The Book I Will Write by John Henry Fleming is a serial novel-in-emails about a would-be writer named John Henry Fleming who is desperate to publish a book. The Book I Will Write is a work in progress; readers are invited to make comments and influence the outcome. In this episode, Fleming continues his attempt to establish a dialogue with Roberta Hollymore, a senior editor at Knopf.
Ms. Roberta Hollymore and/or Mary Ann Lankowski
Senior Editor and/or Editorial Assistant
New York, New York
Dear Ms. Hollymore and/or Ms. Lankowski,
Perhaps I overexpressed myself in my previous email. My excitement about this project is hard to contain, but I realize that in order to complete it I’ll need to channel myself into actual novel writing. It occurs to me, for example, that the novel could very well be about the consequences of overenthusiasm. There might be a character who resembles me in my previous email, all unchecked exuberance, and another character, very much like you (probably both of you) as I picture you (together, huddled in front of the screen, one hand on the other’s shoulder) reacting to that email—that is, dismissive, taken aback, repulsed, even, to the extent that a response is impossible. The title would be There Are No Words. Is it a tragedy or a comedy or a tragicomic mix? The exuberant character realizes his mistake and spends the entire novel trying to correct it. He’s a hopeless romantic reaching for the stars with stunted arms. He tells himself it is better to have stunted arms than stunted dreams. But who on this earth is with him?
I don’t know. Maybe this is an awful idea. Maybe it’s the worst kind of stupidity that slides across your desk daily on the way to the trash heap.
Still, can we talk about it? Can we tweak it? If necessary, can we scrap it altogether and start over? I’m always one for starting over. I’m even better at that than I am at carrying through.
In that vein, I’ve made a list of possible ideas for discussion. Or rather (in the interest of complete and accurate honesty) I am about to make that list right now, below.
- Instead of a character representing a theme, we spin that trope right on its head, so that theme represents a character in all his messiness. What would the theme be? The theme would be humanity.
- An absolutely random collection of events that challenges the reader to make sense of them, just as a child must make sense of the new world that presents itself outside the womb. At the climax, a literature professor-ex-machina steps in and finds the linkages to resolve this chaos. A final twist: the literature professor may actually have her own unspoken agenda.
- A novel like an abstract expressionist painting that resists interpretation of the kind mentioned above. Two narrators wrestle for control. One is an obsessive interpreter who finds symbols in used tissues, tire tracks, and contrails. The other is a proponent of disorder who shoots down every theory posited by the obsessive interpreter. Do they cancel each other out? What does that mean? One thing is for sure: their arguments will gradually squeeze out the narrative until the reader wants to scream at them, “Will you please just shut up and let me enjoy the story?” (There is meaning in that reaction, but I am not the one to elucidate.)
- A pop culture icon grows tomatoes and uses them to make stew to feed the world’s homeless. A professional football player joins the cause. They perform together at the Olympics.
I think I sometimes hold back on my best ideas to the extent that I prevent them from existing. There have been times when I thought it was enough to have an excellent idea for a novel, that if the idea is so good that one can imagine it completely, the novel itself is superfluous. Or, rather, the novel already exists in the minds of its would-be readers, so to actually write it is a waste of time for both writer and reader. This opinion sustained me through my years of not-publishing.
Now I’ve decided that I actually do want to write and publish a novel. For one, to be honest, I could use the money. My finances are down. The situation isn’t pretty. And yet it’s not so un-pretty that it’s worth writing a tragedy about, or even, for that matter, an anti-tragedy, which is a term I just invented to best describe what my situation would be if it were worth writing about.
I await your wisdom on these and other matters.
Simmering with Patience,
John Henry Fleming