Saturday, July 11, 2009

L'Esprit D'Escalier

The French call it "l'esprit d'escalier," stairway wit. The witty thing you should have said that occurs to you only as you descend the stairs at the end of the evening. As a novelist, I find that I have staircase thoughts about each of my novels, even though it has been almost fifteen years since my first novel was published. I am always making discoveries of little details, finding a new insight about elements that would have been perfectly suited for some aspect of the story, always chancing upon something in a newspaper, in a conversation, on a train, in a novel. There is always one more small gesture that I would have appropriated for a character, if only I had found it when I was still writing that novel. (I don't mean that I have second thoughts now about what I did write.)

Do other writers have this experience, this sense that their novels could have been just a little more enriched by something that has only come to mind now, too late?

Two pieces of what I am going to call Staircase Writing to inaugurate this journal :

Today, driving to community recycling, I heard on the radio that the heart beats in 3/4 time. I wish I had known that when I was writing Triangle, because it is exactly the sort of knowledge possessed by George Botkin, the composer in the story whose music is inspired by forms found in nature.

Yesterday, flying back to the U.S. from Ireland, I read about a man who fell into a vat of boiling chocolate and died, in a processing plant in New Jersey, where the chocolate is processed for Hershey bars. If I had read this story a few months ago, when I was finishing my forthcoming novel True Confections, a novel about a chocolate factory in crisis, I am sure I would have found a way to work it into the story.


  1. I love this, Katharine! Both the general idea of staircase writing/wit and your specific examples.

    Do you ever use these moments as jumping-off points for short stories? I am imagining vignettes involving long-ago characters, resurfacing and allowing us glimpses into their after-novel lives.

  2. Thanks, Debi. I have in fact written a couple of short stories based on the characters in my novels. "Sleeping," which has appeared in a few anthologies and has also been made into a film, is a 500 word adjacent moment to the middle section of Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, my first novel.

  3. Staircase thoughts are A.A. Milne for me:

    Halfway down the stairs
    Is a stair where I sit:
    There isn't any other stair quite like it.
    I'm not at the bottom,
    I'm not at the top:
    So this is the stair where I always stop.

    Halfway up the stairs
    Isn't up, and isn't down.
    It isn't in the nursery, it isn't in the town:
    And all sorts of funny thoughts
    Run round my head:
    "It isn't really anywhere! It's somewhere else instead!"