George Bishop on Letter
to My Daughter
My novel Letter to My Daughter
features a middle-aged mother, her 15-year-old daughter, a boy in Vietnam, and a tattoo. Straight off, let me make a confession: I don’t have a daughter. I don’t have a tattoo, and I don’t know anyone who fought in the Vietnam War
. How, then, did I come to write a book so far removed from my real-life experience? Fortunately, there’s a good story behind this novel, and it begins in India. A couple of years ago I was on a fellowship to do teacher training in India. It was demanding work, and at the end of my stay, I took a camel safari in Rajasthan, in northern India. To be honest, this isn’t as romantic as it sounds. You sit on a camel, with a guide, and amble along a dusty track under hot sun, stopping now and then at a village for tea. It’s uncomfortable, the camel smells bad. Pretty soon you’re thinking, Hmm—a jeep would’ve been faster
. But sitting on a camel all day does give you time to think, and I did. I was mulling over an earlier novel I’d written. I’d struggled with this story for years trying to make it work. I’d done a ridiculous amount of research, had bankers boxes full of notes, but the thing was like a black hole swallowing everything I threw at it. But this, I knew, was what writing was: mostly just hard work, and if you wanted a story to succeed, you had to stick at it. "Bash on," as my Indian friends would say. So on my holiday in Rajasthan, I’d begun jotting notes for revisions to this novel in a journal I carried with me. After a few hours riding a camel, though, the mind wanders. Thoughts slip from their moorings, and you drift into that hazy, pleasant state where past and present, near and distant, blur together in an indistinct, vaguely foreign landscape. Soon I wasn’t thinking much about anything. Late afternoon we arrived at a desert camp. The camel folded its legs and I slid off. A man with a moustache and turban stood waiting on the sand with, improbably, a decanter of whiskey on a silver tray. After dinner and drinks with a retired Indian colonel, I hiked around the dunes. Nothing but sand and desert scrub, as far as you could see; above, the moon and an amazing profusion of stars. It made the camel ride seem worthwhile. Satisfied, I fell asleep on a cot in a tent, the campfire illuminating the canvas walls, and there I dreamed. I dreamed the whole story. I could see it like a film un-spooling. A daughter steals a car, drives off into the night, and the mother, waiting her return, sits down to write a letter. The farm, the boyfriend in Vietnam, the Catholic boarding school, the visit to the tattoo parlor: it was all there. When I woke the next morning, I lay on the cot, letting the pieces of the story settle into place, and then went out and sat in a camp chair and jotted an outline in my journal. It was this outline that guided me as I worked on the novel over the next year and a half. The curious thing is that I don’t know anyone quite like Laura, the narrator. She’s not modeled after anyone in real life. Many of her opinions align with mine, true, but her voice and experiences certainly aren’t mine. So where did Laura come from, then? The Greeks, you know, assigned divinity to this kind of inspiration. They said it was the work of the Muses: Calliope, Thalia, Terpsichore... Myself, I don’t call it divine. Instead, I’m reminded of those stories you read about the discovery of some new chemical equation. The scientist is going about his business, preoccupied with other problems, and while stepping off a city bus, it comes in a flash: the formula is revealed, the equation solved. A bit like those scientists, I credit my own inspiration to years of tedious work on story drafts, endless revision of sentences, countless nights hunched in front of a computer screen, and, just maybe, a few lucky hours rocking on a camel in the hot Indian sun. --George Bishop (Photo © Michihito) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.