A reader asks, Where do you get your ideas? How do you come up with this stuff?
Ideas are everywhere. The hard part is winnowing out the ones that distract or detract from the story, or that there simply is not room for. Laurence Sterne, in one of his many authorial asides, bewails all the witty stuff that has ended up in the wastebasket along the way. All writers certainly know exactly what he’s talking about. If I had thrown nothing out, my novel would run to several thousands of pages.
In a novel of ideas, which is one way to categorize The Great American Desert, one useful thing to do is to keep a list of the key themes handy, and when a scene suggests itself, to check it against the list to see if that scene would strengthen the novel or send it sailing off into uncharted seas.
One of the major themes of my novel is history, which is a combination of time and events, or, as Antony, my narrator, might put it, time and the talk engendered by the events. In German, ‘story’ and ‘history’ are the same word. Antony, an historian stuck in time, sees very clearly that history and stories, talk, need to flow. Throughout the book are incidents that illustrate what happens when people attempt to check the flow of time.
How do you come up with these incidents? my reader might well ask. Truth is, as the story gels they suggest themselves. The story bounces around in a writer’s head, and, consciously or not, everything he comes across begins to be seen through the prisms of the ideas in the story. For instance, I couldn’t say precisely when or how I realized that water, particularly the flowing water of the river, was an essential metaphor, but from the very beginning I had in mind that Antony’s father was away so much because he was in the navy, simply because joining the navy would be one of the most radical departures that a grandson of a farmer could make. There’s an American short story or novel, whose title ought not to escape me, in which a sailor, tiring of the sea, heads inland with an oar over his shoulder, intending to stop and settle down at the first place where someone asks him what that funny-shaped stick is that he’s carrying.
Antony may or may not have been named for St. Antony of Egypt, though originally I pictured both Antonys in the desert. But St. Antony had originally been a farmer, and as a farmer he had been dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile. The Illinois and Mississippi rivers form one side of Jersey County, and are a presence impossible to overlook, especially when there is a flood. (Why didn’t I set the story at the very bottom of Illinois, which is known as Little Egypt? Because I don’t know Little Egypt. I’m not such a fool as to write about places that I don’t know.)
I don’t know when the river flooded my story to the extent that it did. It happened gradually, rising at first just a few inches at a time, but while I wasn’t looking it overflowed its banks, and there you have it.
I’m sorry that this entry is so vague, and then again, I’m not. I’m finding it difficult to write about the book without giving too much away.