For most authors, writing a book is a labor of love. That heady, swoony sort of love - the intimacy of the words, the excitement of watching it all unfold, page after page, the certainty that it is the best thing you have ever written, the best thing you will ever write.
Today Tara Ison, author of A Child out of Alcatraz, tells us how - as with all first loves - a little time and distance can add some perspective, revealing to us the imperfections within the text that we were initially too close to see, and yet... still find ourselves falling in love with our writing, all....over....again.
Return to Alcatraz
My first novel, A Child out of Alcatraz, about a family living on Alcatraz in the 1940s and 50s while the husband/father works as a prison guard, was in many ways my first love. I invested so much into that relationship -- I researched the story for four years before I wrote a single word, I dreamed about the world I wanted to both honor and recreate, the narrative structure, the experience of the characters, especially the mother and youngest daughter, whose story it really is (in this feminist re-interpretation of the Alcatraz myth.)
But I was terrified to actually write any of it down, as if I just wasn't ready for that kind of relationship, the seriousness of such a commitment. When I finally took the plunge, I wrote a first draft in six months: a heady, dizzying, passionate experience. I revised for another six months, then repeated the process with my editor – every word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, (every comma and semi-colon -- the fights I had with my editor over punctuation, the weight of the world resting on a single comma!) -- and I fine-tooth-combed the manuscript until I had it memorized. When the novel was published I did dozens of readings, until I could perform the entire thing virtually by memory; I felt like some ancient Grecian orator, letter-perfectly proclaiming the Iliad by heart.
As with any first love, I gave it my all, my heart, blood, sweat and soul, without any preconceptions or self-consciousness. I was a virgin writer; I had no experience of publishing or the publishing world, or any distracting lure of "expectation" -- who knew if I’d even finish it? Find an agent? Find a publisher? Who even cared? None of that was on my mind – my absorption in the novel was detached from reality, entirely pure in focus and intention. It had all the innocence of first love – no embittered memories of rejection, of affections gained and lost, only the enthralling immediacy of the joyous moment at hand, of passionate devotion and open-hearted trust. Every word was new to me; every sentence I wrote and read was a discovery. My intimacy with my novel was the tender familiarity of a lover’s face, every freckle, every line – love is the exalting of the lover above yourself (well, first love, perhaps… ), and for years I abandoned myself to that novel, lived inside that world, the sound of seagulls and smell of salt from the San Francisco Bay. The complicated family dynamics and painful deteriorating of their hopes and dreams were more real to me than my own.
And then it ended. The book tour was over, reviews came and went, the book disappeared from store shelves -- to make room for younger, newer, fresher books -- my agent wanted my next novel, the friends and family who were so supportive of my Alcatraz obsession were, well, finally bored. I was devastated. Everyone wanted me to move on, get over it already. I knew they were right -- it was time for a new relationship, perhaps one made even better by some wisdom and experience, but it was so hard to let go of that first love, that first untainted, uncynical, unbaggaged innocence. I moved on; I wrote other stuff, and for fourteen years I have tried to enter into each new story or novel unfettered by longing or nostalgia, without pining for the “perfect” experience of that first book. You will love again, I told myself, and I have, but it has always been a different, more seasoned and tempered kind of love.
By the time Foreverland Press offered to bring A Child out of Alcatraz back into the world as an ebook, I hadn’t really thought about that old novel in years. A dim memory, that exuberant early romance. There’s a book-cover poster on my office wall, and a big cardboard box of hardcopies in a closet somewhere, and that’s about it. It was like receiving an invitation to a 20-year high school reunion. I thought of the young, uncynical, hopeful writer I once was, and smiled…
The process of a hardcover becoming an ebook involves lots of techno-speak and "format issues" I don’t understand, but eventually results in a digital manuscript that has all the words and sentences of the original in the right order, but is laid-out quite differently on the page. Foreverland Press was marvelous, and did virtually everything – but it was still my responsibility to proof the digital text, to re-read and make sure everything, every letter, word, comma, was, yes, still there, and survived the transformation correctly.
I’m actually not crazy about reading ebooks, so I was nervous about going through the novel again for that reason alone. But I had a bigger anxiety – how would it feel to revisit this first love? To sit down and spend the time getting reacquainted? To re-experience my story, my characters – would they be how I remembered them? Would I cringe, at the juxtaposition between my early wild passion and the more seasoned, critical reader of my own work that I am now?
Well, yes and no. As I read the digital manuscript, I was stunned at how much I'd forgotten about the novel, how distant and unfamiliar it now felt. That opening sequence I'd once thought was so compelling, so powerful... ? Looking back, I didn't capture the voice -- that of the youngest daughter, born on Alcatraz and trying to make sense of her strange world -- quite as brilliantly as I'd thought. Those nonfiction sequences of Alcatraz history, meant to thematically parallel the deterioration of the family? A little over-written, perhaps, they could have been edited down. The sexual experiences of the turned-teenager daughter? Wow, I'd written that a bit more explicitly than necessary, maybe. The device of the braided narrative -- alternating sequences of mother's story, daughter's story, Alcatraz history -- was that as effective (and clever) as I'd hoped, or, or, or... ? Damn, I wish I could rewrite that one sentence. Take out that one clumsy adverb. Describe that character with just a little more compassionate insight. All the second-guessing I didn't do once upon a time, all the mistakes I made, all the flaws I couldn't see while in the passion throes of that innocent first writing, were there for the wiser, older, more critical me to reckon with.
Or... correct? It occurred to me that this was an opportunity to edit, revise, re-do. Return to Alcatraz, that long-ago first love, and make it all perfect. The new and improved A Child out of Alcatraz! Ah, technology!
I went back to the beginning of the file, prepared to make writerly corrections. This time, as I read -- re-read -- I did smile. What a haunting first chapter -- the little girl experiencing a critical, painful moment of revelation. Such vivid descriptions -- all that "information" really does inform the narrative, doesn't it, allow the reader to immerse herself in the sights and sounds and smells and reality of the prison, of life on Alcatraz, of mid-20th century San Francisco. The mother's mental and emotional deterioration -- I did cringe, but in empathy for her struggles, not in embarrassment. I found myself too caught up in the story -- scrolling pages almost impatiently -- to question any awkward adjective or misplaced comma. I felt enthralled, fully absorbed -- not as a writer, blindly forging ahead with her first novel, but as a reader, engaged in a story and characters I cared about, whose lives moved me, made me feel, made me think.
So, I didn't change a word, a comma, not a single thing. I love this novel. I loved revisiting this first love of mine. Not because it is "perfect" -- it certainly isn't! -- but because it reminded me of the fearless, open-hearted, un-baggaged young writer I once was and hope to still be, it allowed me to return to a time and place of passion and trust and honesty and pain, all the things we often learn -- as we age, as we "grow" -- to guard ourselves against as both writers and people. All the necessary stuff of writing, of reading, of life.
About AChild Out of Alcatraz
Set in the '50s and '60s, A Child out of Alcatraz paints a searing and compelling portrait of the downward spiral of a mother and young daughter. When the father takes a job as a prison guard, the family moves to The Rock, and soon the isolation and harsh living conditions become a metaphor for the dysfunctional family, forcing each member to escape in their own way.
About Tara Ison
Tara Ison is also the author of the novel The List (Scribner, 2007), Rockaway is forthcoming from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press, and the short story collection Ball to be published by Red Hen Press. Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Nerve.com, TriQuarterly, Black Clock, Publisher's Weekly, The Week magazine, The Mississippi Review, LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous anthologies. Tara is also the co-writer of the cult movie Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead. She is the recipient of many awards, including a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and a 2008 COLA Individual Artist Grant. Ison received her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College and is currently Assistant Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University. For more information, visit www.taraison.com