My new book, The Garden of Happy Endings, has just hit the shelves. It began with a single question: how can a benevolent being/Universe/Higher Power/etc allow young teenage girls to get kidnapped and murdered?
It’s the thing that bugs us the most, right? If there is a God, what the heck is s/he doing when a little girl is kidnapped out of her bedroom? When a boy is snatched from the bus stop? When a jogging teenager is snatched and then tortured and murdered?
I didn’t exactly set out to try answering this question. You’d have to be insane, right? If all the sages and mages and masters have been wrestling with such a question over the centuries, what chance do I, a commercial novelist, have of creating meaningful material out of it?
But I didn’t know the question at first. No, no, as always, the girls in the basement hid it from me. I thought I was writing about a woman who was furious at the anti-woman bias of the Catholic church. A devout Catholic woman, actually, who had to leave the church to find a way to serve her calling. I’m very interested in vocations—not just the churchy kind, but all of them. I feel very lucky to have known from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. My sister was called to be a nurse and she’s doing that work. I strongly believe every single one of us has some work we are meant to do, and if we can find it and carry it out, the world heals. We heal. We are happy.
But what happens when things get in the way of a vocation? Like a woman who wants to be a priest?
That’s what I thought I was writing about. But really, I was back to my same old subject: why do bad things happen and how can we get through them. The extra layer on that question this time was, “What if the thing that usually gets you through, like your faith or your husband or your work, lets you down at the exact moment you need it the most?”
All of us have those central questions in our work. Someone said that we write to answer that question, whatever it is.
Because I’ve written a lot of novels over 25 years, the permutations of my central question keep getting thornier. I remember sitting in a Panera Bread, working on the structure of the book over a bowl of black bean soup, when I realized what a big question I’d set up for it. Really, I wanted to cry. It was already sold and halfway written and what I was going to have to do was go back and rip up the structure in the first half and redo it all.
A lot of work. And I knew it was only the beginning.
Like Elsa and Joaquin, who undertook their walk on the Camino de Santiago as a lark before graduate school—and instead discovered that it turned their lives upside down—I thought I’d write a larkish book about a woman who was mad.
Yeah. She’s mad all right.
And I was half mad with writing it by the end. It was a very challenging tale. I’d write a draft, send it to my editor, and she’d read it and send it back with suggestions to take it deeper. Three times I did this, three times she sent it back. By the final draft, however, I knew I’d finally moved my ego out of the way enough to let the girls in the basement (and my editor) to do the work. It is a dark story in ways, but it’s also enormously hopeful, spiritual and earthy and maybe even a tiny bit wise.
What it took was not shirking away from taking another step into my central question, allowing the writing to carry me deeper.
Now I’m up to my neck in the new book, which pretends to be a story about the power of work to transform us, and four women on a journey….but I’m sure it will be about surviving bad things. So far, it is not torturing me, but that will change at any moment.
What is the central question at the core of your work? Do you know? Share it with us. Where do these ideas come from? Can you identify the central question in your favorite writer’s work?