Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a game of literary tag. Writers answer a few questions about a work-in-progress, then tag other writers, who do the same, tagging more writers and more– forever. It’s like a chain letter, or a pyramid scheme for people who have no money.

Ron Tanner, as full of skill and talent and generosity as anyone you'll ever meet, tagged me. I’ll tell you about my latest project starting with the next paragraph. And I’m tagging Patricia McNair (The Temple of Air), Steve Yates (Morkan’s Quarry and Some Kinds of Love), and Elisabeth Dahl (Genie Wishes) who will tell you about theirs.

What is the working title of your novel?
That’s a great question, because the answer changes by the minute. You can help decide. Which of the titles below most entices you. Put your answer in a comment.
a. The Genius of Pain
b. Wells
c. Painless
d. The Strange True Tale of the Surgeon Dentist, Horace Wells
e. Better keep thinking, hombre.

Horace Wells
Where did the idea come from for the novel?
While researching a scene for a novel that wasn’t working, I re-discovered the story of Horace Wells, a 19th-century dentist from my hometown who is widely credited with “inventing anesthesia.” I say that I “re-discovered” his story because what I had known about Horace was only part of his history. My awareness was limited to what you’d expect of a kid who mostly knew Horace as a bigger-than-life statue at Bushnell Park: inventor of anesthesia, benefactor of humanity, Christian son of Christian citizens, etc. But now I was also learning about his “melancholy” and his addiction to chloroform, and about that night he spent with prostitutes in Manhattan, and about the publicity war he waged against a former student and rival to win credit as the sole inventor of “painless surgery.”

I cranked out a novel synopsis in three days and sent it to my agent. Drop the other project, he told me. Write this one.

What genre does your manuscript fall under?
Historical literary fiction

Which actor would you choose to play your character in a movie rendition?
Give him mutton chops, and yeah, Jessie Eisenberg (The Social Network) could play Horace. Another troubled genius for his resumé.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
GENIUS OF PAIN is an historical novel that fictionalizes the life and death of Horace Wells, a 19th-century dentist and anesthesia pioneer, who was addicted to the gases he used for humanity’s benefit.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The first draft took about a year, but it would have taken longer if I hadn’t been able to spend three weeks at a writer’s retreat cranking out the last 100+ pages.

What other books would you compare your story to within this genre?
I’m trying to write a wide-ranging historical literary novel, so readers of 19th-century books such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might enjoy this story. Recent practitioners who have inspired me include Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda or his more recent Parrot and Olivier in America), William Kennedy (Quinn’s Book) and Edward P. Jones (The Known World).

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Horace himself. He and his life are much richer and more complicated than I’d been led to imagine as a schoolboy, and his secrets and torments and successes all raise questions that still seem relevant to humans in pain. To be human is to hurt, and to seek solace, whether that be in meditation or ether or heroin or Vicodin. So much about our pain and its relief is a mystery. Horace explored all that, and he’s helping me do it, too.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Here’s a sneak-preview of the first few sentences:

“The girl whimpered, then yawned a stuttering low moan, and had you been among those in the room with her and her festering tooth on that November day in 1844, you would have been cowed by her pain, awed and struck dumb. The month had been unseasonably warm and bright, and earlier that morning a groundskeeper had enjoyed the weather as he wiped the windows clean; now a cracked pane left a bent shadow sharp on the floor boards. In the low sun’s blue-yellow light, on a table pushed against a bare wall, a dentist’s tool kit lay open but not yet used.”