I can't remember when and how I met Dawn (it seems like we've always known each other)--but we had one of those instant connections. We've been emailing back and forth since, having long conversations about writing, soothing, inspiring and cheering each other on, and she's become one of my most important and crucial friends on the planet. I'm honored to have blurbed her incredible novel Game of Secrets, thrilled to have written a guest review for it on Amazon, and even happier to be able to promote her and her novel here. (The Minnesota Star Tribune already compared her to Elizabeth Strout!)
Game of Secrets is genius, and I'm not just saying that because we're friends. Intricately structured and exquisitely written, it pulls you in like an undertow and it truly is startlingly original. Thanks so much for being here, Dawn.
I'm always interested in process. Game of Secrets has such an intricate structure, where information is slowly revealed. Did you plan all this out, or did it happen more organically?
This novel felt different from my first two—a literary thriller with a small-town murder at the heart of it—a mystery played out through a Scrabble game. But it didn’t start that way.
Late spring, several years ago, I was working on something else—a historical novel—and out of the blue, over the course of a month I wrote a series of forty poems. I haven’t written poetry since my twenties, although as a writing form, it is my primary impulse. And what I noticed is that those forty poems were all digging into things I couldn’t quite bear to write straight out in narrative, and so they surfaced, in bits and pieces, in those poems. I wrote about a mother and her son, a friend who died abruptly, a girl crossing over a bridge, a car accident, an illicit love and its consequence, a dream stubbed out, I wrote about an unconscionable act of cruelty, and a young man staring at a woman across a moving street while the rest of the world fell away. I wrote about the loss of a child.
It didn’t take much for me to see that those poems had a life, an emotional complexity that the novel I was working on did not. So I ditched that other book, almost 400 pages of it, because these were the stories I wanted to walk into, these were the lives I was on fire to tell.
Out of those fragments, there were three that I couldn’t stop thinking about: the image of a 14 year old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a borrowed car; the image of two women playing Scrabble; the image of two lovers, a man and a woman, meeting in an old cranberry barn. I did not know their names, but I could feel the charge of a threat and the desire between them—I knew that this would be the last time they would meet. I had already filled a notebook when an older man from town told me a story of a skull that surfaced back in the 60s out of a truckload of gravel fill, a neat bullet hole in the temple. The moment the story was out of his mouth, I knew that skull had everything to do with the two friends playing Scrabble, the lovers in the cranberry barn, and with that boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a stolen car.
My best work starts in this place: with fragments that are burning, sharp, acute. They might feel linked, and I might glimpse the larger story they belong to but, curiously, the longer I can resist the impulse to pin everything down into place, the longer I can keep things open, the more necessary the writing becomes. That doesn’t mean the order isn’t there. It doesn’t mean some dark underside of my mind hasn’t already figured it out. I put my faith in the fact that there is such a cogent order. And I write to discover it.
All three of my books are highly structured, but not in a traditional linear form. In the novels I admire most, structure—no matter what form it takes—serves the voice of the narrative. As a result, there is a certain dreamlike immediacy, a certain life of the work that takes precedence, a nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that runs through the story and is absorbed by the reader in a more visceral, intuitive way.
I loved the haunting metaphor of the board game. Can you talk about why you chose it, and how it came about?
I love Scrabble. I grew up playing with my grandmother. She and my father always played games—they taught me pitch and gin. When my aunt was visiting, they needed a fourth, and so they taught me bridge. But the game I loved was Scrabble. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. We would all play after lunch, then after a game or two, my aunt and father would drift off to something else. “You want to play again, Nana?” I’d ask. And my grandmother would nod, light another cigarette, and start flipping over the tiles. We’d play game after game, until it was time for her to fix supper. We’d eat, clear the table, wash the dishes. I would dry them for her, and as the light fell, I’d ask to play again.
The idea for this novel came to me years after she was gone. But as I wrote the scenes of the two women Jane and Ada playing Scrabble, I remembered the long sweet hours of those childhood games, the stillness of the house, the light tick-tack as she lay down her tiles, the smell of her cigarette, resting on the ashtray, untended. And I remembered, too, things I did not know I had forgotten, things she had taught me over the years as we played. She played Scrabble for the words, as many women in her generation did. I always played for the numbers. How we play that particular game can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. Some play to keep the board open, some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a really good player, a canny player—and she was one of those—will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.
As I wrote the scenes for this novel, the structure of the story came to mirror the playing of a Scrabble game. It is a mosaic narrative, fractured in point of view and time, which feels to me more intrinsically true to the way we apprehend our lives. The game became the perfect lens for a story about two women, two families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets—a brutal past, a murder, a love story. As Jane and Ada lay down their words, they begin to move into what is unsayable between them and within themselves, to own what they have hid and loved and lost and grieved, what they have feared, ached for, dreamed. They turn fluid around what appear impervious and, though the game, they begin to reconcile what feels stunningly disparate, even unresolvable. Because what are words if not a bridge? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present. Present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.
The book has a kind of syncopation to the writing, an inescapable rhythm. Paragraphs stop short and then are connected again. There are character asides and all these different voices come together in a real and poetical way. Was this a deliberate choice or did it evolve?
I grew up writing poetry. Still now, when I take time away from a book I am working on, to let my mind go fallow and do its underground work—I read poetry. Most of the novelists I adore have a certain cadence to their work. I have faith in what you call that ‘inescapable rhythm’ of a narrative. I feel that along with ‘voice,’ it’s a key element of creating fiction that is often overlooked. Rhythm draws a reader through a story. The meanings of words touch the mind—the twists in plot engage the intellect—but that rhythm calls forth a deeper, more intuitive connection to the lives of the characters, their struggles and their fates. A shift in rhythm allows a reader to feel a shift in thought, a change of heart, that breath-caught-sharp moment of a revelation. I strive to keep my language spare, but I always have that attention to the rhythm pace of a sentence, a paragraph, a passage—and its emotional effect. One consequence of this is that when my editor takes a pen to my draft for a line-edit, I don’t mind at all if she draws a big X through a paragraph, or even suggests I cut a page. I’ll make that cut easily. But if she cuts a word or two in a sentence and the rhythm is thrown off, I have to go back and rework that line until the flow and cadence feels right.
In this novel, I wanted to write a complex, but fast-paced story. This was something that felt critical to me, not simply because Game of Secrets is a literary thriller, but because pace is something I want to master. I took an extra year to go back through and rework this book. To cut out the chaff—to pare out even moments I may have loved but that felt extraneous to the story and its arc. It’s essential, I believe, to learn that kind of ruthlessness—where you can let go of what you long to keep—it gives what remains a kind of luminous intensity. Things rise up, breathe, in a different way. I have a file for those cast-offs. I go back through them sometimes and strip-mine what still has life for me—shift the details, and transform it, into my new work.
What is your writing life like?
When I am in a story, it’s like a shadow that is always with me. And that is true whether I am at my desk, out for a run with the dog, driving, sitting on the dock, or folding the laundry. That story is always falling through me—words, half-thoughts, some knot of a scene I have been wrestling with that finally begins to unravel. In the early stages of a book, I turn my back completely on that adage ‘write what you know.’ I write what moves me, what I am impelled by. I rarely start at the beginning. More often somewhere in the middle—it’s like an ocean—this early stage, all tumult and wind-shift. Everything is distance. Everything is possible. I love that. I write my early work longhand. Every draft starts with a pen against a page. For me, there is a certain kinesthetic joy in the act of writing, which engages the intellect, but ultimately serves a more primitive, intuitive mind, what Mary Oliver has called ‘the dreams of the body.’ Sometimes I write on little slips of paper—receipts, grocery lists, throw-away things that I then transcribe into notebooks—and from there to my laptop. I am oddly superstitious about the pens I use, the notebooks I use. I am particular about who I show my work to, and when. Not out of fear of judgment, but because when I am really living in a story, I am open. I don’t my polish my drafts up too soon. I leave notes in the margins, I leave some passages entirely without punctuation. I leave things raw, untidy, open to change. That openness, I feel, is critical. I find that when I can let myself stay open to possibilities in a story that I may not yet have uncovered, when I can let myself be driven by what I do not yet know, the story often turns, deepens, in unexpected, revelatory ways.
Every six months or so, I need to leave my work for a week or two—oddly enough, this is never easy for me—but it clarifies my seeing, it clarifies my vision of the story. My mind sorts things through while I am looking away. During that time, I walk the beach and the woods with the dog. And I read. Sometimes contemporary novelists. Sometimes I re-read short novels that I love, that kick open windows in my brain and somehow never fail to change me, in some slight but vital way, with each re-reading. Most often though, it’s poetry I am drawn to. W.S. Merwin. Rilke. Eliot. Seamus Heaney. Mary Oliver. I don’t know what it is about poetry that does its work on me. But it’s like entering another element. It’s like breathing different air. Poetry is not what I write. But it’s deeply intrinsic to why.
You and I have had –and continue to have—long conversations about writing, one of which I put up on this blog. Yet many writing books out there don’t dig into the angst and the obsession, but instead focus on the how-to of craft. Why do you think this is, and don’t you feel it’s more productive to get at the heart of what happens to a writer when he or she struggles to write? (I realize this is a loaded question, but I can’t resist asking it.)
I think it’s easier, safer, to focus on the how-to of craft. Writing is a discipline. Writing takes drive. No doubt about that. You need to stick with it, passage after passage. You need to work and rework a sentence, a chapter, a draft, until it breathes. And yet, there is that other ineffable, essential and immutable aspect of the process—what is mystical, obsession, inspiration, doubt—all of that, which to my mind are only different turns of the same coin. And so much more challenging to pin down or render into words.
I often feel that in my fiction, I work toward what I cannot say. I write for what lies just past words. Every novel I have written has started with some dark secret I can’t quite bring myself to tell, and so I tell it on the slant, through the story.
For me, those early months are breathtaking, feverish—it’s like being in love; it’s like having the flu—and even though I can’t always see how the disparate pieces will fall into place, I have come to have faith in that particular state, which is often beyond the reach of intellect, and coming from an altogether different mind. There is doubt, sometimes piercing doubt (will this all work out? can I pull it off?), yet that uncertainty—when you write into it—can be as galvanizing and as necessary as the dizzying rush of inspiration that is so much easier to adore.
Game of Secrets was an unusual book for me in the sense that I felt like I was continually being overturned. I knew in my gut that I had to stay open to that. I had to keep my balance with that. Again and again, I would discover some new element that was not in my original vision for the novel, and often in consequence, the arc of the story would change, and I would have to let it change.
I wrote what I thought was the ending of the story early on. I fell in love with it. It became that kind of horizon a strong ending can be that drives you, day in, day out, to create the 300 pages leading up to that moment. What I did not expect, and could not have foreseen, was that in fact that ending was not the climax. The most powerful revelation was something I was writing toward without even realizing it, until all at once, I did. A story can do that. A game can do that. It can all turn at the end.