Simple, logical, true enough: Accidents happen. Milk spills, the wrong words spoken, packages knocked to the ground.
But what happens when an accident has deadly consequences?
In Dennis Mahoney’s debut, Fellow Mortals, a carelessly discarded match ignites a raging fire that destroys a neighborhood and changes the victims’ lives in very different ways. In precise, clean prose, this soulful and compassionate debut limns the boundary between atonement and forgiveness, and is a terrific book group pick.
In this guest post for the Discover blog, Dennis not only explains how he found the story that became Fellow Mortals, but also riffs on the unreliable nature of inspiration, and why writers need a toolbox and a muse, among other things.
A Guest Post by Dennis Mahoney
A local reporter thought I contradicted myself on the subject of inspiration.
“Where did you get the idea of the neighborhood fire?” he asked, referring to Fellow Mortals’ central crisis.
“It just popped into my head one morning at the drugstore,” I said, “along with the general structure of the whole novel.”
Ten minutes earlier, I’d said that fiction writing—for me, at least—is a craft like any other, requiring discipline and practical skills. Writers are more like carpenters, with specialized tools and patient labor, and less like dreamy lovers frolicking with Pan in the moonlight.
“So which is it?” he asked. “The muse or the toolbox?”
There are so many lousy ways to answer that very good question.
“It’s a little of both,” I might have said, or, “It’s one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent…” Or I might have played the Mysterious Artist, acknowledging the contradiction without attempting to explain it.
I spent years of my early writing career waiting for the muse to give me some miraculous idea. I opened myself up to it, playing music, admiring nature, and talking about writing instead of actually, you know, writing. If I wanted it more than other aspiring writers, the muse would come to me. I tried this approach with dating, too, and you can imagine how well that worked.
Flashes of inspiration are great, but they’re unreliable. Their randomness is usually the cause of writer’s block, a state I actively reject. You have to punch your way through (or, better, write your way through) or else you’ll be like me, wasting years of valuable youth to lame wishful thinking.
The Mysterious Artist will now explain his process with an office analogy.
It’s the worst time of the week, after lunch on Wednesday, and your boss wheels a whiteboard into the conference room. She’s artificially peppy—she hates this, too—and it’s time for teamwork! We need some fresh ideas to change the paradigm. Let’s uncap the markers, think outside the box, and take it to the next level! You look around at your coworkers, fellow prisoners too weak to help you escape, and stifle unoriginal complaints about corporate culture.
But check it out: the entire team is you, including the peppy boss. You called the meeting, it’s your whiteboard, and this is your career of choice. You can sit there spacing out, lamenting the impasse, or (don’t strike me down for typing this) you can brainstorm.
You know about brainstorming, when someone tells you to blurt whatever comes to mind, no matter how dumb, and you pretend to but actually censor yourself the whole time because, honestly, who’s going to risk humiliating themselves?
Luckily for writers, we can do this alone in shameless, uncensored freedom. Jot down every idea, do the daydreamy writer thing, or be the reckless carpenter and just start hammering and cutting. Sometimes it works. Other times I end up frustrated, overwhelmed by bad ideas or, strangely, too many good ideas. Pick one? Reject them all? Wait for something better?
I recently used the term “vigorous patience” to describe those times when I need a good idea, or get stuck on a paragraph, or don’t understand one of my characters as well as I need to. I try to feel or think my way through, but it doesn’t always work. At that point I might step away. I might write another section, or read a book, or drive to the local drugstore for nicotine gum.
But the problem keeps humming in the back of my mind. It’s the reason some writers say they’re always writing, even when they aren’t. My subconscious is turning it over in my sleep, and I’m vigilant during the day, not idly waiting for the muse to appear but ready, at a moment’s notice, to pounceas soon as it flicks its tail in my periphery.
The most important step is determining exactly what I need. This is more emotional than intellectual, like recognizing “good music” without being able to explain it. My novel Fellow Mortals started with the lead character, the mailman Henry Cooper: an optimist who does the right thing—or tries to—without hesitation. I needed a dramatic conflict, preferably one that Henry himself created. A disaster that would put his personality to the test. A human crisis that would place him at the center of the book’s cast, where he would have to interact, and struggle, and drive the story—as all good protagonists must—over the course of three hundred pages.
In other words, I knew the kind of crisis I was looking for and had a checklist of qualities it needed to possess. I asked myself a lot of what-ifs and how-abouts. I rejected ideas that were close but missing one of the critical requirements. Writers can spin a story out of virtually anything, but I didn’t want to settle for a half-cooked idea. I’d already written a couple of novels that didn’t work because the premise was inherently flawed, and so I vigorously waited, and brainstormed, and knew that it would come as long as I was ready.
And then it came one morning at the drugstore: A neighborhood fire, started by a cigar that Henry shouldn’t have been smoking on his mail route—a small mistake with fatal repercussions, affecting multiple homes and relationships, and putting the blame, conflicts, and possible redemption directly into my protagonist’s hands. Best of all, I could see it, and the sight of it excited me.
If I hadn’t been prepared, I might have missed it altogether. Instead I wrote it down, right there at the store, and spent the next year with the muse and the toolbox, putting all the rest of it together. –Dennis Mahoney
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.