It took me one year to finish the first draft of Somerset, my novel-in-progress. Prior to starting this novel, I had been working diligently for a year on another novel, one about Congolese miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prior to starting it, I had read Blood Meridian. Something about its depictions of violence and the Omniscient Objective point of view appealed to me. But it was missing something. Character interiority.
Novels have a way of leading to other novels. So, about that same time I re-read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It led me to research on the Congo. Accounts of using rape as a weapon of war, genocide, exploitation of the mineral rich lands, the Western world's complicity in the war torn region through its consumption of products utilizing conflict minerals--cassiterite (tin ore), gold, tungsten, etc. churned in my mind. And churned. Watching an interview on Youtube with a sixteen year old boy named Prince, made my blood boil. He worked as an ore bearer for the mining companies (Chinese and Russian and German owned, militarily backed by Interhamwe rebels). He was forced by circumstance to carry ninety pound sacks of rocks fifty miles through the forest. He faced the perils of starvation, dehydration, robbers, wild animals, and cannibalistic rebels. He was a modern day Sysiphus, the Greek character doomed for all eternity to push an immense rock up hill, only to see it roll down once he reached the top. To work without hope was not just an ancient plight, but a modern evil.
My compassion for Prince's situation and the plight of the hundreds and thousands of innocent people being exploited in the D.R. Congo, forced me to write about it. That novel, called Red Equinox at the time, was a lesson in failure. In it I attempted to mimic McCarthy's searing prose, with all its gore and violence and depictions of landscape. I failed and failed miserably.
It seems obvious to me now why that novel was doomed from the start. I had never been to Congo, never personally spoken to a miner, didn't know what it was like to live under the constant threat of violence. I was trying to occupy the space of the novel through imagination alone. My prose looked heavy-handed, my dialogue false, my characterizations flat, and situations seemed either trite or imbued with that movie violence that makes one shudder. I got away from writing from personal experience. I was trying to write things I thought would make a book sell, rather than write what I knew and felt. So I abandoned it.
In the Summer of 2010, I had the opening line for a new novel, born out of a discussion I had with Lewis Buzbee, my professor at the time. We were sitting in Crossroads cafe (how ironic) at USF. I was telling him about my writing woes and he started asking me several questions.
"Where were you born?"
"Where did you grow up?"
"England, India, the East Coast."
"How old were you when you lived in the east coast and where were you?"
"A suburb of DC till the age of 11, one year in Baltimore, then three years, from the age of 12 to 15, in a town called Drums."
"In coal mining town in North eastern, Pennsylvania."
I started talking to him about the coal region, about my experiences growing up there, about the landscape, the people, and then I said the line, "I was the only drummer in a town called Drums." He looked at me and said, "That's the opening line of your novel. Write about that." But he also offered the caveat, "Be careful. Sometimes writing from personal experience gets in the way of telling a good story." So I tried. So, I failed again. But I kept trying and kept failing and although that original line appears nowhere in the novel, it led me to think about place as character, and character as something borne out of one's deepest feelings and convictions, and about how not to let personal experience get in the way of telling a good story.
There are at least two schools of thought about this process: There are those who write what they know and those who write what they are passionate about. I believe there is a middle ground. You can be passionate about what you know, and yet still not know everything. One must research to fill in the gaps of knowledge.
Writing from personal experience also changed my reading tastes. Having read all of Cormac McCarthy's novels during the 2009-10 winter break, having read much of Faulkner's novels and short stories, I began revisiting simpler, more honest, yet still stylistically vibrant writers. I fell in love with William Maxwell's writing, and read a number of his novels and his entire short story collection. I re-read Andre Dubus' short stories. I re-read Richard Yates' brilliant novel Revolutionary Road. I read Norman Maclean's fictionalized memoir/novella about fly fishing, A River Runs Through It and re-read Houskeeping by Ms. Robinson. I revisited the work of Alice Munro, Ethan Canin's novels and novellas, and turned to non-fiction nature works by Emerson and Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Henry Beston. About this time, I discovered Alice McDermott's novel Charming Billy, and fell in love with her prose, and I also fell in love with William Trevor's stories. All this while keeping up with the exhaustive reading list of the MFA's second year.
What these writers did for me was help turn my thinking and feeling around. I realized I didn't need to write sensational, ultra violent, deeply existential stories, or quirky stories, or stories that substituted clever structure for character, I just needed to write with honesty. My writing professor Karl Sohenlein once said in workshop, that a writer must write towards "the heat," that is, to those moments that have the greatest emotional impact. I realized that "the heat" need not be a five alarm fire. It could be as small a flame as a match burning in a blizzard.
But I was in a quandry. I am an East-Indian. Embracing the ideas of authorial authenticity, meant abandoning writing from a Caucasian POV. I also felt I needed to write about Indian struggles. But aside from R.K. Narayan, I didn't care much for Indian writers (not even that media darling Jhumpa Lahiri). Growing up, even within the confines of rural, ultra conservative, Northeastern, Pennsylvania, I didn't feel all that marginalized or alienated. My parents were and are agnostic, so I wasn't immersed in the Sikh religion. I never had the issues of assimilation other immigrant families went through. We all spoke perfect English, without the hard Indian accents. We read English books and wrote in English. I thought, spoke, ate, drank, groomed, rebelled, like an American. My only ties to the Indian culture were language, food, and music. So I had to do some serious soul searching before coming to the conclusion that I was and am a writer who is interested in character. My authenticity would be my ability to tell a story as convincingly as possible.
This is where my personal and professional goals overlapped. To be a better writer I first needed to be a better dreamer, a better "feeler," a better thinker. Because writing a novel is as much a journey of the intellect as it is of the heart. Not to be prescriptive, but this is the best way to write stories that mean something. After all, it is the sharing of human experience that connects people to one another, and a novel is a window into another soul.
So here I am, having finished my first draft of Somerset under the tutelage of four different professors, each with drastically different methods, philosophies, styles (some of which helped open my mind up to a new way of writing, others which acted as barriers I needed to surmount). It's been a long road to get here, an exhausting one, one that isn't quite over just yet. The second draft gets me closer, the third draft closer still. I may need to go through ten, maybe twenty drafts (hopefully not fifty) to get this novel to where I can live with sending it out into the world. I would love for others to appreciate it, but more than that, I hope Somerset connects them to the heart, their own, others, and mine.