MY NOVEL TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN was published in October of 2017, and after spending that month on tour for the book, I came home to Indianapolis and blazed a trail between my children’s tree house and the little room where my wife and I often work, a room that depending on your worldview is either an office or a shed.
This was not a metaphorical trail. It was an actual trail in the woods, and to make it I cleared dozens of the prolific and invasive honeysuckle trees that choke much of Central Indiana, and I dug up the English ivy that had taken over, and then I covered the path in wood chips and lined it with bricks. I worked on the path ten or twelve hours a day, five or six days a week, for a month. When I finally finished, I timed myself walking along the path from our office to the tree house. Fifty-eight seconds. It took me a month to build a fifty-eight-second walk in the woods.
A week after finishing the path, I was searching through a drawer for some ChapStick when all at once and without any warning, my balance failed. The world began to roll and spin. I was suddenly a very small boat in very high seas. My eyes shivered in their sockets, and I began vomiting. I was rushed to the hospital, and for weeks afterward, the world spun and spun. Eventually I was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, a disease of the inner ear with a wonderfully resonant name that is nonetheless an unambiguously one-star experience.
Recovery from labyrinthitis meant weeks in bed, unable to read or watch TV or play with my kids. I had only my thoughts—at times drifting through a drowsy sky, at other times panicking me with their insistence and omnipresence. During these long, still days, my mind traveled all over, roaming through the past.
* * *
The writer Allegra Goodman was once asked, “Whom would you like to write your life story?” She answered, “I seem to be writing it myself, but since I’m a novelist, it’s all in code.” For me, it had started to feel like some people thought they knew the code. They would assume I shared the worldviews of a book’s protagonists, or they’d ask me questions as if I were the protagonist. One famous interviewer asked me if I also, like the narrator of Turtles All the Way Down, experience panic attacks while kissing.
I had invited such questions by having a public life as a mentally ill person, but still, talking so much about myself in the context of fiction became exhausting for me, and a little destabilizing. I told the interviewer that no, I do not have anxiety around kissing, but I do experience panic attacks, and they are intensely frightening. As I talked, I felt distant from myself—like my self wasn’t really mine, but instead something I was selling or at the very least renting out in exchange for good press.
As I recovered from labyrinthitis, I realized I didn’t want to write in code anymore.
* * *
In 2000, I worked for a few months as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. I was enrolled in divinity school and planning to become an Episcopal minister, but my time at the hospital disavowed me of those plans. I couldn’t handle the devastation I saw there. I still can’t handle it. Instead of going to divinity school, I moved to Chicago and worked as a typist for temp agencies until eventually landing a job doing data entry for Booklist magazine, a biweekly book review journal.
A few months later, I got my first chance to review a book after an editor asked me if I liked romance novels. I told her I loved them, and she gave me a novel set in seventeenth-century London. Over the next five years, I reviewed hundreds of books for Booklist—from picture books about the Buddha to poetry collections—and in the process, I became fascinated by the format of the review. Booklist reviews were limited to 175 words, which meant each sentence must work multiple jobs. Every review had to introduce a book while also analyzing it. Your compliments needed to live right alongside your concerns.
At Booklist, reviews do not include ratings on a five-star scale. Why would they? In 175 words, one can communicate far more to potential readers than any single data point ever could. The five-star scale has only been used in critical analysis for the past few decades. While it was occasionally applied to film criticism as early as the 1950s, the five-star scale wasn’t used to rate hotels until 1979, and it wasn’t widely used to rate books until Amazon introduced user reviews.
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