Black Lawrence Press
November 6, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: TJ Beitelman

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured novelist is TJ Beitelman, author of John the Revelator.

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John the RevelatorExcerpt

I came to the end that was meant for me.

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Craft Notes

The main character of my novel, John the Revelator, proclaims this at the beginning of the book, really before the beginning of the book. He’s a prophet, of sorts, so I guess that chronology makes some sense. Thinking of it now—fittingly, in hindsight; I’m no prophet—I realize it might as well have been the book making that very same proclamation about itself. It, too, came to its rightful end. Somehow, someway.

Isn’t that simple proclamation what any novelist wishes for her or his novels? And yet it was more than a decade before I was convinced my novel could say that about itself.

And notice: I am referring to the novel itself as a conscious—a self-conscious—entity. In my experience, it is most certainly that.

At the tail end of the 20th century, a mathematician named Andrew Wiles proved the notoriously “impossible”-to-prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, which had confounded all of mathematics for several hundred years. Here’s what he told the PBS program NOVA about the way he gropes about for solutions in his work:

Perhaps I can best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of a journey through a dark unexplored mansion. You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s illuminated. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months or so in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of—and couldn’t exist without—the many months of stumbling around in the dark that precede them.

I have not read or heard a more cogent description of the similar sweet misery that is writing a novel. The novel is, after all, a kind of high-concept math. The mistake would be to make it arithmetical or even algebraic. In my experience, 2 + 2 may or may not equal 4 in the world of any novel I am writing. Solving for x doesn’t always—in fact, it doesn’t usually—solve anything.

The process of writing a novel is always, every time, a process of invention and discovery. Edison, in Menlo Park, employed teams of brilliant dreamers who spent all hours doing the kind of thinking Andrew Wiles describes above, and they usually—day to day—failed to discover anything at all. To sustain them, they had each other and they had the faith that this process had, in the end, led them somewhere before. To lightbulbs and citywide electrical grids, to telegraphs and record players, to motion pictures.

The lone novelist usually just has himself and the blinking cursor for sustenance. BLP’s NaNoWriMo celebration provides a welcome bit of creative communion, and I’m thankful—in this season of Thanks—to be a part of it.

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

I’ve only published one novel, but I’ve completed drafts of two others and drafted parts of at least two others. While the process has been different for each one, the way I’ve felt during those separate processes has been very similar; I always feel like I am inhabiting the story’s world when I am writing it. I mean that as literally as you’re willing to take it. It’s an intoxicating experience, an altered state of consciousness; however it’s not without its drawbacks: first, it can sometimes be difficult to fully re-enter the workaday world when the writing day is done. Those ramifications are more personal and interpersonal ones, and—believe me—I’m not qualified to give technical advice regarding the personal and interpersonal well-being of other human beings. (Blah blah yoga; blah blah meditation; blah blah aerobic exercise, moderation in all things, etc.) The writing-related ramifications are considerable, though, too. They are (for me) rooted in impatience. This world I am inhabiting—submerging myself in, might be a better way to say it—feels (I use that word on purpose) real and fully formed. It feels like a place I can go to at will. And it is; and I do. Happily (usually). But I can’t bring anyone else with me. The best I can do is think (not feel) my way to the words that will approximately instruct others how to get to that place—or a place like it—on their own. My impatience is two-fold: impatience with how long the process takes and impatience with how imperfect my instructions invariably are. (Please see the remaining answers for my techniques, such as they are, for dealing with this.)

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Intention is overrated. Imperfect instructions lead to unexpected discoveries. Penicillin. Coca-cola. The Slinky. Evolution. Trust in this: there are no accidents. Owen Meany said so, and I believe him.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft.

What was to become John the Revelator began as something that was quite different. In 2003 or 2004, I started writing a strange, picaresque, and vaguely comical novel in an idiosyncratic and stylized voice. So idiosyncratic and stylized that I had that very common Wile E. Coyote response that can happen when a (young) writer chooses a weird, first person voice to narrate a novel: I had set off running at top speed across the butte only to look down and realize I was now hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, with nothing but thin air to break my fall. I aborted; I turned it into a short story. I sent it to two literary magazines I really respect…and almost immediately, almost simultaneously, both places wanted it. Blind ambition and ego took over immediately: “This really IS a great idea for a novel! It’s unassailable! Everybody loves it! It will make me famous for being a creative genius! Now all I have to do is make it longer…” Cue the freefall. And drop the anvil. I spent the remainder of that decade and a bit of the next one trying to pick up where the short story left off. I ended up with close to 100,000 words, but it all led nowhere. That’s when blind ambition and ego entered the picture again: “Well, maybe it’s not a novel…maybe it’s a SCREENPLAY! Nobody reads novels anymore anyway. But movies…the BIG SCREEN!!” I went back to the original short story and, sentence by sentence, turned it into a screenplay (something I had never done before). (Do not try this at home.) And then I got lucky. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything from the process. I was simply expecting to write something that would make me famous for being a creative genius. That didn’t happen. (Intention is overrated.) This is what did happen: I slowly came to realize that the original short story provided a much fuller narrative arc than I had been giving it credit for. I thought the short-story version was just the start of that story-concept’s journey; really, it charted out at least two-thirds of the journey. In writing the screenplay version, I had to come up with the last third—the final act—but I now had a set of instructions for how to extend the original short-story into a novel, and the extension (in terms of plot/structure) wasn’t nearly as extensive as I’d originally imagined. And that’s what I did: I followed the instructions I had made for myself. I went through, sentence by sentence, slug line by slug line, and turned the screenplay into a novel.

So let’s review: Novel idea to 5,000-word short story to (slightly altered and very inchoate) novel idea to 100,000 aimless words to 15,000 word-screenplay to (even more altered but somewhat less inchoate) novel idea to 55,000-word (published) novel. That’s a total of 175,000 words, the bulk of which (well over 100,000 words) never made it into the finished novel.

Again: I don’t recommend this particular process to anyone. It was maddening. And humbling. And slow: 2003 – 2014 from first concept to publication, and I was tinkering with it all the way to the printer. So, no: don’t try this at home. What I do recommend, if you really want to write a novel, is a willingness to re-imagine (however long it takes), to live in the madness (however long it takes), and—however long it takes (did I say that already?)—to never give up.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?

It’s a writerly cliche but: very strong coffee. I went through a stretch of about a year or eighteen months when I was getting up very, very early in the morning before work to draft John the Revelator. Sidebar: there’s this line from a Dan Berg song: “You know, the best friend I ever had was a dog / It sounds like a cliche unless it’s happened to you / Some days that dog was the only reason I got out of bed…” Some days, when the writing wasn’t getting anywhere, that coffee was (A) my best friend and (B) the only reason I got out of bed. It takes little tricks and treats like that, to cajole and console yourself on the journey…

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Suggested Reading

The Known World by Edward P. Jones. A truly great novel. By a short-story writer.

The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell. A truly great craft book. I took a workshop with Boswell once, and he inscribed my copy of this book: “To TJ, whose novel will work. Keep at it.” He was right—because I kept at it; and I kept at it, in no small measure, because of his encouragement. We novelists need as much of this sort of encouragement as we can get—the encouragement to start writing novels, to keep writing them, and to finish them—and, in return, we need to dole it out to others of us, liberally, religiously, and in good cheer.

Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger. A great sketchbook. Truly. And a call-to-arms for stories that carry their mysteries, rather than solve them. Amen.

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Photo-TJBTJ Beitelman is a writer and teacher living in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s published a novel, John the Revelator, and two collections of poetry: In Order to Form a More Perfect Union and Americana. His stories and poems have been published widely in literary magazines, and he’s received fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham. He earned an MA in English from Virginia Tech, where he completed a thesis in film studies, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, where he taught writing and literature and also edited Alabama Heritage and Black Warrior Review. He currently serves as chair of the Creative Writing department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. He can be found on-line at www.tjbman.com.