People often ask me how long it takes to write a novel. My generic answer is two years, qualified by the slightly condescending “but it differs from person to person, from novel to novel.” For instance, from the moment I started the first draft of On the Way Back (even before I’d stumbled across the title) to the day I signed a contract for its publication, ten years lapsed.
I remember sitting on the patio of my good friend Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles’s house in the hilly neighborhood of Santa Monica in Caracas one afternoon in the summer of 2005, sipping our rum and exchanging tales of our struggles with our respective projects. He was experimenting with the inclusion of email correspondence in his novel (El astillero cybercafé was its working title), I was failing miserably at capturing the right tone (tender but detached, proud of her education yet unapologetically local) in Sheila Rawlingson’s letter to her grandfather. Still today I get a little twitch when I run through those few pages.
Eduardo discarded El astillero (and another half a dozen projects he was working on simultaneously) as mere juvenile tosh, although he did carry much of his concern with a contemporary twist on the epistolary form onto his later novel Transilvania, unplugged (2011). I, on the other hand, embraced fully and consciously the juvenile aspect of On the Way Back, engaging with it over the years in countless revisions, tempering its exuberance, evening up the surface, toning down, at times, florid excesses, at times fleshing out nuances and conflicts that perhaps require certain maturity to be grasped, but always remaining faithful to the ethos that sparked the story of Nathaniel and Dragon Jones.
From the very first draft of the novel to the final edit of the manuscript, the title (Air Atlantique at first, before I was gifted the final title by Graham Greene as I raced through his portrayal of General Torrijos in some secluded beach on the eastern end of Anguilla) was always followed by the words “A Fantasy”. I was advised against including this by an agent on the grounds that it was misleading, as it made it sound like a piece of genre, and years later the team at Akashic finally axed the subtitle. But for me it was important to maintain this reference, at least through the process of creation and reconstruction, to keep me in touch with the origin of this project.
You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to identify the connection between Nathaniel and my father, Dragon and myself. But this connection is far more intrinsic than it might at first appear: On the Way Back has its roots in a simple game I used to play with Dad when I was a child. I’d been devouring Ken Follett’s Night Over Water and had fallen in love with an English word I’d never come across before: skipper. I started calling Dad skipper and, fascinated as I was (as we both were) by the Caribbean and planes in general we pretended we owned an airline, which more than a business was a vehicle to indulge in our own recreational purposes. In our make-believe world, however, we were antagonistic forces, that was simply the logic of the game—if we’d both strived for the same things we’d have achieved them within a few minutes and we’d have had to find some other way to pass the time. Central to our fantasy was the fleet of our airline, at times called Air Caraibe, some other times Air Atlantique, which filled the tropical skies with the most beautiful Beech 18s, Curtiss Commandos and, most importantly, the jewel in the crown, a DC-3 that would take us, the occasional passenger, and more often than not a goat or two from one remote location to the next.
As the range of our game expanded, as we discovered new worlds, practically, in an analogue reinterpretation of Zelda, we incorporated characters taken from our immediate environment, our most intimate friends from our separate circles who, obviously, pulled for our respective causes and boycotted the other’s within the architecture of our virtual reality. I’m an only child, but the people who made it into my team at Air Atlantique, Wilson, Juancho, they were—remain to this day—my brothers-by-choice.
And then, sometimes, my father’s long-term partner, the Bear, would join in and bring an element of complete unpredictability to our idle hours. Dad and I had grown accustomed to each other’s usual strategies of disruption and therefore the game always moved within certain unspoken, unofficial boundaries, but when the Bear crashed our party she would throw a monkey wrench right in our works and she would—quite deliberately, surely—bring genuine chaos to our perfectly structured pretence of chaos. In some sense, then, the Bear was the first person who managed to bring our fantasy to real life—though I hated it when she interfered with the natural flow of the game!
It was a geeky little pastime, to be sure, though one that cemented the dynamics of our father-son relationship, and one that slowly, unknowingly, planted the first seeds of my latest novel. On the Way Back has been ten years in the making, but before any of the literary concerns came into the picture, before the shifts in perspective and the different narrative voices, before the issues of identity and belongership, before racial politics and relational conflicts, I’d been playing the game that fathered all of it for fifteen years. Now that a version of it is making it out to the real world, I look forward to wasting an hour or two in an imaginary tug of war with the original skipper.[real-old]