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John Wray’s Notes to Self

On constructing his novel The Lost Time Accidents


ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Photographs by John Wray

John Wray sees novels as falling into one of two categories—arrowheads or fruitcakes—whose modus operandi are distinct. “There’s the kind of novel that’s formed on the principle of exclusion, in which your goal is something very flinty and sharp and generally not very long. Those would be the arrowheads.” (See A Farewell to Arms, for example.) “Then there are the fruitcakes, which accrue on the basis of inclusion, in which almost anything could potentially be incorporated into the narrative as long as it’s interesting or amusing or bizarre.” (See Moby-Dick.)

By this measure, The Lost Time Accidents, Wray’s chronicle of a Central European family of eccentrics and crackpots who, over the course of generations, seek a way to control time, is one massive fruitcake of a book. The proof was on the walls of his work studio, a windowless but skylit space in Brooklyn. He used the walls as a canvas of sorts, to tack up what expanded into a constellation of ideas—ephemera that bookmarked his research over the years, including sidewalk flotsam that called to him in some way during walks around the neighborhood to clear his head. Some pieces were crucial to the plot; others simply colored the edges of the story. “It didn’t all get used,” he says, “but it was a way of keeping it fun, and surprising myself. It created an element of chance.”

This buckshot organizing principle was new for Wray, and refreshing—in part because of the nonlinear qualities of the book, but also as a way to shake things up. “I spent years in a certain mode of working,” he says, “and for me, by the end of two years, three years, five years, I didn’t want to approach the next thing in the same way. It wasn’t even a choice. It would drive me insane to start at the beginning of something with the same approach.”

Among the wall’s elements are a tourist map of Znojmo, Czech Republic (where the novel begins in 1904); a Sküs (fool) card from a deck of Tarock playing cards, once popular in Austria, Switzerland, and Italy; an illustration from a US naval handbook about “dazzle ships”; index cards with quotes and citations from Plotinus, Sir James Jeans, Stephen Hawking, Einstein, J. Richard Gott, and P. D. Ouspensky; an advertising flyer for “New York Hypnosis Training”; an ornithological postcard depicting a Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba); and World War II German-language flashcards for US troops.

Though a zealous reader might be tempted to try and find all these elements in The Lost Time Accidents (FSG, February 2016), there isn’t always a direct correllation. “A lot of things on the wall leave an aesthetic shadow or imprint on the text,” Wray says, “but they never appear in recognizable form. Some things would suddenly become useful after spending all this time up there, but there was no organizing principle other than a loose gravity of sorts. The system was an intuitive one. I almost wouldn’t even call it a system.”

Did he find himself lost in this sprawl of notes? “There’s a reason why it took me seven years to write this book,” he says.

— VQR

Photographs by John Wray

Photographs by John Wray

 

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