Behind the Scenes: THE QUIET POOLS

Originally published in OtherRealms #27 (Spring, 1990), Chuq von Rospach, Editor. Reprinted in The Semi-Circular of Janus #2, (June, 1991), Greg & Linda Dunn, Editors.

The Locus containing the first review of The Quiet Pools arrived in today’s mail. Bookstore-haunting friends and fans across the country are reporting initial sightings of the Genuine Article, the first Kube-McDowell hardcover. And — finally! — there’s a new contract coming, a new novel to write. I’ve been living with this one for a long time, but it looks like it’s time to move on.

Time to reshelve these reference books, which have been living on the worried old work-in-progress bookcase for the last two years. There goes Nancy Tiley’s Discovering DNA, Helen Fisher’s The Sex Contract, Corning’s The Synergism Hypothesis, Robert Powers’ The Coattails of God. There goes Francis Crick’s Life Itself — hmmm, I really should have made a photocopy of the appendix on the DNA/RNA code, instead of marking up page 173 that way.

Time to pack up the unwieldy stacks of notes, file cards, partial drafts, maps, newspapers, magazine articles, photographs. There go the clippings about the Amazon, the Time article about the Human Genome Project. There goes the pamphlet about the Bonneville Dam, in the Columbia Gorge. There goes the paper plate bearing Dr. Jordin Kare’s sketches of the laser-cannon launch complex.

And oh, sweet memory, look at this ancient artifact, hiding at the bottom of the pile — the file containing the ten-year-old novelette which started it all, and the rejection slip from George Scithers which prompted me to put it away. “A good idea, but awkwardly handled,” George advised me, before going on to dissect the manuscript in some detail. “The Quiet Pools” would not be my second Asimov’s sale.

Awkward, indeed. “Amateurish” would not have been too strong. At that time, I had written only a dozen stories, and sold but five of them (though I would eventually sell four more from that group, and fold a fifth, “Mothball,” into Empery). So perhaps I can be forgiven for not realizing “The Quiet Pools” wanted to be a novel.

The novelette was ten thousand words of explaining in search of a story. The power of its one evocative moment depended almost entirely on a vision I could see, but — as I realized after George bounced the story — hadn’t written. Reading “The Quiet Pools” was a lot like catching only the last two minutes of a movie — with the person you sat next to whispering like crazy, trying to tell you everything you missed.

I never submitted “The Quiet Pools” anywhere else. I had a very clear sense that I didn’t yet have the tools to tell the story the way it needed to be told. And I didn’t want to trash the vision with my own ineptitude. I filed the manuscript, my cut-and-pasted typewritten drafts (I said it was ancient), and my notes, made an appointment with the future, and moved on to other things.

The future took eight years to arrive — eight years during which I left teaching for full-time freelancing, wrote and sold six novels, became a father, left Indiana and returned to Michigan, suffered through a divorce. By the end of 1987, I had completed work on Alternities, and my editor, Beth Fleisher, wanted to know what I was going to write for the book Berkley/Ace had tacked onto the Alternities contract.

Because it was the “novel to be named later,” there was never an outline, or even a formal proposal, for The Quiet Pools. But I knew with some clarity what I wanted to write. At the heart of “The Quiet Pools” was this question: is it really inevitable, as so much SF assumes, that humanity will colonize the stars — and, if it is, why? And the most interesting time to ask that question is when the deed becomes at least marginally possible, which I projected to be late in the next century.

In January, 1988, I promised Beth (in a letter) “the story of the struggle between those who are fighting to end the starship project and those who are struggling to complete it — of a few men and women caught between a dimly understood destiny and a dimly apprehended horror — and of the interface between the conscious and the unconscious, the free will of the mind and the determinism of the body.”

And all of that turned out to be true. But it doesn’t go far enough. Because it doesn’t address the question “Who does it hurt?” — the answer to which, in my opinion, is what turns an idea into a story, and breathes life into the moments you hope to share with your readers.

When I can clearly see the people who are caught in the pincers, when I’ve found a place where I can stand to be silent witness to the turns, travails and small triumphs of their lives, then — and only then — am I ready to start writing. Because a novel is not about its theme. It’s about life as the writer sees it, and ordinary people as the writer understands them. The writer shouldn’t sit down at the keyboard to confess, or to invent, but to give witness. And a novel ought not be an essay, or a tract, but a story. Not my story. Their story.

(Enough schizoid writers’ workshop pontificating. For now.)

I already had the missing piece in hand, and it didn’t take me too long to realize it. Months before, I had become aware that parents in general, and fathers in particular, had gotten short shrift in my novels. I took that as a clue that I might be ducking looking at something difficult, and promised myself that I would tackle a story about fathers and sons as soon as an appropriate idea presented itself.

One night, somewhere in my neural net, that promise ran head-on into the kernel of “The Quiet Pools,” and the two fused into one. I suddenly knew who was hurting, and why. So I said good-bye to my friends, retreated to my basement office, and set to it.

For me, the actual writing process is one of a sort of dynamic synthesis. Even when I’m not working on a book, I write down bits of overheard conversations, record idle thoughts and observations, take photographs of intriguing faces, write “sense essays” about interesting places I visit, clip and file news items in thirty or so broad categories. When I begin writing, I cannibalize those resources, pulling them together and finding connections between them. They come together in and around the conflicts of the story in unexpected, often serendipitous ways.

It’s this process of synthesis which helps put flesh on the naked skeleton. For instance, I happened to see extended-marriage advocate Stan Dale on the Sally Jessie Raphael show, later found that a friend had attended one of his workshops, and came away from listening to both with a new understanding of how the family had changed by the time of the novel. I went to the Pacific Northwest for Orycon and Norwescon, stayed to explore the woods and waterfalls, and came away knowing where Christopher McCutcheon had grown up, and how it still touched him. And so forth.

I suppose some zealous researcher could take this box I’m packing up and have a field day correlating it with the pages of the novel. (“Ah-hah! So this was the inspiration for page 106.”) But doing so would probably miss the point.

When I begin work on a novel, I have to know where it ends — the moment, the feeling, sometimes the exact words. The first decision I face is where to begin telling the story. Two points define a line, but a story is not a straight line. Past Chapter One, I’m embarked on a journey of discovery, learning as I write how the beginning and the ending are connected. It does not seem to me that I’m “making it up” — rather, that I’m sorting out what must have happened, like working out one of those letter-substitution puzzles where you have to turn SPURT into CHOKE in five moves.

The Quiet Pools was a vastly more complex puzzle, since it contains five distinct but interrelated threads of conflict. It wrote almost painfully slowly, and took me six months more than I had thought it would to finish — the first time I’ve seriously missed a deadline. And when I finally turned it in, in April, 1989, I was so emotionally drained that months passed before I was productive again.

But the result is a novel I’m greatly pleased with and proud of. The narrow sfnal theme broadened in the writing to become a question everyone confronts — who are we, and why do we do what we do? At the same time, the abstract speculations drawn from Fisher and Crick faded to a supporting role behind an intimate portrait of two troubled families. In short, I wrote the book I wanted to write, told the story I wanted to tell.

Just don’t expect me to be able to tell you in two sentences What It All Means. The question I dread most as a writer is, “So, your new book — what’s it about?” I hate it when editors ask. I hate it when other writers ask. I hate it when friends, family, and readers ask.

Because, ultimately, The Quiet Pools isn’t about the plot, or the characters, or the setting, or the theme, or the deconstructed analysis of its literary entrails. It’s about a place I found to stand, and something I saw from there, and the feelings and thoughts that experience evoked in me. The Quiet Pools, in its totality, is nothing more or less than my carefully worded invitation to come and stand where I stood, and experience it for yourself.

Hope to see you there.

–April 4, 1990, Lansing, Michigan