I always wrote little things when I was younger. My first opus was a book of poems put down in a spiral notebook at five or six, handsomely accompanied by crayon illustrations. But I guess I really started to write— and knew that’s what I wanted to do—when I was thirteen or fourteen. There was a boy (isn’t it always the way?) who was a few years older, and he wrote poems to me, and I wrote them back. Very dramatic, especially since we were in the school play together, and he was Romeo and I was Juliet. Why does one begin to write? Because she feels misunderstood, I guess. Because it never comes out clearly enough when she tries to speak. Because she wants to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost. Because it’s something to do to pass the time until she is old enough to experience the things she writes about.
Was literature an important part of your childhood?
I read like an animal. I read under the covers, I read lying in the grass, I read at the dinner table. While other people were talking to me I read. When I was twelve my mother—who has also read an impressive amount—gave me Portnoy’s Complaint. To this day I have no idea what she was thinking. The scene with the Italian whore boggled my mind. I loved it. I finished it and then I started it again. Who wouldn’t? Especially if you’re twelve.
I take almost no notes when I write. I have one notebook—this old green leather notebook that my dad gave me a decade ago. I used it to take some notes for my first novel, Man Walks Into a Room. But the notes were so sparse that there was room enough for the notes for my second novel, The History of Love, and then for Great House, and probably a few more novels.
So I have all these notes—actually, two sorts of notes that I take. The first happens during the writing, often in the first year of writing a book, when I’m trying to figure out how the stories will dovetail and connect. I almost think of it as sort of architecture or woodwork, the way you lay pieces together and how the joints will kind of fit. Those notes are arrows with the character’s name. So arrow-Lottie—will she connect to this judge? Or will it be Nadia who connects to the judge? And who is the judge? Is he this person’s son?—these endless kind of pictorial descriptions of how these abstract ideas will relate.
The second form of note is a kind of mathematical calculation that happens later in the book, which is chronology. Because if you want two people to meet on the boat, one of them can’t get on the boat in 1946 while the other one gets on the boat in 1947. But it doesn’t always work out that way when you first write it. So there are endless mathematical calculations—you know, 22 minus 13—and just desperately hoping that I didn’t make some massive plot mistake in all of my free association.
I really take great pleasure in that kind of architecture. I guess in life I have a very strong spatial sense. There’s something about how my mind works that has patience for the delicate complexity of how parts can fit together—and the great discovery of the whole, which you can only see as you walk away and look back on the whole thing. I don’t get a sense for the whole until very, very far into the writing.