Why Write a Novel?

I was inspired to write Martin of Gfenn when I visited a small chapel in the village of Gfenn outside of Zürich in January 1997. The experience of writing it was really almost beyond description and Martin, the protagonist, never felt like a fictional character to me but rather like a living person who was telling me his story. His story is all of our story, really, but his was abbreviated because he had leprosy. The chapel in Gfenn was part of a leper community — the Knights of St. Lazarus — and was built in the 13th century as much as a buffer zone between warring — or feuding — lords as a place for these knights returning from the Holy Land to live.

2005 visiting Gfenn, again.

Martin knew he was an artist when he was a child. He grew up at the Augustine Canons of St. Martin which is where he got his name. He was trained to paint wall murals — frescoes — by an Italian monk, Michele, who’d been sent away from his community because of unspecified sins. He was a marvelous teacher and Martin loved learning. He looked forward to painting churches all over the place when he grew up, but instead, when he was 19, he was found to have leprosy. He fought the diagnosis but, in the end, of course, he had to go to Gfenn to live. While there, he takes it upon himself to paint the walls of the newly built chapel, fearing, all the while, he would not be able to finish. You can read about the novel here.

Yesterday while I was painting the cloud over the San Luis Valley a song came up on my old iPod. It was the song I listened to all the time while I was writing the second version (the first version was a first person novella of some 90 pages). I seldom hear the song, maybe not for a few years. My eyes filled with tears. I saw that I am Martin, not because of leprosy, but because I have been lucky to live to be 69 years old but now? I have to paint with the same determination and spirit of a character in one of my own novels. It felt as if Martin were saying to me, “You know this story. You wrote it.”

When I set out into the world in 1970 I wanted to be an artist. Things didn’t work out; in fact they ABYSMALLY didn’t work out, they COMICALLY didn’t work out; they even SADLY didn’t work out and a concatenation of random events put me in the classroom teaching writing for 38 years, nearly. It wasn’t until 2020 that I understood fully the nature of my, uh, nature.

So anyway, that’s a painting of a cloud but that isn’t all it is. I think that yesterday I had a pretty amazing experience and I get to be grateful to a character in my own novel for understanding me and telling me what to do. That’s pretty tripped out, when it comes down to it. Here’s a review of the novel so you can see something of what it is…

8 thoughts on “Why Write a Novel?

  1. The world works in mysterious ways. I love the “circle back” nature of this experience for you. You put something – Martin of Gfenn – out into the big world, and now, through your painting, it has returned to you with enriched meaning and inspiration.

  2. Is this art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way your rediscovery of self is wonderful. I do hope that the urgency you feel leads to productivity…

  3. Wow. What an Aha! moment. Songs can do that and it’s amazing when they trigger revelations like this one for you. Such a beautiful review of your book. I am intrigued by the term “resigned optimism.”

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