"So, what are you working on now?"
23 Aug 2010
... This is the question that gets asked, inevitably, every time I appear in public. It is the last question asked in the radio interview, the final topic raised by the audience at the reading. My editor nudges me gently whenever she gets the opportunity. Everyone wants to know. And I don't ever want to tell.
I recently read the Time cover profile of Jonathan Franzen. His latest novel, "Freedom" is coming out next week, almost a decade after "The Corrections." This is not because it took him ten years to write the novel. It's because, as he explains in the Time piece, he was stuck. For seven years, he fiddled with the beginning of a new novel, with very little for his efforts except for the voice of a character. He took time off, did some journalism, published a book of essays, started to write, stopped writing, started again. When he finally figured out what his novel was going to be about, it took him less than two years to actually write it.
Junot Diaz had a similar story - it took him a decade to write "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," mostly because he spent so many years completely stuck. He threw out almost everything he wrote.
This is why I hate the question "What are you working on now?" Books take time to conceive; they evolve in radical new directions; they start as one thing and end as another. There are long periods of "stuckness" when they are trashed altogether and begun anew. They do not (at least for me) emerge, fully formed, onto the page. I first imagined "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" as the story of three woman who had chronic fatigue syndrome; I ended up with a family saga about a financial windfall. "This Is Where We Live" began as the story of a couple buying a house; it ended up as the story of a couple whose home goes into foreclosure.
Even if I told you, right now, what I'm working on, it may not be what I'm working on in three months, or six months, or six years. I might start off writing about trains, and end up writing about fairies. And I would hate to have readers (not to mention my editor) waiting expectantly for that train book, only to be surprised when my fairy tale ends up on the shelf. I like the open-ended potential of knowing that I can write whatever I want, change it as frequently as I see fit, knowing I'm not beholden to anyone's opinions or expectations. And no one need ever know many dead-end roads I went down before I ended up at the final destination.