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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What I Learned from Pruning My Grand Idea Down to a Reference

by Stephanie Gayle

Everyone asks, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I don’t always have a satisfying answer. Usually a stray line of dialogue, or a character, forms in my mind and I take off from there. But with my latest novel, Idyll Threats, I can tell you exactly where the idea to write it came from.

Picture a bright-eyed, naïve, college grad who moves to Manhattan in 1997. That’s me. I’d grown up in a small town in Massachusetts. I’d never visited, much less lived in New York. Someone at work mentioned the boroughs, and I said, “What are those?”

A month into my New York residence, on August 9, 1997, a fight in a Flatbush nightclub led to the arrest of Abner Louima. Louima was beaten with nightclubs, fists, and hand held radios by his arresting officers. But he made news after it was discovered he’d been hospitalized because, in custody, police officers had sodomized him with a broom handle. The cops claimed Louima’s injuries came from homosexual activities. A nurse suspected otherwise and notified Louima’s family and the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. 

Where I came from, I knew the town’s cops personally because they came to our primary school and talked about stranger danger. They were at our middle school dances, keeping an eye on things. When we got older, they made us sign pledges that we wouldn’t drink and drive. They were nice. I never feared them.

Eighteen months after the assault on Louima, a twenty-two year old man, Amadou Diallo, was shot and killed in the Bronx. Four plain-clothes cops unloaded their weapons on him, releasing forty-one bullets. Nineteen struck Diallo. He was unarmed. The police, tried on second-degree murder charges, were all acquitted. Both Louima and Diallo were black men.

I’ve never forgotten these cases. When I began writing Idyll Threats, they were still on my mind.  Police violence and corruption became the book’s central issues. How a good cop handles the actions of his bad colleagues was the heart of the novel, and the Louima case was part of this story. But that early draft had many problems. The action was split between the past (in New York) and the present (in Connecticut). The protagonist, Thomas Lynch, wasn’t fully formed. As I revised, I realized the action needed to be centered in the present. Thomas emerged as gay, and suddenly his struggle was about his identity. Thomas’s partner went from being a cop who killed a bystander to a man struggling with addiction.  

I wrote and rewrote that novel many times. Once peers, my agent, and my editor, had weighed in and I’d cut storylines and killed off some characters, all that was left of Abner Louima was a passing reference to him by a tertiary character. That’s it. A short exchange by a lawyer and my protagonist in which the lawyer implies New York cops play rough. He bases this assumption on the news of Louima’s attack.

I was sad to see the underlying inspiration for my novel reduced in this way, but not very upset. It’s how novels work:
·      You germinate an idea.
·      It flowers and then you end up pruning it down to a sad little stick.
·      But regrowth comes from that stick and the story is much stronger.

And though Idyll Threats no longer explores in depths the idea of police brutality, the concept informed my writing: my policemen are not perfect.

While I was putting the final touches on this novel, news stories broke of police officers killing unarmed black men. Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Ezell Ford, and Michael Brown. My Abner Louima reference became sadly ‘timely.’ But then my book moved into production and my copyeditor found a continuity error in my timeline.  To correct it, the Louima sentences had be cut. Apparently, I’d shifted the dates in my novel while writing so that the mention of the Louima protests preceded the actual date of those events.

I wrote to my copy editor, Jade, and explained my dilemma. I knew it seemed like an easily excised couple of sentences, but to me it was so much more. It was my inspiration, and it was evidence of a problem I didn’t want to ignore or forget. I wanted it recorded. So I fought for it, and Jade helped me, and the sentences stayed.

No one who reads Idyll Threats will know how much those few sentences once represented to the novel. And that’s okay. I’m just glad we were able to salvage them.  And to keep what for me was a watershed moment in understanding the wider world, though it cost me innocence. 

About Stephanie:
Stephanie Gayle’s fascination with crime stories began when she first met a policeman at the age of 4 and outsmarted him. After flirting with the idea of becoming a defense attorney and then suffering through a few years as a paralegal, she decided writing crime fiction would be a lot more satisfying -- and fun. Stephanie’s first novel, My Summer of Southern Discomfort, released in 2008 (William Morrow). By day, she's a financial assistant at MIT’s Media Lab.


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