Recently, I did a reading of my novel, THE RIVER, BY MOONLIGHT, at a Barnes & Noble in Edgewater, N.J. It was a new experience for me. I've had cable and newspaper interviews in the past, made one speech years ago before a large group, and done several roundtable discussions with small ones. I've even appeared (briefly) in some documentaries to do with my work in television; but I'm always far more comfortable alone in my office, at my computer, than at a public event; and this was my first reading in a bookstore. I was a little apprehensive about it.
I prepared a few, a very few, introductory remarks, including all the necessary expressions of gratitude, the agenda (so that everyone would know what they were in for and for how long), a synopsis of the book, and lead-ins to each of the four excerpts. A friend had helped me select those, she opting for brevity and maximum drama, and I for sections that were self-contained, needing a minimum amount of explanation
There was a nice crowd present, larger than expected, in a small space, with some new faces among the familiar ones of family and friends who had come to offer support. But of course things didn't go exactly according to plan. The manager who had organized the event, and to whom I was enormously grateful, walked off before I could thank her and then returned after I had launched into the rest of my remarks, meaning I had to stop, say thanks, and then try to pick up where I'd left off. And as I'd earlier turned down a glass of water (what was I thinking?), I was plagued by a dry mouth through the entire event. Still, I managed to get through the readings, which I'd rehearsed endlessly, without any serious mishap. And when I finished, I asked for questions.
Because of my background in television, the majority of those I'm usually asked have to do with Dallas and Dynasty, with "Who Shot J.R.?" and the Moldavian Massacre (there's some wonderful footage of the latter on uTube), shows I worked on in one capacity or another. This time, however, possibly because my television history was not mentioned in the publicity for the event, all questions referred to my book.
THE RIVER, BY MOONLIGHT is set in New York City and the Hudson River Valley in 1917, just as the United States is about to enter the war in Europe. It deals with the death of a young woman, a talented artist, and the effect of it on her family and friends.
What had prompted me to set the book in that era? people wanted to know; which locations were real, which fictional? how much research had I done? how long had it taken to complete a first draft? that sort of thing; and, finally, because several people had read my previous novels, LOVERS AND FRIENDS and THE WIVES OF FRANKIE FERRARO, why was this new book so different from the preceding two?
Frankly, I don't think it is. Though my books always spring from specific characters and events, all of them revolve around ideas and issues and themes that matter to me, that I think are important, that I wish to explore. I never work from an outline. Once I know the beginning of the story, and its climax, once I find its "voice", I just start writing. Structure develops as I go along; characters put in an appearance as needed. From time to time, of course, I stop, take stock, and make corrections when things on rereading seem "wrong" somehow. But mostly I just keep going until I get to the end. Then, in subsequent drafts, I polish, and polish some more. And always I try, no matter how serious the issues involved, to make the book as easy a read as possible.
I'm willing to entertain the notion that at times I might do all this better than at others, but I'm not convinced of it. If my process is always the same, why wouldn't the results be? The "break-out book" we so often encounter, is it really better than the one that came before, or will come after? I'm not sure. But what I think is that readers' reactions have less to do with how skilful an author has been than with how meaningful the issues and themes of any given novel are to them. I think they respond first to what it's about and then to how it's written - it's structure, its style, its voice.
What I tried to explain at the reading is that, to my mind, a novel set in 1917 is of necessity going to sound quite different from one set in the 1960s, the period of my first two books; that the characters also dictate its tone; but that those differences seem to me to be quite superficial.
No no no, the questioners protested. That wasn't it. The differences, they insisted, went far deeper than that.
Well, never argue (or at least not for too long and only in fun) with your public, I always say. It's wonderful that they've taken the time to read your book, experience it, respond to it. If they see things in it that you don't, that's all to the good (except when it's to the bad – as with critics from time to time: but that's another story). What a reader brings to a novel can enrich and expand it in ways that an author can never anticipate. If people are certain this novel is so different from its predecessors, who am I to disagree?
Eventually, the bookstore manager reappeared and put an end to the discussion. My arguments had changed no minds. The audience went away convinced they were right. I came away wondering. And I still am.