An excerpt from How to Write a Novel
For my 12.5th birthday, my mom gave me a book called Write a Novel in Thirty Days! Subliminally, of course, Diane (that’s my mom) wants to write a novel herself, but she doesn’t have a spare thirty days. Already, you can see our family dynamic. I’m supposed to talk to Dr. Victoria Dhang, MS, LPC, about how I have to do practically everything around here, but Diane conveniently forgets to make the appointment.
“You’re not that bad,” she’ll say, looking me over like I’m a jacket that’s a little tight in the shoulders and frayed at the cuffs but good for another year. Therapy money goes to my little brother, Max, who merits weekly counseling due to his “unique sensitivity to the world,” aka, dude hits himself! Since there’s no man in the house, Diane and I have our hands full co-parenting Max. Every Tuesday afternoon, we take him to the office of Dr. Dhang to work on his issues. “Dang, Max,” I say. “Is it already Tuesday again?” He scowls at me, which makes him look almost handsome. He’s big for an eight-year-old, with a teddy bear face and a Play-Doh belly. When he pokes his finger in his belly or counts the bruises on his knees, he gets a curious look in his eyes, like someone just gave him this body for Christmas. Definitely a new soul.
I am an old soul, which is possibly why my parents named me Aristotle, Aris for short. Yes, I’m a girl. What were they thinking! Well, they were hunkered down in this shack in Alaska, living off a bag of dried beans, suffering from light deprivation, and this baby (moi!) arrived. In my baby pictures, you’ll see my bald head sticking up over the side of the empty chicken crate that worked for a crib. They had, like, no money. My father, the wild Joe Thibodeau from Houma, Louisiana, was a saxophone player. I have his olive skin, wavy hair, red lips, and violet eyes.
I’m short. I can reach the coffeepot on the kitchen counter and pour myself a cup, but I have to swing up on the cabinet to get the sugar from the back corner of the shelf where Diane hides it from herself. You probably want to know what Diane looks like, but she says descriptions aren’t my strong point, so I may not give her one. She told me to stop giving my characters violet eyes and making everybody gorgeous. Excuse me? It’s my novel.
Sometimes Diane thinks she knows everything about writing because she published a short story before she became an adjunct English teacher at Kanuga Christian College. The sign in front of the college reads, Transforming Lives Through Christ, which sounds like a good idea, but it hasn’t happened yet. Diane’s story was called “Why I Love Jesus.” It was about this thirteen-year-old girl who went on a youth retreat with the First Baptist Church and didn’t get saved. The last scene is pretty good—the youths are all sitting in a circle around a fire, going up one by one to answer the call to rededicate their lives to Jesus, even though they don’t give a damn. The preacher calls and calls, but the girl, who is really Diane, doesn’t come. She sits out there in the dark by herself.
Diane is forty-three now, short and either curvy or chubby, depending on her mood, with a button nose and blondish bangs that are always falling in her face. You can tell she’s a Montgomery by her recessive-gene green eyes and the way she gives the Montgomery handshake. Papa Montgomery teaches the handshake to all of his descendants. It requires direct eye contact, a smile, and a firm grip. It’s how we show our character, how we do business, how we make friends. It’s how we make our way in a dog-eat-dog world where time is money and nothing in life is certain but death. The Montgomery handshake is proof that we don’t have secrets.
“Men originally shook hands to show each other that they didn’t have weapons,” Papa told me once.
“What about women?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said. He got a faraway look in his eyes as he patted a strand of white hair over the bald spot on top of his head. “I guess women could have weapons too,” he said finally. Then he grinned. Papa was old before braces came out, so his teeth are slightly crooked, just enough to make him look like he can tell a good joke.
Grandma is the only Montgomery who doesn’t have a handshake, but ladies in the South don’t shake hands. Instead, they fold their cool fingers over yours and press ever so gently, leaning in close until you smell breath mints and the dab of eau de toilette behind each ear. Then they say something awful. A few days after Joe died, Grandma knelt beside Diane’s bed and folded her fingers over her hand. After looking into her eyes for a moment, she whispered, “Why didn’t he ever have a better job?”
Papa and Grandma are very interested in people’s jobs. If I make a new friend, they immediately ask, “What do his/her parents do?” When they ask Diane what her friends do, she’ll say something like, “Viola likes to drink Earl Grey tea and watch the hummingbirds,” or “Penn does crossword puzzles.” This upsets them. Sometimes she says, “I don’t know.” Then the grandparents gape at her.
“You don’t know?” Papa will ask. “You don’t know what his/ her job is? Does he/she have a job? How can you not know this?” Papa managed Southern Board before it merged with Southern Paper and started smelling bad. He kept his job for thirty-five years even though he didn’t like it.
Diane says this is tragic.
“Whatever you do,” Papa tells her, “don’t lose your job.” Diane is the only Montgomery to ever lose a job. At fifteen, she was dismissed from the Avon sales force for convincing women that they were more beautiful without cosmetics. When she moved to Alaska with Joe, she worked with him at a fish-processing plant until it closed for some weird reason. That winter, they made halibut enchiladas and hiked around on snowshoes looking at eagles and bighorn sheep, with me bundled into a baby sling on Joe’s chest. He wore a coyote fur–lined hat, with earmuffs that swiveled up and down over his ears. He called it his mad bomber hat, and sometimes he would yell, “Mad bomber!” and dive into a snowbank with me. I remember the way his voice growled softly in my ear just before a jump, asking me if I was ready, how his arms tightened around me. We went deep into the snow banks, down and down and down. Sometimes I held on to the furry earflaps as we climbed out, my hands loose in the mittens attached to my sleeves with string. Our breath steamed when we climbed out into the sky that was always night. This is what he wrote inside the cover of our photo album: YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY SHOULD.
Out there, Diane says, the land is so beautiful it’s sometimes terrifying. It’s so big you can’t forget God, even for a minute. Another human being becomes a rare and interesting animal. She gets quiet, looks at her hands. “Buy life insurance,” she says.
Joe died in a car wreck on the Richardson Highway. I was four years old, Max was in the oven, and Diane was broke, so Papa and Grandma took us under their wing. When we moved to Kanuga, Georgia, I was transferred from one of the last wild places on earth to a two-Walmart, no-Target town fueled by fast food and tethered to heaven by a church on every corner. All I have left of Joe are a few pictures, my DNA, and the mad bomber hat.
In case you were wondering, yes, it is extremely awkward to have a dead father. All of my classmates at the Lab (Lavender Mountain Laboratory School, Grades Pre-K–8) have a complete set of parents, except for Anders Anderson, but he’s a minor character in my novel, so I’m not wasting first-chapter space on him. Write a Novel in Thirty Days! says that the first chapter is prime real estate. Believe me, if I let Anders hang out in the first chapter, you’d be gone. My best friend, Kate Harrington, has a divorced dad. She only sees him every third Thursday, but still, she has him. Diane says our family is like a three-legged dog, and we get around just fine. I tell her that people who get around just fine don’t become writers.
A lot of people say they want to be writers, but they don’t write. They either lack the necessary misery, have an overly critical English teacher (hello, Mrs. Waller!), or just aren’t wired for it. I’m not worried. I’ve had movies running in my head as long as I can remember—it’s genetic. When we were little, riding along in the car, Diane would say:
“Aris, I only put one chopstick in your lunchbox today because I couldn’t find the other one, but you can eat sushi with your hands if you wash them.”
I’d say, “Okay, thanks, Merm. I have a movie in my head now. Please don’t talk to me.”
Then Max would repeat, “Ihaveamovieinmyheadnowpleasedonttalktome.” He doesn’t talk quite so fast now that Dr. Dhang has put him on speed, which, ironically, slows down hyper kids, but he’s not exactly coherent. Diane always has at least three movies going on in her head. This is why our friends wave and honk their horns at us on the road and practically drive onto the hood of our car, and she doesn’t see them.
She’s like, “Did we know them?” Kanuga isn’t so small that we all know one another, but everybody looks very familiar. Most people go ahead and wave.
We are different from most people in Kanuga.
WAYS WE ARE DIFFERENT
- Max and I have been eating with chopsticks since we were babies, even though we are of English/Scottish/ French/Cajun descent.
- We aren’t Republicans even though we are white.
- In addition to the medical kit, baby wipes, bottles of water, and goldfish crackers that all mothers keep in the car for emergencies, Diane stashes a machete in the back of our car. She has never explained why.
- We don’t have a football team. Or a TV to watch it on.
- We aren’t fundamentalist Christians. This is a very touchy subject in Kanuga. Anders Anderson told me I was going to hell because I didn’t go to church. I said any place without him was fine with me. Then he said my father wasn’t in heaven, since he didn’t go to church.
During our Sunday Night Meeting, when we sit around the table with cups of coffee and clipboards discussing our goals for the upcoming week and the rest of our lives as a family, I asked Diane if Joe was in hell.
“No,” she said. “Your father went to hell before he died.”
Max, who had been tilting his chair back on two legs, let it fall forward. “You can visit hell?”
“The chair stays on four legs,” said Diane. “Aris, who told you that your father was in hell?”
“I dunno,” I said, wishing I hadn’t mentioned it.
“I don’t remember.” Our dogs were flattened against the French
doors, quivering as they watched a squirrel climb a tree. Lucky, the paranoid alpha with a Mensa IQ, stood up on her hind legs and tapped on the glass of one of the French doors with the nails of her right paw. Hiroshima, the cute one, body-slammed the door, barking spastically to overcome an inferiority complex. I got up to let them out.
“Aris,” she said, in that voice. “Sit back down here and tell me.” Tendrils of smoke were curling out of her ears.
“Uh, maybe Anders?”
“Which one is Anders?”
I have had the same eight classmates at the Lab since pre-K, but Diane still can’t tell them apart.
“I saw a burn mark on Dad once,” said Max. When no one responded, he tilted his chair back again.
“Your father died before you were born, honey,” said Diane. She looked at him. “Max, leave that chair alone.”
“I’m practicing chair tilting for the talent show at school,” said Max. “Everyone has to have a talent.”
Max has been searching for his talent for quite some time. Bypassing the more conventional art forms (too much competition), he has tried squirting milk out of his nose for long distances, training snails to swim (that was a sad one), and squeezing himself through a tennis racket. We’re still searching.
“You’re going to break your neck,” said Diane, “and we do not have health insurance.” When the dogs had finished their squirrel hunt, they announced themselves at the door, and I got up to let them back inside.
Diane turned back to me. “Aris, do I know Anders?”
“Anders Anderson. The other single-parent kid. Dirt-brown hair, kind of skinny, walks like a hedgehog.”
“Oh, him,” Diane said. “The one whose mother left?”
She closed her eyes and began to pray. Diane’s spiritual beliefs are too complicated to go into here, but I knew she was praying her resentment prayer. I read her lips as she prayed silently, Great Spirit, Great Friend, Mahaya, may that little shit Anders Anderson and his parents have peace, prosperity, and a greater love than they have ever known. Amen.
When she had finished her prayer, she scribbled something on her clipboard. Then she announced that we were getting a religion and a football team.
A grocery-store daisy in the vase on the table wilted right before my eyes—I’m not kidding. My dad does stuff like that now that he’s a ghost; he still wants to have a say in family affairs. I don’t remember when I first realized that Joe’s spirit was in our house after he died; it seems like he never quite left. I’d see things out of the corner of my eye—flickers of light in the living room, like the faint green glow of lightning bugs, the coffee brewing even when Diane forgot to turn the switch on, a hand adjusting the covers around my shoulders as I fell asleep.
“We’re going to be normal!” cheered Max. In his excitement, he leaned his chair back too far and hit the floor with a smack.
One week later, we were Episcopalians at St. Michael’s Church, wearing red and black Go Dawgs shirts. Most Southern Baptists can’t quite put their finger on Episcopalian. Clearly I’m not one of them, and I’m not even a Methodist, which is just an uppity Baptist anyway. I’m dangerously close to Catholic, even smelling faintly of incense on some Sundays, but I don’t worship statues. So they just look at my Georgia Bulldogs shirt and say the magic words of belonging—“Go Dawgs.”