First, when I wrote Train Wreck Girl, I had an outline. I had a few of them, actually. I wrote the bulk of that novel in the summer of 2005 and I followed an outline pretty closely. In the summer of 2006, I decided that the outline made the ending too predictable and serious changes had to be made. I wrote a new outline and rewrote the second and third two-thirds of the novel. When I got to the end this time, it occurred to me that, if I were the main character, I would act differently in that last chapter. I broke from the outline and did what felt organic. I thought it strengthened the novel. I told myself, “That’s it. No more outlines.” With Madhouse Fog, I figured I’d take it all the way in that direction. Not only would I write without an outline, but I’d write without a clear idea of what was supposed to happen.
The second thing I wanted to avoid was writing for an audience. Any audience. I’d been writing for Razorcake for six years by then, and for Flipside for five years prior to that. I’d published hundreds of pieces in punk rock zines. I felt I knew my audience and wrote in a way that was very much tailored to fit that audience. There’s something comforting in that. I didn’t necessarily want to give that up. I’d keep writing in that style for Razorcake. I just felt like, with this novel, I wanted to expand beyond that.
At the time, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that a gulf existed between the novels I wrote and the novels I loved to read the most. Then (as now), if I were asked to name my favorite author, I couldn’t do it. If I were asked to name my favorite two authors, I wouldn’t hesitate. Haruki Murakami and Thomas Pynchon. At the time, I’d read everything published by Thomas Pynchon and everything by Murakami that had been translated into English.
I asked myself, what if I could write my own Murakami novel?
Well, first I knew that I couldn’t. My voice is my voice. No matter what I think I’m doing when I write fiction, no matter how different I think the main characters are from me, they always talk just like I talk. I think that’s a good thing. I like the way I talk. I’ve spent decades fostering this voice. I don’t want to lose it. And, luckily, I couldn’t lose it if I wanted to. So if I tried to write my own Murakami novel, the first thing I knew was that it would really be a Sean Carswell novel. Just as Drinks for the Little Guy was supposed to be my rendition of Tortilla Flat and no one picked up on that (except for Bob, the former drummer for the band Tiltwheel); just as Train Wreck Girl was my version of Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem and not even Bob picked up on that, this would be my version of Murakami knowing full well that it wasn’t going to be that much like Murakami.
But I also knew a lot about Murakami’s process. I’d read about him writing his first couple of novels while standing at his kitchen counter after work. He’d written his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, without any sense of where the novel was going. Reading the first half of that book, it’s clear to me that he’s trying to find his plot and that his unnamed narrator is groping for a story to situate himself in. I figured I could start there.
I started working on it the week before the semester began, somewhere mid-January, 2007. I had a clear idea of where I wasn’t going to go with the book, but no clear idea of where I was going to go. I also had no pressure. The big events of my life were nestled in the past or waiting for me in the future. I had this nice little pocket of time that was just for me.
I started typing and hoped it would turn into writing.