Mona Simpson, at Hofstra for The Great Writers Great Readers series, put it quite simply: “The older I get the more interested I become in plot.” Why? Because with time life’s plots reveal themselves unequivocally. One begins to understand that while there may be as many stories as there are people, there are a finite number of plots. Patterns emerge, but it takes a life of gossip and talk about those lives to begin to recognize those selfsame patterns—and how they might in some way become useful to a writer of fiction. The most popular girl in highschool becomes a prostitute in her twenties. By her thirties she’s in rehab for drug addiction. In her forties, you hear through friends, she’s married to a banker, living on Park Avenue. Marriages end, dreams fail, friends die tragically, murders (yes even murders) occur, sickness fells a young mother, careers skyrocket, fame graces a few fortunates, hardwork pays off and also it doesn’t, children grow up and bring along their own new plots, the prince and princess for whom your maid also works ends up blowing their astronomical wad, leaving a trail of debt in their wake. By the way, these are all true stories.
When I wrote my first novel, Bright Angel Time, I did not care about plot at all. My professor at Columbia University’s MFA Program in Fiction, Robert Towers, kept asking me, “Where’s this going, Martha?” I can still hear the faint drawl of Texas in the sound of his words, still see him puzzeled, sitting at his desk. By this point in his life, he must have known many plots—his own and those of others. I knew only the stories of my childhood. They were abundant and fertile, but still truncated. Time hadn’t had its way yet with these lives and I didn’t quite appreciate the extent of pleasure and destruction that could and would occur. So as a young writer, by default really, I cared mostly about language. I recall a student in workshop saying, “Martha’s language is too rich, like a dark chocolate.”
Thinking about plot, I realize I have come to care about it much more too. Dear Money, my latest novel, has plot as its engine. It was a challenge I set for myself. I wanted the book to be linear (all of my previous novels were anything but linear) and I wanted there to be a clear forward momentum—a character wanting something and going after it. (By the way, I also didn’t want anyone to die, and I almost got away with that: there are only two deaths in the novel. Both are insignificant—if you can say that about death—to the storyline.) What I hadn’t understood was that age led me to this. The plot of Dear Money in some ways follows that of Shaw’s Pygmalion, itself a variant of the “stranger comes to town” sort—in this case a big wheel in Wall Street offers a modern-day “flower” girl (a middle-aged, mid-list writer) the chance to chuck it all and step into the world of the mighty and the powerfully rich during a foolish decade in which the plots of the mighty and the powerful seemed to obliterate everthing else.