I am so incredibly delighted to host my dear dear friend and mentor Madeleine Mysko. I first met Madeleine when a writing class I took–a group which connected with each other but not so much with our teacher–decided to go in search of a new teacher together. It was my great luck that someone in the group found Madeleine. I was in that new, fragile place where so many writers fall out of confidence. Madeleine allowed me to believe. Her second novel, Stone Harbor Bound, which I LOVED, is just out. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Two-time National Book Award finalist Stephen Dixon says of it, “Only a seasoned and serious writer of Madeleine Mysko’s skills could have written a novel like Stone Harbor Bound, with its vast array of different and psychologically complex characters and interweaving narratives, and done it with such artistry and ease.” Enjoy her post about her first novel, Bringing Vincent Home, and please have a look at Stone Harbor Bound! – Meg
Madeleine Mysko: A 1st novel in … a mere 20 years
I often say, with a sigh, that it took me ten years to write my first novel, Bringing Vincent Home.
In truth, it took me nearly twenty—if I count the years when I was carrying that story, unaware it was even mine to write. Those were the years during which I graduated from nursing school, served in the Army Nurse Corps, married, earned a master’s degree in English, raised four children, and studied poetry in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. All along, since high school, I’d been writing poems and short stories, working hard on them. But all along I wouldn’t have described myself as working on a novel.
Once, after a short story of mine appeared in a literary journal, a very desirable agent contacted me. Alas, she wasn’t interested in my short stories. She wanted to know if I had a novel. I told her I was working on one—a forgivable white lie, given that at the time I actually believed I merely had to write a little longer to produce more pages. In other words, I was a poet and writer of short stories who was grimly aware that, in order to get the fab agent, I’d have to write a novel.
Around this time I had a new friend—John, a fellow instructor at Johns Hopkins and member of my writers’ group. John was about my age and, like me, had served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He was an avowed novelist with an admirably stout finished manuscript and another in the works. I was in awe of the experiences that informed John’s novels. He had served in the Peace Corps. During the war, he had served in a combat zone, whereas I had only served stateside on the safe and beautiful post of Ft. Sam Houston.
One day, John showed me some photos from his recent trip to Vietnam. There he was in the photos—a man in his late forties now, a smiling tourist in the country where decades before he’d been deployed as a soldier. Then John handed me a single photo, an old one. There he was in combat fatigues, fresh-faced and sunburned, his arm flung around a buddy of his. He didn’t look old enough to legally order a beer.
Tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t speak. I was thinking of the soldiers I’d known back then—patients of mine, wounded soldiers flown out of Vietnam to the burn ward, where it was my job to care for them. As I held John’s photo in my hand, it struck me how young those soldiers had been. They were just kids really, some in their teens.
John studied my reaction. “Have you ever written about the war, Madeleine?”
I’d written a poem once—a highly compressed poem, distanced, tortured. “Not really,” I said.
“You were nurse on the burn ward, right?” He shook his head, and smiled through the frown. “Think about it.”
I thought about it. The story I had to tell wasn’t only mine. It was theirs as well, those wounded soldiers of my generation and the families they came home to. I thought about how much work it would be, how large a canvas I would need—the canvas of a novel. I figured it would take me years.
And I was right. All those years to realize I needed to write a novel—not merely a novel but rather the novel—and then ten more years to teach myself how to do it. Revision after revision, changes back and forth in point of view, characters appearing out of the blue to take over, and other characters allowing me to pack them up and let them go.
Now, having paused to look back and tell myself the story of my first book, I see how very good those years were. I learned so much, and was blessed with a sense of purpose. I went forward from those years with what it would take to write another novel, and now to begin a third.
So I won’t close with a sigh. Instead, I’ll think about it, as my friend John would say, and close with gratitude. – Madeleine