Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Literary Authors Hungrily Pursue SF/F Dollars

According to this article, a lot of literary authors are successfully trying their hands at genre fiction. Which is all well and good, but what if you don't want to read about zombies and werewolves and magicians? What if you want to read about the real world? What if you want to read a grown up novel? My current book is Graham Swift's Waterland. It's got no supernatural love interests, but it's really really good. I'll bet it's 1,000 times better than fucking Robopocalypse.

Also, this (from the WSJ article):

novels featuring robots, witches, zombies, werewolves and ghosts are blurring the lines between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy, overturning long-held assumptions in the literary world about what constitutes high and low art.

is not a true statement.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"The Last Guest": A Different Excerpt

Patience held the glass of wine and a lit cigarette in her right hand, and took her beaded purse in her left. In this manner she walked from Lee Ness and the bar and made her way through the dim hotel. Most of the lights had been put out and Patience moved carefully so as not to trip over anything. There were all sorts of small tables and things in the halls and the lobby. She did not go directly upstairs, but detoured through the kitchen. Mrs Corambis was still there, peeling potatoes for the next day’s lunch. She scolded Patience for carrying a lit cigarette through the kitchen and then made up a plate of bread and sliced cheese for her.

“I cannot carry all of this to my room.” Patience sat down at a corner of Mrs Corambis’ long table. She dragged off her evening gloves and ate while the cook finished peeling potatoes.

“I was a young girl in France,” Patience said. “My family lived on a farm and I spent hours in the kitchen, sitting on a stool just as you do, peeling potatoes with a sharp little knife. I had always cuts on my thumb from it.”

“I use a peeler,” Mrs Corambis said. “Did you have cows on your farm?”

“Oh, yes. We had the Charolais cattle, which are large and muscular and the color of b├ęchamel sauce. They gave excellent milk. When the Germans invaded, they took all of the lovely Charolais from us and we had only the potatoes until the Germans also took the potatoes away.”

“That’s awful, Miss,” Mrs Corambis said. “In Iowa, we raised Jerseys. Red and white. Beautiful cattle, though a bit nervous, if you know what I mean.”

“After they lost the war, the Germans were forced to replace the cows,” Patience said. “They gave Holsteins to France. It is not the same. The Holstein is big and black and white, like a monstrous dog.”

“Does your family still have the farm?”

“No, we came as refugees to Paris in 1915 and never returned to the north, even after the war. Everything was in ruin. Both sides had bombarded the Western front. The land had been stripped of all life, our fields poisoned with blood and cordite day after day. Nothing was left but corpses and ash, Madame Corambis. My father moved to Languedoc where he breeds dogs now. The poodle. Large blonde ones, like the Charolais. But they give no milk, of course.”

Mrs Corambis laughed. Patience thanked her for the bread and cheese and left the kitchen, carrying her half glass of wine through the dark hotel. She had no idea why she’d told that story to the cook. Some of it wasn’t the least bit true. Her father still lived in Paris, and he hated dogs.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"The Last Guest": an excerpt

Here is a bit of rough draftiness from this afternoon's writing. You will learn almost nothing about the story from this, but I like some of these words in some of this order.

The morning brought fog and more rain, a dull miserable drizzle that filled the air with cold and damp and cheerlessness. Lee Ness built a blaze in the big stone fireplace on the east wall of the dining room but the flames seemed devoid of any heat and the room seemed too large, unfriendly. The guests who came down to breakfast took tables by the south windows and blew cigarette smoke at the glass, remembering the previous morning when it had been warm and bright out on the veranda.

Mrs Pullman remained in her room. Michael Little remained locked in the cellar, sad and shivering and alone. Bernard Hayes and Daniel Proudfoot sat together, drinking coffee and talking politics. Proudfoot had definite ideas about Europe. The Taylors sat by themselves, each reading a different book from the hotel library. Julia Purell and James Carol sat farthest from the fireplace. Julia picked unhappily at a grapefruit half. Her left hand remained free of diamonds.

Patience Quince came down to breakfast, wearing a long black shift and a short black wool jacket over it, with her tight black hat like a swimmer’s cap, all of it quite out of fashion except the jacket. Nonetheless, she looked like some young wife out shopping, with her bag clutched in her hand. By now everyone knew she had a gun in the bag, but not all the guests were reassured by the fact.

Patience walked toward James and Julia. She had a few questions for them. Her course was interrupted by Robertson Cornelius, who glided up and took Patience’s elbow. He smiled broadly in case his other guests were watching. They were watching, of course.

"Good morning, Miss Quince." Cornelius was nearly whispering. Patience whispered in reply.

"Good morning, Monsieur Cornelius. It is raining and you have a dead man in the icebox. How are you today?"

"Oh. Yes. Well, about that."

Friday, May 20, 2011

There is Plenty of Time But Not Enough Will

There really isn't enough time in the day, though it occurs to me that there might be if I didn't have to work an actual job. Makes you think. Mostly what I wish is that I'd force myself to sit down and organize my copious notes for the novel I'm writing. It's not really that there isn't time to do it, it's that I don't make the time to do it because it sounds like unpleasant work.

I have notes on index cards. I have notes in the form of emails that I've sent to myself. I have post-it notes taped into my main notebook (wherein I actually write the manuscript longhand), and others taped into my notes notebooks (wherein I keep my outlines and developing ideas). I have JSTOR articles printed out and sitting on my desk. I have a spreadsheet printed out and folded into my notes notebook. I have notes written into the margins of my notes. I have a three-page typewritten skeletal outline of the mystery part of the story, with handwritten notes all over it. None of this material is in any sort of order. What I really wish I'd do is sit me down and get round to work, making a new sort of master outline document that incorporates all my notes and ideas into something handy that I can reference easily. Some of you might suggest I type them all up into a Word document or whatever, but that's useless to me, for I write in longhand, usually in restaurants at lunch or on the bus during my long commute home, and I'm not going to drag my laptop all over the landscape just to look at my notes. It's actually more convenient to keep them on bits of paper in my briefcase. But it's messy and I tend to have to reinvent the wheel often when I can't find my ideas for a particular scene or passage.

Anyway, one of my goals for this weekend (assuming we aren't all raptured up to Heaven or cast wailing into the fiery pits of Hell tomorrow) is to go through my notes for this new book and put them into some sort of order in some format that will be useful. I am leaning toward putting the entire outline onto index cards at this point, though I may change my mind. We'll see. I've taken lately to scribbling ideas down on cards and so I have a growing stack of them on my desk (in addition to the stack of them I've got clipped to the front cover of my main notebook; you see how this constantly gets out of hand?).

Also, I can't believe I used that title for a post but failed to make a Shakespeare joke.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

de Bernieres Versus Fitzgerald

I am close to finishing up Louis de Bernieres' novel Birds Without Wings. I might be done with it had I not interrupted the reading with a re-reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Luckily for de Bernieres, Gatsby is more novella than novel and so I only lost two days of Wings reading time.

These are both good books. Birds Without Wings might have better prose overall and on the surface appears to be a more ambitious undertaking: an historical tale spanning 40 or so years from 1890ish to the end of WW II, telling the story of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the rise of modern Turkey. There are multiple main characters and a gang of first-person narratives interspersed with third-person narration and the section I'm currently reading, about the Gallipoli campaign, is splendid and brutal and moving and funny and sad and horrifying and really everything one could want from a piece of historical literary fiction.

The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a first-person narrative spanning a single summer in 1922, and recounts the events surrounding Jay Gatsby's attempt to steal his old lover Daisy from her husband, Tom. That sounds pretty slim, but coiled inside this short novel are sharp observations about American wealth and class, consumer culture and the destructiveness of avarice. Fitzgerald's prose struck me as a bit clunky for the first couple of pages but soon enough I was caught by his brilliant use of images and his startling way with modifiers. "Yellow" is used to describe a jazz song. Women rise from a couch "slenderly." This is just what Jon Gardner meant, I think, when he said that adverbs and adjectives should be used in surprising ways.

Meanwhile, of course, I am working on my own novel. de Bernieres' book makes me want to fill my story with references to the growing conflicts in Europe and Africa, to give a larger scale to the piece and situate the characters' actions within the actions of the whole world. Fitzgerald's book makes me want to focus more sharply on the characters themselves and show how each of them is at odds with their immediate surroundings and attempting to fit into their perception of the world, and not always succeeding. I have always come to great fiction as a pupil, to learn something new about how fiction operates and what fiction can do, which means that every good book I read influences my own work. I have no idea what sort of things I'll take away from Fitzgerald or de Bernieres, but I think I'm getting ideas on ways to broaden and deepen the narrative, maybe. We'll see. Right now it's just a first draft, which means practically nothing. The real work is in the revisions, which is where I hope to find that some of de Bernieres' and Fitzgerald's genius has rubbed off on me.

Edited to add: Fitzgerald's book is definitely the better of the two. The minute I finished the last page I went back to the start and began to read the whole thing all over again. But Birds Without Wings is well worth your time, kids. Literature ain't a contest.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Agatha," as you know, means "good"

I have mentioned that I'm working on a new novel, what my friend Davin Malasarn calls “everything but a detective novel inside a detective novel.” That is to say, the framing story for the book is a murder mystery, which sort of acts as a scaffold or a backdrop for what I’m actually writing about.

I’m not particularly interested in writing detective fiction. Over the years I’ve read a number of Agatha Christie books (Christie is the main touchstone for the surface elements of my narrative), I’ve read the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Poe stories and the Iain Pears “Jonathan Argyle” mysteries and I’ve watched “Foyle’s War” on DVD and any number of mystery films, so I enjoy the occasional “classic” detective story but I can’t claim to be a huge fan of the genre. I don’t know any of the current writers and (though people are constantly recommending that I read this or that book or writer especially now that I’m actually writing a detective book) I honestly have no interest in seeking out more mysteries than I’ve already read. I like a few corners of the genre passing well but no more than that.

There are fun things about classic detective stories, and those are what draw me to them. I like the eccentric investigator and I like the puzzle quality of a good mystery (although most mysteries—and I’ll just say it—are pretty weak as puzzles; the chain of evidence rarely leads the reader to the conclusion the detective reaches, and most of the time the writer hides evidence from the reader, which is cheating so I don’t really like the mystery aspect of most mysteries because it’s done poorly). So you might ask, if I have such a dilettante’s relationship with detective fiction, why I’m writing a detective story.

The main reason is that a specific character occurred to me, and I wanted to explore her interior world. She happens to be a detective, an eccentric with a loaded pistol loose in 1930’s America. As I thought about her character, I got a bunch of ideas about things I wanted to write about (which is synonymous for “things I wanted to think about”): relationships, geopolitics, religion, sex, alienation, “otherness,” trust, work, war, home, marriage and divorce. A lot of stuff that has got nothing to do with a murder investigation. There’s also the idea to be explored of things people think but don’t say—how our interior lives can be completely secret but rule our exterior lives invisibly, the absolute unknowableness of the core of someone’s being.

So the murder investigation conducted by my protagonist is merely an excuse for me to talk about all this other stuff. Yes, I am working hard to make sure that the puzzle aspect of the mystery works and that there are no improbable rabbits coming out of hats in the third act, and that the reader sees all of the clues alongside the detective, but as I say that’s all just a framework. The mystery plot is just a machine, no matter how complex it is, and creating that isn’t enough to keep me interested in the novel. In fact, since the majority of that sort of writing is merely pushing pieces around on a game board, if you will, I could get really bored writing the book. So what I’ve done is make every single scene—every interaction between people—an excuse to talk about one of the larger issues listed above. I also am encouraging myself to find something really bizarre to work into every scene. That’s turning out to be easier than I thought, because if you just take a few minutes and observe people, we are a weirder species than we usually realize. Everyone, if you look long enough, is an eccentric. So I’m trying to keep exposing the secret spaces of my characters’ lives; that’s the mystery I’m writing. And it’s going well, I think.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Work In Progess: A False Update

No, not an excerpt or really anything but I wanted to note that I have begun to put private jokes into the MS. I have done this with every novel I've written and each time I start a new one I promise myself that I'll knock it the hell off, but I can't do it. So there are little nods to the writers I personally know, little jokes for Mighty Reader only, something just for my agent, and last night I wrote a sly little "Paddington Bear" bit that still makes me laugh, if at nothing but the audacity of it. Today, I hope, I will work in a nod to Sam Beckett that's got me quite excited. In the Second Act there will be references to Tom Stoppard and to my own third novel. I just slay me with delight. When the narrative moves on to the Third Act, I fully expect the jokes to be replaced by Shakespeare references. It's what I do. Anyway, the detective story that's not a detective story is coming along well. I figure I'm about a fourth of the way through this first draft, and that ain't bad.