[Welcome fall! With the arrival of the autumnal equinox at 9:05 a.m. GMT this morning, summer’s gone as is my vacation. Yes it was lovely, thank you, and one of its highlights was reading Dawn Tripp’s (The Season of Open Water, Moon Tide) latest novel, Game of Secrets. This extraordinarily haunting story — written in poetic prose — unfolds through a game of Scrabble and tells of the secret games all her characters play.
In today’s guest post, Dawn describes her inspiration, writing process, and true meaning of what’s in a game.]
Game of Secrets has been called a ‘literary thriller.’ It’s the story of a murder that divides two families, a deep-seated feud that is overturned when a young man and a young woman fall in love. It’s the story of secrets played out through a Scrabble game. But it didn’t start that way.
Like my other novels, Game of Secrets started in pieces—on the page for months—fragments of character, story, scene. I write longhand—often first on scraps of paper—the backs of receipts, the leftover white space of a grocery list. There is a certain artistic freedom that comes when I write on throw-away things and, in the first stages of a novel, I crave this freedom. I might have a vague sense of the overall narrative arc, but I try to resist the impulse to pin everything down into place. I try to let those early fragments have their room to shift and grow, to let the twists and turns of the plot deepen and evolve. In those early months, I turn my back completely on the old adage ‘write what you know.’ I write what moves me, what I am impelled by. I start where I feel led to start. It’s like wind-marked ocean, this early work. Everything is possible. That doesn’t mean a structure isn’t there. It doesn’t mean some dark side of my mind hasn’t already mapped that order out. I have faith that there is such an order. And I write to discover it.
Game of Secrets started with four primary fragments—the real-life story of a skull that surfaced out of gravel fill with a bullet hole in the temple, and three images: a fourteen year old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway, two lovers meeting in an old cranberry barn, and two women playing Scrabble. I did not know their names. I did not know the details specific to their lives, but I could feel the undercurrent of tension between them as their hands arranged those blonde Scrabble tiles into words and laid them on the board.
The image of the Scrabble game hit me especially hard. Not just because the unfolding of the mystery in the novel mirrors the playing of a Scrabble game: clue after clue is revealed, the story comes together piece by piece, like a puzzle, as in Scrabble, disparate letters are arranged into words, which in turn are arranged into a larger cogent grid.
It hit me because I have always loved Scrabble. I grew up playing with my grandmother. She taught me cards as well—pitch, gin, poker, bridge. But it was Scrabble that I loved. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. We would play with my father after lunch and, after a game or two, my father would drift off to something else. “You want to play again, Nana?” I’d ask. And my grandmother would nod, light another cigarette, and start flipping over the tiles. We would play game after game. Until it was time for her to fix supper. Then we’d eat, clear the table, wash the dishes, I would dry them for her, then I’d ask to play again.
The idea for Game of Secrets came to me years after she was gone. The story has nothing to do with her life; the women in the story are not modeled after her, but the sense of my time with her—generational, intimate, lost—is strung all through it. As I wrote, I remembered those long childhood hours: the stillness of the house, the light tick-tack as she lay down her tiles, the smell of her cigarette balanced on the ashtray, just resting there untended, dwindling down.
And I remembered, too, things she had taught me over the years as we played. She played Scrabble for the words, as many women in her generation did. I always played for the numbers. How we play that game can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. In Scrabble, some play to keep the board open, some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own score. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a really good player, a canny player—and she was one of those—will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.
As I wrote the scenes for Game of Secrets, the game for me became the perfect lens for a story about two women and their families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets—a brutal past, a murder, a love story. Because what are words if not a bridge—in a game of Scrabble or in a novel? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present, present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time
Note: This Fairy Godmother has her own secret. Please return next week to learn what it is!