Usually the material of a novel comes to me before I have a form in mind. But with 4321, for the first time in my writing life, the idea of the form came first – the idea that I could write about someone’s life, splintered into four versions. This notion was so compelling to me that I immediately started thinking how I might go about it. The story thrust itself on me. This boy, this Archie Ferguson – each of whose four incarnations follows a different path within the book – seemed there already, waiting to be found. Every day I would go to my work table and the story would be there for me, as if it were hovering just above my desk. All I had to do was reach out and grab it, and put it on the page.
My first impulse was to tell Ferguson’s story all the way through his middle age and perhaps even old age. But then I started writing, and after I was 50 or 60 pages in, I understood that this was going to be a book about human development. Surely the most intense period of our life is the beginning, the first 20 years, when we go from helpless infants to nearly formed adults. Something new is happening to us every day during those years, and as the story began to impose itself on me I began to understand the scope of the novel.
4321 is different from all the other books I’ve written in that it is enormously detailed and goes into subjects I haven’t usually covered. It gives a portrait of a time and place – America in the 1950s and 1960s – as well as telling the story of the main characters’ lives. For the first time in my fiction, historical events are in the forefront, and there’s a tonality that is different as well. At the same time, I think any reader familiar with my earlier work would recognise 4321 as a book written by me. I’ve always tried to challenge myself to take new approaches to the business of telling stories, and I felt all along that I had this big book inside me.
Ferguson’s life overlaps with my life in many ways. He is born in the same year I was, 1947, and he lives in all the places where I’ve lived, so we share chronology and geography. And there are certain elements of the book that are taken from my own life. But there’s no easy correlation of one to the other. There has been no Amy Schneiderman in my life, for example and after Ferguson, she is the most important character. Nor have I have had the homosexual experiences Ferguson 3 has. But desire is desire, and the imagination is a potent force, and even though these passages were a challenge to write, they were not the most difficult elements of the book.
It has been called a novel about chance, but I prefer to use the idea of “the unexpected”. “Accident” is another word that could apply. In philosophical terms, an accident is something that need not occur, a contingent fact, and yet of course we are all involved in accidents of one kind or another and continually meet up with the unexpected throughout our lives. You walk down the street, slip on a patch of ice, and break your leg, and for the next 50 years your leg will continue to cause you pain. The accident needn’t have occurred but its effects become a central part of who you are.
One thing that has taken me by surprise in responses to the book is that no one has asked me about the question of black-white race relations in America as presented in 4321. This may not be foregrounded in the novel but it is present throughout: for instance, in the depiction of the civil rights movement; the 1967 riots in Newark, New Jersey, which I saw in person; the relationship between Amy and her black boyfriend; and the massacre at Attica prison, which comes at the end of the book. I am still trying to figure out why no one has mentioned this. If I ever do, perhaps I will be able to understand my own country better.