Five years ago I moved to China with my husband, two young boys and a mess of a book manuscript that’s recently become my forthcoming novel. Today the book is called Paris Was the Place, and it will come out with Knopf next July. But back in China I think it was titled The Shape of a Boy. I can’t be sure because it changed titles so many times during its short life. It also changed verb tense and point of view (from first person to third and back to first) and plot structure—just to name a few.
I began working on another draft of the novel as soon as we moved into our Beijing high rise. But it was like trying to write fiction in outer space. The novel is set in central Paris in the late 1980’s, which came to feel about as far away from downtown Beijing as the moon. It was difficult for me to get any narrative footing while I wrote in China. I ended up arriving at a discursive first-person voice that I thought would solve all the novel’s problems. But what this meant was a book that moved back and forth in time far too quickly, with chapters that sat like unanchored prose poems.
Then something great happened to my novel while I was in China: I wrote a memoir. The memoir was about what it meant to live on the far side of the world, grappling with Mandarin and a stealth case of breast cancer. My novel got pushed far over to the side, or rather to the bottom drawer of my China desk, where it sat for the next two years.
What my memoir kindly did was teach me how to write story. Simple, chronological, authentic story. It also taught me how to stay in the scenes longer and to wait it out until all the good stuff—the tension between characters and the nuance and the compassion—rose to the top. Truth be told, my memoir sort of wrote itself—I certainly worked hard at it, but the material for the book offered itself to me and I knew it cold: the mouth-watering Beijing dumpling houses, the ancient Buddhist Temples and the zooey Beijing surgery for a breast cancer I didn’t believe I had.
I learned how to put myself into my memoir and to write with an intimate voice, as if I was talking to a very close friend. I finished it and published it, while my novel waited in the desk drawer patiently. When I finally turned to the novel, it had my full attention. By then I understood that much of good writing is about conflict. So where was the conflict in my novel? And why was its chronology a mess? I rewrote the book again and threw out a whole lot of stuff—trying to create the intimate voice that I’d been able to arrive at in my memoir.
But this time the narrator was not me. Who was she? Her name was Willie Pears and I could see her in my mind on a train in France. I could watch her get on a plane in Paris and fly to Delhi. But I couldn’t fully get inside her head. Getting to know her took time. My editor likened it to breaking down an emotional wall.
Memoir had proved itself to be a clean marriage of form and content for me. But there was such an abundance of choice in writing the novel that it was heady. I had to let the characters loose on their own. I had to trust them and trust that the novel would find its own emotional breakthroughs. I got myself to the chair at my desk and generated material. But life kept interrupting, especially in the form of those two young boys of mine. I gained on Willie Pears in increments. She asked me to be more open to her than I’d ever been to any character—including myself. Then she began to live on the edges of my imagination—when I went to bed, when I woke in the middle of night, while I walked the boys to school.
The emotional wall that my editor had been trying to get me to scale finally came down. I understood Willie’s motivations, even if I didn’t always agree with her. And this is how I gave myself over to my novel. Willie Pears isn’t me. She didn’t hike in the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan Province or teach writing workshops to Chinese nationals who are still nostalgic for Mao. She’s thirty years old, fierce about Pablo Neruda poems, and teaches refugee girls at an asylum center in Paris’s 10th arrondisement. In order to fully meet her, I needed to leave the land of memoir behind and trust this place called fiction.