What Castles Teach Us

If a novel can be equated to a large physical structure (both have many levels of development) then novel-writing differs in that it happens at any time. Countless moments of inspiration or correction have hit when I'm specifically doing something else. There's a legitimate reason why people sometimes see me pulled over on a neighborhood street or paused in the parking lot, tapping away on my phone. Notes, mistakes to fix, 'shoulda's and 'What-if-I's. Nothing will ever be perfect, I realize, every time I return to my laptop where the bulk of the actual typing work happens. (Often this is the grinding part of the task.) Lately, the randomized welcome image on my Toshiba has shown legendary Neuschwanstein Castle in autumn. King Ludwig II's fairytale abode is magnificent, of course, but is also a cautionary tale. The castle underwent dozens of revisions over two decades of construction. It was like Bavaria's version of the Big Dig project, constantly being revised and occupied (published, or driven through) before it was complete. Though Neuschwanstein will likely stand for a thousand years, Ludwig himself ended up (prematurely) in Lake Starnberg, near Berg Castle. So did commissioner Bernhard Von Gudden, the man sent to remove the Bavarian king from power, due to mounting debts. Their deaths are considered a mystery. On a recent family trip through the United Kingdom, we got to experience a different type of place, one that could be the antithesis of Neuschwanstein. Completed 70 years earlier, in 1814, Lowther Castle is now an example of fiscal responsibility. It was a palace which hosted kings, dignitaries and the "top people" of British aristocracy in its heyday. Many stories could be penned about the likely scandalous garden parties (and illegitimate children) of 19th-century Lowther. But the family fortune was built on coal and land, which both lost value, and a descendant (possible the Yellow Earl) ran the place into enormous debt. To settle these affairs, the local government (of Cumbria, I believe) held the largest estate sale in UK history, auctioning off nearly 9000 items. They even took the floors and roof, all made of valuable materials. What's left behind is a beautiful shell--towers and walls, the bones of the place. All the magnificent intent is there, while the rest of it gets a do-over (albeit one which will take decades, one eye constantly fixed on the finances). Looked at through a literary lens, you could say there were big parts of Lowther which didn't work. The author had to break it down, and take it all the way back to the development stage. With my first book, "Watching the World Fall" I made the error of getting too much away from the original story. It was a kind of rookie mistake. (The core idea--the story of a father who kidnaps a college football star--always stayed the same.) Countless times, I've heard that your first novel is written entirely to make these mistakes, so you learn and come to the second one wiser (and more humble). This seems utterly true.

I had to learn, in fact, that I couldn't write a credible, human anti-hero (Ben Gerrard) without being a father myself. (Parenthood is, of course, a life-consuming adventure.) While walking through Lowther, it was thrilling to note both the amazing architecture (what the place was/could've been) and spots where the floors were cut out (like minor characters who served some irreplaceable purpose in the story). Brochures describe the castle as-is with the term 'ruins.' At night, with British rains coming in, the place must seem like a haven for ghosts and Tolkienesque wickedness. It would certainly serve as a hell-of-a backdrop for concerts and Halloween parties. The house was not gutted by weather, war or natural disaster, but rather by a lack of responsibility. Everything fancy (and impermanent) went to the repo men. The center is now a small museum.

Somewhere, the spirit of architect Sir Robert Smirke (who got the job as an assistant) may be watching the centuries-long saga with interest. I wonder what he'd think of it all, as a tale of revision and hubris. The house you build may have to be re-done, as discouraging as that is. Or would he just be smiling, chuckling to himself in the company of other master creators? After all, the walls at Lowther (his characters and plot) are still standing.

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