Somewhere in the home stretch of When the Saints, two very different ideas for a new novel began to seep into my consciousness. I was determined to choose between them before heading to a writing retreat last August, but once I arrived there I was still on the fence. A colleague suggested I flip a coin, start writing and see if it flowed. It was a good suggestion. I didn’t flip, but randomly went with the story about a teenage kid who sets out to find his dead mother’s mysterious lover. For four days, the story was flowing along like a gurgling stream. In fact, I even wrote a gurgling stream into the story. Then all of a sudden the kid stopped dead in his tracks. I mean it. He came to the first house along his journey, knocked on the door and no one answered. I wasn’t expecting it, the kid wasn’t expecting it, and after waiting around for half a day, he dropped his bicycle and sat down on the side of the road. We shrugged at each other across the abyss. Our timing was off. Someone was supposed to answer that door. We were too early.
For fear of losing valuable retreat time I switched to the other idea, this one about the dark aftermath of a couple’s decision to buy a church in a rural community and renovate it into their home/art studio. I opened a blank page, placed my fingers on the keyboard and giddy-up. Sentence after sentence appeared on screen as if they had already been written. I wasn’t writing so much as transcribing from a guttural voice in my head.
This was the one.
Since then, I’ve received some not-so-subtle signs that I’m on the right track. For example, several weeks ago myself and two writer friends, novelist Stephanie Domet and screenwriter Jasmine Oore, rented a house through Airbnb. We wanted somewhere quiet near the ocean with a fireplace we could curl up to while we worked. I kept revisiting one particular listing and sent it to the others. They liked the house and it was available, so we booked it. Just prior to our departure, I received a message from the home owner. She said if we needed anything, she lived in the church about a ten minute drive from the house. She mentioned she had her art studio in there and that we were welcome to visit any time. Mid-week, we invited ourselves over for drinks during which she graciously indulged all my questions: How was the church heated? Any septic issues when she put in a proper bathroom? Property taxes – high or low? How did the locals react to her moving in? At some point she cut me off and mentioned the place was haunted as hell. I was all ears.
Now in the icy down slope of January, I’m over 100 pages into my new novel. This is the story that could not wait. Just as with When the Saints, it chose me rather than the other way around. I’m starting to believe that all stories already exist, drifting through the air seeking the right vessel. This one must have been haunting me the whole time I was finishing When the Saints, waiting for the right moment to take possession.
The working title of my new novel is taken from an old hymn song, the World in Awful Sleep. Let me tell you friends, there’s not much sleeping going on around here. The tale is strangely poetic, definitely more intricate than any I’ve ever woven, but otherwise a deranged sideshow of images as unnerving as slow calliope music. I have to get up every hour and turn another light on. Seriously. As I write this thing down, I am alternately fascinated and deeply disturbed by what lives in the recesses of my mind.
I hope you will be, too.