Writing What I Know | Behind the Book, March 1, 2014

ljx140301webFicBacktalkbPeople are always telling authors to “write what you know.” On occasion, those people used to include me, because it was my job: I was a book editor. I’ve also been a copy editor and a managing editor, an editorial assistant, and an associate publisher…. I held 12 different job titles at eight publishing companies in 15 buildings, including one in Times Square whose heat was turned off when we couldn’t make the rent; one where my puppy escaped a few times a day, bounding down the hall; one where Jackie Onassis occupied the nearest corner office; one where I got hired by the famous Peter Workman, plus one where I got fired (sort of) by the infamous Judith Regan; one where I met my eventual literary agent, and another where I met my eventual wife.

Then when I was 40 years old, that wife of mine got a job in Luxembourg(!), and we moved abroad. I became a stay-at-home parent, cooking and cleaning and folding laundry, sitting on playground benches in the cold rain, building airplanes out of LEGOs, trying to make friends and a life and a home in a place that was not.

After a year in the cold damp of Northern Europe, I started writing a novel about my real life, replete with exotic boredom, only to realize that I was writing a boring book. So I started over, without the boring stuff. (Or at least without most of it, I hope.) I added a spy, a huge chunk of stolen money, the CIA and the FBI, a devious long-play con (or two), and a cast of characters who are all lying to one another about roughly everything.

But behind all this highly fictional foreground—behind the story elements that look a lot like an international thriller—there was still the highly nonfictional background that looked a lot like my life. I’d written what I knew. But more thrilling.

The dreaded second novel

When The Expats was published in 2012, we were once again living in New York City, and I was no longer spending my time doing things like attempting in my bad French to get our car repaired. (Having never before driven on a daily basis, I tended to crash in the narrow, twisty, hilly black-iced, cobblestoned streets of Luxembourg.) It was time to write a second novel. There is perhaps no more fraught phrase in the book business than “second novel.” I think everyone wishes that these books could be skipped entirely and all novelists could progress directly from first to third.

In that first novel I’d covered a lot of what I knew about being an expat and Luxembourg and the characters in that story. I didn’t want to continue writing about the same setting, the same type of narrative populated by the same kinds of people. Nevertheless, I still wanted to write what I knew. Which left me with very little choice. I had to set it in the world of book publishing.

I began at the beginning: an author waking in terror in the middle of the night, as authors do. Then the literary agent’s breathless excitement, staying up all night to read an exciting new manuscript, the type of career-changing project that publishing people get up every morning hoping for. The submission to a struggling editor who’s wondering if this is the book that will revive his stalled career. The naïve optimism of an idealistic assistant, the naked ambition of a sexpot sub-rights director, the conflicted motivations of a beleaguered publisher, the wistful hopes of an independent bookseller, the megalomania of a film producer…. All the people whom you meet when you’re walking down the publishing street.

But I didn’t forget that crucial lesson from my first novel. So I also included an array of thriller elements in this second novel about ambition and corruption and regret and rounded out the publishing characters with a few people you’re never going to find in the book business, the types who carry guns and parachute out of airplanes and steal millions of dollars.

I’d again used my real-life experiences for the texture and atmosphere and characters, though again not for the plot. Because just as the story line of folding laundry in Luxembourg was too thin to support a novel, so, too, is the plot of acquiring a manuscript; an editorial meeting is just not the stuff of suspense novels. Though I have to admit that I couldn’t help but write a scene with such an encounter. But another thing I’d learned was that I needed to listen to my agent when he told me to delete things like this. So I did.

Chris Pavone is the author of the New York Times best-selling The Expats, winner of the Edgar Award. He was a book editor for nearly two decades and lives in New York City with his family. His second novel, The Accident, was published by Crown on March 11.

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