The Key to Writing a Mystery Is Asking the Perfect Question

The veteran author John Rechy discusses the powerful enigma of William Faulkner and the beauty of the unsolved narrative.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

When I spoke to John Rechy, the author of After the Blue Hour, for this series, he took me through the first line of Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”—a stunning sentence in which nothing is wasted, and every word tells a story in itself. The opening is remarkable, Rechy explained, not only for its precision and economy but for the way its central mystery seduces us: What was Miss Emily hiding in her broken-down old house?

The narrative shape of Faulkner’s story—the gossipy inhabitants of a small town gradually uncover a hidden truth—is akin to Rechy’s own writing process. His books tend to begin mysteriously, he explained, with a feeling or image or situation he does not understand but feels compelled to. He discussed how he discovers his characters and story over the course of at least ten start-to-finish drafts—and why, in the end, he feels he’s done his job well if the final result leaves us with more questions than answers.

After the Blue Hour, like “A Rose for Emily,” has a mystery at its core. The young protagonist, a 24-year-old rising literary talent named, fittingly, John Rechy, receives a strange invitation: After reading a few of Rechy’s short stories, an inscrutable, Gatsby-like millionaire invites him to spend the summer on his private island with his mistress and teenage son. It’s a beautiful house with a library of great books, surrounded by ocean, far from home and offered up gratis—but what motivated his host’s invitation, and what will be expected of him in return?

In 1963, Grove Press published Rechy’s debut, City of Night, a frank, lyrical, and autobiographical novel about the encounters of a young male hustler in Los Angeles. The work, which went on to inspire works like The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” and Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, scandalized some reviewers at the time—perhaps most of all because it sold so well. But Rechy didn’t stop there. At 85, he is the author of 16 other books, and includes among his honors PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He spoke to me by phone.

John Rechy: When I was invited to conduct a workshop in creative writing at USC, I was surprised to find that so many students were ruled by literary theories in critical studies. Often, it seemed to me, those approaches tend to separate the author from the reader. I was appalled, for instance, to have a student who had taken a course in James Joyce, but had never read James Joyce.

So I designed a course for writers where we would look at literature closely from a writer’s point of view. We would identify certain effects in the works I chose, and then try to determine how the author may have produced them. I chose a dozen authors we would read from, and I included in my selections William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” a favorite story. When I read it again, I realized how spectacular it is—especially the first sentence, one that manages to tell a full story in a single line.  In the course, we went through every word, nothing how each functioned to create a full narrative:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combination gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

The first word, “when,” immediately suggests time. It indicates that the story will deal with tensions between the past and present, a kind of metaphoric signal—the way One Hundred Years of Solitude starts with the word “later.” Here, this one word, “when,” casts us into another time, not yet now.

Then we get “Miss” right away, telling us that, whoever this character is, she’s not been married. Next, we get the full name: “Emily Grierson.” From there on, she will be called “Miss Emily”—her unmarried status is forever reflected in the way she is respectfully referred to. Only in the title is she simply “Emily,” the way only the author may address her, the rose being the story itself, a gift from the author to his character.

We quickly get the information that this main character has already “died”—another word with intimations of the past. And then, something wonderful happens. We learn who is speaking in the phrase: “our whole town.” The voice is collective first person, first person plural. Not “I,” but “we” throughout, much like the voice of a chorus in a classical drama. By using the plural first person, Faulkner can avoid the restrictions of single first person and still roam throughout as if with an omniscient point of view—without losing the intimate sense of “our whole town.”

Everyone goes to Miss Emily’s funeral, a ritual not to be missed. Clearly, this lady who died unmarried was of importance to everyone. And yet the town itself is eventually divided, and we see that division here in the first line. The men attend her funeral “through a sort of respectful attention for a fallen monument,” but that “sort of” tells us it’s qualified admiration. And there’s the subtle, metaphoric symbolism of “a fallen monument,” which is thematic—the fall of the South after the Civil War— which Faulkner often lamented, at times too much.

We may infer the prejudices of the time: The women are relegated to a less respectful posture. They come to the funeral not to pay respect, the way the men do, but “out of curiosity.” They want to see the inside of her house. Suspense is introduced. What may be hidden inside?

We learn that no one except “an old man-servant—a combination gardener and cook” had been seen inside Miss Emily’s house in some time. This tells us she was once genteel: She had a garden and a gardener, now serving as both gardener and cook. The lady has fallen on harsh times. Suspense is heightened. No one other than the man-servant has seen the inside of the house for at least ten years. Miss Emily has been not only private, but reclusive, for very long.

Taken together, this sentence tells a mini-story, full of resonance and metaphor:  A woman from a revered family fell, alone, on bad times, perhaps after the Civil War. She has become a somewhat quaint object of curiosity—the chorus conjectures different fates. She has turned inward, a mysterious recluse.

That opening, to me, is one hell of a sentence.

There are writers who are entirely conscious in how they go about creating. Say, for one example, James Joyce, who battled typographers to retain a single period in Molly’s “soliloquy.” There are other writers who are simply—what?—instinctive geniuses. Wuthering Heights is an example. Emily Bronte’s sister, Charlotte, noted “its immature but very real powers … the power of grandeur.” Yes, its structure is awkward, and its point of view breaks constantly. But the whole is a jewel.

In Faulkner’s books, there are passages  that are undecipherable—but the words and images strung together are so powerful that they assume a certain beauty, like some paintings that we simply experience.  It’s known that sometimes he wrote when he was drunk.  So, then, he was a drunk genius.  In my course at USC, I emphasized that we cannot know the author’s intention, only conjecture. Many “critics” turn great works into Rorschach tests—at times ignoring, say, that Moby Dick is a whale.

An early admirer of my work labeled me “an accidental writer”—the kind who writes randomly, off the stop of his head, the way Kerouac is reputed to have done. But that’s not true of me. I’m a very conscious writer, attentive to the right word, even the lengths of sentences, and punctuation for effect. At times, I want to create an opposite impression, say, a looser prose, but that, too, is done consciously. I’ve never written a book for which I have not gone through at least 10 complete drafts, 10, from page one to the end.

The first draft is much less controlled. Through subsequent drafts, I begin to retain a definite structure. In the early drafts, you may locate unexpected signals to yourself; you’re exploring new territory. I’ve drawn maps of the journeys that a character is taking, along a street, say, or a city. I write straight through on a first draft, not reading what I’ve written until I begin the first revision, noting discoveries. One book of mine documents a single day in the life of a Mexican-American woman in Los Angeles. I scouted the territory she would pass through. I saw a shop window displaying a very pretty but somewhat gaudy wedding dress, and that inexpensive wedding dress became central to my character’s motivations. Those discoveries are among the pleasures of revision.

The origin of a book is mysterious, and sometimes you don’t even recognize when it’s born. I didn’t intend to write City of Night. It began as a letter, unsent, then revised, expanded—until there it was: a 500-word novel. At times, I may have observed something and rushed home to write a first draft. My new book, After the Blue Hour, was originally a section of a very long book. Then I saw that one part was separating itself from the others. I plucked it out, and then rewrote, and revised—even the title changed along the way.

I love the process of revising, though it’s sometimes torture in the first round; you even wince, at times, to read what you wrote. At a certain point, a book has taken shape, though. That’s when I want to choose the exact word, the right description, the best chapter endings, even, yes, the right number of syllables for a desired rhythm. What I expect from a writer in my workshops is that they produce their very best—and that’s what I adhere to in my own work, a total dedication to your effect.

Sometimes I’ll find that at the end I haven’t resolved every aspect in the narrative events, or in characterization. Then I may leave things mysterious, unsolved. I wrote one book that has two endings. The English version has one, the American version another. I couldn’t decide what a main character would finally do: A young woman is determined never to cry. In one version—away from everyone else—she does cry. In another, she refuses to cry. I still wonder what she did or not.

I like the element of mystery in literature. Certain things have to be satisfactorily resolved in a narrative, at other times not. In “A Rose for Emily,” we eventually learn what Miss Emily has been clinging to. The clues come together.

There is an apocryphal story about Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. (Most of the enduring stories about writers or actors or artists are really not true, and I love that—apocryphal stories are better than some factual ones. They’re stories waiting for their protagonists, and when the right figure or figures appear, the perfect connection is made.) Supposedly, when Gertrude Stein was lying on her deathbed, Alice B. Toklas asked her: “What is the answer?” And Stein answered: “What is the question?” To me, Stein did answer the question. The question is the answer.

That’s what great fiction does, I think: A writer uses narrative to ask a question more clearly than it has ever been asked before. When a question is asked perfectly, it doesn’t need a tidy answer. To discover the precise shape of what the mystery is: That can be enough.