I'm so pleased to have this guest post from Laura Kasischke, author of the new novel In A Perfect World, about last night's National Reading Group Month event sponsored by the Detroit chapter of the Women's National Book Association. In her new novel, Kasischke tells the story of Jiselle, a young flight attendant who has just settled into a fairy tale life with her new husband and stepchildren. But as a mysterious new illness spreads rapidly throughout the country, she begins to realize that her marriage, her stepchildren, and their perfect world are all in terrible danger. Read on to hear Kasischke's thoughts on the craft of writing and her advice for aspiring novelists.
At the Baldwin Library in Birmingham, Michigan, tonight, I had the good fortune to celebrate National Reading Group Month with a group of readers and writers about the novel-writing process. One of the many beauties of the readers one meets in book clubs is that they come to books for more than the easy stuff. They quickly slide past the who, what, where of a novel, the I-liked-this-character and I-didn’t-understand-the-end of your casual reader. They want to examine the form and function. They wish to dip deeper into the choices a writer has made, and consider the ramifications of those choices.
I also find that they are often, themselves, novelists, or novelists-to-be. It’s in the deep make-up of close readers that they could be, or will be, writers themselves.
So, I decided to speak to them as novelists, as well as readers of novels, and to discuss the novel-writing process—its harrowing trials, and its rewards. The title of my lecture: “What Doesn’t Kill You.”
"What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" are words which, if they’ve ever been spoken to you, you know are not the least bit consoling because we all know instinctively that they are simply not true, that those things in life that come close to killing us, rather than making us stronger, usually serve, instead, to weaken us to such a degree that the very next thing that comes along will kill us. As Oscar Wilde said, “Life breaks everybody.” This could not be true if it were also true that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In terms of Darwinian theories of natural selection and evolution, I’m sure this adage does apply, but this is rarely much of a consolation to the individual who finds himself in a full body cast or whose wife has just left him and taken all the furniture.
But I do believe it’s true that, although it’s a false statement when applied to most difficult life experiences, there is one arena in which the statement “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” can be applied and proven to be true-- and this the writing of a novel.
Upon looking in to the manner of death of some of my favorite writers, I had to admit that, in one way or another, a few of them actually were killed by writing and revision—for instance, although James Joyce died following surgery for a duodenal ulcer, his last words “Does anybody understand?” suggest that the seven years he spent writing Ulysses and the seventeen years he spent on Finnegan’s Wake may have taken a toll. But most writers weren’t killed by their novels. They soldier on. Famously, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “I cannot write Mrs. Dalloway.” What if she had given up that day?
Maybe the task of novel writing could be seen as kin to the struggle that is our life, the struggle to the end of it, when the thing, finally, that they all assured you wouldn’t kill you but would make you stronger, kills you.
The poet Conrad Aiken, one day in his hometown of Savannah, saw a ship passing on the ocean. It’s name, painted on the bow, was “Cosmos Mariner.”
Aiken loved the name of that ship, and was even more pleased when, upon looking the ship’s name up in the newspaper to see where it was coming from, what it was carrying, and where it was going, to find that the only information listed for the Cosmos Mariner was “Destination Unknown.”
You can visit Conrad Aiken’s grave in Savannah. His tombstone is a marble park bench facing the waters where he watched the ships, and where he spied that one, and you can sit on it and watch the ships pass. The epitaph inscribed on the tombstone is “Cosmos Mariner: Destination Unknown.”
That seems to me to about sum it up, and also is the reason its so hard to write a novel, and why we have no right really to complain about it if that’s what we’ve set out to do. The adventure of it is worth the price.
I tried to leave the group with a few points of consolation, as I could tell by their sighs and nods that, indeed, there were a great many novelists on board tonight. The first comes from Balzac, who wrote ninety-two novels before he died: “I have had many periods of wretchedness, but with energy and above all with illusion, I pulled through them all.”
The second is a quote from the physicist Brian Swimme: “If you let hydrogen gas alone for 13 billion years it will become giraffes, rose bushes and humans.”
And, lastly, the third thing, a thing you must never ever forget if you choose to write a novel and which has been proven over and over to be true, is that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
Browse inside Laura Kasischke's In a Perfect World, find her on tour near you, and check out the reading group guide. To find out about other National Reading Group Month events, visit the official website.