Chronology of a First Book

A Slow Write, a Fast Read

I spent ten years writing my first novel, The Courtyard of Dreams. When the book was finally published in August 1993, by Doubleday, I had to figure out exactly what I’d been doing during the decade it took me to give birth to this book. I sketched the following chronology:

July 1981. I spend a month in New Jersey. I am living in a damp cottage near a gritty beach. At night, from the back porch, I see the A & P parking lot stretched out flat and soul-less. From the front porch, I see the thinnest slice of ocean. But there’s the smell of salt water every morning and the feel of sand when I walk barefoot in the house. That’s all it takes—I begin thinking wildly, obsessively, of summers I spent on a beach with my relatives in southern Italy when I was younger. Giulia, the young American girl who will become my main character, appears on the pages of my sandy legal pad. Giulia is talking to her young cousin Lina, and Lina is talking to me, telling the story of a time when Giulia was in Italy. Every sunset they talk about Italy. I take notes. New Jersey disappears.

September 1981. Back home in New York, I have a few notebooks full of Giulia and the Italian beach. I’m caught in an extended “hallucination.” When I walk down Broadway, the fruit stands remind me of markets in Calabria. And the fat old buildings on West End Avenue remind me of Rome. Parallel to my life—and more compelling—is Giulia’s life. I am in a workshop at this time, and I try to manipulate my notes into a short story. People in workshop see right through it. “This is a novel, isn’t it?” Oh God, now what? I know nothing about writing a novel.

October 1981. My grandmother, whom I am very close to, is dying. One of the last times I see her she says to me, slowly, “You know what I want? I want to write the story of my life.” The story I’ve begun is not her life, and it’s not my life, but, whatever it is, I have no way out now. My grandmother has just told me that a story’s urgency never fades; with time, it gets sharper.

Spring 1982. I have a chance to hear an agent from Brandt & Brandt Literary Agency give a talk about how to find an agent. She is young, energetic, warm; she suggests you look for an agent who is, above all, enthusiastic, someone with a particular interest in your kind of book. “Me, for example,” she says, “I love Italy.”

I am thrilled. And terrified. I’ve been paralyzed by shyness about approaching editors, agents and established writers when I go to hear them speak. This time, though, I will have to do it. At the end of the agent’s talk, I introduce myself and tell her I’m writing a novel set in Italy.

“Great,” she says. “Whenever you’re ready, let me see it.”

May 1982. My workshop ends. I decide I’ve had enough workshopping for a while. All I want is to sit and get this novel done. What I need is space. I move to a big apartment in Brooklyn.

March 1984. I move out of Brooklyn.

Summer 1984. It has been almost three years. I have arranged my world to have time for “the n-word.” I want a published novel, of course; but more than that, the material is important to me: a young woman’s separation from her family, and an Italian immigrant family’s separation from their culture. I work night shifts as a proofreader at Time magazine. Social life? Less is not more. For all this commitment, I have very little to show—only messy piles of notes, lists, scenes, dialogues.

So far I see the book in three parts: Part One is Giulia’s childhood in Ohio. In Part Two she’s 17, goes to Italy, some big stuff (still not sure what) happens. Part Three is ten years later and we see the consequences of the big stuff that happened when she was 17. I’m still on Part One. Lina, the young cousin, is still the Nick-Carraway-like, involved-uninvolved narrator.

I’ve shown my agent a few batches of pages. She’s interested in reading more. I’m encouraged. But also sad and afraid. Here’s this wonderful agent, yet I can’t come up with a finished novel. What if the agent loses interest, what if I blow it?

March 1985. I spend a month in northern California at the Djerassi Foundation, a relatively new artists’ colony. No one I know has ever heard of it, but I’m desperate to make headway on this novel. I go there, half afraid it will be a cult. It is not. It is heaven. I have a room with a view of the hills (there is even a view from my shower). I don’t have to do anything but write all day and show up for dinner at 6:00. I get to the end of Part One. I plunge into Part Two, which takes place in Italy. It’s clear to me that I need a stretch of time in Rome. One day, I stand in the hills and vow to the cows grazing in the fields of the Djerassi Foundation that I will go to Italy.

September-December 1985. I live in Rome. I have my uncle’s Olivetti manual typewriter. But now that I’m in Italy, there seems little point to sitting inside writing about Italy. Rome is a city for walking. I am in love with this city. I walk and take notes. One hot afternoon I step off a busy street, into a monastery, and find myself in a courtyard. It is small, quiet, ancient and perfect. It comes to me this way: To be a woman in an Italian family is to live in a courtyard, an enclosed world—it is safety, confinement, beauty, deprivation, fulfillment, wretched, wonderful, inescapable. I can’t stop writing about courtyards. By the time I leave Rome I haven’t finished a novel, but I do have my central metaphor. This will organize everything.

April 1987. I’ve been working on the novel for six years. I’ve been to Italy and back and still don’t have a finished manuscript. I’ve been trying to give Part One a dramatic focus, but Lina, the narrator, is like a wind-up doll, going over and over the same scenes. When I sit to work I can barely look at the pages. I can’t write unless I have a box of Dutch Mill doughnuts (the ones in the blue box) next to me. Usually I have powdered sugar or cinnamon. On very bad days, chocolate-dipped. Something is not happening. Writing is not fun anymore. The story is lead. I sit at the desk and think, Is there any way on God’s good earth for Lina to tell this story and make it halfway interesting? Wait a minute. Why is Lina telling this story? It’s Giulia’s story. Giulia has to speak. This thought is light and heavy at the same time; it comes to me with the unmistakable weight and flight of truth. This is it. I write on a sheet of paper: Giulia must tell her own story.

Why did I waste so much time with Lina? Years later I will realize that the Lina drafts were crucial. The novel deals with autobiographical issues, and writing the story through Lina’s eyes has helped me to make Giulia a character who is different from me. But I don’t understand this yet. Feeling completely defeated, I put the whole manuscript in a drawer and lock it. I don’t have to write.

I get a job teaching English as a Second Language to Soviet Jews at a resettlement agency. I read War and Peace. I am not writing; I am living in the world. I’m not happy, but I’m not tortured.

November 1987. On a train going to a friend’s for Thanksgiving, I hear an older Giulia begin to talk about when she was young, living in Rome. I take notes. At home, I write scenes. This feels good, but I refuse to consider I may be working on the you-know-what again. It is not long, though, before Giulia is telling the story of her childhood. And I am writing Part One. Again.

But I am smarter this time. I find a group of writers. We meet monthly; this gives me deadlines. We read one another’s work and talk. Writing begins to feel more like a way of life, a good thing, and less like prison.

June 1989. I get together Part One, Part Two and a summary of Part Three, all written in Giulia’s voice. I send this to my agent, who writes back, “I think you cover way too much ground.” She suggests I cut Part One, make Part Two the body of the novel, skip Part Three. I do it.

November 1989. The novel is condensed. My agent gets a completed manuscript. She sends it to a few editors, who all reject it, but in a good way.

January 1990. At the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (another heaven-sent haven, more cows; do all artists’ colonies have cows?), I begin the novel again, expanding it. When I get back, I show my agent the new rough draft. She says, “You have a lot of work to do here.”

“It’ll be done in a few months,” I say.

“It may take you longer,” she warns. I try to ignore that.

February 1991. Thirteen months after I began the new draft, I am finished. The manuscript is 660 pages. It takes an entire weekend to print out. At one point, my super knocks on my door and asks if everything is all right.

June 10, 1991. I come home from teaching. There is a phone message from my agent. Sit down, she says. I have news. A great young editor at Doubleday has accepted the novel. We all agree the manuscript is too long. But the next morning I wake up happy, thinking, I don’t have to write that novel anymore! This happiness is completely false.

July 10, 1991. My nephew is born. I have lunch with my editor. A truly great day. My editor and I agree on which parts of the manuscript need to be cut. A cinch, I say, and go to Saks to buy my nephew a gift.

August 14, 1991. I sign the contract at my agent’s office. That week, half my advance arrives in the mail—a check for real money, for words I wrote myself. Problem is, I wrote way too many words. And what if I can’t pull this unruly thing together? That night I have a horrific dream. I wake, sit bolt upright in the dark. I am still not done rewriting. I am Sisyphus. I have been put on this earth to do nothing but write and rewrite this one novel. Mountains will crumble. Oceans will dry up. Children will grow old. But I will never be released from this task.

August-December 1991. I cut and revise. I cry daily.

December 1991. The manuscript has been to Weight Watchers, lost 200+ pages. I deliver it to my editor. This is the first Christmas in nine years that I am not writing the novel. My family rejoices.

January 1992. My editor and I meet for the first of many working sessions at her glass-top worktable. We go over this and that. Then she says, “Chapter 2 seems so fresh, so I’m thinking, Why not start the novel with Chapter 2?”

I’m thinking, I just spent three months writing Chapter 1.

April 1992. I deliver the newest condensed version to my editor. She accepts it. We have several glasses of wine. They taste good.

August 1992. My editor calls. It is time to write catalog copy. It’s a sales tool, and it’s important. Years of work and thousands of pages reduced to three paragraphs that describe the novel and make it a must-buy. This is exciting—the book is more real now—but it’s in other people’s hands, becoming a thing outside of me. I feel nervous. Or sad. Or something.

January 1993. A few people read the galleys. Two readers tell me, “I couldn’t put it down. I spent the whole weekend reading it.” This equation—ten years to write equals one weekend to read— is, I tell myself, better than its converse.

February 1993. Loose galleys are in. I’m to read them and make corrections. Last chance for changes. No more “work-in-progress.” When I release the galleys, the novel will be done. I have two problems: 1). I am afraid it is not perfect yet; and 2). I do not want to read this novel again. I can’t look at it anymore. A sunny cold Sunday afternoon, my friends are going ice-skating and I cannot go. Poor me.

By nighttime, though, I’ve reached the middle—Giulia is in Italy, in love. I have the music on—Italian pop I listened to all the years I was writing; schmaltzy music, but it always had the power to transport me. It’s just me and the music and this story, and we’re lost to the night, like so many nights and weekends and years we spent together. I realize that during all those years I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.

—excerpted from essay first published in the Associated Writing Program’s Chronicle and reprinted in The First-Book Market: A Writer’s Resource (Macmillan)