by Jerod Santek, Artistic Director, Write On, Door County
Recently, I was able to hear the author Zoe Zolbrod talk about Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers. Zolbrod and Makkai are members of the same long-lived writing group, so Zolbrod saw this novel from its beginnings to its completion. Published by Penguin Random House in 2018, with the paperback released earlier this summer, the work was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in fiction.
The Great Believers follows the lives of several characters over several decades. Zolbrod shared that the first character Makkai wrote about – the one she believed would be central to her story – was Nora, a woman who had been an artist’s model in Paris during the 1920s. Nora now lives in Sister Bay and wants to bequeath her artwork from that time to an art museum in Chicago. The development director of that museum, Yale Tishman, becomes one of the novel’s central characters, though he was never meant to be. Nora, who was meant to be prominent, takes a very secondary role to other characters.
Writers often face this issue: The story they thought they were going to write takes a turn they didn’t expect. The character who was to headline gets a minor supporting role. Writers are often surprised by their own imaginations and the insistence of their characters to tell their side of the story.
As readers, we can be grateful that this is the case because the story that results is almost always much richer than the one the writer first put on the page. For people new to writing, though, it can be difficult to accept that the story has a life of its own; that the writer doesn’t always control it – at least, not completely. That’s why it’s so helpful for writers at all levels of development to have a critique group. Both Zolbrod and Makkai had published several books, yet they remained in a group, supporting one another’s work and letting their fellow writers know which story lines were working and which needed help. No matter how far along an author’s career is, feedback from trusted preliminary readers is always vital. If you’re interested in forming or joining a critique group, email us at [email protected]. We want to help you find the support you need to get your work out into the world.