Writing and Mortality

headstoneLast week a friend congratulated me on publishing my second book. He then asked me how many more books I had in me. Off the top of my head, I said fifty. He was surprised by such a big number, and I countered, “It mostly depends on how long I have to live.”

Ideas for books are actually pretty easy. At least, they are for me. Maybe they’re hard for you, or maybe they’re simply flying right past you without you noticing them. I don’t know, but I’m not worried about running out of ideas. Right now I have ideas for twenty books simmering on the back burner, and that’s not including the twenty-two book ideas I discarded before I actually managed to finish my first novel. I see no reason to believe that I’ve exhausted my pool of ideas. More than likely, some of those twenty simmering novels will never be written because there will be even better books to be found in the hundred ideas that will follow them.

But my point is not that ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s just to say that, for me at least, they won’t be the upper limit on how many books I write. Instead, it’s going to be how many years are left in my life. Barring Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, I should be able to keep writing up to my final months. It’s hard work, to be sure, but it’s not physically taxing work. When I’m shopping for my third set of knees and an artificial pancreas, I should still be able to pull a keyboard onto my lap and pound out another tale or two.

IainBanksSo, how many years do I have left? While I can’t put a number on it, I can tell you this: it won’t be enough. Iain Banks died a few days ago. He was 59. Octavia Butler died at age 58. I’m 45. Maybe I’ll be lucky and hang on into my 90’s like Arthur C. Clarke, but whatever the final number is, it will be finite.

Given that the ideas seem much less exhaustible, I can state with confidence that I will die with books unwritten. I suppose that’s true of almost all writers. I feel sad for those for whom it’s not. I would hate to come to the end and feel I had nothing left to say. I suspect that, more than anything, would be enough to hasten the end for me. Sure, I suppose I’ll grieve the number of books unwritten, orphaned by my demise, but if I’m lucky, I’ll have written more than I leave unwritten.

So I’m writing, from now until then. Yes, I’m doing other things as well, but I hope to never again lose sight of the writing. Right now I’m trying to write and publish two to three books a year. If I have another twenty to thirty years left to me, then I could get to fifty books fairly easily. If I’ve got another forty years, then heck, I might even reach a hundred books.

But fifty would be good… especially if I go out working on the fifty-first.

The Last Book You’ll Ever Read

As I edit Ships of My Fathers, I’ve been thinking back to my father’s death. Specifically, I remember that towards the end, when it was clear that the second round of chemo was not going to work, he was reading a book on cosmology and faith. As a lifelong scientist and Christian, he was looking for some kind of reconciliation between two oft-conflicting viewpoints. I don’t know if he found what he was looking for, but I do remember thinking about mortality and limited time and that someday, I will be reading the last book I will ever read.

skullandbookWhat kind of book is that going to be?

It might very well be something of a religious nature. I don’t expect that, since I don’t feel I have a lot of open questions in my theological view of the universe, but you never know what you’re going to do when you’re staring death in the eye.

But I like to think, instead, I’ll be reading fiction. Maybe I’ll reread some old favorite tale. Maybe I’ll be tearing my way through some new series that a friend recommended. I have always loved to escape into stories, and I think they will be a great comfort to me in my final days.

If I know the end is coming soon, I don’t think I’ll put the book down when I’m done and declare, “That was the last book.” More likely, I’ll pick up the sequel, because I want to know what happens next.

And isn’t that perhaps the best way to go? With the hunger for story and a thirst for that great mystery of what comes on the next page?

What do you think your last book will be?

Giving Books

We’re heading into Christmas, and everyone’s wondering what to give Aunt Clara. While there’s no shortage of fruitcakes, perfumes, and bad sweaters, I like to give books. They’re essentially consumables, so it’s hard to have too many. They’re fairly cheap, at least compared to fruitcakes and sweaters. And finally, they give several hours of enjoyment that will remind them of you, months or years after the gift was received.

But which books to give? That’s the tricky part.

If it’s someone I know well, particularly if I know they’re a big reader, I will usually have access to some kind of wish list for books. That way, I am able to give them precisely the book they are eager to read. That’s fulfilling, but it’s also a little impersonal. They’ve made their selections, narrowing it down to their particular tastes, and all I’m doing is clicking on the right button. It’s not quite down to the level of “run down to the store and pick up some milk”, but it’s in that direction.

The next thing to try is to select a book that I think will interest them but that they don’t have on their wish list. This can have a great payoff in that if I’m lucky, I’ll find some new author or new take on a subject/genre that they love, and it will open whole new worlds of books to them.

But there are two easy ways for this to go wrong. First, if it’s in their favorite sub-genre or about their favorite technical subject, they may already own this book, but I suppose that’s no worse than giving them that second toaster oven. They can return it, re-gift it, or even hoard it as a spare. But the second downfall of this approach is that I can get something that they are quite familiar with but hate. After all, it’s their favorite subject/genre, and they’ll have strong tastes. Imagine buying the Twilight series for an Anne Rice vampire purist.

Finally, there’s my personal favorite. I like to give people books that I like. Yes, these books are selected according to my taste and interests, not theirs, but in giving them that book on atomic history, I’m telling them something about me. “Hey, I like science history. It’s cool. If you can understand that, we’ll have even more to talk about.”

Plus, since I believe I have decent taste, the stuff I really like will be the best of that particular subject/genre, so if the recipient can have an open mind, they just might enjoy something totally new and unexpected. I give them the chance to discover that after all these years of staying away, they really do like cyborg thriller mysteries.

But do exercise caution on this last approach, because while Aunt Clara has always been “the fun aunt”, she might not be ready for Fifty Shades of Grey. Maybe I should send her some Sookie Stackhouse first.