Monday, August 20, 2012

Transitioning From One Genre to Another: Or, Sometimes Shit Happens and You Just Got to Write it Down

by Sandra Novack

Over the course of writing two books of fiction, I’ve experienced my share of transitions:  I’ve lost editor after editor as my publishing house downsized, I’ve gone through more publicists (all of whom seem to be named Megan) than I can keep track of, and my acquiring editor transitioned to a new imprint. Did any of this bother me?  Heck, yes.  But also, heck no!  I was undaunted and there were a few things I still clung to, the most important of which was this: Despite publishing transitions and changes, I was writing fiction, regardless.  I could control that--my routine, my focus, my raison d'etre.

So, during publicity periods and down periods and publishing transitions,  I wrote a new novel, tentatively titled Resurrection Fern.  That was good.  I had 200 polished pages last year (side note: it's a lonnnnggg book, however), and a bunch more messy pages.  As of today--August 2012--I still have 200 pages and not an iota more.  I guess I could call it a trunk novel at this point, but the thing is this: I still quite like that book partial and plan on finishing it.  Also, it’s never made rounds to be rejected, and until it gets to that point, get my thinking.

So what happened?  Life happened.  Transitions and changes happened. On March 9, 2011, I received a call from my brother, Tommy, one so frantic and breathless my first thought was that he was having a heart attack right there on the phone and had somehow decided it was a good idea to call his baby sister, because I only live something like 700 miles away in Chicago, and so of course I could be right over, to help. These initial thoughts were jarring enough, that he was dying, that my brother was dying, right there on the phone, that there was nothing I could really do but tell him everything would be alright, though clearly it was not alright, clearly something was very, very wrong.

It took a few chaotic seconds to make sense of what he was saying through those labored breaths, and to realize that no, he wasn't dying. He was quite literally shivering, because he had just jumped into bitterly cold water. What had happened, he explained, was that our father was missing.  Our father, Tommy knew, had been working that day down at the creek, trying to clear away storm debris that was caught under the bridge.  The waters were terribly high, turbulent.  So certain was my brother that our father had fallen in, or slipped, that he had jumped into the creek to search for him.  The water had shocked my brother’s system. He had to get out, he said.  There's no way he would have survived, my brother said. Sandy, he told me, it's bad.

Hours passed, and a search and rescue team came to my father's farm.  I waited for the phone to ring again with any sort of news. It was an odd experience to wait at such a great distance, while most of my family--brothers, oldest sister, mother, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, everyone but me and my estranged sister, Carole--gathered.  It was even worse to find out bits of new information not from family but from the television coverage of this very personal, and tragic event. While I worried the floors at my home in Chicago, helicopters flew low, overhead, at my father's farm, the reporters eager for a story. I went on-line and saw how flooded the creek was, how it had spilled over into fields and pastures. I saw the road that led to my childhood home—a home that would never again be the same. 

After five hours the search team found my father, his body tangled up in tendrils of a willow tree that had fallen across the creek during one of the many recent storms.  It felt fated, that downed tree that had fallen only a week or two before; it had kept my father on the property he loved, and kept his body from washing farther down the creek than it had. It could have been so much worse, I thought, the recovery efforts could have taken days then, and not hours.

There is a lot more to say on the subject of my father, his death, and my trip home for a funeral, the suddenly changed shape of my family, and how this affected all of the family dynamics.  I never cared to think how much my father held our family together--I don't think I ever gave him even the smallest amount of credit for that--but now I realize how the sheer force and presence of him somehow kept us all in check, for better or worse. When he was gone, it was a free-for-all. Tempers were high. Old sibling rivalries reared up. We simply didn't know how to be, without my father there to shape us, our actions, our words. We were like grown children again.   

And then:  My estranged sister, whom I have not seen in 33 years, came back into our family.  Suddenly things changed, and then they changed again.  

 I started thinking about all this, about family and fate and sudden changes. I had no choice in the matter. Life intervened. Shit happened. I needed to write, as a way to make sense of my life, my family, and those transitions that define our lives.   I've been writing about all this since, cranking out material that is, to my surprise, non-fiction.

Yet another change.  I'm going to stick with this for a while, until I hit "the end."  Keep your fingers crossed for me.  I currently have 160 polished pages, and I don't want any more sudden changes or necessary transitions for a while!!

(And don’t worry, my presently shelved other book.  I still haven’t forgotten about you.)

Sandra Novack's literary novel Precious was named a Booklist Top Ten Debut of 2009.  Novack also has a short story collection, Everyone But You, which was published September, 2011.  Both are available on-line, at bookstores, and through Random House.  Her website is: 


  1. Sandy, this post jumped out and waved at me. Especially the part about your dad holding the family together. My dad died suddenly seven years ago, and we said the exact same thing. We had no idea what all he did for he was a different dad for each kid. My mother was not in great health, and although they were divorced and not talking much, she withered on the vine once he was gone, and died 8 mths later. What was already a crazy situation, got even crazier. The sibling bickering you mention...yep. We were closer in one way and then again not. I said many times that we just thought we were grownups till our parents died. Then we just floundered around like lost orphans.

    I feel you, girl! And kudos to you for finding the strength to write about it. I don't think I could. :)

  2. What a powerful story. I am so sorry for your loss and yet so impressed with your strength to be able to write about it.

  3. That must have been so difficult for you. I'm so sorry. Thanks for a very moving post.

  4. Sandra I already knew some details but the descriptions are amazing. Keep going!

  5. This is a really incredible and extremely well written. I like how you have let yourself go with the situation even though you could have never imagined it.
    I'm sorry this happened to you, but I'm looking forward to the story that comes from it.

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  7. Oops. Posting again (typo--ack!)

    Ah, thanks, Girlfriends. I will say that non-fiction presents its own set of issues--mainly scraping away, layer after layer, to get at more 'truth', all while hopefully still balancing perspectives of individual family members. That's been challenging. I think I've re-written more parts and scenes than I ever did writing fiction!