Monday, September 27, 2010

Recommended Reading

My essay,"8 Questions You Would Ask Me If I Told You My Name" is in the current issue of Creative Nonfiction.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Car by Harry Crews

All the stories I've heard of Harry Crews suggest as a teacher he is brutally opinionated (which I consider slightly different than brutally honest), and he supposedly tells his undergrads if you get an A in this class you should keep writing, if you don't, you shouldn't. But this is all hearsay, so I take it with a grain of salt, and you should too. (He also has many former students who are devoted to him either despite or because of these things). But, all in all, the things I'd heard didn't exactly cause me to run out and read his work. But then I watched (via eleven five minute installments on YouTube) the Emmy-winning tv documentary "The Rough South of Harry Crews" and I found Crews to be more sympathetic and more compelling than I had imagined. So I finally got around to reading something.

And I found this novella (the publisher calls it novel but it runs about a hundred pages, so I suspect that's just a marketing decision) completely charming, and sweet, and extremely intelligent, and funny, to boot. It's about a guy who decides to eat a car and it stays centered on that plot--will he, can he, etc. But, as the title suggests, the thematic center of the novella is all things car. And all things car turns out to be a great metaphor for all things human. Everything that can happen in a car happens here (one of the funniest dialogue scenes I've read since White Noise's is-it-raining-or-isn't-it scene is between two characters who are having sex in the back of the car to be eaten). But what is most significant is the various ways these characters love cars (and they all do) reflects the various ways one can love. Herman, who dreams of doing something big, and so decides to eat a car, has a pure kind of love. He just wants to feel a part of the bigness of the world. His brother Mister loves money and so loves how cars can bring him money. His father, on the other hand, loves cars for what they are, machines he can understand. His sister loves cars for the excitement--the life--they represent. All in all, it's a short book with a big feel precisely because it takes on one subject in depth. The choice of subject matters, of course; cars are omnipresent in American life and therefore contain multitudes, but it seems to me so could butterflies or corn or ... you name it. Now if it weren't for the humor and the charm and the seriousness of the characters, the thematic center would not have held...but the two in combination (characters and theme) made for a really rich read.

Recommended Reading

My former student, MR Sheffield has a wonderful short-short in the latest issue of Spring Gun. Click on the e-book. The story is on page thirty-three. This mag is visually interesting but a bit of a challenge to negotiate!

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

In his wonderful soap opera-y novel Ragtime, Doctorow became one of the first writers to fully embrace writing fiction with real people in it. What’s interesting about this novel about the Collyer brothers—possibly the most famous of the famous hoarders (one brother died under a pile of his accumulated and booby-trapped stuff and the other subsequently starved to death)—is the way Doctorow uses public knowledge of the characters as part of his storytelling. (Though just to be clear Doctorow does fictionalize some of the facts).

The novel is narrated by Homer, the blind brother who essentially cannot escape his brother Langley who has been made crazy by exposure to mustard gas during WWI. And Homer, in part because of his physical limitations, in part because of his emotional limitations, is slow to pick up on the fact that his brother is completely mad. And only in glimpses does he reveal the physical state of their house. The temptation for many writers would have been to glory in detailing that house, but Homer can’t see…he can’t tell us what the house looked like. And really he doesn’t need to. Because most readers know that story—and can certainly imagine. So Doctorow chooses to make this a very interior novel. I suppose that’s the fun of taking real people and putting them in fiction. Seeing life through their eyes as opposed to seeing their life through our eyes, which biography already allows us to do.

And yes, the fact that he is a blind storyteller named Homer also brings an additional layer to the story. Most readers will get the reference to the author of the Odyssey and the Iliad and will understand that the allusion is meant to grant an epic status to small and confined lives.

Full disclosure: I received my copy for free from Good Reads First Reads.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Recommended Reading

One of my dear mentors, Jewell Parker Rhodes, who was really responsible for my choosing to get my MFA at Arizona State, was on the Today Show this morning talking about her children's book, Ninth Ward, a selection of Al Roker's Kid's Club. The kids are really cute in how seriously they ask her questions, but I confess it freaked me out that they all call her Jewell. This may explain why my undergrads have such a hard time remembering to not call authors by their first name. Can I have a little reverence in the house, please? If you watch the clip, don't think Jewell (I can call her that, I've known her nearly 15 years) is just being warm and fuzzy for tv, she always talks with that kind of love in her voice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Possibly the hardest thing about writing a novel is writing a middle that lives up to your beginning. Starting a novel isn't really so rough. Big Bang openings occur to writers all the time. And endings aren't so bad either. In short stories the end is where things either come together or fall apart, but with a novel, readers can be quite forgiving of a so-so finish. One of my favorite novels is Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House (about a librarian who falls in love with a teenage giant) and I don't like the last chapter one bit. (same with Bel Canto's crazy epilogue) Yet I still call it one of my favorite novels. Because I could happily live in the middle forever. With popular genre fiction, the middle tends to exist merely as a bridge to the end. It's the thing you get through as quickly as possible to find out what happened. But with literary fiction, the middle is the part where readers want to linger, where they don't want to reach the end... so, of course writing the middle is hard. Because if you have a Big Bang opening how do you write an even bigger middle?

I like to think of this as making a mystery of the middle. And in Geek Love, Katherine Dunn does it masterfully.

Her title, her table of contents, her epigraph, and the first two pages of her book all set up expectations for what's to come. It seems like this will be a quirky, probably humorous, tale of a family of carnies (including an albino dwarf, a set of Siamese Twins, and Arty the AquaBoy all born to a carnival ringleader and his chicken-head-eating wife). The parents seem like they will dominate, the family will be threatened by the outside world, and their bond will prevail. It will be an examination of darkness that shows how darkness is really lightness. What we think is dark is not. At least that's what I expect on reading the first couple of pages. And that's enough to make me read on...I'm interested in that book. But what I think really makes the novel a success is the way that the middle of the novel regularly subverts our expectations and gives us a much bigger, and more surprising, novel than we anticipated...

One of the novel's tricks is to use a fairly traditional frame in which there is a present tense story where the characters are grown older and readers can see how dramatically their circumstances have changed. This is one way to make a mystery of the middle--getting readers to ask how did our characters get from point a to point c, but I actually find it the least interesting of the tricks Dunn uses. Perhaps because it's the most expected. The real reason the frame is important, I think, is it demonstrates how Oly, the narrator, is impacted by everything that happened in the middle. She's not really the center of the plot in the middle. The frame lets her be the center of the plot in the end. So that's one unexpected aspect of the middle--the peripheral nature of the first person narrator.

Conventional wisdom says short stories are harder to write than novels, but don't you believe it. In a novel, as in a short story, you need the sense that a story is escalating and building, but you need to sustain that over such a long period that you run the risk of entering the absurd. (this is how tv shows jump the shark). Dunn takes her novel into really extreme territory in terms of character behavior, this is how she creates a novel that is bigger than her quite large opening. But she's very savvy about how she builds to that extreme. You realize on page seven (after the loving family scene that opens the novel) that these kids are "abnormal" because their parents bred them to be that way. This is pretty startling. But the extent of their parents science experiments is withheld until p. 53, when you see the many failed results. But just when the reader starts to see the parents as villainous, Doctor Phyllis, a crazed surgeon arrives and you see how she's even worse. And just when you think you can predict that Doctor P. will be the dark heart of the novel, you realize Arty, the Aqua-Boy, is the even bigger villain behind it all. So these other characters act as evolutionary steps on the way to Arty. This escalates the plot, surprises the reader, and makes the extreme actions of Arty more believable because they are worked up to gradually.

Yeah, this novel has an actual villain in it. But it's key that he's not a single villain in a world of good characters--he's a higher step on the ladder of bad. So it's surprising but not unbelievable...

A note on villains: this is one place the choice of Oly as narrator is very useful. Seeing Arty through Oly’s childish and sisterly eyes helps make him more palatable. The reader is never asked to love or forgive Arty—only to understand that Oly does

Another regular trick to making a mystery of the middle is to bring in and develop new characters while letting others fade to the background. Sometimes these faded characters come back into the center, sometimes not. Some of these new characters come in and you expect them to be more important than they are—it’s sort of like a murder mystery where there are multiple suspects and they each have their own mini-story, but they don't all factor in at the end. They do all factor in to the story somehow however. They change what can happen.

In Geek Love, a new son is born in the first third of the novel (new character enters) and he brings with him the first "magic" of the novel. Up until then everything has been true to our physical world as we know it. But Chick, who looks normal, has special metaphysical powers. Now in workshop I'd probably caution a writer against suddenly having a magical element enter a novel so late. Traditionally a novel would establish itself as fantastical very early on. But Geek Love works as an exception because this is such a heightened world--not quite real anyway--that it feels like a surprise, but not impossible. Like with Arty's villainy, it's an evolutionary step away from what came before, not a total shock. And again this takes the middle in directions the reader hadn't anticipated.

Dunn also uses conventional methods like foreshadowing and flash-forwards to heighten a reader's curiosity. But whereas in a novel where the middle is a bridge to cross, she does not withhold her answers to those mini-mysteries for very long. So questions are raised in the middle and they are answered in the middle. Then new questions are raised and answered. Sometimes on the same page, sometimes a few pages later, sometimes fifty pages can't predict what you'll learn when.

And finally, one last technique, that I don't think works so well actually, is introducing new voices into the text in the middle. In the novel's last third, a newspaperman enters the story, and so we get his notebooks and articles. This provides a break from Oly's first person voice and gives us information that she can't and a perspective outside hers. But personally, I didn't need it. It can work though, just in this case, it felt like it told me what I already knew.

I don't want to suggest these things are formulas you want to apply (the season six commentary on "Lost" persuaded me never to talk about the hero's journey in class again because the writers seemed so sure that merely hitting the steps on the "journey" would make their story work). The main reason Geek Love is such a classic is the ideas, the characters, the words...but structure helps too, it allows for all the rest to feel like it adds up to something.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Recommended Reading

Andrew Furman, my friend and colleague, has a great essay in the current issue of Oxford American.

And the new "Red" issue of the Fairy Tale Review is available. The Blue issue is available on their website as a free pdf, and other back issues are available for download at a very affordable price of 2.99 at Weightless Books ... My story "Once There Was, Once There Wasn't" is in the Green Issue. It used to be available for free online, but no more...

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mentor: a memoir by Tom Grimes

I mention with possibly annoying frequency that I believe in mentors. And I think it's important to have mentors who are just above you in terms of your goals and aspirations, ones who are way above you in terms of your goals and aspirations, and even those who are unattainable (generally because they are fictional heroes). Right now, and I mean this without any irony whatsoever, my two biggest role models seem to be Coach Taylor from "Friday Night Lights" and Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle from "Foyle's War" (they're so decent! so honorable! so handsome!...oh wait...). But more particularly as relates to this blog, I've had the privilege and pleasure of a wealth of mentors who model the writing life for me (including some of my peers, my undergraduate and graduate professors, and some people who are just inexplicably generous with me). But lots of my role models or mentors are people I've never met or people I've worked with but not known well. Lives I've read or heard about, who give me an idea of how things are done, what can go wrong, and how much conscious effort it takes to live a satisfying and dignified life. Recently I was surprisingly affected by Haruki Murakami's nonfiction book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is mostly about marathon running but also novel writing. What came across most powerfully was just how much physical effort it takes to achieve a career like Murakami's. A viewing of the documentary "The Rough South of Larry Brown" in my grad workshop last night also reinforced the benefits of applying a working class work ethic to writing (sample Brown quote: "Based on the first fifty stories that I wrote you would have to believe that I had no talent. You would have no choice.")

But I've realized, too, that if you're not in the right space to receive the information, witnessing other people's writing lives can be pretty devastating. I mean it's hard out there. And there are very few models that suggest otherwise. I once showed one of my favorite documentaries, "Stone Reader" to a grad workshop and at the end of it they looked as if I'd spent the hour and a half kicking them in the gut whilst shouting, "stay down! stay down!" For the record, I view "Stone Reader" as a movie about how vital reading is for some students viewed it as a movie about an Iowa grad who writes a huge book, gets a glowing NYT review, goes crazy and never writes again. Still, I recommend it. Anyway, Tom Grimes's memoir, Mentor, ostensibly about his relationship to the late Frank Conroy, then program director at Iowa, but really about Grimes's whole writing life, is a book that I valued for its honesty about writing, certain writing workshops, and about mentor relationships. For the record, Grimes views Conroy as a pivotal figure for him; I, on the other hand, came out of the book thinking, I will never ever teach like Frank Conroy, and nobody else should either. Because Conroy's approach, as I understood it through the lens of the book, was pretty much to encourage the one or two students he felt had natural talent and ignore the rest. And I don't mean that he made a particular effort to work with the talented students or their writing, rather he told them keep going, keep going and helped them get an agent etc in the end. But Grimes's story makes clear that what Conroy could do in terms of getting him an agent and getting the book out in the world had only a limited effect. The book didn't make money, didn't go to paperback, and Grimes in the end had a, possiby related, nervous breakdown (as did Conroy for unrelated reasons). I don't think nervous breakdowns are more inherent to writers than anybody else or that writing causes them, I'm just saying that having a mentor who can give you professional contacts isn't going to save your life. Nor will it make or break your career. In fact my view of mentoring is the opposite. I'm here to encourage everybody to work hard at their writing, to advise them on that writing, to advise them on how to make their own contacts...but I genuinely believe my students are better off if they find agents and publishers who respond to their work rather than ones who respond to me (not that I have that kind of sway anyway). But to get to the point, a review of this book suggested that apprentice writers might want to steer clear because so much of Grimes's experience is negative. But I think the more apprentice writers have a rational view of what writing can and can't do for them, what mentors can and can't do for them, and how to best define success as a writer...the better. So I recommend it. Plus it makes clear that Iowa's MFA program is great for some, but really shouldn't be the number one choice for all MFA applicants--its practices would not suit most of them. A timely message given those silly MFA rankings in Poets and Writers this month.