Last night I had the Navy Dream again. It’s my own version of that anxiety dream everyone experiences when life gets too complicated. In the Navy Dream, somehow I find myself back in the Navy, on a new ship without any friends, uniforms or gear — and most importantly, without any idea of how long I have left before the Navy lets me go. For an old vet like me, that’s a powerful nightmare. I always wake up in a cold sweat, still half-believing that I’m about to ship off on deployment even though its been almost fifteen years since my real enlistment ended.
Usually I get the Navy Dream once or twice a year, but lately it’s coming a lot more fast and furious. I know the reason why. I think Hunter Thompson simply called it The Fear, that feeling of utter dread all writers get when they face that blank screen or empty page. If you write, you already know what I’m talking about: there’s a tightness in your throat from the pressure of having to sit down to work on a project. You wonder if today will be the day nothing comes out. When you’re writing for a deadline, multiply that pressure by ten.
And if you happen to be writing a sequel for a deadline, well, just go ahead and multiply it by a hundred. Take it from me: I’m working on a sequel right now, and it might be the most terrifying writing project I’ve ever taken on.
Now this might sound strange, but I’ll say it anyway: I think that terror is a good thing.
Today I’m on the road, driving along a two-lane blacktop called Highway 13, heading north into the upper reaches of Wisconsin. The radio only has two kinds of stations: new country, and old country. I’m on sabbatical — which is academic-speak for being temporarily unemployed — and I’m out here researching my novel Apostle Islands, which will be the follow-up to Nazareth, North Dakota, published by Atticus Books. Nazareth, North Dakota was the story of the young Messiah as he grows up on the rural prairie of North Dakota beginning in the 1980s. That book ends when the Messiah character walks out into the desert (in this case, the Badlands) to challenge Satan for forty days and nights. So, Apostle Islands starts there and takes us all the way to the end of the New Testament story. The sequel takes its name from the lonely chain of islands off the north coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior. Which is where I’m heading right now, in a Toyota Camry packed with the essentials: camping gear, laptop, cooler, and a good stash of Nutter Butters.
When I tell my writer friends about the sequel, they all seem impressed. Honestly, it almost feels embarrassing to say out loud, “I’m writing a sequel,” because some people might actually hear, “My writing is so good it requires two books.” I hope they don’t. A sequel is a pretty rare thing in literary fiction, I guess: unless you’re writing a big series about wizards or zombies or mystery-solving housewives, fiction usually doesn’t get a sequel. Which might explain the Navy Dream last night. (At least I was sleeping alone this time, in my cozy hiker tent in an off-the-map state park. Trust me, when you wake up from the Navy Dream and you’re sleeping next to someone else, you have a lot of explaining to do.)
Like most writers, deep inside I know my fears are mostly unfounded. We all have deadlines, and we know that we’ll probably meet them one way or another. But in the meantime, we fret about it on a daily basis. Writers, you know the drill: you wake up, turn on the computer, and take your sweet time making coffee, checking e-mail, cleaning the sink. Anything but actually sitting down in front of that screen and facing judgment. Usually that fear passes: we start with a few words or a couple of good sentences, and then we feel things start to roll.
But there are those rare days when nothing comes out. There are those frightening times when the research gets more interesting than the actual writing. And we’re scared to death that it’ll be a while until things start rolling again.
I’m having a heck of a time out here on the road getting material for Apostle Islands, but I’m also learning that writing a sequel is hard work. When you get that first book published, you’re so happy just to have it in the bookstore and the library. But when you are presented with the opportunity to continue the story in a sequel, you want this one to be your Moby Dick, your White Album. When you are given the opportunity to write a sequel, you want the second part to be even better than the first. You want to impress the people who gave you this opportunity in the first place: the publisher, for one, as well as the nice people who read the first book. All sequels are judged as an extension of the original story, and that’s something the author can’t control. But that doesn’t mean we don’t worry about it on a daily basis.
For my part, I’m out here putting together the sequel in the same way I put together Nazareth, North Dakota. I’m sitting in diners listening to folks talk, I’m taking pictures of street corners and hunting down weird artifacts. I’m soaking in all the cool details about the place. In putting together Naz, I found all this legwork really does translate to the writing — maybe not directly, but by some kind of weird osmosis, it builds the story. It makes the writing part a whole lot easier; I don’t think I could do it otherwise. When you’re on the road, it can be whole lot of fun exploring a place for the first time. Library research is important, but there’s no substitute for experiencing a place first-hand. Plus, you get to eat a whole lot of Nutter Butters by the campfire.
Right now I’m about halfway through the first draft of Apostle Islands, and I have to say I absolutely love the writing so far. Old characters are mixing with new ones and the story is taking me to new places. The sequel is slated for a Summer 2012 release, and if I think logically, I know I’ll meet my deadline with room to spare. But as all writers know, our fears don’t care too much about logic. The good news is, we also know that fear is the same thing that drives us to create something great. We use fear as motivation. We can never really tell if the project we’re working on will be our White Album — other folks will decide that — but any writer will tell you that the unique feeling of being surprised by your own writing is worth all the agonizing fear churned up in a hundred Navy Dreams. With this draft of Apostle Islands, I’m still excited by the story as it slowly unravels in my dusty brain, and that lets me know that this is going to be something I’ll be proud of in the end. I’m not worried yet about what other folks will think: after all, Revolver and Meet the Beatles were kick-ass pieces of art, too.
Tonight I’m camping out on the real Apostle Islands, and I can’t wait. As I get closer it’s hard to stay under the speed limit on this back road. If you’ve been up in these parts, then you know how beautiful and lonely this place is. I’ll be off the radar for a while, which can be the best thing for a writer. Tonight I’ll set up my little tent the same way I have been for the last week, on my way out here; I’ll pump up the old air mattress and put the coffee pot on the fire. And when I lie down to sleep, I know I just might wake up in the middle of the night again with that same Navy Dream. But that’s a good thing. It’s a sign I’m getting closer to turning the corner on this story. And when I deliver that finished draft to my publisher, it’ll be more than worth it.
About the Author
Tommy Zurhellen was born in New York City. His debut novel, Nazareth, North Dakota, was released by Atticus Books in Summer 2011. The sequel, Apostle Islands, is slated for an August 2012 release. Learn more about Tommy, Nazareth and his research at tommyzurhellen.com.
Photos by Tommy Zurhellen