In many countries, the most important day of the Christmas holiday isn’t actually December 25th — it’s January 6th, the day the wise men finally appear, carrying their gifts. It seems like such a smart thing, to have the big day occur at the end of the holiday instead of the beginning, and to time it for the arrival of the travelers. I do admire those travelers — and feel that after having eaten so much heavy food, and played with so many electronic toys, we could all do with a little physical challenge like trying to get from Africa to the Middle East using only a star to navigate.
Instead, we’re gearing up for a huge winter storm and the resumption of school and work, which doesn’t feel quite the same. But I am going on a voyage — I’ll be in London from the 11th through the 18th, visiting my brother. It’s not exactly a journey from Africa to Israel using celestial navigation — I’m pretty sure the Virgin Atlantic people know how to get from San Francisco to London, having done it a couple times a day for years now. But I am looking forward to all those warm interiors and seeing a play or two (including Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theater). And I’m reading Twelfth Night, and thinking about twins and mistaken identities and disguise and how much I love Shakesperean comedy, that structure in which one loses oneself and then finds oneself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the next novel I want to write. The last one was a mystery. I chose that genre because it has a clear structure and so I didn’t have to figure out that at least. It was quite enough to work on believable characters and getting people to talk in ways that further the plot and reveal who they are. And then there were issues I never thought would be issues like whose voice to write in, and how to get people in and out of rooms. So, you see, it was great knowing ahead of time that I needed to kill a couple of people at regular points in the narrative and the tension had to mount to a certain point and then things needed to unravel. Having a structure ahead of time, I was left to work on things like figuring out how to describe someone’s physical appearance without having to resort to making them study themselves in a mirror.
The trouble is that I don’t want to write another mystery, not next anyway. I want to write about marriage and desire and how we sustain both, when they are so at odds with each other the longer we stay with our loved one. One day, in the shower, it occurred to me that my next narrative could follow the pattern of Shakespearan comedy, at least as I vaguely remember it from college — things are not right in the world of the play and then people enter a green world (an island, a forest…) and identities are mixed up, and then things are put to rights. There’s much more to it than that, of course, but that’s the basic outline.
So, for now, War and Peace will have to wait. I’m going to read the comedies and see what else is in there to steal for novel number two. I don’t feel too guilty about this kind of theft, by the way. In law school, one of my favorite professors used to tell us that if something really great already existed, it was stupid to try to invent it yourself. The only obligation you have, of course, is to honor what you’ve taken by trying to do something really good with it. If you have a favorite comedy, tell me about it, won’t you? I’d love to know where to go to steal first.