I took this photo on a solo outing to Taeanhaean National Park on the Yellow Sea northwest of Daejeon. It was off-season, the fall of 2000, and other than these fishermen, I was the only person there. This image stuck with me, and the man on the edge of the rocks was the initial inspiration for Woo.
I started The Footnotes on July 20, 2004, when I closed the door to the bedroom, sat down at my desk in our hot Daejeon apartment, and typed out the following words on my Dell laptop: "There was the thin man up the beach walking with a noticeable limp, pinched eyeglasses perched on his nose, a pair of white slacks and a billowing white shirt, his Korean face further hidden by a low-worn white sun hat. Galden had been following the man for more than a week. An easy job for a beach bum."
What did I know about beach bums? I had graduated from Ohio State four years earlier with a degree in history and limited career opportunities and had gone to South Korea following a dream hatched during adolescence while reading the works of Jack Kerouac and Jim Harrison. Their insatiable appetite for travel and experience were inspiring, to say the least. I had to see the world and it didn't matter what part of the world it was or how I got there.
Travel had been an addiction for a while. In June of 2000, shortly after graduating from Ohio State, I called a close friend at around 10:00 in the evening and asked if he'd like to go to New York. Now. And we did, leaving Columbus a little before midnight and having a late breakfast in eastern New Jersey before driving through the Lincoln Tunnel and spending the day walking around the city. Not long after that trip I was on my way to South Korea for the first time, an adventure not well thought out. Life takes you where it will sometimes, and I haven't always stopped to think before following its beckoning hand into uncharted territories. But good things have happened as a result--my wife, beautiful children, lifelong friends, unforgettable experiences, vivid memories of places like Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan.
So maybe I know something about being a bum, being a wanderer, following whims. The beach? Well, there were a lot of vacations.
Which brings me back to The Footnotes and the writing of it. I pecked away at it for four years before finally settling down to finish the rough draft during my summer vacation in 2008. We'd just purchased our first house and were more or less settled, our youngest child just a few months old at that time. My wife was a saint, allowing me the mornings to write, and by August I had a rough draft completed. I planned to let it cool off a month or two before revising.
A month or two turned into five years. During the summer of 2009 I wrote most of the second book in the series (I'm currently anticipating a release in early 2014). The rest of those years? There were college courses, mental peregrinations, time as a bit of a lost soul spent evaluating life choices, many an evening (and morning and afternoon) getting lost in other writers' worlds. In 2013 I vowed to give up the college courses, the effort at a career change, and go back to writing. I began another novel, another rough draft, but thought, "Why keep writing drafts? Why not go back to some earlier books and revise one of them?"
There were a number of candidates for revision, but The Footnotes had been on my mind for a long time (since 2004!). I reread it from a remove of years, from a perspective of distance that allowed me to see it through eyes other than my own. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I thought someone else might enjoy it as well, so I went to work, hours each day spent pondering and writing plot changes, tilting my head and giving thought to word choice, vision blurring, massaging away knots in my shoulders, killing a few of my darlings.
All summer, I felt I was almost done, the book was almost finished, just another two weeks. Another two weeks. But there was so much that needed to be changed! The last part of the novel was more or less completely rewritten (I feel like weeks were spent just reading and rereading the last fifth of the manuscript--sometimes just staring at passages before everything fell into place--a satisfying feeling when the pieces finally all fit). Tae-hee's character was completely rewritten. Various scenes changed. I felt limited by focusing only on Galden's perspective and thought that viewing the story from different angles, from Tae-hee's eyes and Woo's eyes and his family's eyes, added to the book. Their stories interested me. I had to know more, to discover their purpose in the book, what they had to contribute beyond mere mention, beyond warm bodies to move the plot forward. These people needed to live.
The two weeks I thought it would take to finish revising turned into many months, and a rough draft often rough around the edges turned into a first novel I'm proud of, that I'm allowing myself to feel good about. I've read the book more times than I can count at this point. I've devoted a lot of hours to it. I enjoy large swathes of it (especially Paul, who is very much based on a true friend, most of his best lines taken verbatim--writing it made me miss him quite deeply since he lives so far away and we speak infrequently now). There are some parts where I see the scratches and dents, but there are more books to write. I recently heard someone quote someone else to the effect that movies are never finished, just abandoned. I think that applies to all art. I could have kept going on this one. Sanded down every blemish, then rubbed until every inch of it shined. But it was time to abandon it and let it stand on its own, hopefully good enough. I believe it is.
Ray Stickle reads a lot and writes daily. For progress reports, updates on any upcoming releases, and the occasional thought or two, check here.