The Idea

An essay from 2007 in which I attempt to explain why I wrote Elsewhere. I’ve told many versions of this story, and they’re all true.

The first time I quit writing Elsewhere was early in 2002. I had an idea for a novel though I wasn’t doing or even thinking of doing any novel-writing at the time. My idea was something about a girl who survived an incident in which everyone else in her family had died. I sort of played around with this concept for a while, and the only thing that really came of it was one scene: the girl’s deceased family (mother, brother, and father) disembarking a cruise ship. Neither the brother nor the father was speaking to the mother. I had the hazy sense that the family was arriving to an afterlife of some kind. In any case, I didn’t think too much of it and I abandoned the project soon after.

A couple of months later, I was having a discussion with my filmmaking partner, Hans, about how there were no good romantic comedy movies anymore. We talked about, for example, how you always knew exactly who the heroine would end up with after the first scene, so the movies were incredibly predictable. Or the love triangles were incredibly imbalanced—somebody always loved somebody else more. So, I brainstormed to Hans, “What about a screenplay with an afterlife love triangle? Guy loves wife. Guy dies. Guy meets someone new and falls in love. Wife dies. Complications.” And I think Hans said, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” At which point, we started discussing something else.

But the idea stuck with me. About a week later, I was still thinking about it. “I think I’ll try writing a couple of scenes,” I told Hans. I named the main character Owen because one of my favorite books in those days was John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. My Owen was a forty-five year-old man and a heart doctor—my notes, I’m embarrassed to say, may have described him as “George Clooney-ish.” I wrote the first screenplay scene to be a ship arriving at a pier as in my earlier novel sketch. When Owen got to the pier, he encountered a banner that read “WELCOME TO ELSEWHERE” and a second later, he is met by his mother, only he couldn’t recognize her because she was younger than he had ever known her in life—I didn’t know why this was so at the time. The mother’s name was Betty Bloom even in those earliest screenplay scenes. And I asked myself, “Why is she so young?” And then I answered myself without really thinking, “Maybe because she’s aging backwards?” Unfortunately, this was a very difficult concept to describe in a screenplay, and I probably wrote about twenty pages before quitting again. The reason I quit this time was because I didn’t think anyone in the movie business would ever want a script like this. And honestly, because the idea seemed bigger than the ninety to one-hundred ten pages you have to tell a screen story.

But back up… why did I have death on the brain so much? Several reasons, but the two most important ones were probably that I lived in NYC during September 11th and that my pug got a lump. The veterinarians told us not to worry, but they were wrong. It turned out to be Cancer. But don’t worry: this isn’t one of those stories where the dog dies.

And then, fast forward about ten months. I had stayed up all night finishing the fifth Harry Potter book—not exactly the shortest book around, that Harry. Hans and I could only afford to buy one copy, and I had the first reading shift. So I had stayed up all night reading, and it was seven in the morning, and the sun was coming up, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. And then, all of a sudden, a sentence popped into my head: “Elizabeth Hall woke in a strange bed in a strange room with the strange feeling that her sheets were trying to smother her.” And I thought, that’s intriguing, I do hope I remember that in the morning. But you know, you never do remember it in the morning. I made myself get out of bed, and then I wrote the whole first chapter of Elsewhere. I was incredibly sleepy, so I remember very little about the writing of that first chapter. I do remember drowsily thinking, “Of course! It’s about the girl, not the man!”

The next morning, I decided I would allow myself a month to write the whole book. Cue maniacal laughter. Cut to four months later, and I was more or less finished and very, very tired.

In retrospect, the road to publication was remarkably easy. I had a manager for screenwriting at the time, and he gave it to another manager at that firm, Brian Steinberg. Brian gave the book to a William Morris literary agent, Jonathan Pecarsky, who was someone Brian knew from summer camp, and Jonathan agreed to represent the book. The offer from my publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, came about a couple of days after Elsewhere had gone out, which was exciting and crazy. (My editor at FSG, Janine O’Malley, looks quite a bit like Liz is described in the book.) And I even ended up sharing a British publisher with Harry Potter, which seemed a very nice bookend to the whole story.

So, is there a moral? No good ones, I’m afraid, but here’s a short list anyway:

1. Quit often. But write a lot, so you can quit a lot.
2. It takes longer than one month to write a novel.
3. If you can swing it, make your main character look like the editor. (Risky strategy…)
4. Write it down. You won’t remember in the morning.

And that’s about it. Aside from spending a large portion of my income on books, I knew nothing about publishing. I did not know the marketplace. I did not attend writing conferences or get an MFA. No one in my family knew anyone remotely useful for publishing a book. And the reason I tell you all this is not because I think an MFA is a waste of time or because I think it’s preferable to be as ignorant and unconnected as I was. I tell you this because I want you future writers out there to know that you don’t need these things either. The only things you absolutely need are a story to tell and a good pen. The rest will come.

Gabrielle Zevin
April 2007

Update and Corrrections, June 2013

  1. The dog died of Cancer in 2008. I did get another pug, a rescue dog named Nico. (He is now fourteen!)
  2. From my perspective in 2013 with eight books under my belt: no one has as much advice as a first-time novelist. (Except perhaps a first-time novelist with a teeny bit of success.)
  3. Re: the last lines of this essay. It is also useful to have a decent chair, a room of one’s own, a group of readers you trust, etc. “The rest” only comes if you work very hard and if you manage to stay off the internet long enough to write a book.
  4. I was being cheeky when I said it helped if the main character looks like the editor. As an aside, I’ve thought a bit about Liz’s physical appearance in the years since I wrote the book, and if I was writing the book today, I doubt I would make her blond. I think I needed to do that back when I was first writing so that no one would mistake her for me.
  5. As has been pointed out to me, it isn’t true that I didn’t know anyone. I had an agent for screenwriting, which came about because I had written a super low-budget independent movie. One of the actors in it, Cady McClain (Dixie on All My Children), generously introduced me to her manager at the time, Peter Principato.
  6. Here’s another story about where the idea for Elsewhere came from. I used to live smack between a daycare and a nursing home. I remember a woman walking down the street. In one hand, she was pushing a wheelchair with a very old man in it, and in her other hand, she had a carriage with a baby. It made me think that life really was the same on both ends.

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