It’s morning. I am sitting at my desk, with leaves falling brightly outside, just as they do in the book. The Man Who Walked on Water is my first published novel, and I wrote it in a year. I wrote it at this desk, in a kind of trance, a sustained trance. Writing fiction is much like dreaming: you don’t really know what’s happening until it has happened. Then you wake up and wonder what that was all about.
What a novel is about is anyone’s guess, which is the beauty of reading fiction. But that’s why I couldn’t sleep when I started to think about what I should write for this column. I don’t want my reading of the novel to affect yours. Nor do I want anyone to mistake me for the narrator of my novel, John Mallory, who sees the “hand of God.” I have never seen the hand of God, except perhaps through the eyes of John Mallory. That said, here’s a little about how I came to write the book, and what it means to me.
The year 2002 was a bad one. I failed to find a publisher for the long novel I’d spent seven years writing, and while that failure was sinking in, my girlfriend and I split up. Then my father died suddenly—heart attack. The only joy in my life came from country music, which is the saddest music I know. As I lived in London, country music was hard to find, even on CD. So I took a vacation in the American South. I flew to New Orleans, rented a car, and drove north on the loneliest roads I hit upon. I suppose I was trying to lose myself in the immensity of America. That’s one of the things that America is for, and famously so—losing yourself, with hopes of finding yourself down the road. I remember listening to a radio preacher on an empty highway in the Mississippi Delta and feeling the strangest elation. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out and just stood there, crickets pulsing, the sun hard on my shoulders. As I drove away, Dwight Yoakam came on the radio: “I’m a thousand miles from nowhere, time don’t matter to me…”
Two weeks later, at a bluegrass festival in the mountains of East Tennessee, I made friends with a couple who lived nearby, Ricky and Deb Ricker. They are now more than friends—they’re relatives. Three years after that first trip, I went back to visit the Rickers and fell in love with Deb’s younger sister, Linda, and we married. I say that quickly because it happened quickly, or so it seems in my memory. One moment I’m introducing myself to her, and the next we’re climbing the steps of Mount Tabor United Methodist Church. The church stands on a grassy hill amid farmland, facing tree-covered mountains. This side of the mountains is the very edge of Tennessee; the other side, North Carolina. It’s a bright, cold morning, and our breath fogs the air. When we reach the doorway of the church, I pause and look back, as if I’m setting off on a long journey. I see a sweep of green dotted with gravestones, a couple of houses off a narrow road, a red barn and a big pond, power lines running off toward the mountains, and beyond the mountains the sky over North Carolina, silvery in the morning light.
My first years here were deeply confusing. I would wake from a dream about London—London friends, London streets, all so hip and happening—and I’d look out the window at the great stillness of Tennessee…and my sense of self would slide away. Like all new immigrants, I lived in a peculiar limbo, floating between past and present. That can be a thrill. It can also make you dizzy. When the world around you is quite different from the world in your head, you are forced to take note of the world in your head, the perspective from which you see. It’s a powerful form of self-knowledge, and it allows you to transcend yourself, or in other words, to change. But the change comes slowly, day by day, while you float around inside yourself, looking inward and outward. At the time I was working as a freelance writer, and someone asked me to write a short history of Tabor Church for its bicentennial celebrations. I learned that Mount Tabor in Galilee is traditionally regarded as the “high mountain” on which Jesus was transfigured: “His face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). Those words astonished me. It was their dazzling simplicity. I wanted to read more of the New Testament, in the King James Version, so I borrowed my wife’s old Bible, which is the size of a briefcase. For months I carried this huge book everywhere we went—even to the beach once, but Linda refused to sit with me.
Meanwhile we bought a house on Boone Lake, just north of Johnson City, where I am today, writing this piece. My “study” is really a shed next to the house, and my desk is a kitchen table of cherry wood, made by my father-in-law. Above the desk is a small window, filled with those falling leaves. Now and then, ripples of sunlight flit through the leaves and I look out for a moment. I love this view. I especially like it in the early mornings, when mist rises off the water, and sometimes I imagine that I see a man walking through the mist…
When we bought the house, I thought I’d found the perfect place to write. The only trouble was, I didn’t write. I could never get going. I had given up on fiction and was trying my hand at memoir: my adventures in the South. But my adventures wrote white. Someone said that happiness writes white, and I was certainly happy. It took a lot of that whiteness, here at this desk, to bring me down, and down, and down, until I became so depressed that I returned to the sad joys of country music. That was when I began to appreciate bluegrass gospel. If you dislike country you’ll hate bluegrass gospel, although it isn’t sad music. Just the opposite. The best songs have a heartfelt simplicity that speaks like a face shining as the sun, a raiment as white as the light.
As it happens, our new neighbors played in a well-known bluegrass gospel band. The band was called Paul Williams & the Victory Trio, and Paul Williams is a bluegrass legend, one of the old originals. I listened to the band’s CDs, and then I started exploring Paul Williams’s early stuff, before he went gospel. I read an interview with him in the magazine Bluegrass Unlimited, in which he describes the moment when he was saved. He says, “All that guilt left, and there’s a feeling that came over me from my hair to my feet—such a clean warm feeling I never felt before in my life.”
One morning soon after reading that interview, I went into my study and started writing The Man Who Walked on Water. The first pages came straight out, and remain unchanged in the published book. They came out of nowhere—or out of everywhere. Suddenly here he was, this Londoner called John Mallory, telling me that he’d been contemplating suicide but then he came to East Tennessee, because his brother needed help making a documentary film, and in these mountains he saw the hand of God. He talked about miracles. He talked about ripples of light from above. He talked and talked.
And I listened.
I listened with faith and wonder. What I mean is that I let the writing go where it wanted to go. I surrendered to the process, the rhythm of the page, whatever came next. At times it felt like prayer. Perhaps the painter Matisse had this feeling in mind when he said, “Do I believe in God? Yes, when I am working.”
I realize now that John Mallory’s desperation about his life mirrored my desperation about my career as a writer, that his plane flight to a far-off land echoed my leap into the blue of fiction, that the miracle he discusses in the book is the miracle I experienced in writing the book. I realize that, just as the story changed John Mallory, the writing changed me.
But I’ll stop talking and let John Mallory take over. You can read the book for yourself. If you do, I hope you find your own meaning in it, your own faith and wonder.
And I hope I sleep well tonight.