On May 14, 2013 my debut novel, River of Dust, will be published and I will have the incredible satisfaction of finally getting to share my work more broadly than ever before. Twenty-five years ago, one of the best literary agents in the country represented my first novel, but was unsuccessful at selling it. Since then, two more of my novels have been represented by agents, but remain unpublished. Over the past quarter century, I’ve lived in three cities, raised two children and have written a total of six novels. I’ve persisted at my craft, rising most days to write, even though I had no audience. But, River of Dust, wasn’t written in a dogged, determined way. Something completely surprising happened to bring this novel to fruition and onto the bookshelf. Before writing River of Dust, I had worked for five years on another novel called Sleepwalking to China. Over two dozen agents ended up reading it, several more than once, because the premise of the book was intriguing enough to engage them. Sleepwalking to China told the story of three generations of an American family with ties to Asia: the grandfather and grandmother were American missionaries in northwest China; the father grew up there and returned as a Marine at the end of WWII; and the son ended up in Vietnam at the fall of Saigon. And yet, the story was told by the daughter, a lost sixties radical who winds up adopting a Chinese child and returning to the land of her father and grandparents. The agents and fellow writers who kindly agreed to read the manuscript all found strengths, but also, something wasn’t quite right about it. It just wasn’t working as a whole.
After twenty-one drafts, some quite different from each other, I set the book aside and over about nine months wrote an entirely different novel set in contemporary Richmond, Virginia. But, the larger, more ambitious Sleepwalking story kept calling to me. I managed to get some crucial help with it by consulting an editor and fellow novelist, Nancy Zafris, who is now a good friend. She told me what I had feared and suspected: my big, generational novel was in fact two novels instead of one. With her assistance, I determined that I should simply tell the story of the grandparents in China in the nineteen-teens. I would take the first twenty-five pages of the longer book and focus on a plot that would take place instead all in one year, 1910.
I sat down on April 1, 2012 and wrote this new novel at a fevered pitch. The Sleepwalking book had been in my mind for at least five years, but this new novel was made up of altogether newly envisioned scenes. All of it was fresh and the conception of it felt more alive than anything I’d done in a long while. After five dogged years of work on the previous novel, I flew into writing River of Dust. On April 23, 2012, I finished a first draft. Twenty-three days to write a novel: unheard of!
Determination. Persistence. And that hard to come by third element had finally bestowed itself upon me: inspiration. All three elements were needed to make this book and I suspect are needed to make any book. And, the crucial help of others. All those emails back from agents with their thoughts on how to revise; all the comments from fellow writers and friends about the previous manuscript had educated me. And then, importantly, the brainstorming consultation I did with Nancy opened up my mind to re-create the story altogether. It gave my imagination license to go wild.
And, even more crazily, the novel that my editor at Unbridled, Greg Michalson, accepted for publication was that very first draft. My twenty-three day effort was what finally sold, a fact that feels hard to reconcile with all the discipline and rigor I had brought to my career prior to the writing of River of Dust. My twenty-one drafts of Sleepwalking to China weren’t better than this crazy first draft that Greg chose. It makes no sense, and yet maybe that’s the point: it took all those years of sweating out the earlier novels, revising and revising books that were never published, for the one quick book to sell. With Greg’s help I have since revised and improved on that first draft, but I still consider River of Dust my miracle book: mystifying to me and a total joy.
As I return to the second part of the original Sleepwalking to China now and hammer it into shape as its own new novel, I am trying to coax the lightness of inspiration to remain. Writing is not all about hard work. While it’s been satisfying all along, now the real fun begins.