Over at Bookforum there’s an interesting piece called “The First Novel” by Craig Seligman, looking at first novels by such luminaries as Faulkner, Burroughs, George Eliot, and more, with personal reflections on the idea of the “first novel” by John Banville, William Gass, and others. While most prefer the definition that points at one’s first published novel, I prefer Jonathan Lethem’s recounting of the one he wrote when he was fifteen. Now, that’s a first novel.

I was 19 when I decided, wholeheartedly, to become a writer. A bit of luck, that, and it was spurred by my reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (I know, a little too appropriate to be believable, but it’s true.) I’d written stories and poems at younger ages, but never with the aim of becoming professional. Now, it was different. Though I immediately set to writing, starting with a (terrible) Waiting For Godot rip-off play, I didn’t write my first novel until I was 21.

Fifteen years later, I’m trying to remember it. The overblown title was The Elementals And Their Dreams. (Yeah, I know…I was 21, okay?) It concerned a friend-triangle, a straight couple and their gay artist friend, and a book that, when read, drives people insane. (Or was it a movie? I’m honestly not sure anymore…I don’t recall where the manuscript is.)

Though it’s a slim book—probably less than 40,000 words—it was full of dream sequences and set pieces. At some point, the artist, having gone insane by reading (or watching) the dangerous art, commits suicide by self-crucifixion in a gallery. (Something that, at 21, struck me as a shocking and powerful statement, but now seems childish.) And though I can’t be sure, I have a feeling all the characters except the woman end up dead. (I really need to track it down.)

Oh yeah, it also includes flashbacks to the Holocaust.

I did try to submit the novel for publication, and received (if memory serves) three rejections before deciding that it probably wasn’t worth publishing anyway. I’d typed it up on a Brother word processor, which had a detachable keyboard and a four-inch screen and printed everything like a typewriter. I took those pages, went to the Kinko’s of the day, and had it bound with gray covers. Two copies. One, I signed and gave away to an ex-girlfriend who admitted to liking the book. The other, perhaps, is in some box around here.

Though it wasn’t a published first (thank God), it was a “first”, and it made the second (a horrible book I wrote one grad school summer, years later) easier to do, and the third (the unpublished opus on the Romanian Revolution) easier as well. Once I’d finished Elementals, I knew I could write something of some length, and it freed me up to stop being amazed by mounting page-counts, and to think instead of story. It was a start, and in that way it was a very good first.

Any interesting “first” stories out there?

(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)