Do I Have a Dog in that Fight?
No tengo vela en ese cemeterio – last summer, a fellow baseball player from Nicaragua told me that as we watched two other players in some dispute or other, probably beer-fueled. Whatever the action was about, he figured it had nothing to do with him; he didn’t have a dog in that fight.
I had occasion to think about that expression lately when a writers’ website put out a call to answer the following question: How do you know if there is a novel in a story idea? The real answer is: You don’t know or, at least, you don’t know until you try and write it. Though admit it, it would be convenient, assuming you had a great idea, to know ahead of time whether it could be turned into a novel.
I don’t really think you can tell before you start out whether your idea is workable, but I do understand what’s behind the question: anxiety, most likely. And I do have some keys to trying to answer the question.
Consider this: I had always known, via family lore, that I had some relatives among that group of idealists who, having fled Russia for their lives when the Czar was running the show, returned there after it became the Soviet Union in order to participate in the building of socialism. Today, this sounds like a completely senseless thing to do, but remember, during the worst of the Great Depression, it really seemed that capitalism was on its last legs. Somewhere in the family, there was a young couple who left the drudgery of their life as unemployed immigrants in the USA for a radiant future in the land of social equality…
I figured that would make a great story. But I didn’t know what that wonderful tale that spanned continents had to do with me personally, and as a writer. I didn’t seem to have a candle in that cemetery, as my Latino friend put it. The story belonged to me in some sense – but then what? It was like inheriting some fabulous automobile, but not knowing how to drive.
Then the solution came to me. It was simple. I became the son of that woman, who was called Clara in real life. I was born of her affair with a swashbuckling Soviet before he was dragged off to the camps by Stalin’s minions (in the book, he is thrown out of the window of the State security building). I would tell the miraculous story of my origins that had everything to do with these extraordinary characters. My mother became Sonya in Sonya & Jack, a novel that dates back to 1995.
Family lore then delivered up another irresistible but much less heroic character: a gangster, a Prohibition-era bootlegger, a real mean piece of work. Now we’d all die to have a gangster in the family, so I am a lucky guy. I’ve known about him for years, he was waiting on the shelf, ready to be taken down and set loose in the pages of a book. But once again, I had to figure out what he meant to me.
I moved faster this time; experience does help. My mother had an absolute best friend when she was a girl, another girl who was her cousin. This cousin’s father was the gangster. Suddenly, I stood at the crossroads of several things that mattered to me. (Here you can see that mothers, real and imagined, are crucial.) One was the nature of this absolute loving friendship: if it rose, it also fell, and those girls’ separation must have had something to do with the violent father. I realized I would be writing, among other things, the anatomy of a love affair. With atypical participants in the couple – but since when has a good love story ever featured “typical” lovers?
These girls are the two beginners referred to by the title The Fledglings, my new novel out in late April. You can try and guess which ones they are in the photo above, taken at the time. They are there, I promise!