“A ton of writers I know, and I include myself in that category, if you see them at a party texting someone, they are actually not texting. They are saving a piece of overheard conversation that they want to keep. Or they are noting down an idea.”
Baldwin mentioned this last week when we talked about his creative process. His words sounded familiar: Tim Jones of the band Truth and Salvage Co. told me in a recent interview that at his haunt the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, he’ll get on the piano, listen to conversations around him, and start playing off of what he hears (Baldwin and Jones are also friends).
During our conversation, Baldwin also told me that the idea for You Lost Me There began with a single image, one whose origin remains unknown: a middle-aged man, sitting in his car late one night in a parking lot, watching a girl whom he cannot have. He began writing around that image. And in this comment too, Baldwin reminded me of what the great Irish poet Paul Muldoon told my “Contemporary Irish Poetry” seminar in graduate school. (Muldoon has been hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as “the most significant English language poet born since World War II.") Muldoon said that, at that moment, he was carrying around an image of some insect in his mind. It wasn’t a poem yet, but someday it would be. He just didn’t know when it would happen.
You Lost Me There revolves around the protagonist Victor, an Alzheimer’s researcher on Mount Desert Island in Maine. His wife was killed in a car crash a few years earlier, and one day he finds a series of note cards on which she has talked about certain moments in their marriage. Her version of their marriage is decidedly different from his, and not in a good way. So Victor is forced to reevaluate the marriage, to think back and wonder if what he thought happened all those years really did happen in the way he imagined. The book is an exercise in memory: specifically, how we construct our narratives based on what we think happened, which is often different from what really did happen. Which, of course, makes the reader question the existence of reality.
As I mentioned, the book is receiving rave reviews everywhere from Time Magazine to Entertainment Weekly to our own Tony Doerr. So read the interview below, but first watch this trailer about the book, an excerpt narrated by Baldwin:
Talk first about becoming a writer.
I graduated from college in 1999 after studying and writing poetry. I moved to New York and decided I wanted to write novels. When I started writing You Lost Me There, I gave myself three to four hours of novel writing a day. The rest of the time I would devote myself to cash-making activities. I wrote one novel, stuck that in a desk drawer, and wrote another novel that got me my literary agent.
With deadlines, my motivation comes from another source. I can’t really say what it is, but whatever has been getting me up at 5am for the past nine years has always been the dream to have a book published.
How disciplined is your writing routine?
I get up at 5am and do my Morning News work: I write the headline section, and I read a variety of websites and blogs to find those that would be interesting to our readers. That will take me an hour, then I’ll take another hour to two to edit other features. That takes me to about 8 or 8:30, when I have breakfast with my wife. Then around 9 or 9:30 is book-writing time until lunch.
In the afternoon I’ll go over what I’ve written in the morning. I hope to get in about an hour of reading in after that, then I’ll spend the rest of the time until about 6:00 or 7:00 on some money making tasks and hopefully find the time to play some tennis.
So do you exercise as part of your writing routine?
I need to exercise every day, either by running or playing tennis. It’s a great way to reduce anxiety and nerves. Sometimes when I am stuck, I do a lot of pacing, so I’ll take a walk in the woods. That’s where I get unstuck. To rid myself of a block, I’m constantly pacing, talking to myself, or going for a walk . That goes a long way towards getting further into work, instead of sitting at my desk and knocking my head against it.
What do your first drafts look like?
I begin with outlines and notes, and those are far more my first drafts than anything else. With the novel I am working on now, I’ve got upwards of 200 pages of outlines and 75 pages of notes. I will do small sketches, write scenes and dialogue, and they will take a couple of pages, but in the end they are only worth their weight in recycling. I need to write a certain piece of dialogue X amount of times before I even know who the character is and what they are doing, what their desires are. Discovering that takes time, so there is a lot of prep before I even get to that draft.
Do you create scenes around dialogue?
Not really. Let’s take a hypothetical. Let’s take two main characters. I won’t be sure about their relationship at point X, so I will try writing a conversation between the two of them. It gives me an early idea of what their voices sound like, and in writing that conversation, things merge that start to show me how they feel about one another.
What’s your revision process like?
If I find myself readings 80 page, and I know that I can’t use them, I throw them into a scraps pile that I keep. I don’t want to be in a place two months later where I try to recall one wonderful line from a character, and I can’t remember it since I don’t have it. It just may be that one line is worth the 80 pages since it unlocks the character’s voice for me. So I never throw anything away. I also find it’s valuable to revise in print, not on the screen. There’s a certain numb blindness that comes with scrolling through too much text on a computer. I like to compose on paper, I like to read on paper, I like to revise on paper.
So how do you compose?
A lot of it is on yellow legal pads. In some ways it’s silly; it’s horrible archival material because it can get ruined. But for notetaking and drawing and outlining and linking, it’s the best way to go.
When I am editing, yes, and especially the conversations.
How do you know when something is done?
That is a great questions and it’s especially something I have wondered about with other people. I have no good answer. A combination of events or experiences will occur that tell me, “Ok, let’s print this out and give it to someone else.” Part of me will be really happy, but most of me knows it’s not there at all. That usually happens to me about draft four.
Was it easy to make the transition from the Morning News to novel writing?
It’s two brains at work. It’s really about what I am trying to accomplish. One is about trying to summarize a news story, and the other is about creating an alternate reality with people who look and sound and think like other screwed up people who we recognize from the real world, and yet manage to exist plausibly in some separate universe contained in 320 pages.
I can encapsulate a news headline in eleven words cleverly with two puns in about seven seconds, but it takes four years to write a novel.
Was there a meta-awareness about memory when you were writing, that you are writing about memory and have to remember things about Mount Desert Island??
That’s a really interesting question. So much of the writing was reasonably unconscious. The best novels can stand up to extremely rigorous interrogation. If you take a novel that is truly great and sit it down in a chair and torture it with a number of questions testing its plausibility, testing the sincerity of its efforts and its people and its humanity, the best ones aren’t going to collapse. No one sat in front of a loose leaf or computer and had a novel leap out, whole with four limbs and a superhero cape. Along the way, the writer had to subject the character to all number of questions or challenges to see if it held up.
Along the way, what mattered most to me were the characters. Who they were, what were their concerns, why were they doing things, what mattered to them. As those things emerged, so did things like memory and Alzheimer’s and script writing and vegan animal rights activism. These things came out of them. Of course, at some point you work with ideas that arise in the book; I’ll see them and think they are interesting and how they connect.
Working with memory is an interesting issue—how do people tell the stories of their lives, and how do we make pictures of ourselves when we think about who we are, why we matter, why we do what we do. But I didn’t set out to write that book. I set out to write the book about these characters, and they led me to memory.
What was the idea that you built this book around?
The idea was a single image. I don’t know where it came from, but I had this image of a scientist, a little late in his life, sitting in his car in a parking lot. It’s a little after midnight on Mount Desert Island, and he sees this younger woman across the parking lot under a street light. And he has a very intense desire for her, but he can’t have her. He may not know why, but I knew that gap between the two was there.
It wasn’t until around draft four that Sarah became important to me. For a while it was all about Victor. Sarah was more secondary. Once I figured out that Sarah’s voice needed to be as prominent as Victor’s in telling the story of their marriage, the book really started clicking. In the early drafts, it was more Victor and Regina’s story, but as the drafts progressed, Sarah’s story took over.
It bugged me long enough that it became the story. That was the seed. A lot of my writing starts that way, with an image. Then it just goes from there.