Wednesday, May 30, 2012

clocks and static electricity

I’m making better progress with Chapter 13 of the new book than I thought I was. It just occurred to me that I’m halfway through the chapter. At this rate I may finish it and the next chapter before the end of June. That would be nice for me. I think—though my memory is admittedly awful about this sort of thing—that the last quarter of all of my books have been written fairly quickly. I hope so; I’m looking forward to taking a break when this draft is done.

The writing worried me for the first couple of pages in this chapter. They seemed to contain a lot of internal monologuing and I’ve gone over them several times to (as the note I wrote to myself across the first page says) ground the action in the physical world. (I also wrote “more verbs!” and “too static” when I thought it was sounding a bit D.H. Lawrence.) In a novel that’s driven by exploration of character rather than working out of plot, it’s easy (for me at least) to produce page after page of interior landscape that stops all forward motion of the narrative and begins to read like someone’s diary. That sort of writing works if you’re Beckett or Proust, but it doesn’t work for me, so I’ve tried to come at all of the internal movement via external action. Which is a rudimentary technique, but I’m not preaching “show, don’t tell” here. I'm not doing that awful stuff where the character is angry but rather than writing "Jimmy was angry" I'm writing "Jimmy threw his cup to the ground and stomped off" or whatfuckingever bad writing one would attempt there. No, what I'm doing is allowing the inner life of the characters to go on how it will, but I'm making sure that the character is taking up physical space somewhere, performing some activity (even if it's slight) while the inner life gallops forward.

A week or so ago I was talking about character-driven novels with a writer who’s also working on a first draft. We discussed how it’s easier to write from a plot, because it’s usually pretty clear what’s happening and why and what should come next. When writing from character, you have to come up with dramatic action that illustrates the evolving character arc, and the actions don’t have to form any continuous chain of events from one end of the book to the other. It's never clear what the characters ought to do next in the physical world, and in a lot of ways it doesn't actually matter. That makes for slow going in the drafting because what goes on the next page is generally never obvious. Although at the same time, you need the bones of a story to prop up all of the character evolution. It’s some tricky. My next book will be a potboiler and therefore easier to hammer out. Just you wait, Higgins.

None of this was what I was going to write about. I don’t remember what I was going to write about. Making good progress, I suppose. Grounding the narrative. Passage of time, the weight of objects, the taste of sunlight, I don’t know what all. I do think I’m writing some lovely prose just now, and the book is beginning to make sense to me again. That’s probably a good thing. I was frightened there for a couple of chapters.

Also, I found this line in my pal Michelle Davidson Argyle’s novel The Breakaway:

She focused on the second hand ticking its way around, around, around.

That’s just perfect. There’s also a Seamus Heaney reference on page 2 or so that made me smile.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

on reading Lydia Davis' Collected Stories

Violet liked perfume and David gave her a bottle every year. Anniversaries were easy.


There was a bird calling somewhere to my left, piping away at a snatch of lonely repetitive melody. I listened to the bird and began to make an inventory of Captain Medhi’s physical attributes: his height, his narrow waist, his long fingers, his white teeth, his beard like a bear rug. I remembered uncomfortably that I'd made the same sort of list about Richard the night of our first date.


He smelled her breath, sweet with hard candy and soda pop. Her lips were pressed against his ear and she whispered to him in a slow Southern drawl, a voice of honey and vinegar.

or even

I'd bought the holy card at my parish office and felt like a criminal, smuggling it across town to my minuscule work space at the university, hiding the card between the monitor and the wall where only I'd be able to see it. It wasn’t even a pretty card. The saint looked like an emaciated Lawrence of Arabia, holding up a tiny angular red cathedral in her right hand. On the back of the card was a quote from John Henry Newman: God knows what is my greatest happiness, but I do not. I didn’t think much of the quote, or the idea that God was going to dispense happiness like Santa Claus handing out gifts. Cardinal Newman had probably been a difficult man to like.

None of the above is a Lydia Davis short story, but any of them might be one. There's the persistent first person point of view, either singular or plural, the lack of context, the lack of resolution, as if Davis had cut random passages from a novel and set them off as self-contained entities. That's all I've done here. Sometimes Davis' snippets are entertaining, and if I read one after another there's a sort of cumulative effect. Sometimes they are less entertaining, and I get the feeling that Davis is just playing, just fucking around with voice and the idea of an image and that there is nothing else at all going on.

I've been reading her Collected Stories for over a year now, taking them about 20-30 at a stretch to fill in the gaps when I'm between books. Right now I'm between books and I would like to finish off the Davis collection before I pick up anything else. I don't really know what to say about Lydia Davis and her writing. Some of the longer pieces seem like stories, in that something happens and there's a feeling of movement. Most of them seem like ideas that would be good if put into a story, but they aren't ideas that would look particularly strong if surrounded by pages of prose that form a unified narrative. Which is not a compliment. There are interesting things going on in Lydia Davis' work, but she doesn't write stories and I'm not sure I see the point of it. I am tempted to say that one could assemble as good a collection from the works of Tolstoy by picking random pages, sentences or paragraphs. Or from the works of Shakespeare or Nabokov; that might be better, and worth doing.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

he’d have to go easy on the drugs

Last Thursday I finished drafting chapter twelve of the work-in-progress, and yesterday I managed to type it all up into the Word(tm) document. The novel is sitting at a bit under 61,000 words now. I have four chapters/20,000 words left to go in this first draft and then, Allah be praised, I can rest. As I told Mighty Reader yesterday, I believe that the story is now properly pointed in the direction of the ending, that all of the architecture is in place to support the climactic scenes, that all of the foreshadows have been cast and I can now just get on with it and hammer out the final quarter of the story. Hopefully it won't take four months. (That's a little joke I have with myself; of course it will take four months.)

I repeat that I have no idea if this book will be worth reading, will have been worth the time spent on it, won't be absolutely inane. All kinds of themes have pushed their way past my good intentions, tangling themselves up with the ideas I originally had. The author has no idea at all what he's really doing, but he continues to do it. Today at lunch, he hopes to craft an outline for Chapter 13. We'll see if that happens. I have no idea why I just referred to myself in the third person. Possibly my mind is coming apart at the seams. I don't discount the possibility.

Go Home, Miss America is my Ulysses novel, I think. There are long swaths of stream-of-consciousness writing, and the voice and narrative techniques change as the book progresses. Hopefully a reader won't find that irritating and I swear that I didn't do it just to be clever. It happened despite me, honest. I will say that all of my novels seem to become more complex, both in terms of form and voice, as they go along. The last third is where I find myself losing all considerations of reading ease and the narratives thicken, or something, and I'm never sure if that's a particularly good idea. But it's what I seem to do. Which is interesting in a way and possibly irritating in other ways. I am rambling now.

My next project is the long-anticipated (by some) historical novel, The Builder's Wife (better title hopefully to come). It will be straightforward, comic, and much easier to write, I hope. A lot of research will be required. I will find that calming.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chekhov and Gin

This is another self-involved post about drafting my work-in-progress, a novel called Go Home, Miss America. I’m about 75% of the way through the narrative. In a traditional three-act structure, it would be time for the protagonist’s low point, his “dark night of the soul,” followed by the necessary resolution of his inner conflict that makes possible the climax, the resolution of primary external conflict of the plot. And all of that stuff. But I’m not working with a traditional three-act structure; I’m working with ideas of actions and consequences and the shape of the narrative is determined more by the intersection of two competing linear story lines, each with its own internal structure. But none of that is important to anyone but the author. Although the idea of narrative shape is possibly important here. We’ll see. I won’t know what I’m trying to say until I’ve said it.

Go Home, Miss America, as I say, does not have a traditional structure. I almost feel as if I’m writing a couple of overlapping biographies rather than a novel. I’ve made lists of events, actions and reactions of the main characters and the people around them, and I’m recounting them and playing them off each other. In previous books I’ve been careful to write in well-defined scenes, structured narrative units with a beginning, development and ending that clearly advance plot, theme and character. The three-act structure had become a habit and it was easy to build a narrative of nested three-part elements. That sort of writing started to dissolve when I wrote The Last Guest, and has gone entirely by the wayside for this new book. I’m working with the chapter, rather than the scene, as the basic building block of the story.

What that means for me is that I have to imagine the narrative as composed of larger units, and I have to know what the structural purpose of those larger units is. A scene is easy to figure out, easy to define, easy to write. A chapter is a pretty arbitrary unit. For me, with this book, it means a chunk of 5,000 words centered around either David Molloy’s character or Catherine Lark’s character. The dramatic purpose of a chapter is the change the relationship of the character to his/her life, which is a relatively opaque way of saying that the character makes some sort of decision that will increase the amount of conflict in the story, by either complicating an existing tension or adding a new tension. None of these large structural definitions tells me what to write in each chapter, or how to write the chapters. I have to figure that out as I go along, chapter-by-chapter. As I say, I won’t know what I’m trying to say until I’ve said it.

As an example, when I sat down to write Chapter 12 I made a list of events I wanted the chapter to include:

1. St Catherine of Siena
2. Catherine Lark at the office
3. Dr Weissman scene
4. Violet Molloy visits
5. Dinner with Toby Robertson
6. St Catherine of Siena, redux

That’s my idea of an outline. Usually I’ll pad it out to a page or so with bits of dialogue and images I want to include, but the above is not really a list of scenes and this chapter certainly has no rising action, climax and resolution. Like all the other chapters in the book, there is a sort of incremental change and increase in overall tension, interrupted by moments of comedy.

I had no idea how to introduce Catherine at her new job, which she started during the break between the previous chapter and this one, so I took a cue from Laurence Sterne and “began some distance from my target and worked my way towards it.” The chapter starts off with a discussion of the change of season in Seattle, from spring to summer as it relates to what plants are in flower as the year progresses. Here in the early summer, California lilacs bloom and drop loads of rich blue petals all over the sidewalks, very pretty. So I put in the fallen blue lilac petals, which allowed me to have Catherine walk through a carpet of them on her way up the steps to her new office. She makes a cup of tea and thinks about the book she’s reading, a biography of Saint Catherine of Siena, after whom she was named. She sits down to work (a lot of data entry), has a brief chat with the assistant dean and here we get Catherine’s impressions of David Molly, the leading male character and also Catherine's new boss. Violet Molloy (wife of David Molloy) drops by the office. We get Violet’s impressions of Catherine, and then we get Catherine’s impressions of Violet. After work, Catherine goes out to dinner with her new beau Toby. We learn some about how their relationship is developing, and then we have Catherine alone, going to evening Mass and standing at the shrine of her namesake saint, considering the existential questions. And that’s the chapter. A woman goes to work, has a few conversations, goes to dinner and then goes to church. I’m trying to make the whole thing as seamless as I can, with each encounter leading into the next, building the sense of disquiet. I can’t say if this is a series of scenes. Hopefully there’s continuity from event to event, and hopefully it’s clear how each event comments on/adds to the story in progress.

The going is slow, writing this way. I can’t lean on the old scene structure of setup-build-climax-resolve for the actions of the story. What I find is that the writing is more like trying to steer a wide-ranging conversation into a particular direction for a few minutes, then steering it toward a new topic for a few minutes, then a new topic again after that. So the unfolding seems slow, but I don’t think it actually reads that way. I think it reads fine; the difficulty in traveling from one idea to the next is all mine, all in this writing stage. Surely the reader won’t have to labor the way I’ve been doing. So I tell myself.

I had hoped to write two chapters this month, but once again it looks like I’ll be lucky to scribble out Chapter 12 by the end of May. It really begins to look like I won’t have a finished first draft until late September. In October, I swear, I ain’t writing nothing for nobody. I'm going to read Chekhov stories and drink a lot of gin.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Hadji Murad: Lessons from Tolstoy

While I don't share Harold Bloom's devotion to Leo Tolstoy's novella Hadji Murad, I think it's got some good lessons for writers of long-form fiction, so I'm going to (briefly) mention a couple of those lessons while the book is still relatively fresh in my mind.

First, let's get the weaknesses of the piece out of the way:

1. The metaphorical device of comparing the Hadji Murad character to a thistle, stubborn and clinging to life, is both obvious and weak. Also, bald statements of theme tend to weaken the impact of the narrative and I wish Tolstoy hadn't done this. It's like that opening sentence of Anna Karenina: it would've worked fine if he'd removed it from the first chapter and stuck it in about 2/3 of the way through the novel. It's a clever enough (though, frankly, untrue) sentiment, but it's also the author tipping his hand a bit too much and you don't do that, not to introduce your reader to the story. Or at least not as a narrator. Put the words into a character's mouth the way Austen did on the first page of Pride and Prejudice. Maybe these devices of Tolstoy's only seem obvious because we're all so familiar with them, and they were fresh in Tolstoy's day. I'll give him benefit of that doubt, but I tell you, authors of the present day, you can't get away with that sort of hamfisted telegraphing of your punches if you're writing now. Unless you're writing for unsophisticated readers, in which case my advice is: don't.

2. When the emotional distance decreases during the Tsar Nicholas chapter (which is the best chapter in the book, and more on that in a minute), it becomes clear that the surrounding chapters (which is to say, the majority of the book) are a little dry and distant and unfelt. After the Nicholas chapter, when the narrative picks up with Hadji Murad again, I was far less excited to keep reading than I had been. This is a weakness in technique, and it's a good lesson though doubtless not a deliberate one from Count Tolstoy. I got the impression that Tolstoy had written the whole story as an excuse to put this one chapter down on paper, and he felt far less passion for the subject of war: what is it good for than he felt for the subject of Tsar Nicholas: what a royal pain.

So those are the weaknesses, and as I say there's something to be learned from each of them but I come here not to bury the Count, but to praise him. So let's look at the good stuff in Hadji Murad:

1. The prose is marvelous. Any clunky language in the edition I read, I blame on the translator. Which is maybe a cop-out; I haven't yet resolved the problems of reading books in translation. Has anyone? No, I didn't think so. Where was I? Oh, the prose is marvelous. Tolstoy, at the end of his career (and not long before the end of his life) was in full command of his pen. That opening image of the metaphorical thistle? It's miraculous, as you can see from the following excerpt.

It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers -- red, white, and pink scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plaintains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly. I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call "Tartar" and carefully avoid when mowing -- or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the center of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side -- even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand -- but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibers one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to a coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place.

Nicely done, Count. That final sentence is the central metaphor of the book.

2. The formal structure is well-balanced and keeps the story moving. Hadji Murad is a novella made up of 17 short chapters. The central action is pretty simple: Chechen warrior Hadji Murad defects to fight for the Russians because the new Chechen imam, Shamil, is Hadji Murad's sworn enemy and has taken his family hostage. Hadji Murad is a famous guerrilla and the Russians are happy to have him but don't trust him, of course. Hadji Murad wants the Russians to assist him in freeing his family from Shamil and then he expects them to make him governor of Chechnya and he will do his best to repress any rebellions. The Russians are slow to do anything and Hadji Murad loses patience with them, riding off with his four henchmen to raid Shamil's home. The Russians pursue, thinking that they've been betrayed, and Hadji Murad is killed in a fire fight.

That's a pretty slim plot. Tolstoy buffs up the narrative with vignettes of various Russian military actions that point out the violence, absurdity and general pointlessness of war. There aren't subplots so much as there are interludes, but these interludes have a cumulative effect of reinforcing the themes and marvelously sideshadow the narrative to point off into many directions, letting us see how the story of a single individual (be it the famous Hadji Murad or an unknown Russian soldier) is tied to and often controlled by large-scale events in world history. Tolstoy also manages to show how large-scale events in world history can be tied to and controlled by petty acts done by thoughtless and powerful men. So the complexity of action and theme is kept pretty high in this short book because Tolstoy doesn't try to complicate the basic plot to pad for length; instead he expands sideways and brings in ideas to shed light on the basic plot.

3. The ending does something I always enjoy seeing in a novel: Tolstoy splits the narrative and the plot. What I mean by that is that Hadji Murad is told in chronological order, one event following the next in time, until the final two chapters. Chapter 16 tells us that Hadji Murad has been killed, and we see the reaction to this news among Russian officers. Chapter 17 loops back in time and shows us Hadji Murad's "escape," pursuit and death. So Tolstoy is able, with this looping structure, to make the death of the protagonist the final scene in the book while still showing us events after that final scene. I'm a fan of this looping narrative structure and I use it myself.

My only problem with the ending is the one I mentioned earlier: Tolstoy sums up and gives us a clear statement of theme. My problem with a theme statement is that not only does it hedge an author's bet ("On the off chance you didn't get it, here's what the book's about"), it's lazy (because if you hand the naked theme to the reader, you don't have to work as hard with your metaphorical language in the narrative), and it narrows the possible meanings to be found within the text. I think good literature has more to say than the authors realize, because a lot of art is created instinctively rather than rationally, even a work of text. So Tolstoy's offer of an interpretation makes the book less than it might be. Worse, he writes past a great closing line. The penultimate sentence is:

The nightingales, which were silent while the shooting lasted, again burst into song, first one near by, then others in the distance.

That's a beautiful image, and would've been a perfect ending for the narrative. But Tolstoy clumsily blunders on:

This was the death that was brought to my mind by the crushed thistle in the ploughed field.

Thanks, Leo, but we'd already figured that out on our own.

Hadji Murad is a complex little gem, and though imperfect it's still well worth reading and studying. There's more to say but vita brevis and all of that, and who am I to be dissecting Tolstoy, anyway?

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Rooshans

Last night I read the long chapter on Tsar Nicholas from Tolstoy's Hadji Murad. This chapter is worth the price of the book. It was excellent in all the right ways: witty, believable, insightful and gorgeously-written. This is the first chapter I've encountered that was truly great, that lives up to the hype. Most of the book--which is good, but not great--reads like nonfiction, like dramatized history, but the Nicholas chapter burns hot with passion and energy. I laughed out loud and made Mighty Reader listen to a few delicious passages. Clearly Tolstoy really felt something about the tsar, and that feeling comes across on the page. Which I think is a good lesson about the craft of prose fiction: that no matter how engaging your characters and your story, the narrative is going to be flat unless the author connects with the materials on an emotional level. Tolstoy is undeniably invested in his larger themes of imperialism and hypocrisy and the ugliness of warfare, but it's an intellectual engagement. When he writes about Nicholas, though, you know he's pissed off, and he grinds his axes gleefully, turning His Imperial Majesty into a sort of fat, lecherous circus clown whose capricious nature and willful ignorance are feared by all in his immense shadow. Great stuff. Again: the material will not carry itself if the author doesn't care deeply. YMMV, but that's my opinion, at least of this book.

Speaking of books, and Russians, I have sworn to take a break from reading but I keep buying books anyway. How can I help myself when there's a fine used book store in my neighborhood? Yesterday I found this little gem:

It's a tiny little volume, much smaller than you'd think from this image, with gold leaf on the spine and an embossed cloth cover in green. It's pocket-sized but possibly a bit too fragile to actually carry around in my jacket.

I also picked up a Russian-language edition of Nabokov's Lolita, which I plan to read next year. Mozhete vsegda polozhitsya na ubiyitsu v otnosheniyi prozi. The translator's name is nowhere on the book (a 1992 edition from the Soviet Union) and I am assuming it was Nabokov but who knows?

There was also, somehow, finding its way into my shopping bag, a leather-bound copy of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. West is one of those 20th-century guys I've circled around but never actually read. The edition I have is from the Franklin Library. It's in fine condition and I doubt it's ever been read.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I hope Japan's not like that in real life

Violet took David’s hand and held it hard. It’s Friday night. It’s the weekend, Dave. Why don’t you relax and spend some time with your family?

Okay. David settled back into the sofa. When he and Violet were first dating, Friday nights had been spent out on the town, with people their own age. Sometimes they’d gone dancing. Violet had been a good dancer in her day. She’d looked good in a tight party dress. David thought he’d held his own, too. Maybe he was no dancer, but he’d caught the eye of plenty of sweet things in the bars. By the time Violet had agreed to marry him, she’d stopped dancing and had settled them into a more sedentary routine. They’d go out on Fridays but now it was to dinner, maybe to a movie, maybe with another couple. Certainly life had slowed down. Ten years on it was almost motionless, David thought. Look at us, a couple of fat asses on a couch, watching a stupid kid’s movie about some fucking talking furry pillows and their little human friends. When did this become my life? What’ll it be in another ten years, when Penny’s off at college? Me and Violet with TV dinners watching game shows? Fuckmotherfuck.

David squeezed Violet’s hand. Violet squeezed back and leaned against him. On the television, the animated Japanese sisters were running through the night in a rainstorm. David had no idea why Penny laughed at this. Violet smiled. David wondered if Violet was happy. He never asked her if she thought about who they used to be and how much distance they’d put between themselves and youth. David had been a handsome man. Violet had been pretty. They could pretend not to notice each other’s expanding bodies, wrinkled faces and thinning hair, but it was still there and they both knew it. What did Violet see when she looked at him? Did she miss the young man she’d met in college? Sometimes David missed the Violet who used to go dancing. Sometimes he mourned her as one who’d died. Sometimes he mourned himself, too. Christ.

Are you okay, Dave?

What? Why?

You just sighed.

I’m tired, that’s all. Long week.

Maybe we’ll sleep in tomorrow.

Shh, Penny said. Here comes the best part.

The best part of the movie was a noisy confusion of colors and more furry talking Japanese pillow animals and shrieking little girls and Penny shrieked along with them and Violet sat forward and laughed and shook her hair when the king of the talking animals shook his thick mane and then there was a song about sunshine and friendship and the movie ended. What the fuck, David thought. I hope Japan’s not like that in real life.

From Chapter 11 of the work-in-progress. A bit rough, I know.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

resenting all those unread books

I’ve decided to lay off reading fiction for the time being. It’s been quite nice lately, book after book without a break and I don’t know when I’ve last had the luxury of letting myself read this much. Alas, all this reading is interfering with the writing I’m supposed to be doing. I realized yesterday that I’m no longer able to concentrate on either the book I’m reading or the book I’m writing. I’ve been carrying around Tolstoy’s slim novella Hadji Murad for about a week now, and I find that I’m just sort of poking at it, not giving it any real attention at all. Which is a shame, because I think it’s a fine book but it should probably be read in one or two sittings (it’s certainly short enough for that) rather than a few pages here or there. It’s just that I’m distracted by the book I’m writing.

And the book I’m writing isn’t getting the attention it needs, either, because I’m distracted by the books I’m reading. The end result is that I’m being a crappy reader and probably a crappy writer as well. Why am I only able to scribble out a chapter a month? Because I’m reading a lot of novels and I only give the book I’m writing my full attention a few days toward the end of the month. So I’m going to focus on the work and not read any fiction for a while. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish the rough draft of Go Home, Miss America in two months rather than, say, five. And hopefully I’ll be writing better stuff if that’s the one story about which I’m thinking all the time. This is the first novel I’ve tried to write while keeping up an aggressive reading schedule, and sadly it’s just not working, at least not for the writing part of my life.

Part of my reluctance to stop reading even for a few months is my constant fear that I haven’t read enough of the great books of literature to even consider writing something on my own. There are of course more “great books” I want to read than I’ll ever have time for even if I live as long as Methuselah, so the thing to do is just get on with the writing and not wait until I’ve experienced the whole of the Western canon. It’s just, you know, that there’s so much really good stuff out there that I’ve never read, and I know that my own writing would be better if it were informed by/exposed to all of that stuff. But that way lies madness and not much in the way of prose writing. So I’ll stumble along as best as I can, resenting all those unread books and the shortness of life.

But hopefully I’ll crank out the draft before the end of summer and then I can dive back into more reading reading reading while I let the novel stew. I also have to remember that I’ll need time for the editorial process on The Astrologer, and I also want to make revisions to two other novels this year. I shouldn’t forget that I’m planning a series of essays for my publisher about astronomy and astrology, too, and maybe something about the relevance of Shakespeare to modern literature, if I’m cocky enough to write that one. Really, who has time to read with all this writing to do?

Sorry for a very dull "life of the writer" post. It's all I've got. Maybe tomorrow I'll write about violin playing again. We saw a fine concert last Friday and, while I didn't like some of the soloist's stage and performance mannerisms, it was ever so inspiring and now all I want to play is gypsy music. The thing about gypsy music, though, is that it's really very technically difficult. But all that portamento is cool.

Friday, May 4, 2012

On The Death of Lear, King of Britain

The last pages of King Lear are amazing. Amid the usual and necessary tying-up-of-plot-threads and suddenly soaring body count, Shakespeare gives Lear a moving final scene. The old man's brief speeches before his death contain some of the best lines to come from Bill's pen:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth.


Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.


And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!


Before Cordelia's murder, Lear was telling her about how peaceful it would be to spend the rest of their days together in prison; they'd be mere observers of the foul politics of life, and watch safely as tyrants fought and died. The irony of course is that Lear's petulant fit of anger at Cordelia (in Act 1, Scene 1) has brought all of this about. Alas, poor fools. Poor all of us. Howl, howl, howl, howl! Thou'lt come no more.

Lear only becomes a sympathetic character when he is broken down by betrayals, madness and captivity. He begins the play--and we are told that he has always been thus--as a prideful, arrogant man for whom love is a form of commerce, a system of obligation with his love being the prize purchased by others. He holds the showings of worship more important than actual love and rewards them accordingly; his pride is pricked by Cordelia's honest, open-eyed form of love (as opposed to worship) and he strips her of inheritance and his affection. His other daughters, Goneril and Regan, have no patience for him. Once Lear's passed to them his property and his royal power, he is of no use to his daughters and they treat him like an old interfering fool because there was never any love between them, only shows of worship and commerce. But we all know that premise. Lear is an ass, and once he is no longer the monarch, people feel free to abuse him as an ass.

Then Shakespeare transforms the ass into an angel, and when, in that last scene with Cordelia before her death, Lear promises her a future of safe comfort with him in prison, we mark his sweetness and genuine reciprocal love for the only daughter who ever loved him. He's learned his lesson, I guess.

Cordelia is a prop, and her death fails to move us except in that it moves Lear, back into madness and tears, and then into death from a broken heart. And that's tragedy for you: Lear learns his lesson, but too late, too late. Had Shakespeare not shown us Lear's epiphany, his death would not be tragic; every eye in the house would be dry when the old king falls to the stage, still clutching his daughter's corpse. I don't know what that says about Shakespeare, or about us. It is difficult to pity the pitiless, and Lear only by slow turns takes his attention from the slights done to his pride and begins to see that others might have it worse in this life.

You'll notice the same character arc in Gloucester's story. One of Shakespeare's formal strengths was his use of parallel plots. The blinding of Gloucester was a clever move on Shakespeare's part; Lear is also blind, though his eyes can see. Don't forget to compare and contrast Gloucester's fictional fall over the Dover cliffs with Lear's fall from power; in each case you'll notice in passing that a devoted follower (in disguise because he's been wrongly exiled) comforts the fallen man. It was also clever to have the children of Lear all women, while Gloucester has two sons. We're not allowed to pin betrayal and selfishness on the sex of the betrayer. King Lear is a complex little work, but I've thought enough about it for now.

Next up: Hadji Murad from our friend Lev Tolstoy.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Compost Cupcake, $3.75

Some ideas are better left untried. Cupcake Royale's "Compost cupcake," at left, is maybe one of those ideas. Mighty Reader declares it "interesting," which is of course damnation with faint praise. My own verdict might be "weird." Which lacks even faint praise. Oh for the old days when I could reliably find an Orange You Glad in Cupcake Royale's display case.

But before this turns into an episode of What's Davin Eating, I should move away from the subject of cupcakes and announce quite clearly that what I'm really thinking about is how I have more ideas for novels than I will ever have time to write.

That might sound like a good thing, no shortage of ideas. Someone who wants to be a novelist ought to be glad of it. I remember when I finished my very first (very bad) novel back in 1994 or whenever it was, I cast about for an idea for a second novel and came up empty-handed. A couple of lame ideas got pushed around for a few years but in the end, it took me until 2006 to find an idea that I could turn into a whole book (and that idea was stumbled upon rather than sought out). With each successive novel I've felt a huge relief just at coming up with an idea that would support a novel-length piece of fiction, and a dreadful dread that it was the last good idea I'd ever have.

Lately, however, I seem to be swimming in premises and characters and formal ideas. I've got something like six novels all clamoring to be written right now, while I'm in the weeds with Go Home, Miss America. It's starting to worry me, frankly.

Part of it is that I am torn between books that look like a lot of fun to write, that might be relatively easy, all things considered, and books that look like they'd be serious and worthy books. There are also books that are built around formal ideas I'd like to explore, where I'm not really all that concerned with theme or other literary values except of course marvelous prose. There must be marvelous prose whatever I do. Or, rather, a gesture in the direction of an attempt to write marvelous prose.

Anyway, the ideas I have right now are these:

The Factory: set in 1910 outside of Baltimore. A comic horror novel about a suspicious character who builds a munitions factory at the site of an abandoned mine (accessible only by his private railway, no less); meanwhile homeless people are disappearing from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore. The factory's new accountant and Baltimore's saucy lady reporter will get to the bottom of it all, or be driven mad and consumed by some eldrich horror in the attempt!

The Builder's Wife: set in Esterhaza, Hungary in 1790. Brilliant and famous composer Franz Josef Haydn is set to retire from royal service. Before he goes, he dreams of seducing his buxom cello student, who happens to be wife of Prince Esterhazy's master builder. The builder's wife has no interest in the aging Haydn, and is in fact having an affair with the second-chair first violinist of Haydn's orchestra. The violinist has recently broken off his dalliance with the wife of the principle violinist, a hot-tempered Italian soprano. When the second-chair first violinist runs off to Vienna with the builder's wife, the pair are pursued by the builder, the Italian soprano, the first violinist, and Josef Haydn. Some of them have murder on their minds. Comic action and pathos ensue! Walk-on parts for famous historical figures!

Nowhere But North: in 1915 a businessman from Manhattan raises funds, purchases a boat, hires a crew of adventurers and sets sail for Antarctica to bring America into the age of exploration and, ostensibly, to advertise his own firm's goods and services. The businessman's head clerk is, at the last minute, coerced into joining the expedition, which goes wrong wrong wrong and the crew find themselves locked into polar ice with diminishing supplies and a psychopath among their number. The narrative is told in reverse chronological order, thrice, with interruptions. The middle section is told in the voice of the expedition ship! Love, honor, adventure, betrayal, madness and penguins! Mighty Reader lobbies hard for me to write this one next.

Mona in the Desert: Arizona, 1959. Ramona has traveled to a small town north of Phoenix to meet the mother of her fiance, Robert. Ramona isn't sure she wants to marry into Robert's family. Robert's mother takes an instant dislike to Ramona. Ramona can see into the future, or maybe it's only a dream of a possible future, and she's not sure she likes what she sees. She thinks that maybe she'd like to go off and be a free spirit instead of a wife and mother. This is planned as a novella. There is very little in the way of plot.

There Once Was A Man From Nantucket: this idea totally rocks. It's another novella, retelling Melville's Moby-Dick in the form of Ahab's diary entries. His story is not what you read in Ishmael's account. Thick prose, Biblical references, madness and madness and more madness. Plus a whale. I love this one and I hope I write it. "Starbuck is not to be trusted."

A Field Guide to Melancholy: various European locations in 1962. An aging violin virtuoso is making his final concert tour, playing with the finest orchestras in Europe. He is meanwhile composing his memoirs, written in the form of a field guide to the great symphonic halls. His life story appears in flashbacks, and there's of course a love story in there. His present story revolves around the loss of his virtuoso instrumental technique, the loss of his memory (and if our life, our self, is primarily our mind, to lose one's memory is to bit by bit lose our life, yes?), etc. Comic interludes, too. Who am I? What am I? Where am I? The basic existential questions. Based exceedingly vaguely on lies I've told over the years about the great Henryk Szeryng.

There are a few other ideas as well, but my time and your patience are limited. Anyway, I'm not putting things up to a vote, and I'll write whatever calls to me most loudly at the appropriate time. Possibly a brand new idea will force itself upon me while I'm preparing to write one of these. That's happened twice already. I was going to write The Builder's Wife but the detective novel stepped in the way. Then I was going to write Nowhere But North when Go Home, Miss America shoved its way to the front of the queue. So who knows? There's also the as-yet-unworkingtitled fantasy novel (I toy with the title The Voice of the Earth but I'm not in love with it) that takes place 50,000 years or so ago (I'll have to look that up) in the Tigris valley, I think. Magic, oppression, rape, murder, sacrifice and all the usual stuff.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Here are some unconnected items, just because.

1) The view from our lunch spot on Saturday afternoon:

2) Henry James' novel Washington Square is a perfect book. Possibly that perfection is only possible because it's so short, but still. Perfect.

3) Despite my conviction that the book I am currently writing is of absolutely no worth whatsoever and that I am making a total hash of the second half of the narrative, I continue to plow forward through this first draft with the hope that my original impulse to write this damned thing was founded on an actual good idea. In other words: despair held at arm's length, right on schedule. I hope to be finished with this draft in another five months. But hey, what about the wordcount? It's right around 55,000 now. Another 25,000 or so to go. And then revisions.

4) I'm doing some editing on The Astrologer. I think it'll be a good book, for a metaphorical adventure novel. I'm also having a look at The Last Guest and I think that'll be a good book, too, for a philosophical detective novel. I recently read through Cocke & Bull and, with a bit of work here and there, it will also be a good book, for a misadventure story wrapped around a tragic love triangle.

5) King Lear is an interesting play if you consider that both Lear and Cordelia are the protagonists. Well, it's interesting no matter how you consider it.

6) Do I read Hadji Murad or The Emigrants when I finish Lear?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Breakaway Breaks Away!

Happy pub day to my friend Michelle Davidson-Argyle, whose YA thriller The Breakaway is officially published today! Michelle has written a bunch of books (The Breakaway is her second novel from Rhemalda Publishing and this November the omnibus edition of her three novellas will be released under the title Bonded) and she's a terrifically lovely human being and we all love her very much so congrats, Michelle, and I hope the book sells by the truckload.