Five things I learned while writing PARAISO

  1. This book is the second with the same editor. The first, Full Fathom Five, was non-fiction, Paraiso is fiction. I found that the same editor was much more invasive and persnickety with fiction, even down to punctuation. I happen to love ellipses (…) and he hates them. In revisions he’d take most of them out, and I’d put them back in again when the ms was returned. This kind of thing never happened with the non-fiction book. The novel went through four or five proofs, the non-fiction work through only two that I can remember. The editor took it upon himself to suggest changes in the plot and characters of the novel, which of course didn’t happen in the non-fiction book. I don’t dare to ask him whether he thinks my non-fiction writing is better than my fiction. He’d never answer anyway.
  1. In contrast to my first novel, Joyride, a road book, Paraiso has a pretty complicated plot. I had to work long and hard to make it all fit together. I think I’ve learned that, for me at least, complicated plots are to be avoided, if possible. Working it all out eventually became a burden rather than a joy. Some writers I know keep plot diagrams and cards that they spend a lot of time fitting together in different patterns. They take pride in this and enjoy it no end. More power to them. I’m certainly not looking down on it.
  1. Paraiso is closely modeled after a real setting, as opposed to making everything up practically from scratch, the way I did in my first novel Joyride, set in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war. I’d spent two years in Southeast Asia as a journalist, which of course I drew on in the writing, but I’ve lived off and on in the little town that became the setting for Paraiso for almost 30 years. As well as the setting, many of the Paraiso characters are taken almost verbatim from real life. There are two ways of looking at this dichotomy. One is to say that the made-up stuff is fresher and more inventive and that being too indebted to reality stifles and traps you as a writer. The other is to say you should write about what you know and the better you know it the more you have had to live with it. I don’t know which I prefer. All I know is that writing Joyride I had the God-like sense that I was creating the world from scratch. I never had that feeling writing Paraiso. As to which makes a better book in the end, Hemingway famously wrote The Sun Also Rises almost verbatim from a trip he took to Spain, while Stephen Crane wrote his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage without ever having seen combat of any kind. You tell me which is better.
  1. I keep telling myself that I would finish a novel a lot faster if I start writing at the beginning and barrel through to the end without much revision just to get the rough draft on paper. Then I could go back and revise. I tried that for a while with Paraiso, but I learned I can’t do it. Writing for me doesn’t come in a burst of Kerouacian inspiration, much as I wish it did. It comes from the daily grind of sitting down each morning and building on what you did the previous day. Faulkner famously said: “I can only write when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired every day at 9 in the morning.” For me, whatever comes that morning can only come if there is a solid base to build on, like laying a brick wall. The base has to be as perfect as I can get it. Every morning I reread it. If it’s perfect, then I have the momentum to go on. If it’s not perfect, I have to rewrite it until it is. Imagine the heartache if you find out that you’ve been going in the wrong direction. You have to go back to where you made the wrong turn and start all over again.
  1. There are two main characters in Paraiso, a brother and a sister. Each have their own points of view in different sections until at last they come together in the end and the brother’s first person point of view takes over from the sister’s third person one. At least one reviewer has said these alternating points of view and alternating voices is a problem. But at least he/she didn’t complain about the female voice ringing false. That’s one of my main discoveries in writing Paraiso: that I seem to be able to write from a woman’s point of view. It’s the first time I’ve tried and it came pretty naturally. I didn’t have to strain or think out of the box. Maybe that’s because I’ve always had a lot of women in my life: my mother, my three partners, my three daughters, even my dog. But I think it goes deeper than that. I definitely feel more in touch with my yin component than with the yang, whatever that says about me.

    Gordon Chaplin was a journalist in the Saigon bureau of Newsweek and at Bangkok World, the Baltimore Sun, and the Washington Post. He has also worked in sea conservation with the group Niparaja and since 2003 has been a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He is the author of several books, including Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and Hebron, New York, where they run a grass-fed beef operation. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.