Sometime in January, holidays done with, I turned my attention back to the memoirish thing I had been working on since completing Story Girl in late Summer. It had been difficult for me– writing a memoir is like building a car from the parts in a thousand-acre junkyard, determining what should be used and what should be left out from a vast experience. I had been writing it from the points of view of others who knew me during the year of concern, my fifth year as an undergrad, because my own voice from that period had me turning away from it again and again.
So in late January I found myself wondering where the next novel idea would come from, and when. I had to wait about fifteen minutes before the song lyric from Elvis Presley (by way of Junior Parker) entered my head. Train I ride, sixteen coaches long.
It sounded like a good first line. But who would say it?
The train I ride is sixteen coaches long.
That’s actually a little long for any Amtrak that you might ride today– sixteen coaches– but who’s counting?
The character that I found looking out the window at the landscape rolling by was a kid. A girl– I prefer girls generally and find them more interesting as a subject of study, and have experience with my two daughters.
She starts talking. The train I ride is sixteen coaches long.
Because of her first line, I decided I would write the entire thing in first person present tense, aside from first-person flashbacks. I had never written in present tense before, which evidently is a trend that is annoying some people that think about how novels should and should not be written. I forgive myself for whomever I might piss off, because I chose present tense not to be annoying or to mimic other books that I am unaware of, but because the inspiration for my first line is in first person present tense.
My protagonist reveals her world to me line by line. Why is she on the train, and as an unaccompanied minor? Where is she going? It’s hard to know because she tells lies and withholds truths early in the story. Why is she so unhappy?
Slowly I come to know her as she interacts with her Amtrak chaperone, other passengers, and a gay snack bar attendant whom she develops a crush on. There’s also a scout troop, all but one of whom are torn from the pages of Lord Of The Flies.
I write twelve thousand words, then take the words off the pages while I build the timetable, then throw the words back at the page. It’s a new experience having to be true to the schedule of a train, what she sees when she looks out the window, where and when the next stop is. Having experienced most of the route of the train I describe last Summer is helpful. I play with the timetable a little, and buy an extra day by making the rising Mississippi RIver prevent the train from crossing, which nearly happened to my family and I on our journey, the water actually rising to the bed of the tracks.
By chance the novel becomes an homage to a certain well-known poem as my protagonist becomes aware of it. It changes her life, as promised, and becomes the lenses she views her world with. It was written, she feels, just for her.
Her name– her name is an accident, an accident later modified by her experience, which she chooses for herself. What her given name would have been is quietly revealed numerous times after I decided the name she was given at birth would not be revealed. It seemed like it was being revealed anyway.
With a twelve year old protagonist who turns thirteen on the train, I intended it to be accessible to young readers. But it is so heavy in subject matter, I am afraid that it is too much for most people the age of my protagonist. Writers at writer’s groups have enjoyed it, but often expressed that her speech is too intelligent or advanced, which I have heard with my previous all-ages show as well. She is obviously smart, and has experienced more than someone her age should have to experience by age 30, or maybe any age. I experienced less pushback on the authenticity of voice when workshopping my first novel, which is narrated by a fish, perhaps because people don’t have strong opinions on the vocabulary of fish. Deep into writing this I realized it was nearly entirely devoid of magical realism, so perhaps a protagonist narrator who sometimes, according to some, sounds too big for her britches, is the one concession to my habit.
It is nearly finished now, writing the story at least, though I have already written the ending. Just a few scenes and loose ends to tie up before editing and ironing out any inconsistencies. I love this protagonist as much or more as any that came before. Tuli, Shawnee, Maggie, and.. you’ll see. I am excited about bringing her to whatever public I can.