In all honesty, and I don’t think there should be any other kind, there are several reasons why I have not been a novelist, at least not yet. I have written a couple, one when I was in my early 20s and the other when I was 45 or so, but they are both bad and deservedly unpublished. The manuscript of the first one—we wrote on machines called typewriters in those days, children, and produced piles of paper called manuscripts—was stashed by me in the basement. One day the cat found it and peed on it.
I like writing fact-based true stories because there’s so much more room for implausibility, coincidence, and no shit? wonder, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the idea of using some those 10,000 days I keep talking about here to write a work of fiction. It’s a true fact that I’ve been pawing at an idea for a novel for about 20 months now.
The idea came out of a weird little Gedankenexperiment (look it up, lazyass) involving the multiverse. The multiverse is one of the stranger places that the math of quantum physics can take you: the idea that our universe right here is but one of an infinite number of parallel universes that constantly branch off from each other. So, thinks I, let us posit that the multiverse theory is correct, and what’s more, certain people possess the ability to cross from one universe to another and back again. That would create a frontier, and what do you find at frontiers? Smugglers. What might they smuggle, since everyone knows you can’t drive a truckload of duty-free cigarettes from one ‘verse to another? Code. They’d smuggle stolen computer code that would have all sorts of commercial value on the black market. Code that might, for example, include the formula for a pharmaceutical that could cure the viral plague ravaging our home universe. Victims of this plague would include my protagonist. (I was really rolling by this point.)
I started calling this proto-novel Crosser, the slang term for the smugglers who cross the frontier between universes. None of this lined up with the laws of physics, even the really abstruse ones, but that was a petty detail. For months at odd hours I worked on the idea in the confines of my head, stashing occasional notes on my hard drive, even dropping a few bucks to reserve a domain name, for the novel’s website, of course.
Then I happened upon Blake Crouch’s brilliant Dark Matter, about a guy who finds himself crossing willy-nilly from one universe to another. What made my heart sink wasn’t the idea that I couldn’t have cross-universe travel figure into my novel just because Crouch had done it. Tolstoy didn’t abandon Anna Karenina just because Flaubert had written Madame Bovary, thereby beating him to the great wayward-wife plot device by 20 years or so. What made my heart sink was I couldn’t imagine writing anything half as good as what young Crouch had done, goddam him.
Still, I kept turning the story over and over. Then the Starz cable television channel broadcast Counterpart, a series about a portal between universes that suddenly opens up in Berlin due to a mid-1980s physics experiment gone wrong. I loved the show’s two seasons, but damn it to hell, the story includes smuggling across the secret frontier. And there’s a devastating pandemic at the center of the plot. And they refer to those who illegally go from one universe to the other as “crossers.” Smack me in the mouth, why doncha?
Turns out there are other novels written by people more clever than me that spring from the premise that the multiverse exists and people can pop from one into another. I keep coming across them like the guy in 1972 who paired a white belt with white shoes and left the house thinking no one else could possibly have thought of it. As we still say 50 years after Slaughterhouse-Five, So it goes.
What to do? I don’t know what you would do, but me, I keep toying with my idea, poking at it and holding it up to the light, turning it this way and that. Maybe the best part of being the 30th guy to dream up an idea like this is the way you’re forced to work harder to find the story no one has told yet. Worked for Tolstoy.