Sunday, March 27, 2011

A 79-year-old's "Confessions of a Young Novelist"

Umberto Eco, let's admit, is a bit quirky so I guess he can get away with calling himself a young novelist at age 79. The man has a tremendous imagination and idiosyncratic intellect, as any reader of his novels can tell you. He has recently published Confessions of a Young Novelist, a set of four essays about writing and/or fiction. It is an engaging and stimulating work and I recommend it. One of the highlights for me came right at the beginning and, in the interest of spreading the joy, I'm going to quote it.
When interviewers ask me, "How did you write your novels?" I usually cut short this line of questioning and reply, "From left to right." I realize that this is not a satisfactory answer, and that it can produce some astonishment in Arab countries and Israel.

Now I have time for a more detailed response. In the course of writing my first novel, I learned a few things. First, "inspiration" is a bad word that tricky authors use in order to seem artistically respectable. As the old adage goes, genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspriation. It is said that the French poet Lamartine often described the circumstances in which he had written one of his best poems: he claimed it had come to him fully formed in a sudden illumination, one night when he was wandering through the woods. After his death, somebody found in his study an impressive number of versions of that poem, which he had written and rewritten over the course of years.

Eco later talks about the preparatory work he did for his novels, including drawing a precise map of the monastary where In the Name of the Rose takes place, and sketching out the faces of the characters in The Island of the Day Before. (He also traveled to the South Pacific and spent days learning about the oceans and the night sky on one of those islands - obviously a research technique better suited to an author who has earned money from previous books.) For Foucalt's Pendulm he spent evening after evening wandering the museum where much of the action takes place and then walking Paris streets at night. The result is a verisimiltude that has earned the awe of legions of obsessive fans.

I love books rich in learning, observation and thought. I am extremely wary of books written quickly - Eco's quickest writing was two years, for In the Name of the Rose, since he could rely upon a lifetime of medieval research. (That's one reason I've never been even remotely interested in participating in NaNoWriMo, although dear friends have convinced me that it has its place.) Do you think you can tell the difference between a novel written on the fly and one that took its author years to plough through? Do you have a preference?

Friday, March 25, 2011

The downside of self-publishing for a reader

A friend of our family published a book last year. In the spirit of solidarity, I bought a copy and read it. The first warning light went off before the opening paragraph - the book opened with acknowledgements. Ok, unconventional, but fine. No mention of an agent. Ok, maybe I just couldn't pick out the agent's name, or maybe the author sold directly to the publisher.

Within pages I could tell that this was not prose that would have passed muster with my writing group. Too many commas, too many adverbs, and, most damningly, too many fluctuating emotions on the same page, paragraph, or even (the horror!) sentence. I read about 50 pages before loyalty could compel me no further. And I was grumpy all that morning about the wasted time - time I much would have rather spent reading a good book. I found out later that day that the book was, effectively, self-published.

Obviously readers often find books they're disappointed with. But I think the vetting service provided by agents and publishers often - not always - helps narrow the field. I recognize that there are exceptions and that some self-published works are quite good, while many (many!) traditionally published books are horrible. But as the floodgates open, how is a reader to defend herself and her precious time? I sure hope interpid book bloggers more brave than myself will do some winnowing and recommending for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Useful Writing

The Washingtonian Magazine's recent issue includes a lovely interview with author/journalist/teacher/grandfather Roger Rosenblatt. It's clear from the interview that not only does Rosenblatt have an impressive resume but he also has a thoughtful and kind heart. The interview is worth reading if you can get your paws on it (the Washingtonian only posts content after its subsequent issue hits newstands), but in the meantime I'll take the liberty of quoting one bit.

[The Washingtonian] Your writing book ends with a letter you sent to your students. In it you say, "For writing to be great ... it must be useful to the world." Can you talk about that?

By "useful" I don't really mean practically useful, although I'm sure there are practical applications. There are only four reasons for writing that I can think of. I didn't put this in the book, but I've thought about it since.

First, writing makes suffering endurable, and it does this by making it beautiful. Marsha Norman writes 'Night, Mother about suicide. That play is unrelenting in its sadness, and it ends in suicide. Someone might say, "Why do this?" The answer is because art made it endurable, made it beautiful.

Second, writing makes evil intelligible. If we ever think evil is beyond our capability, we're kidding ourselves. Look at Iago -- Othello's sort of a stiff, but Iago's the one we really remember. If you know that evil is intelligible, that anyone is capable of it, then you can make moral use of that.

Third, writing makes justice desirable. I can't imagine anything more important to you, me, or any people we know and like than justice or injustice. Every time there's an injustice, your fists clench. The Winslow Boy fights England, and when that barrister's motto, "Let right be done," is said, tears well up and it's just wonderful.

Finally, writing makes love possible. All these things--suffering, injustice, and evil--one can still love above these things, love the animals we are and wish them well. That to me is the sublime use of writing.

What more is there to say than that? Rosenblatt's book about writing Unless it Moves the Human Heart just moved to the top of my wishlist. Check it out!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Turtle Catcher, by Nicole Helget

In a remote corner of Minnesota, shortly after The Great War, three sons of German immigrants force their slow-witted neighbor backwards into a lake. They train their rifle sights on him as he protests, flails, and eventually trudges backwards. They have sewn his pockets full with rocks. He violated their sister, they say, although two of them tremble to hold the rifles pointed at a man they previously knew as only gentle and dull.

The Turtle Catcher opens with this gripping and tragic encounter, and in so doing gives us a snapshot of each of the lives involved - the three brothers, the man wading into the pond, the sister sitting in shock and dismay at home. The scene concludes with horror and a bit of magic, leaving the reader anxious to know what happened to those complicated people.

Ms. Helget answers those questions by launching backwards in time about thirty years. The bulk of the book, about eighty percent, is an extended flashback detailing the lives of those characters and their families. This, unfortunately, has the effect of diluting quite a bit of the suspense, since from the very first chapter we know a great deal about the lives of those five individuals and their families. Fortunately the writing is good enough to keep the reader engaged and the descriptions of pre-war Minnesota and its immigrant German community are probably new territory for most readers. Personally, I would have preferred to know more about what happened to these characters after that evening at the lake, and how it affected them, but the story told is still thoughtful and memorable. I'd be interested to know if anyone else has read it and has thoughts - this is certainly a good book for discussion.

Monday, March 7, 2011

My dress would have screenprinted Emily Dickinson quotes

Sometimes I really wish I lived in New York. Or at least could afford to head up there more often. Today I got a save the date from One Story literary magazine for their 2nd annual "Literary Debutante Ball!" They are celebrating the five One Story authors who published their first book in the past year, and honoring author Dani Shapiro for her work mentoring young authors. And just in case you thought it was all business, they have a featured cocktail named after Ms. Shapiro's One Story issue: The Six Poisons. Mmm! I feel like Cinderella, wishing a magical coach could take her to the ball ... Maybe I'll just make one of these at home to make me feel better.

The Six Poisons Cocktail

2 oz. BULLDOG Gin (I guess Bulldog is sponsoring - I prefer Citadelle gin. Pretty much the best thing ever.)
2 1/2 oz. Cranberry Juice
1/2 oz. Orange Juice
Orange Slice for Garnish
Club soda
Shake first three ingredients with ice.
Strain into an ice-filled cocktail glass.
Garnish with orange slice.
Top with a splash of club soda.

Separate note - personal DIY writing retreat today was fabulous. I met my goals AND squeezed in some 50 percent off vintage shopping! (For anyone in the area, visit It's Vintage Darling this week!) One of the things I bought was this purse. If only I could take it to the Debutante Ball! :)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A mini writing retreat

I'm taking tomorrow off work to seclude myself and my notebook in a cozy cafe (or three) somewhere in my neighborhood and, with the help of coffee and scones, hold a personal, one-day writing retreat. I hope it continues to rain here - what could be more lovely than a cozy cafe on a rainy day??

One of my writing friends sent this link along, on how to construct your own writing retreat. It's pretty straightforward if you're already working on a project (I am), and if you're not, it has some good advice on how to structure it.

I know I won't be bringing my laptop -- then the temptation to scan the real estate postings looking at cute little houses, or etsy looking for adorable little puppets would be too much! So I'd better do some of that now ...

Photo is from "Two Sad Donkeys" etsy page.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is that a book in your purse, or ...?

I get panicky if I'm caught in a situation where I have to wait (riding a bus, standing in a long line) and I don't have a book. The need to carry a book has been the single greatest factor contributing to my increasing purse size.

When I do have a book (usually) and I manage to pull my nose out of it (not often), I marvel at the people who aren't reading. How is all that waiting time not driving them totally insane? And I feel a warm kinship with the people who are reading. This morning I was especially tickled to see a woman carry her open book into our office building. She continued to huddle over it while in the elevator, and then dawdled outside our office hallway door, still reading. I guess she had reached a good part. What a nice inspiration to start the day!

A totally separate point - a quick flag for you writers. The Glimmer Train bulletin has a nice short essay on the crux of short stories from Melanie Bishop, a writer and professor. The core element, as she puts it, is "a happening" - ie, something happens.
"One can't, for instance, just describe what he/she had for breakfast and call it a story, even though eating breakfast is a human experience."

John Gardner suggests that short fiction should have a transformative experience that illustrates a revelation; Flannery O'Connor says that all writing is ultimately about the mystery of the human experience and our unique manners that bring us there. I'm sure both would agree that something has to happen. It seems obvious, but crafting a narrative arc in a short space is a challenge.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma