Holy cats — I just realized I have a book coming out in a week from Tuesday. It’s the paperback edition of Life Sentences and, for the first time since 1997, I am NOT touring. I am doing events in my two hometowns, Baltimore and New Orleans. You can find me:
March 2, 7 p.m., Barnes and Noble, Ellicott City, MD, Long Gate Shopping Center.
March 15, 7 p.m, Garden District Bookshop, 2727 Prytania, New Orleans.
But as a countdown to publication, I’d like to switch this blog from memories to advice for writers AND readers. To start, I’d like to talk about ideas. I know most writers don’t, that they groan at the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” But I like it and I think it’s an understandable question because our culture tends to create an aura of mystery around creativity and inspiration. There is a sense that certain talents are innate and maybe they are. But if craft is 90 percent of any endeavor — writing, cooking, gardening, playing a musical instrument — then aren’t creative outlets open to all?
Last year, as I was finishing my 15th novel, I found myself without an idea for the next book. Oh, I had a mental folder with at least three or five possible books, but it wasn’t the right time for any of them. I refused to panic, although — this is how I make my living. If I don’t write books, I don’t get paid. Weeks went by. Exactly six, if you want to know. I was keeping score. But I refused to panic. I decided that the latest book was taking a very long time to leave my system, and that was probably a good thing, a sign that I had been very deep into it. Until it was out, nothing new could really seize my imagination.
Then one morning, I was sitting in a neighborhood coffeehouse, playing with Facebook, staring into space. I wrote to my writer friend Jeff Abbott that I had no idea what I was going to write next. I stared into space a little more. I found myself thinking about Great Expectations, how a sinister person proves to be a benign benefactor. I thought about the wonderfully odd, beautiful, sui generis neighborhood in which I grew up, one I keep promising to tackle in fiction. I thought about a famous template in fiction, one used by writers as diverse as Val McDermid, Kevin Wignall, Lois Duncan and Wes Craven. I thought about a tiny detail from Every Secret Thing.
And there it was. I went straight from the coffee house to a spinning class — I know, tough life, eh? — and the idea continued to take shape against the backdrop of Lady Gaga and uphill climbs. I started the next day and since then I’ve written about 10,000 words, although I put the book aside when my galleys arrived Friday.
As it happens, the day before I started writing a new novel, I met one of my heroes/crushes, Tom Colicchio of Top Chef, who was kind enough to shoot the breeze with a good friend and me for an hour or so. At one point, he said: “Trained chefs don’t really use recipes. If I’m going to braise something, I know how to do that. And if I don’t have rosemary, I’ll use thyme.” As someone who follows recipes almost slavishly, I thought hard about this. Did it apply to what I did as a writer? In a sense, it did. And, in fact, I could use it as a cook, too. A week later, making red beans and rice, I had to make several adjustments for missing ingredients. It was one of the best batches I’ve made to date.
When it comes to ideas, I know if I open up my mind, it will eventually lead me to a new story I want to tell. And I don’t see that I have anything to lose by sharing this information with others. Yes, I suppose it would be more romantic to think of me in a long dress, wandering the moors of Baltimore and muttering to myself, or lying on a divan, a lily-white hand pressed to my forehead. But I don’t feel I have anything to gain by romanticizing the writer’s life.