Behind the Novel

I started writing The Weight of An Infinite Sky in a way I will forever after think of as bass ackwards: by writing a complete synopsis. For the love of God, never do that. My characters took it as a challenge. “You think you know where we’re going with this?” they seemed to say on a daily basis. “Here, hold our beer.” Damn them all.

Characters disappeared and refused to come back. Others demanded more stage time and started writing poetry to get it. The main character had a sex change and worked better as a man, to my great disgruntlement. I was writing a story about the complicated role of the daughters of ranch families – and then I wasn’t, because it turned out the son was the one with a story to tell.

Anthony Fry, the main character, is a failed Broadway actor pulled into a family drama he immediately recognizes as dime store Hamlet. Dad’s died, uncle Neal is moving in on Anthony’s mother, Sarah, and there’s a hostile power advancing on the kingdom in the shape of a coal company that wants to mine through. Then there’s Chance, the cousin and childhood best friend that Anthony betrayed, and the possibility that Anthony’s father’s ghost is riding the buttes on a red roan Appaloosa named Pontchartrain. It’s a lot for a guy to deal with on only a fifth of vodka before lunch.

Alcohol isn’t my poison, but this book nearly drove me around the bend. When they tell you your sophomore novel will be a tough climb, believe it and pack light. Don’t get invested in anything that you believe on day one may happen in the book. Map out 5-10 years, learn to meditate, find some good physically taxing hobbies, and take up a new musical instrument. Your mental health will thank you when the book turns out to be a fire swamp in which you lose all sense of direction.

When I think of The Weight of An Infinite Sky I’ll always remember myself in tears in a dorm lounge at the 2016 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, when my agent told me after three years of writing and rewriting that the book needed a new ending. What I heard was: it’s time to throw yourself off the nearest roof into the waiting arms of some sharp farm machinery. I told her I never wanted to look at the manuscript again and it would be better if I started over with something new. Somewhere between the couch and the machinery I decided to do yet another rewrite. It wouldn’t be the last.

If I learned anything from this book it was to surrender myself to the process of writing rather than forcing outcomes on characters I didn’t know yet. I wanted this book to be a sequel. It wasn’t. I wanted it to be a thriller. Not so much. It’s a family drama full of people who are persistently, sullenly, outrageously themselves despite my best efforts to mold them to my plot or simply kill them off in homage to Hamlet’s final bloodbath. They give in to despair and fall apart, fight back, quote and write plays, and refuse to follow the script. They anger and fascinate me and I won’t lie – I’d like to be quit of them. But like that Montana sky that presses down with the weight of history and binds with the force of family ties, they won’t be letting go.


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