Trying to pin down the absolute source of any piece of fiction is a fool’s game—and when I think back to the messy four-year process of writing my novel You Came Back, I feel so even more strongly. Its central premise—a grieving father confronted by the assertion that his dead son’s ghost haunts his former house—has been with me in some form or another for more than a decade, dating back to a bad, fragmented half-scene I’d never been able to bring myself to delete from my files. However, I was still figuring out my reasons for wanting to write this book even as I made the last revisions to the manuscript, even as I write this.
The book exists, essentially, because of these facts: In 1999, my first wife, Joellen Thomas, died in Columbus, Ohio, after a five-year fight with bone cancer. At the age of 27, I became a widower. Prior to that time, I had aspired to be a writer; after Joellen’s death I enrolled in the MFA program at Ohio State University in order to see if I really was. There I published a book of grief-stricken short stories, We’re in Trouble. While in school I also met the woman who, in 2005, became my second wife: Stephanie Lauer. In the years since our marriage I have rebuilt a life that, in 1999, seemed broken beyond salvage. I am happy now.
I’m happy. Maybe I can say I wrote my novel because I falter whenever I say this sentence. Not because it’s untrue—I am married to a marvelous woman, and I have a job I love in a city and region I love. I do not want for anything. But it is with utmost respect for my wife and for my job and my place that I say this: My happiness is often upsetting to me, because of the way it came to me. Because it’s a product of my first life being destroyed, and giving way to this one. These two lives—both of which, past and present, I’d have died to protect—will always exist in me, side by side.
"I’m happy." Maybe I can say I wrote my novel because I falter whenever I say this sentence.
My novel’s protagonist, Mark Fife, is not me, but he’s a man who’s also had to live two lives. His first marriage collapsed in the wake of the death of his seven-year-old son. He has rebuilt his life, too, and is on the verge of remarrying. His nightmares are like mine—including one that seems, terribly, to be coming true.
Why did I write about parenthood? Why is my novel’s ghost a child? Because I’m not a memoirist, first of all—I write fiction in order to take my problems and amplify them, change them, give them to a made-up someone else in order to see my own for what they are. Because my wife and I have recently decided not to have children, and this decision is a momentous one; as one early reader noted, I’m probably using this book to say goodbye to a potential son. Because in my mysterious other life, Joellen wanted children, and if she’d lived, we might have had them. Because I’m a child, myself, still, trying to figure out the processes by which I somehow became an adult.
I wrote this book, too, because of faith. I’m an atheist, and have been for all my adult life. Yet all around me—as I found out especially during Joellen’s sickness and death, and as we can surely see now, looking at the political landscape—are people who are sure, fight-to-the-death sure, that this life is not all we have. That there is a god, and a heaven, and souls in our bodies. When I sat down to write about haunting, and why ghosts are so scary for me to consider, I couldn’t help but think of them as representing a crisis of belief. A disruption of the way I—or anyone—might view both life and death.
Grief, after all, is not just a reaction to the loss of a human life. It’s also our reaction to loss of vision. When we marry, when we have children, we commit our futures to the act; we invest our dreams in the bodies of others. When we live through grief, when we survive, we have to rebuild our visions of ourselves and our place in the world. We have to tell ourselves we still matter.
So all these questions and visions became the center of my novel: A lost loved one’s voice in the night, calling us back. Telling us we were wrong—wrong to move forward, wrong to keep living as we lived, wrong in the way we think of God and heaven and hell. Isn’t that a terrifying thought? But: is the voice calling us out of loneliness? Out of love?
If you heard such a voice, could you answer?
If you did, what would you say?
Christopher Coake was named one of the 20 best young American novelists by Granta in 2007. He lives with his wife in Nevada, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Nevada Reno.
Read our review of You Came Back, the Top Pick in fiction for June 2012.