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In Search of the Novel

Where Do Novels Come From?

This program explores the genesis of characters, plot, themes, and interpretation from the novelist's point of view. Participants examine the relationship between the novel and the objective reality from which it may spring.

Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this workshop lesson, teachers will be able to:

  1. Help students go beyond the standard answer to the question—that novels come from experience and imagination—to explore how experience and reflecting upon experience give birth to a novel.
  2. Design a lesson plan that allows students to begin to tell their own stories.
  3. Write a lesson plan that encourages students to explore where the novel they are reading comes from and how it might have traveled from experience through imagination and reflection.

Participants’ Comments and Observations

J. K. Rowling: It was 1990. I was traveling by train from Manchester to London in England. The train was delayed, as often happens in Britain. And this idea just came out of nowhere. I got really excited at the idea of what wizard school would be. I saw Harry very, very, very clearly. He didn’t know he was a wizard. So I see this skinny little boy with black hair, green eyes, and patched-up glasses—they’ve got Scotch tape around them holding them together. And I knew that he didn’t know what he was. And so then I kind of worked backwards from that position to find out how that could be, that he wouldn’t know what he was. And at the same time I’m thinking he’s going to go to wizard school. He starts towards his eleventh birthday, he’s living with his aunt and uncle and horrible cousin, the Dursleys, and they are what wizards call “Muggles,” meaning that they’re completely nonmagical. And the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, are aware of what Harry is, but they’ve never told him what he is. They’ve kept this hidden from him. This was the first idea that I had that gave me a kind of physical sense of excitement. You know how when you get really excited about something, your stomach turns over. That is how I felt the moment I had the idea. The excitement flooded through me and adrenaline flooded through me. And I think you can normally tell a good idea by that kind of very physical response to it. I was so excited. I just thought this would be such fun to write.

Leslie Marmon Silko: They come out of the consciousness of the writer, if the writer has all her life or his life been experiencing language, and you’ve been reading so you’ve been swimming all your life. Everybody swims along or moves along day by day in this language. It is all around us. And a novel is born out of the novelist with all of this flow. The novelist has a kind of imagination and a kind of need to explore and experience language and to put her experiences into language. And so a novel comes out of an individual novelist. Yet even at the moment it is born, it never just belongs to the novelist or any given time or place. But it right away belongs to the language that it is born into or born from.

Arthur Golden: I really kind of backed into this novel, I hadn’t even imagined when I was in college that I would be a novelist, that I would be a fiction writer of any kind, and when I went to live in Japan I met somebody whose mother was a geisha and I got back to the States and got interested in writing fiction and this idea occurred to me. What must his upbringing have been like, you know, to have a mother who is a geisha and a father who is a famous businessman? It just seemed fascinating to me so I worked on that for awhile. It didn’t go well. In fact, I found that I got to about page 75 and I was still on Day 2 of his life which really worried me about how long the novel was eventually going to be. And then I began to do research about geishas and a few years later and that’s what really drew me into the subject.

Teacher: I think the students are going to see an answer to the question where the novel comes from both inside and outside of the text. And we’re talking about creating a context and authors drawing from their own experience. They may also be just drawing from imagination. But I think students look for the answers to that question. They ask it often. They find part of the answer within the text. And then, if we’re lucky and if we have the resources and we’re able to have them ask the author a question—more and more authors are available online now—and students can create a dialogue.

Katherine Paterson: I don’t think it’s important at all for students to know where novels come from. If the book doesn’t stand on its own without their knowing that, then there’s something wrong with the book. I think the book should stand totally on its own. I think that knowing the story behind it is my self-defense, because [young readers] accuse me of murder and they ask, “Why did you kill Leslie Burke?” I get this question very often when I’m in schools and I say, “Well, don’t believe me. When I knew that in the next chapter Leslie Burke was going to die, I just stopped writing because that was the only way I could keep her alive. And the death of Leslie Burke was probably the hardest scene that I’ve ever written. And do you notice that it occurs off stage?”

Daniel Keyes:
Writing Flowers for Algernon is an experience that occupied most of my adult life. I traced the beginnings of the idea back to when I was seventeen-and-a-half standing in the subway station on my way to NYU to one of my classes. I was a pre-med student at the time. And I recalled that I was concerned that my education was driving a wedge between me and my parents. They had no education, elementary school education… And that led to a second immediate thought: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can increase human intelligence?” And those two thoughts in a sense lived with me for a long time. I wrote notes, I keep notes, put them in a folder, give them a working title. And it’s what I call my root garden where I preserve ideas and thoughts. William Faulkner spoke of his as his lumber room…Years later, I went back to teach at the school from which I’d graduated in Brooklyn. And because I’d had a couple of stories published, the chairman of the department gave me two kinds of classes. One was kids of higher IQs; they wanted to take my creative writing… [and]… two other classes of low IQ intelligence. The highest IQs in the those classes were about eighty. Slow learners. The first day of teaching in this class of slow learners, class was dismissed, and all the kids headed for the door to go for a smoke or what have you. This one boy sitting in the back of the room, he was sitting near the window. I visualize him right now. He came up to my desk, he said, “Mr. Keyes, this is a dummy class, isn’t it?” A young teacher, I was taken aback. I said, “No, this is not, what do you mean?” “I know this is a dummy class. If I try hard and I get smart before the end of the term, will you put me in a regular class? I want to be smart.” I don’t know what stupid things I may have said—“Yeah, we’ll see,” what have you—but when I went home that evening, it hit me in the gut. I had never before realized that a person of low intelligence might want to be intelligent. So I began to write little sketch notes in my root cellar. “School novel, boy who wants to become intelligent, uh, teacher,“ you know…didn’t work. I have pages and pages of attempts to take that character, that boy and make him into a story or a novel. Months go by…I get a call from an editor who had published one of my stories saying, “Well, I want another story, Dan, for this next issue.” “Well, let me look. I’ll look through my notes.” And I turned those pages. What will happen if it were possible to create human, increase human intelligence? Turn the pages. Boy comes up to me and says, “I want to be smart.” Oh my God, it was like a flash of lightning. It came together. The two things: I had the idea and I had the character. I sat down and I wrote in a passion that I’ve never written before. It just poured out of me.

Ernest Gaines: Different novels come from different things. I think that idea of A Lesson Before Dying came from nightmares that I had about someone knowing the date and time that he’d be executed. I spent most of my life in San Francisco. I lived across the Bay from San Quentin State Prison where executions took place. I remember that the execution would always take place on Tuesday at ten o’clock in the morning. And the night before or nights before I could never sleep because I would always put myself in that person’s place—the condemned—and wondered how he must feel at this particular time. That’s one of the things that haunted me and haunted me and haunted me, and I thought the best thing to do was to write about it.