Well, I’ve finally finished Sabra the Astonishing, thirty seven years after I first put pen to legal pad in the carrels of the austere library of the Dumbarton Oaks Institute for Byzantine Studies, where I was, as it turns out, masquerading as a serious scholar. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation on the life of Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Put off by the need to stick to known facts, however, increasingly obsessed with Marian visions, in particular, the case of Bernadette Soubirous, and, not to put too fine a point on it, unraveling, I began instead to write a novel, which I described decades later in an application to the Ontario Arts Council thusly:
“Sabra the Astonishing is the story of a teenage girl who sees an apparition which she takes to be the Virgin Mary . . . which it most definitely is not. Indeed, it is something far more sinister. Set in the sixties in the tobacco country of North Carolina, the novel explores the phenomenon of Marian visions and the steamier underside of Catholic excess.”
The novel went through a number of iterations, the most recent of which was completed twenty five years ago. My agent circulated it; no takers. My ex once described it less than kindly as, “bloated,” and, in retrospect, he was right. Sabra the Astonishing erred on the side of excess; rather like the obese fellow traveler who sits next to you in coach, it had a propensity to ooze. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that the manuscript contained some of my best writing and the fact that it has languished in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet for so many years has been a source of melancholy for me. Unpublished novels render one wistful. They are like dead babies; you can’t help but mourn them, to wonder what might have been had they been allowed to live.
This past year, I decided to have one more go at it, so I pulled out the manuscript and had a critical read. This is what looking at a novel written by a young woman through an old woman’s eyes revealed:
- Characters that don’t belong. I quickly realized that I had to kill off one of the lead characters; though darling, he was absolutely extraneous to the plot. (Those of you who follow this blog will have been privy to Lorenzo Da Silvio’s murder over several posts, each purporting to be the last. I couldn’t help it; he was everywhere.)
- Time and Place: Despite the fact that the novel takes place on Easter Monday, 1963, I had done nothing to set it in the period. I’ve now spent the last six months researching what training bra Sabra would have been wearing, what episode of Wagon Train might have played that night, and what brand of tranquilizers were vegetizing her mother. Thank God for the Internet. A related disconnect was the fact that, although Sabra’s family owns a big tobacco company and it’s the sixties, no one smokes! I addressed this problem by making everybody smoke all the time. One even dies of lung cancer.
- Acknowledging the Zeitgeist: For a book set not forty miles from Greensboro, North Carolina where the lunch counter sit-ins had taken place just three years earlier . . . moreover, for a novel with several black characters, the fact that there was no acknowledgement of the Civil Rights Movement was, well, weird.
The young woman was caught up in the story, in action; the old woman, in context.
All these oversights have now been rectified and I will be sending the novel out again, but under a new title this time – The Virgin of Ararat. I’m doing this in the hopes that any editors who might have rejected it a quarter of a century ago will think it’s a different book altogether. Shhh! Let’s let that be our little secret.