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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, March 28, 2005

reading chapter 12

Flaubert said that a key test of any piece of writing is to hear it read aloud. As I finish a draft of each chapter, I read it aloud to Kimmie. It's a way of sharing my progress with her, as well as of hearing it myself to test my own reaction. Yesterday afternoon I read chapter 12 to her.

It was actually a rewrite of chapter 12. I read my first draft of it to her on 11 February, and was so dissatisfied that, contrary to my usual policy of "hold your nose and keep moving forward," I decided to rewrite it. It's the first chapter of Part 2, set in autumn 48 BC, after the events of Part 1 which are set in Palestine in the preceding summer. I had been looking forward to chapter 12 because I would be bringing together my protagonist Marcus, the retired Roman centurion, with a new character, Gaia, a woman just expelled from the Jewish spiritual colony of the Healers on the shore of Lake Mareotis outside Alexandria. Gaia was to add a much-needed female presence to my story, and provide a challenging and unexpected relationship for the depressive and solitary Marcus.

I think I must have believed that their unexpected meeting would be interesting in itself. They meet on a sailboat bound for Alexandria, just as the city is being occupied by the Egyptian army, which has arrived to eject Julius Caesar and his 4,000 troops from the palace where he's holed up. Marcus's meeting with a strange, single woman would naturally provoke curiosity about what form their relationship will take--will they become lovers? So I wrote my first draft without doing all the necessary preliminary work on studying the characters' "backstories" (their stories prior to the time of their appearance) and motivations. The result, I felt, was disappointing, and even Kim thought the chapter lacked the oomph of some of the earlier ones.

To me this meant I must go back to the drawing board. In my haste to get pages out I had taken a shortcut in working through the preliminaries. I returned to the document called "12 - Notes" and started making new entries, asking questions about my characters, their backgrounds, and their motivations. On Valentines Day, the day of the death of Kim's eldest and last surviving brother Freddie, I made a new dateline and started keying notes. That day's entry was brief:
"Chapter needs more spine: more definite goals and motivations for Marcus and Gaia. Not just chit-chat, but things they definitely want to achieve, want from each other."
The work took me down byways of thinking and research. I tunneled more persistently into Gaia's backstory. Where had she come from? Why exactly had she joined the Healers? To me she had been a free-spirited Jewess who had become a traveling poetess--for these existed in the Hellenistic world. But as I dug into where she had come from, I came up with the idea that she had been born at the temple of Aphrodite at Paphos, Cyprus--a child of the goddess, and so divine herself. A divine orphan. I loved this idea. It speaks directly to my emerging theme of the sacred and the profane, the divine and the human--this great dichotomy that Mircea Eliade characterized as the distinction between being and nonbeing: for this is what the divide really is. The divine, the sacred, is; while the contingent and profane are not. The thirst for the sacred is the thirst for being.

Looking into this past had me taking down my old fat copy of The Golden Bough and my bright-yellow copy of The White Goddess. I typed passages from these books into my research documents. I typed material from my copy of The Oxford Classical Dictionary on Cyprus, and from The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. I gradually, with effort, fleshed out a backstory for Gaia--a backstory that will be only glimpsed in Chapter 12.

I did my rewrite. It was an uphill job, since I don't like revisiting material in draft 1 before I've finished the draft. It prolongs the journey to the end, making eventual completion feel even more like a mirage, and creates a sense that I am multiplying the eventual workload, since this chapter, even though rewritten, will still need to be revised along with all the others for draft 2. I kept what I could, and tried to inject more conflict in the Marcus-Gaia interaction. The chapter grew 5 pages in length, to 41 typed pages.

So I read this to Kimmie. She said she enjoyed it, although she was feeling preoccupied and fragile from all the drama unfolding in her family in the aftermath of Freddie's death.

Later, while we were watching TV (Taking It Off, a reality show about a group of obese Canadians trying to slim down), we got talking about it some more during a commercial break. Some offhand remark of Kim's, that Marcus is "old," provided an entree to more honest probing.

"Old?" I said. "He's only two years older than you!" (Marcus is 52.)

"Yes, he's manly," she said. "But we just haven't seen much of him yet. And it's hard when you're comparing him with Menahem or Herod."

Menahem and Herod are two other protagonists, the main actors of Part 1. They are younger and, so far, more dynamic characters--even sexier.

"I mean, Marcus is depressed," she said, "and he tried to kill himself."

True. Marcus wanted to off himself in Chapter 1.

"And we don't know why yet," I said.

Interesting. Kimmie was seeing Marcus as kind of a dead letter, a gray-haired has-been with no interesting life left in him. A quitter. Yes, he's strong and resourceful, but he has no future.

I felt indignant on his behalf. I'll show you, I thought. I'll get Marcus moving his butt in this thing. I'll make you care!

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