Jim Powell on Things We Nearly Knew
Jim Powell shares the story of how his new novel, Things We Nearly Knew, came to be.
It started with a dream. I woke in the middle of the night with the first few lines in my head, as well as the name and personality of the main character, the city she came from, and the gist of what the novel was about. Instead of turning over and going back to sleep, I got up and wrote it down.
The idea is encapsulated in the title. The word ‘know’ is too often used wrongly. We use it to describe things we feel, or think, or suspect, or believe, or would like to believe. What any of us really knows is small. What we nearly know is huge. I wanted to write about the many forms of nearly knowing.
To be true to the novel’s nature, the writing needed to be opaque and elusive. The reader must feel uncertain, not confused. Uncertain of what he or she is reading, and where it is leading. I decided that the best way for the reader to feel that way was for the writer to feel it too.
So I started to write with no notes, no storyline, and no characters apart from the one in the dream and a narrator. I didn’t want to write the novel in sequence, because that would have given a sense of direction too soon. I limited myself to 400 words a day. Each day started with a blank sheet of paper and a new idea, unrelated to what I had written previously. The ideas came mostly from poems I had written as a teenager. I have always felt that bad poems could make good prose.
Over time, other characters emerged, parts of a storyline emerged, and I began to use the fragments as building blocks, although none of them yet amounted to more than 1,000 words. I never re-read what I had written on a previous day. At the 20,000 and 45,000 word marks only, I read everything through, to get some sense of what was emerging. By the end, there were 62 fragments. Putting them together was like sewing a patchwork quilt, and there were many ways it could have been done.
I hope the end result is comprehensible, but also that it remains opaque and elusive. Very few of the events described are known for certain. All of them are known as nearly as they can be. But we still don’t know exactly where the novel is set, or exactly when, or who is telling the story. I don’t know any of those things myself.
Why is it set in America? I am asked. Two answers. The dream said that Arlene came from Pittsburgh, so she did. Probably. Also, I cannot see it being set anywhere else. I tried, but I failed. This is an American novel, but a universal story.