Behind the Scenes: Sex and Death in the American Novel #1

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to participate in the launch party of Sex and Death in the American Novel by Sarah Martinez. (You can see some highlights of the launch here.) Since I edited the book, I got several questions of: what was it like at first? what did you add to it?

Sarah and I decided it would be interesting to show the evolution of one scene from Draft 1 to Final Draft. This shows both how Sarah’s writing developed and how I developed as an editor, and it shows which of my comments she listened to and which she respectfully decided not to listen to.

I first read Sex and Death in the American Novel as a beta reader (as a friend, reading it in a manuscript trade) a year and a half ago. Back then, the draft was pretty different from what it would turn into (with a different working title, too!), but this funeral scene remained into the final cut.

Here it is as it was in that first draft:

In the days that followed we stayed busy, planning the service. Mom called Dad . I thought I’d wanted to do it but after watching the way mom fell apart I saw that there wasn’t anything I could say to him that would be any worse than what this would do to him, and I was glad for it. If this didn’t get to him, nothing would and fuck him anyway. Busy was better than the alternative. We set the service for a week’s time, and had him cremated at a funeral home in Missoula: this made more sense than having him shipped out, my mother said.  The funeral home did offer a service where you could get a little necklace with some of the ashes inside. Mother and I both ordered one of these, tiny gilded cylinders, silver over glass, and I felt a sick satisfaction that mom didn’t inform my father that this was an option. We were Tristan’s real family, my father didn’t do anything to help, he did not count. I wrote and she took a day rewriting the obituaries that went into both the Seattle Times, PI and Whidbey Island’s local papers, plus the Missoulian and Spokesman Review.

Mom worked with a church in Seattle, near where we used to live, where most of the people would be coming from, plus the church was much more elaborate than anything she could have found on the island, with stained glass, a huge sanctuary with shiny plush padded pews, and beautiful grounds with fountains and quiet benches to sit and contemplate. The service was heavily attended by everyone from old girlfriends, to acquaintances of both of my parents, some of his old students, and band mates.

Leah came, now looking mostly normal with short brown hair and a chic black dress and pumps. Here was someone who really knew him. She smelled the same though and I was grateful for the familiarity. The person I really wanted was my brother, for something like this he would be who I would have gone to, and he wasn’t there. At the first look from her I started crying, big gulping sobs from deep in my stomach, making my eyes bug out and my face hurt. She walked outside with me until the service started and just let me go, rubbing my back every so often and touching her head to mine. She sat with mom and I during the service and promised to stay intouch after everything was over. Other than her, I didn’t know most of the people who showed up, though some looked familiar and Leah spent a lot of time with many of them. It was amazing to see how many people turned out for someone who spent so much of the last years of his life almost entirely alone.  As was his wish, he wanted to be scattered from a mountaintop and I already knew where that would be.

Dad did make it out for the funeral, and I was actually a bit disappointed. It meant I couldn’t hate him unequivocally. I watched him speak to his new wife, not much older than me, and my gut twisted when I saw her try to comfort him. Funny, since I was sure he had no feelings. It was like a twisted sort of wedding set up. Mom, and all the people who grew up with Tristan sat on one side of the church while dad and his new wife and people who knew them sat on the other.

My father, in his expensive black suit and the tie with the eagle on it, the one my mother hated, actually had the nerve to stand up and say a few words. At the podium he ran his hand through what was left of his white hair, and his scalp shone under the lights inside the church. He addressed his side of the room, then gave a magnanimous glance to mom and me, as if he were being very kind in including us in his speech. Yeah, Tristan only lived with us for over twenty years.

“He was named Tristan because Laurel, his mother wouldn’t allow me to call him Gawain. The only thing we fought about in our short marriage,” he read from his notes, adjusting his spectacles every so often, looking out toward the audience, weighing each word with the gravity it deserved. “He was a great kid, an artist, a brother… my son.” His voice wavered on the last word. He stared down at his notes, wrapped his hand around his mouth and jaw, as if he were trying to hold it in place. Around the church pews creaked and people adjusted their clothing, there was a cough. With shaking hands around the pages he gave a short nod to the pastor, then strode back to his seat with his head down.

After the service, dad approached me and put his arms around me, my eyes staring over his shoulder, conscious of everyone who was watching. I kept myself stiff though a part of me wanted to return the embrace. He leaned back and held me by the forearms. “How you doing sweetie?” he asked.

“How do I look?” I said in the hardest most flat voice I could deliver. It wasn’t hard.

He patted me and turned to make his way back to the new wife and I grabbed his hand. “Do you remember how much he looked up to you? He wanted to be you, and you couldn’t even come out for his graduation, when was the last time you even talked to him?”

My father with his tufts of white hair and white stubble stared at me. “Since when do you speak to me like this?” but his voice was gentle, awed.

I stared into his face, his lined haggard face with the giant bags under his eyes and saw that he was sorry, but that that wasn’t good enough. “Do you feel any responsibility?”

He placed one large gnarled hand over his chest. “How dare you? What do you know about an adult man’s responsibilities…my responsibilities?”

My mother rushed over and whispered in my ear, “This is not the time for this Vivianna.” She nodded to my father and pulled me with her.

“Upsetting him won’t bring your brother back,” she said in a low voice. She held me tightly so I couldn’t turn around. I could hear my father shuffling off and saying something in an agitated voice to someone else.

I skipped the service after the funeral, walked around the church grounds instead. Maybe I was trying to get back the feeling of possibility and hope back that I’d had before I found Tristan. Maybe I just couldn’t face my father. In spite of the feeling I had to tell him what I thought, for Tristan’s sake and mine, I was also terrified that I’d disappointed him. Sick.

As a beta reader, here were my comments:

On the sentence, “Mom called Dad”

I think this sentence especially needs to stand on its own because it has so much emotional meaning.

 On the sentence, “I thought I’d wanted to do it but after watching the way mom fell apart I saw that there wasn’t anything I could say to him that would be any worse than what this would do to him, and I was glad for it. If this didn’t get to him, nothing would and fuck him anyway. Busy was better than the alternative. We set the service for a week’s time, and had him cremated at a funeral home in Missoula: this made more sense than having him shipped out, my mother said”

This could be split up into separate sentences, but I like it as longer and more fragmented—harder to get through—because it’s burying the reader in words like Vivi is buried in grief.

 On the paragraph, “Mom worked with a church in Seattle, near where we used to live, where most of the people would be coming from, plus the church was much more elaborate than anything she could have found on the island, with stained glass, a huge sanctuary with shiny plush padded pews, and beautiful grounds with fountains and quiet benches to sit and contemplate. The service was heavily attended by everyone from old girlfriends, to acquaintances of both of my parents, some of his old students, and band mates. ”

Is all this explanation necessary? It almost feels like you put in this part because you didn’t know how to get from point A to point B and so you told us what happened. Can you skip any of this and just get us to the funeral scene?

On the sentence, “Dad did make it out for the funeral”

 This transition seems out of the rhetorical level.

Head on over to Sarah’s blog tomorrow to see what she thought of my comments and what she did in the next draft!

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