Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

“So, where did the idea for the novel come from?”

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“So, where did the idea for the novel come from?”

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.”
-Joan Didion

One of the most common questions that gets tossed around when someone puts out a book is “So, where did the idea for the novel come from?” Genesis seems to be an important narrative for people—the need for it to be explained showing up in so many interviews and Q&As, and most writers having lovely, well-rehearsed answers about their impetus and their inspiration, their plans and process in the initial stages.

Me? I have no idea. None.

Maybe my memory is terrible. Maybe I don’t keep good notes. Maybe I’m just not a planner. All I know is that I have literately zero knowledge of when, where or why I decided to name one character Charlie and another Ronnie and force them to have (spoiler) an affair on a desk in a university office. Why I decided to have them (spoiler) burn their lives to the ground. I’ve heard of writers who keep meticulous diagrams, charts, and outlines, who have every last detail of drama, every little thing meticulously planned out before they dive in, but I never know where the initial idea comes from, never know what I’m doing before I start. (I probably have no idea what I’m doing during the process, either.) When I look back, all I’ve really got is this finished manuscript and little idea, if any, about how it all happened.

I think I started writing Infidelity about three years ago, but if I’m honest, I’m not really sure if that’s true. It may have been four. It could have been five. I know that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was setting out to do, nor did I have any kind of structure before I started. It just sort of happened, if a book can “just happen,” so whenever I’m asked that question, it feels disingenuous to saying anything other than “I dunno.”

The are, however, two things about the very early days of Infidelity that I do remember. The first is writing something longhand in a notebook, something I hardly ever do. It came out of nowhere—a scene where a little boy was cataloging everything in his home with a ballpoint pen, marking each thing with a specially assigned number.

The numbers always seemed random, pointless, meaningless. The doctor told them to expect randomness in his behaviour. It was nothing to worry about. It was normal. Or rather normal for abnormal.
They allowed it because, although annoying, it seemed relatively harmless. They allowed it because the doctors told them repeatedly, “You should go to the place where he lives instead of expecting him to come to you.” Come to normal. The numbers, the organization, it seemed to settle him down. Scrawling numbers on everything prevented him from screaming. Seemed to solidify his need for order.
His debilitating need for order.

That boy eventually became Noah, and his cataloging a sad reminder for Charlie of his son’s illness. How an entire novel about love and betrayal ballooned out of those few scrawled paragraphs about a little boy with a penchant for organization I’ll never know, but they did, and I am grateful.

The second thing I remember is being consumed by questions. I was thinking a lot about how sometimes you wake up one day and notice that your life is made up of the choices someone else has made for you, that all of a sudden you no longer know who you are. The momentum of life does this if we don’t stop to pause. Desk jobs, marriage, mortgages, children—as much as we think we plan for these things, they kind of sneak up on us, and if they’re not carefully thought out they start to feel more like traps than things we should be grateful for. So while I didn’t have a carefully crafted outline, I did have a question, and the novel became my answer.

For me the inspiration is always just the question, one that refuses to leave me, one that eats at me until I write it all down. I have no real plan. I never know where I’m going. But I’m not really sure it matters. Perhaps it’s enough that I had the compulsion to ask in the first place.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Stacey May Fowles

Stacey May Fowles is a writer and magazine professional living in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to The National Post books section and currently works at The Walrus. Her latest novel is Infidelity, out this fall with ECW Press.

Go to Stacey May Fowles’s Author Page