Project Polansky: Inspiration

Project Polansky

By Daniel Polansky

Posted on February 4, 2014 in Books with tags Daniel Polansky

I am wary of inspiration as a concept. It draws to mind clove cigarettes and black berets, people writing in large journals in crowded places. People who enjoy the idea of writing but not the cold hard process of it, bundling word on top of word, sitting and sweating and sighing, and imagine inspiration the happy short cut by which to escape the drudgery of filling a page. This annoys me. I write about magic, I don’t believe in it.

But still there is a certain sort of sorcery to it when things go right, when a particular image springs full-born into existence, or an idea crystallizes in an unexpected way. That strange binary moment which transitions a period of emptiness to fullness. I find it the most exciting part of what I do, the thing that has always justified being a professional novelist. To have nothing and fill it with something! What joy!

Though of course it doesn’t arise from nowhere, one has to hunt and dig for it. A lot of what we call inspiration is really the ideas and observations of other people, swallowed and digested and shat out later in some strange, barely recognizable way. Oliver referred last week to the idea that Those Above is a sort of mythical re-conception of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps to put it in less pretentious terms we might just say that I was reading Gibbon and thinking about Gibbon while coming up with the idea for Those Above. But then, I read a lot of other things also during that period which no doubt influenced the writing of it. Parts of the book are cribbed from the Tale of Genji and Richard Price’s Clockers and Gene Wolfe as always. And there are parts of the book that are fragmentary recollections of things I’ve experienced, memories of cities and landscapes, encounters with strangers or associates that seemed worth reflecting in prose. All of these get jumbled up and half-forgotten and then bubble up in strange and unexpected ways. It is tremendous fun—when it comes.

But when it does not come! And you had best believe it often does not. Long summer days baking on the Brooklyn asphalt and trying to hammer a narrative into existence, looking at all of the different pieces you’ve created and wondering how you can possibly bring them together into a coherent whole. Entire afternoons wasted (or seemingly wasted), endless pacing back and forth across the city, hiding from the light in a dive bar and having the man ask you ‘how are things?’ and answering ‘not too good pal, not too good. My mental cylinders aren’t whirling, the synapses won’t snap, the squib is damp, other slightly outdated expressions of futility and despair. Maybe the first three books were a fluke and I’ll have to go back to my original plan of finding a large bag of money in the street.’

And then – ping! – a shift in perception and everything begins to slot together neatly, to grow and give rise to new conceptions like a plant budding after a long winter. One of the main viewpoints in Those Above shifted sexes late one night or early one morning, tantalizing me with the idea that I’d missed something interesting and demanding I scrap my work. These episodes tend to come infrequently and at unexpected times, leave one looking for writing utensils at garden parties and breaking off conversations in mid-sentence. But of course they need to be pursued relentlessly, regardless of the occasional difficulties. One owes something to one’s talent, however meager.

Anyway. A few hundred of these moments and you have yourself a book, though no clear idea of how you’ve gotten there. As if, being in a strange city, you wandered for hours and hours only to find yourself in front of a warm-looking bar. Those Above started with this germ of an idea about how strange and transgressive the idea of a sentient species sharing a planet with humanity really is, of how that concept might be used to consider war and death and fame and politics and empire. Over time it seemed to outgrow me entirely, the way a child might. And shortly, as in the way of children, it will walk out into the world to stand or fall by itself, leaving me to wait in the background, looking on nervously.

Over the course of Project Polansky we’ll be charting the creation of THOSE ABOVE from start to finish. We’ll be talking to people involved in every facet of bringing the book to life, including editors, agents, publicists, marketers and, of course, Daniel Polanksy himself. THOSE ABOVE publishes on October 9th. 

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