About Coincidence

My most recent novel, The Guardian, will be released this week in the mass-market paperback edition. The original hardcover version was published in September last year, and there was a time, not too long ago, when a full year would have elapsed before the paperback appeared. Nowadays, though, the interval is shorter because hardcover book sales have declined everywhere. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

The dedication in The Guardian says, in part: To my granddaughter Jessica and her husband, Jake Strashok, who is what I have always secretly wanted to be: a metalsmith. That sentiment is true. There’s nothing coincidental about it, and that is what I want to talk about.

If there were no such thing as a coincidence then the word itself would not exist. It does exist, though, and so do the events it defines. As a working author, however, I learned long ago to distrust coincidence and to avoid using it in writing my novels for a very simple reason: within the confines of a novel, coincidences too often stretch credulity to the breaking point; they create too big a risk of having the reader say, “Oh, come on, give me a break! You expect me to believe that?”

And so the smart writer, in studying his or her craft, quickly learns to stay away from coincidences altogether. They’re simply too risky to use in fiction. Better by far for an author to work harder and longer doing whatever additional research is needed to create a more convincing way of bringing people and events together, than to leave the reader’s fragile credulity at the mercy of sometimes unbelievable coincidence.

I experienced a coincidence like that a few weekends ago. A coincidence that would have made me groan and shake my head in irritable disbelief if I had found it used in a novel; a coincidence that would have convinced me, in all probability, to abandon the book there and then and never pick it up again. And yet I could not deny the truth of what it was, and I was amazed and so deeply taken aback by it that I decided to talk about it here.

My daughter Jeanne came to visit me from Alberta a few weekends ago—a far too infrequent occurrence—and we had a rare old time together. In the course of it, though, sitting out on my back patio with a gin and tonic on a glorious evening, she showed me an old snapshot, taken 35 years ago in 1980, that she had discovered in a box of old photos long after her mother’s death ten years ago, and had recently had transferred (don’t ask me how!) to her iPhone library. Her mother and I had been divorced in 1969, and by the time this photo had been taken, almost eleven years later, Jeanne had been seventeen. Helena, her mother, had worked in those days at Northlands Arena in Edmonton, and she had snapped the shot privately, at a quiet, opportune moment before the public was admitted to where the new Oilers phenom—an unbelievably young and bashful-looking Wayne Gretzky—was scheduled to do a celebrity signing. “Fair enough,” I thought. “Nice picture, nice memento.”  But I didn’t know the half of it yet.

The picture shows The Great One, sitting at a table in his Oilers uniform, signing a kiddy-sized hockey stick for a young woman who is smiling and looking down at the stick from behind him. When my daughter showed the picture to my granddaughter Jessica just a few weeks ago, though, she got a reaction that left her open-mouthed, because Jess got really excited as soon as she saw it, despite Gretzky’s being pretty much yesterday’s legend nowadays. But it wasn’t the Gretzky presence that had made my granddaughter react so vocally—it was the realization that the smiling young woman behind Gretzky’s shoulder, who had worked in public relations for the Edmonton Oilers at the time, was her own mother-in-law, and that the stick on the table, which was being signed, “To Jake, from Wayne Gretzky” now hung on her own living room wall as one of  her husband’s most treasured, lifelong possessions, signed and delivered to him while he was still too young to be aware of it.

Now that’s what I call a coincidence, and the most emphatic part of it is that the photographer, who never knew or met the woman in the picture, was completely unaware that she was witnessing her own, unborn granddaughter’s future mother-in-law receiving an autograph from The Great One for her granddaughter’s husband-to-be…

Now wouldn’t you react with disbelief if you found that story laid out for you in a novel in the hope that you’d accept it chapter and verse, without question? Of course you would. It’s too far fetched. And that’s why I never knowingly use coincidences in my work.