The Fossil Record


Dead Letter Office

One of my favorite R.E.M. albums is Dead Letter Office, a collection of rarities and B-sides. I love it for its quirkiness and raw, drunken honesty. Also, for its bravery. It’s a window into their process, a peek inside the song incubator where ideas are still unformed and vulnerable. And the artist is, too. Guitarist Peter Buck wrote the liner notes, telling the stories behind each outtake. For the song, Burning Hell, an outtake from the album Fables of the Reconstruction, Buck explains:

Sometimes you write a song without even trying to. Sometimes those songs are the very best ones. That’s not quite the case with this one however.

My novel, The Blood of Saints, has its own outtakes, saved in a separate document. One of the last cuts I made is a paragraph narrated by David, the American-born son of a Sicilian immigrant named Salvatore:

My father was a storyteller.  I never used to think of him in that way, but that’s how I think of him now.  As a boy, he’d tended fig and almond trees with his father in Sicily. They were peasants, living under Mussolini. Years later, in Connecticut, he worked construction, building highway overpasses, and finally, he worked as a machinist, grinding parts for military aircraft.  But he was always a storyteller first.

A lot of those early drafts contained placeholders like the above. Placeholders are reminders of some unfinished business of character or plot–moments to return to later as the shapes of the lives of your characters come into focus. You leave them, write through what happens later and then see what might still be missing or not. I cut this from the novel because it was no longer needed. Like stakes beside a young tree removed when the trunk is thick enough to withstand the wind on its own.