Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Building a House from the Inside Out

One of my favorite books from the past few years has been "The History of Love," by Nicole Krauss. I reviewed it for the library back in 2007, writing that the book
was one of those rare novels that captured me on page one then held me hostage from other activities—namely eating and sleeping—until I reached the final page. And once I was released, all I wanted to do was find someone else who'd read it and shared my experience.
The writing is exquisite, and the characters are fully-drawn. Consider the voice of one of the main characters, Leo Gursky: When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, “Leo Gursky is survived by an apartment full of shit.”

Both "The History of Love" and her next novel, "Great House," have multiple story lines; as a reader, I was never quite sure how they were (or weren't) going to converge. I had assumed that the plots were as intricately-drawn as her sentences.

So it was wonderful to hear her speak this past Friday night at my favorite local bookstore. Krauss, speaking so softly that everyone in the audience strained their necks forward (she also had to compete with a loud child downstairs), read an excerpt from "Great House." An older man addresses his son whom he had never completely understood. Even in a very short passage, with little context, the writing has an emotional punch. After the reading, she took some questions from the audience, and most were about her writing process.

For her, writing a novel is like building a house from the inside out. She starts by describing the doorknob. Then she needs a door. Then a room, then the rooms to which it is attached, and little by little she builds a house. She never knows exactly what the house is going to look like when it's finished.

In "Great House," she crafted four stories--set in New York, London, Israel, and Chile--without consciously knowing how the stories were related. She explained that because they all came from her mind, they must be connected, if only thematically.

Having my work-in-progress carefully plotted and outlined has freed me from some worry: I know where I'm going, and I know where my characters are going. But as a reader, I tend to prefer books driven more by character than by plot. I'll have to keep that in mind as I revise.

No comments: