A few months ago, I wrote an essay about how fatherhood realigned my storytelling instincts as I began writing my forthcoming novel BELL WEATHER. My publisher recorded an audio version, which you can listen to below, but today — having cried a few happy tears upon seeing the new Star Wars teaser — I’m posting the print version.
YORICK’S SKULL AND VADER’S HELMET
Fatherhood revitalized storytelling for me. I was thirty and boring and terribly serious, and nothing could have saved me but an energetic kid.
The question isn’t how I went from writing literary novels to writing an epic adventure. It’s how did young Dennis, ecstatic after seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, end up writing literary chamber pieces?
Maturity, for better or worse. I grew up, discovered more sophisticated stories, and took undergrad courses in existentialism. When I started writing fiction, I wanted to get published and have a meaningful career, and I wrote to impress editors and critics. This worked for a while. My writing strengthened and my characters deepened, but I was falling into the Serious Artist routine, toiling away and unhappily gathering rejections. The work began to suffer.
At some point I learned that writing is good for me—it kills depression and anchors my days—and I knew I would write for the rest of my life, even if publishers kept rejecting my books. Faced with decades of future storytelling, I needed to truly enjoy it. But I had lost that 1980 thrill, and I had even lost the high-school rush of meeting Holden, Huck, and Hemingway. My writing felt small and increasingly conservative, and I decided it was time to muscle up.
My first published novel, FELLOW MORTALS, benefitted hugely from a go-getter protagonist and higher stakes. I love that book and I’m proud of it, but I spotted an opportunity. Instead of seeking big emotions in a small story, what if I wrote a big story?
Our son Jack was seven when I started BELL WEATHER. I read the Harry Potter series with him. We read The Hunger Games trilogy together and lined up for The Avengers on opening day. Guess what I saw in his face and re-experienced along the way? 1980.
Before Jack was born, I had became a lit snob, the kind of guy who devours a dozen Stephen King novels and then finds ways to excuse such behavior. Heaven forbid pleasurable reading! And yet the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, once pigeonholed as “mere genre”, had pulled me through a nervous breakdown in my early thirties. They kept me company. They consoled me. They showed me an unfamiliar world I didn’t want to leave. There was not only a place for such novels in my life, there was an essential place, and it was this—combined with the blood transfusion of fatherhood—that shifted my perspective on storytelling.
I think of the Javits Center in NYC. Attending Book Expo America with a friend was interesting, but exploring Comic Con with my son was thrilling. Once Jack’s enthusiasm for books and movies reminded me to loosen up, I looked at stories in a new way. I re-read Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen and thought, “Right. These authors have guts.” I met Lisbeth Salander and Walter White, pop-culture characters with extraordinary depth. I read the announcement of Star Wars: Episode VII and couldn’t wait to tell Jack. He and I have talked at length about Yorick’s skull and Vader’s helmet, because they’re both important to us. They both matter.
This isn’t an apology for writing an epic adventure, and it isn’t a rejection of quiet literary novels. It’s simply how becoming a father rolled adulthood and childhood together, and how the newfound balance rejuvenated everything.