Christopher Bollen is a writer who lives in New York City. He has contributed to many publications including New York Times Magazine, Vice Magazine, Fantastic Man, and V Magazine. His interview series at V Magazine includes literary and cultural luminaries the likes of Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Brett Easton Ellis, Patti Smith, Roman Polanski, and Brad Pitt. He is currently the Editor at Large at Interview Magazine. Lightning People is his first novel. For more info on Christopher Bollen, visit http://www.christopherbollen.com.
On to The Next Shrub, Page, or Abode
by Christopher Bollen
There is some advice for victims of disaster in the 2003 documentary, Touching the Void, which recounts the miraculous survival story of a mountain climber with a broken leg who crawled to safety in the Peruvian Andes, which also turns out to be smart advice for novelists. When discussing how he managed the impossible task of getting down the mountain, Joe Simpson explains that he didn’t envision crawling all the way to the bottom. Instead he made little, manageable goals for himself—get to that rock, crawl to that passageway, make it to that first piece of scrub brush.
When I began the task of writing my first novel Lightning People five years ago in my cottage apartment in the West Village, I tried not to envision the almost unimaginable feat of writing hundreds of pages of fiction, where my characters knotted together in so many elaborate braids until the final resolution it seemed an exhausting endeavor even before I turned my computer on. Instead I followed Joe Simpson’s survivalist trick: get to the end of the first scene of the marriage at City Hall; put down this character’s backstory on her first disastrous love relationship; just make it to the scene of the first murder and tomorrow, when you’re rested, you can tackle that murder.
Little by little, hour after careful hour, I crawled through my first draft of Lightning People. At one point the manuscript neared 600 pages, and if five years before I had known it would take so many years and so many sore muscles, I probably would not be writing this essay now. Let’s allow the poets to be the dreamers of the family. Novelists are the closest literary equivalent of injured mountain climbers. It doesn’t take long views to write fiction. It takes the sustained willpower of wanting to get out with your life.
I wish I could say that writing for me is a constant pleasure. Surely, it must satisfy some innate itch in the back of my brain that can only be scratched by my fingernails tapping on computer keys and putting down pieces of a story. But I’ve often felt that writers are like addicts with their work (and the fact that so many great writers have also been addicts is a thesis very much worth exploring at a later date). It is not so much pleasure but need that brings us every morning to the page to continue in this rather bizarre practice of inventing worlds. And for any writer who has his or her “good days,” the results are a bit like a drug. Hours vanish unblinking, and somehow an entire scene with dialogue and details has managed to be laid down.
Since Lightning People was my first novel and since I already had a career as a magazine editor, I did not have the benefit of an advance or full empty days to devote to writing. For me, the novel was a nights-and-weekends ritual. I was thirty years old when I started and had just moved into a Tolkien-sized cottage on West 12 Street entirely hidden behind an apartment building and surrounded by a back garden of oak trees.
On the outside it looked like an enchanted fairy-tale house. On the inside, it looked like a matter for psychiatric intervention and perhaps a case for the Board of Health. It was tiny with just enough room for a desk, a chair, and piles of paperbacks and art books which began to arc like crumbling garbage columns. There was no oven, only a mini-refrigerator, and since it was built in 1927, there was no insulation in the walls to keep out the winter frost. Nevertheless, I found it a very quiet, peaceful writing zone, in the heart of the city but also removed from it (or as the previous tenant described it to me, “like the hotel in The Shining in that no one will be able to hear your screams.”)
After three years of living in the cottage, the part of me that wanted a happy New York renter’s existence wanted to move. The problem was that I wrote well in this absurd little folly. I could concentrate without neighboring footsteps or traffic horns. I could smoke the odd cigarette, step right out the front door when I needed some fresh air, and I could simply look around at the cobwebbed beams or the blue sky through the tarnished skylight whenever I was stuck for a detail. In a sense it was like an architectural talisman to keep up the work. I promised myself that I wouldn’t move until I had finished the first draft. That might only be three months, I said as a comfort. Of course I was lying. It took two more years. I guess what I’m trying to say is that much of my process for writing relies on quiet without any uncontrolled interruptions, and the routine of a place that I could count on to be mine at all times. I formed such a mental connection between the story in Lightning People and the yellow-walled stucco cottage that even now I associate that novel with living at that address. I also used the cottage as the residence for one of the older characters of the book: a salty ailing gay “real New Yorker” who was spending his last days in life and in the city in this falling down shrine. Perhaps that operated as a reminder to myself not to become Brutus Quinn and know when it was finally time to abandon the place. Not long after I turned in the final manuscript to my agent, Bill Clegg, did I finally submit my future to another kind of agent: that of real estate. I moved into a bright, big single bedroom in the East Village last year. I often worry that my next novel will suffer because of my need for a little more residential comfort—the new place doesn’t have the same magic or nearly as much peace and quiet. But I do believe process has everything to do with environment, and the environment best for stories is not necessarily best for existence. Still, I’m hopeful to make a writing home here. And if it doesn’t I still have the number of the cottage’s owners stored on my cell phone.