It took me ten years to write The Waiting Room, my debut novel. Well, actually, that’s pure fiction – I made the number up. It was really more like thirty years. Writing my novel felt at times akin to wrestling a crocodile. A crocodile I loved, mind you, but one who resisted being corralled inside the confines of a book jacket for a very long time.
The idea for the novel came to me soon after my mother died. I wanted to write about her extraordinary experiences during World War II, where she spent two years in the brutal concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. At the end of the war, aged twenty-one, she was the sole survivor of her family. She arrived in Australia as a refugee with only a suitcase in hand and went on to rebuild her life, working, marrying and raising a family, wrapping her children in a protective shield of love. When I started jotting down notes though, I found I only remembered snippets of her stories; I’d spent most of my youth running away from my mother’s haunted past, wanting to reinvent myself as a carefree, Aussie teenager growing up in Melbourne during the 70s.
It took almost twenty years until I had the courage to tackle the book again. I had become a doctor, was working as a freelance journalist, had met my husband and moved to Israel, where we were bringing up three young children. As I struggled to adjust to my new home and the demands of day-to-day life, all I could manage writing-wise was to scribble down notes in a journal. I didn’t realise then that many of these observations of what it was like to work as a doctor and bring up children in a war-torn country, would go on to become the bedrock from which my novel sprouted – still inspired by my mother, but also by these new experiences.
I wrote small vignettes in my journals at first. After a few years I had a pile of scenes, but no strong narrative or structure to speak of on which to pin any of them. I felt a sense of vertigo. The first author I met when I moved to Israel was David Grossman, who had recently written his powerful novel See Under: Love. He told me that when he sets out to write a novel he knows almost nothing about what the book will be, and it is only in the final stages that the story starts to congeal. ‘I need the story to surprise me, betray me, take me to places I’m afraid to go usually.’ In his experience, a novel-in-progress often behaves like a cunning carpet-merchant: ‘It unrolls and unfolds dozens of colourful carpets, and I’m tempted very easily.’
Grossman’s method intrigued me. At the time, though, I didn’t have the confidence or experience to trust in such an organic process. I didn’t realise back then that, like Grossman, I am also the sort of writer who needs to write in order to find out what I am writing, so The Waiting Room limped along at a painstakingly slow pace. E.L. Doctorow once said in an interview: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I, too, kept persevering with the book, trying out various structures – including a polyphonous novel, in which each chapter was told from the point of view of a different character. When we moved back to Australia in 2002, I entered the manuscript into several awards and competitions and surprised myself by winning a few. Those achievements boosted my confidence a little, giving me an indication that I must be on the right track. Even so, I was still totally lost in the narrative woods; the story was flat, burdened with weighty flashbacks, dreams and meditative prose that slowed everything to a crawl. I lost count of how many drafts The Waiting Room had been through.
The crocodile called Structure kept thrashing around in the muddy waters of my narrative, which spanned three continents and three different eras, and had a dozen or so characters. Just as I was ready to give up on the novel, a friend encouraged me to apply for an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was ranked as the top US low-residency program in Creative Writing at the time and to my absolute shock, I was accepted. The faculty and students were of outstanding calibre and the focus on the craft of writing, as well as reading widely, was uppermost in everyone’s mind.
My advisor in the second half of the program was a brilliant, softly spoken Southern gentleman who accused me of a ‘fear of finishing’. He was right. This novel had been with me for so many years that I almost didn’t want to let go of it. He soon became the perfect antidote to my angst-ridden inner critic. He suggested I take the last chapter of the book and bring it up front, starting the narrative from the end of the story instead of following a traditional linear arc. This change meant the novel now had a powerful opening, straight in media res. I started to find my writing mojo again. My advisor also encouraged me to develop the ghostly presence of my protagonist’s mother, who eventually grew into a major character in the novel. He told me to read William Kennedy’s Ironweed, by way of example, in which all sorts of ghosts take centre stage, and reading this book encouraged me to persevere with my own ghost. Over the course of the following year, the final structure of the book emerged. By the end of my MFA, I had tamed the manuscript into the shape of a novel. It took another year of careful editing under the guidance of my US agent, tightening prose, checking continuity of narrative and fine-tuning dialogue, before I finally felt ready to show it to publishers. Then, within a couple of weeks, after all those years as a work-in-progress, The Waiting Room finally found a home.
Leah Kaminsky, a physician and award-winning writer, is Poetry & Fiction Editor at the Medical Journal of Australia. Her debut novel The Waiting Room (Vintage 2015) was shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Writing Competition. A Matter of Life and Death (a work of creative nonfiction) is forthcoming with Harper Collins in 2016. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician-writers’ works, starred on Booklist (Knopf US 2012). She is also co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family (Vintage 2015). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. More details at: http://leahkaminsky.com/