The self-doubting novelist

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I would attempt to make boeuf bourguignon, which requires a full bottle of red wine to reduce into a gooey sauce. I used a chuck roast from which I cut away most of the fat, and cooked it for hours in the wine, with onions and carrots. The end result? As I wrote in Facebook, it was like “eating animal parts out of the LaBrea tar pits.” Complete gooey-gloppy failure. No photo, no recipe for this one. You may have better luck.

Onward: writing about writing…


Novelist on the edge

First line: “Where do I start?”





I’ve written five novels now, and I think (of course) they’re all pretty good – and my readers seem to agree. One was commercially published by Viking Penguin in 1990 and got decent to great reviews; the other four all had good New York literary agents but didn’t make the grade with publishers, and so eventually I self-published them. They won’t make me rich or even pay the phone bill , but they’re out there. (If you’re curious, check them out on Goodreads or Amazon by entering my name).


I was a late bloomer as a novelist. True, I wrote novels in my 20s and 30s, inspired by the likes of Vonnegut and Updike, but they weren’t quite good enough. I wrote my first published book, The Very Bad Thing, in my early 40s, under contract with an advance from Viking Penguin. The others came later, in my late 40s, 50s and early 60s. The question now is, do I have it in me to write another, in my early 70s? And do you have it in you to write your first, or second, or third?

In your own case, it’s your call, but I say go for it. For me, I’m doubtful I could pull it off again. And the reasons are simple. Each book I’ve written had emotional thrust behind its genesis, an engine of inspiration from pain, joy, love, angst… or a potpourri of all of them. Right now, I don’t have those things working for me.

Getting a sense of Place…

I think Place, which I wrote in 2003-2004, is the best example I can give you for what can inspire and power a new novel. It’s my favorite work – by a hair. Readers have told me it’s changed their view of the world, it’s brought them to tears, it haunts their dreams. From the Amazon blurb:

A man and the woman he loves seek firm footing in a post-9/11 America where “sense of place” is fractured and uncertain… where the boundaries of reality become as frail as the psyche of a battered nation. It’s not just that things are out of balance. Things happen that cannot happen. Hugh Ogden is a systems theorist working in the field of of Artificial Life; Abby Sipes, a high-powered corporate consultant with star status, is struggling desperately to overcome a deep personal tragedy. But her center cannot hold; all too often and without warning, she literally vanishes into thin air. PLACE is a haunting, suspenseful story of science and blindness, the destruction and resurrection of family, and the search for solid foundation in a shifting landscape.

I started psyching out this book and its storyline in late 2002, when my wife and I lived in Olympia, Washington. George W. Bush was beating the drum to go to war with Iraq, which he kept implying was connected to the 9/11 attacks (it wasn’t, as we know). We lived in an area dominated by a military culture, with large army and air force bases a stone’s throw away. American flags were draped everywhere over bridge railings. Signs and bumper stickers thundered for military action. A majority of Americans (and likewise in Olympia) ignorantly believed Iraq was behind the terrorist attacks.

My wife and I felt horribly alone. The big kicker for me was personal, like, get this: I knew George Bush – a little – we were college classmates and dorm mates for four years, we moved in different circles but in passing we would trade “Hi George” with “Hi Ned” and I thought he was a decent guy who now, in late 2002, was embarking on a military mission that he had to know was total bullshit, manipulated by Cheney and Rumsfeld and his other enablers to help him pursue some personal family vendetta, and that many thousands would needlessly die.

Thanksgiving, 2002, my wife and I bailed out of the U.S. in disgust, away from the flag-draped bridges, for Vancouver, B.C. and our own private Thanksgiving dinner in Canada among people who saw a different truth to what Bush was doing. And Place was starting to take shape. It would be about a woman who disappears – or seems to – for a few seconds or minutes at a time, and those around her who may or may not notice. Her existential crisis was of such intensity it achieved physical form.

In the spring of 2003 I ruptured my left achilles tendon playing softball and ended up wheelchair-bound by my computer, writing madly. When the wheelchair was gone and I could drive a car, I stopped by a lemonade stand a half block from our house where two boys were selling lemonade and brownies and other goodies. The house behind them was barely more than a shack. The CEO of the lemonade stand was a very blond kid of 12 or so, we chatted a bit, he was a great kid, this was his house/shack behind him, and I told myself, you’re in my novel. And he was. I gave him the name Lyn, and portrayed him as an abandoned kid made homeless by malfunctioning adults.

I wrote, finished, polished, and in short time had Trident Media Group in New York representing the book. Solid agency. My agent, after about eight turndowns, essentially bailed from marketing the book, and I took it back and published it myself.

People, things, places that are broken. That all disappear.

Could I write another Place? No. Or any of the others? No. Each had an engine’s thrust behind it, and I’m too settled to go through the necessary tumult to start another project. I know I have lots of company. In college, I met and conversed at some length with Joseph Heller (Catch-22), John Knowles (A Separate Peace) and Norman Mailer (lotsa books!) and the first two were one-hit wonders (though Heller fans and I might argue). Later, I had a long conversation with the late William (Bill) Maxwell, fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, novelist and short story writer, who had one fine novel out of half a dozen, So Long, See You Tomorrow, which he recommended I read (I did – excellent, compelling story). Bill Maxwell told me, verbatim, “I will gladly pay for the privilege of writing fiction.” Heller and Knowles had a slightly different take: I have one big story to tell, and I need to tell it. They paid to tell it, when they wrote it. And they were very well rewarded.

But we know better: most fiction writers don’t make much money, if any. You need to bankroll your own project just to get the book out there.

All of my books had a mule’s kick in the ass to start me writing them. That’s what’s currently missing – the engine of necessity. But we will see, we will see.


There it is, for now.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.