I’m bivouacked here at Prophet’s Rock Winery’s guest cottage, 15 miles outside of Cromwell (in the south of the South Island of New Zealand), a beautiful drive along Lake Dunstan, then three miles up a sinuous graded dirt road to where I’m staying. I am all alone. There is literally no one within a mile of me. Since signing a deal with Blackstone Publishing before boarding the plane to NZ in mid-May, I have had my antennae out for material for Sideways NZ: The Road Back. The first five weeks in NZ were a whirlwind of wine tastings and meeting wonderful people (literate and funny and very wine knowledgeable), but I’ve gone more troglodytic in recent days in order to plunge into the writing head-space I need to occupy in order to write this Sideways sequel.
Writer Madison Smaart Bell once wrote in a great essay on writing that you have to keep the instrument tuned so that when inspiration strikes you’re ready. I’ve kept my instrument tuned by writing blogs, lengthy texts, and emails. But that’s not fiction writing. Fiction writing, for me, begins in reality, then transits to the imagination. I like what Hemingway said about writing The Sun Also Rises: something to the effect that you have to let it build up inside you until it’s like a pressure cooker about to blow its top, and then you start writing. I’m of the belief that you want it to come out in a torrent in that first draft. When I wrote Sideways I could literally see the whole novel in my head. I didn’t have all the scenes, but the adumbration was there, the scaffolding was there, the locations, the characters, the beginning and ending was there, all I had to do was find that big middle. And that’s where I’m at as I start to ideate the road trip that my alter ego Miles and his friend Jack will take from the south of the South Island to the north of the North Island of NZ. Yes, another road trip novel. I have the opening. And I have the ending (only my special needs cat Max knows).
Miles, my alter ego, written in first person, and brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti in the Alexander Payne movie, is, I’ve decided, going to begin here at Prophet’s Rock. It’s a lone cottage on top of a craggy, hardscrabble peak where seemingly nothing grows but grapevines. It’s winter now and the deciduous vines are barren of foliage. Miles is sporting a full beard. He’s standing outside his isolated cottage, all alone, staring down into the fog-wreathed valley. He owns a hectare of Pinot Noir vines here that his girlfriend winemaker is turning into some of the most exclusive Pinots in the world. For all intents and purposes he’s left the known world for the far reaches of the southern hemisphere. But, there’s something amiss in his life. He’s received some shocking – not tragic, but shocking – news that now has forced him to return to California and the United States where he’s been in a self-imposed exile for a year. A new novel he’s written at Prophet’s Rock has gone through the editorial process and is about to be published, and the publisher wants to do a book tour in New Zealand, beginning in the south of the South Island and ending in Auckland (north of the North Island), a 1,000-mile road trip snaking through some of the most extraordinarily scenic topography known to planet earth.
Miles is of the deluded belief the book tour will be conducted in a kitted-out rock star bus and nights in lavish five star hotels. But when he sees Jack in a camper van roaring up the dirt road to Prophet’s Rock, a cloud of dust funneling out behind him, it’s clear the trip is not going to be what Miles imagined. Let the comedy begin! Miles and Jack have not seen each other since Miles expatriated to New Zealand two years ago, fatalistically fearing America was doomed to a new, appalling Puritanism with the election of Trump and which he could not abide. They’ve stayed in touch over email, but sparingly. Jack, now divorced, has rediscovered his mojo. He’s fit, he’s healthy, he’s not the louche degenerate we left off in the movie and my sequel books. And he wants something from Miles. Doesn’t everybody?
The publisher, at the last minute, in a classic bait-and-switch, has decided to cut costs by renting a camper van, or getting it gratis in a quid pro quo for personal appearances Miles never signed up for. Something about Miles+Jack in a camper van on a book tour of New Zealand spoke to me. Both my two indie feature films are road movies. All my novels, except for The Archivist, are road novels; and even The Archivistis a road novel of the unconscious of the main character, and of this author himself. As a writer I need for things to go wrong to find the comedy. I can envision things going wrong in that camper van. Throw in a woman publicist who operates in a kind of controlled chaos Miles finds bewildering and disconcerting and the table is set. I’ll find the drama, I’ll reveal Miles’s shocking secret, I’ll show you New Zealand like no one in the U.S. has seen it, but I need for things to go awry. The camper van buys me that. It’s the via regia to the comedy I’m looking for. We’ll have to see what happens on that trip. It begins July 12th.
The idea of starting with Miles all alone in New Zealand is attributed to my writer friend Marco Mannone (give credit where credit is due). The idea of Miles+Jack in a camper van is the brainstorm of Kate Saeed, the archivist who processed my papers for installation in Geisel Library, and the inspiration for The Archivist, and a writer in her own right. When Kate had the idea of Miles+Jack in a camper van I ran it by numerous friends who know my work and fans of the movie. There was almost instant laughter picturing these two grown men bunking together in a camper van on a wild, 1,000-mile road trip of book clubs teeming with wine-soaked Kiwi women, winery tasting room visits of course, all against a backdrop this sublime New Zealand scenery.
This is the ideation process. To Be Continued …