This is probably the single most common question authors are asked. I think part of the reason is a notion—or maybe a hope—that all you need to write a book is a good idea.
Alas, it’s rarely that straightforward. Almost no one has an idea for a book and sits down to write that same book without struggle, doubt, and heavy use of the delete key.
And yet, the question is a great one. How does someone turn words on a page into people who live so well in our minds that reading can transport and transform us?
For me, the answer explains why I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my 40s: I needed the time.
My books come from conversations I’ve had have throughout my life: with other books, with myself, with people I have loved, with the suffering I’ve observed, and with the ideas that have stirred me deeply. Art. Music. Stories. The way we interact with the world of ideas and objects and human beings becomes the conversations that feed us. Scraps of these conversations stick to us like lint. We scrape them together, and from them spin understanding of what it means to be alive.
For writers, this weaving emerges as stories. There is pleasure in story, both in writing and in reading. We find the book on the shelves, and the truth in the tale finds us, wherever we are on this planet as it whirls through the massive arms of the universe. Even as it moves us emotionally, a story holds us still for a small, sweet time. Working for this stillness as a writer—these moments of understanding and being understood—is a deeply satisfying way to live.
The Game of Love and Death is woven from bits of my youth: the Greek mythology I read as a child; the sixth grade chemistry class where I heard the audio recording of the Hindenburg disaster; the high school art class where I saw Picasso’s painting “Guernica”; the summer musical festival where I played Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” It’s made of the classic jazz music I discovered in college. The Harlem renaissance and gay fiction I read in my early 20s.
Stuff you’ve encountered when you’re young has a way of winding itself into your DNA. It changes you. Slowly, intently, I took some of these things and I found the connections between them—and how these links might illuminate the meaning of love and beauty in the face of death.
It took me a long time to piece it all together, and in all, I rewrote The Game of Love and Death thirty-one times in order to get the story in my head and heart down on the page in a satisfying way.
On its surface, the book is about two young jazz musicians who fall in love without realizing they’re pawns being played by Love and Death themselves. The book started out as a contemporary novel narrated by an angry and dispirited Love—a shape-shifting immortal who’d adopted the guise of a middle-aged man.
This bitter Love had his young lovers. But he needed an antagonist, one at least as strong as he. Hate was the obvious one, at least linguistically. But no one who’s ever really loved believes that hate is the enemy. The enemy of love is death, whether the literal one, or the metaphorical one that can come from so many things: inattention, abuse, distraction.
Once I had that piece, I knew I had the tension for a story, and I knew it would be a game between the two—but what sort?
This is the sort of simple-sounding question that a writer can spend years mulling. And I did. I knew it wouldn’t be chess. That felt clichéd. I thought about a role-playing game, knowing that my characters would be mingling with their human pawns. This proved to be too confusing. I considered poker, and bought lots of books on the topic. In the midst of this, as I was strolling through the Brooklyn Art Museum, I saw a beautiful hand-painted card for an ancient Persian game called As Nas, a precursor to poker. So for a while, I had a card game in my book, with cards that came to life. The trouble was, they overshadowed the characters and took a long time to explain. I know this because I wrote drafts of the book this way.
Riddles seemed promising, but it’s not so easy to write one that is thematic, appropriately challenging, and can only have one answer. Also, it’s hard to beat what J.R.R. Tolkien did with Gollum. This, I also learned the hard way.
Simpler. I needed simpler. And then I came across an image I’d already written into the book: a pair of dice thrown against a felt-topped table. That simple image was clear, rich, and resonant on many levels. And it had been there all along. This is one thing authors very often discover is true when they are struggling with a book. The answer is in what you’ve already written, which is why time spent writing and struggling is essential.
I went through similar machinations to find the time the book should be set in. I’ll spare you the details. The fact of it illustrates a truth for many writers: The challenge is not to find ideas, but to find the right ones. We all wish we could get to a workable answer the first time. But this is where writing novels is a bit like life. Words on the page are the feet on the path, and the things we learn going the wrong direction make us and our work what we were both meant to be—just as much as the right choices do. In some cases, maybe even more so.
So, where do ideas come from? From living and thinking and exploring and reading and listening. From loving and grieving loss. From being terrified, and finding courage anyway. From screwing up and having to live with the shattered, smoking results. In short, from being human. And the messy beauty that we give back in the form of story is nothing more than our humble but audacious hope to keep the conversation going—perhaps even after our own selves are gone.
Seattle author Martha Brockenbrough won a 2016 PNBA Award for her novel, The Game of Love and Death. She shares this essay with us in celebration of the award. Look for essays from the other winners in the coming weeks.
Martha Brockenbrough’s PNBA Award plaque will be presented at a party at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, at a soon-to-be-decided date. Watch nwbooklovers.org, Martha’s website and social media, and the Queen Anne Book Company site for the details. Also cause to celebrate? The Game of Love and Death was QABC’s #1 YA bestseller in 2015.