There was a time when I could have said with my mother, “I believe I have the skills of a good writer; but I don’t have the ideas.” This was not exactly so: I had ideas, but not story ideas. And the “idea” which is abstract doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Yet in college after my first novella (Children of the Cat Goddess, 95 pages), I had a serious dry spell. Luckily, I had the rest of college and one year of grad school (I never got my MA) to do other things. Well, in Grad School I had two vague ideas for a book, one called “M.G.” (Muslim Girl) and the other “Brazil.” Yet I knew I couldn’t write them. I didn’t have the information. Late one night, looking over my Hume textbook, I noticed a name, “Beauchamp.” And I wrote this about him,
Mr. Beauchamp boasted of his indiscretions. There never was a man so proud to tell his faults and failings to whomever sat next to him, whether in a bus or even in a movie theater. Even to women Beauchamp bragged about his adventures (some would say misadventures) with the opposite sex, of his bad intentions and worse luck. There seemed to be some goblin dogging his feet, tripping him up the moment he met a woman or a banker (he was nearly as bad with money as with women, although strangely, his money problem ceased where his job began).
Yet Beauchamp was not entirely a failure romantically. Beauchamp had married four times, indicating at least initial success. Beauchamp’s first wife had left him through death rather than divorce, and he never ceased telling later women (there were many of them) about the perfect angel who had graced his life for five loving years. Beauchamp’s second and third wives deserted him through divorce. He was estranged from his fourth.
So what brought women to Beauchamp? He was fat with heavy eyebrows and a gravelly voice. He wore dark suits that never fit. He lacked charm, and years of education left him pedantic rather than cultured. And yet women swarmed to him as though he were a second Casanova. Why? The answer was simple. Money.
I eventually placed the American businessman Beauchamp in “Brazil.” However, due to an editor’s suggestion, I cut these paragraphs–which I thought were hilarious–out of the final book. My editor was probably right: I think she found Beauchamp’s girlfriend (his wife was in America) obnoxious, and also another subplot. Before Brazil was finished in its present form–I still hope to publish it somehow–I also had to change the ending: too many people thought it was the worst thing about the book, including my own mother.
However, this does not explain the birth of the book. I was in Torah Study–the school system which I was a student in had its own rabbi–and she discussed a character called Aher from the Jewish Talmud. Aher began as Rabbi Avuyah, but then–so the story goes–he saw a child climb a tree to capture some eggs for his lame father on the ground below. Now it is Jewish law that you do not take a mother bird and its eggs to eat at the same time. So the boy brushed the mother bird away from the chicks–and fell to the ground and died. In that split second, Rabbi Avuyah lost faith in God. He could not understand why a good God would let the boy die.
Now, my rabbi said she struggled with this piece: she was assigned to write a sermon about it. Her teacher suggested that Aher’s mistake was that instead of asking, “Why” in seeing evil in the world he did not seek to change it. And this was interesting in and of itself. Yet I saw the story as more fascinating than she did. All of my childhood I had wondered why one person suffers and another person is lucky. And that is why Aher became “Other” a character in Brazil. What better story to illustrate the tragedy of 7 out of 10 people living under the poverty line, of third world poverty, than this Jew and his inability to accept human suffering? Plus, using Jewish material, I didn’t have to know as much about Brazil itself.
So at home, after Grad School was an overall flop, I wrote a book about Kansas, John Brown’s Body. It was not a success. Even my mother believed it was a terrible book. She even believed Children of the Cat Goddess was better. M.G. became Khadijah–also not a success, though I did send it to several publishers. Finally, I took a suggestion Mom gave me: work on your biggest project first. And so I began work on Brazil. My first ending–poor Aher committing suicide–has been cut, though I will not tell what the final ending now is. Yet I found information wherever I could–on line, in the library, in the Lonely Planet Guidebook, listening to CDs of Samba and Basa Nova. I have always been a tad sorry I couldn’t go to the country Brazil myself.
Now I will add this disclaimer: Brazil turned out not to be as poor as, say, Africa or India. It is not even the poorest country in South America. And I was writing long before COVID-19 made its way to making Brazil as afflicted as the United States and India are now, too. Yet it is a third world country, and Rio is what I once heard called “Mega Cities”: a place industrializing with great poverty and the world’s largest intentional homicide rate. There are “orphans,” very badly abused runaways on the street, and they seldom make it to adulthood. Despite its tropic background–Brazil is home to the Amazon jungle–the country was to me in the book a tragic beauty.
I still hope to write more about Brazil. I even hope some day my highly edited version of it makes it into print. So to new writers I say: start with the biggest idea you have in your head, do any research that needs writing, and then write it either one of two ways: have an ending (which may change after the book is written) and write towards it; or, make an outline. As I grow as a writer I tend towards outline for large projects, but more loosely built plots for small ones. However, I started Brazil with an ending and started working towards it.