In Which a Review of American Gods Turns into a Writing Riff

I haven’t written fiction since middle school. (Except that one NaNo novel in 2008, but that was therapy.) Even so, I am subject to that universal writerly neurosis – I secretly think that deep inside me lies hidden the great American novel. At least I think it’s universal. Maybe other technical writers are perfectly happy with what they do. Maybe novelists secretly dream of writing that perfectly researched narrative nonfiction.

Anyway. When I got back from Airwaves, an idea for a story popped into my head; a few characters, some themes, a couple of scenes. This is nothing new in itself. I’ve walked around narrating stories in my head that I had no intention of ever writing down since – well, since I stopped writing them down in middle school. But these characters wouldn’t go away. Whatever else I was doing, a part of my brain was thinking about these broken characters and the shit they were going through. Since another good chunk of my brain has been following my kids around in this manner for the past five years, it left precious little attention for the tasks at hand, which has, unfortunately, been noted at the day job.


Anyway. I started reading American Gods, which has been on my list for ages. And damn, if it wasn’t custom made for me – old gods, introverted first-person narrator (whose voice, coincidentally, sounds exactly the same in my head as the editor over at NCS), road trips, magical realism, Iceland – and death. There is always death. The book also includes several of the themes, and even some of the events, that were part of my idea. Being well-read, I am usually able to think of several examples fairly quickly of my idea having already been done, and by my betters.

But this time, the author who already broke the trail was Neil Gaiman – the man who became my patron saint when I watched this video:

His line, “Make good art,” has become my mantra. So for a change, instead of letting my inner editor say, “Honey, you’re no Neil Gaiman, go write yourself an annual report,” I thought, “Okay, take notes reading this book. You’re going to need them.”

Then, I read Nicholas Christopher’s Tiger Rag. It too was full of ideas that came weirdly close to my idea. There were many of my favorite story elements again – especially the integration of music and plot – but also some of the specifics from my Iceland Idea. I couldn’t help but read the story as an instruction – “Here is how you handle this element of your intended story.”

Reading Tiger Rag confirmed my feeling that it was time to take a stab at fiction. The universe had provided me with two enjoyable textbooks that addressed different aspects of the story I wanted to tell. The universe always provides.

Okay, that’s not really true. There are billions of people for whom the universe provides nothing at all. Every day, children die of hunger, villages are burned, people are murdered and there is no one there to help and no silver lining.

But for me (and yes I’ve done my time in rich white guilt; I agonized over the play “The Fever” in 1993, and unlike my morally superior friend who tossed privilege aside and dedicated his life to service through L’Arche, in the end I decided to accept my good fortune with gratitude) the universe always provides. It’s largely, but not entirely, a matter of being born white and middle class in one of the richest countries in the world, and receiving a good education as a matter of course. Maybe being born in the Year of the Tiger makes up the rest – it’s as good an explanation as any for the way that things always work out. But for me, they always do.

I realized this with certainty sitting on a Yamaha motorcycle in Tamil Nadu, India in 2002, wearing flip-flops and a skirt, but no helmet. I was riding bitch (for the Americans, pillion for everyone else) behind a former motocross racer, whose riding style was considered reckless even by the locals. Seconds after narrowly missing a small child, who ran out in the road in front of us, we overtook a bus on a nominally paved road that passes for a two lane highway. I looked to the right, and saw our friends riding two-up on an Enfield. My friend Laura covered her eyes behind her driver as we raced at breakneck speed up the East Coast Road. Ahead I saw a second bus approaching us, and a funeral procession on foot at the side of the road, body wrapped in white, borne on shoulders draped with marigolds.

Photo: M. Karunakaran in The Hindu Feb 2012 This road has been paved & widened since I was there.

Photo: M. Karunakaran in The Hindu Feb 2012   The ECR has been paved & widened since I was there.

Our friends veered right, to the outside of the oncoming bus. The bus we were passing moved closer to us to avoid the funeral procession. We rode the straight line down the center of the road. Just as the two buses passed each other, inches to either side of us, I looked to the left and saw the body of a chicken explode against the front of the first bus. And in that tunnel-visioned moment of silence, I knew it was all good. Like the boy in American Beauty with his plastic bag, I realized at that moment there was nothing to fear. I was one of the lucky people that the universe takes care of.

Not that I’ve never been afraid since. That’s not in my nature. When the universe decides to look out for you, you’d better appreciate it. I think the absence of fear would be akin to taking a gift for granted, just as pretending you haven’t received a gift is ungrateful.

But ever since that day on the East Coast Road, whenever I’ve followed the mountain (as the snowboarders say) the ride has been epic. Whenever I ignore the smoke signals and take the sketchy line, I catch an edge so hard my kids get bruised. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?)

This is all, as my mother would say, “going down around Nellie’s barn” to say that in 2013 I plan to write a story, thanks to Iceland, Neil Gaiman, and the universe.

Of course, “Make good art,” is only possible after making lots of bad art – at least for most of us, if we’re lucky, and if the universe approves. But you’ve got to start somewhere. If the result is anything like the embarrassingly bad snippets I’ve spit out so far, no eyes but mine will be the wiser. I think Macklemore & Ryan Lewis said it best.

By my calculations, and at current rates of productivity (which may be unsustainable, see “day job” above) it will take approximately 18 years before my writing about music and art is any good; as for fiction, I’ve got about 9,996 hours to go.

When I started to write this, I looked up the origin of the “10,000 Hour Rule.” Originally, I thought Malcolm Gladwell (whose book I haven’t read, obviously) got the idea from poetry, and googled it with “Rumi.” The first result was a website devoted to Japanese bondage techniques. Coincidentally, I had thought to use bondage as a metaphor in my story.

Anyway. Once upon a time….


2 thoughts on “In Which a Review of American Gods Turns into a Writing Riff

  1. Your India story had me from the first sentence! Not to worry. There is plenty of far worse fiction being published; be true to your vision. If your fiction is as good as your blog has been you will do just fine.

    As for books with similar ideas, well, that happens. A lot. I started my serial novel with a group of ideas and characters that kept bugging me to be written. When I read Arnaldur Indriðason’s Black Skies a few weeks ago I found that he had written some scenes in the exact locations I had used- only his were written two years earlier:

    • Thank you – it’s nice to hear encouragement from someone besides your mother. It’s taken me years to get used to the idea that it’s better to be a mediocre writer than someone who just thinks about being a writer. And if someone else has already published a book with the same ideas it just proves they must be good ones. Like the drummer from Solstafir said in our interview, there’s nothing new under the sun anyway. Even the message isn’t new, but it’s especially valuable coming from someone whose music sounds completely unique to me.

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