Monday, August 11, 2014

The Novel I Wish I Had Written

Sacchi Green

Any novel. That’s what I want to write. No, that’s not quite true; there are a few specific novels I wish I’d written already, and characters who intrigue me so much that I’ve told more than one story about them, and want to do more. Sometimes I’ve done so much research for a short story that it seems like a waste not to use it for a novel. But will I? It doesn’t seem likely.

One novel I wish I could write would begin with the excerpt I posted last time, the beginning of my WWII story “To Remember You By.” An American nurse in London meets an American woman pilot who ferries warplanes for the RAF. They have a brief two weeks together, and then have to part, never expecting to see each other again.

Here’s how that one ends:

We parted with promises to meet one more time before Cleo’s last flight. I mortgaged a week of sleep to get my nursing shifts covered, and at Hamble Air Field, by moonlight, she introduced me to the planes she loved.

“This is the last Spitfire I’ll ever fly,” she said, stroking the sleek fuselage. “Seafire III, Merlin 55 engine, 24,000 foot ceiling, although I won’t go up that high just on a hop to Scotland.”

From Scotland she’d catch an empty cargo plane back to the States. I had just got my orders to report to Hawaii for assignment somewhere in the South Pacific. War is hell, and so are good-byes.

“Could I look into the cockpit?” I asked, wanting to be able to envision her there, high in the sky.

“Sure. You can even sit in it and play pilot, if you like.” She helped me climb onto the wing, with more pressing of my ass than was absolutely necessary, and showed me how to lower myself into the narrow space. Standing on the wing, she leaned in and kissed me, hard at first, then with aching tenderness, then hard again.

“Pull up your skirt,” she ordered, and I did it without question. She already knew I wasn’t wearing underpants. “Let’s see how wet you can get the seat,” she said, “So I can breathe you all the way to Scotland.” She unbuttoned my shirt and played with my breasts until I begged her to lean in far enough to suck my aching nipples; then, with her lips and tongue and teeth driving me so crazy that my breath came in a storm of desperate gasps, she reached down into my slippery heat and made me arch and buck so hard that the plane’s dials and levers were in danger. I needed more than I could get sitting in the cramped cockpit.

We clung together finally in the grass under the sheltering wing. I got my hands into Cleo’s trousers, and made her groan, but she wouldn’t relax into sobbing release until she had her whole hand at last inside me and I was riding it on pounding waves of pleasure as keen as pain.

I thought, when I could think anything again, that she had fallen asleep, she was so still. Gently, gently I touched my lips to the nearly-healed tattoo above her breast. Tiny wings matching mine. Something to remember her by.

Without opening her eyes she said, in a lost, small voice, “What are we going to do, Kay?”

I knew what she was going to do. “You’re going to claim the sky, to make history. And anyway,” I said, falling back on dark humor since I had no comfort to offer, “a cozy menage in Paris seems out of the question with the Nazis in control.”

Then, because I knew if I touched her again we would both cry, and hate ourselves for it, I stood, put my clothes in as much order as I could, and walked away.
I looked back once, from the edge of the field. Cleo leaned, head bowed, against the plane. Some trick of the moonlight transmuted her dark hair into silver; I had a vision of how breathtaking she would be in thirty or forty years. The pain of knowing I couldn’t share those years made me stumble, and nearly fall. But I kept on walking.

And she let me go.

On June 24, 1944, against all justice and reason, the bill to make the Women Airforce Service Pilots officially part of the Army Air Force was defeated in Congress by nineteen votes. In December, the WASP were disbanded. By then, though, after going through hell in the Pacific theater of war, I had met Jack, who truly loved and needed me, whose son was growing below my heart. His kisses tasted of home, and peace, and more unborn children demanding their chance at life.

Thirty-three years later, in 1977, when women were at last being admitted into the Air Force, the WASP were retroactively given military status. It was then, through a reunion group, that I found out what had become of Cleo Remington; she had found a sky that was high and wide enough to hold her fierce spirit, and freedom as a bush pilot in Alaska.

And she was, as I discovered, even more breathtaking at sixty than she’d been at twenty-six. But that’s another chapter of the story.

That chapter was one I just had to write, and I did. “Alternate Lives” was published in Best Women’s Erotica 2004, and when eventually a collection of my own work, A Ride to Remember, came out from Lethe Press, those two stories about Cleo and Kay were the first and last in the book. (A book, I might add, that proved to me that as a short story writer and anthology editor, my name carries next to no weight with the reading public. It sold relatively few copies, and even being a Lambda Award Finalist didn’t help. Whenever I start to think about self-publishing I remember that fact, and kick myself back to reality.)

Here’s how “Alternate Lives” begins:

In that wartime English summer Cleo had made me soar, even though I never left the ground.
Thirty-five years later, in 1978, her plane rose, and banked, leaving Anchorage dwindling in the distance. As the clouds lifted in the east, the towering glory of Denali blazed suddenly white in the sun.

“The mountain’s out!” someone shouted behind me.

“Sure is,” Cleo said, above the hum of the engine. “Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?”

But it was Cleo Remington herself who took my breath away.

I watched her strong hands on the controls, remembering the way she had touched the Spitfire fighter plane that last night in England. Remembering, across the years, the way she had touched me.

The man behind me leaned forward in a genial attempt at conversation. “Cleo says you were in the service together, Kay. Were you an Air Transport pilot too?”

“No, I was a nurse,” I said. “But for the last few years I’ve been a physical therapist.” I turned slightly toward him, which gave me a good view of Cleo’s profile. Her once-black hair was silver now, thick, just long enough to ruffle—if only I dared. Her tanned face was leaner, weathered by life, tiny lines radiating from the corners of eyes and mouth; my fingers would still recognize her in the dark, my mouth would know the contours of her throat, her jaw, her expressive lips—if I had the right to touch her.

“Ah, a therapist,” he said, nodding. “You’ve come to help poor Yelena. But you were a nurse back then? Cleo’s never mentioned being wounded.”

There are wounds no medicine can heal.

“No,” I said. “We met in London, on leave, just before she flew back to the States and I was reassigned to the South Pacific. You know how it is in wartime; friendship isn’t measured in weeks, or months.” I felt his speculative gaze on my plain gold wedding band, and diverted him. “So tell me your war stories. Where did you serve?”

That did the trick. He held forth on North Africa and Sicily until Cleo shushed him with a gesture, her flashing grin so familiar it made my heart lurch. “Hey, Len, give Kay a chance to see Alaska!”

So I followed her lead, asking questions about the magnificent scenery below, while Len shifted into a tour guide routine. Denali, Mt. McKinley on the maps, was behind us as we flew south along Cook Inlet between the green Kenai Peninsula and the beginnings of the starker Aleutian Range. I tried to make the right responses, but my body was alert to Cleo’s least movement. I wanted so intensely to lay my hand where a band of sunlight curved across her thigh that my own thighs quivered.
How had I thought I could carry this off? But I savored the anguish, every searing drop. In two weeks I would return to Jack, who truly loved and needed me, who had built a life with me. My love for him had never been diminished by the memories of Cleo kept tucked away like rare, glowing jewels I could never wear again.

“Never,” though, has a different ring to it when you’re nearing sixty, and you know damned well that life is too short to waste on guilt. What you want is what you want, whether you can have it or not. I can’t be the only woman to find that as the biological imperative wanes, other passions intensify. That hidden glow can flare into a heat too intense to deny.

I should add that “poor Yelena” (Lenotchka to her intimate friends, as Kay comes to be) may be the strongest character in the story, a former bomber pilot in in the Russian all-woman air corps known to the Germans as “Night Witches,” and Cleo’s life partner ever since she defected to Alaska and crash-landed on a an ice shelf near Nome.

Writing what are essentially the beginning and end of what might be a novel has the obvious problem of tying you in to a certain continuity that limits what can happen in between. There are two other essential stories to be told, that of Kay meeting Jack in the Pacific theater of war, and of Cleo rescuing Yelena from that Alaskan ice shelf. The latter I’ve actually begun, but there always seems to be something more urgent I should write, something with a deadline. In any case, four short stories don’t make a novel, not just because of their length, but because novels and short stories call for different kinds of writing. And when it comes to marketing, a story mostly about lesbian relationships but with two clearly bisexual characters (Kay and Yelena) would be hopeless.

I have two more sets of paired stories that share protagonists, and a few more where I feel as though I know a whole novel’s worth about them, but I doubt that it will ever happen. Some people are short story writers, and that’s that.

But I will, sometime, tell the story of Yelena on the ice, and Cleo saving her, and how they come together. I know just what happens, and how, and where. The scenes are in my head, and the shape of the story; it just happens to be a short story, not a novel.



  1. That’s true, Sacchi I don’t think I’ll ever have the chops for anything more than short stories either. Even a novella seems out of reach at this point.

    Demands on my time, energy, and motivation rarely come together any more, so the idea of engaging the discipline required by a novel is kinda beyond my scope. Not to mention the vast differences in form between a novel and a short story. Like the old dog with a new, and very complicated trick.

  2. Oh, and I loved this line:

    “Never,” though, has a different ring to it when you’re nearing sixty, and you know damned well that life is too short to waste on guilt.

    1. I wrote that when I was closer to sixty than to where I am now, but it still holds true, even though the possibilities dwindle.

  3. I'm with Daddy here. I don't think like a novelist. I don't have the attention span to read anything longer than about 30,000 words. That being said these are great stories and would be great novels. So many writers have problems tying up ends and finishing. Maybe you need to write it backwards, putting in the piece just before the end, and just before that and so on. It might not seem so daunting.

    1. That doesn't mean I don't like *reading* novels. In fact, often I tend to tackle 1000-page works that can take me somewhere for awhile. If I find myself in a story I like, I often am sad when it's done. I'm just in awe of those writers who do novels regularly, such as our own Desiree, who, with something like 150 books out there, I surmise is at the other end of the chart. And your suggestion for a new process might just get me out of the slump I'm in. Backwards, Huh? Well, endings can be one of my pitfalls, so … why not?

  4. Many authors appear to hold up the idea of writing a novel as some sort of impossible, unattainable dream. Furthermore, there's this (in my opinion) ridiculous notion that one deserves more credit for writing a novel than for an equal sized collection of shorter works.

    Personally, I find it's more difficult to write a stunning short tale than to put together a novel. And I think you do yourself a disservice by disparaging that accomplishment.

    Meanwhile, Kay's and Cleo's history sounds like perfect novel material to me. If these characters have kept your attention long enough to write multiple stories, perhaps it really is time to weave these two tales into a longer narrative.

    But don't do it just because you somehow believe that writing a novel would make you a "real" author. That's just hogwash (imho).

  5. I do consider myself a real writer (seems like "author" is getting overused lately.) But I've found, in the world of lesfic, at least, that only novelists get any respect. When I do book signings at a bookstore in Provincetown during Women's Week, the best sales are of my anthologies that include work by novelists familiar to the lesbian readership, preferably novelists who are sitting right there with me. And with online discussion groups, it's hard to say which is more anathema to the readers, short stories or erotica.

    I do have a taste for bucking trends and not caring about blending in, so I don't mind in general, but getting to do more anthologies does depend on sales. Fortunately I don't depend on writing income for living expenses, having saved for retirement when I was in business, so I could say the heck with genre trends and write anything I feel like--but I think I'm addicted to being published in whatever way I can.

  6. This is good news, Sacchi. At this point in your writing career, writing what you want probably doesn't mean not getting published at all.

  7. My main comment is a big cosign to what Lisabet said. Novels get seen as a rite of passage, but that doesn't mean short stories are easy. Since I started writing both, I figured out that it takes more work for me to write an equivalent number of words as short stories (specifically because of all the world building required by each story.

    You're doing that world building, and it's deep and interesting. If you want to write more about Kay and Cleo et al, I hope you do.