I begin my novels without ideas. I don't have a plot, or themes, or a sense of the book's form. Often I don't even have a specific character in mind. I begin with a single sentence of no great importance; it almost certainly will be thrown away later. To that sentence I add another, and then another. A little riff emerges. If it's going well–and it's hard for me to say exactly what going well means, beyond the writing feeling authentic enough not to require immediate erasure–I'll continue this sort of aimless unspooling. If I'm lucky, as the paragraphs accumulate, a compelling voice will emerge. Though often I will write twenty or thirty pages before I realize that in fact the voice lacks what might be called the "Pinocchio" element: the chance of becoming truly alive and "real."
It's unnerving not to know what I'm writing, or why, or where it will go. Scary, even, as time passes, and more and more work accumulates without an accompanying sense of clarity. A hundred or even two hundred pages in, and I am more lost than ever.
I find myself worrying constantly that the work will fail. In my last novel, The History of Love, the potential of that failure became, itself, a theme of the novel–one of the main characters, Leo Gursky, is a failed writer.
Great House is my third novel, and so when I began it I already had some sense of what my writing process would be like. Yet my uncertainty was more acute than ever. The starting points I chose, which I knew would have to converge and cohere, were almost impossibly remote from one another. From out of all the early writing, four voices emerged, each with its own story: an American writer, Nadia, who has been writing for twenty-seven years at a desk she inherited from a Chilean poet who later disappeared; an overbearing Israeli father addressing his estranged son who has returned home after decades abroad; a retired Oxford don, who, in the final years of his wife's life, discovers a secret she kept from him all their marriage; and a young American woman who tells the story of a Hungarian antiques dealer and his two adult children, whom she comes to live with in a darkly magical Victorian house in London. I had four different paths, and all I knew was that 1) I wanted to understand who these people were and what had made them that way, and 2) woven together, their stories could make a solid and intricate whole, that their juxtaposition would reveal patterns, and form a complete architecture–even, or especially, if I couldn't anticipate that architecture. I was building a house–a city–without a blueprint.
Over time, the willful uncertainty I held myself to as I wrote shifted from being my process to my material. I suppose one can't occupy a position of doubt for a long time without beginning to think deeply about what it means to live in doubt: intellectual or moral doubt, self-doubt, or, perhaps most profoundly to me, the doubt that comes with a realization of the limits of how fully known we can ever be to another. The doubt I felt about the viability of the novel I was trying to write and my own abilities as a writer made me sensitive to the uncertainties of my characters. The writer, Nadia, becomes unraveled by the doubt she feels about her choice to sacrifice everything for her art, and about her lifelong sense of being somehow chosen–What if I had been wrong? is the question that afflicts her. For Arthur, the retired Oxford don, it's the uncertainty he felt for the almost half century of his marriage to Lotte, the sense of having been married to a mystery, which becomes more acute when after her death he discovers a secret she kept from him. For Aaron, the Israeli father, it's a moral doubt about the kind of father he was, aggravated by the fact that his son is a judge, and the uncertainty he feels toward a son he was never able to understand. And for the Weisz family, guarded by a controlling patriarch who survived the Holocaust, it's the uncertainty of never being able to trust others, as well as the untrustworthiness of a reliable home.
This doubt–this inability to know for sure–also became critical to the book's structure. Because I never knew what would happen next, and was held in a constant state of doubt, the very architecture of the book formed around, and came to depend on, the uncertainty of the reader. How will these stories fit together? What will be uncovered about the characters' lives, and what must necessarily remain unknown? The novel, which was a mystery to its author for so long, will be a kind of mystery for its readers, too. But in the process of solving it–at least those parts that have a solution–the reader is asked to dwell for some time in the shadow of uncertainty, to feel what it is to make a life there.