A Novel


My novel Letter to My Daughter features a middle-aged mother, her fifteen-year-old daughter, a boy in Vietnam, and a tattoo. Straight away, let me make a confession: I don’t have a daughter. I don’t have a tattoo, and I don’t know anyone who fought in the Vietnam War. Like the mother in the book, I did go to a Catholic high school in Baton Rouge, but that one was for boys, not girls.

How, then, did I come to write a book so far removed from my real-life experience? Or maybe the better question is: How am I even qualified to write such a book?

Fortunately, there’s a good story behind this novel, one that, if you believe in things like literary inspiration, helps to explain how and why I wrote it. It begins in India.

A couple of years ago I was on a fellowship with the US State Department to do teacher training in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It was demanding work, and so when I had the chance, I grabbed a week’s vacation in Rajasthan. Rajasthan’s in northern India, the place where most tourists go first. The Taj Mahal is nearby, and the stunning historic cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur. Rajasthan, in fact, is everything you think of when you think of India: exotic palaces, painted elephants, women in bright saffron saris with bangles on their wrists.

From Jodhpur I took a camel safari into the desert–which, to be honest, is not as romantic as it sounds. You sit on a camel, with a guide, and just kind of amble along, miles and miles on a dusty track under hot sun, stopping now and then at a village for tea. It’s uncomfortable, the camel smells bad. Pretty soon you begin thinking, Hm–a jeep would’ve been faster. But sitting on a camel all day does give you time to think, and I did.

I was mulling over an earlier novel I’d written. I’d labored over this story for years, trying to make it work. I’d done a ridiculous amount of research, had bankers’ boxes full of documents and drafts, but the thing was like a black hole, swallowing everything I threw at it. But still, I knew, this was what writing is like: mostly just hard, determined labor, and if you wanted a story to succeed, you had to stick at it. “Bash on,” as my Indian friends would say. So on my holiday in Rajasthan, I’d begun jotting notes for revisions to this novel in a journal I carried with me. It was in my bookbag now, slung over the side of the camel, jostling against my leg.

After a few hours riding a camel, though, it’s hard to do any focused thinking. The mind wanders. As you rock back and forth above the sand, thoughts slip from their moorings and you drift into that pleasant hazy state where past and present, near and distant, blur together in an indistinct, vaguely foreign landscape. I wasn’t thinking much about anything.

Late afternoon we arrived at a camp in the desert. The camel folded its legs and I slid off its back. There was a man with a moustache and turban standing waiting on the sand with, improbably, a decanter of whiskey on a silver tray. After a full Indian dinner and drinks at the fire with a retired Indian colonel, I went off and hiked around the dunes. There was nothing but sand and desert scrub and the moon and stars, an amazing profusion of stars, as far as you could see. It made the camel ride seem worthwhile. Satisfied, tired, I fell asleep on a cot in a tent, the campfire outside illuminating the canvas walls with a shadowy golden glow, and there I dreamed.

I dreamed the whole story. I could see it like a film, beginning to end. A daughter steals a car, drives off into the night, and the mother, anxiously waiting for her return, sits down to write her a long letter. The farm, the boyfriend in Vietnam, the Catholic boarding school, the visit to the tattoo parlor: it was all there. When I woke the next morning in the tent, I knew the voice of the woman telling the story, too. It was clear as the day. I lay on the cot for a while, letting the pieces of the story settle into place, and then went out and sat in a chair next to the remnants of the campfire and jotted down the outline in my journal.

Looking at that journal entry now, even after spending a year and a half writing and revising the story, I’m amazed at how much of it was there that first morning. More importantly, perhaps, that morning I knew the mood, the feeling of the story, and that helped to sustain me during the writing of it.

The curious thing is that I don’t know anyone quite like Laura, the narrator. She’s not modeled after anyone in real life. Many of her opinions align with mine, true, but her voice and experiences certainly aren’t mine. I was happy to have found her voice, though (or maybe her voice found me), because it gave me license to express sentiments that I don’t think a male narrator could have expressed as easily. I hope I’ve done her justice with this book.

So where did Laura come from, then? The Greeks, you know, assigned divinity to this kind of inspiration. They said it was the work of the Muses, the nine goddesses who sat with Apollo on Mount Olympus: Calliope, Thalia, Terpsichore … Myself, I don’t call it divine. Instead, I’m reminded of those stories you read about the discovery of some new mathematical formula or chemical equation. The scientist is going about his business, preoccupied with other problems, and while stepping off a city bus, say, it comes in a flash: the formula is revealed, the equation solved. A bit like those scientists, I credit my own inspiration to years of tedious work on story drafts, endless revision of sentences, countless nights hunched in front of a glowing computer screen, and, maybe, a few lucky hours rocking on a camel in the hot Indian sun.