An Audience for Einstein: the early days
Transformation, metamorphosis, transmutation.
All good words to describe what happened to An Audience for Einstein over the many years I contemplated, outlined, and finally wrote the book.
I had the title first. Not sure where it came from, back when I was all of about eighteen. Oddly enough, the title actually scared me a bit. I mean, really, Einstein? Without giving anything away, Einstein is mentioned several times in the book, but never makes an appearance. But still, just evoking the name of one of the most influential thinkers in the history of science gave me pause, made wonder f I would ever be able to capture the lyrical, almost metaphysical mood that the title suggested.
The answer was no, initially, so I wrote those two other books first. That’s how much the very idea of the book scared me.
Those first two novels weren’t meant to be just learning experiences- I fully expected both to stand up on their own two feet, sprout wings and soar. (The first is being re-engineered, and the second will be stripped down for parts, the same way an auto mechanic makes use of a "parts car"- take what’s good (a turn of a phrase here, a bit of description there) and scrap the rest.) But what I gained by writing those two novels first prepared me to finally wrap my arms around all the myriad elements of An Audience for Einstein.
Like a high-rise, it has many levels, each one with its own interesting characteristics and purpose.
That was a first for me. Those other novels were ranch-style dwellings for my characters; sturdy if not spectacular, serviceable but mundane. Nothing wrong at all with that; many characters in decent novels live in simple story structures. But multi-level living- where your characters not only live literal lives, but represent something larger than themselves- gives characters more headroom, more nooks and crannies to explore.
And An Audience for Einstein has plenty of nooks and crannies.
Actually, it’s when your characters become extended metaphors for something larger than themselves that the roof is raised on your novel to make room for them to exist on a higher plane as they go about their daily business, sort of like having meaningful ghosts in the attic. This kind of dual existence is found in books generally regarded as literature, and is absent in works deemed "popular" or "beach books" or whatever tag given to books meant primarily to entertain. Usually these popular works have some shocking or risqué plot elements that garner great word-of-mouth- that’s what sells them. Serious works, on the other hand, tend to be original not by being spectacular or unusual, but sometimes quite the opposite- by being eye-opening in how "ordinary" they are.
A great novel from a few years back illustrates this point nicely- Ordinary People by Judith Guest. The title- I’m quite sure- was not a fluke; this remarkable book makes a point of keeping the reader grounded (and fully connected) with its characters by making those character seem absolutely flesh-and-blood. Engaging your readers by creating characters they can relate to- that they care deeply about- trumps any out-of-this-world, can-you-believe-it plot, any day of the year- at least as far as creating a lasting and memorable book is concerned. That’s what I mean by "ordinary."
Here’s another example. Back in the 1920-30’s, there was a writer whose novel sold in the millions, at a time when a million sold was really something. In his era he was Steven King, Dean Koontz and John Grisham all rolled into one.
His name? Why, none other than S.S. Van Dine, of course.
Who, you say? Well, my point exactly. In fact, he was once quoted as saying that "the plot’s the thing," so naturally that was his main focus. His novels had all the twists and turns of a first-class rollercoaster, with developments so startling that readers would actually sit up in bed in astonishment over something they never saw coming. Yet for all that clever plotting, his characters were gossamer, ephemeral and ultimately… forgettable, along with his books.
The long-term result of his philosophy of plot over characters? A young writer who emerged at about the same time he did soon eclipsed him, a writer who had a hunch that characters were the main reason for writing a book. That writer’s fist novel, in fact, didn’t have much of a "plot" at all- the characters just sort of wandered around, drinking and fighting among themselves. And in the end, they pretty much ended up right where they had started, with nothing really new or changed. Not much of a plot at all.
The writer? Ernest Hemingway. The novel? The Sun Also Rises.
And oh, he paid close attention to language too, something else S.S. Van Dine didn’t think was all that important.
Obviously the characters in Hemingway’s book represented Gertrude Stein’s lost generation, those young men and women who- after living through the horrors of WW1- found life to be empty, devoid of any meaning. Those were his character’s "ghosts" on a higher plane, what helped Hemingway capture his generation brilliantly. And not only did readers respond, but Hemingway managed to alter the landscape of American literature forever in the process.
Needless to say, with his emphasis strictly on plot, S.S. Van Dine did not.
This attention to characterization is what I was after in An Audience for Einstein. I wanted ordinary characters in the sense that readers would say "I know these people," characters who would suggest plot twists and turns- not sit by meekly and have the plot foisted upon them- characters whose lives spoke to universal themes and issues and concerns.
Writing those first two novels prepared me to achieve that, and gave me the confidence to look at all the notes and false starts I had written over the years to finally sit down and write the book that had eluded me up until then.
Next installment: more about the making of An Audience for Einstein.