EDITOR’S NOTE: Cemetery Dance is proud to publish Paul F. Olson’s novel Alexander’s Song in September 2022. We’ve invited the author to give us all a peek at the inspiration and work that went into the book. Catch up on Part One before you dive in.
Now, here’s Paul!
The new Cemetery Dance edition of Alexander’s Song is dedicated to five writers whose work has inspired, informed, and enriched my own. In the months before I began writing the novel, I happened to read books by two of those writers. Peter Straub’s brilliant Mystery was one of those books. The other was Charles Palliser’s ingenious The Quincunx. Alexander’s Song bears little resemblance to either one, but I felt their influence, still strong inside me, with every word I typed.
Mystery and The Quincunx couldn’t be more different. Straub’s novel is a dark, subversive dream of a book. It’s deceptive and tricksy. It appears to be one thing on the surface, stating its genre right in the title. But then, as with the author’s Ghost Story a decade earlier, it goes on to play with, distort, twist, upend, and otherwise challenge nearly every convention of that genre. The Quincunx is a sprawling epic — the greatest Dickensian novel that Dickens never wrote. It has an intricate structure, with five parts, each part divided into five books, each book divided into five chapters — and that’s just the beginning of the carefully-crafted puzzles within. Its mysteries are old and impenetrable, its plot harrowing and bleak. Straub’s dark secrets lie just below the surface, almost but never quite visible in the harsh sunlit glare of a Caribbean island and a blue-green Wisconsin summer. Palliser’s are buried deep beneath layers of fog and duplicity in 19th century England.
What both books share, what appealed to me when I read them and kept whispering to me for months afterward, was their sheer audacity. I loved the way that Straub and Palliser fearlessly built their intricate, complex plots and then trusted their readers to follow along. There’s no authorial handholding in these books, no “let me explain that a little more” or “let’s go over that again” or “hey, maybe you missed this bit, so I’ll repeat it here.” The authors believe you’re an intelligent human being and will be able to do the work yourself. After that? Well, you either keep up or you don’t. And keeping up with these novels isn’t easy. You don’t escape into the worlds of Mystery and The Quincunx. You are engulfed by them.
As I worked my way through the first draft, I had only the faintest notions of where I was going to end up. From time to time, I could glimpse the destination in the distance, but I was seeing through a glass darkly. Clarifying that vision became a compulsion. My desk and walls were covered in dozens of hastily-scribbled notes: names, dates, places. I had a family tree taped above my computer and a fictional bibliography next to the keyboard. I had a map. No, two maps. And still I floundered. I was really not much different than my protagonist, good old Andy Gillespie, who only wanted to solve the mysteries that lurked in the past of his favorite writer, Alexander Bassett. Like Andy, I was lost in a world of deepening enigma and darkening menace, and like Andy, I thought I had everything figured out a number of times, only to have the rug yanked out from under my feet. Even at the best of times, I was only twenty or thirty pages ahead of the poor guy, and I had to scramble to keep my lead; I could literally hear him huffing and puffing behind me, hurrying to catch up.
I eventually got to the point where that hazy vision of the ending came into focus, and from there it was a downhill sprint to the finish. When I got there, pleased as punch that most of the pieces had fallen into place, I took a couple of days to consider what I had. I had a manuscript of nearly seven hundred pages. I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I had lots of nifty scenes in between. That much I was sure of. But I wasn’t sure I had an actual novel.
I knew the second draft was going to need trimming. Seven hundred pages is a lot of book, even for me, who’s always had a serious wordiness problem. So I’d have to cut — little nips and tucks, a few bigger slices, and some big walloping whacks. But first there were things to fix. I had to take my ragged storyline and all those scenes I was so proud of and turn them into an honest-to-god narrative. That meant I had to connect the dots. Lots and lots of dots. Then I had to impose order on the chaos, bring structure to what was essentially just an amorphous blob.
Normally, I don’t much like second drafts, but doing this one was a treat, and most of the fun came from getting that structure just right. It was important to me that the reader and the characters in the book be in the same place as often as possible. This was no cozy whodunnit, where the sharp-eyed reader would pick up all the little clues I sprinkled throughout the story and figure the whole thing out before they were halfway through. I wanted just the opposite. When Andy was lost and baffled, I wanted the reader to be lost and baffled. When he began to sort things out, then readers would too. Emboldened by books like The Quincunx and Mystery, and sticking with the idea of writing the sort of book you like to read, I wanted the reader to almost become part of the story, to be swallowed up by it and ultimately work as hard as the protagonist to find their way back out — and if that led to a bit of obsession, if the book made them miss a meal or a little sleep, if they felt they had to go back and reread something or jot down their own notes to keep track of all the whos, whens, and whats, all the better.
To help bring about the total immersion I sought, I tried to utilize a structure that mirrors Andy’s own struggles. In the first half of the book, when the mysteries are many and deep, I did everything possible to keep the reader off-balance — playing with the timeline, presenting information out of order and in unusual ways, casting a dreamlike uncertainty or even unreality over the proceedings. Later, as things begin to fall into place for Andy, the structure gradually becomes more traditional, the narrative more linear, until the final third of the novel when I stopped playing games and allowed the story to move swiftly and mostly straight ahead to the conclusion. It’s the kind of storytelling trick most people won’t even notice, but I like to think that doesn’t matter. Whether they notice it or not, the trick is there, quietly doing the work I needed it to do.
Depending on how you count such things, I did either three-and-a-half or four drafts of Alexander’s Song, and when I was done I had a five hundred page novel I was quite happy with. I hadn’t succeeded in doing everything I’d set out to do, but I’d managed to pull off quite a bit of it. I had wanted to try something different, to challenge myself, to be ambitious, to forget about genre, to disregard rules, and to accomplish something bigger and better than I’d ever done before. To my surprise, I found I had done almost all of those things. To use another term that hadn’t been invented yet, I had leveled-up. It felt good.
Now all I had to do was sell it.
ABOUT THE BOOK
For a time in the 1940s, Alexander Bassett was one of the brightest stars in the literary firmament, an acclaimed novelist, poet, and playwright, a voice for social justice. But the years took their toll, Bassett’s work fell out of favor, and eventually, the man himself dropped out of sight. By the time the world learned of his death in 1969, few noticed or cared.
Years later, a school teacher named Andy Gillespie sets out to write about Bassett’s life and visits the author’s hometown, eager to learn about his early years. He arrives in Rock Creek, Michigan, expecting to find a small town proud of its famous son, but what greets him is something much different. Only a handful of old-timers even remember Bassett’s name, and most have no interest in Andy’s quest. Doors are slammed in his face. People turn away. Even the few who seem willing to talk – an enthusiastic high school student, an eccentric shopkeeper, a colorful hotel owner, an elderly hermit – raise more questions than they answer.
Despite the odds against him, Andy continues to dig. From dusty library shelves to the neglected stones in a lonely graveyard, from the pages of forgotten journals to the shores of a remote island, he keeps on searching, and gradually he begins to unbury fragments of the truth, revealing glimpses into Alexander Bassett’s past that are unexpected, mysterious, and frightening.
Then the notes start to arrive.
Alexander’s Song is the story of an author nearly forgotten by time, a man whose life was nothing like it seemed, and a chain of darkness that began decades ago and is not finished yet.