No Forty Pages of Rocks: Strong Beginnings with Lauren B. Davis
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What came first for you—the story or the characters?
It’s always characters. Everything stems from having a character in mind, one who longs for something meaningful.
The book has a wonderful opening sentence. The first chapter takes us head first into Colleen’s hangover. What made you decide to start here?
Being an alcoholic is like being in some diabolical version of that movie Groundhog Day. The same things happen over and over again, altered only perhaps by degrees of humiliation and despair. I remember the dreadful moments of awakening, the sickness, the self-loathing, the anxiety and, yes, the sock-mouth. Then there comes that one day, God willing, when one must change or die. Waking up seemed a good place to begin the story of a day that will, for better or worse be unlike any other day.
The chapter does a great job in engaging our senses. We can feel, smell, taste, see, hear how Colleen is beginning her day. What were you hoping to achieve by engaging the reader this way from the beginning?
Well, the truth is all writing should engage the senses. Janet Burroway, in her book Writing Fiction (the best text I know on writing) says that sensual information is processed in the brain’s limbic system, and that creates sensuous responses in the body—muscle reactions, heart rate, adrenal responses, etc. In order to have your reader experience what the character does you have to grab hold of that limbic system, which you can only do through the senses.
I’m not inviting the reader to think about what Colleen’s experiencing, but rather to experience it as though they’re in Colleen’s body, in her mind, her soul. That’s sense detail territory.
You introduce Welsh writer Dylan Thomas (who was also an alcoholic) and The Bible as inspirations for Colleen. Why was it important for you to introduce these elements in the first chapter?
It’s quite easy, I think, for people to discount alcoholics as losers, as people who have little to offer the world, as the lost, the useless, the boring, the revolting. I wanted to give the reader a hint right off the bat that Colleen, even though she’s a drunk, might not be that dissimilar from anyone else. She has a sense of beauty, of art. She yearns, as Raymond Carver said, to know oneself beloved upon the earth. Thomas’ death was a great and needless loss and perhaps, thinking about it now because you've just asked me, I wanted that to resonate with the reader as well. But I surely wanted to show there was more to Colleen than hangovers and shameful behaviour.
Was there ever a time where this wasn't the beginning?
Nope. This was the deal: She wakes up. The story begins.
How important is the beginning of a story to you?
Beginnings are crucial. Who has time to wade through forty pages to get to the point? I remember a friend who was teaching an MFA programme; one of her students turned in a manuscript the first forty pages of which were stunningly beautiful descriptions of desert rocks. Rocks, for the love of God. On page forty-one someone walked out of the desert. She drew a big red circle and said, “Your story begins here!” Snort.
There have to be hints of the themes, hints of the conflicts to come—why can’t the protagonist have what he or she desires? But the most important thing is to introduce readers to a character they will care about and, through careful selection of sensual details, give clues as to what that character yearns for. Robert Olen Butler calls this the first epiphany, James Joyce’s—the climax or revelation at the end of a story where the transformation occursbeing the second.
Okay, that’s a lot of blah, blah, blah, but it boils down to this—who is this person? Do I care about her? And does it matter to me what happens to her, whether she gets what she longs for or not?
How about as a reader?
I don’t abandon a book often, and when I do it’s always with reluctance. Even when a book is killing me with boredom, I keep cheering the writer on: please, please get better, give me something to hang on to! It’s only very recently I decided that if by page 100 I don’t give a tinker’s cuss for the plight of the struggling character (think John Cleese here, and that bit about spotty behinds, which I really can’t explain if you don’t know Monty Python’s) I have permission to move on to another book. But it pains me.
Do you have a favourite opening scene for a novel?
A favourite is very hard to pick. I love the opening of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses—elegiac, quiet, haunting, it speaks of loneliness and reflection and is utterly appropriate to the story. The same with Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. It’s so full of the ripeness of community and relationship that’s at the center of Haruf’s work. And Alistair MacLeod’s stunning No Great Mischief. MacLeod has the reader drive with the narrator along through the autumnal countryside, filled with a bounty “almost overwhelming, as if it is the manifestation of a poem by Keats.” He shows the reader the transition from country to city, from past to present, until he arrives, “leaving the sun behind me,” to the slum residence of his alcoholic brother whom, we learn, he visits every week. It’s surprising and devastating.
But yes, thinking of it, the book I return to is The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy. Set during a Montreal winter in 1940, the opening scene is from Florentine’s point of view, a young women supporting her family by working as a waitress at the lunch counter in a five-and-dime in the slums of St. Henri. The words are beautifully chosen, in the Alan Brown translation I have, as are the sense details—all the flashy, cheap décor, the way her glance “fled toward the counters” and the “glitter of the glassware, the chromed panels, the pots and pans, her empty, morose and expressionless ghost of a smile caught aimlessly on one glowing object after another.” Her fragility and hunger illumine the page. Everything combines to create the impression of poverty and entrapment, of Florentine’s naiveté and her urge to escape. It’s wonderful, as is the rest of the book. I do wish more people still read it.
What are some of the key elements to a strong beginning?
A strong character, sense details, yearning, some initiating incident that sets the action for the rest of the book in motion.
Are there any “don’ts” when it comes to beginnings?
No summary. No abstract rants. No exposition. No flashbacks. If your story begins with a flashback, you've started it in the wrong place. And for the love of all that’s holy, no forty pages of rocks.
What advice do you have for someone struggling to find where to begin their work (whether they are starting with a blank page or 400 pages of text)?
Every story is different and will dictate, I believe, its own beginning. I often find the beginning of my work only when I've finished the book and then realize I've started in the wrong place—by which I generally mean too early. Starting with the character doing something is imperative. With The Empty Room it was fairly easy, since I knew I wanted to write about a single day. With other books fiddled around for ages with the beginnings. Ages! Advice—don’t give up. And don’t be afraid to whack off the first few pages, even if you’re convinced (like that guy and his rocks) they are your best work ever, the most gleaming prose you’ll ever write. Perhaps especially then.
Photo credit: Helen Tansey