“What did you mean, when you wrote- ” is how the question begins. Sometimes the answer is very specific and concrete, but often, it’s not. What did I mean when I wrote it, or what does it mean to me now, or what meaning are you about to suggest that I will gladly discover in the next moment and henceforth claim forever after as my own? Authorial intention is almost always a complex matter, perhaps especially for the author.
As a reader, I love it when a good novel offers itself up, layer by layer, for interpretation and analysis. It’s one of the rewards of reading deeply, when you find echoes and patterns and imagery that herald or alter the significance of what has happened, what is happening, what is about to happen. Dos it really matter what the author had in mind? What counts is what the reader has in mind.
However. The author may have had more in mind than she knew. Sometimes the author is completely surprised to discover all sorts of evidence in the text that reveals more meaning than she meant to mean. In my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, there is a scene during which the villain of the story, a selfish Holocaust survivor, undressing before an illicit sexual encounter, takes off his necktie without un-knotting it, merely by sliding the knot down (so as to save time and effort later, when he gets dressed) and then he hangs it on a doorknob. Later in the novel, another character commits suicide by hanging on this same door. Implausible as it may be, while I wrote the earlier scene with the later events of the novel already mapped out in my mind, it was not a deliberate image, not a foreshadowing gesture planted there for the astute reader, although several book group discussions have pounced on this foreshadowing moment, and I have never denied its meaning at that point in the story. And I think there is a reason that gesture came to mind for Victor, though manifestly I used it to show the way he always took satisfaction in cheating, in not having to do what other people do – in this instance, tie his necktie again.
In that same novel, there is a scene when Victor is out for dinner in a fancy restaurant with his young girlfriend and the novel’s main character when he suddenly drops to the ground and hides under the tablecloth to avoid being seen by some friends of his wife. The novel had been in print for a year when it occurred to me that this scene was very obviously an inverted echo of the bizarre events surrounding my father’s death (in 1983, twelve years before my first novel was published), when his one-armed mistress locked herself in the bathroom in his hospital room so that she and my mother wouldn’t have an unfortunate encounter at his deathbed. (I havedescribed this more thoroughly in a recent essay, “The Loves of His Life,” which appears in the anthology The Other Woman, edited by Victoria Zackheim.)
Does it add any meaning to the novel itself for a reader, knowing this autobiographical echo? Probably not. But it adds meaning for me, as a reader of my own work. It teaches me something about my own mind and about my writing impulses and instincts. It helps me try to tune in all the more for those signals, because I do think writing at many levels invariably enriches the narrative. I have learned from reflecting back on my own texts in these ways, because now that I see those connections I can set about making such connections within the stories. To see how everything connects to everything else – that’s challenging. Sometimes it’s called being psychotic. Sometimes it’s where the work gets richer and stranger. Seeing connections like this has helped me learn to trust my own strangeness.
Another sort of unconscious intention that runs through all four of my published novels became really obvious to me only this past spring as I wrestled with a key element of my fifth novel in progress. I have a complete map, the novel is entirely worked out in many if not most respects – but I hadn’t really settled comfortably on the narrative strategy. Then I had a brainstorm and found the perfect fit for the story. And then I realized that for the fifth time, with no forethought or contextual intention, I am writing a novel which features its own artifactness. What do I mean by this?
My first novel is in three parts. The first part is a journal in letters that gets lost. In the third part of the novel, a character turns up with that journal under his arm.
The Music Lesson, my second novel, is a journal kept by a woman involved with an IRA splinter group plot to steal a Vermeer from the Queen. My third novel, The Little Women, is really a novel within the novel, and perhaps a third of it consists of intrusive reader’s notes commenting on the text, and then come the author’s notes defending the text. The readers and the author are the “real” people on whom the characters in the internal novel are based. (Maybe that sounds complicated, but it really isn’t, on the page.)
My fourth novel, Triangle, is stitched from all sorts of artifacts and documents, from newspaper articles to oral history interviews to trial transcripts. Apparently the document with which the novel is launched, an ILGWU fiftieth anniversary commemorative pamphlet, is persuasive enough that some dozen scholars have written me about their perplexity that the ILGWU doesn’t have this document, it’s not in any library or archive, where did I get it, would I share a photocopy? And my main character, Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle fire, is quoted on a website devoted to safe working conditions and fair wages for textile workers, with credit given to Ruth Zion, the fictional Triangle fire historian whose interview transcript it is. (http://www.sweatfree.org/baseballresponse )
And now I am deep into my fifth novel, Temper, about a fourth generation chocolate candy business in turmoil. I have found the voice that gives the story exactly what it needs. It’s a certain kind of document. I resisted this obvious solution for a while, concerned that I am at risk for repeating myself. But I’m not. The narrative strategy, this artifactness, is only the same in the broadest sense. This is how I find voice. Voice is how I drive the narrative. This is how I write.