This has been the strangest process I’ve ever gone through as a writer. And It’s Only Love began with a long-lingering idea generated decades ago from a song lyric (“Heart Like a Wheel”), that became reintroduced within the creative room of my mind by a chance hearing of the song a couple of years ago on the radio, then germinated when I encountered this girl on a street in Buenos Aires, who instantly became the model for the story’s tragedy.
Strange because I usually get it right the first time. Typically, I write a novel straight through, chronologically, start to finish, editing again and again and again as I go, and when it’s finished, it’s finished.
I worked this way with Only Love. Except that at the end I knew immediately that the whole thing had gone wrong. (I think I knew this subconsciously on every page, but kept going from unnameable compulsions.)
What fascinated and compelled me about the original idea for this book is the impact in my life (and in all our lives, I expect) of a tragic love affair, how, to quote Anna McGarrigle, who wrote “Heart like a Wheel”: it’s only love, and it’s only love, that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out. Even hate, our other strongest emotion, does not have the potential to so wreck a human being and turn him inside out. Such tragedy is our common fate, along with death. What we do in the name of love, and what is done to us in the name of love.
My best love story appears in my novel, Possessed by Shadows, the brief saga of Tom’s unwavering love and devotion for his dying wife, and their last year together. So I began this novel as a sequel to that beautiful tragedy, writing its Janus face, the ugly tragedy. I used Tom ten years later, left him in the mountains of Slovakia, and put him with the girl in the picture above. When I finished, 150,000 words later, I knew immediately, even before starting the final edit-through, that it was not only wrong, it was bad.
I abandoned the novel, buried it in the dead manuscript cemetery in a crypt in a closet, and wrote about the failure on this blog, here.
A year later, I could not stop thinking about the original idea that drove the writing of those 150,000 words. I began to see that one critical mistake from the start had doomed the entire novel — the choice of its main character. I had tried to put a character who already existed in a very real way in one of my best novels into a story where he didn’t belong. His character had to act completely out of character to fit within the plot created for him. Of course he failed authenticity.
So I started again from the start, the first page, with a completely new main character. (Although Tom Valen, from Possessed, appears in the story tangentially, with a more important role at the end.) I was able to salvage a few scenes intact, but wrote an entirely different story.
I finished it yesterday (Saturday). It is barely more than one third the length of the first version — 53,000 words. If you aren’t in the habit of thinking of books in terms of word count, that’s about 210 pages in the typical trade paperback.
It is very, very good. I am very, very pleased with it. I am going to spend a week or two copy-editing the mss, then let it go into the world, proudly.
Dedicated to the woman in this photo, who built an impenetrable wall around us that protects me from such tragedy.