An excerpt from The Fugitives is featured in the Winter 2015 issue of The Paris Review, out now.
Actually, excerpt is not quite the right term. TPR editor Lorin Stein (also the editor of Trance), who read The Fugitives in manuscript, was drawn to a scene in the book in which Kat Danhoff, one of the major characters, imagines a confrontation with the ex-husband she had abandoned several years earlier. Lorin's principal interest was in turning the excerpted material into a story, a goal that I found intriguing and also daunting. The first problem was: how to set up the encounter with sufficient context to make it comprehensible, but without opening the floodgates to allow unwanted parts of the novel to rush through? The second problem was: what story? The character of Kat is a complicated figure in the novel: a staff writer on a failing newspaper, a philandering wife to two successive husbands, and a person who has spent her adult life attempting to cover the traces of an upbringing and heritage that she considers to be liabilities. She also is defined for the reader, at least at first, by Alexander Mulligan, whose own self-serving narration dominates half the book and who presents her to us in a very romantic, and very distorting, light. Without the rest of the novel, was there a story?
Figuring out what the excerpt would need in order to provide the needed context was easy: information about the earlier marriage to Danhoff, and its end; information about the state of her current marriage, which has prompted her imagination to conjure up Danhoff from out of the past; information about her history of infidelity, to underscore the stuff about the state of her current marriage; and an instance of her acting impulsively on that philandering urge. The passages I needed were all there -- in distinct and separate locations in the novel.
Writers call this "fancy footwork." The opening scene of the excerpt, in which Kat makes plane reservations to travel to Michigan and packs her bags while Justin, her (current) husband, harangues her, takes place on pages 77-81 of the galleys. The next scene, consisting of the phantom encounter with Danhoff, takes place on pages 118-121. The next, immediately after Kat's arrival in Michigan, goes back to page 81 (when Kat receives text messages from a repentant Justin), and then back farther, to page 70, where Kat considers aspects of Justin's personality. The brief passage alluding to Kat's extramarital affairs is radically condensed from a litany of them that takes place on pages 201-204. The scene that suggests that during her first night in Michigan she is going to pick up a man at a bar is condensed from a scene related on pages 183-189.
What was eliminated? Lots of details more resonant in the bigger framework of a novel. Any reference to the lead that has brought Kat the Journalist to Michigan -- in fact, any reference to her occupation. The long conversation Kat has with the man with whom she is flirting at the bar, which makes perfectly relevant sense in the book but is absurd in an excerpt. The oddball specifics, sexual and otherwise, of her individual affairs. There is no reference to Alexander Mulligan, the book's protagonist, or to John Salteau, the Native American storyteller whose secret draws Mulligan and Kat together. Nor is there any allusion to Kat's background, which in the book plays a defining role in the scene at the bar.
What was changed? I invented the locale of the airplane as the setting for the encounter with Danhoff. In the book it takes place in a motel room. I added the refrain of "the esteemed Dr. Fils," referring to the couples counselor Justin takes Kat to see, and amplified her role somewhat. I composed an entirely new scene depicting the endgame of Kat's marriage to Danhoff, which does not appear in the book.
Does it work? I think so -- in fact, I'm grateful to Lorin for insisting on the excision of so much of what, since it's essential to the book, I might have deemed essential to any excerpt. The writer's dirty secret is that there's a freedom to deletion -- with each cut, you eliminate the weight of each thing connected to what has been cut. For example, there's a torturous compositional path -- now long forgotten -- that led me to situate the confrontation with Danhoff in a motel room. But why not put it on an airplane? There's no reason to drag the motel room from the novel to the excerpt. Why not have some things take place earlier than they do in the book, or later? To have some things that are developed, even drawn out, in the novel cut to a brief reference? And, especially, why not see if Kat can stand alone, shorn of all the things connecting her to other characters and events in the book? Rather than five separate scenes tracking Kat's various movements throughout a 320-page novel, we have a brief, contiguous story about a woman heading, for the second time, to a marital crossroads. Which of course is a significant "fact" within the novel's reality as well, but one the reader apprehends only after traveling through various twists and turns, and only after seeing Kat cast, and seeing her cast herself, in a false light.