Reflectionsby Lowry Pei
One hot day in 1982, while I was driving, the first sentence of this book fell from the sky, almost the way it appears in the published novel: “On the hottest days, my Aunt Augusta would drive around town with the windows rolled up, so that people would think the air conditioning still worked in her old Buick.” An entire world unfolded from that sentence.
My work is the opposite of what Marianne Moore said about poetry: it is imaginary toads (the characters) in real gardens (places I’ve known in real life). The town of New Franklin, in Family Resemblances is modeled on O’Fallon, Illinois, where my friends Steve and Lis Brown have lived forever, and Augusta’s house is their house. The characters are not based on real people; they created themselves, or revealed themselves, as they chose. True, I wrote the book, and one could say they came from somewhere in me, but this doesn’t explain very much. They came from places in me I didn’t know were there.
In writing fiction, finding a way out of the self is indistinguishable from finding a way in. The self, as I understand it, connects the “in here” with the “over there,” and “out of” is “into.” The most surprising thing about Family Resemblances, for me, was that the narrator was a young woman. I didn’t think I could pull that off when it first occurred to me, but making art, if it deserves the name, is about going farther than you think you can.
From the Next Room
After Family Resemblances I didn’t want to leave the world of Karen and Augusta. I knew I wasn’t done with it, or it with me, but for some reason I thought I shouldn’t write a sequel. Instead I wrote a novel that didn’t work and caused Random House to lose interest in me, which shows how much good it does to tell the imagination what to do. From the Next Room took a long time to write and has perhaps been revised more than anything else I’ve written. I learned a great deal about craft in the gradual shaping of this book, including the lesson that you can’t truly finish a novel until you know what it’s trying to be about—which is an odd thing, because a novel doesn’t exist to convey a message, and what you finally realize your book is about may never be stated in its pages, in so many words.
Never Let You Go
In this book the real garden is University City, Missouri, just outside the city limits of St. Louis, where I grew up, and the time period (early 60’s) is when I was the age of the main characters. As ever, though, their adventures are their own. I’ve always thought that if any book of mine has “read me on the beach” written on its forehead, this is the one.
Over the Fence
This novel came from an image that stuck in my mind and would not stop recurring. In it, I seemed to be standing in the back yard of the house I grew up in, looking at the back fence with weedy vines on it, an ornamental plum that grew there, and the brick-paved alley that ran behind the fence. Nothing special was happening in this tableau; it was daytime, quiet, no one around. But out of this image—which appears at the end of chapter 5, transmogrified—came a book that went places I never expected.
Call it New Age or whatever you want. In any case, this is a book about how oddly the inner world and the outer one do or don’t coexist. To me, also, there is something comical about an insurance salesman in Columbia, Missouri having baroque spiritual encounters in an inner space that he stumbles upon unwittingly after his girlfriend up and leaves him. The term of art for what Lucas experiences is “shamanic journeying,” and yes, I do know something about it, or I couldn’t have written the novel. But no matter how far out (or in) Lucas gets, the book and the character himself are always grounded in a thoroughly ordinary world.
All novels contain, for their writers, some secret commentary on the creative process, and in this case it’s right there in the title. Around chapter 15 my imagination jumped the last barrier, or I should say my last resistance to it finally gave way. All stories that are any good write themselves sooner or later, and this one took over just as Lucas, within the book, is pulled out of this world for a time, without knowing how it happens.
For Adam and Shadowplay
For Adam was harder to write than any other book I’ve ever attempted. I started it in 1995, or at least the first notes that hint at it date from that year, and I finished it in early 2000. I don’t know how many times I reconceived it, restructured it, gave up on it; writing For Adam became failing to write For Adam. In a desperation move, I ended up including in the book excerpts from my notes, chronicling my struggle to get the book to happen. It became a short novel interwoven with these notes which, though rewritten, were definitely not fiction, a final product unlike anything else I’ve created. The shortness of the book gives no clue to the amount of work that went into it. I think it contains some of the best writing I’ve done.
The memoir “Fox on the Shore,” which was published in Ecotone in 2007, appears in a shorter form as part of the “Writer’s Journal” in For Adam.
In 2003, I submitted For Adam to a small press; the editors suggested they would be interested in a radical revision, doing away with the “Writer’s Journal” and the alternation between fiction and non-fiction. I ended up creating another book that was essentially the beginning and end of For Adam framing a different middle (the middle is always the most challenging part). This all-fiction “For Adam 2.0” is called Shadowplay. The editors who instigated it rejected it, but I’m glad it got written.
The Education of Peter Obata
[formerly known as Is This Love?]
In this book, too, my imagination jumped a fence, but I can’t say much more without spoiling part of the story. It was a bit like starting to write Family Resemblances and thinking, “But I can’t narrate a book from the point of view of an adolescent girl. Can I?” It turns out you can do all sorts of surprising things if you don’t tell yourself they’re impossible.
I was a graduate student in English during the time when the novel takes place. And yes, I was at Stanford like Peter, and he lives in an apartment I actually rented in 1973. But yet again, this is not my autobiography. Not by a long shot. Nor are Peter’s difficulties with his advisor anything like what I had the good fortune to experience in the English department.
At one time I tried to imagine what a book would be like if it could include only those things that happen while people are naked. I never wrote that, but The Education of Peter Obata is probably as close to it as I’ll get; it would be fair to call it a book about getting undressed and getting dressed.
2008: With and Without You
In late 1999 and early 2000, I had an amazingly creative sabbatical that planted the seeds of two novels and several short stories. The Education of Peter Obata had its genesis in a little note I wrote to myself on Feb. 1, 2000, and my most recent novel, With and Without You, can be traced back to a month before that. For a while I was working on both of them without being sure what either one was. I made the Peter-and-Margo material (The Education of Peter Obata) into a short story, but the story couldn’t seem to end satisfactorily, which in retrospect is no surprise; it needed to be a novel. Another batch of material that I tried to make into a novel—the stuff that eventually gave rise to With and Without You —kept not quite working. A free-write that I wrote one day became a story called “The Wait,” which I did not connect to either of the above.
The writing of With and Without You had to wait for The Education of Peter Obata to be finished, and when I did get back to it, I wasn’t sure it would ever get off the ground. Unlike all other books I’ve written, this one could not be written straight ahead from beginning to end. I’d get on a roll with one narrator or another and then the energy would inexplicably sputter and die. I had a bunch of separate, incomplete pieces by different narrators and didn’t know how to connect them, plus there were aspects of the story that I had a nagging feeling were irrelevant. It wasn’t until 2003 that I realized “The Wait,” in which a middle-aged man named Will reunites with a woman he had an affair with in his 20’s, was a piece of the novel, and a crucial piece at that. A structure finally evolved that felt right; the irrelevant parts went away; I even found out what I was writing about. In 2005 I finished the first draft, and I kept getting feedback on it and reworking it for two more years.
It’s impossible to know if With and Without You will turn out to be the last novel I write. It’s also impossible to say what constitutes completion, in the attempt to create art over a lifetime. Maybe there is no such thing, but only a sense of “close enough.” By itself, With and Without You doesn’t sum up everything I am or have to say or can do as a writer. But I think that in all seven books, taken together, I may have written the novel I’ve been trying to write all this time.
Or perhaps I will follow Tam into her future.
2016: Vinita Park
After I finished With and Without You, failed to get an agent for it, then set up this website as an archive for my novels, I felt that my work as a novelist might be over. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that in my seven novels, taken collectively, I had perhaps written the novel I set out to write: a novel about love, sex, family, heartbreak, death, loss. It wasn’t that any one book said everything I needed to say, but maybe together they said it as well as I could. Besides, by giving away my novels on the internet, I had essentially said goodbye to the effort to get legitimized by publishers. For better or worse, my non-career was over.
But it’s a funny thing about giving up: sometimes it just won’t stick.
In 2010, I had the desire to write but still the feeling that if I wrote the kind of book I had been writing, I would just be repeating myself, and as an artist, I don’t want to repeat myself any more than I can help. From somewhere I got the idea of writing a cop book — which I succeeded in proving to myself I could not do. Then I thought I’d write a cop book whose plot was about environmental degradation; I discovered yet again that I can’t write message fiction. I gave up some more. But I had the start of a story that did indeed involve a white cop and a black teenager, in one of the dinky inner suburbs of St. Louis, Vinita Park. I wrote this as a short story; then rewrote it with some radical changes; then it got longer; I decided it was trying to be a novel; I wrote as much of it as I could until my imagination stubbornly halted and refused to go one step further. I decided it wasn’t a novel, but some other unnamed form of fiction. By now it was 2013. Some people kindly read the manuscript and wanted me to add more (more what depended on the reader), but all I could feel was that I didn’t have any more. Time, yet again, to give up. 2014: I started reading Haruki Murakami. It was his influence that broke the logjam, in the end. On top of that, reality started prodding me: the death of Michael Brown at the hands of the police in Ferguson, which is only a couple of miles from Vinita Park; the death of Eric Garner, choked by New York police; the other deaths that have made such an impression on the whole country. It’s not that I wanted to, or could, turn what I was writing into a “Ferguson novel,” a fictional transmutation of the news; that would never work for me and I knew it. But I felt that what I was writing was somehow deeply tied to the times we’re living in. And that was a good motivator.
Besides the model of Murakami’s work in general — especially his boldness in allowing magical, unexplainable things to happen to utterly ordinary people — I got the key to my book from the narration of his novel After Dark. That book is narrated by an entity calling itself “we” — and thus including the reader — which sees the action, is constantly reading the story-world as a spectator, and is trying to understand. But there is no guarantee that it ever does. The story resists being understood, the story fights against being told, and we readers are pulled into the position of the one who tries to get the action to make sense, but never entirely succeeds. This, it turned out, was at last the way that the story of Vinita Park could get told.
The novel was finally completed in the summer of 2016. I continue to have conflicting feelings about its relationship to the world we live in. But one thing I know for sure is that I can’t control the reader. My job was to write it; the reader’s is to make of it what you will.