Behind the Scenes: Sex and Death in the American Novel #2

In between the first version that you can find here at Katie’s blog, and this version, exactly a year had gone by. In that year I worked with a developmental editor who had been a very well published novelist and professor at the University of Washington. This editor looked at over twenty pages of supplemental material that I had sent, including quotes, and excerpts from novels that helped me shape the idea for this book, plus a lot of my rambling about what I was trying to do. She based her suggestions for how to steer the book’s development on what I said I wanted, not on what she thought would sell.

In this second version Vivi’s father has already passed away.  After reviewing the book again and the notes from the editor, I saw that unless Vivi’s father was going to be more a part of the story, I needed to get rid of him. This worked better for me anyway because an idea I was also working in the novel was the notion that we have continuous relationships with people and our authors even after death. With both of my parents and the writer Marco Vassi, who I discovered after his death, I have an ongoing relationship. I wanted to show that in my book.  

Often what happens with rewrites, especially those that take this much time between versions, is that you can be aware that a particular point needs addressing, but have no idea how to do that, and often suggestions do not seem to fit the bill either.

Another beta reader really wanted Vivi’s father to be alive at the end so he could attend one of Vivi’s award ceremonies. I had strong feelings against this suggestion. Why let him be redeemed? He was a lousy father, why should we reward him for this? I needed the focus of the book to be on Vivi and her feelings about her father, not her father himself. So this reader’s suggestion was not taken at all, but the spirit of what he wanted was there. Vivi’s father became, by way of Vivi’s constant discussion of him, more alive than he ever would have been had he been a walking around spitting out lines of dialogue.

Version 2

In the days that followed we stayed busy, planning the service. Busy was better than the alternative. We set the service for a week’s time, had Tristan cremated as was family tradition and his wish.  The funeral home offered a service where you could get a little necklace with some of the ashes inside. Mother and I both ordered one of these, tiny infinity shapes in pewter. I wrote up the obituary and she took a day rewriting them. We posted them in the Seattle Times, and Whidbey Island’s local papers, plus the Missoulian and Spokesman Review, which she decided on at the last minute. 

Mom worked with a church in Seattle, near where we used to live, where most of the people would be coming from, plus the church was much more elaborate than anything she could have found on the island. The service was heavily attended by everyone from old girlfriends to acquaintances of both of my parents, some of Tristan’s old students, and band mates.

I was so glad to see Eric. Here was someone who really knew me and my brother. My mother was happy to see him too. Having Eric to cling to seemed to make her feel more secure.  When I hugged him I didn’t let him go for several long minutes. He let me hang on him and held my mother’s hand at the same time.  At the first look from Eric I started crying, big gulping sobs from deep in my stomach, making my eyes bug out and my face hurt. My mother went to talk to the priest, and Eric walked outside with me.

We sat on a cold stone bench in front of a little fountain. He looked at his heavy silver watch and said, “We have a few minutes.”

“I shouldn’t even have to do this, this is too much. A week ago my brother was angsting about quitting writing, but he seemed fine, almost relieved you know? Now he’s gone. How am I supposed to do this?

“You don’t love. You can’t.”

“Is it wrong to be mad at a dead person?”

Eric pulled me to him, “Never stopped you from being pissed at your dad did it?”

At the mention of my father, and the thought of how very different my feelings were for the two men in my family I started crying again. Once I started up he just let me go on, rubbing my shoulders and touching his head to mine. When I collected myself he said, “Glad to see you’re letting it all out. You never cried like this for your father.”

“He didn’t deserve it. I don’t think I could ever get all this out. I’m crying, and it feels like the thing to do but it also seem like I’m pretending. I keep expecting Tristan to slap me on the arm and tell me to stop bawling over him. None of this feels real. How could he do this?”

“He…I don’t know Viv.”

I studied the ground, the separate pieces of lush green grass. “I wanted to have them play Fade to Black. Mom nixed that even though that’s what Tristan would have wanted. We got into it in the car about it. I was really pissed off and brought it up again even though we went around about it once already. Her hands were shaking and her voice got all psycho and I kept pushing it.”

Eric’s voice was gentle, “Why?”

“I liked pushing it. I wanted to hurt her.”  Instantly furious with him I took a breath and let it out, and with that breath went some of the hostility I needed to direct somewhere. “It’s not what I would want…you know my brother. That’s what he wanted to play at dad’s funeral. Mom nixed it then too. She knew…she knows. She just doesn’t want to look weird in front of all her respectable friends.”

Eric held up his hands.

“What? Just say it.”

After eyeing me for another moment he said in a firm but understanding tone, “Let her have that Viv. What did you say at your dad’s funeral when she was yelling at your brother over where you guys should sit to avoid your stepmother?”

I waited, hoping the smooth tone of his voice would rub off on me. “Funerals are for the people who are still alive. Get through this and you can listen to whatever you want when you get back to your apartment.”

A car door slammed. Hushed voices drifted toward me. I wiped my eyes. The thought of my apartment, so far removed from all of this gave me something to look forward to–a measure of peace. He put his arm around me and stroked my arm.

We sat and listened to the hushed voices on their way into church, then we walked together back inside. Just like Tristan would have done, Eric sat between my mother and I, with one arm around me and let my mother hold his hand.

Leah, my brother’s last serious girlfriend was the first person to speak and the only one I listened to. The last time I saw her she had long hair with purple streaks though it. Now she wore a short brown bob, and a black dress over patterned black tights. “I was so impressed by how much he knew, how much he never said that he did know,” she closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath, “He never bragged about the things he’d done, or where he came from,” she let her eyes rest on my mother, then moved to me before facing the audience again. “I don’t think any of us could have imagined this for him.” She stopped and took a breath and looked around the room, smiling and giving a short wave to a guy in leather who sat three rows back from my mother and I. “When I first met Tristan Post I knew there would never be anyone as smart, talented and dedicated as he was. He was first a poet, then a musician. You could talk to Tristan, and he would listen.” Leah stepped down from the podium, her body language summing up what I’d been feeling since this nightmare began.

My mother made a strangled sound and put one hand to her mouth and reached across Eric to grip one of mine with the other. Her hand felt cool, papery and dry.  Pews creaked and people adjusted their clothing, there was a cough.

Neither my mother nor I could say anything on Tristan’s behalf. Every time I tried to read what I’d written to myself my throat would close up and my voice would crack, or worse I would be gripped with an insane urge to laugh. Instead we printed the elegies up on pretty green paper and put them out at the reception along with an assortment of pictures.

It was amazing to see how many people turned out for someone who had spent so much of the last years of his life almost entirely alone. 

As was his wish, he was scattered from the top of Holland Lake Falls in Montana. A day after the service, Mom and I drove out to Montana and Eric came with us. It was a quick trip, we hiked up to the top in silence, scattered what was left of my brother, less the tiny bit we kept for ourselves in the small pendants, and then went to the cabin my father left Tristan, the one I now owned, and sat up all night drinking wine from the considerable stash my father left under the stairs.


Head over to Katie’s blog tomorrow to see her reactions to my rewrites. I swear, this woman was hard to make happy. She was relentless with this one. Like a smut writer with a bone to pick, she kept at this scene until it was right, and for this tenacity and attention to detail I will always be grateful. At the time, however, I was sure she was LOCA!

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