Christine Reilly’s debut novel, Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday, was born as a group of poems about a fictional family, written while the author was in college and working at a mental hospital. The family haunted her; it became her muse. “Every time I would think about human adversity—physical illness, mental illness, death—the kind of hard things that we go through in life, I imagined this family coping with it,” she explains. Years later, she switched from poetry to prose, and began her novel. In the end result, Reilly’s lyrical voice shapes a quotidian picture of the way a family manages the physical and mental illnesses of two of its members. Her book is a fusion of a poet’s relentless focus on the possibilities of a single word with the novelist’s construction of imagined worlds.
For Reilly, the process of writing her novel was like writing a poem—cyclical. “I found myself writing about certain things over and over and over again: certain animals, certain colors, themes, the whole idea of heart being capitalized, and god being lowercased,” says Reilly. Though time-consuming, her method produced deeply layered prose: on a literal level, it creates the world and plot of the characters, on a figurative level it spins many webs of symbols and images (Reilly maps them for us in an index). “ ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Home.’ He sounded like he knew where it was. Like it was more than just a place deep inside them, a place neither could bear to go,’ ” she writes, forming one entry in the index. Whole poems, written by the novel’s two ill characters, provide further texture. Reilly believes that the novel’s unique expression couldn’t have come out of a more linear process than the one she had. Much effort went into crafting it, and although Reilly says she wanted her words to be “accessible,” her work shows.
Reilly’s conceptualization began on the smallest scale, the level of the word, and expanded through descriptions and dialogue, scenes and portraits, “almost like a Russian doll,” she explains. When she had almost all of the raw pieces, she ran into a problem. One of her trusted readers told her that her language was beautiful but the novel wasn’t a page-turner: there was a problem with the plot. Though it was hard for her to accept the criticism, one day she decided to play around with structure. She printed out the whole text, broke it into sections and moved them around. She found her solution (perhaps the most straightforward): a linear timeline, starting with the story of a couple, then proceeding with the story of the family they create. “When I read it, I realized this is the real shape of the story,” Reilly explains. “This is the process where if I throw all the balls into the air for the characters, the reader will be able to catch them by the end.”
The novel’s plot hinges on the discovery that one of the family members is gravely ill. Life in the face of imminent death—the story’s thrust, simple and powerful, allowed Reilly to express what had been driving her to write about the family for seven years. “The entire time I was writing the book I knew that I wanted it to be about resilience and human strength because that’s my favorite part about humans,” she explains. “That under the worst circumstances, we can find beauty and get through them, and that’s what I was thinking the entire time even on the small scale when I was writing these symbols and themes.”
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.