I recently finished The Interrogation of Gabriel James, a novel I had written and re-written ten or eleven times from various points of view, always in sequential fashion. The story had a quiet girl with a bizarre home life, racism and hate crimes, sports, arson, family drama, homeless heroes, police, mayhem, and even love! Still, something about it didn’t grab me by the lapels.
One afternoon while I was doctoring a particular scene, an idea bobbed to the surface. What if I could tell the story as a day’s interrogation? Ten weeks, collapsed to six or eight hours in a room with two detectives? And further, what if their questions would not only be answered in real-time dialog, but would also open zip files in the protagonist’s memory? We would spend the day with the kid, and the law officers would force the whole complex tale out on the table.
Since, once the interrogation began, I was going to rocket into the story’s events, I could afford a more leisurely, almost literary, initial approach: a cold and lonely graveyard scene on the buffalo plains of Eastern Montana seen through Gabriel’s eyes.
“I stood at the back of a small crowd in a bleak cemetery north of the Yellowstone River, the second funeral I had attended this week. . . . I knew enough to wish that time could collapse like an old telescope, that some events once seen in greater detail would disappear from the horizon, gone for good. Gone forever.”
Then, after a single space break, the Interrogation:
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” The deputy folded her hands on the table between us.
“I’m not sure what the beginning is,” I said. It was true. I never caught up with what was happening.
“What do you know about the fire?”
“Not much. I saw it, Anita saw it from the highway when we were driving back the day before school started.”
“Anita . . . ”
“I don’t want to drag her into this.”
“You already have.”
Thereafter, short sentences and terse dialog direct the revelations as the officers steadfastly push at the boy, knowing he’s a reluctant witness. Their questions elicit specific responses, but the boy’s memories of the actual events follow unbidden, opening like parachutes, until another question interrupts the recollections, and the process starts again. The reader gets only enough setting and description to locate the action and illuminate the characters.
When I charted that course, I had no idea the degree of challenge question-oriented story-telling would present. How hard could it be? Turns out it was a pacing conundrum, something akin to using a stopwatch to speed up a striptease that ends with a card trick. First I had to write the story all the way through the interrogation and make sure that, though the questions were not oriented sequentially, the information revealed would be.
When I write fiction, I’m watching a movie unfold, watching characters get in and out of trouble. I type what I’m seeing and as soon as I feel the scene get fuzzy, I stop writing and wait – (never easy) – wait for the characters to resume their struggle. So, I didn’t try to force the detectives’ questions into any particular pattern. They asked whatever came to their minds as the day progressed. But to maintain the story’s tension, nothing could be told before its time . . . a literary card trick because the story had to be shuffled repeatedly, and, at the end, the deck had to come out in ordered suits. Voilà! Right?
Finally, the boy gets to confront the Guru. Gets his chance to accuse the man of child abuse, hate crimes, and arson. The man may be armed. What’s going to happen? I slow the pace at this point to build a clear picture and increase tension. I describe the room, the character’s positions, the options the boy has if things blow up. But when they actually start talking to each other, hell breaks loose.
From that point until the scene’s climax, words fly like hatchets, misunderstandings escalate, and muscles bypass reason. Whew. In the aftermath, detail, setting, and position seep back into the scene and we see where the bodies lie; we identify the implement the girl used to cold-cock the punk.
Since, I was watching a movie, lost in the experience, I relied on my own emotions as a fan or a viewer might. Yawn, want a soda, means speed up. Dizzy, bewildered, slow down. When I’d finish one rewrite, I’d wait a week, print it out, and read it for pace. Every spot where I felt impatient, or bored, or confused or hurried, I would mark and work on during the next revision.
This process dictated that I eliminate some important (I thought) anti-racism speeches by the boy’s mother, some beautiful (I thought) descriptions of the Montana countryside, and some interesting (to me) scenes involving the homeless people at the community center. I chucked the wise and funny community center's staff, a droll and beautiful nurse, and a quirky girlfriend who dressed in gypsy fashions. While it pained me to cut these elements, I knew that every writer uses both ear and eye to let some good parts go. Fortunately, when we’re excited by a story, we have the energy to keep paying attention, to notice what may be wide of the mark. When I could read my book at a sitting and not think about my wife, my daughter, fishing or basketball, I figured the pacing might be about right.
One lucky reader will win a copy of Charlie's recently published book THE INTERROGATION OF GABRIEL JAMES simply by leaving a comment on this post and filling out the form below. The contest is open to US residents and will close at midnight EST on Saturday, November 27th. Good luck!