The other day I added a cover photo to the Traveler’s Companion Facebook page. It’s taken from a sheet of paper I discovered in my files when I moved last month. Fragile and water-stained and ready to tear along its folds, it’s a pale-blue xeroxed flyer from Good Friday Mass at Saint Mark’s in Venice, the English version: “Good Friday is to tell us that ‘Christ made himself nothing’ and ‘became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ This is the core of today’s liturgical mystery.”
On the back of the flyer, in cramped blue writing, is the first draft of the scene which introduces Antonio in Chapter 6. I don’t have any memory of actually writing it. I don’t even know if I wrote it in Venice or in Vienna, where I spent Easter. Romantically, I’d like to think I wrote it in a café on some hidden campo, a quarto of wine in front of me and the April sun picking out the blue ink on the blue page. But who knows.
In the part I cropped for the photo (click on the thumbnail to see it), you can more or less make out a scene that, in the published version, reads like this:
Taking out a pack of cigarettes, he offers me one.
“No thank you.”
“You do not smoke?”
“Bad for your health,” I smile.
He shrugs. “When the Americans drop their bombs, I think it will not matter.” He offers Philip a cigarette, is refused, then lights one up himself. “Allora, what do we eat?” And he begins to explain the menu to us.
When we’ve ordered, Philip goes off to the restroom, leaving Antonio and me in an uncomfortable silence. Antonio gazes off to his left, smoking pensively. He seems to be trying to forget I’m there. Just as I’ve made up my mind to say something, he says, “You are from New York?”
“Ah, yes. ‘Please come to Boston.’” And he lapses into silence again.
“You speak very good English,” I offer.
He smiles briefly. “Well, you see I am always with Americans.”
“How do you know Philip?”
“He was here at Carnival. He talked to me at church.” The subject seems not to interest him. “And you?” he asks suddenly.
“I beg your pardon.”
“How do you know Philip?”
“We met in Paris. He’s friends with a girl I’m traveling with.”
“A girl you are traveling with…” he murmurs. “Bene.”
And now he is silent again, so I ask, “Why does your mother want you to be a priest?”
Again the brief sarcastic smile. “Because I speak English too well. Ah, here is your friend.”
What strikes me now is how close this is to the scene I originally sketched. It’s present tense, not past, Richard’s name has been changed, and Antonio’s English is a little worse. The dialogue, particularly around the cigarettes, is handled more fluidly. But otherwise my first take on the scene matches the final one.
This isn’t true throughout the novel. For a long time the first line of the novel was “My sister Judith is a scientist.” Now it’s “Snow sifts by my bedroom window.” And this was part of a fairly extensive rewrite of the opening scenes. (Every revision entails some loss. I miss the way the old first line signaled that Judith would be central to the novel despite her disappearance for large stretches of it.) Most of the final third of the novel went through pretty drastic rewrites, and not much in between escaped rethinking, revision, cutting, expansion, reimagining. If such things interest you, here is a handout I prepared for a creative writing class I taught, which shows three versions of the scene between Mark and his father in Chapter 1.
So if there’s any lesson to be taken from the Antonio scene, it’s not “first thoughts, best thoughts.” Like most writers, I’d be pretty horrified if some of my first thoughts saw the light of day. But, also like most writers, I know the experience of getting it right the first time. (I hope we agree I got it right.) Maybe it’s a mystery, how you can sit down at a café, on a train, in a hotel room, and scribble out a scene that will remain intact while everything around it changes and changes again, even, as in this case, when the stuff around it didn’t exist at the time you were writing.
Or maybe it’s more straightforward than that. The scene, after all, is fairly utilitarian. It introduces one of the novel’s central characters, and what you mostly want to do—instinctively want to do—is make the reader want to know more about that character. So you add intrigue. There’s intrigue in Antonio’s mix of rudeness and hospitality (clearer in the rest of the scene) and, of course, in his line about knowing English too well. You can worry about the logic of this. Would Antonio really drop such a big hint about his personal troubles to a stranger? Is he being so approach-avoidance with Mark because he’s already, within a few minutes of meeting him, attracted? But these things are less important than the psychic snapshot you get. From these sketched outlines the character of Antonio expands. He’s written here in small.
Or maybe it’s love. It’s a dirty secret of writers that sometimes we love our characters. It’s not always predictable which characters you will love, though it probably helps to love a love interest. As I say, I don’t remember writing the scene, but it’s quite possible that, in that moment, a character who was until then somewhat notional—the young Italian love interest—suddenly sprang into confounding (Mark’s word) life. Such moments you preserve.