In an interview on the weekend Olga Tokarczuk, whose novel The Books of Jacob was recently published in the US, and moderator and fellow novelists Rabih Alameddine ended with an exchange about something dear to my heart. Rabih was asking about a phenomenon Olga mentioned in an essay regarding how, in the process of writing, “the world comes to help” (Rabih’s translation of the original in Polish). Rabih described it as a spiritual, mystical phenomenon. Olga, who is not only a Nobel Prize winning author but a practicing psychologist, said she considered it a psychological experience, although she could also see the mystical aspect. She further commented (translation): “I do believe that this process sharpens our focus and extends our consciousness. We perceive details that would not be perceivable in normal states of reality. I’m a psychologist, and the process of writing a novel is not very well understood and researched.” Rabih added that it’s an addictive state. Things happen that in a normal state would not work. Things happen to solve the writing problem. Olga agreed. So do I.
I was thrilled to hear this exchange because it’s something that has fascinated me throughout my career. This “help” manifests in myriad ways, but most recently it was the magic I think of as my subconscious embedding an idea in my writing that swims up into my consciousness when I need it. I’ve just submitted the manuscript of Owen Archer #14, A Fox in the Fold, and, from the beginning with my choice of a title, my subconscious knew what the book was about long before I understood.
I chose the title as a continuation of my trend of animals in the titles–A Conspiracy of Wolves, A Choir of Crows, The Riverwoman’s Dragon, A Fox in the Fold. I was not yet sure who was going to be the fox, but I had several candidates. None of whom became the quite obvious fox. One day, as I was coming up with a name for a character in the book I felt a little thrill; yet I wasn’t quite on board. Not yet.
Another example: Very early in the book I have Owen’s daughter Gwenllian tell a young man with a facial injury the story about her father’s scar. I meant it to convey the 10-year-old’s kindness as well as her pride in her father. Yet as the story developed I realized it pointed to the very heart of the tale.
Which I’d yet to figure out–that happened well into the writing of the book, about 2/3rds of the way through a draft, when it struck me that the person who had become central to the mystery might be significant to Owen. Could it be? Was this that person? I sat down and asked Owen what this book was about. His response made so much sense that I immediately began to revise the existing draft. Which is when I realized the significance of Gwen’s story.
I’ve many more stories like this–the choice of reading a book of fiction that is worlds apart from what I’m writing but jogs something in my mind that leads to reconsidering something in the work in progress, which then clicks into place and solves the puzzle of just what it is I’m writing. Or the tone of a film I’m watching for relaxation inspiring me to rethink the voice in which I’ve been writing. And on and on.
It’s so true. The world comes to help. But how? It’s such a mystery!
Many thanks to Third Place Books for hosting the book event with Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft, moderated by Rabih Alameddine. I haven’t yet begun The Books of Jacob, but I anticipate being as absorbed in it as I was her earlier book, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Just before Christmas the fabulous Nancy Pearl invited me to be on her program Book Lust. I enjoyed our conversation immensely. Nancy asks the best questions.