Writers on Writing

On First Lines

by Michelle Bailat-Jones

The winner of The Center's 2013 Christopher Doheny Award gives us a glimpse behind the writing of Fog Island Mountains



I close the bedroom door.

This was the very first line of the original “finished” version of Fog Island Mountains, written sometime in 2008, and kept—along with its speaker and her story—until the massive rewrite I undertook in 2012 when both she and her part of the novel were removed.


Looking back now, it’s curious to me that this is how the book originally began. We close the bedroom door for reasons of privacy. There are certainly happy intimate reasons to close that bedroom door, but we also close it in sorrow, in sickness, in anger, in shame. When we want, most decidedly, to be alone. We close it when we are grieving. And yet the desire for privacy, for secrecy and hush, is often a futile one. An impossible gesture.


So this is our town…


The soon-to-be-published version of Fog Island Mountains (Tantor, Nov 2014) now begins with a wide open door. Narrator Azami refuses her characters their desire to restrict their grieving to a private and enclosed space. Not just because she is narrating their experience to us, inquisitive readers, but because she acknowledges and asks us to acknowledge in return that their grieving cannot exist in a vacuum. Their actions—whether questionable, admirable, or hard-to-understand—are necessarily considered in the public forum of a tight-knit family and a small town. When Kanae, arguably the main character of the novel, is confronted with her husband’s terminal illness, her first and repeated instinct is to find a way to be alone. Regardless the consequences, she attempts to enshroud-mitigate-protect her looming grief by creating an impenetrable solitude. This holds true for her husband Alec, although to a lesser degree. But, as is often the case in real life, no one here has the luxury of closing a door.


It took me several years, but the forced movement from private to public is finally what interested me the most as I wrote Fog Island Mountains. The question of experiencing the death of a loved one is still central, but no one actually dies in the novel. Everyone the reader meets in the opening pages will be there, still alive—still caught up in all the messiness and ambiguity of what it means to be living—when it’s time to turn those last pages. What I hope takes precedence then is how grieving can become its own story, separate from an actual death, a way of negotiating or fighting both the public and private prescriptions that often accompany a grief situation. 


So this is our town, our little Komachi…


Komachi means small town in Japanese and I kept this generic name for a number of reasons, and one of them is because it carries within it all the stereotypes of small-town living—the rumors, the knowing of everyone else’s business, the legend-making of shared history, whether true or untrue, and the geographical closeness that becomes a spiritual one between families and neighbors. For better or worse, a komachi does not allow you to close your doors.


As I have come to understand it, through the unexpected honor of Fog Island Mountains being selected for its inaugural year, the Christopher Doheny Award is about writing that wonders at and worries over the impact of life-threatening illness. This makes it an award that is interested in the borders of private and public, in what is often difficult to say and write about, what is kept hushed between family members or hidden from friends. In this sense, it is an award that celebrates the wide open door.


I am extremely grateful to everyone at Tantor, at Audible, at The Center for Fiction and, especially to the judges—Beth Anderson, Diana Dapito, Dani Shapiro, Ann Hood and Meghan O’Rourke—for selecting Fog Island Mountains, and for their support of writers working quietly through these difficult issues of illness and grief.



An audio excerpt from Michelle's Fog Island Mountains:



Read next: "For Shame!" by Stefan Merrill Block




Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Her début novel Fog Island Mountains won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction and will be published by Tantor Publishing in the fall of 2014. She has also translated Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s 1927 Swiss classic Beauty on Earth (Onesuch Press, 2013). She is the Reviews Editor at the web journal Necessary Fiction, and her fiction, poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared in a number of journals, includingThe Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Quarterly Conversation, PANK, Spolia Mag, Two Serious Ladies, and The Atticus Review. She lives in Switzerland.