July 1, 2014

Blog Hop: What Do I Write and Why?

This post is something of a departure for Storycraft, as it’s not about the nuts and bolts of fiction writing but what might loosely be termed aesthetic philosophy. It is written in response to an invitation from my friend, the author Kristin Gleeson, who included me in her recent contribution to something called a blog hop. The idea of this exercise is to encourage authors to discuss their own work in a way that will be relevant to readers interested in writing and the writing life. At the end I’ll include a note about Kristin and her books, and, following the conventions of the blog hop, I’ll "tag” three additional writers whose work is of interest to me for various reasons. So, without further ado . . .  

Why do I write?

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I believe that narrative is a basic human need. Deep in my heart I know this is true, not only for humankind in general but for me personally: for the health of my psyche and for the complex circadian machinery of my inner life. Creating a whole new world, breathing life into characters within a narrative, and doing it in such a way that the reader is transported into this new fictional universe, is incredibly rewarding work. It’s also incredibly frustrating, incremental, and psychologically hazardous work. There’s something self-indulgent about sitting at a keyboard weaving stories out of one’s own imaginative matter, a quality that a more highbrow writer might euphemistically call “onanistic.” For this and other reason writers, or at least this writer, often struggle with a troublesome sense of guilt.

Still, we keep doing it. There must be something about writing that makes it a more satisfying way to use our unoccupied hours than watching television or playing computer games or even reading. It is work, after all, to create something out of nothing; a great deal of very hard work that must be sustained for years and years. Ultimately, because in order to create worthy material a writer must continue to learn and grow, and because the process of coaxing forth truth and beauty is unending, the hard work of authorship stretches out over an entire lifetime. Despite prominent counter-examples such as Vonnegut and Roth, the only retirement that is in the offing for most writers is death. So perhaps this vocation isn’t as self-indulgent as it sometimes feels.

With the publication of my first novel, Will Poole’s Island, a project with which I coexisted for so long in almost total solitude, I’ve begun to receive feedback from actual readers. Yes, my fellow aspiring novelists, despite all the doom and gloom about the state of publishing and the death of books, there are actual readers. It turns out that all those hours and weeks and years of solitary work have led to something vital and real, a lasting imaginative interface that, when activated, creates a living bond between myself and another human being. It's not as if I didn't know what a novel is, but experiencing the process firsthand has been something of a revelation!

I have to say, though, that even absent the heartening feedback I would still keep writing. I’ve grown to depend on it as a daily practice. It keeps away the darkness that surrounds me. It is a triumph over chaos, adding a dash of order and meaning to life. And it feels like a contribution, however tiny, to the creative project of humanity on this planet.

What do I write?

I once read something to the effect that fiction’s sole concern is humanity. I don’t agree. For me, there are additional concerns, such as the world that sustains us, the beings we share it with, and how humanity interacts with both. This is an important distinction at the dawn of the Anthropocene age, for if we are to overcome the current crisis we’re going to have to come up with a new vision of ourselves, one that is more inclusive, one that doesn’t put our species on a pedestal but allows us to see ourselves for what we are: a strange, uncannily intelligent primate whose destiny is – and must be – to assume our proper role as stewards of this planet Earth.

But perhaps the above sounds a bit over the top. Consider it aspirational if you wish, a philosophical position I can’t help but hold and which, therefore, must have an influence on the stories I write. In fact I don’t see the role of fiction as a planet-saving one or anything nearly so grandiose. The purpose of fiction is merely to tell a good story, and in doing so to enrich the lives of our fellow humans in a small but meaningful way.

And now we pause for a Brief Promotional Message. If you’ve enjoyed the explorations of the storytelling craft you’ve found on this blog – which has always been and always will be available free of charge – then I urge you to show your appreciation by buying and reading Will Poole’s Island. The paperback version is less than $10, and it's easy to order via AmazonPowell’sBarnes & Noble, your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore, or another on-line retailerIf you enjoy the novel as much as I hope you will, then by all means share it with friends, suggest it to schools and libraries, and/or write about it in whatever forum is most comfortable for you. If you don't enjoy it, you will at least have the satisfaction of having contributed to Storycraft! Please don’t forget to “like” the book’s official page on Facebook and add it to your books on Goodreads. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you! Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming . . . 

What am I working on now?

Anyone who has published a novel understands the surreal process of trying to promote a project you wrote what seems like two lifetimes ago. That is the case for Will Poole’s Island, although it has in fact been an unexpected pleasure to re-immerse myself in the world of the book in order to create presentations, op-eds, interviews, and supporting materials for book groups, teachers, and members of the press.

But I do continue to write every day, and I feel a more intimate connection to the project I’m working on now, which early-draft superstition prevents me from discussing other than to say that it is a contemporary novel set on two well-known islands. Also on the drawing board is another historical novel based on the true story of two young highwaymen from the British Isles who emigrate to early 19th century New England. More to come, I hope, on both of these projects.

* * *

But for now, let's turn our attention back to the work of my fellow writers. The writer who tagged me for this post is the wonderful Kristin Gleeson. Kristin is an Ireland-based historian-turned-novelist who also writes nonfiction. Her two published books are a novel, Selkie Dreams, which grew out of her research interests in the mythical tales of the selkies, and Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit, a nonfiction biography of a Canadian First Nations woman who was an important conservation pioneer. Kristin has just completed a draft of a novel set in 6th Century Ireland; I’ve read it and it’s very promising!

Now for the writers I want to tag (and by “tag” I mean mention, giving them the opportunity but not the obligation to extend this entertaining little blog hop if they wish). All three are fiction writers: one (Alden) has two acclaimed books recently out; another (Anjali) has an exciting novel forthcoming; and a third (Patrick) has an intriguing project in development and hopefully forthcoming before too long. Their blogs should be of interest to those who visit this site; you can access them by clicking on each of their names.

Alden Jones’ memoir The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, won the Independent Publishers Book Award in Travel Essays, and was named a Top Ten Travel Book by Publishers WeeklyThe Huffington Post, and A Traveler’s Library. Her newly released story collection, Unaccompanied Minors, won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize. I recently posted an interview I did with Alden for Fiction Writers Review, but she's such an interesting writer that I thought I'd take advantage of this further opportunity to promote her work.

Anjali Mitter Duva is a writer who grew up in France and has family roots in Calcutta, India. Her first novel, Faint Promise of Rain, is due out with She Writes Press in October 2014. She is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. Anjali lives near Boston with her husband and two daughters, and is at work on her second novel, set in 19th century Lucknow.

Patrick Joyce is another historian-turned-novelist. Once upon a time he earned a Ph.D. and wrote a book called No Fire Next Time about the Los Angeles riots. He’s since left academics behind and is working on a mystery novel set in 17th England about a murderer obsessed with Christopher Marlowe’s infamous play Doctor Faustus. I, for one, am very much looking forward to reading it!

June 18, 2014

Truer than Truth: Life Experience Transformed into Story in Alden Jones' Unaccompanied Minors

I recently had a chance to talk about the writing craft with the brilliant and fascinating Alden Jones, who’s made a splash this year with two great new books: a highly acclaimed travel memoir and a short fiction collection that is among the best I’ve read in the last few years. In the interview, which is now up at Fiction Writers Review, we talk about some of the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, how exotic and/or extreme experiences can be transmuted into narrative, the benefits of publishing your work with small presses, and much more. Here’s a quick excerpt:
“I especially like to explore characters who think they understand their motives, when really they are after something entirely different than they think they are. But I think some contemporary fiction writers condescend to their characters this way—for example, I love Jonathan Franzen, but sometimes I wonder if he spends hundreds of pages developing a character for the purpose of exposing every single shortcoming, mining for humor at the character’s expense—and I don’t want to do that. I like to think I respect my characters, but know them better than they happen to know themselves in the particular situation in which I’ve placed them.”
Good stuff. You can read the full interview here.

June 1, 2014

Genesis of a Villain: Harnessing the Subconscious in Paul Bowles’ “In the Red Room”

The narrator of “In the Red Room” is a Bowlesian expatriate living in Sri Lanka, whose parents come to visit him for an extended sojourn. On an excursion to a local botanical gardens, they meet a Sinhalese man who turns out to be a bad actor. 

As he does in much of his fiction, Bowles uses descriptions of the characters’ surroundings to create an abiding sense of dread, and this in turn endows the story with deep suspense and an admirable propulsive energy. Reading “In the Red Room,” I became interested in how Bowles introduced or “created” the vivid and utterly evil character who becomes the story’s principal subject.

Consider the first description we have of this character:

The Sinhalese beamed triumphantly. He wore white flannels and a crimson blazer, and his sleek black hair gave off a metallic blue glint in the sunlight.

We have our first hint of something wrong, particularly evident in Bowles’ description of the man’s hair. It’s like the carapace of a beetle, or the body of a fly – alien, insect-like, possibly poisonous. And then:

We sat and looked out at the lush greenness. The young man's conversation leapt from one subject to another; he seemed unable to follow any train of thought further than its inception. I put this down as a bad sign, and tried to tell from the inflections of Hannah's voice whether she found him as disconcerting as I did.

Here the narrator is articulating to himself that’s something wrong with this man. He finds him disconcerting, which means that so should we. In concert with the subconscious impressions that linger on from the physical description, Bowles has begun to use overt narration to steer us toward a simple, unmistakable judgment.

Then we have this:

Thinking I might cover up the young man's chatter, I turned to Dodd and began to talk about whatever came into my head: the resurgence of mask-making in Ambalangoda, devil-dancing, the high incidence of crime among the fishermen converted to Catholicism.

Look what Bowles is doing here. We’re back in the subconscious realm, where the Sinhalese’s disconcerting presence has sparked a helplessly troubling stream of thought in the narrator, images of masks and devils and passionate crime. This is Bowles’ genius. I doubt most people notice it in a first reading, but because for both the narrator and the reader the effects of these thoughts are in the subconscious, they carry tremendous resonance.

Now, with characteristically devastating understatement, Bowles shows us his narrator becoming increasingly troubled by the villain’s presence:

His smile, which was not a smile at all, gave me an unpleasant physical sensation.

The Sinhalese zeroes in on narrator’s mother; he offers her a house; insists on giving her a signed book of his poems. It turns out he knows more about the family than they might have thought, which is creepy, and as if that weren’t enough he now starts to badmouth the locals:

"These people are impossible scoundrels. Every one of the blighters has a knife in his belt, guaranteed."

We read this second sentence with a prickling at our shoulders. Does this Sinhalese have a knife in his belt as well?

So Bowles has given us, in a most economical way, an evil-seeming and unquestionably dangerous character. And he has done it, for the most part, indirectly, in the course of a conversation that is by all external evidence exactly the sort of friendly exchange between visitors and a local that often occurs when one is traveling. The Sinhalese makes no overt threats, and the only clues that he is a villain come to us filtered through the conscious and subconscious thinking of the narrator. Yet we are convinced that something is wrong. Brilliant.

Without revealing any spoilers (because I hope you will read the whole story, which is only 3600 words), I leave you with a few passages that illustrate Bowles’ genius for creating an atmosphere of dread, and therefore of suspense.

"We are going, then? Come." With the empty glass still in his hand he turned off the lights, shut the door behind us, opened another, and led us quickly through a sumptuous room furnished with large divans, coromandel screens, and bronze Buddhas. We had no time to do more than glance from side to side as we followed him. As we went out through the front door, he called one peremptory word back into the house, presumably to the caretaker. There was a wide unkempt lawn on this side, where a few clumps of high areca palms were being slowly strangled by the sheaths of philodendron roots and leaves that encased their trunks. Creepers had spread themselves unpleasantly over the tops of shrubs like the meshes of gigantic cobwebs. I knew that Hannah was thinking of snakes. She kept her eyes on the ground, stepping carefully from flagstone to flagstone as we followed the exterior of the house around to the stables, and thence out into the lane.  

May 6, 2014

The Power of Memory: Backstory, Flashback, and the Lost World in James Welch's The Heartsong of Charging Elk

The Heartsong of Charging Elk is a good novel, fast-paced and ultimately melancholy, though not as bleak as one might expect given the topic.  It interests me because I believe Welch does a fine job handling something that I’ve struggled with in my own work: how to tell a dark or sad story without succumbing completely to horror and despair.
The novel is told from the perspective of a young Lakota Sioux in the 1880’s, who travels to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West show, falls ill in Marseilles, and is stranded there.  For most of the novel Charging Elk longs to return home to the Black Hills of North Dakota.  But he ends up falling in love, getting in progressively more serious trouble, spending time in prison, and eventually acculturating himself to turn-of-the-century French life.  A major unspoken sub-theme is the sunset of traditional Native America and its forced adaptation to modern realities.
The novel’s engaging prologue shows Charging Elk as a young boy, less than a year after Custer’s defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, participating in the surrender of Crazy Horse at a U.S. Army fort.  It provides crucial background on the protagonist and establishes the novel’s emotional anchor: the lost world from which Charging Elk has been expelled and to which he spends most of the novel trying in one way or another to return.
The novel proper begins nearly a decade later, after Charging Elk becomes separated from the Wild West show in Marseilles.  Welch allows only ten pages to lapse before he reminds us of the lost world set forth in the prologue.  In the following passage the protagonist has recently gained consciousness in a Marseilles hospital after a long bout with illness:
He thought of sunrise in another place.  A place of long views, or pale dust and short grass, of few people and no buildings.  He had seen that sunrise over the rolling simple plains, he had been a part of it and it had been a part of him. . . He remembered the villages, the encampments, one place, then another.  Women picking berries, men coming back with meat, the dogs and horses, the sudden laughter or tears of children, the quiet ease of lying in a sunny lodge with the skins rolled up to catch a breeze.  He had been a child then too and he had spent his days riding his horse, playing games, eating the sarvisberry soup that his mother made.
Note the elegiac flavor of the prose: the sun-dappled imagery doled out in successive comma-separated clauses, creating the effect of gently breaking waves of memory.   Such emotionally rich description is credible even this early in the novel, because it emanates from a clearly understandable place within the protagonist.  Whether or not we share Charging Elk’s yearning for the lost innocence of the Plains Indian lifestyle – and it’s probably fair to assume that the majority of Welch’s readers do share it – we can certainly understand where the yearning comes from.   Moreover, if we accept the premise that we all carry our own lost worlds around with us throughout our lives, the emotion behind the description is not only credible, but universally resonant.
Charging Elk wanders the streets of Marseilles, lost, cold and hungry.  His memories of Dakota are frequently juxtaposed with allusions to the bleakness of his current state, producing a striking contrast between light and dark, happiness and the frightening misery of dislocation:
Charging Elk dreamed of buffalo hump, of belly fat and boss ribs, of brains and marrow bones.  But just as he was about to dig in, just as his mother passed him a bowl of sarvisberry soup, he would awaken to find himself on a stoop in an alley, or under some bushes in a park full of stark trees.  Then he would look up at the darkness and recognize many star people, but they would be in the wrong place in the sky. 
Charging Elk remembers his lost world with enough regularity that it’s a continual presence throughout the novel: periodically in the foreground but always in the background.  The memories are most eloquent in moments that threaten to tilt into total blackness, as when he finds himself serving a life sentence in La Tombe, an isolated high security prison:
But quite often, at the very moment Charging Elk’s despair was at its apex, the snow would fall.  And he would lift his head and feel the downy flakes settle on his face and melt and he would be transported, as if by magic . . . back to the Stronghold and the winters he had spent with Kills Plenty.  The memories that rushed around in his mind – High Runner snorting out a greeting just outside the lodge in the morning, Kills Plenty pretending to be asleep so that Charging Elk would have to build the fire, hunting all day only to return with a long-legged rabbit – took him a long way from La Tombe and sustained him for a few days.  But then the thought of dying would return and he would lie on his cot wrapped in his blanket and wonder when.
Once again we see the contrast between the light of memory and the darkness of present reality.  One makes the other possible.  Darkness is a sine qua non of fiction, because if everything is peaches and cream where’s the conflict?  But Charging Elk’s lost world provides a ray of light, a needed contrast, a reason for hope in the face of overwhelming evidence for despair.
On one level the novel is the story of the destruction of a way of life, the tail end of more than three centuries of genocide on the North American continent.  It’s a sad and shameful legacy, there’s no way around it.  On another level the novel tells the story of a stranger in a strange land, who is exploited, commits murder, spends more than a decade in jail, and never sees his home or his people again.  Sounds like pretty bleak material for a novel, doesn’t it?  But it’s not, really, in part because Charging Elk’s memories infuse the novel with light, expressing the joy of the way things used to be; the way they still are in his imagination.
And amazingly, Welch achieves that rarest of fictional birds, the credible happy ending.  Charging Elk is released from prison, gets married to a lovely young Frenchwoman and, in the end, adapts to French life.  In doing so he forsakes the dreams of his youth, his golden lost world, but after all he’s been through it seems like a necessary sacrifice.  It’s a bittersweet resolution, tinged with tragedy as well as hope. As such, it has the clear ring of truth.
This post originally appeared at Grub Street Daily.

February 20, 2014

Backstory and Flashback in Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies

Novels based on well-known historical events and personages must dwell in the interstices of history. They must fill in what we don’t know. This is the historical novelist’s burden and her privilege. In Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in a trilogy that is shaping up to be this young century’s first masterpiece of historical fiction, the interstices are filled in by Thomas Cromwell, a highly engaging and well-wrought literary character who was the subject of an earlier post.

It struck me, as I greedily devoured Bring Up the Bodies, that much of the genius of these novels comes to us through Cromwell’s backstory. Mantel’s protagonist is compelling not only because he’s a bold man of action; it’s because he’s a thinker, a dreamer who spends many a late night running over his colorful past. Mantel gives us access to Cromwell’s rich inner life, which contributes greatly to the sense we get of full immersion in the historical period – and gives us insight, more broadly, into what it means to be human. 

As we discussed in a previous post, this is exactly the kind of thing literature can do better than any other medium. In a sense, Cromwell’s backstory in these novels is his character, and Cromwell’s character is what makes these novels great. For a writer, that seems like something worth exploring.

By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Bring Up the Bodies I chanced upon an essay on backstory by a brilliant young novelist named Eleanor Henderson in Poets & Writers magazine. In her highly insightful piece Henderson points out, among other things, that backstory provides characters with “the weight of history, the magic of motivation.” She makes a useful distinction between backstory (summary), and flashback (scene).

In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel uses both backstory and flashback to excellent effect. In the second chapter, after a relatively inconsequential scene at Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell’s city house, we experience a refreshing plunge into the protagonist’s lively brain:

“But look: we have sat here too long! Let’s be up and out into the gardens of Austin Friars, Master Secretary’s pride; he wants the plants he saw flowering abroad, he wants better fruit, so he nags the ambassadors to send him shoots and cuttings in the diplomatic bag. The keen young clerks stand by, ready to break a code, and all that tumbles out is a root-ball, still pulsing with life after a journey through the straits of Dover.
            He wants tender things to live, young men to thrive. So he has built a tennis court, a gift to Richard and Gregory and all the young men of his house . . . In Italy, when he was a servant in Frescobaldi’s household, the boys would go out in the hot evening and play games in the street. It was tennis of a kind, a jeu de paume, no racquets but just the hand . . . ”

Did you note the subtlety of the transition here? The mention of “plants he saw flowering abroad;” the connection between his new tennis court and the games he played as a young man in Italy; and the correspondence between himself as a servant in Frescobaldi’s household and “all the young men of his house”? 

This strikes me as a very artful way – a kind of slipping back and forth between the present and the past – to prepare for the leap into full-fledged backstory. And Mantel is careful to do it in a way that is organic to the narrative, avoiding the kind of contrived feeling, all-too-convenient info dump that can mar backstory in lesser fiction.

Mantel’s exit from this episode of backstory is even more impressive. Cromwell reflects briefly on the centrality to his life of what we moderns would call “mentorship,” which leads him from Frescobaldi to his more recent master, Cardinal Wolsey, whose tragic fall was the subject of the first book of Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall:

“ . . . a good master gives more than he takes and his benevolence guides you through your life. Think of Wolsey. To his inner ear, the Cardinal speaks. He says, I saw you, Crumb, when you were at Elvetham: scratching your balls in the dawn and wondering at the violence of the king’s whims. If he wants a new wife, fix him one. I didn’t, and I am dead.”

In just a few pages, then, Mantel has taken us on vertiginous journey back in time, ending the excursion with a comment that suddenly lays bare the central motivation powering the novel’s plot. Do you see this? The backstory here is far from gratuitous. Mantel is using it not just as cross-hatching, to shade in the texture of a character, but as a bold black line to trace the underlying architecture of the narrative itself.

One more example. Here’s the entry:

“He had met an old knight once, in Venice . . . ”

The knight leads him on a cascading memory-tour of a day and a night in Venice, from summarized backstory to dramatized flashback, and a visit to a church, where a watchman shows the young Cromwell some new Giorgione frescoes by torchlight. Afterwards he catches a wistful glimpse of an “expensive whore” whose fleeting beauty echoes that of a half-formed goddess painted in the frescoes, and an ominous vision of the shadows in a Venetian square.

“If I ever need to vanish, he says, this is where I shall do it.”

And here’s the exit:

“But that was long ago and in another country. Now Rafe Sadler is here with a message: he must return suddenly to Greenwich, to this raw morning, the rain just holding off . . . It is the king, Rafe says. It is Henry, he is dead.”

The wistful flashback to Cromwell’s youth may seem irrelevant, but it has an important function. The glimpses of late night in Venice, the fresco and the beautiful goddess and the expensive whore, the shades of longing and mystery, provide a pause, a caesura, a last look back before the events of what Eleanor Henderson calls “frontstory” close their iron fingers around our necks and propel us helplessly forward. 

The descriptive prose in the flashback is filled with ominous tension, not direct foreshadowing, but what I’ve referred to in a previous post as “shadow description.” Thus it prepares our subconscious minds to receive the shock of Henry’s death (which, spoiler alert, turns out to be a false alarm). And this is quite important because, in a good novel, an event this big can’t just arrive out of the blue.

We won’t go into it here, but there are numerous other examples of beautifully executed backstory in Bring Up the Bodies. Some of it is merely to get the work done of reminding the reader of what's already happened so he’ll be prepared for what is to come. But in Mantel’s hands, backstory and flashback are never clunky mechanistic exigencies; they’re lively brushstrokes on the irresistible canvas of the story itself.


For more analysis of Hilary Mantel’s genius for characterization, click here. For more on the craft of writing historical fiction, click here and here