The following is the second of three posts dedicated to the upcoming fifth anniversary of my debut novel, Enso. You can purchase Enso here.
Conviction is not always as readily available to an author as one might think.
“Kill your darlings” any number of famous authors purportedly preached, but that doesn’t mean there is not a lot of hesitation.
Posts in this vein often look at what writers do in an effort to get it right. They look far less at how we know we’ve made those right decisions. This post, one in a series for the fifth anniversary of my debut novel, will try to look at just that.
How do writers know that we’ve gotten it right? Short answer: It happens in a variety of ways.
Conviction, and perhaps some have larger reservoirs than did I in those earliest days, often comes from encouragement that itself comes from the most unlikely of sources.
For Enso, there were three distinct moments where I felt just a little more sure than I had moments before. Here they are in chronological order:
An Unlikely Reply (Stephen Addiss)
Dr. Stephen Addiss had a profound influence on Enso. An art professor, scholar and calligrapher, his book, The Art of Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks, hung most of the painting – so to speak – in Maruko and Connor’s museum in Chapter 6. His words adorned a placard in the entrance to that museum and while this influenced, well, the entire plot, this also kind of posed a potential problem.
You see, when Enso went from being a series of journal entries to something I wanted to publish, I was faced with just how much of a copyright nightmare I’d created. There’s a lot of name dropping in Enso, a lot of quotes. These kind of need to be signed off on in most cases (especially if one wishes to charge for the goods they are publishing).
I wrote Dr. Addiss and briefly described my book. What followed was not only a signature, but an email of encouragement for me and my as-yet-completed project. I have no idea if Dr. Addiss knows the hole he could have torn in my sails with a different kind of response. I’m grateful his encouragement told me to push on.
Serendipity in Kumamoto (Maruko Clothing)
A Enso edged closer to its release, I took a second trip to Japan. I wanted to have Japan as a backdrop for my last edits on the final manuscript, partially because I was increasingly terrified that years of writing in Korea might have made my tale of Japan far more “fusion” than authentic (eww). I landed in Kumamoto and essentially recreated my time in Osaka: street performers, coffee shops and sushi joints. The best of what happened was what did not: I never came across something in Japan that I had just gotten wrong in the hours of research and reflection that found their way into my book.
My last night in Kumamoto, however, was to be something even better. While walking to the coffee shop where I’d continue polishing my manuscript, I strolled past a clothing store: Maruko Clothing. I’d named my leading character in part as a tribute to Haruki Murakami, but there had been much consternation over my cobbling of a name that I prayed would be a real name, a girl’s name, etc. Seeing “Maruko” in lights on the window of the clothing store emboldened me. This was a name. That work had paid off.
Minutes later, I came upon two street performers. My reflections on their performance would become the final scene I would add to Enso during edits. People ask where I am in Enso. Standing in a circle around these musicians, suddenly confident that there were pieces of Japan I had truly understood (and with Maruko on my mind all the while)… That scene is one where Connor could very much be seen as me. (More on that… here.)
A Guide Who Appreciated My Tour (Peter MacIntosh)
On a list of all I created for Enso, Connor’s night searching for geisha in Kyoto would not be present. That night happened pretty much exactly as described in the book. I took the tour, I met the “Western gentleman who had gained unparalleled access to Kyoto’s geisha community” and I took that picture, yep, the blurry one.
Years passed and Peter and I re-connected online. His company, Kyoto Sights and Nights, continues to thrive. But it was a short text message that landed Peter in this particular post. He wrote that he’d bought the book, liked it, and felt that “being written into a novel was the coolest.”
It was the least that I could do.
Three instances. Three moments of knowing that my time and efforts may just have flown true.
Fiction doesn’t have to be historically accurate, but the things that authors write matter to us. To have the people that inspired my choices say that I’d gotten it right… It’s part of why I’m still writing to this day.