I published my second book, The Season of Migration, on January 6th, and as I slowly begin to be asked questions about it, I am struck most significantly by the strange feeling that I don't know many of the answers. How is that possible? I wrote the book, that part is undeniable; I have many memories of when I was in the midst of writing it, of moments when it was going well and moments when it was torturous, of where I was when I wrote this part or that part, of consulting with various writer friends and what so-and-so said that was so helpful—all of that I remember. I remember the research I did for the book (it is a work of historical fiction, about the early life of Vincent van Gogh), the books I read and what was helpful and what wasn't, and I have a few memories of key details that I learned and immediately used. But when people ask me to speak eloquently about how the book came to be, how narrative decisions were made, when certain plot lines entered the picture, how the whole was made from the sum of its parts, a strange thing happens in my brain: a fog rolls in and I find myself stammering. What is the nature of this fog?
Of course it is a combination of things, not least the fact that I finished the final draft of the book almost two full years ago (the publishing machine often works slowly). But would a person that built a house, even if the house had been built two years prior, feel the same strange confusion when asked to describe how the house was built? I doubt it.
Perhaps this fog of confusion is a kind of innate protective measure that is built into the brains of artists—we cannot remember all of the making of a book (or a film, or a painting) just as a mother cannot remember all of the pain of childbirth. Perhaps this strange fog is how the mystery is protected, so that the process of making a novel can't be formulaic, so that there can't be one prescriptive way to do it, so that we all need to struggle through the strange process again and again, even if we have done it before. Is this what keeps us going back at it? To try to crack the code, figure out the formula? It's fun to think about how we feel this same wonder and mystery when we've written a book as we do when we read one that we love—how did this thing come to be?! How is it possible?! We must keep reading, and writing, and peering through the fog, for the fog is where the mystery is, and the mystery is what pulls us all forward.