Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Lesser Light: Reflections on Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower

A few weeks ago, in my “Cornucopia of Recommendations” post, I said you couldn’t go wrong with a Thomas Hardy novel.  Much as it pains me to admit it, I have to take back the remark.  I recently finished reading Hardy’s lesser-known novel Two on a Tower, and while there were some features of it that were classic Hardy, it certainly didn’t live up to the usual Hardy experience.

The premise has promise: a woman of feeling and religious devotion falls in love with a younger man of science whose ambition is to be a great astronomer.  The woman is Lady Constantine, a recently widowed 28 year-old; the would-be astronomer, a local farm boy named Swithin St. Cleeve, whose father’s social standing was brought down by his marriage to Swithin’s lower-class mother.  Swithin is thus genteel enough that when Lady Constantine first discovers him making stellar observations from a tower on her property, she is moved to aid him in his ambitions as she can.  At the time that she strikes up her acquaintance, she doesn’t yet know her husband is dead, simply that he has been in Africa for some years.  By the time she learns he is dead, Lady Constantine has fallen in love with Swithin, and Swithin with her.

But there are complications. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Next Big Thing: My New Project

Thanks to Lindsey Crittenden for inviting me to participate in this blog chain.  I met Lindsey at the Glen Workshop; she is the author of The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray and The View From Below: Stories.  Lindsey lives in San Francisco and teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley Extension.

Although the title of this post promises a new project, I’d like to talk instead about my little-known but almost-award-winning novella.  It was a finalist in the 2010Miami University Press Novella Contest, and since only the first-place novella was published as part of the prize, I’m still looking for a home for mine.

What is the title of your book? 
When the Aged Are Reverently, Passionately Waiting, after a line in W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musee Des Beaux Arts”

Me at my old desk in Fairfax
Where did the idea come from for this book? 
A friend told me about a woman in an assisted living facility who had a distant relative move into the same facility.  The problem was, the woman had never been especially fond of this relative and wasn’t thrilled about her moving in.  I found myself fascinated with that idea of how you just get stuck with some people in your life, and that often it seems the people you want to avoid are the hardest to get away from.

What genre does your book fall under? 
Literary fiction

How long did it take to write the first draft? 
I intended to write a short story.  I’d received two hand-written rejections from The Missouri Review, and I wanted to follow up with something better than what I already had in my small arsenal of short stories (I’ve never been much for short forms).  Sixty pages later, I realized this really wasn’t a short story.  Still, the composition went surprisingly quickly, as I find it does when the subject really clicks with me.  I had the revised version finished within three months of starting.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Louise’s sister-in-law Shirley moves in to the same assisted living facility, Louise broods over the plague that Shirley has been to her life, nursing a hatred born of believing Shirley had ruined herself with another man before marrying Louise’s late brother; this memory, however, is undermined by Shirley’s own contradiction and worsening dementia, and Louise finds herself left alone against a void of not-knowing and extinction. (Yes, I cheated with that semi-colon…)

What actors would you use for a movie rendition of your book?
I’m terrible with actors, but I can tell you that Julie Christie very convincingly and movingly portrays a woman with Alzheimers in Away from Her.  In my novella, Shirley is the character with dementia; I’m not sure who would play my leading lady, Louise.

Will it be self published or represented by an agency?
I hope to find a home for it in a lit mag.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was working on a novel about love at the time.  I didn’t sit down intending to write a story about hate, but when I was finished, I saw that that was what I had on my hands.  Louise hates her sister-in-law to the very last, which, from what I know about long-standing grudges, seems truer to life than any sort of Hallmark realization that her sister-in-law is in fact empathetic and dear.  So in a way, maybe this was an inverse urge to that which was prompting me to write my novel on love.
            More specifically, many of the details of the assisted living setting and especially the nursing ward were taken from my own memories of my maternal grandparents’ tenure in such places. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The only book that readily comes to mind is Alice Munro’s Away from Her, about a woman and her husband dealing with her worsening Alzheimers.  
            The judge of the Miami University contest, David Schloss, called my novella’s premise Rashomon-like, by which he meant that the question as to Louise’s particular memory of a past event involving her sister-in-law—and the contradictory memory Shirley herself has, along with the reader’s own judgment—creates a scenario in which there are multiple narratives of the same event, rendering the truth of that event unknowable.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Although my first novel took years of labor and got me an agent, I feel this novella is, from a craft standpoint, the best thing I’ve written to date.  I used close third-person in a way I hadn’t before, veering into Louise’s own indirect discourse without ever losing narrative control.  It was one of the best experiences of my writing career so far to have Mr. Schloss, in post-contest correspondence, assure me that my work had been “understood, and appreciated.”

Please stay tuned for links to the next writers I’ve invited to take part in this blog chain….  First up is the talented Rion Scott, a fellow alumni of the George Mason MFA program:

Rion Amilcar Scott lives and writes in Beltsville, MD. More info on his work:  See his blog post here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Cornucopia of Recommendations for Aspiring Writers

It’s always nice to get out of my little novelist cage and talk to others about writing.  Sunday night at the Writers’ Ink meeting was a fun opportunity to do just that; I’m glad to say that my talk went well, and I noticed that the members of the group seemed especially interested in the recommendations I made of books and further resources to help them with writing and publishing.  And so, for those who were present and would like a condensed list of the resources I mentioned, or for those of you out there who are aspiring and/or beginning writers, here are some recommendations to keep your reading list full and your Internet usage fruitful:

Books I recommend for improving craft (in order of what I consider most useful to beginning writers to most useful for advanced writers):
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Support for dealing with the daily reality of being a novelist, with a side of Lamott’s irresistible humor. 
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.  A must for learning how to read intentionally and with an eye towards improving one’s craft.
  • Writers Workshop in a Book ed. Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez. Short, helpful essays on topics from starting a novel to recognizing when one is done and many things in between.
  • Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster.  “The” classic book on novel-writing.
  • The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock.  Another classic—part literary criticism, part sage advice, like Lubbock's reminder that “scene is expensive.”

Practice reading intentionally with the following contemporary books:
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon.  Read this for a study in voice.
  • Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman.  Read this for a study in character.
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  Read for structure.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  Read for mode—here, comedy of manners.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Okay, not so contemporary, but read this for economy.

And some classics:
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  Read this for overall awesomeness.
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  Read for character and scene.
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Read for voice and humor.
  • And whatever you want by Thomas Hardy.  You can’t go wrong with him. 

Resources for getting published:
  • How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis

A bit of a misnomer—this book actually prepares you for how to be an informed client of an agent.  The book includes a detailed breakdown of book contracts in addition to insight into many other pieces of the New York publishing scene.  The book is slightly outdated and doesn’t do much to address ebooks and how they have changed the scene, but there are still helpful hints here.

Sign up for a free account to track your submissions and see the full information on every journal.  One of my favorite tools for discovering journals is the “People who have submitted work here have also submitted to…” feature.  Let’s say you love Image journal (I do!).  You can see that work sent there has also been sent to The Missouri ReviewTin HousePloughsharesNew England ReviewHayden's Ferry ReviewThe Cincinnati ReviewRuminateCamera ObscuraPackingtown ReviewThe JournalThe Idaho Review;Massachusetts Review 

A helpful, and up-to-date, look at topics in writing and publishing. 

And, as always, if you’re trying to familiarize yourself with conferences, workshops, or publishing opportunities, check out:
Writer’s Market (book)
Poets & Writers (magazine as well as website)

So there you have it, a feast of recommendations for your Thanksgiving week.  Read on!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Columbus-Area Writers, Come Hear Me Speak!

Writers' Ink, a writing group that meets monthly in Columbus, has asked me to be the featured speaker for their next meeting, which will be Sunday, November 18, 2012, from 5:00-7:30 (here is their website).  Come hear my thoughts about novel-writing and publishing.  I'm on for the first hour, we'll break for refreshments, and the second hour is an open mic.  The meeting is open to the public and will be held at Columbus State Community College in the Work Taskforce Building (fourth floor gallery), 315 Cleveland Ave., Columbus, Ohio.  Free parking is available across the street. See you there!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Tolstoy's Words on Writing: Reflections on Anna Karenina, part 3

“Our work is a terrible thing,” Tolstoy wrote to a poet friend of his.  He was talking about writing, and he made this comment while working on Anna Karenina.  After three years of carrying the idea for AK in his head, he started writing, only to start and stop many times in the next four years.  He threw away at least ten versions of the novel, and he went through periods of “tinkering at my novel to no purpose.”  Anna’s earlier incarnations were called Tatyana, Nana, and Anastasia; one version, called Two Marriages, had Vronsky marrying Anna after a divorce from Karenin; other versions made Anna out to be coarse and coquettish while Vronsky was a true poet and Karenin was far nicer than in the final version.  So David Margashack’s introduction to the Signet Classics edition of AK recounts Tolstoy’s process.
Mowing, a metaphor for writing...Well, not exactly
this kind of mowing, but my husband is not in the habit
of mowing with a scythe.

But we don’t need to rely on an introduction to tell us something of Tolstoy’s frustrations as a writer; they are recounted in the novel itself, although this reading is the first time I’ve realized it.  I try, as any good formalist literature student would, not to read too much of a writer’s biography into the work itself.  Still, as I read part III of AK, I was struck by the descriptions of Levin’s experience in mowing the hayfield with the peasants he employs on his farm:

They mowed one row after another.  They moved along long rows and short rows, rows with good grass and with bad grass.  Levin lost all consciousness of time and had no idea whatever whether it was late or early.  His work was undergoing a change which gave him intense pleasure.  There were moments in the middle of his work when he forgot what he was doing, he felt quite at ease, and it was at those moments that his row was almost as even and good as [an experienced peasant’s].  But as soon as he began thinking of what he was doing and trying to do better, he became at once conscious of how hard his task was, and his row turned out badly.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

From Anna to Andre: Reflections on Andre Agassi’s Open

Elizabeth, you ask, how does Andre Agassi’s autobiography fit into your series on Anna Karenina

It doesn’t.  But I have to interrupt the series and talk about this book that made me read it cover to cover when I meant to read only the first couple chapters.  I just finished it last night and I’m eager to share it with you, if for no other reason than that I’m still shocked that I, not especially a tennis fan, devoured Agassi’s book.  In fact, I’m so poorly versed in tennis that I recognized Agassi’s name primarily from memorizing it as a good guess for any tennis-related questions that my high school In the Know team encountered back in the day.  (I know, this makes me sound like the quintessential dork and is therefore probably not something to confess on a public blog…all this autobiography stuff must be rubbing off...)

More amazing still, I’d wager that most non-tennis folk who give Open a try would find themselves hooked, too.
In part, the book’s appeal comes from the vicarious thrill of living an incredible career and with seeing more of that career than just the fame and the fortune. Agassi really does come off as a down-to-earth guy with no real designs on the vast wealth he ultimately obtains, and so there’s this kind of underdog, rags-to-riches allure that we Americans have historically loved and continue to love.  In fact, Agassi’s story has a lot of the same elements that draw us to many movies and books: the domineering father, the ill-fated romance, the fairytale romance, the nice moral to care for other people, and the lesson that hard work pays off.

But if the book had just these archetypical plots, I doubt I would have picked it up in the first place, and I certainly wouldn’t have continued reading.  What Agassi offers is an intimate look at the struggle for vocation that everyone, in one way or another, wrestles with through their young adult lives and into their twenties, if not well beyond.  Agassi’s grand claim and recurring theme is that he hates tennis.  He seems to think his confession will shock everyone, and maybe, if I were a die-hard tennis fan, it would.  But people who love their jobs are as rare as happy marriages—they do come along , but they are the dear pearls on a beach full of ordinary sand.

I appreciated the honest struggle, and part of what makes it work so well in the book is the way it’s punctuated with real, tangible, win/loss situations.  No tennis match recounted in the book was dwelt on in a way that tested my patience, because no match felt as if it were included for the sake of the sport alone.  Instead, it was part of the search for motivation, for Agassi to find what he did and didn’t want, for him to observe how these other players approached tennis and, by extension, vocation. 

A similar struggle with vocation occurs in the novel I’m currently drafting, and a friend of mine who reads my work and who also happens to arrange his life around Roger Federer matches, saw the similarity and recommended I read Open.  But whether one reads Open for a character study (unlikely) or for an interest in Agassi (more likely), the pleasure quickly becomes that of personal identification. 

Whenever you read a first-person narration, it’s hard not to identify with that first-person narrator.  Of course, in fiction we have the unreliable narrator, and there are certainly elements of that here too.  For one thing, I was skeptical—and the acknowledgements confirmed my skepticism—that Agassi himself sat down and wrote this; indeed, he credits J.R. Moehringer with “transform[ing]” (Agassi’s word) transcripts from their personal interviews into this story.  It’s an autobiography only insofar as Agassi himself was involved in the process.  We expect artifice in fiction; we want reality in autobiography, subjective though its presentation will be.  For another, I caught glimpses that—for however much I read along with “Agassi” and identified with him—if I had actually met Agassi at many points in his career, I would not have gotten along with him.  Chilly and determined as Pete Sampras comes across in Open, I can see, when I step away from the lure of Agassi’s “I,” that I would be faster friends with Sampras than Agassi (insofar as Agassi’s memoir represents the two).  And then, of course, we have to be constantly aware of the subjectivity—that this is Andre Agassi’s story and not Mike Agassi’s story, etc. etc.  Don’t get me wrong: subjectivity is not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s essential to autobiography.

But now here’s my shocking confession: for as much as I identified with Agassi and was rooting for him, I actually felt a little disappointed with the final chapters—not because I wasn’t glad that he had finally secured his reputation and his wealth, wooed Stefanie Graf, experienced the joys of fatherhood, and established a thriving charity.  I was glad, glad in a more genuine way than we usually are for people who make it so big because I understood the difficulties he’d faced in getting there.  And yet, after such struggle, the book comes down to pat and usual morals: caring for others, caring for education, caring for family.  I don’t doubt his love for his wife, children, and charity, but it suddenly all seemed so storybook that it lost its ring of authenticity.

Which is as much a lesson for fiction as for life.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Life in 3D: Reflections on Anna Karenina, Part 2

Good news: two people have contacted me to let me know that they are reading Anna Karenina so that they can enjoy it along with my blog.  Hooray!  But I realize that for those of you who aren’t reading along, detailed discussion of AK might be too much for eight weeks.  So this week, I want to talk about a feature of Tolstoy's masterpiece that you can look for in any great book and that will, no doubt, enhance your appreciation.  It has mine.

Some months ago, I was reading some essays by Sven Birkerts, who is an admirer of Madame Bovary.  Birkerts observes that Flaubert’s mastery lies not just in how well-drawn the characters are, but in how he places them in a 3D world.  Which is to say, the reader has the sense that there is an objective world that continues to move around the characters, just as the real world moves around us.  Birkerts gives the example of the priest’s umbrella.  When Charles and Emma, the protagonists of Madame Bovary, first arrive in the small town where they are going to take up residence, some of the townspeople gather to watch their carriage approach.  One of these townies, the priest, watches not just out of interest in Charles and Emma but because his umbrella is on the approaching carriage as well.  The chapter goes on with Charles and Emma’s arrival and their reception.  Several pages later, it is raining and one of the stable boys is sent to accompany Charles and Emma to their new house.  The boy accompanies them carrying the priest’s recently-returned umbrella.  Through this insignificant detail, Birkerts observes, Flaubert has managed to convey that the world is moving around Charles and Emma as it moves around us—that there is an objective reality outside of the characters themselves. 

Anna Karenina boasts this same quality.  In part, a sense of objective reality is established simply in the connections between characters.  The two main storylines of the novel belong to Anna and, almost equally if not moreso, to Constantin Levin.  The book begins with neither of these protagonists, but with Oblonsky and his wife Dolly.  However, Oblonsky is Anna’s brother, and Dolly is the sister of Kitty, the girl whom Levin wishes to marry.  Dolly and Oblonsky therefore have obvious points of contact with the main plot lines, and this interconnectedness—which occurs through more characters than I have here named—contributes to an overall sense of society.  Oblonsky also knows Princess Betsy, who becomes one of Anna’s main contacts because of her connection to Vronsky, who is in Princess Betsy’s set.  And so on and so forth—before we know it, half of high society Russia is before us with their connections, both major and minor.

But let’s observe more particularly.  Oblonsky, we know from the beginning, is a social butterfly.  We haven’t seen him for many chapters, but in Part II, Anna, Princess Betsy, Karenin, and other socialites gather to watch the horse race in which Vronsky competes.  Tolstoy has been using the chapters leading up to this race to show Anna and her husband Karenin’s strained relationship.  But now, in the middle of Karenin saying something, he is interrupted by:

“Princess, a wager!” came the voice of Oblonsky from below, addressing Betsy.  “Who are you backing?”
“Anna and I are betting on Prince Kuzovlyov,” replied Betsy.
“I’m for Vronsky.  A pair of gloves.”
“It’s a bet.”

And just like that, without belabored set-up, nor even in a moment of real consequence, Oblonsky has re-entered the narrative in a way that makes perfect sense. Of course he’s at the race because upper class society is at the race; of course he knows Vronsky and Betsy because they are all part of the same social sphere.  Most importantly, Anna’s world has become 3D: while we were watching her story develop, Oblonsky’s life, too, was moving forward, even though we didn’t see it.  But now here he is, and we readers know exactly this type of exit and entrance and continuing storyline from our own experience of life.

A similar moment occurs in part III, Chapter 6.  Dolly, whom we haven’t seen since much earlier in the book, is living in the country for the summer.  She is in a different setting than the one in which we first saw her, the Oblonsky household that was in such turmoil at the beginning of the book.  Here, in the country, Dolly uses the phrase “come right” to comfort one of the country servants.  Tolstoy adds in parentheses that this was her usual phrase and that Matvey had gotten it from her. Matvey, we remember from chapter 2 of the first volume, is Oblonsky’s servant, and in that very first scene of the book, he tells Oblonsky, “It’ll all come right” in reference to the trouble Oblonsky’s unfaithfulness to Dolly has caused. We haven't heard that phrase or seen Matvey since that first scene, but now, 270 pages in, the entire world to which Dolly belongs is recalled.  This one detail serves to both characterize Dolly in the moment and retroactively illuminate something of the household we've previously witnessed.

My friend the MFAer with whom I am reading Anna Karenina observed that she loves this novel because it “burgeons” with life.  A book, in her opinion, “has to be ripping the seams with every emotion, every kind of person, every kind of tragedy and happiness.”  I couldn’t agree more, and I would add that it is this very 3D quality—this sense of an objective world that masters like Tolstoy and Flaubert manage to create around their characters—which allows this burgeoning of life to happen and which makes the life on the page compellingly realistic.

Friday, September 7, 2012

An Open Letter to a Fellow Master: Anna Karenina, Part 1

Often when I hear about a new movie version of a classic novel, I can’t help but suppress a small shudder.  Not because I am such a purist as to think a movie and a book can ever be compared—the experience is so different that each must be treated as its own artistic form—but because a movie inevitably treads on the precious space a novel occupies in my imagination.  I have read Jane Eyre more times than any other book, and my mental images of the rooms, the characters, the scenes prove preserved from one reading to the next.  I don’t like it when a movie so intrudes that I can’t remember as clearly my own imagined version of a particular protagonist or setting.

The Signet Classic edition from which
I have always read and which I bought
for 25 cents at a library booksale in 2001.
I especially didn’t like the choice to cast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, although in that case, I felt the choice was so far off that Knightley’s performance didn’t threaten to supplant my imagined Elizabeth, who is plainer and an overall more homespun sort.  But now Keira Knightley has been cast as another 19th-century heroine, and this time around, I think the choice has the potential to be spot-on: Knightley as Anna Karenina in the movie version that premiers this November in the U.S. (it starts today in the UK). 

Anna must be exceptionally beautiful, graceful, and dark-haired; Knightley can claim all three adjectives.  Also, I have yet to see a satisfying version of Anna Karenina, but the novel is certainly cinematic in scope and movement, and I believe a good film version could be made.  This just might be it.

So where the 2005 Pride and Prejudice and the recent new Jane Eyre movie felt like obligations to watch, I am really looking forward to Anna Karenina.  And so is a good friend of mine, a fellow alumna of the George Mason MFA program.  In fact, she suggested we read Anna Karenina together before the movie comes out, for me a refresher, for her a first-time reading.  The book is divided into 8 parts of roughly 100 pages each, and we plan to read a part a week.  As I prepared my remarks to my friend, I realized that my blog readers might enjoy reading along with us, and also that with reading, thinking, and writing time devoted to this endeavor, I may not have much to share on the blog if I don’t share my thoughts on AK.  So what follows are portions of my letter responding to my friend.  Where possible, I have edited to make this readable for Elizabethan Lit followers, but the occasional “you” is inevitable, and I hope you will forgive the address to my fellow master of fine arts.  Without further ado, here are portions of my comments on part 1:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Trust Me This Time: Reflections on Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I have a confession: In many of my recent book review blog posts, I have been more complimentary than critical.  This was an intentional choice, informed largely by the contemporary nature of the books I've been reading.  I confess that until the last several months, I have tended to read contemporary literature rather ungenerously—that is, I read contemporary novels as if I’m workshopping them, which is to say that I am more alert to flaws than to strengths.  At Squaw Valley, I realized this habit is not unique to me: two writers in two different afternoon panel discussions used the word “ambivalent” to describe how they feel towards contemporary literature.

Such ambivalence is harmful in that it can make us miss the real achievements in front of us.  On a larger scale, if such ambivalence continues, it could have the very negative effect of creating an expectation for perfection (you can read more about this here).  In other words, if novelists begin making choices on the basis of avoiding flaws, their manuscripts will very quickly fall flat.

All of this has been in the back of my mind lately, but I’m bringing it to the fore now because I realized, in sitting down to write about Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, that indulging in too many compliments amounts to crying wolf.  That is to say, I know I’ve been complimentary lately, but this time you really must believe me: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is, in fact, an outstanding book.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sentence...starring You!

A view at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop

On the last day of workshop at Squaw Valley, novelist Mark Childress gave us an interesting icebreaker: write a sentence introducing yourself as though you were a fictional character.  Of course, by that point in the week, my workshop group knew one another well, but the faculty rotates daily, and so Mark was new to us and we to him (you can read my pre-SV impressions of him here).  That was one of my favorite aspects of Squaw Valley—the opportunity to hear thoughts from writers, editors, and agents in workshop and to experience different workshop styles within the single week.

It’s a challenge to put yourself in a sentence.  Some went for straight biography; others more for the feeling of a fictional opening.  Nobody went for “Call me __NAME__.”  Still, it's great fun to hear how people you know would describe themselves.  My sentence went like this:

People liked to call her old-fashioned, but she wasn’t yet 30 and liked to check her email as much as anyone else, even when she knew there would be nothing more than a graduate listserv update that no longer applied to her.

What would yours look like?  Please feel free to post your own introduction as a fictional character in the comments below.

And while you’re cooking up your sentence, here are a few more introductory sentences—my own impressions of writers I met at Squaw Valley whose books, also listed, are now on my reading list. You might pick up a title or two for your own reading list.  And if it sounds like I left Squaw Valley a little starstruck, well...I did.

Sands Hall: Catching Heaven
Sharp in intellect and appearance, bright with an actress’s flair for pleasing, she took the stage not to read or to mimic but to play the acoustic guitar slung casually round her neck.

Ramona Ausubel: No One Is Here Except For All of Us
Her face shone with a hope and youth that the Israelites she wrote about must once have felt, themselves a young, yet chosen, nation.

Gregory Spatz: Fiddler’s Dream
He wondered what to do—write novels or make music?—but his talent answered for him: do both.  “And,” Lady Talent continued, “see to it that you add a good dose of bluegrass to each.”

Varley O’Connor: The Master’s Muse
Now dictating discussion, now disappearing from it, now speaking, now listening, she took the workshop in hand and turned with it like a dancer supply shifting her weight.  

Of all the clever things it came to her to say, for her mind worked easily and her humor was lively, she peered from beneath the shade of her ballcap as if peering back from the cool solace of publication and said simply, “Young author, take heart.”

Monday, August 6, 2012

On Community, Narrators, and Magic

Dear Neglected Readers,

My week with the Squaw Valley Community of Writers was not only one of the busiest weeks of my life but one of the best.  I came back with so many new ideas—among them, ways to revise the beginning of my first novel—that I have been fully occupied with them since returning home.  I know it sounds like an excuse for neglecting my faithful blog readers (you’ve told me you’re out there!), but I hope the upcoming series of Squaw Valley-inspired entries will more than make up for the wait.

That's me, second from the left, enjoying the community
of writers.
It’s been three years since I’ve been out of an MFA program and devoting myself to my novels, which means that it’s been three years of working in isolation.  There are certainly things to be said for isolation, but there’s every bit as much to say for community, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is not a misnomer.  Faculty and participants alike were friendly and open to conversation, and although writers are a famously introverted bunch, the shared love of literature and the eagerness for fellowship erased the usual hardships of socializing.  But I found that one of the most valuable aspects of community turned out to be a rather self-centered one: Looking at what others are doing and hearing what they are thinking helped me sharpen my understanding of what I am doing and thinking. 

Perhaps the most important point I came away with was a sense of what I wish to develop as a strength in my writing: the third-person narrator.  This is not an especially popular or wise aspect to try to develop.  For one thing, contemporary publishing loves to emphasize “voice”—in fact, when literary agent Jeff Kleinman led my workshop group, he identified the two most important aspects of writing that gets published as 1) voice and 2) premise.  I’ve read countless interviews with editors who say they look for “voice,” and while third-person can have a strong sense of voice, the concept is more often taken advantage of in first-person.  Another disadvantage to the third-person narrator is that contemporary readers tend to balk at the idea that there might be a controlling consciousness behind what they’re reading.  They think the author should be absolutely invisible—and they’re right.  But often a strong third-person narrator is confused with authorial presence when it shouldn’t be, and that’s where the difficulty lies.  What I saw in workshopping the first chapter of my second novel was that the third-person narrator I tend to use is a strong one, and one that people are quick to fault as being outside the character’s head.  Workshops and perhaps readers generally tend to believe that if a third-person perspective pulls away from the character’s immediate point of view or voice, it must be a mistake.  I realize this is shaky territory—you’re probably thinking, “Oh, Elizabeth is just explaining away her weakness by trying to turn it into a strength,” but without a sample of my fiction in front of you, you’ll just have to trust that I am working with intention and awareness.

And indeed, my workshop instructor, Sands Hall, trusted in exactly that, and because she asked the class to accept my narrator as intentional, I got the best workshop feedback I’ve ever gotten.  For once, it wasn’t unhelpfully nitpicking how to get rid of my narrator whom I don’t want to get rid of; it was instead taking the narrator as a given and trying to help me see where the remaining weaknesses (and there are always weaknesses) are in my use of an outside narrator.

I believe in narrators because I love them in nineteenth century literature.  What would Vanity Fair be without its narrator?  What would Dickens’ works be without license to look in from above with a satirical and moral view?  Or Austen’s?  Sure, it can be clunky—I can’t defend George Eliot’s long interruption in Adam Bede where she goes off on a long tangent about the relationship between art and morality—but done right, there is nothing more satisfying than a strong narratorial presence.  I agree with Thomas Hardy’s idea that the novelist should intentionally shape his material, that fitting his impression of the world and his imagination—in short, his personal philosophy—with events and characters is what makes art, not solely striving after representation.  Call it cerebral.  Call it old-fashioned.  It’s what I want to do, and Squaw Valley helped me see how I can turn this relatively rare proclivity into a strength. 

Let me make the case for narrators another way.  After Squaw Valley, my husband flew out to meet me and we spent a week traveling California.  On our last night, we had the great privilege of passing the evening at The Magic Castle in Hollywood, a club exclusive to magicians and their guests.  (Luckily, my cousin John Macko is a magician; check out his website here.)  We got to see five magic shows over the course of the evening in venues as intimate as 10 people gathered at a bar to an auditorium of a still-modest 50 or 60 seats.  The first magician of the evening, David Sousa, came out on stage with a handful of metal rings, which he proceeded to make interlock and fall free again without ever appearing to alter their complete metal ring state.  The tricks were fascinating and drew many ooo’s and aahhh’s from the audience, but the effects would have lost something major if the magician hadn’t spent the entire show giving the audience significant looks.  He would hold up an intact ring, and his face would clearly communicate, “Look at this.  Notice this.  See how this is a plain old ring.”  Next his expression would become a little mischievous as, with quick hands, he suddenly made the intact ring join with another intact ring. 

I loved his silent facial expressions, by turns sincere, insinuating, roguish, satisfied.  I loved his communication with the audience.  Had he been obscured from view and only his hands visible as he performed the tricks, the tricks would have been the same tricks.  But the audience would have undoubtedly missed things, misinterpreted where to look, and too easily forgotten the original state of the rings. 

Many contemporary readers seem to want only the tricks.  But for my money, I’d rather see the magician, take my cues from his winks and nudges, and enjoy the full effect.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Down in History: Reflections on Victoria Vinton's The Jungle Law

Rudyard Kipling

Soapbox.  Axe to grind.  Whatever you want to call it, everyone has something that makes them heated.  As I write this, it’s difficult to avoid clich├ęs—blow steam, get under the skin, fly in the ointment.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that we have so much tired language relating to issues of great frustration because life is full of them. 

My big gripe is with fiction that uses a character from another author’s creative work.  There’s a whole slew of these novels, ranging from Jean Rhys’s well-regarded (by many) Wide Sargasso Sea to the dreamy escapades of Darcy-craving Austen fans.  No matter the craft and intention behind such novels, I categorically reject this practice of stealing others’ creative property, and when my writer friends seem baffled or say it’s not “stealing”, I have only to ask them how they would feel if someone else took one of their characters and appropriated that character to a re-telling.  That invariably makes them realize that using somebody else’s creation to one’s own ends is at best a questionable practice.  I should point out that a book like John Gardner’s Grendel bothers me less (in fact, I admire it), since Beowulf belongs to an entire culture and is not the product of a single author with an individual intent.  Even the re-casting of premises or conflicts doesn’t bother me the way using another author’s character does.

And so it would seem that turning an actual, historical person into a fictional character is also a questionable practice, but once again, I’m more lenient here.  However mythologized they may be, historical figures once existed and hence are property of this world which fiction—good fiction—probes and reflects.  I appreciate the separation between fiction and nonfiction; hence, a book like The DaVinci Code does not give me fits the way it made many confused souls think that there might be factual truth in a genre and form that has little, if anything, to do with factual truth.  So too do I recognize that a fictional rendering of an historical person is exactly that—fiction, an imagined version of something that has been, or might have been, a certain way.

I found myself open to and interested in Victoria Vinton’s scenario in The Jungle Law, a novel which brings to life the period of time Rudyard Kipling lived in Vermont.  Told in close third-person sections that go into the mind of Kipling himself, Kipling’s wife, the neighbor boy Joe, Joe’s mother Addie, and Joe’s father Jack, the novel explores the effect Kipling’s imaginative and cultured lifestyle has on this agrarian family as they struggle to make ends meet.  The novel is strongest in the scenes where Joe directly interacts with Kipling, by turns baffled at Kipling’s way of speaking (Joe’s coarse pride makes him suspect Kipling might be making fun of him, when in fact the reader can see that Kipling is merely being playful and kind) and intrigued by Kipling’s actions (Kipling has a bicycle, which he encourages Joe to try riding).  Unfortunately, these direct, scenic encounters are few; Vinton chooses instead to let Kipling’s presence be felt in the mind and quiet reflections of the characters.

Still, Vinton hits on the emotional truth of the situation: that the dreamers in our midst, the ones who dispense with the regimented business of the world because they give credence to what is interesting, charming, and deeply felt, may suffer dismissive behavior from others, and yet those dismissive others are powerfully enriched and enlarged by their contact with such dreamers.

The New York Times review of The Jungle Law recognizes the book’s choice to portray Kipling as this open-minded dreamer, though the reviewer feels “it’s important to know [Vinton’s version] is not the whole story.”  The reviewer, Mark Kamine, calls attention to Kipling’s real-life, “monumentally offensive” poem “The White Man’s Burden.”  Fair enough.  In fact, Kamine’s review does a nice job of delicately reminding readers that fictional portrayals should not affect our overall understanding of an historical figure’s actual achievements.  His review seems a tacit nod to the danger of popular portrayals like The Brownings of Wimpole Street, an overly sentimental 1934 film which did impact critical reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry.

As with last Tuesday’s book, The Jungle Law’s ties to my preparatory reading for the Squaw Valley Workshop may be difficult to trace.  And, just as The Golden Mean’s editor will be at the workshop, so too will The Jungle Law’s editor, Anika Streitfeld, be in attendance.  I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse of women whose work takes place primarily behind the scenes.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Taking the Plunge: My First Experience with Kindle

I admit, it felt almost miraculous.  There I was in the living room surfing the Internet.  I learned about a novel called The Golden Mean that sounded interesting (see last Tuesday’s post).  I looked it up in the library catalogue; I found that the library had it available in ebook form; and no more than two minutes later, I was reading it on my husband’s Kindle.  Bam!  The slowest part of the process was typing in my library card’s barcode.

I specify that the Kindle is my husband’s because I haven’t yet made that leap from books to ebooks (and because the Kindle was, after all, a 30th birthday gift to him from his parents).  A year ago, I asked for a Kindle for Christmas and then quickly unasked before it was too late.  No Kindle for me, and I felt relieved not to have caved.  But now, after several weeks of watching Nat with his nose in a Kindle, I wanted to try it too and see what the reading experience was like.

At first, the mere fact that I was reading on a Kindle was distracting.  I kept seeing the neat font of “kindle” at the top of the device and quickly looking away as if trying to avoid eye contact with an authority to whom I was betraying an innocent friend.  Okay, okay, I’m being melodramatic, but in case you couldn’t tell already, books hold such a deep, important, sentimental, and life-focusing significance to me that even the objects matter, not just their texts.  I can’t explain it, really, and in fact, I know it to be irrational—the cheap Bantam classics paperback is not what makes Jane Eyre great.  Maybe that’s part of why I resist e-readers: they just make too much sense.  Of course it would be wonderful to be liberated from the weight of traveling with too many books, which is invariably the case for me, thinking I can easily polish off five, seven, maybe more in a week’s vacation when in fact I’m lucky to get through one or two.  Of course books are horrendous to move and almost impossible to keep dusted.  But I digress. 

As I continued to read on the Kindle, I quickly got over the distracted feeling, although it was very strange not to know what page I was on, not to have a sense of the weight and heft in front of and behind where I was at any given moment.  Instead, I had to try to conceptualize where I was in the book based on the percentage the Kindle told me I had read.  Other than that, reading was, well, reading.  I also have to praise the highlighter feature: just put your finger on the screen, drag it across the text you want to highlight, and that’s it.  You can even type a note.

I’m sure I sound like a luddite.  I’m sure many of you already know what it’s like to read on a Kindle and are probably just humoring me if you’ve read this far.  I will extol one more virtue of the e-reader before I conclude, and that is how nice it is not to have to fight to hold a book open.  I like to read while eating lunch; no more balancing salt and pepper shakers on either page to get the thing to stay open.

So my first Kindle experience was, on the whole, a good one.  But am I a convert?  Let’s put it this way.  One night, while I was reading on the Kindle, Nat said he was going upstairs for awhile and, kissing my still-reading head, told me to enjoy my book.  “It’s not a book,” I replied without intentionally forming the response.  It just came to me.  True, it was probably the quick retort of my long-held and deeply entrenched love of Books and of Tradition.  But it might also have been something of the feeling I get when the writing group I left behind in Northern Virginia imports me to our monthly meetings via webcam.  I’m here in Ohio; they’re there in Alexandria, Virginia, but we can look at each other and talk to each other as good as if I were there.  And yet, I’m not there, and we know that, and not one of us would say we prefer the content of my thoughts and speech to the wonderful fact of being physically in one another’s presence.

I’d love to know what you all think.  Please post your e-reader or non-e-reader experiences in the comments section below…

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ancient Eyes: Reflections on Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean

“Scholars will note,” writes Annabel Lyon in the Acknowledgements section of her novel The Golden Mean, “that I have omitted the philosopher Theophrastus, a follower of Aristotle, who is thought to have accompanied him to Macedonia.”  She goes on, equally formal: “Scholars will note, too, that I have delayed Speusippus’s death for the sake of narrative convenience.”  And then: “Scholars will turn purple over my sending Aristotle to Chaeronea.”

As a novelist myself, I would probably be disappointed if a blogger quoted from my Acknowledgements page, but I started here because the tone is unmistakably Lyon—at once attentive to details of the ancient world but not without a humor that is often funny, frequently witty, and always indelibly in the voice.

The Golden Mean follows Aristotle’s years spent tutoring Alexander the Great.  The premise alone is delicious in the number of great historical figures it implicates.  But where many might shy away from humanizing such larger-than-life men, Lyon not only confidently and clearly re-imagines the ancients, but she does so in the first-person voice of Aristotle himself.  Aristotle comes across as earthy, curious, well-meaning, and plagued by a sadness the great philosopher himself doesn’t understand.  Lyon gives Aristotle these qualities with a light, confident touch that is truly appealing—facts are never belabored; the characters populating Aristotle’s life are vivid and varied; the audacity of going inside the mind of an ancient is never acknowledged but simply done and done well. 

Although I devoured historical fiction in my adolescence (Ann Rinaldi was my favorite), I rarely read it now.  I confess to a bias, inspired partially by the manifesto of the titular character in  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, that I distrust a writer who cannot see the nobleness of her own time and must instead turn to portraying other eras.  I suppose I’ll sound like a narcissist, and a rather pretentious one at that, when I say that I read literature to gaze in the mirror it holds up to life, but the books that feel like they truly matter, the ones with ballast, are those in a realist mode that treat the world contemporary to that book’s author.  While I can’t say The Golden Mean fits this bill, I nonetheless recommend it as a thoroughly and persuasively imagined romp that, at its best, contains a thought-provoking richness.  For example, the Golden Mean is Aristotle’s idea that perfection lies between extremes, and Lyon works this philosophy to good thematic effect. Above all, I didn’t sense that Lyon turned to the ancient world because she can’t see nobleness in our own time but because she sees in the ancients a vibrant humanity. 

If you read and enjoy The Golden Mean as I did, you may want to check out the novel Lyon herself calls “excellent”: Mary Renault’s novel Fire From Heaven, which takes the same premise of Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great but tells it from Alexander’s perspective.  I have yet to read it, but Lyon’s emphasis on the Golden Mean inspires me to want to read an imagined account from Alexander’s perspective so that I might find a Golden Mean of fictions that this famous mentorship has spawned.

Those of you following my preparatory reading for Squaw Valley may wonder why I chose a book by Annabel Lyon, who is not on the faculty of the impending workshop.  The answer lies in Lyon’s editor, Diana Coglianese, who is on the faculty and whose resume of working with literary fiction writers makes me eager to meet her. Less than two weeks left until the workshop starts!  Time to get back to my reading…

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guilty Pleasure Without the Guilt: Reflections on Mark Childress's Georgia Bottoms

In my last blog post on Ron Carlson’s Five Skies, I talked about intentionally slow-paced novels, but for those of you hankering after, well, a change of pace, this week’s novel is for you: Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress, a book that reads like a guilty pleasure and yet, from a craft standpoint, is not at all “guilty.”  In other words, if you want a fun book to read this summer that nevertheless stands well above mass-market beach reading, Georgia Bottoms is for you.

Primarily the charm of titular Georgia propels the reader through the book.  She is at once bold and lady-like, selfish and touchingly full of care for her disintegrating family.  But part of what Childress so skillfully pulls off is a kind of effortless narrative style that picks up Georgia’s own voice.  It isn’t exactly free indirect discourse, but it does have an intimate quality that puts you immediately on Georgia’s side, in Georgia’s head, and almost makes you feel as if you were chatting with her while lounging on a great Southern porch.  Here’s a perfect example from page one:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dude: Reflections on Ron Carlson's Five Skies

“In Chick Lit,” writes Laura Fraser, “women write about their emotions. In Dude Lit, men use rock ‘n’ roll songs as a stand-in for their feelings. The more complex the emotions, the more obscure the band.” 

I know, I know, I get sick of beating the gender drum too.  But Ron Carlson’s Five Skies has such a male quality to it that I can’t help but begin with gender.  And as you’ll see by the time I finish, it’s clear that he’s doing an interesting blend of “dude lit” and “chick lit” that ends up blurring labels the way all good books do.

Ron Carlson’s Five Skies does not follow the dude lit mold Fraser describes above.  Instead of using rock songs as emotional stand-ins, Carlson has created a book that recognizes how difficult it is for men to deal with emotions, even though the emotions are present and the men have a very real desire to deal with them.  The book operates on premise more than plot: three men work on a construction project in Idaho.  They do not previously know one another, but the two leads, Arthur Key and Darwin, are both freshly grieving personal tragedies.  The third man—who, at twenty, is just breaking into manhood—is troubled by his own ignominious history.  For me, the book was strongest 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Squaw Valley or Bust

A few weeks ago, I received some good news: I’ve been accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and will be attending the fiction workshop in July.  I can’t wait!  Writers and conversation on the northern shore of Lake Tahoe, where I have never been—what could be better?

Me outside the old Borders store in Ann Arbor--
a tribute to yesterday's method of finding books.  
I’ll tell you: prep reading.  I treated myself to an afternoon at the library yesterday, trolling the shelves for books by Squaw Valley faculty and finding a stack so large it left red marks on my wrists even after I got home.  I knew that Squaw Valley faculty were worth their salt from my copyediting (three times!) the book WritersWorkshop in a Book, edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez.  The essays—all of them by Squaw Valley faculty—range from trying to start a novel that isn’t ready to be started (Lynn Freed’s essay) to knowing when a novel is done (Mark Childress).  There are essays on writing that appeals to the senses (Janet Fitch) and on details that bring the writing to life (Joanne Meschery).  It’s a great book on craft, varied and accessible and saturated with wisdom earned through experience.  But before I go to the workshop and get firsthand exposure to such advice, I want to take a look at the faculty not as craft advisors but as practitioners of their own art. 

So, from now until I leave for Squaw Valley in July, I plan to read as much as I can of the faculty I hope to meet.  This reading can’t be comprehensive—too many books, too little time—so be aware that my personal bias towards novels has already made me pass over some (no doubt) very fine nonfiction.  What I end up reading will be some combination of synopses that hooked me and the fate of which books fall into my hands.  First up is Ron Carlson’s Five Skies, which I read last week, followed by Mark Childress’s Georgia Bottoms, which I’m part way through.  Stay tuned to the blog for thoughts on each, and I hope you’ll keep reading as I report on my experience with the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.  It just might lead you to some great summer reading of your own.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Birthday To...

I may not have the power Google does to commemorate random, posthumous birthdays, but January 23 is a day that can't, for me, pass unmarked: today is the 229th birthday of Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal.

Because of Stendhal and the debt I owe to his ideas and works, January 23 is fixed as firmly in my mind as if he were a sibling or parent.  And since the day is already flagged, I've tacked on another note of personal significance: it is the birthday, too, of Alan Cheuse, the writing teacher who has most directly influenced me.  

With these concordances, it would be impossible not to reflect on the way literature unites disparate people from disparate times.  In a way, I know both 229 year-old Stendhal and the so-young-by-comparison Alan Cheuse.  Stendhal is unique in how strongly his personality leaps from the page in any of his nonfiction works; after reading him, it's difficult not to feel like you know him.  Of course, a writer's fingerprint always lingers in his works, but rarely have I encountered a personality as unmistakable as Stendhal's--by turns certain and insecure, visionary and mundane.  When I read works by Alan Cheuse, whom I know personally, I have the opposite pleasure of finding in a sentence or an idea something that seems to me unmistakably Alan, something I can practically hear him saying in my mind's ear.

Because I will be wandering around the annual U.S. Army Band Tuba and Euphonium Workshop later this week, tubas are also on my mind today.  I have noticed that most, if not all, serious tuba players are happy to tell you their tuba lineage, tracing their teacher and their teacher's teacher back to a great tuba father like William Bell or Harvey Phillips.  In the same way, I have fun knowing that Alan Cheuse's teacher was John Ciardi, and whenever I read a Ciardi poem, I feel proud of my "family tie."  Still, as with any reader, the greatest ties a writer can have are with the writers we will never meet, nor even can--the ones whose ideas or style or subject speak directly to us, nevermind that they have been dead some years or decades or centuries and are a nationality not our own.  So, if you're reading this, I invite you to post a comment telling which writer or writers you trace in your lineage, whether real or felt.