NaNoWriMo Feature: Okla Elliott

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is Okla Elliott, who co-authored the novel The Doors You Mark Are Your Own with Raul Clement.



The Secret Life of Mayor Adams (or the Lessons That Made Him Who He Is Today)

The Lesson of the Father:

On a glorious morning in mid-April, Joshua City having been washed clean with recent rain, William Adams, future mayor, was born at a robust nine pounds and eight ounces, his skin ruddy with the vigor of grand destiny. William Sr., the most successful water-baron in Joshua City, was in particularly high spirits because the rain would increase his already considerable fortune. Later, on the ride home, he even held the baby.
“This is an important day, isn’t it, Little William?”
Mayor Adams, who was already Mayor Adams before he became Mayor Adams, performed his first act of rebellion by promptly urinating in his father’s lap. William Sr. cursed and tossed Mayor Adams to his mother who, though exhausted from a prolonged childbirth, caught him—what can only be called providentially—just before he broke on the limousine floor.
In the following years, the Adams mansion was filled with sound: the clinking of brandy glasses as William Sr. brokered larger and larger deals; the daily bustle of servants; workers building extra wings on the house and then, when William Sr. had become the richest man in Joshua City, an indoor pool. But the loudest sound of all was the crying. From the nursery, Mayor Adams’s cries for his mother; and from behind the closed door of the librarie, where his mother spent most of her time, the crying of an unhappy wife.
The swimming pool was housed in an enormous wing of glass. When Mayor Adams was eight years old, after countless legal setbacks which, thanks to William Sr.’s money and influence, were not insurmountable, the pool was finally completed. William Sr. showed Mayor Adams the finished product with pride. Mayor Adams marveled at the blue jewel of the water, the way the light struck it through the glass and did a skittering dance he couldn’t quite follow.
“You will be the heir to all of this,” William Sr. said. “Everything I build.”
Mayor Adams took on the confident, wide-legged stance of his father.
“But you’ll have to learn certain lessons, just as I did.” He rested a hand on Mayor Adams’s back.
The water hit Mayor Adams in the face. Flailing, the glass above him, and the light blinding him, he took a mouthful of water as he tried to call to his father. His father stood colossally distant.
“What I’ve done to you is unfair,” his father said. Mayor Adams quieted his splashing, trying just to keep his head above water now, more to hear his father’s words than to be able to breathe. “You can’t swim. But practically no one in Joshua City can. And that’s the point. To fulfill your destiny, you will need powers no else has.”
Mayor Adams gathered up an animal willpower with a human hatred and decided not to drown. He looked up toward his father, but the image he saw through the wavering fluid was a three-headed woman, each face distorted in dark grimaces. They beckoned him upward. Arms chopping toward the pool wall, he reached the grainy stone, but couldn’t grab the lip of the pool wall. He clawed at the stone and tore off a fingernail. He clawed again, doing damage that the doktor would later say had fractured three fingers, finally reaching his hand over the edge. He pulled himself out.
His clothes heavy with water, he looked at his father, who did not seem so colossal now.
“You’ve made me very proud, son.”
That was when Mayor Adams knew he would kill his father.

The Lesson of the Mother:

On a lovely perfect day in mid-April, made peaceful by the recent rain, Josephina Adams struggled through seven hours of labor to give birth to the one joy in her married life. She clutched little William to her breast and looked at her husband, her hair stringy and her face moist with exhaustion.
“Can we leave now?” William Sr. asked the doktor.
“If your wife feels ready.”
She kissed little William on the forehead, and with a dreamy look in her eyes, speaking to herself and her new son, said, “After the storm comes peace.”
The first years with the mother were all warm milk and favorite blanket. But, at three, when the first flickerings of consciousness introduced themselves, the mother walked in with the red on her face again. And her eye-water. He cried more and she tickled his belly the way he liked.
When he was eight years old, he walked into the house dripping water everywhere. His mother tried to help him out of his soaked clothes.
“I can do it,” he said, struggling to make his fractured fingers do the simple task.
She brought him dry clothes, a towel, and called the doktor. This was the doktor who had come before, but always for the mother.
“No, not me,” she said, directing him to the boy.
“Is this becoming a problem?” the doktor asked.


She did it in full view of all the servants. “You desert thug,” she screamed.
She slapped him with real force. Mayor Adams had never seen his father cringe. His father stood there, trying to seem unstunned.
“You can do anything you want to me,” she said, “but if you touch my son again, I will kill you.”
The Oracles had told him he would learn this lesson three times. This was the second.


At thirteen, he sat on the edge of the tub while his mother bathed. Bubbles spilled out of the bath and circled up into the air. She liked his company at times like these, when his father wasn’t around. But she usually wasn’t so quiet.
“Pass me the razor.”
He wondered if she would slit her wrist. Would he stop her or would he just watch? But she dipped the razor into the bathwater to wet it. He had never thought of his mother as a woman before. One slick leg emerged and she shaved the bubbles down.
The sound of the door slapping against the wall behind him. The voice of his father: “What are you two doing?” And the plop of the razor falling into the water. His father grabbed him and tugged him to his feet. Mayor Adams resisted, pulled against his father’s strength. His mother’s hand was a fish swimming the bathwater for its hook, the razor. He stared at his father, who had paused, taking his new son in with a kind of fear. A yelp from his mother, and the water went pink with mother’s-blood. Mayor Adams charged his father, swinging his impotent fists wildly, hitting hard muscle and unbreaking bone. His father let himself be hit, feeling his power renewed with each helpless impact. And then one stray swing landed in his father’s groin, and he grunted in actual pain. Mayor Adams stopped, looked up at his father’s face, smiled at the grimace he saw there.
He was weightless off his feet and then came the hollow-solid crack of skull on porcelain. His mother was out of the water, holding the razor, blood in streams down her beautiful arm, and then the world blurred into the distance, into nothingness.

The Lesson of the Self:

It was a promise to himself, his promise, and it was what he was beholden to. Hadn’t it begun one fine April, after the rains had blessed Joshua City? Mayor Adams knew it wasn’t true, but he liked to think that the rain had brought him to cleanse the world of its filth. He did not yet know he was Mayor Adams, though he was. This final lesson would show him his true promise; it would make him what he was to become.
No one spoke of The Lesson of the Mother, in those terms or any. He was sent to the best technical institutes and the most expensive tutors were hired to instruct him during his holidays at home. In the years that followed, few would think of Mayor Adams as an intelligent man, especially today, but he was the brightest of students, as quick with mathematics as he was with foreign languages and rhetoric. Many would praise his moving speeches, but few would know he had written them himself. He suffered many setbacks at his father’s hands, but as his favorite quote from the Book of Before-Time runs: Almost every genius is familiar with a stumbling existence as one stage in his development, a feeling of hatred, revenge, and rebellion against everything that is and no longer becomes…an incomplete ego—the form in which every leader pre-exists.
Mayor Adams learned this and many other lessons at his prestigious technical institute. Some were lessons his father would have condoned. But he also learned how to float above, untouchable and untouching. When he returned home on his second winter break, his father was locked in his study with work. Who knew what he worked on besides the business of work itself? His mother wandered, a person without purpose, only the occasional bruise her husband gave her to remind her she was alive. Mayor Adams saw all this without surprise, without even anger now. It was time. And remembering his first lesson, he knew what to do.
He took his father a glass of water. Hunched over the large oak table, his father looked tired and old. But that didn’t matter.
“I thought you could use a drink,” he said. “You work so hard.”
His expensive spectacles, designed to look expensive, slipped down his nose, not unkindly. “Why thank you, son.”
The water’s shadow, with its core of sun, wobbled on the table. Would his father ever take a drink of his future? Both of their futures filled that glass.
“You know, you’re growing into a fine young man, William. But I hope you are learning the importance of water to this family. The very essence of all life is held in this fluid.”
He lifted his glass to punctuate his point. He swirled the contents. Mayor Adams’s chest tightened.
“There are creatures in the Baikal Sea that are 99% water. Think of that. Were it not for that one percent, they would be exactly the same as the contents of this glass here. Amazing. And you, you are 60% water. Your blood is 92% water.”
Mayor Adams knew all this. He also knew the meaning of blood, whether from a razor in the bathtub or from the other lesson that could not be unlearned. He would carry on his father’s legacy, but it would not make his father immortal.
“Your future floats on its surface,” his father said.
“I know it does. You have taught me that before.”
“I have. But I don’t think you appreciate this fact, not in its fullness.”
“I do, father. Believe me, I do.”
His father drank, a large self-satisfied gulp as he always did. Mayor Adams had not skimped on his assassin’s purchase; the poison was incredibly strong and undetectable by normal forensic procedures. His father slapped his chest and then the table, knocking previously important papers to the shiny marble floor. The water spread over the hard smooth surface, glistening beautifully. His father fell to the floor, gasping. He looked at Mayor Adams who peered down with no discernible emotion. If there were words to say, he did not say them. Their eyes met and everything was known. His father slithered like a broken lizard toward the northwest corner of the house, where oblivion awaited him.


Craft Notes

There are three points of craft I would like to highlight about the excerpt here.

Firstly, the use of repetition, where each subsection begins on the same day but with slightly different language describing that day, has a few effects. It creates a kind of wry humor and some postmodern fun. It also lets us look at three different aspects of Mayor Adams’s development, starting from the beginning of his life.

Secondly, by giving the villain of the novel a rich inner life and a sympathetic backstory, we avoid creating a two-dimensional character, which is too often found in bad novels and Hollywood movies. I believe this not only psychologically more accurate but ethically more complex.

And, finally, I will say that this more postmodern-feeling set piece, as well as a few other such set pieces we included in the novel, are only possible because of the size of the novel. The vast majority of the narrative is straightforward storytelling, but given the room we had in the book, we felt fine interrupting the flow of the narrative with these asides. A novelist has to be aware of the size of the playing field before deploying certain tactics.


1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

The hardest part is focusing and just getting the work done. We as writers love writing, but we also have a bad habit of shying away from doing the thing we love.

Also a novel, as opposed to a poem or even many short stories I’ve written, poses the problem of narrative tension. I feel I can make a poem move forward on the strength of language and concept alone, and while short stories certainly require that you keep narrative tension, a writer can get away with having a language-driven story if it’s in the 5-to-15-page range, whereas a long novel falls pretty flat after a while if there isn’t a sufficient narrative engine.

The way I tend to deal with the first problem is to set some page count goals and force myself to meet them as best I can. It’s what I call the old ass-in-chair method of writing. There’s nothing you can really do except just force yourself to sit down and write, even if what you produce in a given day isn’t all that great—though I find I often start a bad day off not really wanting to do the work and doing it poorly, then end up working my way into a good session.

As for the second problem, it’s important to think about information design. What information needs to be divulged and when? Which plot points will create more mystery and excitement, and when should they occur? How much page-time needs to pass between plot points? These are questions that have to be in the writer’s mind constantly as the novel moves forward.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Andrew Hudgins used to say, “Write beyond your intelligence.” Then, when I would do that, he would say, “Okay, now that is your new intelligence. Write beyond that.” And so on. It’s just a smart way of saying push yourself, but for some reason it has stuck with me. I think I like the idea that writing makes us more intelligent and that we can push that growth forever.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft?

This was a ten-year process in a way. Raul and I began the Joshua City project as an experimental play, then wrote a screenplay, then decided it had to be a novel. We let it lie fallow for months at a time over the years as well, but once we got a contract, we pounded it out in about a year and half. I think it was just hard to make ourselves really commit to a 1000-page project people might never see, so that contract sped things up considerably because we knew there would at least some kind of audience for all that work.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?

I tend to drink absurd sums of coffee, but for The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, when Raul and I were writing side by side, we occasionally made some drinks—vodka and vitamin water being the most common choice—since conversation is freer when you have a few drinks in you, and a collaborative writing project is all about dialogue. So, our separate sessions were usually fueled by coffee and our group sessions were fueled by alcohol. I should add that I hate the Romantic cliché of writing and drinking, but for collaborative work, due to the conversational aspect I mentioned, it seemed more functional. Also, we were able to turn five-hour work sessions into just hanging out on some level, so it felt less like real work even when we produced massive numbers of pages in a given evening.

Suggested Reading
Since the books one should read to learn how to write a novel will be specific to each novel, I will list five novels a person should read in order to prepare for writing a sci-fi/literary slipstream novel like The Doors You Mark Are Your Own.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
The Stand, by Stephen King
On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee
A History of Modern Russia, by Robert Service
The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya
blp_author_page_okla_imageOkla Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois and an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), and Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation).