Emma Rathbone: How I Got the Idea for My Novel

This is the second post in an ongoing series.  Check back tomorrow for Emma Rathbone’s thoughts on the editing process.

There’s that old story about how Keith Richards came up with the idea for Satisfaction in a hotel room in Clearwater, Florida. Apparently in the early morning hours he woke from a dream, his head swimming with a guitar line. He pulled himself out of bed, grabbed a tape recorder and hastily laid it down. Later that day he played it for Mick Jagger, and it was on its way to becoming the iconic song.

I always recall that anecdote when I think of how I came up with  The Patterns of Paper Monsters. Because it was in that twilit limbo between sleep and waking that it came to me, if a voice can be as spellbinding as a guitar riff, out of nowhere. It was Jacob Higgins, my main character.

And for once I actually took the effort to yank myself out of sleep and get up and write a few lines of it down so I wouldn’t forget. (I have subsequently been haunted by this, because I recently had another equally as arresting idea for a novel, except I decided not to get up and write it down because I just thought I’d remember. I didn’t of course, and all I can recall is that it had something to do with Russia and a gold bean).

But the idea actually didn’t come completely out of nowhere, because it was distantly based on a conversation I’d had earlier that day with my best friend, who is a playwright.  We used to have an organization called the Eastern Seaboard Women Writers’ Hotline that consisted of just the two of us, talking on the phone. Every once in a while we’d give each other writing assignments, things to get the old creative ball rolling. Something like, “Write a stump speech for an evil politician” or  “Write something that’s not a thinly veiled journal entry about yourself.”

And that is the fertile ground in which the idea grew. It was sparked by my friend’s suggestion that I write about someone completely different from myself. I originally began the project as a series of newsletter columns—dispatches from the juvenile detention center, written by a brutally sarcastic, angry kid. In experimenting with this different format and voice, I found that I could express things with an agility I’d  never found in my other pursuits. I was able to reframe my writing in a way that allowed me to use a lot more specificity and force.

So then of course came the whole thing of actually trying to make a novel out of it, and that had many incarnations and twists and turns. I found it really helped to have it set at a juvenile detention center—there’s a lot you can do with an environment like that. I actually wrote about 30 pages and then put it down for two whole years before I looked at it again and knew how to move forward. And it has always seemed strange that my novel was spawned from what was basically a creative writing prompt. But then that boils down to what I think is a pretty reliable philosophy of writing or more specifically finding inspiration—which is to take it where you can get it.

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