You Can’t Save What You Don’t Love

After suffering a massive stroke, Marianne Wiggins sought help to complete her new novel, Properties of Thirst.

marianne wiggins, lara porzak, properties of thirst
Dustin Snipes

Marianne Wiggins and her daughter, Lara Porzak, at their home in Venice, California.


The first time I read Marianne Wiggins’s novel Properties of Thirst, it was unfinished. This was the spring of 2018, and the book had come to me in an enormous binder. The manuscript was 541 pages long, including an incomplete final chapter that began with an author’s note (the writer to herself, it appeared) articulating one of the problems Wiggins had been facing. “I haven’t been able to bring the language of this chapter up to my standards yet,” she wrote, “but I’ll get there.” The note was dated January 2016.

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Alta

Wiggins’s self-encouragement reminded me of a related message I’d once encountered, from a Los Angeles novelist named Maritta Wolff. In 1975, at the age of 56, Wolff had set aside her last novel—it would be published posthumously in 2005 under the title Sudden Rain—for the final time. As she boxed the manuscript (to revise later, perhaps, although she never did return to it), she added a single-spaced typed letter, marked with an array of editorial notes. “I know what is wrong,” she observed, delineating the strengths and failings of the project. “I know the trouble spots and I know fairly well what is required to fix it.… I may just have to pour a drink later this PM, put on a stack of records and do a couple of hours of head work. I believe that is what is now required.”

I don’t want to make too much of the comparison; Wiggins and Wolff are very different writers, after all. But bear with me for a moment, because there is a parallel worth tracing here. In part, it has to do with what let’s call authorial intention: each artist understanding what the issues are with a work in progress and how they might, or ought to, be addressed. All the same, in both cases, things were complicated by what happened in the aftermath, the various ways the world can take its toll. By the time I read Wolff’s self-reflection, she was dead, and Sudden Rain, after 30 years in limbo, had just been released. Her letter, then, was less a directive than it was a postscript, or maybe a curio. With Wiggins, the situation was different; she was alive, and her book remained an ongoing concern. Less than six months after she’d typed that note to herself, however, she had experienced what her daughter, Lara Porzak, would later describe with necessary bluntness as a “massive stroke”: “She would ‘probably’ be blind,” the doctors insisted, “ ‘most definitely’ never read and write due to quadruple vision…because one clot was in her occipital lobe.”

Among the things I’m here to tell you is that the doctors were wrong.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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I was approached about Properties of Thirst because two years later, Wiggins had recovered enough to work again on the novel, which she had started a decade before. She needed help, though: not a collaborator, as she made clear when we first met to discuss it, but more an editor or a sounding board. The narrative—a sweeping mix of histories incorporating the water wars between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley as well as the concentration camps built during World War II to incarcerate Japanese Americans—was vivid, yet in addition to its unfinished elements, it needed shaping, structural tightening. It meandered in places, as, it was agreed, a first draft should, but Wiggins remained uncertain how to fix it. I agreed to visit once a week and talk it through 20 pages at a time. Porzak was the driver, searching her mother’s notebooks for sentences or details we could integrate; from the beginning, we all understood, one challenge of our work together would have to do with the consistency of voice. I didn’t want the book to sound like me, either in my edits or in the pages we would need to generate. At the same time, I was wary about trying to re-create her style. This was the start of our dance, then: how to finish a novel when the terms of its creation were irrevocably altered. For the three of us, Properties of Thirst became a project of reclamation: not only of its author’s creativity but also, and in every way that mattered, of her soul.

Wiggins and I had known each other before the stroke; we’d met in 2003, three years after she’d relocated from London to Southern California, when I profiled her following the publication of her novel Evidence of Things Unseen. Later, she would blurb my first book and write for me when I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I liked her because she could be thorny. I liked her because she said what she thought. I liked her because she was a writer of astonishing felicity, unpredictable and ambitious, with a complex appreciation of what the novel could do. Literature, she observed in Evidence of Things Unseen, demands “an ongoing exploration of the human tragedy—man’s condition…an ongoing conversation with the future, with the past.” That novel involved a photographer, his wife, and his best friend and was set in Tennessee during the early decades of the prior century; the histories through which they lived included the Tennessee Valley Authority and the development of the atomic bomb.

Properties of Thirst was a similar kind of novel, big and unapologetic, awash in politics and history. This was encoded in its characters: Rocky, the patriarch, who as the book opens is longing for the wife whose death he still can’t process, until he learns that his son has gone missing in the attack on Pearl Harbor; Schiff, sent by the Interior Department to oversee the camp at Manzanar despite his moral qualms. I liked that I didn’t always agree with their choices, that, as all of us do, they often had to make the best of circumstances they could not control. Something similar had motivated Wiggins’s 2007 novel, The Shadow Catcher, which, like Properties of Thirst and Evidence of Things Unseen, blurred the line between fact and fiction, in this case invoking both the 19th-century photographer Edward Curtis and an invented version of Wiggins herself. The more we worked, the more I began to consider these novels a kind of trilogy, an American saga in three parts. The TVA and the atom bomb; photography and water and displacement and discrimination: a ragged opus of the West. Wiggins had once told me she’d been drawn to write novels because “the form is so symphonic.” It might encompass anything. This was the appeal of the region also, as she explained in The Shadow Catcher, “the lure of these dramatic landscapes, the pull of these wide-open spaces evoking narratives of ancient geologic time, narratives of passage, disappearance, death; persistence.… The West—true West—attaches to you like a shadow. I don’t think that happens in the East—I don’t think the landscape summons an imagined past the way the land does here.”

Those textures were everywhere in Properties of Thirst. “The East, whenever its restrictive memory surfaced,” Wiggins writes of Rocky, “made him wince. It felt like a tight shoe.” Even so, she has no illusions about the rigors of the West. Rocky’s ranch, Three Chairs, is under assault from all sides. The water table is subsiding as Los Angeles drains the aquifers. This is one story of original sin in California; the camps are another, and in neither instance does Wiggins look away. The material is charged because of both our complicity and our forgetting. Neither story was told, except in bits and pieces, for a long time. Here we see one of the most essential things that literature can offer—not consolation, exactly (how could there be consolation for internment?), but instead a kind of clarity. As Wiggins, Porzak, and I began to work in the spring and summer of 2018, a not dissimilar catastrophe was unfolding along the southern border. I’d just returned after a month in Marfa, where I’d seen the patrols and the border drones. I flew back to Los Angeles from El Paso, ground zero for the worst abuses of the administration, the Mylar blankets and the cages full of kids. History, of course, is not an allegory, and Properties of Thirst is not a metaphor. It is a novel that takes place during a particular period. Such a period belongs to itself alone. Nonetheless, it was impossible not to recognize the parallels. They emerged everywhere within the book. How do good people act when confronted with an insupportable situation? Such a question drives the bulk of Wiggins’s narrative.

marianne wiggins
Wiggins’s new novel, “Properties of Thirst,” is her first since 2007.
Dustin Snipes

In November 2018, we took a weekend research trip to Lone Pine, 200 miles north of Los Angeles in the shadow of Mount Whitney. It is here that much of the novel unfolds. We wandered through town, Porzak pushing Wiggins in a wheelchair. We visited the Manzanar National Historic Site. The wind was harsh, blowing across the Alabama Hills like a reminder that nature would always take its course. The camp was deserted for the most part, and much of it had been deconstructed, leaving little more than ghost traces of its past. Ten thousand Japanese Americans had been imprisoned here, from 1942 to 1945. It wasn’t until 43 years later that the federal government offered reparations to those who had survived. When it comes to Properties of Thirst, that’s both subtext and context, a necessary double vision, if you will. “Schiff couldn’t sleep,” Wiggins writes, describing the traumas of prisoner intake. “He hadn’t slept—maybe an hour, two—the last three days. He’d put his head down on the pillow, hear them whispering. Hear the wind tear up the flag outside. Hear an argument in strangled tones. Hear the convoys going by along the road. Hear a muffled cry.”

What emerges here is place and character, or perhaps we ought to call it personality. All of that was in Properties of Thirst already; it was just a matter of helping to draw it out. Eventually, we rebuilt the back end of the novel, reordering a few chapters, cutting one. We spent months working on the unfinished chapter, me drafting and Porzak and Wiggins revising; we added another pieced together out of the notes and fragments Porzak had culled—“nuggets,” she called them. The work moved forward in its own way, slow but steady; we went over pages when we gathered each week in person, then switched to Zoom after the pandemic hit. For a long time, we didn’t know what we would have when we were finished. For a long time, we didn’t know whether anyone other than the three of us would ever read the book.

Still, isn’t that the way it always is? Working with Wiggins and Porzak only amplified my understanding of this point. We write—we must—to discover. We write to find out what we need to say. In this case, that was a two-part process, the first involving the completion of the novel and the second having to do with Wiggins’s recovery. It took three years to finish the manuscript, three years of talk and edits, three years in which we were the only ones who believed. We watched as Wiggins began to write again, first a sentence here and there and then a paragraph. It felt like a victory on many levels when those words ended up in the final text.

Properties of Thirst is a magnificent achievement. I say that as a reader first. It is a panoramic novel, unafraid of its complexity. It is a long novel, unafraid of its length. It is a testament to perseverance, both for the characters, who must face their own travails and turmoils, and for Wiggins, to whom it became a mechanism to write her way back to herself. I don’t say this to suggest that writing can save anyone, or, for that matter, that anyone can be saved. The book ends without any easy answers, which is as it should be, since easy answers do not exist in literature or in life. And yet, to see the work completed feels like a bonus. It feels like something has been redeemed. “You can’t save what you don’t love,” Wiggins repeats throughout the novel, a refrain that speaks not only to the narrative of Properties of Thirst but also to its existence, the means by which the work was collectively restored. •

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