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‘Not the novel I wanted to write’: Andrew Kiraly on the agonies, and joys, of miswriting his second book

Andrew Kiraly's writing desk
Andrew Kiraly's writing desk

Last year, Andrew Kiraly, a local writer and (disclosure alert!) former CityLife staffer, published his first novel, Crit, through (disclosure alert!) CityLife Books. He immediately started a second. Turns out it hasn’t been an entirely smooth project …

So, how’s the book coming along?

The good news is I completed another novel. The bad news is that it’s not the one I wanted to write. And I wish I could say “not the one I wanted to write” in that misty-eyed, organic sense that what I created is the fruit of some invisible muse taking over my hands, or the “real story” rising from my unconscious to assert itself against my more calculating and conscious attempts at storycraft. But no. I was trying to write an alt-future tale about the El Rancho casino in the year 2300, something equal parts Gabriel Garcia Marquez and M. John Harrison. But I’ve come to realize I’ve written a pile of effects and atmospheric touches and dumped it onto a premise without a beating heart. Back to the drawing board!

Did you actually finish the novel before having this realization? What was the ratio of heartbreak to creative challenge that you experienced at that point?

Yes, I finished it. I had a dim awareness that it was a vivid but hollow piece of pulp writing — which perhaps explains why I was having such fun with it! Which is why I didn’t stop. I mean, how can you not have fun writing a finale that features 1.) the discovery of a giant, terrifying moloch living beneath the El Rancho; 2.) the spontaneous implosion of the El Rancho due to a precipitous drop in stock price caused by a streak of losses in a series of gladiatorial combat games held in a subterranean hippodrome; and 3.) the momentous launch of a rival hotel-casino into glorious suborbital flight? The heartbreak is in resisting the urge to give the book desperate CPR only because, gee, I’ve spent so much time on it and — here’s the lethal black egg that births a lot of bad art — gee, that time and energy should be justified somehow. That’s monstrously tempting, and I’d give in if I were writing just to get published. Which isn’t to say I know why I write, but I’ve learned it’s not just to get published.

Well, then, what other kinds of satisfaction do you get from the process?

Boy, you opened a can of introspective worms with that one. The reasons change, but here’s the rationale cluster behind the current operative regime: It requires sustained attention, so in that sense it’s kinda like meditation — though sometimes it’s more muddling than clarifying — that I like to think readies my head for the day; also, just the simple daily practice of careful, conscious writing, I hope, informs and fortifies and intensifies all my communication and thinking, both in work and in my personal life; and finally — and the most dubious — putting myself squarely in some other character’s head for an hour or so a day, inhabiting another subjectivity, pushes me to more readily practice empathy and compassion in “real” life. That all sounds like faux-Zen “it’s the journey, not the destination” boochit, but it’s tiding me over handily until my first best-seller. Ha!

So, then … what now? Start over with a clean slate?

Yes, I’m rewriting it, keeping some of the core premise in place — a vast and inscrutable casino hides a mystery — but I’m writing it in a lower gear, as it were, with a mind more attuned to character. It’s also in a much more realistic world, so I’m not doing stupid shit like having casino managers walk around with swords. I’ll keep the discard novel as a backboard and reference pile, but don’t expect it to see the light of day. Unless a Hollywood producer comes calling, of course. That’ll cure this case of pained and pretentious artistic integrity!

Do you have a sense of when it’ll be finished?

I’ll consider myself lucky if I finish a year from now, but who knows. SCOTT DICKENSHEETS