The second story was my father’s. As a toddler he had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, which in those pre-insulin days was a certain death sentence. (Or so it was thought, before his mother took him to a miracle-working osteopath who cured him. But that’s a whole other story, and one we never heard in any detail, I’m sorry to say.) So at my father’s fifth-birthday party, all his friends were served cake and ice cream but he was not allowed any. This made him cry, and his father told him that unless he stopped, his birthday present—a set of miniature carpentry tools—would be confiscated and given to a neighbor’s child. He didn’t stop crying, and his present was confiscated and given to the neighbor’s child.
When I say that these two stories kept being passed around, I mean that I can remember many, many occasions on which they were told and retold and analyzed and tut-tutted over, although surely this can’t have happened as often as I am imagining. But I can still hear Grandpa Mahon saying, “I ran as fast as my little legs could carry me”—the same identical sentence, word for word, every time. And I can hear my sister-in-law (a younger brother’s wife, for we all were grown up by then) lovingly describing every tiny, perfect, ingenious tool in the birthday tool set, which of course she had never laid eyes on, while Grandfather Tyler, the very man who had confiscated that tool set, snorted and said, “Oh, come now, I can’t believe I gave it away permanently,” and my father, never one to harbor a single ounce of resentment, cheerfully assured him that “Things may have gotten a little exaggerated, here.”
Obviously, these were not our only stories. But they were the two we clung to, and now I wonder why those, in particular? And why that note of pride in our voices as we told them? Why did we view them as so special? Why did we half imagine that they made us special, by extension?
In 1964, when I was still a newlywed, I traveled to Iran with my husband to meet his family. He had three hundred and fifty relatives. He warned me about this ahead of time, but I assumed he was speaking hyperbolically. It turned out that he wasn’t. Most of them, it seemed to me, met us at the airport, and during our stay they took turns hosting us for dinners, teas, and picnics at which they told me their family stories. They had wonderful stories, and like my own family, they singled out a certain few to tell again and again, to examine from every angle and to polish and reflect upon. How one of the aunts had fiercely rebelled against an arranged marriage and at long last, to everyone’s amazement, persuaded her iron-willed father to let her marry the man she loved instead. How another aunt had not rebelled, but then after she was widowed many decades later she finally married the man she had always loved, which by the way did not turn out to be a happy ending. These stories were very different from those I had heard in my own family, and yet once again, there was that undertone of pride, that sense of the family’s specialness.
A Spool of Blue Thread started out as a book that I had no intention of finishing. I planned to work on it forever, happily enmeshed in the very middle of it with the sticky plotting stage safely behind me and the conclusion completely dispensed with. Oh, if there’s anything I hate it’s what happens at the conclusion—that scary Day of Judgment for my characters, and then the editing and the reviews and the publicizing.
How, though, would I write a book that didn’t end?
Well, I could make it a “sprawling”—as they always say—family saga featuring multiple generations, and just keep spinning it out till I died. (It didn’t occur to me that I might ultimately come upon a generation that failed to interest me, which is what happened.) And that’s why I decided to manufacture the Whitshanks.
I choose the word “manufacture” deliberately, because beginning a novel has always been, for me, a dishearteningly mechanical act. I feel that I’m making up lies, and not very convincing ones, either. I’m pushing people across the page like so many toy soldiers. When I was new at writing, this was terrifying, but after fifty-odd years I’ve learned to trust the process more. (It must be something like having a new baby when your first children are half grown: you know enough to sit back this time and just enjoy her.) Sooner or later, I know now, my characters will take charge of the book. They’ll turn bossy and opinionated and they’ll stop following my instructions. “You just leave things to us,” they’ll say to me. “We can manage from here.” Surprises will arrive—twists of plot, whole stretches of dialogue—that my characters will seem to have come up with on their own.
With the Whitshanks, what arrived first was their stories.
I knew that they should have some, since surely all families do, but what exactly were they? I didn’t want to give them my own family’s stories. Writing about real life defeats the purpose, I’ve always felt; it’s like living my same life over again instead of trying on other people’s. So I drew aimless doodles on the blank page, sorted a couple of desk drawers, looked out the window a while until, sure enough, here came two stories, struggling by fits and starts to the surface from what seemed to be an entirely separate family’s memory: the story of a man who fell in love with somebody else’s house, the story of a girl who fell in love with somebody else’s fiancé. There was even a common theme, I saw: envy. And I felt the book starting to come to life. Once you know a family’s favorite stories, you’re pretty much on the way to knowing the family itself.
The other lesson I’ve learned from all those years of writing is that the first draft is only a skeleton—a fleshless, meager, textureless thing. In my twenties I had a theory that revising a first draft was cheating. I believed novels should be spontaneous, dashed off at full tilt and then mailed away without another thought. Now I know that if I rewrite a scene from scratch, every word in longhand, underlayers of new details will emerge, and if I rewrite it again, even more will emerge, and even more after that. (“So how do you know when to stop?” you might ask, and the answer is “I stop when I feel I’ll throw up if I have to go over it one more time.”) With each revision, my characters grow surer of who they are. It’s almost as if they begin to read the book out loud to me, and I am merely the listener.
In fact, I recall that in the second section of A Spool of Blue Thread, when Junior Whitshank finally showed up in person, I actually felt my heart beat faster. There he was, unexpectedly dressed just like Abraham Lincoln, and “Oh, look!” I thought. “It’s Junior himself! So that’s what he’s like!” You would suppose that I had had nothing to do with his appearance. And even then I didn’t quite realize who he really, truly was—the Junior I came to understand by the very end of the novel.
Now that I know him, I wish his descendants had chosen a more appealing story to remember him by. Envy was not his only quality; not by a long shot. But who am I to argue with the Whitshanks? They have their own very firm notion of things, as every family does.
I may not agree with Tolstoy’s statement that happy families are all alike, but I do believe that families in general, whether they’re happy or unhappy, cling to the notion that they are in some way remarkable.
And I suspect that all of them are absolutely right.