In the Beginning… Why Every Novel Needs an Origin Story


Where did this story come from? What kind of research did you do? What made you want to write this? Why does this book exist? Trying to get people to read what you wrote seems to invite this ontological angst. After my first novel, Some Hell, came out in 2018, people began asking me how it felt to portray my father’s suicide in fiction. (My father is alive.) In 2021, of course, when Image Control came out, these questions made a little more sense; nonfiction, even if you do approach it with literary aspirations, exists nonetheless in this same world—the one you’re reading in and the one I’m writing in. But fiction does not. That is perhaps its most elemental aspect—and its reason for being.

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With this new book, The Future Was Color, the questions are less personal, more centered on process. My interlocutors seem to want me to have spent time in archives, handling papers and shuffling around old books, looking for details as though I didn’t make most of them up. They want to know who the “real” George Curtis is, and how much of the novel is based on facts—things “that happened.” But novels are less like choices and more like circumstances. The idea for a novel isn’t so much an apple you pick from the tree so much as the sludge that pools around a drain.

I want the novel to open up a hole in this world and lead somewhere else.

In one version, I’m at a diner called The Bad Waitress. Each table has a name: Dracula, Sue the Invisible Girl, The Flash. Frankenstein is my favorite. Movie posters and stills line the walls—science fiction before Star Trek and Kubrick. I’ve eaten here a thousand times, written books here, hung out for hours here, brought people here from out of town. For some reason this is the day I’m reading the names on the poster for Earth vs. the Spider. The screenplay is attributed to László Görög, a name unmistakably Hungarian. It’s this specificity, I think, that does it—this is what opens the portal.

It’s possible that I’d seen the name László Görög many, many times at The Bad Waitress. By then—October 27, 2019—I’d been going there at least once a week for a decade, sitting quite close to the poster for Earth vs. the Spider. But at some point I’d read enough or learned enough to know—or at least to suspect—a few things about László Görög from his name alone. So I finally noticed him. I knew or suspected he’d left Hungary during the war, taking his talents to California, where the movie studios hired almost anyone—even those considered unemployable or undesirable elsewhere. There are many reasons, after all, for a man to have left Hungary during the Second World War, but there is only one major reason.

In The Future Was Color, George Curtis is a Hungarian immigrant writing monster and sci-fi screenplays in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He is not László Görög—a man I didn’t look up until after I’d finished writing my novel. Before moving to Los Angeles, George lives in New York, where he meets someone named Hans Hofmann, someone else named Lincoln Kirstein, and a man named Jackson Pollock. These people aren’t Hans Hofmann, Lincoln Kirstein, or Jackson Pollock—not as they appear in biographies or in history books.

Historical fiction, which is what I’ve been told I’ve written, is not history; therefore, these characters do not belong to history. For that matter, the New York that George lives in is not the New York some people reading this may live in, nor even the New York that László Görög (né Guttmann) may have sailed to in 1939, after leaving Budapest.

I knew it was October 27, 2019, as I’d diligently written it in a notebook. I wrote it down because, unlike any other novel I’ve written or have planned to write, George’s story seemed to arrive, almost whole. This is what I meant when I mentioned the portal: I could see everything there, another universe here in this one, and it was up to me to find a way to keep the doorway to it open. This sounds grandiose but it’s just how creating something works, a lot of the time, and in this novel’s particular case it seemed to work almost instantly. It took me a while, but eventually I saw this other universe, right on the other side of some random movie poster.

The best image I have for how fiction exists comes from physics—or pop physics, anyway. In Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt interviews Andrei Linde about chaotic inflation, which I can’t pretend to understand enough even to summarize. But one of the most “curious implications” of Linde’s theory, Holt says, “is that it doesn’t take all that much to create a universe… It might even be possible for someone in a civilization not much more advanced than ours to cook up a new universe in a laboratory.”

But wouldn’t this little big bang, Holt wonders, destroy our own universe? “Wouldn’t the baby universe you created expand into your own world, killing people and crushing buildings and so forth?” Of course not, Linde says: “The new universe would expand into itself… Its space would be so curved that it would look as tiny as an elementary particle to its creator.” An entire universe, ever expanding inward, there in the palm of your hand: I’ve yet to find a better metaphor—not for what fiction is, per se, but for how fiction exists.

There are writers whose work seems dedicated to mimicking this cosmic creation—especially the Australian novelist Gerald Murnane, whose books seem to be about the imagination itself, narrators who imagine narrators who imagine narrators. Murnane’s prose mirrors this inward curve, placing conditional upon conditional until his sentences create a kind of geometric inner immensity that adds one dimension after another until we see a nested series of universes. On a more elemental level, Borges is probably the most enduring writer to have described this phenomenon. His stories, cerebral yet fabulist, make up a kind of mythology of how fiction comes to exist. They tell us how it feels to open these portals, step through them, and report back.

*

Looking at a poster, of course, is the soundbite version of this novel’s origin story. It’s what I say in bookstores when someone raises their hand. A different version, of course, has me skulking around the Museum of Modern Art, getting as close to de Kooning’s brushstrokes as I can without getting thrown in museum jail. In another, I’m terrified of losing everything and everyone and nonetheless in love with the way a sumo mandarin can taste. In another, it’s the simple shock of a figure: Between May 15 and June 9 of 1944, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann, the Hungarian authorities deported approximately 422,000 Jews to Auschwitz, almost all of whom were murdered the moment they stepped off the train.

In another, it’s a man narrating a newsreel from 1946; “Here is the motion picture spectacle of all time!” he says, as we’re taken from the ruins of Hiroshima to the Baker explosion at Bikini Atoll. But it wasn’t until I sat beneath a movie poster and not only saw but noticed one Hungarian name that I realized all these glimpses would turn out to be of the same universe—George’s universe. I guess the truth is that it was George who brought it all together, and opened the portal wide enough for an entire novel to fall out.

I want the real world to feel bigger, full as is it of countless other little worlds, floating around in this one.

I’m being difficult, of course—or obtuse (delightful word). What kind of research did I do for this novel? Fine: It honestly wasn’t all that different from any other novel or story I’ve written, meaning the kind of research I did was to verify facts—at least when it seemed more appropriate to verify a fact rather than just make it up. It seemed more appropriate, for example, to look up and verify the chemical composition of cum rather than spit out a random series of compounds. Conversely, it didn’t seem worth it to get the exact date of when happenings took over the New York art world; in my novel’s universe, happenings happen about twenty years early. As another example, the US Navy’s last battleship, the USS Missouri, really was built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1944—but, in reality—in history—launched about six months earlier than in the novel.

I’ve always sampled and remixed facts like these in my fiction; it provides what I’ve come to think of as texture. Layering fiction with texture offers a little abrasion, I guess, to the reader’s experience, and provides just enough depth to play with shadows, to leave little tricks of the light on its surface. If you’re creating a universe, after all, you might as well give it its own rules. It’s not all that different from the writer’s relationship with words: you always want to look to make sure there’s a good one, but if there isn’t one that fits the hole you’ve made in the sentence, you just make one up. I did that, too, in this novel. So far only the copy editor has found it. Often texture is what teaches us how to navigate the novel’s world.

We need to learn the novel’s world because every novel takes place in its own discrete universe. Every novel, accordingly, requires “world building” for the reader to be able to make sense of this universe—even a roman à clef. In this sense, reading fiction goes beyond asking oneself that cliché of fiction—“What does this character care about?”—because one also needs to know, “What does this world value?” And I guess this is another way that fiction, generally, abrades the more online version of literary culture, as the form of social media, which is host to this culture, doesn’t exactly encourage its users to explore or to navigate (or even to respect) the values of others. One might even call it cynical, this strange mix of one of our species’ most curious art forms, the novel, and its most incurious (or discurious) media environment.

What might be called “network compatible fiction” embraces this contradiction, assimilating (but not necessarily endorsing) the values of a social media world—which is why a lot of it feels so cynical. (Don’t worry, I’m definitely not talking about your book, which I loved.) And as cynical as I am about our world, I feel the opposite about the novel—or about art in general. Cynicism is a turning away, a closure, and curiosity is its opposite; I want the novel to open up a hole in this world and lead somewhere else. I want the real world to feel bigger, full as is it of countless other little worlds, floating around in this one.

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The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan is available from Counterpoint Press.



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