Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Last night I finished rewriting the first part of a book I had put away many years ago. L’Amérique is the fictionalized story of my family’s decision to move to the United States from Paris, France, in the late 1950s. So it’s nothing more than another immigrant’s story, but I always figured every other nationality’sand minority’s tale has been chronicled—Irish, German, Latino, Russian, Iranian and Iraqi, Chinese, Vietnamese, and dozens of others—save for the French. We (les francais) are unrepresented, for a variety of reasons I don’t need to illustrate here.
As it stood, it was a chaotic book. My agent couldn’t quite figure out how to market it. Memoire? Novel? Vignettes? All of the above? Unfortunately, publishers and writers do not see eye to eye. What I thought might be the great (and possibly first) Franco-American novel didn’t find a taker, and so the draft lingered on my desktop for years as I wrote more, and hopefully more publishable, books.
Arielle decided she would edit it to meet the agent’s demands. The entire book would shift to the point of view of Jeanot, an eight- or nine-year-old kid fascinated by anything American—cowboys and Indians, banjos, Disney movies, westerns, and oddly named foods like hot dogs.
From the start, Arielle did an amazing job; editing is tough work. A hundred pages vanished in a couple of weeks, and I mourned each one of them. The backstory of Jeanot’s parents was cut, as were what I felt were some very neat scene that included a duel between a World War I veteran and a concierge in the courtyard of their Paris building.
Doing the first few chapters with Arielle was a form of torture. She whirled through pages and scenes like a dervish, and it took a while to reconcile myself to the fact that her work was making my opus better, tighter, and hopefully more sellable. Ah but, did we really have to lose the entire Algerian chapter with St. Exupery? And the ten pages on the war-time crossing of the English Channel in a dinghy? And what about the Paris street scenes? Well yes, they had to go; we did have to lose them. At times it felt like I was visiting a family crypt at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. All the people named, save one minor woman character, are long dead now, and trimming some of their scenes and existence felt peculiarly like acts of desecration. There were times Arielle had to take over the actual writing and one of the things I noted was that I couldn’t tell what was hers and what was mine. This gave me confidence.
“Write more,” said Arielle not unkindly, so I did. It was strange at first. This book was written a decade-and-a-half ago, and re-establishing myself in its pages seemed invasive.
I began by giving some characters extra lines; an exposition written from the omniscient point of view became a dialogue between two protagonists. The role of one character in particular grew. Babette a worldly twelve-year-old, became a sounding board, a chronicler, a know-it-all with pronounced opinions and answers—often misguided ones—for everything.
We kept cutting. I wrote a scene describing parental dissension as witnessed by nine-year-old eyes. It worked relatively well. I became more ambitious, creating additional situations where my boy-hero had opinions, thoughts, and occasionally innovative ideas. Arielle cut, pasted, inserted and deleted, occasionally adding the necessary word, sentence or paragraph to tie it all together.
And then last night about 10 p.m. it was done—but not really. At about 180 pages, L’Amérique is too short, so I now have to take its sequel, tentatively titled The First Few Years, and make one book. More work for Arielle, more work for me, but worth every minute, I think.
We’ll see what the publishers have to say.