ART AND LIFE
I’m working on a novel that takes place in Los Angeles, and deep into the story an earthquake shatters the city, leaving my characters scattered — separated from each other by damage and rubble. In order to find one another, they have to pick their way across a ruined landscape. As a Californian, I’m as scared of earthquakes as everyone else is here. But it’s also strange at the moment to be looking at the recent quakes as research material, including the news stories about what will happen when (not if, but when) a major quake strikes. It’s usually a delicious coincidence for a writer when current events parallel something they’ve just published. Some people assume the writer is secretly a clairvoyant who meticulously planned the whole thing, aligning his or her book with current events. While all writers would love to claim ownership of a highly developed sixth sense, the truth is we just get lucky when these things happen.
That said, I really don’t want to get lucky and publish a novel in which there is an earthquake at the same time that an earthquake actually strikes. It could prove dangerous. People might think I’m some kind of witch and I summoned a catastrophic event just to sell books. I would like to say here and now for the record that I am not a witch, I don’t know anything about witchcraft and probably wouldn’t be very good at it even if I did.
I had the immense pleasure of getting to know Michael Chricton many years ago. When Rising Sun (his novel about a high-profile murder in Japan) was published in 1992, Japan was very much in the news. People in America were scared that the Japanese were taking over companies and businesses, that Japan could threaten our economy. Fears and concerns about Japan were daily fare in the media. While Michael Chricton needed no help in getting on the best-seller list, this confluence of events did certainly help his novel.
One day, he and I went to lunch at (what else) a local Japanese restaurant. He told me that Rising Sun had actually been completed years earlier, but he had also at that time completed a memoir called Travels and he wanted to publish that first. He said he argued with his publishers, eventually won, and Travels was published in 1988. Laughing, he said the publishing house was not at all happy with the decision because his memoir didn’t do as well as his novels typically did. “But,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes, “they’re happy now. Who knew that Japan would be headline news when we finally published Rising Sun? It was a lucky coincidence.”
I had a lucky coincidence with my novel Till Human Voices Wake Us, a love story about two women who unexpectedly fall in love with each other. It was published when the Supreme Court debate over gay marriage was headline news. It was a lucky coincidence; I didn’t plan it. As much as I want to sell books, I will not look at an actual earthquake as a lucky coincidence if one happens at the same time my novel about an earthquake is published. I will, however, keep using real life events as research, even though it feels a little weird.