I first thought of Railroad to Zanzibar, as nearly as I can remember, driving west to east in 2005. It must have been winter, and I must have been in North Dakota or Minnesota. I remember the cold, and the trees, and the warm light in the motel room, where I could not sleep for half the night. I was writing down an outline, which has remained remarkably consistent ever since; except that Claire became a short patricia later. At the time, she was a somewhat more awkward-sounding laqueza, and she was tall.
I can hardly describe my excitement when I thought of Zanzibar. It was a positive excitement and a negative excitement. The positive excitement was at having an idea so fascinating and so sprawling as not only to fill the rest of my life, but to make me happy to have it so filled. The negative excitement was what is called relief. I had a fear, and if you are a writer, perhaps you will have had a similar fear. You wanted to write, and yet you had no particular idea of the actual thing to write. You sat in your mind as if in a small and empty room, and tried to logic a story into being. But whatever you could think of, it was cramped, dismal, and gray. You abandoned it out of boredom after a chapter or two. And you had a terror that you would never have a good idea again, that you would have nothing to write. When I felt relief at the arrival of Zanzibar, it was relief that I had escaped that awful little room; that I could believe in a thing I had been given to write, with everything I had to offer.
I have been filling one Fabriano notebook after another with my tiny handwriting ever since.
It took me years to write the first volume, and years to decipher my own writing and get it typed, and years more to edit it. This last job is not done yet, because much of the writing I thought was so brilliant, so divinely inspired, turned out to be, in the lucid illumination of hindsight, fairly unreadably bad. I may be accustomed to being wrong – I wouldn’t know – because I am almost totally unaccustomed to the sensation of being wrong. I have an unreasonably robust ego. But there’s nothing for it, the first draft of the first volume of Zanzibar was mostly pretty horrible.
By the end of the draft III of any particular part, though, I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’ve been writing in public for years now, mostly at my art blog and at The Huffington Post. I’ve gotten better at communicating, and at respecting the limits of syntax and sentence length, and at moderating the fifty-cent words. There’s still a fair distance from that to presenting Zanzibar to the world. And now I’ve done it: the first four chapters, about 12,000 words, are up on Amazon for Kindle, and will be available in hard copy in the next week or two.
On the one hand, I’m excited that any part of the book is available to strangers. And on the other hand, I have a sick feeling in my stomach – what if my idea of its quality is still unreasonable? What if I’ve devoted myself to a ludicrous doctrine?
Well, we’ll see. I’ve taken the first step, and I’m grateful that you’re here reading my account of it.