“He’s so screwed,” I remember thinking when I finished it. No way would he be able to top that.
I knew, too, that he had struggled with the early draft of November Road. When we first met, we were both battling manuscripts we hated, and it was clear that things were going only slightly less poorly for him than they were for me (which is to say: disasters all around). Shortly after I threw out the book I was working on, he informed me he was radically reworking his. Another ill omen.
Which is why, when I opened November Road, I expected competence but not brilliance. Here, I thought, was a determined, talented writer making the best of a bad situation. I figured I would do my level best to scrape together a few nice things to say to make Lou feel better about the whole thing.
How benevolent of me.
Of course, it turns out November Road is the best book Lou has ever written, an exquisitely wrought and deeply felt novel that’s difficult to categorize: it’s a conspiracy thriller, a crime drama, a love story, a road novel, a journey of self-discovery.
Most astonishingly, it feels effortlessly done — but I knew that wasn’t the case. So I asked Lou to talk to me about the process of writing November Road and how poor creative choices can still somehow lead you to the finest work of your career.
ELIZABETH LITTLE: So I was just going back through some of our correspondence from a couple of years ago, when both of us were, I think, at a particularly grumpy place in the writing process, and I’m struck by something: you said that signing the contract for this book felt like signing your own death warrant. Grumpiness aside, I don’t think that was entirely hyperbolic — and yet it would still be another few weeks before you decided to reboot November Road. What happened in that time that finally sent you back to the drawing board? Because if “feeling like you’re going to die” isn’t reason enough to rethink things, I’m not sure what is.
LOU BERNEY: “Grumpy” is an interesting way to describe the sickening, soul-crushing sensation of existential despair. But sure, I was “grumpy.”
I think what finally sent me back to the drawing board was the realization — wish I'd come up with it a little sooner! — that there’s a difference between wrong and hard. For the first five or so months I worked on my novel, I just thought it was going to be hard. I’m used to hard. Most writers are. You put your head down, keep working, and gut it out. But my original novel idea was wrong for me. The more I kept working on it, the wronger it became, the more “grumpy” I felt. It was like trying to play through the pain of a ruptured appendix. It was like trying to dig yourself out of a grave.
What was it about the original version of the book that felt so wrong? And what made you realize it was unfixable? When I threw out my second novel, I don’t think I would have been able to articulate its specific weaknesses — it’s only looking back that I can tell you it was utterly lacking in plot, dialogue, character, setting, and voice. But of course, when you’re months into a novel, you’ve long since abandoned anything resembling objectivity (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). What snapped me out of my wrong book daze was coming up with a new, viable idea and being able to place the two projects side by side so I could see, clearly, just how much better a story could be. If I hadn’t had that shiny new idea, though, God knows how much longer I might have slogged away at a fundamentally broken book.
I think it was that moment, when I abandoned all hope, that saved me. I felt this enormous rush of relief that no matter what the consequences, at least I wouldn’t have to spend another second working on this thing that I hated. My agent, thank goodness, was amazingly understanding. He told me not to worry about it, to take my time, he’d deal with my publisher about the deadline, et cetera.
With the relief came the clarity I needed. It was very, very similar to what you’re talking about with the two projects side by side. For me, it was looking at what I had and then imagining an alternate version that felt more like me. I imagined a brand-new main character and placed him next to the old main character and it was immediately clear who was the right fit for me, who was the wrong one. Same thing with plot, setting, tone. (Turned out, by the way, that the character who sucked as a main character for me did end up working out as my antagonist — a version of him, at least.)
I’m just thinking now that maybe the novel you ditched was actually the kind of novel I would write, and the draft I ditched was the kind of novel that you would write, and we’re living some weird happy-ending crime writer version of that O. Henry story about the Christmas gifts.
You’re not wrong: the book I threw out was a lyrical thriller about a flawed but fundamentally decent dude just trying to do the right thing, which could more or less be your lead character’s Tinder profile. But it was such a bad fit for me that in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the manuscript I actually tried to kill off my own narrator. That was probably the only time I had any fun working on that book.
Can I used “flawed but fundamentally decent” as a blurb for my next novel?
You said that when you went back and reworked the book, your original hero became your villain. But what about the other characters who survived from one draft to the next? Did you find that you had to rework any of them once you made the transition? I’m particularly curious about Charlotte, of course.
Charlotte, in certain superficial ways, was always the same character. But the decision to have her leave her husband, which came only after I ditched the first draft, really brought into focus for me what was most essential about her. She had a character arc in the first draft, but it was kind of limp and undefined. She wasn’t being challenged and wasn’t yet the character I knew, deep down, she needed to be.
I’m surprised this is the first time you’re mentioning this, because from my perspective this was as radical a change as introducing a new protagonist — and maybe even more crucial. Not that you need my validation, but: Thank God you threw that old version out.
Moving forward, do you think now you’ll be able to recognize earlier when you’re on the wrong creative path? Or are you finding — and I’m very sorry to suggest this — that terrible choices might be an important part of the process? After all, in this case you ended up with a book I think you’re justly proud of. But maybe you wouldn’t have been able to animate Guidry — and Charlotte and Seraphine and Cindy — so deftly, so indelibly if you hadn’t first made a failed go of things with your original protagonist.
Absolutely I’ve come around to the idea, after fighting it for a long time, that screwing up is an essential part of the process. When you’re trying to create something new and original and slippery like a novel, it would be worrisome maybe if you didn’t make a ton of mistakes. That’s what I tell myself now anyway. And I think that attitude has made writing a little less stressful. I don’t freak out (as much) when I recognize that a character or a scene or a B story doesn’t work. And maybe I recognize more quickly now when something isn’t working, because I’m not dreading the consequences as much.
But let me ask you a question. I radically revised my novel, but there’s still a fair amount of the original in the final version (one of the main characters, a basic premise, et cetera). You on the other hand tossed away an entire novel. Do you think you might ever come back to it, with fresh eyes, and say, Huh, this might actually be salvageable/pretty good?
I just went back and looked at the junked manuscript for the first time in nearly two years, and you know what? It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read. I mean, I don’t want to say that it’s technically proficient, but it’s certainly sufficient. Publishable, even! There are a few sentences I don’t actively hate, in any case. But even so, no, it’s not remotely salvageable. As I was reading it, I just had the most powerful sense that the story was — to hark back to what you were saying earlier — so very, very wrong for me.
Which is appallingly non-specific. And we should at least be making a token gesture toward generating some concrete literary insight here, right? So, let me try to do better: I think that when I say “wrong” I’m referring to the kind of wrongness you feel when you look at a nearly human robot. For whatever reason, the main character of my discarded novel wasn’t one I could fully inhabit, and so even though he walks and talks and cracks perfectly serviceable jokes, you never forget that he’s a construct. And why would a reader give a damn what happens to a construct?
Does that definition ring at all true for you when you think back on your original manuscript? (As far as you can remember, anyway — I won’t be so cruel as to suggest you actually go back and look at it.)
You’re looking for literary insight? In the future I think you need to choose the writers you interview more carefully.
I like your robot analogy. For me, the wrongness is not only about perception but also something happening internally. The act of writing itself feels off or unnatural. I have this dream occasionally where I’m suddenly on stage at a big arena with a famous band (U2, for example) and I’m supposed to be playing guitar but I don’t know how to play guitar so I’m just kind of hammering at the strings desperately as Bono turns around to glare at me and the crowd starts booing and it’s pretty horrible. That’s a little bit like what writing the first draft of my novel felt like.
What was most horrifying to me, while I was working on the first draft, was the prospect of writing a book that was: (a) not very good; and (b) not me. I can live with (a), I realized, but not (b).
I don’t believe for a second that you could live with a book that was not very good. I think you’d probably laugh it off in public but be quietly tortured about it for the rest of your life. But maybe I’m just projecting.
Well, yeah, of course I’d be quietly tortured by a book that wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. But it wouldn’t kill me, not as long as I knew I’d given it my best shot.
I realized, as I wrote that sentence, that was the big reason I hated writing that first draft: I wasn’t giving it my best shot. I was going through the motions, just trying to get it over with instead of trying to create something I might be proud of.
If you had to do it all over again, would you do it any differently?
As much as it would pain me, and it would definitely pain me, I wouldn’t do anything differently. This novel doesn’t exist without the false starts and dead ends and cut pages, without the dread and doubt and anguish along the way. All that seems like a small price to pay for a book I’m happy to put my name on.
Elizabeth Little is the author, most recently, of Dear Daughter. Her next novel, Dissolve, will be published in 2019.