Desire to rewrite history for friend inspires book

Thu Jul 21, 2011 4:46am EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - The hope of being able to rewrite history for a friend who died unhappy decades after the shattering of a youthful romance inspired author Tom McNeal to start his latest book, but completing the tale was far from easy.

In the end, "To Be Sung Underwater" took the prize-winning McNeal some seven years to complete, though that was partly due to him also working on other projects at the same time.

"I just felt powerless and a kind of borderline despair. I thought that the way his life was just slipping away and sliding downward was unbearable to watch," McNeal said in a telephone interview, speaking of many long phone conversations with the friend he termed successful, but desolate and unhappy.

"I think that by writing a different version it gave me a sense of solace. The great thing about writing is how you get to change it all, you get to reinvent the world."

The book follows Judith, a 40-something film editor in Los Angeles, as, faced by secrets in her marriage, she looks back to her past in Nebraska and a teenage romance with carpenter Willy Blunt -- a love she turned her back on with acceptance to a prestigious California university, and no regrets.

As with much of his writing, McNeal had a specific scene and idea in mind -- in this case, relatively far into the book -- and wrote his way toward it, "feeling my way as I went."

The scene was the memory of his friend's face the last time they met, a long lunch at which the critically ill friend was accompanied by a nurse. When McNeal got up to leave, the friend smiled at him with a smile of unusual radiance.

"I had begun writing this book with a character based on this guy, and I knew I was going to use that look at the end of the book," McNeal said.   Continued...