Back in July, with the publication date of my new novel on the horizon, like a tiny, fragile boat on a big sea, I was already labouring on the next one when I found myself asking the novelist’s existential question: Why am I writing these?
The war in Ukraine was entering its seventeenth month. Canada’s economy and social fabric were showing signs of fraying, with slowing productivity and random stabbings on subways. And the weather was getting more erratic and destructive, with deaths resulting from fires and floods.
I had just started reading what some were calling a “non-fiction novel,” Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. I assume the oxymoronic description arose because the book crams lots of facts and science in between plotting and character development. At first I wasn’t enjoying it too much as fiction, but I appreciated its depiction of climate change, its potential effects, and the actions that could be taken to limit the damage. But though The Ministry for the Future was teaching me about the “wet‑bulb temperature” and other concepts, it was also contributing to the doubts I was having about my own novels.
Most novelists, unless writing primarily for money, have a lifelong project or theme they return to, book after book. They are guided not necessarily by the “Write what you know” adage but by “Write what obsesses you,” as the American bestseller Meg Wolitzer has put it. What obsesses us as individual novelists is often the result of a mysterious alchemy of upbringing, genetics, brain chemistry, experience, circumstances, culture, geography, and identity.
My core theme is becoming who you are, being true to yourself in the face of fear and temptation. My characters are always struggling to overcome the constraints of their childhood, personality, and family expectations, while also resisting the siren calls of wealth, power, and status. This type of journey is usually an inward one. While I always try to make my narratives interesting, I found myself wondering whether what obsessed me with this next book was important enough to most readers, and whether my time could be better spent. I even found myself having a Ben Rhodes moment. Long before he worked in the Obama administration, as a deputy national security adviser, Rhodes was pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at New York University. Then the Twin Towers were attacked. Almost overnight, he gave up his dream of becoming a novelist to get involved in politics, to try to make a difference beyond the page.
Instead of waking up early in the morning to make stuff up, should I be volunteering to help save the world? If I wasn’t out there working to improve it, shouldn’t I at least be writing about the really big problems? Trying to sort it all out, I went for a long walk, which often helps.
The sun was rising, the sky was blue, one foot was landing in front of the other at a reasonable pace, and oxygen was coming in and out of my lungs. My slowing thoughts turned to an old Paris Review interview with Philip Roth and his answer to the question of what novels do for people. After concluding that they don’t do much of anything, he conceded that at best they might change the way we read. As I kept walking, I recalled some wisdom from 2,000 years ago. In ancient Rome, the poet Horace declared the purpose of literature was to delight and instruct. That formula of entertainment and education endures in all forms of storytelling. But is it enough today?
By this time, I was back home and back in the present. Why do I write? I asked myself once more. A handful of reasons now came to me. Each novel is an opportunity to better understand others and myself. On the page, I offer up what I experience in my mind in the best way I can manage.
I write novels simply because I must — and because I enjoy it. It’s one of the major ways I exist in this world. A novel is beautiful proof that we humans don’t have to have a reason or a use for everything. This was more than enough for me, even at a time when the world still needs saving.