Miserere: An Autumn Tale was one of the most unexpected delights of 2011. I called it one of the five best debuts of 2011, and I stand by that ranking. It’s a beautiful book of redemption and loss, hope and forgiveness. I can’t recommend it enough, even for those readers perhaps skeptical of a fantasy novel couched in Christian myth.
Looking forward, I was surprised to learn that Frohock’s contract didn’t call for a second novel, at least not immediately. Instead, she began work on an unrelated work titled The Garden that seems to play on a similar premise of holy and not. Although unconnected to Miserere, I can’t wait to read it. I’ll be posting the first chapter later today, and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did.
In the meantime though, let’s hear what Teresa Frohock has to say about writing her second novel…
I’ve always been a bit ambitious when it comes to my work. In college, I took a world history class; our assignment was simple, we were to write a seven page paper, no more, no less. Seven was to be the number of pages, and the number of pages was to be seven. Period. We were allowed to pick our own topic, and the topic had to be approved by the instructor.
I titled my paper: “Christian Dogma from the Classical Period through the Reformation: Paving the Way to Christian Apathy during the Holocaust.”
My instructor looked at the topic and to this day I swear he smirked, just a little. He said, “Go ahead. I want to see you pull that off in seven pages.”
The gauntlet was thrown, and I love nothing better than a challenge.
I spent an entire semester buried in research. The hard part, of course, was not the research. The difficulty rested in presenting the information in a linear tale of the often acrimonious split between the Jews and Christians. I traced the theological and political dividing lines between the two groups, discussed the writings of Justin Martyr, then tracked the Christian split from Judaism to Martin Luther and from Martin Luther to the Nazi ascent, and I did it in seven pages, seven was the number of pages. No more, no less.
So what does that have to do with writing a novel? Let me tell you something: writing the first novel is hard. Writing the second novel is like cramming over a thousand years of history into seven pages. Over-confidence abounds and it’s very easy to bite off more than you can chew.
When I wrote Miserere, I kept the story so tight that at times I felt like I was in a straightjacket; however, given my tendency to overreach, it was an excellent experience for me. Early on, a few of my critique partners cautioned me about too much back-story in the novel. I wanted to prove that back-story provided layers to both characterization and storytelling. Regardless of what others think, I believe Miserere was a success on that level.
My current work in progress is tentatively entitled The Garden, and it has been a little like that college paper on Christian apathy toward the Jews. There have been times when I felt like I was drowning.
The primary difference between Miserere and The Garden is the story. Miserere was about very complex people but the story itself was simple. Lucian made a terrible mistake when he was young, and in Miserere, he seeks to make amends. In the process, he finds there is a lot more to making amends that just saying, “I’m sorry.”
Numerous times, I’ve wanted to delete the entire manuscript and abandon it altogether. My agent and some awesome beta readers have saved this novel on more than one occasion. I’ve almost finished the second draft now.
I’ve learned a couple of things about my own writing process with this novel. I think the most important of which is to go where the story leads you. I wasted a lot of time trying to ramrod the events into the pattern I imagined for it. Once I let go and gave the characters their heads, the story began to mesh, the theme emerged, and I was able to do my job … write it.
The other important lesson was simply this: don’t shy away from painful subjects, either in your reading or in your writing. I give my characters great pain and huge hurdles, but they’re also gifted with the capacity to grow. One of the hardest aspects of characterization is the ability to weave hope from despair in your characters’ thoughts and ideas. It’s only when your characters question their motives, their ideas, that they have the opportunity to grow, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find yourself growing along with them.