Since this is a feature called “The Big Idea,” it’s worth asking how authors get to the big idea in their books in the first place — do they start with the big idea and then build around it, or do they start writing and hope they come across a big idea while they’re going along? My own expectation is that there are basically as many ways to come to big idea as there are authors: Each does it differently.
To accentuate this point, here is author Julie Buxbaum, who while writing her highly praised debut The Opposite of Love (“a welcome addition to the having-it-all genre” — Library Journal) came to the big idea of the book not in a straightforward but in a sideways sort of fashion — in a way, basically, perfectly fitting the situation of her main character and her own journey through the story.
I didn’t have a moment when I was suddenly struck with The Big Idea, where my scribbling turned into something with capital letters and a tag line perfect for the cover copy. I wish it happened that way for me, but I have a habit of going about things backwards and sideways. I have always been one of those strange people who likes to parallel park; I am not so good at things that are straightforward. When I sat down to write The Opposite of Love, instead of starting with a central plot line, I found myself starting thematically, digging into the subtext: I wasn’t sure what would happen in the novel, or who would be my cast of characters, I just knew that I wanted to explore what happens to us when we delay grief, and wanted to do that with a plot that wasn’t, at least on its surface, about grief at all.
A picture of a character emerged, someone stuck in a late coming of age, dealing with the complexities of love and loss: Emily Haxby, a twenty nine year old attorney, who “simultaneously longs for and fears the commitment of remembering,” and who gets “pleasure out of breaking her own heart.” She has a difficult relationship with her emotionally distant father, and seek refuge in a job she despises as a litigator at a large law firm in Manhattan. In her romantic life, she’s crippled by commitment phobia, which runs so deeps she has never learned to ride a bicycle “because among other reasons, it is something you can never forget.” Perhaps, most importantly, I pictured Emily fifteen years after the death of her mother—long enough that the reader is not watching the immediate after-effects of loss, but rather the manifestations of a long pent-up grief, its subtext playing out in every facet of Emily’s life.
Once I understood and could hear the voice of my main character—once she became a living and breathing person to me—the plot unfolded in a surprisingly (and uncharacteristically) linear fashion. And yet while this surface plot, Emily’s life unraveling on pretty much all fronts—familial, romantic, professional—became clear, the subtext I was so interested in when I set out to write continued to propel the novel forward. For example, Emily aging grandfather’s struggles with Alzheimer’s mirror her own grappling with memory and identity. Her professional life, full of drama and moral dilemmas, is mere white noise to her own inability to cope with her grief. Again, her barriers to commitment stem directly from this early devastating experiences of mother-loss. But the trick was to keep the subtext as subtext, and to not hit the reader over the head with my thematic concerns, and it turns out, backing my way into the novel helped me to negotiate this difficult balancing act.
Before long, the voices in my head became crowded, additional characters popping up and integrating the story both on a plot level and a thematic level, setting the course of Emily’s journey. And I guess mine too. A Big Idea coming together, sideways and backwards, and ultimately, straightening out, just how I like it. A solid parallel park.
Read an excerpt of The Opposite of Love here (which, incidentally, starts with the following really great paragraph: “Last night, I dreamt that I chopped Andrew up into a hundred little pieces, like a Benihana chef, and ate them, one by one. He tasted like chicken. Afterward, I felt full but slightly disappointed. I had been craving steak.”). Listen to a podcast from Julie Buxbaum explaining her characters here. Buxbaum’s tour schedule is here. Finally, read a review of The Opposite of Love in the Washington Post (“Carrie Bradshaw’s Smarter Sister”) here.
Authors, learn how to participate in The Big Idea feature here.