In our previous installment, I wrote about meeting up with Newsweek editor and author David Gates. During his conversation with the NYU writing students (the occasion of our meeting), he counseled them against coincidence in fiction. “We all know that this stuff happens in real life–people get hit by cars, tsunamis devastate villages–but in fiction, if an action just happens out of the blue, it feels like the author’s just inflicting it on the character. If a car crashes, it should somehow be the result of decisions, actions or inactions of the characters.” Pretty Aristotelian, and the kids seemed to get what he was about.
As we were wrapping up the class, I thought I’d ask Gates about a story relating to his second novel, Preston Falls. Just like with M. Swann, Gates pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose for a moment.
“What happened is, my editor and I had gone back and forth over the manuscript of the novel. We’d found a bunch of sections that needed to be reworked, and had written all over the thing. In fact, I didn’t like the ending and wrote a brand-new one. When we finished, his office shipped the manuscript off to the typesetter, out in Pennsylvania.
“Then the [shipping company’s] truck it was on crashed, burst into flames, and all the contents were destroyed. And, as it turned out, my editor’s secretary had forgotten to Xerox the pages before sending them out.”
The classroom gasped. Gates did the thing with the glasses again.
“Yeah, I actually had fantasies about driving out to Pennsylvania and sifting through the ashes, trying to find remnants of the manuscript, so we could reconstruct it,” he said.
“I couldn’t really tell you how Preston Falls ends, in its published form.”
I chipped in, “And remember, kids: Don’t introduce bizarre accidents or coincidences into your fiction!” They headed off for spring break.
As I mentioned, we went out for drinks after. I had Gates inscribe a copy of Jernigan for a friend of mine (“With unironic best wishes”). On the way back to my car, I stopped at the Strand and picked up a replacement hardcover of the book, along with Cloud Atlas.
Last night, I opened up the replacement copy and noticed something funny: this book had previously belonged to a former friend of mine, an author whom I recently “disowned.” How’d I know this?
Well, his handwritten comments on the pages were one clue; his scrawl is pretty distinctive. The other clue was the part that read,
“Goshdarn, Gil is so afraid of life, like this Jernigan character. He has to erect a partition of humor between him and everything that might damage him, a humor glove, so he never actually comes in contact with anything.”
So remember, kids: Don’t introduce bizarre accidents or coincidences into your fiction!
Oh, and don’t write your thoughts about your friends on the back pages of novels they like and then sell those novels to bookstores that those friends might frequent.