My favorite mistake is when I start a novel before I’m ready to write the novel. It’s happened a couple of times in my career. After I wrote Message in a Bottle, I started a book called The Best Man. I thought I had most of the story in my mind, and I got two thirds of the way through. It was only then that I realized I shouldn’t have started it at all. Last year I had a novel that ended up in the catalog for Grand Central Publishing called Saying Good-Bye. It was never published.
Saying Good-Bye was the story about three people, two women and a man. Years earlier the women had gone to Italy when they were in college, and one of the women had fallen in love with this Italian guy. Twenty years pass, and her friend is dying. She wants to throw her own funeral to say goodbye. She invites her best friend, and unbeknownst to this girlfriend, she’s kept in touch with the Italian guy. The problem is her best friend is in an unhappy marriage. It was all working well, but I couldn’t come up with an ending. I couldn’t think of something that these people could do for this dying woman that would mean a lot to her, because everybody’s dying wish is different. It’s not like she can go to Africa on safari. She’s dying.
I hit up strangers in the street for an ending. What would your dying wish be? All their answers were too melodramatic or unbelievable. I still don’t know the ending. It’s a strange thing, because most novels take me five months to write. If I’m four months in and only two thirds of the way through, there’s a problem. The writing becomes more challenging. You begin to dread the process of going to work. The words come very hard, if at all. You work for hours, and you eke out only a few pages. Finally, in the last days, you’re not writing anything at all. You’re sitting at the keyboard for six hours—and nothing! You’re writing, but deleting everything you write.
The experience of writing a failed novel is painful. It’s a terrible period of time that I never wish to revisit. But these novels taught me a few things. I have to know how the characters meet. I have to know what’s driving the story. I have to understand the conflict and how the story will end. If I don’t know those four things, I don’t start a novel anymore. That’s my new motto. That’s why this is my favorite mistake.
Interview by Ramin Setoodeh