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Desire to rewrite history for friend inspires book

By Elaine Lies
/ Source: Reuters

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO, July 21 (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 towards 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.

"I think watching that deterioration made me think, what, when a life winds down -- and he could see clearly that it was -- what makes a good life, what makes a good marriage, and how often those two questions become one."

Told almost entirely from Judith's point of view, the story winds in and out of the past until eventually, a phone number in her hand, Judith contacts Willy.

Though McNeal had written a few stories from the female point of view before, this was his first try at a work of this length, a decision that he said was dictated mainly by the structure of the book -- with his wife, as first reader, providing any needed checks or feedback.

At any rate, McNeal said he didn't feel uncomfortable writing from the point of view of a different gender.

"I guess my standard response would be, it's whatever you can get away with. If a guy can write a short novel from the point of view of a cockroach, and get away with it, and Kafka did, that's good enough," he said.

"What I worry about almost more is when I'm writing about farming in Nebraska, or editing in Hollywood. I don't want a guy in Nebraska to tell me that, no, you don't plant corn that time of year. Or the editor in Hollywood to tell me no, that's not the way it works in the cutting room." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)