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How to Write a Powerful First Novel in a Bland Age


"Write what you know" is advice that has influenced young writers for a long time. The four words gained a populist urgency in an era when two world wars and a national depression enabled writers to frame personal feelings with hugely dramatic collective experiences. But what powerful use can a writer make of the saying in a time whose most characteristic cultural artifact may well be "Seinfeld," a show in which getting separated in a movie line brings a crisis?

Increasingly, writing teachers urge students to dig beneath surfaces by thinking of the truism as "half the recipe," as Baltimore-based novelist and writing professor Madison Smartt Bell puts it. The other half, of course, is imagination--and three young Los Angeles area writers met at a Santa Monica cafe recently to describe what mixing knowing and imagining was like for them. Authors of just-published or soon-to-be-published first novels, the three are products of the graduate writing program at UC Irvine, where they say they learned a broad openness for how to make fiction.

A hospital window overlooking 5th Avenue embodied the line between what David Benioff did and did not know when the 30-year-old Santa Monica resident started imagining what became "The 25th Hour," his glowingly reviewed novel about Monty Brogan, a young man who interacts with two friends in the hours before he must start a seven-year sentence in a federal prison for dealing drugs.

Benioff never faced jail time. But he started to conjure Monty's forced departure from New York after a frustrating half-return to the city. Raised in the Upper East Side neighborhood of Yorkville, and a graduate of Dartmouth and Trinity College in Dublin, Benioff had been away in Wyoming. He got hit by appendicitis on a visit home for Passover and underwent emergency surgery.

"Walking the halls of Mount Sinai afterward, seeing people walking up 5th Avenue and Central Park and trapped in the hospital, I had a sense of being so close to the city and not being a part of it," he says. "I thought, 'What if you are not stuck for five days, but seven years?' And that is writing what you don't know. Taking a banal problem and making it much more serious."

Benioff believes growing up in a relatively calm America has made younger writers' search for a dramatic context more challenging. The old stress on direct personal experience gives way when "you are not Norman Mailer and you have not been through war in the Pacific," he says. "I live in a time in the United States when history is not in crisis. There is no big story that you feel you're a part of, and so you have to look harder."

Monty's downfall stems from the drug war that offers today's most familiar form of national combat, but Benioff says he found a subtle opportunity in the fact that "it's a war he chose to get into. It's different from when you are swept up in historical tides of war or being a dust bowl farmer." For his next novel, he's researching war-besieged Leningrad in 1942.


Benioff and his colleagues say the sensitive coming-of-age novel--that usual outcome when fledgling novelists write what's more or less in front of them--was distinctly not the rage among their Irvine classmates. It's been replaced, in Charmaine Craig's case, by the entering-another-age novel, one centered on the Catholic Church's effort to end a mystical Christian movement in medieval France and the impact that crisis has across three generations. Called "The Good Men: A Novel of Heresy," it's due from Penguin Putnam this fall.

"I feel I am in line with writers who write with what they know in that I am writing about what I care about," says Craig, 29, who lives in Laguna Beach. "I find the farther I go from my personal circumstances, the better I am able to write about my emotions."

Craig felt the pull of that detached intimacy as an undergraduate studying French literature and history at Harvard. Reading a book of work by mystical women writers, she stumbled onto a deposition of a woman named Grazida Lisier, in a trial held in a town near Toulouse. "And essentially in the deposition she admits to having had an affair with a village priest even when she was married to someone else, and what was interesting was that she did not conceive of it as sinful. She did not think of it as wrong or displeasing to God because it gave them both great pleasure."

"I wasn't thinking of myself as a writer, though I'd been creative all along," Craig recalls. "I thought I'd go into academia all along, but [the story] grabbed me and stayed with me." She found she was moved by the record of people snared by complex tensions between the spirit and the flesh, "the notion that one is necessarily better than the other, the shame that ensues from that."

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