A First Novel Is This

Posted on September 9, 2010


Heather saw U2 at Giants Stadium in September 2009, but it doesn't mean she crammed them into her novel

Before anyone asks, the answer is no. Nope, Jilly Kilroy is not me, and, non, I am not Jilly Kilroy. My last post, “Strummer und Drang,” recounted the inspiration of Chapter 1—a Joe Strummer and the Mescaleroes show I attended in 1999—but I don’t want to leave people with the impression that The Nowhere in the Middle is in any way lightly veiled memoir. Because the autobiographical genre has proliferated like coke-addled rabbits in the last decade, I think a clarification of the First Novel is in order.

Defining it in negatives is a logical place to start. As I see it (with admittedly crooked glasses on at the moment), a First Novel is neither a crass attempt to exact revenge on people who have wronged you by revealing hurtful or embarrassing facets of their personality, nor a sad attempt by the author to “redo” her dysfunctional childhood (note to parents: I am not saying I had a dysfunctional childhood!). Even though the author’s formative experiences inspire scenes, characters, and dialogue, a First Novel is not the epitome of lazy writing or “cheating,” to quote the Sid Ceasar lookalike at my local donut shop. It’s not under any circumstances reality as we’ve come to know it on television, a place where drama is manipulated to the extent that you have bitch-slapped your best friend.

Now that I think of it, a First Novel also shouldn’t be embarrassed of being a First Novel, that is, apologizing like a madwoman for being a little ham-fisted, overeager, or sprawling a la Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. A First Novel isn’t likely the best work most writers will produce; it’s the best they could create at a very vulnerable moment in their development as a person and artist. It’s the revving of the engines, an opportunity for those of you who are tired of your same-ole-same-ole to discover a new voice that may lead to a fresh love affair with literature…or a dead end that sends you running back to the spines of your beloved Stephen King.

A First Novel, like many great albums (see my Writing Soundtrack), is often the considered, measured distillation of one person’s formative influences, her impassioned attempt to make sense of the things that keep her conscious, curious, and engaged with the world, a bastard-sweetheart of a place. It’s a celebration of the mundane and of the rarefied, a denial of certain ideas and an endorsement of others. It’s politics, the opposite of politics; a beginning, a middle, an end, and another beginning. It’s a goddamn story, a kind of escape, so leave your baggage behind, and take on somebody else’s for a change.

Blogging soundtrack:

“Numb” by U2 (by special request from my neck)

P.S. Happy birthday, Sid Caesar, born on this day in 1922.

Posted in: Fiction, First Novels