"6 THE RISE"
With the four novels preceding it, I had created a fairly melancholy, but also very tame body of work. My characters were generally good-at-heart, and when thrust into violent or awful situations, there was minimal leering on my part. This wasn't because I don't find visceral work to be of value; on the contrary, I do. (Hey, I will argue the merits of "Dawn of the Dead" anytime, anyplace.) It was just not where I felt I should take those stories, or my career.
On this novel, I decided to throw caution to the wind. I wanted a book that would be most certainly for 'adults only.' The characters are all severely flawed-selfish and hedonistic-and they behave terribly. There is a heavy dose of sex (girl-on-girl, guy-on-guy, rape, orgy, incest, masturbation, voyeurism) and violence (decapitation, torture, mutilation, drowning), and anything else that would make me, and hopefully the readers, painfully uncomfortable (yet entertained!.) The telling is not artless-this isn't pornography-but the seediness is very much in the foreground.
It is the story of a wealthy family, quarantined during a modern plague. Father, Son, and Daughter begin sneaking out at night, getting into all sorts of trouble; Mother, Grandfather, and baby girl stay inside and are haunted in various ways by their past.
6 had been germinating in stages for a few years. Other plague works came before, so I was very aware of being unique. The story was first inspired by the play "One Flea Spare," about a quarantined house in 1800s London, as well as by Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year." There's an excellent section about rampant diseases in Italy in Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter," which I also found interesting. As well, there is Albert Camus' "The Plague," which is not only the most comprehensive fictional account of a city under quarantine, but is also one of the best works ever written, period. Two of this year's finest novellas were Donald Antrim's "The Verificationist" and Jim Crace's "Being Dead"-books of great stillness which I tried to emulate, the first taking place exclusively in the air above a dinner table as the narrator floats out of body, and the second on a beach, as a murdered couple decompose in great detail. These last two works were invaluable to me, since half the characters in my book were never going to leave their rooms.
Okay, so that's enough of the damn Callahan book club
For technique, I read about something used by Jacqueline Susann ("Valley of the Dolls") which I wanted to attempt. My usual process is to write a complete draft, start to finish, then polish and change within the document until I'm satisfied. (Much like recording music I usually record all the tracks quickly, and then mix and mix until I'm satisfied. Rarely do I record a song a second time from the scratch.) Apparently, Jackie S. would write the entire novel four times. The first draft was on pink paper and was solely the plot points. The second draft was starting again at page one, where it was only the characters she minded, and polished. The third draft was a combination of the first two drafts, only now it was on brown paper and dialog was the focus. Lastly, she did a draft on white paper that was to be the finished novel. Granted, this was the time of manual typewriters, and re-typing everything was a necessity. However, I liked the idea of layering the work, compartmentalizing it: plot, characters, dialog, polish. I wanted to see if that deepened my own work.
In January of 2000, I did a draft where I set the structure and plot. Then I started a second draft for characters in late May. However, as I did this, I got discouraged. The first draft, with no heed to dialog or characters, was God awful. I didn't even want to look at it. Each time I sat down to write, that terrible manuscript was staring me in the face, so rough and tedious.
So I switched gears and wrote the first half of an AUDREY GREEN sequel, which will be available sometime soon (if all goes well ) That new book was coming along swimmingly, but then I found out I was going to London for a while. Since the Audrey books are set in England, I figured I'd wait until my trip was over, get some inspiration, and then pick it up when I returned (which I'm doing as I write this.) Because I'm a completionist, I decided in the meantime to take one more run at 6 THE RISE in the month before my trip.
This time, things went much better, and I do think it turned out to be a good novel. It's not brilliant-I don't think it will be anyone's favorite novel of all time, but it was an interesting challenge, and I learned a lot from doing it.
So why write it? Why spend a year on a novel if it isn't brilliant? Well, just like UNSETTLED, I think 6 THE RISE is a transitional book. UNSETTLED, as proud as I am of that one, is still nowhere near as good as THE NUMBING OF AUDREY GREEN. However, I couldn't have written the latter without the former. UNSETTLED was the building block to a better quality of language, which I employed throughout AUDREY GREEN. 6 THE RISE has hopefully taught me two more important things: first, to not be scared of tough subject matter, and second, to slow down time while not putting the reader to sleep. Those points were not perfected in the writing of this one, but at least they were sharpened. To me, that was worth it. Besides, this may be someone's favorite novel-you never know It could be a hit; I've been known to be a poor judge of audience in the past (see TRAVEL's "Opus Oil Slick" on the MUSIC page.)
Oh, and if I try the Jacqueline Susann technique again, I will definitely do it with a shorter book. 6 THE RISE is very, very long-only a few pages shorter than HOURS UNTIL WE SLEEP. To write from scratch, and in layers, on so many pages, can take years. I'm just such an impatient man. I believe that the truest inspiration (for me) comes quickly, and I must act quickly. Doing the same story over and over drives me up the wall. Not that I'm anti-revising, I just don't want to get buried in it. Well now I know, right?
A final note
It had been gently pointed out to me that my endings
were a bit of a letdown. AUDREY GREEN was meant to be the first
of three books, so I'm excused there
but the other books all sort
of implode at the end. That was what I was going for; that is what I
like. Yet, I have been told, from some readers, that there was a feeling
that I was being too ambiguous. So for 6, it's the best damn
ending I've ever written. It has a twist, it plays with time, and it
climaxes six plotlines all at once, hurling them all together. I feel
it has both resonance & mystery, and is going to be satisfying.
If you hate the book, then it still may be worth finishing just for
that ending. So get off my case, O Mindful Critics! The sledgehammer
ending has been written, and it doth rock.