Thursday, August 12, 2010

Based on a true story

A befuddled eyewitness account

Weird things happen sometimes. A year ago at this time I was immersed in a weird thing myself. You'd think I would have a clue why it occurred, but you'd be wrong. Perhaps it was like the pressure building up inside a containment vessel until at some point the vessel ruptures and the contents spew out in a sudden, uncontrolled pulse. Maybe it was like that.

Whatever the explanation, the result was that I spewed out 110,000 words of text in 20 days.

It was pretty awesome.

I have witnesses, too. They watched in bemusement as the pages poured out of my computer. One of my victims was my friend GW:
You've got a lot of nerve, Zeno, sending me pages from your upcoming novel, thereby totally knocking out a good half-hour of my day. How dare you!

I can see the family flames beginning to ignite.
Yeah, GW was instantly aware that I was writing a roman à clef based on my family's history. He started the guessing game. Was this particular character based on my grandfather or my uncle? Is this person based on your dad?

It was immediately obvious that the boy desperate to run away to college was me.
It seems like the character Paul might be playing your role in the story, being a puzzle and a weird mix of genes, and liking Wagner and books. Yeah, in a story about dairymen in Tulare county, that starts to sound like you.
So tell me, did the real trial over your grandmother's will involve a handwriting “expert” and, if so, did you simply pull the dialog from the court transcript? I know, that would be cheating and unnecessary for Zeno, but it's so crisp and logical that it made me think, well, that you copied out of the transcript!
No transcript. It was all cobbled up from memory and make-believe, although it might have been nice to have a transcript for reference purposes.

You see, my family really did rend itself into warring camps when my grandmother died and deprived us of the great peace-making matriarch whose disapproving glance could turn the blood in our veins into ice water. We flew to flinders in the absence of the binding force of that formidable center.

That great cataclysm occurred nearly thirty years ago. Some family relationships were gradually repaired. Others never recovered. (My godfather and I never spoke another word to each other.)

Most of my family has yet to see the manuscript. I quietly shared it with my sister. She called me up to say she had had difficulty putting it down. “It brought back a lot of memories,” she said. Even though I wrote it as fiction, the outline of the story is faithful to our family disaster. My sister was also very concerned that I was going to stir up old resentments and spark recriminations. Her son perused the manuscript, but was less concerned:

“The good thing for you is that the characters who would be most insulted by an accurate depiction of what they really are like are dead, incompetent, or almost illiterate,” he said.

I can't imagine where my nephew got his sharp tongue. Such a rascal.

He's heard several of the family stories before. The weird and tragicomic anecdotes are staples at family gatherings. (Some of them have trickled onto this blog.) My sister would often comment after the nth retelling of a family fable, “Someone should really write these down, but it would have to be as fiction. No one could believe they actually happened in real life.”

Every time I heard her say that, I would think, I could do that. But I never did. At least, not until last year. That's when the stories that had been percolating through my brain for decades burst loose and spilled onto the pages of a book-length manuscript. In a way, I had been rehearsing the saga for all those years, so perhaps it's not so surprising how the episodes poured out at a rate of 5500 words per day.

I was rather stunned when it all came together like that, with the fictional mortar binding together the real-life incidents. Thanks to the comments of GW and a few other readers, I revised and expanded the manuscript in a more leisurely fashion over the subsequent months, reaching a “final” product last spring. It tilts the scale at nearly 125,000 words now and that's what is in the hands of a publisher's team of reviewers.

GW was pensive at the end of last August's exercise in prolixity:
Phew, so we're done? I actually read a whole book in a bit less than three weeks, must be some sort of record. I'm really glad I got to participate in this bit of madness. I enjoyed it for the reading, but also to see you crank this stuff out, day after day. I'd say Where does it come from, but we mere mortals don't really want to know.
I shared the manuscript with my college president, under the heading of “What I did during my summer vacation.” He was dutifully amused (one must give moral support to one's faculty members), but then—who saw that coming?—he read the whole damned thing. He sent me a message:

“I got goosebumps, a tug in my heart, and chuckled out loud with the close of your book.”

Damn. That's going in the cover blurb.


GW said...

Zeno is not exaggerating, I really did read an entire book in less than a month. And, also true, he wrote that book in the same time it took me to read it. In fact, after the feat was finished, he was awarded a certificate certifying that he was now a member of the Book of the Month Club, for having written a book in less than a month.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I think Simenon did it faster.


Hitchcock on phone: Is M. Simenon in?

Maid: No, m'sieur. M'sieur is writing a novel.

Hitchcock: I'll hold.


Bonne chance, M. Zeno (translate to Portuguese at will).

Zeno said...

Vraiment! But one suspects that m'sieur did not write the entire novel while his caller was on hold, n'est-ce pas?

Muito obrigado para seus bons desejos!

Anonymous said...

I cannot wait to buy it, as I have enjoyed your writing for some time now.

kai said...

So will the book be published under the nom de plume of Zeno Ferox, or will you break your anonymity?

The Ridger, FCD said...

I can't wait to read it, either; your writing is in general entertaining and when it's about your family it's more so.

Nathan said...

I hope the best for you, Zeno. I also hope you continue your blog even after you are all famous. I've really come to love it.

Zeno said...

It'll break my anonymity, Kai. But then, it's not all that difficulty to break it now, if anyone really cared. I still won't be using my real name on this blog, but linking to a published book will rather give the game away.

As, of course, will the massive fame and fortune and TV appearances and movie deals. (And then I woke up...)

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

"But one suspects that m'sieur did not write the entire novel while his caller was on hold, n'est-ce pas?"

That was the joke, though ...

Zeno said...

Bien sûr. C'est très drôle.

llewelly said...

I still don't know what to say about your upcoming book. Except that I really, really want to read it.

Zeno said...

Thanks for all of the nice comments. Maybe I should bundle them up and forward them all to the editor at the university press that's considering my manuscript.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Bundle away!

Jimmy Johnson made us all write to his editor directly to convince her that we really really really want a collection of Arlo & Janis strips in book form.

I'm sure the Pharyngular horde wouldn't mind asking your publisher for biographies of sons of dairyfarmers of Portuguese descent. It's a niche market, but we can be vocal.

Zeno said...

Mind you, Sili, it's not a biography as such. It's a novel. That way I can tell my offended cousins, "Oh, that's not you, that's just a fictional character in a novel!" (A character who looks like you, behaves like you, is the same age as you, and committed embezzlement like you. That's all!)

Unknown said...

Bah! Google ate my comment.

Add me to the bundle who want this book. The deftness with words that you show in your blog posts is no doubt reflected in you longer work. I would immediately put this book at the head of my large stack of reading material.