Monday, February 6, 2012

My First Time: Andromeda Romano-Lax

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Andromeda Romano-Lax, author of The Detour (out next week from Soho Press),  a novel about art, adventure, and second chances, set in pre-World War II Italy.  Romano-Lax is also the author of The Spanish Bow, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007.  She lives with her husband and children in Anchorage, Alaska, where she co-founded and now teaches for a nonprofit organization, the 49 Alaska Writing Center.  Visit her author website here.

My First Time Hearing Fiction's Call

I tried writing some fiction in my late teens and early twenties.  But then my tastes veered sharply toward travel writing, features journalism, and literary essays.  I was so passionate about creative nonfiction that by the time I graduated college, I read little else.  I worked as a freelance journalist.  I wrote one work of literary nonfiction and thought—until a day in early 2002—that I was on my way to writing a second.

Ten years ago this month, I traveled to Puerto Rico to visit the archives of a world-famous cellist, Pablo Casals, who had taken a public stance against fascism in his native country of Spain.  In the months following 9/11, I was both fascinated by politics and in need of a heroic story, and Casals’s life fit the tale I was determined to tell.

But in Puerto Rico, my research took a surprising turn.  I stumbled across a letter that questioned the stance Casals had taken, a stance that required him to sacrifice his own happiness for a cause.  I also read more broadly about the time period and discovered that this particular artist’s dilemmas and experiences were not unique.  I found myself with fewer answers and more questions than ever: troublesome for the kind of writer I was at the time, but exciting for the new kind of writer I’d soon become.

Nonfiction can be both flexible and complex, but I found myself—unexpectedly—wanting to tell this story an entirely different way.  I wanted freedom: freedom to include other people and places, to mix the imagined with the historical, to include characters who wouldn’t necessarily have met in real life.  Luckily, there was no James Frey impulse in me.  I did not feel tempted to lie in my nonfiction.  Instead, I felt a giddy impulse to jump the nonfiction ship altogether.  The story itself seemed to be directing me away from my own preconceptions and toward its optimal, novelistic form.

That was exciting, but also intimidating.  I hadn’t been reading much fiction for the last decade.  I didn’t have a clue how to structure a novel.  I didn’t even know where to begin.  My husband, who had been supportive of the idea for the nonfiction book concept, threw up his hands and laughed.  We were already living simply, and now I was turning my back on the one thing that I knew— sort of— how to do.  If I planned to write fiction, a vow of poverty was in order.  My husband and I officially declared ourselves “downwardly mobile.”

That spring, I learned what all apprentice novelists know: begin anywhere.  As E.L. Doctorow has said, writing a novel is like driving a car at night: you only have to see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.  The first few scenes I wrote didn’t end up in the book.  A character who led me into the story later disappeared.  It took me many pages to find the right approach, voice, and even setting—and another 18 months to do the research that was required, in Spain and France.  But somehow, I never doubted it would come together.

Perhaps my lack of doubt was made possible by my exceedingly modest expectations.  I couldn’t picture this first effort ever being published or read.  Still, with the joyful determination of naïve youth—such happy days!-- I was ready to let the story lead the way.  I also supplied myself with intense, remedial education, ashamed I had lived in the literary dark for so long.  I kept a fiction log, in which I recorded every novel I read and what it had to teach me, what aspects of craft I admired and what I was still puzzling over or hoping to do differently in my own work.  I attended conferences and workshops.  I pitched the first fifteen pages, and later a hundred pages, to an agent, who would end up representing and selling the book.  But most of all, I just kept listening: listening to the story itself, and how it needed to be told.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as good a listener since.  Like any convert, I’ve become a zealous, wholehearted devotee to fiction.  It’s what I most love to read, and what I most love to write.

But I do try to remind myself: that project worked because I was paying attention, and I was willing to jump out of my rut.  Now, when I’m working on a new story idea, I at least try to consider: would this be better in a different form, does it need to be long or short, would it work better as a screenplay?  Am I telling it from the right point of view; have I chosen an effective narrator?  And, as far as my continuing education: am I doing everything I can to improve my own writing and reading skills?  The impulse does not come from wanting a book in a bookstore (and good thing, since there are fewer bookstores every day).  The impulse comes from the story itself and from the desire to discover the story’s best form, as well as the impulse to better understand, through fiction’s empathic lens, our place in the real world

To my utter astonishment, my first novel, The Spanish Bow, was published in 2007.  It’s been translated into eleven languages.

My second novel is about to be published.  It tells the story of a five-day Italian road trip that changes the life of young German art lover in 1938.

But the title of that second novel—“The Detour”—tells my own writer’s story as well.  Ten years ago, I took an entirely unexpected detour from nonfiction into fiction.  I haven’t looked back.


  1. What a great surprise to see you over here, Andromeda, and to hear more of your journey. I'm pretty entrenched in nonfiction right now (and, honestly, intimidated by fiction), so am fascinated by your story of transition. Many congratulations on The Spanish Bow's success and The Detour's publication!