Friday, March 8, 2013

Insight, Not Information: Reflections on Sands Hall's Catching Heaven

Last August, in one of my follow-up posts to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, I talked about Sands Hall, the novelist who led workshop the day my chapter was up for discussion.  She is one of those people that when you see her, you know instantly you’ve found someone intelligent and capable—and the more you get to know her, the more the impression proves true.  At Squaw Valley, she runs an “open workshop,” an afternoon session in which writers read a page or two of their prose out loud, and then Sands leads discussion of it.  I never got to attend one of these sessions, since I was busy with another workshop in that time slot, but I heard they were great.  What made Sands so good a workshop leader in the normal workshop format (where writing is distributed and read in advance) was her wisdom in trusting the writer’s intent and guiding the discussion towards how to improve upon that intent, rather than letting the workshop group dither on about how to change things in ways the author might not want.  My case in point: Sands trusted that my use of a third-person narrator outside of the characters was intentional, and she asked for the workshop to discuss where it was working and where it needed a tune-up, rather than let people talk on about how I should get rid of it.

So, when you find an intelligent, capable novelist, you naturally want to read her work.  Which is what I did some months ago when I treated myself to Catching Heaven by Sands Hall.

It is the story of two sisters, both artists in their way, but Maud is the truly artistic spirit.  She is a searcher and sojourner whose heart has been broken by the crass selling-out Hollywood requires but who remains steadfast in her love of Shakespeare and the life-changing transport she believes acting can be.  Lizzie, a painter, expresses her creativity not simply through her paintings but also through her family life.  She has three children, and while her difficulty in committing to a husband provides much of the book’s conflict, her life is yet the more stayed version of family and job that Maud lacks.  The chapters rotate among the third-person limited perspectives of Maud, Lizzie, and Jake, the father of Lizzie’s most recent child, and while all three characters are intertwined and important, Maud comes through, in my opinion, as the real interest of the story.  Her presence is so clearly rendered, not just through her own sections but in other sections where Lizzie’s children look to her as the cool aunt or where Jake encounters her in a restaurant and feels drawn to her free-spirited, but sad, aura.

Not long ago, I came across the very simple but very true observation that, when it comes to character, information does not equal insight.  Lesser novelists have a tendency to heap on information, thinking it makes their character interesting and quirky if they tell that the character eats ketchup on her scrambled eggs or likes the color blue.  But these things alone don’t add up to any sense of vision.  Consider instead how Flaubert, say, in Madame Bovary makes Emma’s love of Paris not just part of her likes and dislikes, but a key to her psyche.  She takes this city that she has never visited and builds it up into something grand and beautiful, romanticizing it to the point that it becomes another vehicle through which her own provincial life becomes intolerable to her—dull, boring, mundane.  Thus, it’s not information that she orders magazines about Paris life; it’s insight, down to the very frivolity and desire for novelty implied by a light periodical.    

As I mentioned, I read Catching Heaven a few months ago.  The piece of it that stuck with me the most and that will continue to stay with me is Maud’s love of Shakespeare.  This isn’t just the cheap laying on of information; instead, Hall uses Shakespeare to shape Maud’s very being. Shakespeare provides the key to Maud’s depth of feeling and the lens through which she views the world, thereby becoming an animating feature of both the character and the novel itself.  To my mind, this is the real achievement of Catching Heaven, and one with a lovely side effect: it will make you want to revisit Shakespeare for yourself.

Speaking of the line between information and insight, perhaps the best information I could give to offer a sense of Sands Hall herself is this—when introducing herself, Sands said, “Sands, like sands of time.”  Of course.  Not “shifting sands” or “sands like the beach,” but “sands of time,” with all its ring of sagacity.

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