I don’t usually talk about my current writing project. It’s a characteristic I developed back when I was writing my first novel over a three-year period while I toiled at a big downtown law firm. I basically kept my project to myself, not wanting to advertise an endeavor that could ultimately fail. I didn’t want the “Hey-what-happened-to-that-book-you-were-writing?” question. I have generally kept to this practice, developing and molding my latest novel in isolation.
But hey, this is a blog about writing, so here goes.
An interesting thing has happened to the current novel I am writing. Not the one coming out in September—The Hidden Man—but the one for 2010, with the working title Pretenders. I started writing that novel last summer and fall, with an eye toward finishing by year’s end and before the new General Assembly session in January, 2009. Then a funny thing happened: Rod Blagojevich was arrested on December 9, 2008, and I was thrust into the impeachment of our governor. The novel stopped in its tracks.
Ironically, the novel I was (am) writing is about political corruption. It was loosely based on what I saw happening around me. Pay-to-play corruption, that kind of thing. I thought it would be interesting for people to see how these things happen, from the viewpoint of someone who was watching it from a distance, but not much of a distance.
But selling a senate seat to the highest bidder? “I’ve got this thing and it’s f---in’ golden?” Extorting the Chicago Tribune to fire its editorial board? I mean, people, you can’t make this stuff up. Our idiot governor actually trumped me. He made the scandal I was writing about look like a jaywalking ticket.
That’s part of my problem, the effect of external circumstances. I'm the guy who convicted Blagojevich, so when I write a book about a crooked governor, people are going to be expecting to read about what I experienced. I have touched on political corruption in the past with my novels, but I have never gotten too close to fact. I write a fictional city, not Chicago and not Illinois, so I can distance my characters from real politicians, many of whom I know. I keep a distance, in short. And that’s going to be difficult here. If I write too close to truth, I violate my rule. If I don’t, I disappoint some readers.
But that’s only part of it. I mean, I’m a grown-up, I can work through that problem. The other problem is this write-what-you-know concept. I definitely know how to write about political corruption, but maybe I am too close to it. I am too demanding of myself when it comes to this topic. I want it to be too perfect. Tell me to write about a cop, and though I’ve never been one, I can research and ask questions and, frankly, avoid anything that I don’t know well enough and make it work. But political corruption—I have to do this just right, and I am struggling to hit it right on the head. I have hit the “delete” button and cussed like a truck driver more than ever before as a writer.
I am writing about this in part because it’s mildly cathartic, and I thank you for letting my lie on your couch. And don’t take this as self-pity. My assumption is that this roller coaster I am on will result in the best novel I have ever written. I’m not sure why I think that; something about the investment I have made in it, I suppose.
And as frustrating as this is for me, I also find this experience to be fascinating. It makes perfect sense to write about an area in which you have expertise; we authors do it all the time and I am no different. But how close is too close? How do you set boundaries? I have never confronted this before. It’s like I am at war with myself. I am competing with a real-life experience.
I wish I had a snappy conclusion to this blog. I don’t. I am fighting through it and probably boring my lovely wife to tears complaining about it. (When I say I don’t talk about existing writing projects, my wife is the exception; she has the good fortune of hearing me whine. I should nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.)
I have enjoyed reading the other authors on this blog, particularly when we talk about the craft. I have learned a lot, and I offer this as another experience of the wretched, the depraved, the lonely, the insane—the novelist. When I work through this, I promise (threaten?) to let you know. And if anyone has any thoughts for me, by all means …..