How Novels Get Made: The Specific Becomes Universal

Novels are big undertakings. That’s not an epiphany, it is a fact.

For proof, you may need to look no further than your own laptop, notebook piles, or margin scribbles. If you are purely a short-form writer and still need convincing, just pick up the last good book you read and really look at it. Then, whisper “how?” reverently into the pages.

This week, authors Claire Messud and Carmiel Banasky discussed everything that goes into a novel--from early ideas to the last edits--for a crowd at Newtonville Books. More specifically, the chat centered on Banasky’s recently released debut novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop. Messud read early drafts of the book’s scenes more than seven years ago, so both women knew how the work had developed over time.

Banasky’s two-person narrative weaves the specific stories of a Greenwich Village housewife in 1959 and a present-day schizophrenic to look closer at universal themes of reality, art, illness and death. Similarly, the insights Messud and Banasky shared about the evolution of this specific novel served to illuminate aspects of that most mysterious of processes: how novels get made.  

How to begin: Steal from your friends. The idea for The Suicide of Claire Bishop emerged from Banaksy's wish to better understand friends diagnosed with schizophrenia. Each of the main characters evolved initially from medical situations that the people around her were experiencing. “They were these ideas that I couldn’t let go of and that’s how I knew that I might have enough to stay interested, to have a whole novel to write,” Banasky said.

How to develop: Research the impossible. Banasky used memoirs, interviews, other novels and music to get down the details--the distinct voices and time periods that fill her book. But the real key to applying the research is knowing when to stop. “How can you ever be completely sure about something as subjective as the experience of madness? You collected a bath of research so that you can jump in and out of it,” Messud said.  

How to polish: Use precision details. With tiny signifiers of time or place that don’t draw attention to themselves, a character earns his or her authenticity. Similarly, great scenes use just the right sensory details. Action and place are not merely described but the experience itself is evoked for the reader so that the reading itself becomes personal and subjective. 

About the Author See other articles by Cara Wood
by Cara Wood


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