I didn’t know why I wrote the novel Paradise until I had gained what I did gain on its last day of writing. Then I knew.
My long nautical experience on the Gulf of Maine and my excitement to intertwine seafaring exploration with the questing of the human spirit was my theme.
But what I gained? Wait and see.
To me, what I gained was both astounding and laudable.
One day, I experimented with a first paragraph – capture the language; capture the voice -- because that paragraph might take me away.
Alas, there was no sea where I was. But an evocative paragraph might take me to sea.
Before morning, the gale blew itself away. The man on the raft scarcely saw the change, however, for the three days since the foundering of the Roman ship had been savage to pass. His limbs were numb from exposure to cold. The rope by which he had tied himself had chafed through his jerkin and into his skin. His eyes were glued by mucus and salt. The change occurred, and he guessed it in the dim revolutions of his mind only by the passivity of the wind. He did not care. That about which he cared now lay deep in the green cold of the Western Sea; on the bottom, where cod motivated this way and that, and where the slow, shelled ooze snailed its way across sword and axe, hoe and pail.
Sitting in my tiny office in hot humid summer, immediately, I was cold, wet, in pain. I was very excited to know what would happen next, when that man’s raft was tossed – as I knew it would be – against an outcrop of desert island, and he would claw his way over rocks and barnacles, clutching at seaweed, drowning, while he yanked his broken way to the beach, bad leg and all.
Some of you may wonder why we writers do what we do. This is why we do what we do, I anyway. We must live in a different place, time, and world than in our sweltering tiny closet at the back of a building far from sea.
In terms of the big events yet to come, I knew what was to happen on the island. In terms of the supremely big events, I knew in general what would happen in the very long run. But did I know in detail what would have happened by page 295?
Some writers do know. Good for them. They work the details of their plots until they are able to write their actual tale almost as though that effort were automatic.
I’m different. I never know. I’m willing to put myself in a very anxious place. That’s what happened when I was writing Paradise.
This one’s a journey novel. It recounts the possibly historical tale of a voyage westward across the North Atlantic, Ireland to Maine, which has left us today with suggestive evidence. The sixth century A.D.: in my rendering, the journeyers were a fractious collection of Christian monks and one black, North African ironsmith, a gnostic.
One good thing about a journey novel is this. If you run out of story, just move your people fifty or a hundred miles further westward and something new will happen there.
Writerly anxiety increases over time. It took me two years to write my characters across the ocean – over-wintering them in Iceland – and to bring them ashore in what is now Camden Harbor off West Penobscot Bay, Maine, at a village of the Abnaki Indians. Three human spiritualities were clustering uncomfortably together and vying with one another – Catholic Christianity among the monks aboard the boat, gnostic awareness within the smith, American Indian mythology among the natives.
Upon my men’s arrival from the sea, the Abnaki were moved to bring them, by canoe, up the Penobscot River to Mount Katahdin’s peak, where the spirit master Cautantowit would tell them what to do about such a mysterious visitation.
I was tense during two years. I was no closer to knowing what would happen at the end of the journey than I had been when my ironsmith was dashed ashore on his desert island.
One morning, I got up at 5 am and planned to start my five sailors and two Indian women on their journey up-river. Then I would go to work.
Early next morning, in thick fog, two canoes set out from Madakamigossek, turned north along the coastline outside the harbor ledges, and disappeared.
All well. This would happen on page 229.
Then I wrote the next sentence, and the next, and then one more. I was beginning to see the scene. I was typing fast now. I asked my wife to phone the office and say I would be late to arrive.
Still more sentences. The scenes were so clear, so exact, every detail falling into line as the canoes proceeded.
I realized the story was there, it was projecting itself on the movie screen inside my forehead. I typed frenziedly to keep up.
My wife called the office a second time. Dikkon won’t come in at all (it’s good to be the boss).
I kept streaking to get the movie down. Keep going! Keep going! It was nighttime now, and the children rushed to kiss daddy goodnight.
At three am, my travelers had struggled to the summit, were on the Knife Edge of Katahdin. Joseph did what he did. Ghastly.
By midmorning, my novel was … finished.
What I gained? I gained sixteen hours of unthinkable climax written explosively not by me but by the Holy Spirit … who knew. I gained sixty-nine pages, which painted the story across each page all the way to …
I did not finish.
God finished Paradise.
What I gained?
I gained satisfaction that what I had written until the canoes pushed off -- what I had written –
What I had written – was right.
© 2022 Dikkon Eberhart
Dikkon Eberhart is the author of The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told, Paradise, and On the Verge. Dikkon is a Maine native transplanted recently to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He is a retired salesman, former actor and food critic, and always a writer.
Read more at www.dikkoneberhart.com