I can often tell you where the idea for a book came from, but one thing that I like most about this work is when the source of a story is entirely mysterious, when it blossoms in my head with no evident inspiration. For instance, last year I sat down to write a little piece to be released as an e-story to promote Innocence. It would have a tie of some kind to that novel, most likely just that it took place in the same city as the longer story.
For some reason, as I sat at the keyboard to noodle around, I decided that the lead character would be a piano man and that the story would open with him telling you his name, which would be Jonah, and that something astonishing had happened to him as a child. I typed instead, “My name is Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk,” which became the first sentence of Chapter One. Why he should have so many names, I didn’t know, though being a fan of jazz and especially of big-band swing, I recognized the names that I was typing. Without hesitation, I continued: “From as young as I can remember, I loved the city. Mine is a story of love reciprocated.” And I was on my way.
Days later, the story had grown to such an extent that I knew it was in fact going to be a novel and that it would be titled The City. I found myself putting in long hours at the keyboard, but the work sessions seemed brief, ten hours passing as if they collapsed into one. The developments in the story continually delighted and astonished me. Where was this coming from?
My friend Joe Stefko, who is a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, has played with Frank Zappa and with Meatloaf and, for some years now, with the Turtles. He says that when he’s at his performance best, when other musicians say afterward, “That was amazing,” he doesn’t remember what he did. He says that on those occasions, he goes (mentally) somewhere apart from the venue where he plays and, “I just get out of my own way.” I liked that description of the experience. In writing The City and certain other books, I have sometimes gotten out of my own way, and what ends up on the page seems miraculous to me. I can’t command it to happen; the control isn’t mine. And the story idea seems to explode from nothing, like a universe being born. Weird. And wonderful.