Back in the early Naughties (I love having an excuse to use that ridiculous term, and then I hate the fact I’ve stooped to use it), I was walking through Grand Central, with all its crazy bustle, when I caught sight of a woman who shared some physical features with my husband’s ex-girlfriend, a woman I had only seen in photos. How interesting! I thought. There is X! Or, really, more like how interesting it would be if in fact that were X…and I wished I could follow her. Who was she? What was her life like? What an adventure it would be to find out! (What an adventure, really, to slip into anyone’s life, trail them, slide into and around their thoughts—rather like reading, rather like writing.)
And thus a novel was born. A quiet, rather slow birth. The idea sat in my head for a while, even a year (memory failing me here), then a few pages sat on my computer—I remember a visit to Grand Central at night, illicit it seemed, by myself when I was pregnant with my first child, scoping, thinking, imagining a character who would follow her husband’s ex-girlfriend, imagining the girlfriend (Russian), her allure, imagining the husband (a writer)—another ten pages joined it…until a few months after that (years having passed), in a burst of baby-fueled desperation three-hundred pages flew out of me (no, not as effortlessly as that sounds, but it was a trance-like period, eating, sleeping, walking, nursing, writing…I dreamed of them, Francesca, Aleksandra Danilovna “Dani”, David, and Viktor and Gill, the sculptors who tried to express what they and the others desired, what Dani and the others had lost)…as my little guy grew from fifteen months to a year and a half. I had set aside my previous novel, its revisions cantankerous, and here was my new paramour, COUNTRIES OF LOST THINGS.
Naptime! What a boon! In the morning, I often pulled into a coffee shop, holding my breath, lest my son wake (nightmare of nightmares, a too-early-roused child!), and wrote in longhand. In the afternoon, back home, he slept again, perhaps having seen a friend in between, or not (each other’s company enough). The apartment was silent; I transcribed or wrote, the dip in and out of this other world hasty and deep, the pressure enchanting, as consuming as love, as motherhood.
But here was a place for my brain to roam, my young son a still-willing accomplice (mostly) on long walks, on excursions further afield. We explored together, each of us half-blind to what the other saw. He, of course, doesn’t remember that time, our burgeoning conversations, my monologues, his hungry eyes, ears, smiles. And yet I know the memories are in him, like sunken treasure. Not all memory is conscious and aware; some is like the cement in the foundation of who we are: stuck to the bricks, holding the bricks together.
With COUNTRIES OF LOST THINGS, I started out with a narrator for whom the past mattered not at all. Certainly she had lived—but her previous marriage, childhood, these were stories and events that were finished. Alas, both Francesca and her creator found out how wrong she was! Francesca’s own history, a dead half-sister, her parents’ marriage and the divorce upon which it was founded, creep into her present life. She resists, meanwhile watching her husband succumb, succumbing herself—to his past. Chasing Dani, chasing David and who he used to be. And, most of all, chasing herself.
I suppose my question to myself, for years now, has been how does past loss, grief, intersect with living a contented life in the present? Acknowledge the past, but don’t be consumed by it, a balancing act. I waited years after my father’s death to even display a picture of him, as though his pain were still toxic, contagious, my own hurt still raw. Now the photo remains a constant, changing rooms, shifting from one bookshelf to another, but offering a steady gaze—his, and mine in return. My children talk about him, ask about him. Some questions are simple, others more probing and fraught: How did Granddad Frye die? Ah—more to explain and explore there, saved for another day….