Todd Hasak-Lowy dropped by to explain why he wrote a novel in lists… by writing a list. Read on to understand his novel-by-list reasoning!
1. I JUST DID
Which might sound like a non-reason. But it’s true. The writing of this novel-in-lists was pretty much an established fact before I thought too much about why I did it, or even if the whole thing was a good idea.
Here’s what happened: Even though I’m a writer I don’t write every day. For all sorts of reasons good and bad, I’ll sometimes go through longish stretches—a few months even—without writing. I don’t enjoy these periods. They take on their own hideous inertia, such that after a while I begin to wonder if and when I’ll ever write again. And even though I’m not actually writing during these stretches, a nice chunk of my brain is usually poking around, hoping to land on something that might get the writing machine up and running again.
I was in one such stretch before starting this novel. And thus feeling anxious and frustrated. But then, somehow, little bits of this novel’s world (the protagonist’s physical appearance, the nature of his family’s recent breakdown, etc.) started showing up. I started collecting them in my head, excited by their embryonic promise. Eager and impatient as I was, I sat down with the intention of getting some of this raw material onto my hard drive as quickly and unceremoniously as possible. I wasn’t interested in voice or style or structure or anything along those lines. I just wanted to avoid losing it all.
So what I did was write something like “9 Parts of Darren’s Regular Outfit,” and then I listed these parts. Then I wrote a longer list, maybe “6 Reasons Darren Might Give If Asked to Explain Why His Parents Got Divorced.” I didn’t think that the lists themselves would survive once I truly started writing, because I didn’t think I was truly writing yet. I assumed that the raw material contained in those lists would get reworked as it was transformed into regular prose.
But then I realized, pretty quickly, that writing these lists was fun. Writing the list titles was especially fun, because right away I enjoyed making them a bit longer than they should be. So after I finished with my first volley of a half-dozen lists, I decided to keep going, as long as I was having fun. And it stayed fun, and soon I was wondering if I could write an entire novel this way. Turned out I could. And the first draft was done less than two months later. I was purposely writing ahead of myself during that draft, by which I mean I wasn’t letting myself ask why I was doing this or what the point was or if it was a good idea at all. I was just letting it happen. Until I had done it.
So in some ways there wasn’t a conscious reason why I did it. But now that it’s done, I’ve had time to think back on the process. And this has helped me realize why the whole thing maybe wasn’t all that random or coincidental. Meaning there were other kinds of reasons at work, regardless of the extent to which I was aware of them at the time. For instance, entries 2-4 on this very list:
2. AS A KID I HAD A THING FOR LISTS, ESPECIALLY IN BOOKS
Two of my very favorite books growing up were the Wallace/Wallechinsky family’s multi-volume The Book of Lists and Michael H. Hart’s The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. I read and read and reread these books, to the point that I had Hart’s list memorized (Mohammed, in an intentionally provocative choice, was #1, whereas the physicist Niels Bohr came in at #100—this in the original version, Hart has since revised his list). While many of my similarly nerdy friends were growing up under the patronage of J.R.R. Tolkien, I was spending my spare time reviewing the twenty people involved in “10 Meetings Between Famous People and People Not Yet Famous.”
I can’t say for sure why these books had the kind of hold on me they did, but I suspect it had something to do with an interest in the kind of tidiness numbered things provide. Though this might sound strange coming from a writer, I was much better at Math than I was at English back when both subjects were forced on me five days a week. There was a hard, reliable neatness to Ms. Schulz’s trigonometry tests I enjoyed, whereas writing papers for Ms. Kaplan felt like being forced to build a house out of softened marshmallows.
I was probably smart enough back then to understand that Hart’s project was highly dubious, and that the Wallace/Wallechinsky books ultimately added up to little more than a thousand pages of trivia. But for me these books offered much more than mere diversion, they promised well-ordered comfort in a world that already seemed much too messy for me.
3. I LIKE RULES
Which maybe seems obvious following #2. But in general, that is in my actual life, I don’t much like being told what to do. When I write, however, the situation is different. Sure, some of the appeal of writing fiction is the freedom. Anything goes. The only limit is your imagination, etc. And that’s all good and well, but the truth is, at least for me, when it comes to creative freedom there can be too much of a good thing.
When I have an idea for a character or a situation or a story, I’m next faced with all sorts of other questions: Past tense or present? Chronological or not? First person or third? And on and on and on. The possibilities of how to tell the thing—not to mention the infinite possibilities within the what of it—can create its own paralysis.
The list format meaningfully cut down on these possibilities. There were suddenly certain things I couldn’t do, which was clearly restrictive, but in a productive way. Because think about it: games have rules for a reason. Without the rules there is no game, there is just, well, everything, just boundless chaos. For me, writing is fun once I know the rules.
4. RECONSIDERING WHAT COUNTS AS ORIGINAL
Thanks to the oversized role of plot summary in reviews and marketing and in the way readers talk about books in general (this last one thanks in part to the way the adaptation of a book into a movie involves transplanting the plot into an entirely different medium), we tend to assume that originality is to be found in the story, along with its setting and characters.
In other words, a book about a chef doesn’t sound terribly original, but if the chef only has one arm, then we’re getting somewhere. And if this one-armed chef lives in 18th century Paris and is also an assassin and, though he doesn’t know it yet, Napoleon’s illegitimate son, well, then we might have a best seller on our hands.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing in principle against novels about one-armed chef-assassins set in 18th century Paris, but in my own work I’m interested in originality of a different sort. For me the challenge lies in finding a new way to tell a familiar story, because my stories tend to be populated by pretty regular people doing pretty regular things in the kind of places my readers and I actually live. My aim, in general, is to find a way to see what we tend to call “reality” with fresh eyes. And I think that disrupting the conventions of prose fiction—along with all sorts of other things, like avoiding clichés and polishing my prose again and again—can help to provide these eyes.
It doesn’t hurt that by doing this I might compel my readers to realize that the conventions of contemporary fiction are only that, conventions. Meaning they might start looking for other kinds of books. Who knows, maybe they’ll even start writing them.
5. YOU TELL ME
Seriously, what do you think? What are these lists doing here? How is reading a novel in lists different from reading a regular novel?
I don’t mean to be difficult, and, in my defense, I did actually provide you with some real reasons, but let’s face it, in the end I don’t get to decide what any of this means. Which is as it should be. Before I was a professional writer I was a professional reader (that is, a literature professor), and I was trained as a reader to believe that it’s the reader’s obligation (as opposed to the writer’s prerogative) to come up with an interpretation.
As a reader, I love reading books that sort of knock me over the head with something in such a way that I find myself asking, What the hell is this thing I can’t ignore doing here? I know something matters, but it isn’t obvious at first exactly how it matters. That, to me, makes reading fun. Why are there so many narrators in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying? Why do so many impossible things keep happening in One Hundred Years of Solitude? Why does that entire separate novel (along with that entire separate author) have such a big role in Fault in our Stars?
Maybe the writers themselves have their reasons, but maybe they don’t or maybe they’re wrong or maybe you and your friends can come up with an explanation no one thought of before. Writers don’t get to choose their readers, but those are the readers I want: you and your friends not just reading my book, but thinking about it, arguing about it, and trying to figure out what in the world the whole thing means. Maybe that’s ultimately why I wrote it in lists and kept it that way, so the book could function as a question from me to you.
So tell me: What does it mean?