Category: Novel writing

The Story Behind The Marriage Pact

The Story Behind The Marriage Pact

Where do novels come from? The ether? The collective unconscious? Some combination of events, relationships, experiences, and books in the writer’s past? I imagine it’s different for everyone, but one thing I do know is that every novel has to begin with a spark: an idea of character, situation, or premise that makes one think, “This could be a novel.” Once a novel takes off, once you get past page fifteen or so–for me, anyway–it begins to come from somewhere else. Then, it becomes a matter of characters acting and reacting to their situations; it becomes a matter of orchestrating the plot in a way that creates tension. But the spark, that frisson of idea that sets the whole thing off, is another matter. The spark always comes first.

So what was the spark for my new psychological thriller, The Marriage Pact? It really was a combination of three different things.


Inspiration #1: LOVE

I’ve been married for 16 years (thanks, Kevin!), and I’ve written about marriage (and divorce) before in novels like Golden State. This time, I wanted to write about two people who are deeply in love and trying to make it work. I didn’t want to write a story of husband against wife, but rather a husband and wife together, struggling against a powerful outside force.

Inspiration #2: CULTS

The second inspiration was my longstanding fascination with cults–in particular, organizations that lure people in with the promise of helping them to live fuller, happier lives and be better versions of themselves. Some fashion themselves as religions, while others purport to be self-help movements. I wanted to explore why educated, reasonable individuals get drawn into these organizations and become so enmeshed that they leave behind family members, spend massive amounts of money to take seminars or courses, and even sign extreme contracts committing themselves to the organization for life and beyond.


The third piece of the puzzle was The Federal Criminal Code, a massive tome, comprised of over a thousand pages of tiny print. The book, issued annually, outlines every crime you can think of, along with many you can’t, and the corresponding penalties. I wondered: What would happen if there were strict rules for marriage, and penalties for those who broke the rules? What if there was an organization that took marital “crimes” as seriously as other types of crimes? I wanted to put that concept under the microscope, take it as far as I could, and see what happened.

I talked about inspiration and more with Joe Hartlaub for Bookreporter. Read the author interview.

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P.S. The Marriage Pact is on the Entertainment Weekly Must List this week!

Get The Marriage Pact.

Haruki Murakami on Kindness and Clarity

Haruki Murakami on Kindness and Clarity

Why clear explanations are a matter of kindness, not to mention good storytelling

I recently came across Paris Review interview with Haruki Murakami. When asked how he chooses his story line and his voice, Murakami says,

I get some images and connect one piece to another. That’s the story line. Then I explain the story line to the reader. You should be very kind when you explain something. If you think, it’s okay; I know that, it’s a very arrogant thing. Easy words and good metaphors; good allegory. So that’s what I do. I explain everything very carefully and clearly.

I love the way Murakami connects authorial kindness with the reading experience. There is no place for arrogance in good storytelling. If you come from a place of, “The reader can figure it out,” you may be coming from a place of arrogance. Yes, reading is an active experience that requires thought, but reading should not necessarily require high wire acts of mental gymnastics.

Often, a lack of explanation comes not from arrogance, but from a genuine misunderstanding of what has actually made it onto the page. In this case, you’ll be well-served by having a trusted reader explain the story as he or she sees it. Listen openly, not defensively. Then, look for the missing links. What did you think was on the page that your trusted reader hasn’t figured out? If the reader’s experience of the story differs wildly from your intent, it can be tempting to blame the reader. “It’s there!” you might say. “On page 67, I mentioned how…”

But remember this: it isn’t the reader’s job to understand things that are opaque, to “get” something that is buried under layers of overwriting. No, it is the writer’s job to make things clear.

When you think about how to present your story to the reader, carefully and clearly should be your mantra. Carefully because each word matters, and clearly because clarity is the sign of a well-thought out story and a strong narrative voice. One of the highest compliments I can put in the margins of a book I’m editing is, “Yes, direct and clear!”

What the reader wants is:

  • clarity of story line
  • clarity of character motivation
  • clarity of language

Whether you’re writing a very literary novel, a mystery, or a memoir, most readers will appreciate directness. Tension arises from the choices characters are confronted with, how they respond to those choices, and the way in which the various puzzle pieces of your story are aligned–not from a sense of confusion intentionally introduced by the author.

I think Murakami is the perfect writer to deliver this message, because his novels are so complex and nuanced. His books are proof that one can be both straightforward and intellectually challenging; one can write with clarity and complexity. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Read the Paris Review interview with Haruki Murakami here.

Read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Norwegian Wood.