The Trunk Novel

by Alec Nevala-Lee

Although he has published 14 stories in Analog, Alec Nevala-Lee feels like his latest novella is his true debut, because it is the result of the first ideas that inspired him to become a full-time novelist. You can read “The Elephant Maker” in our [January/February issue, on sale now!]

When I was twenty-five years old, I quit my job to become a novelist. Shortly after graduating from college, I had somehow ended up at a financial firm in New York. The story of how I got there isn’t especially interesting—suffice to say that it wasn’t what I envisioned for myself—and it matters less than the circumstances of my departure. For years, I had tried to write a novel in my spare time, and all I had to show for it were a pile of notes, some mind maps, and three or four stray chapters. Eventually, I would learn a few basic rules that might have allowed me to finish a book while earning a paycheck elsewhere. (The big ones, at least for me, are to work from an outline and not read what I’ve written until the entire manuscript is done.) At that stage, though, I didn’t have the skills, and after a long struggle, I decided to stake everything on the hope of a writing career. I saved some money, downsized to a more affordable apartment, and gave notice. My impression was that everyone at the office expected that I would be back one day, and I can hardly blame them.

The real question was what novel to write. Before I left my job, I tried a technique for generating story ideas that had worked for me in the past. I took a pile of science magazines, leafed through each issue until two or three articles caught my eye, and tried to imagine a plot that would connect them all. All of my early stories in Analog—“Inversus,” “The Last Resort,” “Kawataro,” “The Boneless One,” “Ernesto”—would emerge from this sort of exercise, but this was the only time I ever tried it with a longer project. After an hour or two, I had a couple of articles that seemed promising, both of which I found in back issues of Discover. One was on the use of DNA testing to track the sources of illegal ivory, and the other was about neural implants. (I can’t be entirely sure that the second story linked here was the exact one that I used—it’s been a long time—but it was along these lines.) I let these ideas cook for a while, and I eventually came up with a story that had something to do with a nerve stimulation system that could be used to treat rogue elephants.

What I didn’t know was that this simple premise would take up years of my life. With a youthful energy and ambition that seems unthinkable to me today, I decided to actually research the story in India, where I spent three weeks traveling by train between Mumbai, Karnataka, and Goa. The first draft took me a year to write, and when I was finished, it was over 225,000 words long. When I look back at it now, it clearly needed a lot of work, but it was solid enough to get me an agent, who patiently worked with me on revisions. Over the next twelve months, I cut the novel in half and rewrote huge sections of the plot, eventually producing what felt like every possible variation of the story—transplanting characters from one subplot to another, introducing new complications, cutting others, writing and throwing away thousands of words. In the end, my agent and I parted ways without seeing eye to eye on the result, and the manuscript never even went out to editors. Years later, after I had published three novels, I tried to assemble a fresh draft from the best parts of the other versions, but this one didn’t sell either, and I doubted that it ever would.

I decided to stake everything on the hope of a writing career. I saved some money, downsized to a more affordable apartment, and gave notice. My impression was that everyone at the office expected that I would be back one day, and I can hardly blame them.

So what went wrong? If I’m honest with myself, it was a combination of inexperience and arrogance. I wanted to write a gigantic novel that simultaneously honored and deconstructed the adventure stories that I devoured growing up, and I just didn’t have the tools to do it. During the research process, I also had the misfortune of encountering one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, which encouraged me to devote a vast section of the novel to a subplot about the Mumbai underworld. Some of this material was good, but it distracted from the central narrative, which had to share space with stories about finance, politics, and organized crime that I never managed to bring under control. (Even at the time, I knew that I was tempting fate. At one point, the novel opened with a quote from Henry James: “Tolstoy is a reflector as vast as a natural lake; a monster harnessed to his great subject—all human life!—as an elephant might be harnessed, for purposes of traction, not to a carriage, but to a coach-house. His own case is prodigious, but his example for others is dire: Disciples not elephantine he can only mislead and betray.”)

In the end, it became my trunk novel—the book that I had to write and abandon in order to learn the craft of storytelling—and I never expected to see it in print. About a year and a half ago, however, I found myself in the unfamiliar position of having a lot of spare time on my hands. For reasons that aren’t worth discussing here, the editing of my book Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller was delayed for months, and I needed something else to do. It occurred to me to write a short story—I hadn’t published one since “Retention,” which appeared in Analog in July 2020—and when I had trouble coming up with a new idea, I impulsively pulled out my India novel. I had always been disappointed by my failure to find a home for it, and I decided that it couldn’t hurt to try a little experiment. Without even reading most of the novel again, I would quickly skim through the draft, copy and paste all of the sections from the elephant subplot into a new Word file, and then read it with fresh eyes to see if it made any sense as a narrative in itself.

Incredibly enough, it did, and after a week or so of additional work, I had a story that stood on its own. (Before I dove into it, I took the precaution of asking Trevor Quachri how long a story could be and still fit within a single issue, and I made sure that to keep it to that length.) What had once been a monster of a novel was now a fairly tight novella of 36,000 words, and I was astounded to find that nearly everything that mattered to me was still there. If you were to read the original, which I have no intention of publishing now, you would find that all the characters had stories of their own that were cut for space, but nothing essential to the main narrative was lost. As Stephen King wrote of his uncut version of The Stand, “You won’t find old characters behaving in strange new ways, but you will discover that almost all of the characters were, in the book’s original form, doing more things.” In this case, you’ll have to imagine them for yourself, but you can take my word that Adam Hill, in particular, had some wild adventures in Mumbai that only I and a few early readers will ever experience.

“The Elephant Maker” is the fourteenth story that I’ve published in Analog, but I see it in many ways as my debut. Reading it over again, I’m amazed by the energy that I had as a young writer, and I’m glad that the world will finally meet Divakar, Rana, and all the rest, who feel to me like old friends. While I can hardly be objective here, I think that it’s my best story, or at least the one that means the most to me. (I should also give due credit to Mimi Mondal, who did a sensitivity read and critique that hugely elevated the final result.) Seeing it in print feels like the end of a chapter in my life that began over fifteen years ago, when I took the risk of becoming a writer for real. Like nearly everything else I’ve ever done that seems worthwhile, it took longer than expected, but I’m grateful for the chance to share it now. For better or worse, it’s the story that made me the writer that I am today, and I still stand by the quote from Virginia Woolf that once served as its epigraph: “Why, again, should the final test of plot, character, story, and the other ingredients of a novel lie in their power to imitate life? Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?”

Alec Nevala-Lee was a 2019 Hugo Award finalist for the group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. His most recent book is Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s