The Death and Birth of a Novel, Ellen Feldman, Fellow in Fiction, 2009
Sep 2, 2011
In the electronic version of my bottom desk drawer sits an almost finished novel, three years in the researching and writing, which will never see the light of day. It is the only novel I have written, and rewritten, and rewritten again, on which I have given up entirely. Ironically, it is also the novel I won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009 to finish.
The novel was enticing as an idea. That was why I fell for it. I wanted to write about two of the most influential and controversial women of the early twentieth century: Margaret Sanger, the mother of birth control, and Aimee Semple McPherson, an evangelical preacher and faith healer. Sanger embraced modernism in art, philosophy, medicine, science, and politics. McPherson appealed to those who had lost the old and feared the new. I planned to put them together and see the sparks fly. It might have worked on the stage. It was stillborn on the page.
But by some magical process that every novelist knows, but none, to my knowledge, can explain, another story was germinating while I was struggling with draft after unsatisfactory draft. This new novel would be about war, loss, and the fact that every war transforms the society that wages it.
One afternoon a few months into my fellowship, the cast of new characters who had captured my imagination almost without my realizing it elbowed Sanger and McPherson out of the picture. They demanded that I write a novel called Next to Love, from a quote by British lexicographer Eric Partridge: “War… next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.” Next to Love was published in July 2011 to warm critical reception.
One of the wonders and joys of a Guggenheim Fellowship is that it gives the freedom and time to discard work as well as to create it. I am so grateful for that.