When death interrupts the writing process

I passed the manuscript for UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO onto a friend who has yet to read it. When I asked him what was taking so long to finish, he admitted that he no longer was in possession of the book. “I gave it to my aunt, who was afraid that she might die before the book was published. She loved SOMETHING MISSING and wanted to read your next one now, just in case.”

That’s quite a compliment.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the new wave of novels being published posthumously from writers like Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace and Ralph Ellison. Having experienced my own legitimate brushes with death in the past, I think quite a bit about the prospect that I might be hit by a bus in the middle of a book and never have the opportunity to finish.

It’s an unsettling thought, leaving characters frozen in time, their stories untimely cut off. And perhaps it’s a sentiment that Stephen King also battled with when writing his Dark Tower series. In that series of novels, King inserts himself into the story, becoming both the writer as well as a character who must be saved by the very characters about whom he is writing. When King was nearly killed after being hit by a van (an incident that occurs both in real life as well as the book), the protagonist, Roland, warns his maker to finish his tale and to stop dawdling. One cannot help but wonder if King is exorcising his own fear of death and the unsettling prospect of an unfinished novel when issuing Roland’s warning to the fictional version of himself.

But unless an author retires, I guess that he or she will always have an unfinished piece of work. Right?

And even when an author does retire, this is not always the case.

After publishing TIMEQUAKE in 1997, Vonnegut announced his retirement, causing me to begin a purposely slow and methodical reading of his final novel that has taken me into my eighth year. Knowing that no other books were coming from one of my favorite writers, I decided to read about a page a week, re-reading constantly but stopping myself from ever finishing the book, fearful of what life might be like without a new Vonnegut sentence in my future.

Since he died, however, one collection of stories and essays (ARMEGGEDON IN RETROSPECT) has been published and another (LOOK AT THE BIRDIE) is due out later this year. Though I’m not sure how I would feel about someone purging my computer for all my unpublished stories and essays, I’m certainly pleased that someone has taken the liberty in the case of Vonnegut.

And so I am honored that someone has requested my manuscript in fear of her eminent demise. In fact, the same thing happened to Stephen King in the midst of writing his Dark Tower series. A woman in Vermont who was facing terminal cancer wrote to King after the publication of the fourth or fifth book of the series, asking if he would share the fate of Roland, Eddie, Jake and Susannah with her before she died. Unfortunately, King writes in much the same way I do, waiting for the story to flow from his fingers, absent of planning and arduous forethought, so he had no idea how his series would end and therefore could not grant the dying woman her request.

As long as my friend’s aunt does not request my current manuscript, I can keep at least keep her happy.