In a grassy patch behind my mother’s home is a large pile of rusting wire. Bedsprings. Fencing. Tomato trellises. Coat hangers. While such a sight might be considered random or wasteful on other properties, it is in fact quite purposeful on hers. My mother is an artist who specializes in sculptures and wall hangings. Rusted wire is one of the most important elements in her work. She calls this decomposing collection her “Rust Garden.”
I recently photographed her oxidized garden for a an upcoming blog series on her website but the process got me thinking about my own work. My latest novel in particular. The idea came to me two weeks after my second son was born. I emerged from the postpartum fog one morning to read the news. On a long-forgotten news site was a link to a story claiming that the disappearance of one New York State Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Crater, might have finally been solved. I clicked. Of course. And the story, along with it’s accompanying theories, was interesting. But what bolted me to the chair and sent a knowing shiver across the nape of my neck was the final paragraph. I read how the judge’s wife, Stella Crater, went to a bar in Greenwich Village every year on the anniversary of her husband’s disappearance, where she would sit in a corner booth and order two shots of whiskey. Stella would raise one glass and toast her missing husband, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are!” She would slowly drain her glass, and then rise from her seat and leave the bar, leaving the other drink untouched on the table. She did this until her death in 1969. For thirty-eight years. In all that time Stella never once missed her bizarre ritual.
That single image cemented itself in my mind, along with a thousand questions.
And there it sat for five years, rusting.
I didn’t begin writing the book in earnest until three years ago. But my first few attempts were stilted. I had the wrong angle. The wrong narrator. The wrong story. I was so curious about the judge and his whereabouts that I missed the real story on my first few passes. It took some time before I realized that the key to understanding the mystery lay with Stella and the other women Judge Crater left behind: his maid and his mistress. My early drafts were film noir pot boilers. They were the obvious choices, the who-dunnits. They were bright, shiny rolls of wire that needed to be seasoned.
The truth is that without time, I would have never really known what the story was about. But now, after three years of outlining, writing, revising, editing, revising again, editing again, line editing, and copy editing, Stella’s story has personality. It has patina. It will be published by Doubleday on January 28th, 2014.
These days, when I find myself dazzled by a bright, shiny new idea, I toss it into the rust garden of my mind and wait until things get interesting.