Review follows this three-question exchange.
Check out Nick’s insights into a writer’s willingness to make changes in a ‘finished’ work.
Question: You said in your talk at The Tattered Cover (I listened to it via the Authors on Tour podcast) that The Reconstructionist was published in a different version in the United Kingdom and that you made changes based on an editor’s suggestions for the edition published here in The United States. Can you tell us a bit about that decision-making process for you, to take a ‘finished’ piece of work and decide to open it back up again? How hard was that to do? What’s the lesson for writers at any level about being open to feedback?
Nick: It was a weird circumstance—short, short version, the book found a publisher in the UK several months before it found a US publisher. And then the book’s UK publisher was wrapping up and getting ready to go to press at just about the same time I got a nine-page single-spaced letter from my US editor, describing his concerns and suggestions for the manuscript.
He had put a lot of time, thought, and care into that letter, and I could see that the issues he was raising were legitimate, and I felt right away that I should try to address them. I did struggle, though, with simply a sense of weariness. I’d been working on the manuscript for about five years at that point, and I was ready to move on. A feeling of: dear lord god, don’t drag me back into this thing again. But, like I said, the issues he raised were legitimate, and it was much more important to make the book as good as it could be than to indulge my sense of weariness, so I went back into it again.
In his letter, the editor suggested the book needed maybe 20 additional pages at the beginning, to better set up the characters and plot. I ended up writing nearly 100 new pages. I think they’re some of the best pages in the book. I’m glad I did it.
Weariness aside, I’ve grown less and less hesitant to jump into making big changes in my work based on feedback, if the feedback resonates with me and inspires me to see new possibilities. I find that the writing in those circumstances can come quickly, because the goals are relatively clear and well defined in my mind, and because by that point in the process I have a good understanding of the characters and I can just let them act like themselves. It often does seem to result in some of my best writing.
Question: Without giving away the ending, I just want to say that I think you chose the most difficult option among the choices you had about how to wrap it up. The ending was challenging to read but, in thinking about it, the actions are completely within Ellis’ character. Do you agree with that? Did you think you had choices in deciding how to finish it? Or, perhaps, was the ending the way you started to think about the book at the outset?
Nick: I usually have trouble making much headway on a story unless I have some kind of an ending in mind. I also have a writing process that involves writing little haphazard fragments of scenes that might appear anywhere in the story, until eventually I can see how some of those fragments might be stitched together into a narrative arc. Then I start trying to put them into sequence and sewing them together. And then the scenes get revised, or rewritten from scratch, or torn out and replaced with a different scene, or whatever.
I’m not sure that’s really answering your question, except to say that the whole process is messy, and it’s kind of hard to say when or how exactly I decided to do anything in the book. I do remember that early on there were a couple of false starts toward trying to write an ending. (One of them ended up being turned into a short story, “Along the Highways,” which was published in the New Yorker.) But I think I had something more or less like the current ending of the book in place around Year 3 of the seven year process, and I liked it. At that point the ending was a part of what defined the characters for me, and sorting out the rest of the book was partly a matter of making sure that the characters held true to that ending.
Question: How did writing the book and how did thinking about car accidents change the way you drive? How do you think that we have come to accept the inherent risks of living in automobile culture?
Nick: It’s pretty strange, the way people will stress out about relatively low risks in some circumstances –people who worry about sharks in the water or bears in the mountains—but then will think nothing of hopping into the car and driving several miles to pick up a box of Kleenex, when driving is just about the riskiest things you can do in modern America.
To an extent I think we just accept the terrible risks of driving because we are over-familiar with them and numb to them. I sometimes try to imagine how it would go if someone invented a new teleportation technology that could get you to work or the grocery store a bit faster than taking your car, but every once in a while it would screw up and injure you or turn you into a pile of mush. If the odds of being injured or dying were the same as driving a car, would that technology have any appeal? Probably not. People would demand that it had to be made safer before it could be widely used.
I also think part of the reason that people are able to deceive themselves about the safety of driving is that they feel they have control. And it’s true, of course, that if you drive cautiously and don’t use your cell phone and so forth, your odds are improved. But when I was studying accidents for a living, I was struck by how often the people who were hurt never had an opportunity to avoid their fate. So the sense of control is partly illusory. And, on top of that, even if you are a very good, very careful driver — you are still going to screw up from time to time. It’s impossible to be perfectly attentive at all times, and our human capacities for perception and reaction are limited.
There’s a nonfiction book by Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic, that offers a great, readable discussion of these topics. And I do hope The Reconstructionist inspires people to think about these things. I’m sure almost everyone reading this spends plenty of time in their cars, and it’s worthwhile to think about the risks of doing that, and what we gain by it, and what we lose.
My take on The Reconstructionist:
Roads equal freedom, roads equal risk. Driving equals freedom, driving equals risk. Cars equal freedom, cars equal risk.
I got rear-ended last fall (a woman rammed my stopped Nissan Altima) and I can still hear that awful sound. Car totaled. A good friend’s daughter was hurt—badly—in an accident last summer. I think about her every day. I can imagine what she and her family are going through. Imagine. I don’t really know.
I think of a high school friend, Newt (short for Newton). His face fills the small window in the gym door in high school. He is giving me a goofy mug. That’s one minute. The next, he’s in a car with his friends, headed out for lunch. Their car went off the road and hit a tree. Newt, sitting in the back seat, didn’t survive. My pal Joe did.
Cars and driving equal risk.
The Reconstructionist is a stunning novel that lives in this uncomfortable space. It is also, through Arvin’s sharp eye, a beautiful piece.
The Reconstructionist focuses on two men—one mentor, one student—whose job it is to understand, analyze and draw conclusions about how accidents happened.
It also focuses on a woman who is married to the mentor and who was involved in a car accident that was a formative event in the early life of the student. But we don’t know precisely her role in the accident and neither does our main point of view character, Ellis Barstow. In a few unique ways, The Reconstructionist is a sort-of mystery novel but in this case the erstwhile detective is also the injured, the aggrieved.
In the hands of any other writer, I doubt I would have dared read The Reconstructionist. But Articles of War, Arvin’s first novel, is a true gem. It’s one of the best and most memorable war novels you’ll ever read, so I started The Reconstructionist.
The prose carries on with that clean, clear Arvin voice, full of interesting imagery and crisp scenes. Arvin has an ability to see and let us see, too. Few do lists of precise objects as well as Arvin. The prose pops into full 3-D mode.
The book unfolds against the hard-working Midwestern landscape. At first, Ellis is the pupil of John Boggs, following the wild-eyed man around accidents and trying to uncover the story of each wreck.
Soon, however, Ellis is taken—and takes up with—Boggs’ wife, the same girl from his youth. The majority of The Reconstructionist involves Ellis causing wreckage across his own personal and emotional landscape and then trying to put the pieces back together. Along the way, he’s involved in a car accident—to what degree was he at fault?—and must come to grips with all the little decisions that led to that moment, all the little decisions that could have left the day unblemished if he had just done things differently.
At one point Ellis has a thought that could apply to any of the physical or emotional pileups in the story: There are “possibilities of error,” he thinks, “that could be pursued infinitely, into a madness of never understanding.”
But understanding is what drives Ellis and what leads Ellis on a long drive—chasing Boggs across the countryside and revisiting scenes of accidents they had worked on together. The Reconstructionist has more highway time than an over-the-road trucker. Traffic, highways, interstates, roadsides, pickups, bucket seats, tires, asphalt, intersections, garages, driveways, streets and cars from Fords to Kias to Oldsmobiles populate the text. Before starting a career as an accident analyst, Ellis worked in a plant that produced truck axles. Even the lover’s nest Ellis builds with Boggs’ wife is, yes, an RV.
Does all this sound like it might risk overstatement. It’s not. Our lives are so steeped in cars and car culture, the stuff of The Reconstructionist feels entirely straight-ahead.
It turns out that a keen ability to analyze car accidents, to understand how certain pieces ended up here and there, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at understanding your feelings about your boss, your lover or your dead half-brother. Or can you? If you work hard enough, think hard enough, analyze enough, can you get to the bottom of it?
In the end, Ellis feels compelled to understand (in the most vivid way possible) the car accident that played such a pivotal role in his youth. The understanding leads straight back to his family connections and even Ellis’ ability to understand himself. I can easily imagine a thousand book club discussions ignited by this memorable finish.
No path to understanding, it seems, is the same as the last. “Most often the evidence pointed you to the physics, but sometimes the physics pointed out to the evidence,” Ellis notes. “And sometimes the physics was the evidence.”
The Reconstructionist is about memory, risks, and both looking back and thinking back.
It’s a clash of science and the heart. It’s one of the most memorable novels you’ll read—and it might play a role in your thoughts each time you get behind the wheel.
Maybe it’s the first novel that should be required reading for all drivers education classes.