THE BIRTH OF A NOVEL
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says, “Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.”
Like many writers, I have ideas and snippets of phrases jotted down in odd places — a scrap of paper in my wallet, or a page on a yellow pad at my desk that gets buried under research notes. I always mean to get organized and have an actual idea notepad, but it never happens. I have written novels that were born from an overheard conversation, or from the trail of a dream that somehow remained after the rest vanished at dawn. The Earth Breaks in Colors is my sixth novel, and came about more mysteriously than any other.
I saw the first scene play out in my head — a late, moonlit night and a young girl waking to the sound of someone digging out in the yard. Going to the window, she sees it’s her father; he has a cooler beside him with something in it, and he’s stabbing at the earth with his shovel. She walks barefoot across the silvery ground and sees that he’s about to bury the solid gold clock that has always graced their mantle.
That girl will become Whisper, whose real name is Janice, but because she speaks softly she’s called Whisper. The clock, which will not remain buried but will almost become another character in the novel, is being buried because Whisper’s mother is returning from rehab the next day and her father is afraid she’ll steal it and sell it for drugs.
There is an unmistakable feeling to starting a novel — it’s as if a wide untraveled country has opened up before you, with different paths and precipices, with hidden caves and unpredictable weather patterns. And you have no map. At least that’s how it feels for me, since I don’t outline; I go on an adventure. I realized early on in this novel that I had been wanting to write a story about an interracial friendship between two young girls. From that realization, Odelia, Whisper’s best friend, was born. I wanted to explore the glorious innocence of kids who see skin color as only that — skin deep. The history that roils beneath the surface is, for a while, unknown and irrelevant. But history never stays hidden, and it is never silent.
When Whisper is out for pizza with Odelia and her parents, three white men attack them in the street. It’s violent and ugly, and results in Odelia’s father killing one of the attackers. That one night changes everyone. Violence unravels lives, unearths demons and fears that have lain dormant for years. In the writing of this novel, the characters pulled me quite aggressively in the directions they wanted to go, ending up with many of them scattered around the city of Los Angeles. When I first saw in my head the city breaking apart from an earthquake, I thought, “Really?” But then I thought, “Of course.” Of course they have to pick their way across a broken landscape to reunite with one another — to become reacquainted now that so much has changed. It’s not only the neighborhoods around them that look different, their inner landscapes have been rearranged.
Writing a novel is not just one birth, it’s a series of births as the story unfolds and twists in unexpected ways. I think the best a writer can hope for when it comes to characters is that they aren’t the same at the end as they were at the beginning. And I think we as writers change too. Each novel teaches us something…about human nature, about life, about ourselves. I followed these characters across the rubble of a city rocked by a quake that snapped freeways and toppled buildings. They were propelled by the overwhelming desire to reunite with the people they love, despite what may have broken down in their relationships. It was a lesson to me in how unbreakable the human heart is, and how more than anything it wants to beat next to another heart. The characters in The Earth Breaks in Colors, especially Whisper and Odelia, will always live inside me. They showed me it’s possible to go home when everything around you looks like wreckage.