In writing my second novel, I made a discovery about all novels, a discovery that has essentially become my mantra.
I wrote my first novel on my own instincts and an astonishing number of drafts, twelve years’ worth. That’s a common story; less common and more thrilling was that when I was finished, the book sold within 48 hours to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Then it was time to write my second novel, far more complicated than my first. I kept getting lost among the cast of characters, and the time frame bedeviled me. So I took apart novels I was currently admiring to see the machinery at work. That’s what I do, or if I’m teaching, we do this as a crowd. I make tables and graphs like the nerd that I am, gathering and plotting craft and technique data.
Within books I’m drawn to, my first discovery was that every subplot restates the plot or theme of that book. For example, in a novel about a reasonable character at war with her instincts, the subplots might pit her rational nature against deeply felt urges, such as her emotional, artistic, or spiritual selves. This allows the author to amplify what our character is up against without being redundant: reason vs. love, beauty, lust, faith.
Looking in any direction revealed that what holds for plot/subplot is true across the board: every slice of the novel embodies the entire novel. The first line of a book is the whole book, as is the title, point of view, the characters, plots and subplots—even the verb tense and language.
I call this “the DNA of the novel.” It’s hard to believe that this notion didn’t come up in every literature and writing class I took, or that I didn’t recognize this earlier. I’m telling you: just as a fingernail clipping or a cheek swab contains all the information of an entire human being, just as the acorn carries the entire oak in its little nut package, so does every element of the novel contain the entire book.
The reader shouldn’t feel tangled in or even consciously register these strands (you don’t see your baby’s DNA; you see the expression of the DNA and find satisfaction in tracing the strands back to their sources—Mom’s eyes; Uncle Frank’s curly hair). Each decision the writer makes reinforces the others to support, layer, and add resonance to the novel’s emotional core.
I’m hard at work on a feminist immigration novel that centers around Yelena Gomelikoff. My working title, The First American, refers to Yelena’s status and her attitude: “Being the first American in the family is my badge of honor, and I know I sometimes make it sound as if my parents, Ekaterina and Gregor Federoff, crossed the ocean in 1898 to give birth to me.” However, the title also alludes to the treatment our country gave and still gives its first Americans, indigenous or immigrated.
Yelena has a foot in the Old Country because her family belongs to the Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox church; however, as a New Country citizen she sets herself against other immigrants in their coal mining town—be they Russian, Polish, Italian, or Irish. For that reason, the story is in first person; she’s the first person on this perch.
It’s also first person because these are my people and I can’t find any evidence of their literary footprint, despite this country’s rich tradition of Russian Jewish immigrant fiction. And so this book is personal.
After Yelena introduces herself, she narrates the novel in past tense, a choice I made for straightforward and devious reasons. The novel documents these immigrants’ experience and includes a visit from Teddy Roosevelt, a mining disaster, and women’s suffrage: history books are past tense. However, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, the past tense offers the reader false comfort: this story happened a while ago, back when folks were racist and sexist. So Yelena says on the novel’s opening page: “although I’d lived my whole life here, I was given as much grief as any foreigner,” way back when people looked down on children of immigrants.
Diction is challenging in a period piece centered around an immigrant family. Rather than give dozens of examples, I’ll share a pervasive one. “Ma made every effort for American to be my first language”—choosing to write “American” rather than “English” throughout the book uses diction to show the immigrants’ makeshift word choice and underscore their desire to be of this country.
Stumbling through my story, I often make wrong choices. Like a scientist, I have to discover what makes my book distinct; unlike a scientist, I have to invent it as well, while also creating the body that houses it. My job as a novelist, through many drafts, is both to identify the novel’s DNA and then hew to its expression so that every decision allows the book to be more and more itself.
Mary Kay is a novelist whose latest book, Man Alive!, was named a Washington Post Notable Book. She is the recipient of American Academy’s Rosenthal Award, James Jones Society’s First Novel Award, and numerous DC Commission on the Arts Fellowships. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, helped launch DC Women Writers, and cofounded NoveltyDC, which offers master classes in writing and revising the novel. www.mkzuravleff.com