Art by Corrie Gregory
Actually, for my family, it was breakneck speed.
My Grandpa Harry lived around the corner when I was growing up. He was a small, bald man with bright, dark eyes like shiny black olives. He’d been an electrician all his working life, an active member of the IBEW, for years a union steward. My grandmother had died when I was 5, and until that point Grandpa Harry was a grouchy, standoffish shadow. When my sister and I showed up every Saturday morning, he’d mutter and brush our cheeks with his unshaven chin — his version of a kiss — then vanish into his room to work on his painting. After my grandmother’s death, my parents took us over to visit Grandpa Harry every so often — too often as far as we were concerned. We hated to go because first he’d kiss us, then he’d play the piano for us — he’d never had lessons, so he banged and blundered into the occasional wisp of a familiar tune — and then we’d have to go see his painting. My grandfather had been working on the same painting for 30 years by that point, and would work on it another eight. Painting may be putting too fine a point on it. His medium was pastel (oil and plain) on plywood.
In its first years, according to my father, the painting depicted a series of beautiful meadows and gardens, all idyllic and romantic. Columns, follies, silvery streams, stately trees. Once, before I was born, my cousin Roy, the family mischief maker, slipped into my grandfather’s room during a family gathering and took a rag to the painting, rubbing it into pure abstraction. (My sister and I were, of course, fascinated by this story: Such courage! we agreed.)
By the time I started viewing the great oeuvre, the painting was a series of canyons, all red rocks with water in erosive chutes and shallow pools, and only a few gnarled trees — bristlecone pines? — remained. Over the years, the painting grew darker, bleaker, the trees disappeared, water became the color of gun metal, the canyon walls more sheer and all in shadow. Grandpa Harry described it as the world after the nuclear war. My father liked to say that Grandpa Harry, now in his 80s, was conflating his own pending death with the end of the world. During the 38 years Grandpa Harry worked on that one painting, he did very little other artwork. Oh, there were a few drawings, and he made some sketchy collages using wood veneer glued on plywood to make images of Monument Valley–type rock formations.
When I visited my grandfather in the late 1970s, the painting was in storage. He said that he’d finally put it on public display: He’d taken it down to the open-air art show at City Hall. Because it wouldn’t fit in his 1962 Rambler American, he’d had to saw it in three and hinge it. All of this was fine with him, because once he got it down there and set up, one of the passersby looked at it for a long time and then told my grandfather, "You are the second Michelangelo."
I called my father recently to find out what happened to the painting. "Oh," he said vaguely, "it went by the wayside a long time ago." He admitted he’d never admired his father’s work. "It was more of a personality trait than a painting," he said.
If so, it was a personality trait I inherited. I started the book that would eventually become my first novel, Round Rock, when I was 20 years old.
And finished when I was 41. In my family, that’s precocious. (My sister, an accomplished violinist, took 24 years after high school and the discovery of beta blockers to perform in public. My mother, trained to be a concert pianist, never gave a concert.)
In 1973, in an undergraduate writing class, I co-wrote a short story with my friend Jim. It was a chase story: A woman’s trailer house burns down, and she assumes she can move in with her rodeo-rider boyfriend. The boyfriend hears about the fire, knows that she’ll want to move in with him, and takes off. She spends the story chasing him down, enlisting the help of his manager, a fat older man named Red Ray. The boyfriend eludes her until he gets used to the idea of cohabitation, then allows himself to be caught. Our writing teacher said: a) It wasn’t a short story at all, but part of a novel; and b) wouldn’t it be far more interesting if the woman ended up with the old fat guy instead of the boring boyfriend?
My co-writer wasn’t interested in pursuing the project, but I started thinking about how to make Red Ray more appealing and expand the material into a book. Over the years, plot threads knit and unraveled, names changed. Characters took up various new occupations, often as I did — when I started playing fiddle, my heroine did as well. When I moved back to California, the novel’s setting moved with me. I’d write 10 pages, or 50, or 100-plus pages, then peter out. It never occurred to me to start a different novel. I kept accumulating ideas and futzing with this one.