selected incidents from the biography of a novel

Posted: February 11, 2018 in novel, toil & sound, creative writing, short fiction, writing life

The conception-and-birth story of a novel can be grotesque and all too-revealing. With little more than a college-ruled loose leaf from a well-worn notebook to cover my loins, here I go.

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Of course, I must start even before the novel was an apple in my eye.

Experiences in my youth that challenged my perspectives–and my delicate, sheltered sensibility–can be counted in a small handful. Prior to 1995, there was a Korean-American best friend and his chain-smoking, constantly-yelling mother; my first attempt at eating “sushi”–a California roll–at a Japanese-American friend’s birthday; and going to an Indian woman’s curry-scented house for tutoring in my arch-nemesis: math. Oh! And there was a rumor that a guy on my high school water polo team was gay. Imagine the scandal!

I was merely a new-formed adult by the time I went to San Jose State to study the literature of dead white guys (my favorite being Steinbeck) and a few dead white women (Edith Wharton anyone?) and a couple dead black men (Ellison and Wright blew my mind). When not grappling with writing academic essays and keeping up with my reading load, I was most often found gazing at my navel. For the first couple years, I didn’t do much to step away from that comfort that was–for all intents and purposes–the life of a privileged white kid who, incidentally, escaped arrest for being an idiot several times. More importantly, my skills learned in Spanish classes quickly devolved into the simple, macho banter I had with my Mexican colleagues at the restaurant. Most “conversations” were laced almost exclusively with jaunty Spanglish insults and curses. ¡Puta madre, Chivo! (I was the motherfucking chivo, a cocky goat with wispy hair on my chin.)

But then, the smattering of exposure got serious and voluminous. There was a solo two-month cross-country train trip done on $2k of saved waiter tips. And there was a bartending job at an underbelly dive bar next door to a Greyhound station and a by-the-hour/by-the-week hotel. It was the stuff that turned my literature study into an applied art.

Before I moved to New York City in 2003 to pursue an M.A. in literature and creative writing, I wrote my first successful short story. It was part of my application to CCNY and tested the bounds of my empathy. Someone whom I was close with at the time was attempting to figure out issues related to, among other things, her sexuality. In all honesty, I surprised myself by choosing to write from a 1st-person perspective that, in some ways, resembled hers. What I wrote for my CCNY application morphed into what now exists as part three of chapter one in volume one of toil & sound, the forthcoming the re-visionist.

If my social consciousness was still in a somewhat nascent stage when I arrived in New York City, living for a year in the Puerto Rican Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan opened my eyes. It gave me a sense (however limited) of being an outsider: I may have been the only white person in a half mile radius. This and other perspective shifts I experienced in NYC entwined fortuitously with my courses. And these factors dramatically affected creative choices I made in toil & sound. I studied in depth the work of the South American and Caribbean magic realists; beyond the early slave narratives, I dove deep into the African-American canon.

With the help from my creative thesis advisor, Salar Abdoh, I had 100 pages at the end of grad school (part 1). Then there was a divorce (yep, skipped right past that first marriage incident) and a death. Writing the novel was on hold for a year or so.

I moved to South Korea in 2006 to teach ESL—what else does a Lit major do? I was fortunate to find new experiences and people. My lifestyle also allowed me the solitude needed to write. I got a new routine, re-discovered confidence, and expanded my book ideas over the course of the first two and a half years in the ROK and completed the first draft of what stands now as my “duology” in early 2009, shortly after Nic bought me for ~300,000 KRW at a bachelor auction. It was Nic who was my first reader, followed closely by important perspectives from Jaclyn Neal, Cara Cassidy, and Jennifer Holmberg. The first few chapters were critiqued by Amanda Champany and Katie Jensen from the Friday workshops in Busan, ROK.

After Nic committed to staying in the ROK with me for at least another year, it was her turn. I became her GRE coach in writing (though I don’t really think she needed me for anything more than solidarity; mi mujer inteligente can write, too) and editor for grad school application cover letters.

After a three-month barebones tour of SE Asia and Nepal in 2011, service to the careers of mine and Nic’s had to take precedence. (Spouses gotta eat.) And breathing life into this thing seemed to be slipping away. Sometimes struggling to suppress my disenchantment,  I worked three jobs (teaching ESL to international students saved my sanity in some ways, drove me batty in other ways), cooked, cleaned(?), went back to grad school for TESL, got a promotion, and last year moved across the country for Nic’s VA internship. Through all of it, I was searching for a way to get back to the novel. All I could do, though, was bide my time in a state of blind faith by reading as widely as I could and writing (sometimes online) about intercultural and social issues.

I currently live happily with Nic, our nutty dog, and the curse of (self-) critical thought. Yes, happily.

So what better time to bring toil & sound into the world?

Comments
  1. Charles Holmberg says:

    The Tree That Is Nick
    by Charles Holmberg

    I am proud of sowing the seed
    Mom is proud of growing the seed
    We are both proud of nurturing the seed
    The tree continues to thrive and grow
    It will blossom into many fruitful endeavors

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