Friday, September 28, 2012

Whaur's your Wullie Shaxper the noo?

This is the time of year when Mighty Reader and I plan our Fall/Winter entertainments. Last year the opera dominated not only the seasons but the expense column of our budget. Opera is pricy, darn it. This year we're getting more bang for our pesos by eschewing opera (sorry, Seattle Opera) and concentrating instead on the symphony, chamber music, theater and film. All of which together will cost less than a season of opera. Though I reserve the right to pick up a pair of tickets to La Boheme, because who doesn't love Puccini?

The symphony choices all include works that are unfamiliar to me, except for one night of Rachmaninoff piano concertos. I like to stack the deck in favor of violin music and usually Mighty Reader lets me, but I think we've managed to select a wider-than-usual array of music, and it promises to be a good time. Next week we're seeing the Emerson String Quartet in an evening of Haydn, Brahms and Ades. We see the Emersons every year. I don't know what we'll do after this year when they break up the band.

Just this morning we ordered our subscription tickets to the Seattle Shakespeare Company's 2013 season.  Antony and Cleopatra, A Doll's House, Love's Labours Lost and The Taming of the Shrew. I have never read nor seen LLL, but I'll probably read it before we go to the show. I'm like that. Shrew, mean-spirited and misogynistic as it is, remains my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies. The line about it being death to be from Padua always makes me laugh. SSC promises a "trailer trash" setting, so, um, we'll see about that. I'm most excited about Antony and Cleopatra, which is a beautiful play, a study of aging hedonism et cetera, and the Ibsen.

We're also seriously considering a winter film series, a collection of film noir, I think. Last winter's British noir series was pretty spectacular, so we'll probably go to this year's.

Also: Fortunata y Jacinta continues to amuse and delight. The long section about the merchant families, giving the history of Juan Santa Cruz's family, is wonderful. The two paragraphs about Chinese shawls are simply lovely. Breathtaking, even. Good stuff; why aren't you reading along?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

El marqués de Casa-Muñoz se lo decía a Barbarita: "No hay que involucrar, París es muy malo; pero también es muy bueno."

I have taken the advice of Tom-from-Wuthering-Expectations and begun the read-along of Fortunata and Jacinta a bit early. It is, after all, an 800-page novel printed in small type. That’s a lot of reading to do in October, especially if I plan to do anything else during my waking hours, so slow a reader have I become. Having finished volume 8 of the Garnett Chekhov collection yesterday, I started in on Benito Pérez Galdós’ 1887 novel today at lunch. I managed the first two chapters, which introduce a young man named Juan Santa Cruz (whom everyone calls Juanito for reasons the narrator cannot give) and give us his university years, his transition into adulthood as a lawyer, his falling in love with learning and his subsequent falling out of love with learning (If none of the great issues of science or philosophy are ever solved, he wonders, what’s the difference?), and a trip to Paris that seems to have a sort of purifying, tempering effect on him. As the quote in this post’s title says, Paris is very bad, but it is also very good.

There’s been no sign of either Fortunata or Jacinta except briefly: the narrator tells us that he gets some of the background for his biographical sketch of Juan from people like Jacinta, who knew him well. There is nothing so far in the way of plot, no “story question” as folks like to say nowadays, no conflict, nothing to resolve. It’s a typical European 19th-century novel opening, very Old School. I see that the next chapter is going to be a pocket history of merchant life in Madrid. I can’t wait.

So if there’s no story so far, what is there? There’s the tone of the novel, light but insightful, and the understanding that this is going to be a pretty big story, ranging far and wide. I don’t know exactly what I’m in for, but at the same time, I have a pretty good idea exactly what I’m in for. So it looks like a good time at this point, only two chapters in. We’ll see how I feel at page 213 or page 459. I know nothing of Spanish history, of the Spanish monarchy or the brief Republic or the Restoration, so likely I’m going to miss all the parallels between the novel’s characters and the historical figures moving in the background. The translator, Agnes Moncy Gullon, promises that the novel is so good that I won’t care. She also promises that Galdós’ novel will put me to mind of Balzac and Dickens, and that’s not bad.

Also, I have seen the second round of cover designs for my own novel, The Astrologer. It’s very cool. No bear, alas, but Melissa added a snake. The snake is cool.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Powerful Feeling of Disquiet: Another Middle

I draft my novels longhand, in spiral notebooks that are easily carried around in my briefcase. I write at lunch and on the bus commute home, pretty much five days a week. I don’t write at home (home is where I keep my other, more entertaining, distractions) though I have what I call a "writing desk" set up before a big window in a nice room there. The work I do at the "writing desk" is typing up my handwritten drafts into a laptop. So I’ve been carrying around a notebook that’s now about full of first draft for a novel(la) I’m calling Mona in the Desert, and this weekend I typed a bunch of that draft into the laptop at home because I become increasingly worried that I’ll lose the handwritten draft during my perambulations about town and were that to happen, I’d just abandon the novel rather than attempt to reconstruct it. All of which is preface to the announcement that I think I’m at about 30,000 or so words through this draft (though I’m not sure because I’ve only typed up about four chapters of the draft out of the six and a half chapters I’ve written). Thirty-thousand words puts me somewhere in the middle of the novel, or somewhere toward the sixty percent mark if I stick with the plan of making it a 50,000-word novella. In either case, I’m now in the middle of the middle. I discovered this project middleness not by figuring the word count of the draft, but rather by noticing that I have been feeling a powerful sense of disquiet about writing. The feeling that this novel is an empty, pointless thing and that indeed every novel I’ve written is an empty, pointless and likely embarrassing book is a sure sign that I’ve arrived at that stage in the drafting process where I’ve got to just brass my way forward through the writing and work toward the final act, which I recall once thinking was a good idea to write. This feeling is so familiar and so predictable that I am almost bored by it. Yes of course, I say. Right on schedule. The temptation is to abandon the novel, to spend more time reading or exercising, to think about other things. But of course I won’t, because I’ve been here before and I know how it works. Also, because I’m writing this novel without any sort of outline at all (damn you, Davin Malasarn), and because I have no real idea what I’m doing except attempting to keep the narrative moving forward, I’m aware that it has some odd things going on with it formally and that the revisions are going to be tricky in order to push the bits around and give them some sort of coherent structure. A couple of years ago I told someone I wanted to write a novel in the shape of leaves blown off a tree in an autumn windstorm. I think this might be that novel.

Also: this is from Chapter 3; I promised Michelle another excerpt about Mona.

It’s a long drive, especially in the summer in a steel-bodied car built before the invention of air conditioning, but it’s possible to get from eastern Colorado all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in eight hours. That was my aunt’s intention, but she was not much experienced at either highway driving or long-distance driving back in 1950. She took two days to guide the car she’d borrowed from her brother Red—it was a Buick that Red could spare because he’d be out of town on his own mysterious business for a couple of weeks—as far as Santa Fe. Mona didn’t like the speeds people drove on the interstate. She didn’t like negotiating the onramps and the exits, she didn’t like the tedium of the barren landscapes and she didn’t like driving at night; the headlights of the opposing traffic blinded her and gave her headaches. Red had been surprised when Mona asked to borrow his car. Do you even know how to drive, he asked. He demanded that Mona produce her driver’s license, and he examined it closely as if suspecting it to be a forgery. Mona had to drive the Buick around the neighborhood for half an hour, Red tense in the passenger seat, before she’d convinced her brother that she was capable of operating a motor vehicle. Mona drove with the windows down, her sunglasses on, her left arm along the door, a lit cigarette trailing hot ash down the road. When a car passed her she gripped the wheel with both hands. If a van or a truck passed her, Mona would clutch the wheel, take her foot off the accelerator and drift toward the shoulder, never looking to her left because vehicles that large, that close to her, moving at those speeds were terrifying. My aunt never lost her fear of big trucks or being passed on the highway. She kept the car radio switched off because she found the music distracting and she was afraid to take her attention off the road ahead. Mona sang to herself, in her terrible contralto voice, mostly hymns like Oh Sacred Head that she remembered from childhood. She hadn’t been to church since she’d turned seventeen. Mona was fine with God, but she found church a waste of time and infinitely boring. No wonder she later joined that cult with their big boat on the mountaintop where God was sleeping. My aunt only led a dull life because for the most part she was blind to all the excitement there is to be had; it took something truly bizarre to be visible to her through her social myopia.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Maybe the bear can go on the back

This morning I got an email from Rhett, my publisher. He sent me two roughs of the cover of THE ASTROLOGER. The design is pretty cool. There should be final artwork soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I invoke the Ezra Pound Rule

Last night Mighty Reader and I went to the fabulous University Bookstore to hear Maria Semple and Jonathan Evison read from their latest novels and chat about writing. There was also beer, because it was a Jon Evison event, and I think there's some Federal law whereby every Jon Evison event features beer. The first time I heard Evison read (from All About Lulu), it was in a subterranean bar just off campus, and before he got up to read a chapter of his book, Jon bought a couple of pitchers of Guinness for the room because he wasn't standing up in front of a bunch of people whose glasses were empty.

Maria Semple is the author of the novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette? and she read from the first third of the book. Bernadette is the story of a woman who is so wracked with agoraphobia that she only leaves the house to pick up and drop off her daughter (Bernadette) at a private school. When Bernadette graduates from eighth grade with straight As, she cashes in on her parents' promise to "do whatever she wants as a reward," and what Bernadette wants is for the family to take a trip to Antarctica. Hijinks ensue, as you can imagine.

During the Q&A, one audience member remarked as how she'd read the novel but she didn't like the last third of the book, where the focus switches from the mother to the daughter, and she spoke as if she assumed that Semple naturally agreed that the last third of the book wasn't as good as the first two thirds. I was happy when Semple gave a spirited defense of her artistic choices, not apologizing at all for this reader's reaction to her novel. "I couldn't have written it any other way," Semple declared, and God bless her. I invoke the Ezra Pound Rule here.

Jonathan Evison read a couple of chapters from his new one, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Jon Evison is an excellent reader, which is a good reason to go see him if he comes to your town (he'll be in Denver for the next four days, at my beloved Tattered Cover, which is a great store if you don't already know that). Caregiving sounds excellent, and I'm still kicking myself for not buying my own copy (I always forget, darn it). Mighty Reader of course got hers autographed. When I buy my copy, I'll have to track Evison down on that island where he lives. I assume that if I bring enough beer, we'll be cool.

Because Jon Evison is cool. Or, if not cool, he's a damned nice guy. I see him about once a year, at readings around town, and he always remembers who Mighty Reader and I are, and he always remembers whatever I told him a year previous about my books and publishing status. I am not so memorable; Jon Evison just loves people and remembers, apparently, every single person he ever meets and he wants to buy us all drinks. Go read his new book. If you don't go to author events, you are missing out.

Also, I'm reading Chekhov again. Oh Anton, how I've missed you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

O heaven, O earth, Oregon

Mighty Reader and I snuck away from busy Seattle for four days in relaxing Oregon, at Newport mostly. What did we do? Read some (I'm most of the way through Shakespeare's The Tempest which, you know, is not a brilliant play and every time I encounter it I again wonder at the reputation it has, but I do think that in it I've found the last sentence of Mona in the Desert, unless I forget), wrote some, ran on the beach, walked on the beach, sat along the harbor, splashed in the waves, climbed up and down a bluff, bought a lot of liquor and wine (Oregonians: you must not allow privatization of state liquor stores! It was a huge mistake in Washington!), watched Mighty Reader take a thousand photographs, and drove 600+ miles. I'd like to thank the DOT for the HOV lane from Tacoma to Seattle. Anyway, it was a swell time but I left the laptop at home and our hotel (The Sylvia Beach Hotel) had neither wifi nor televisions nor telephones in the rooms, which was fine. The place is stocked with books, for reading, and places to sit and read those books. We stayed in the Shakespeare room. Last time we were there we stayed in the Fitzgerald room, which I might prefer though Bill's crib is still fine:

But we didn't spend much time indoors. There was too much to see:

And too much to do:

Next time, we will stay a full week, I think.

Photos by Mighty Reader

Thursday, September 13, 2012

a dog barking somewhere: passing the time with Virginia Woolf

Yesterday I read the "Time Passes" section (book two) of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Woolf gives us a decade of England slipping past in about 20 pages, covering the deaths of several major characters and all of World War I. The historical facts are given as two-sentence parentheticals tacked onto the ends of chapters, and the abruptness of these facts (25 young men killed by German bombs in the trenches of Flanders; at least their deaths were instantaneous), the unadorned manner in which they’re presented, strengthens their impact. Had Woolf written the traditional Victorian novel death scenes that go on for page after page, the reader wouldn’t suffer the same shock, and sudden death is supposed to be shocking, yes? But the main trick, the real magic show Woolf presents in “Time Passes” is the use of the summer house, empty but for the occasional visit of the old housekeeper, falling gradually into frightful disrepair. The family deaths, the Great War, the sliding of Europe into disarray and destruction, are all echoed by the failing condition of the vacation home. The gutters and drains are blocked and the water gets into the house. The plaster falls. There are rats in the attic and moths in the closets among the decade-old summer fashions still hanging there. The garden is a ruin and floorboards are sprung, etc. It’s a magnificent performance from Woolf, with darkness and wind and rain all personified as curious visitors to the building. It’s also one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots. Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window-pane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass; giant artichokes towered among roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages; while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer.

Another clever bit of structuring Woolf does with this section is bookending it with sleep and waking. "Time Passes" begins with all the family and guests gathered in the house (after the magnificent formal dinner chapter that ends the first book), putting out the lights and going to bed. At midnight, Mr Carmichael puts away his copy of Virgil and blows out his candle. He is the last person in the house to go to sleep. It’s at this point that time begins to flow quickly past us. After the decay of the house and the decay of Europe and the aftermath of the War (Mr Carmichael publishes a book of poetry which is surprisingly popular), the old housekeeper hears from the family in faraway London that she must get the house ready for them; they are coming again to the Scottish beach this summer, and builders are hired and the wild grasses are cut and the books are dried in the sun and the first of the guests arrive and spend the night and the section ends with Lily sitting up in bed the next morning:

She clutched at her blankets as a faller clutches at the turf on the edge of a cliff. Her eyes opened wide. Here she was again, she thought, sitting bolt upright in bed. Awake.

Thus ends the "Time Passes" section of the novel. Bolt upright and awake, so abrupt and staccato, are good signposts for what’s ahead in the next book.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I could reconstruct this novel from memory

While I’m sure that few things are more boring to read than posts about work on my own novels, I am compelled to write them because they help me make some sense of what I’m doing with the books. Also, I just read an interview with Zadie Smith about her new one, NW, and that interview made me want to talk about writing. So blame Zadie Smith.

I am probably a little past the halfway mark of my work in progress, a short (I’m hoping) novel called Mona in the Desert. Just now as I type that title I realize that there is a sort of recurring image in the novel, of enclosed spaces within sorts of wildernesses. Huh. I don’t know what that’s about but there it is. Which sentence (I don’t know what that’s about but there it is) could serve as a motto for the writing of this novel. I have no grand plan for the book, no outline at all, and only the barest idea of what “happens” in the story. The story, the plot, assembles itself around the writing as I go along, clinging to the idea-of-the-moment and growing thicker and more textured before my eyes. I have scribbled a few notes in the back cover of the spiral notebook in which I’m writing the first draft, a list of sentences to incorporate or images to expand into scenes, but I have no idea where I’ll use these sentences or images until the moment arrives when I see that I can build them into the narrative. So I’ve got no program, no vision for this novel. What I’ve got is voice and memory, mostly.

Mona in the Desert is a novel about memory, real and created. It began with me trying to remember my earliest memories, to remember my family when I was a kid, and then it expanded into trying to remember the family myths, the stories we’ve been telling about ourselves and each other for decades, and trying to decide if those myths are based on fact or on a shared set of assumptions we’ve made about our family. What facts have been excluded from the family myths, and why. Who are these people, really, and why did they make the choices they made? All of this began as autobiography, but the characters quickly transformed into a fictional family that bears only a passing resemblance to my real family. This is in part because I have a lousy memory and I found myself having to make up a lot of events to fill in the chronology, and also because I found my fictional family to be pretty interesting on its own. One of my few hard-and-fast rules for fiction is that when the story and the facts are at odds, the story always trumps the facts. I’m a novelist, not a historian. It also became interesting to incorporate into the narrative the knowledge that a lot of what I was saying to the reader was made up, and I’ve been explaining as I go along which parts are wholly imaginary and which parts are facts. My mother was a Pisces, that’s a fact. My aunt spent years living on a mountaintop in a recreation of Noah’s Ark as part of a religious cult is an invention. But the Ark on the mountaintop, while fiction, is a necessary device to get at certain truths about life (that’s how fiction works, you know), so my narrator won’t apologize for lying to the reader.

My narrator (who is not me, because he and his family are fictional people) has a point to make, which is why he must keep talking about his family history even if it means making up that history as he goes along, because he’s working his way slowly toward his point. I don’t know what the narrator’s point is yet. I assume he’ll tell me when he gets to it. I have just referred to a fictional character as if he’s a real human being. I hate that sort of thing, because I know that the narrator is actually me, and all the other characters in the book are actually me, as the whole thing is growing from my own imagination, even the factual historical events I’m putting into the book. Because those facts exist in my mind and they do not feel any different, any more “real” than the things I make up, so how am I to know which of them are in fact statements of truth, eh? Riddle me that.

What’s this post about, Mr Bailey? I’m not sure. I’m writing about the church of the sleepy God right now. It’s a little church that harms nobody, and wants only that its members sleep as much as they can, because God is asleep and we are made in His image so plump up your pillows, kids. That sounds like a nice church to me. Possibly I was going to write something about how Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is a great book but I don’t see my novel in progress being influenced much by it, and that surprises me. The section I just wrote reminds me of Dubliners-era Joyce, truth to tell. So I don’t know. It’s a long way until revisions and my job right now is to just keep the narrative moving forward, keep the three or four timelines going in overlapping segments, and eventually get to the scene hinted at in the opening paragraph of the book. I also need to sit down soon and type all of this into the Word™ document before I do something stupid like lose the notebook I’ve written all these words into. There is no way I could reconstruct this novel from memory.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

nonstop subjectivity

Earlier this week (or late last week; I forget when precisely) Terry Teachout said, and I paraphrase, "Tragedy is a drag, man. Comedy is hella better." And then he wrote a thousand more words that reveal the hidden truth: what Teachout really meant was, "I'm getting older and because tragedy points out that I'm going to die--because for all the points of the compass, there is in the end only one direction, etc--I prefer the comic perspective to life because I can still think about serious stuff but I don't have to consider the one absolute fact of my own death. You should, too." Or something like that. He attempted to illustrate his point with Shakespeare's plays, claiming that "Twelth Night" is superior to "Lear." At that point, I had to wonder about Teachout's mental state. Shakespeare never wrote a comedy that is more revealing and honest in portrayal of the existential problems than any of his tragedies are. I'm not sure about the construction of that last sentence but I move on. Besides, this is not a post about Terry Teachout hiding from his own mortality. This isn't a post about Terry Teachout at all. Forget I said any of this.

I just wanted to quickly rap out a list of the sorts of ideas that are going through my head these days in re the creation of new works of fiction. None of this adds up to anything in particular, because there is nothing towards which these ideas point except the unknown, which is just as it should be, right? Praivilnu.

In the introduction to the edition of Woolf's To The Lighthouse that I'm reading, Eudora Welty points out how the entire world of Woolf's novel is subjective. There are a million little details of scene and setting, and each of these details is presented through the point of view of a character. The narrator doesn't point out the scissors, the cups and saucers, the visitor's hateful necktie; the characters see them and we know these details through the effect they have on the characters, which means that through these details we know the characters. I am thinking that this way of describing the world--entirely through the characters even in a third-person narrative--is a powerful tool so I might play with that. Certainly the way Woolf's narratives close the distance between the reader and the characters is a good idea if that's what you want to do as a writer.

Teachout (remember him?) did make me think a bit more about comedy versus tragedy, but only to stiffen my resolve about it. I'd already been thinking a lot of late about the old saw where comedy is tragedy after all, and that what makes comedy comic is tone, not subject matter. "And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I shall not weep," as Byron said unless that's just another of my paraphrases but it feels right and me, I don't Google to check my quotes. But I digress, you observe correctly. The point is, maybe, that writers who came well before me with names like Beckett, Chekhov, Burgess, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare have already seen that life is a tragic comedy, a comic tragedy, that there's no difference, that there's no either/or at all. The comedy is how we attempt to ignore the tragedy. The tragedy is how we attempt to cling to the comedy. And other, more complex and insightful comments I don't pause to make. All of Shakespeare's tragedies include brilliant comic moments, which serve a greater dramatic function than merely lightening the mood, especially just before the bloodbaths in the fifth acts. And all of Shakespeare's comedies include death and violence and cruelty and not just because the Elizabethans liked to laugh at people in pain or under humiliation. Anyway, I am considering the uses of comedy in explorations of the existential questions.

It's also interesting to note that the more I bend my immense powers of concentration upon the creation of a realistic world within my fictions, the more I am struck by the absolute artifice of the whole project, which means, at least in part, that some of my attempts to get at the truth of experience (or whatever you want to call it) lead me to write passages that are far from "realist" narrative. The more I pursue feel, the less I am able to employ fact, which is an interesting thing. See also: the entire Modernist movement. I'm always hot on the heels of movements that have already begun to gather dust. Anyway, I observe that my narratives are becoming more and less real at the same time, and so Welty's comments about the nonstop subjectivity of Woolf's novel was a welcome sight.

The idea that all of our experiences are entirely subjective strikes me as pretty much true, despite my empiricist bent. It also means that the only proper response to things like Reality Hunger is, of course, mockery. A novelist who can't see the point of fiction, Mr Shields, is not someone who's stumbled onto a new truth about fiction. He is merely a failed novelist. I seem to be cranky.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tuesday night view from the bleachers

If you can make it to the game, why aren't you at the game?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Final thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

Well, that was pretty great. I have no idea why I stopped reading this novel halfway through 20+ years ago. It is also surprisingly timely in its themes, I discovered. Or perhaps "timely" is not the right word. Possibly what I really mean is timeless, which is the mark of great literature. The Brothers Karamazov is great literature.

Dostoyevsky was a prideful nationalist, a lover of Mother Russia who despised and mistrusted Western Europe, America, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, revolutionaries, republicans and just about anything that wasn't the Russia in which he grew up. He was however clear-eyed enough to see that the Russia he loved was a madhouse, that the typical Russian soul was a soul of opposing extremes: loving and hating, selfish and charitable, crude and cultured, looking forward with hope and backwards with despair while looking forward with despair and backwards with nostalgia. All of it, all at once. What Dostoyevsky's nationalism blinded him to is that his extreme souls are not confined to Russia; they're everywhere; they're all of us. Or many of us. The Brothers Karamazov was, I think, meant to be Dostoyevsky's grand commentary on the state of the Russian people in 1880, a warning to his beloved nation that it was in danger of losing its moral compass, or perhaps that it had lost its moral compass and had best find it again, and a promise or a hope that this was possible. A remarkable book, this. Truly great literature.

The reference to Crime and Punishment in the defense attorney's summation was unexpected and made me laugh, too. I like things like that, you know.