Secret Life is officially out in the next week or so. Twenty-three stories taken from the last 18 years of my career, the first written when I was 16 or 17 and the last written just a few months ago. It is, basically, the definitive collection of my fiction. With an introduction by Jeffrey Ford.
Such a beast is, by its nature, somewhat perplexing to the author. Or at least, mine is to me. I've traveled a long distance as a writer since I was in my teens, and it doesn't just have to do with technique. It has to do with structure, form, narrative. Not so much finding a voice, because I think I've always had a strong authorial voice, but more about finding the best ways to give expression to the characters, images, plots, and themes I repeatedly tackle.
So when I read over these stories now, I see that although my themes--the nature of love, death, obsession, the imagination, and, yes, squid--have remained the same, I have tried a number of approaches.
Let me tell you what I like about the collection--the kind of private joy I get in perusing it, picking it up, thumbing through it. (I hate it when writers say they dislike re-reading their work in published form, by the way. You ought to be able to revel in it, to acknowledge, yes, that you know your weaknesses as well as your strengths, but also be happy and content with it as well.) But let me tell you what I like--I like that there's such diversity between almost pulpy fiction and literary, between the visceral and the intellectual, between the tale and the story. More than any other book, everything I am as a writer can be found in Secret Life, including the suggestion, the hint, of what the future holds.
A couple of the advance reviews have said that the stories often don't seem to be written by the same writer. For me, that's a high compliment. Much as I love Chagall, I like the model provided by Picasso better, in terms of how to approach the creation of art. I may always be gnawing at the same themes, the same questions (because they aren't questions that have set answers, or that will ever have set answers), but that doesn't mean I have to do so in the same style, with the same slant.
I tell you what thrills me immensely, even as it frightens me to death: Pushing myself to write something so new (for me) that it feels while writing this new thing that I have never written anything before. That's a pure feeling. You might fall on your face, but you might just do something original. And I think it's the best possible way to position yourself for inspiration.
I don't mean that "inspiration" always fuels good fiction. I just mean that one of the perks of being a writer, or any kind of creator, is that, sometimes, you get "written" as opposed to writing something. Call it a surge of adrenalin or something spiritual or just a few synapses recognizing the echo of a shadow of a brilliant idea that might, in some small way, make it half-whole onto the page, but regardless of what it is, it's the real reason I write--the immediate reason. There's no better feeling in the entire world.
In the final story in Secret Life, "Experiment #25," I describe this feeling from the writer main character's point of view:
"The writer picked up his cigar and breathed in its thickness. Take winter—such a bracing time of year, he thought, addressing the glowing red tip as if it were a good friend. Every detail on the sidewalk, from a rage of red-orange leaves to a green meandering crack in the concrete, took on a binocular significance. It was a forethought of the awareness that overtook him when he wrote: the premonition of something moving through him and onto the page, the pen in hand become a blur and the heart so full, limbs aflame, body with fever. Like sparks burrowing into you until, finally conquered, you become vessel, container not contained—trapped and free—and all the little hairs on your arms rise, and you feel as if your own skin has been painlessly flayed back to reveal, beneath the perfect diagram of veins and arteries, the beauty and horror of the world—the words like tiny mysteries and the combinations of words solutions to those mysteries, and yet more mysterious for the revelation...and you’re crying silently because, after all, these words are your life, even in distilled form, even brought forth by an unknown will...and you know this is the closest you will personally ever come to an awareness of what God might mean—this feeling that so encompasses the whole of your being that you are unimaginable strength and weakness intertwined...and in the aftermath, the writer often found, as the madness left him, that he would observe, say, the reflected worlds within a perfect drop of water as it lazed in the sudden sunlight across the yard, and was spent, exhausted, by even that simple image."
That's one of the places I want to be as a writer, whether what results from it is good or terrible. In reading over Secret Life, I remember how many times I'd be sitting in a room, alone but for the legal pad or the typewriter or the computer, and yet be overcome by an entire world, or a part of a world, that came exploding out of nowhere, headed for the page at a speed faster than conscious thought.
Anyway, Secret Life is out now and I'm going to enjoy it for all it's worth.