Last year the Indian American fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri wrote a beautiful ode to the act of writing for the New York Times. It took the form of an essay in which she confessed her fierce ardor for sentences and the amazing work sentences do and how novels are in many ways carried by sentences and “consist of nothing but” sentences. I love this essay. I love it for its distillation of the act of writing and for the way it calls out sentences and celebrates them and names them as the building blocks of the whole enterprise.
Then there comes a day when we have to give our sentences away. To editors. To readers. The day, Lahiri writes, “When a book is finally out of my hands I feel bereft… A complex root system, extracted.” This the line that still echoes for me long after I’ve put Lahiri’s essay down—the part about feeling bereft. I know that part.
For me it started back in January when I handed in copy edits for my new novel Paris Was the Place, and began readying myself for the day (August 6th—six weeks from now) when Knopf will publish it. There was the sensation of being lost after I turned in those final pages. At sea. But I’m pretty much done with bereft at this point. Now I’m honing in on reading dates and guest blogs. But I still recognize that a kind of extraction has taken place—a letting go of an ecosystem that I tended to and watered daily for years.
We inhabit our stories. We live inside our characters’ heads when we’re writing them. Leaving these people and places can be a tricky undertaking. Fraught, even. It was for me. But last week I got an unexpected gift that made giving my novel up to the publishing Gods a little easier.
It came in the form of a message from an actress in Los Angeles named Cassandra. She was recording the audio book of Paris Was the Place, and she wrote to tell me that now she is the one inside my characters’ heads. She said she felt like she’d already lived the life of Willie Pears, my main character, who fled to Paris in 1989 to hang out with her crazy brother. And Cassandra said she was falling in love with Macon, the passionate French lawyer in the novel, and she was grieving for Luke, Willie’s brother, when he got really sick. Cassandra was the first reader to fully inhabit my novel’s sentences. A root system might have been extracted from me when I turned the novel over to my editor, but wasn’t that what I wanted? To share the place and the people?
With this book launch of mine, I’ve realized I need different sentences—ones to talk about my book with. Ones that explain what my book’s about. It’s a new distillation that I’m just now getting used to. My novel is a story about how we reinvent family wherever we go. It’s about falling madly, deeply in love in France and about letting go. It’s about the power of words to accrue into sentences and it’s about the emotional connection between those sentences on the page—all those sentences—and the reader. I was bereft at first to see the pages go, but now that I’m so close to publication, it feels sort of as if the sentences are coming back home.
Susan Conley is the author of the novel Paris Was the Place, forthcoming from Knopf on August 6th, 2013 and the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011). She’s written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and Maine Magazine. You can follow Susan on Facebook and Twitter and at her website: susanconley.com.