Maybe one of the oldest saws in the book-writing book is to “write what you know,” something I take as good advice, if not necessarily ironclad. WWYK is something that Stephen King, for one example, clearly has subscribed to over his long and prolific career. He places many of his stories in his birthplace and residence of Maine. He wrote The Shining while he was living briefly in Colorado (which was where that novel was based). King knows these places. He knows their people.
Larry McMurtry was born in Texas and writes about the West. J.K. Rowling is British, as is Harry Potter and everyone in that little universe. John Grisham (The Firm, The Pelican Brief) is a lawyer. Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain) earned his MD at Harvard, though he never practiced medicine. The list is endless.
Writing what you know is smart. But it’s not everything. King still had to conjure up a killer dog and a time-traveling assassination stopper and a spooky clown. Rowling pulled an entire universe of wizards out of thin air. Mario Puzo was probably intimately familiar with the mafia, but I doubt he ever garrotted someone at a bar.
Lisa Halliday is a 40ish writer who knows some things. A former editor, she wrote a three-part book last year, Asymmetry, that made its way onto a lot of best-of lists. To be clear, the book was not a series; it was a single book in three parts.
The first part was a touching, engrossing, sometimes disquieting story of a young woman — an editor — and her love affair with an older novelist. The protagonist is reportedly dead-on Halliday, who seems to be connecting the dots to the late, great Philip Roth (Goodbye, Columbus; American Pastoral), whom she evidently knew as a younger woman, if you know what I mean.
The second part of Asymmetry follows the life of an Iraqi-American economist, a man, who is being detained at an airport a short time after the Iraq War. The story is convincing and tense and provides a peek at a life and a part of the world that few Americans know.
The third part of Halliday’s debut novel — in which the Roth character is being interviewed by a woman journalist — quickly and somewhat surprisingly (at least to me) ties together the first two parts. (Only after I finished the book and read a review or two did I see what I missed. Although, in my lame defense, I do seem to remember a bell going off in my head as I was whooshing through the end part of the novel. Maybe I thought it was a hunger alarm. The moral: Pay more attention to the bells in your head.)
The meta part of this whole exercise by Halliday is this: She wrote what she knew. And she wrote convincingly, with the second part of Asymmetry, what she didn’t know. In doing so, she thankfully exposes the limitations of the writing theory of WWYK.
As it turns out, WWYK is little more than a decent place to start for any writer. As with King and Rowling and Grisham and Crichton and Puzo (and Roth, for that matter) — and definitely for Halliday — the real joy, the real surprises, come in exploring those things that we don’t know, and in passing those on to discerning readers. That’s promising. Exciting, even.