The Steady Running of the Hour announces the arrival of a stunningly talented author. In this debut published this month, a young American discovers he may be heir to the unclaimed estate of an English World War I officer, which launches him on a quest across Europe to uncover the elusive truth. Part love story, part historical tour de force, Justin Go’s novel is utterly compelling, unpredictable, and heartrending. Here Justin sheds light on the epic journey his novel-writing took him on, from quitting his law firm job to head for Berlin, New Orleans and on to Everest Base Camp, before finding himself at the offices of literary agents in New York.
By the I time I turned thirty it seemed clear that I was a failure. I was living in a dirty, badly-run hotel in New Orleans’s Lower Garden District, working at the front desk in exchange for meagre pay and free rent. In the mornings I checked in guests and dealt with the daily crises that arrived like clockwork—fire alarms, foreclosure notices, threats to shut off the hotel’s electricity. In the evenings I worked on the novel I’d been writing for years. My life seemed to have reached some pinnacle of aimlessness, where I drifted between unoccupied hotel rooms as guests came and went. I lived out of a duffel bag that I never bothered to unpack.
Three years earlier I’d committed myself to writing by quitting a good job at a New York law firm to move to Berlin, a city where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language. I arrived there with a plot outline, a few half-written chapters and two fifty-pound suitcases full of research books.
I was obsessed with history. I was captivated by the Great War and the 1920’s Everest expeditions, and I believed in some mysterious connection between all the things I was interested in. My idea for the novel mixed history with the story of my own travels across Europe. I hoped it might give purpose to the years of wandering that had been my twenties.
I plotted the book carefully, then replotted it twenty times, finding new problems at every turn. I read war letters and diaries out loud to memorise their vocabulary and syntax; I went to libraries and archives all over Europe, scrutinising photographs and documents, studying every relevant memoir I could find. I travelled to every location in my book, ending on a windy day at Everest Base Camp.
Harder than research was trying to learn how to write a novel. I wrote the clumsy first draft by hand in a dozen notebooks, then rewrote it in circular revisions that dragged on for years. Making every mistake a novice could make, I only groped my way forward through blind trial and error.
The book was never done. I just gave up. When I’d finally had enough of New Orleans, I packed my bags, quit the hotel and sent off the manuscript. I was going to drive back to my parents’ house in California. Then everything changed. A week later I was in New York meeting literary agents who talked about my book as if it were a real novel.
Even now I can’t believe it is finished. I have worked on the book so long that I can only see one page at a time. I only hope it holds some part of all the things that went into it.