LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER by George Bishop Jr.
novel Letter to My Daughter features a middle-aged mother, her
fifteen-year-old daughter, a boy in Vietnam, and a tattoo. Straight
away, let me make a confession: I donít have a daughter. I donít have a
tattoo, and I donít know anyone who fought in the Vietnam War. Like the
mother in the book, I did go to a Catholic high school in Baton Rouge,
but that one was for boys, not girls.
How, then, did I come to write a book so far removed from my real-life
experience? Or maybe the better question is: How am I even qualified to
write such a book?
Fortunately, thereís a good story behind this novel, one that, if you
believe in things like literary inspiration, helps to explain how and
why I wrote it. It begins in India.
A couple of years ago I was on a fellowship with the US State Department
to do teacher training in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
It was demanding work, and so when I had the chance, I grabbed a weekís
vacation in Rajasthan. Rajasthanís in northern India, the place where
most tourists go first. The Taj Mahal is nearby, and the stunning
historic cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur. Rajasthan is everything you think
of when you think of India: exotic palaces, painted elephants, women in
bright saffron saris with bangles on their wrists.
From Jodhpur I took a camel safari into the desertówhich, to be honest,
is not as romantic as it sounds. You sit on a camel, with a guide, and
just kind of amble along, miles and miles on a dusty track under hot
sun, stopping now and then at a village for tea. Itís uncomfortable, the
camel smells bad. Pretty soon you begin thinking, Hmóa jeep wouldíve
been faster. But sitting on a camel all day does give you time to think,
and I did.
I was mulling over an earlier novel Iíd written. Iíd labored over this
story for years, trying to make it work. Iíd done a ridiculous amount of
research, had bankersí boxes full of documents and drafts, but the thing
was like a black hole, swallowing everything I threw at it. But still, I
knew, this was what writing is like: mostly just hard, determined labor,
and if you wanted a story to succeed, you had to stick at it. ďBash on,Ē
as my Indian friends would say. So on my holiday in Rajasthan, Iíd begun
jotting notes for revisions to this novel in a journal I carried with
me. It was in my bookbag now, slung over the side of the camel, jostling
against my leg.
After a few hours riding a camel, though, itís hard to do any focused
thinking. The mind wanders. As you rock back and forth above the sand,
thoughts slip from their moorings and you drift into that pleasant hazy
state where past and present, near and distant, blur together in an
indistinct, vaguely foreign landscape. I wasnít thinking much about
Late afternoon we arrived at a camp in the desert. The camel folded its
legs and I slid off its back. There was a man with a moustache and
turban standing waiting on the sand with, improbably, a decanter of
whiskey on a silver tray. After a full Indian dinner and drinks at the
fire with a retired Indian colonel, I went off and hiked around the
dunes. There was nothing but sand and desert scrub and the moon and
stars, an amazing profusion of stars, as far as you could see. It made
the camel ride seem worthwhile. Satisfied, tired, I fell asleep on a cot
in a tent, the campfire outside illuminating the canvas walls with a
shadowy golden glow, and there I dreamed.
I dreamed the whole story. I could see it like a film, beginning to end.
A daughter steals a car, drives off into the night, and the mother,
anxiously waiting for her return, sits down to write her a long letter.
The farm, the boyfriend in Vietnam, the Catholic boarding school, the
visit to the tattoo parlor: it was all there. When I woke the next
morning in the tent, I knew the voice of the woman telling the story,
too. It was clear as the day. I lay on the cot for a while, letting the
pieces of the story settle into place, and then went out and sat in a
chair next to the remnants of the campfire and jotted down the outline
in my journal.
Looking at that journal entry now, even after spending a year and a half
writing and revising the story, Iím amazed at how much of it was there
that first morning. More importantly, perhaps, that morning I knew the
mood, the feeling of the story, and that helped to sustain me during the
writing of it.
The curious thing is that I donít know anyone quite like Laura, the
narrator. Sheís not modeled after anyone in real life. Many of her
opinions align with mine, true, but her voice and experiences certainly
arenít mine. I was happy to have found her voice, though (or maybe her
voice found me), because it gave me license to express sentiments that I
donít think a male narrator could have expressed as easily. I hope Iíve
done her justice with this book.
So where did Laura come from, then? The Greeks, you know, assigned
divinity to this kind of inspiration. They said it was the work of the
Muses, the nine goddesses who sat with Apollo on Mount Olympus:
Calliope, Thalia, Terpsichore . . . Myself, I donít call it divine.
Instead, Iím reminded of those stories you read about the discovery of
some new mathematical formula or chemical equation. The scientist is
going about his business, preoccupied with other problems, and while
stepping off a city bus, say, it comes in a flash: the formula is
revealed, the equation solved. A bit like those scientists, I credit my
own inspiration to years of tedious work on story drafts, endless
revision of sentences, countless nights hunched in front of a glowing
computer screen, and, maybe, a few lucky hours rocking on a camel in the
hot Indian sun.