Where’s the Happy?

Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen

Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) & Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon) in Sense & Sensibility

Novelist Carrie Brown, in an essay in the Glimmer Train bulletin this month, advocates a reassessment of the components of conflict that writers incorporate in their work. Too often, she believes, less experienced writers, especially, lean too heavily on catastrophe. They include “too much dark and not enough light,” believing only the bad stuff is dramatic.

Bad stuff happening is the meat and potatoes of the genre I read most often—mysteries and thrillers. Yet even there, excess abounds. Authors feel compelled to pile up ever more bodies, to make the manner of death ever more grisly, to include female characters who might offer a hope of happiness only to put them out of reach, often because they’re dead, to give their protagonists’ souls so many dark places to hide that after a while, I wonder, “why does this character get out of bed in the morning?” When I start rolling my eyes, the author has lost me.

Brown believes “the mystery of people inclined toward charity or kindness has a drama as compelling as a story of decline and despair.” These positive forces are as powerful and as complicated as the impulses that propel other people toward evil. Jane Austen knew this. So did Dickens.

The key to presenting happiness well, she says, is to capture its complexity and contradictions. She uses an example “weeping with happiness.” Think of Emma Thompson in the movie Sense and Sensibility, crying with great, gasping sobs (see the clip!) when she realizes that Edward Ferrars is in fact not married. We are infinitely more moved by her happy tears than if she’d simply grinned delightedly.

It is not easy for people to be happy, and it is especially not easy for them to be happy when they have been beset by all the other fictional difficulties authors throw at them. But, Brown might argue, these characters can—and should—be happy for that precise reason. She says happiness depends “on the nearby presence of unhappiness to be felt most acutely. By necessity, it seems, the happiest man will also be the man most aware of unhappiness.” Going back to Sense and Sensibility, that would be lovely Colonel Brandon.

An example from Brown’s own work is her 2013 novel The Last First Day, in which a long-married couple—the headmaster of the Derry School for Boys and his wife—must face the declining health that forces his retirement. Said Reeve Lindbergh in her review of the book for The Washington Post, “Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. . . . Nevertheless, [the author shows] one can see with clarity and with appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings.” One is capable of a kind of happiness.

Princeton Literary Inspirations

Elvis, Fort WorthYesterday, poet Ciaran Berry and novelist Nell Zink read from their work as part of a series of author presentations at Princeton University, open to the public (that’s me!). On Friday, Man Booker Prize-winner and Ireland’s “first fiction laureate” Anne Enright will read excerpts from her most recent novel, The Green Road. I’ll be there!

The series of readings is conducted by the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, with Enright’s presentation sponsored additionally by the Fund for Irish Studies. (Last year’s fantastic presentation by Belfast author Glenn Patterson was under the Fund’s aegis also.)

Ciaran Berry

Coincidentally, award-winning poet Ciaran Berry also is an Irish poet and grew up in County Galway and County Donegal. He now directs the creative writing program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He doesn’t have the full-out accent, though.

Berry read several of his poems from various periods, including The Death of Elvis and Liner Notes. His particularly lovely poem For Shergar, Neither Ode nor Elegy, is a tribute to the legendary race horce Shergar, kidnapped and killed by the IRA, and includes this: “the past tense entering its perfect form.” It’s one of those, “wish I’d thought of that” lines.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink grew up in King George County, Virginia, but for many years has lived in Israel and Berlin, and has become a recent literary phenomenon in this country. She was introduced by faculty member Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) who said the classic “Nell” and its assertive “Zink” is “a name just waiting to be famous.”

Zink’s debut novel was The Wallcreeper, from which she read a passage about a married woman who plunges into an affair with a gas station attendant named Elvis—acknowledging the nifty segue from Berry’s poem. A New Yorker profile of Zink by Kathryn Schulz said The Wallcreeper “sounds like nothing you have ever read, and derives its bang from ideas you hadn’t thought to have.” Smart, funny, insightful. Likely to come to a bad end. In this setting, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole work, but the voice was terrific.

Her second excerpt was from the more recent novel Mislaid, a scene in which two gay men eating dinner in a crab restaurant make observations about other diners and themselves. The novel is notorious for its Caucasian main character Peggy, who reinvents herself and her white-blonde, blue-eyed daughter by claiming they are African Americans—“a high comedy of racial identity,” Schulz says, and not easy to pull off. About such tectonic plot shifts in her books, Eugenides said, “You cannot call them plot twists, because that implies some underlying straightness.”

In short, the subjects she takes up and the unflinching way she renders them make her, he said, “a bull in the china shop of contemporary American fiction.” More to read, more to read.

Landfill Harmonic

music, instrumentIn the early 20th Century, Marcel Duchamp transformed everyday objects into art he called “ready-mades.” The documentary Landfill Harmonic (trailer) shows how garbage from a Paraguayan landfill can be made into musical instruments.

The full-length film focuses on the residents of Cateura, near Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. They live next to a large landfill, where workers scavenge and sell recyclable detritus to make a living. Despite the dispiriting surroundings—ramshackle houses, dismal landscape—the people have a burgeoning enthusiasm for students’ music education. But they are too poor to buy enough instruments.

Musical director Favio Chávez turns to a garbage picker, Nicolás (Colá) Goméz, who begins to fashion instruments from curated debris—flutes made from water pipes, oil and paint cans for violins and cellos, and discarded X-rays for drum skins.

“The world sends us garbage…we send back music,” says Chávez.

Slowly, the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura hones its skills and sound. Then, a random social media connection catapults them into world view. The students pose with the Paraguayan flag decorated with the logo of the heavy metal group Megadeth, whose music they discovered on old cassettes found in the landfill. A Megadeth member sees the post and decides to visit the students. In 2014, he invites the Recycled Orchestra to join the band members on tour in Denver and accompany them on a song. This event propels more media coverage (Wired, Mother Jones, NPR, 60 Minutes) and invitations from across the globe to perform, including at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum in 2013.

Now, most of these music makers are committed to careers in music education and performance.

According to the film’s website, “the Orchestra has grown from just a few musicians to over 35. Their recent fame has piqued the interest of the families and children of the community in such a way that many children are now enrolling for music classes. The music school of Cateura does not have its own building yet, but teaches music and how to build recycled instruments to more than 200 kids of the landfill.”

The documentary, which benefitted from a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $200,000, has earned acclaim at independent and children’s film festivals around the world. Most recently, it won a 2016 Director’s Choice Award at the Sedona International Film Festival.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is bringing us the best from the recent Sedona IFF.

Joys of Overwriting

conversation, talking

(photo: Dmitry Ryzhkov)

In a provocative post at The Smart Set, Elisa Gabbert proposes the satisfactions of “writing that sounds like writing.” These days, readers—and writers, but I’ll get to that—are mostly told that prose shouldn’t call undue attention to itself. At the extreme (think Hemingway here) advice would have it that writing should be stripped of anything that announces itself as more than the everyday yakking one might hear on the street.

“Overwritten” is a harsh criticism. Like overripe, she says, the term has “judgment baked in.” (I’m not talking about amateurish overwriting, larded with unnecessary detail or trite observations here.) For my part, I enjoy being swept away in mind-stretching analogies and complex metaphors. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, fearlessly explored metaphors up to and sometimes beyond their full potential, a high-wire act teetering on the calamitous.

Here’s a nice one: “Hopes were wallflowers. Hopes hugged the perimeter of a dance floor in your brain, tugging at their party lace, all perfume and hems and doomed expectation. They fanned their dance cards, these guests that pressed against the walls of your heart.” And another, “I came to hate the complainers, with their dry and crumbly lipsticks and their wrinkled rage and their stupid, flaccid, old-people sun hats with brims the breadth of Saturn’s rings.” As a reader, I’m attracted to multilayered images like these. They make me stop and consider the challenge another mind has laid down. They are important to the story. They “sound like writing.”

Worse than work that is overwritten, Gabbert suggests, is that which is underwritten. Authors who don’t go to the trouble, whose work inspires “the sense that the author has low-balled me.” The occasional New Yorker short story has this arid style. Such prose offers nothing more than the words on the page, inspiring no images or connections for my mind to chew on.

From the writer’s perspective, coming up with a juicy and apt image is immensely satisfying. If it isn’t quite right, it isn’t good enough. I spent many hours refining the following sentence from a novel set in Rome: As the bus “skirted the huge Cimitero del Verano and approached the last turn, a cloud of diesel exhaust ballooned forth, and new motes of grit wafted toward the unblinking eyes of the cemetery’s stone angels.” Overwritten? Maybe, though it has a purpose in the story. Its aim is to spark in the reader a strong contrast between modern (bus) and ancient (stone angel); transient (a bus ride) and eternal (death). Even if readers skim that sentence, it may establish a mood, a picture.

Gabbert refers to Elmore Leonard’s famous “10 rules for good writing,” which he sums up by saying, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” This is a pretty good rule for his particular genre, crime fiction, but even he occasionally broke it with delicious metaphors, like “Wonderful things can happen,” Vincent said, “when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.” Or this conversation: “A: Anyone who looks like she does has to be somebody…” “B: What does she look like?” “A: An ice cream. I had a spoon I would have eaten her.”

Most of us can’t think fast enough to come up with such words in everyday conversation. They are writerly statements. At bottom, Gabbert says, “I like writing that knows what writing is for; it can express things you would never say.” In deviating from the well traveled road of everyday speech and thought, such writing steers closer to the truth.

Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano

Elton JohnHitting the jackpot in Las Vegas may be dicey, but you can count on Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano show, which debuted in 2011, for a first-class entertainment experience there that blends visual and musical wizardry.

Sir Elton’s show at the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace includes 20 top tunes in two hours. Joining him is a superb backup band including drummer Nigel Olsson, percussionist Ray Cooper and guitarist Davey Johnstone, each of whom has played with Sir Elton for over four decades. They know each other—and the material— so well that the groove is stirring and strong.

Sir Elton, who turns 69 in March, is celebrating a 50-year collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. His piano playing remains rollicking and his voice is still strong (for a limited time, you can hear a BBC interview with him here). The Colosseum has excellent sight lines and sound that brings the audience right into the mix. At the end of the show, some in the front rows go onstage to sing around the piano with Sir Elton.

It took Yamaha five years to design and engineer the piano expressly for the space and show. Co-producer and lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe explained, “I always thought that the piano would be an extraordinary thing, (but) I wasn’t sure how we would integrate it into the show. It wasn’t until she (the piano is named Blossom) was plugged in, turned on and tuned up that I suddenly felt like she had come home.”

The piano is an “electronic paintbox,” which augments and enhances each tune and includes photographic images and colorful effects. For example, when Sir Elton sings “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a photo montage appears showing him in his outlandish outfits at various stages in his performing career. For “Crocodile Rock,” the piano edges and backdrop are green glowing scales. According to the show’s website, the 19 animated films and videos that the piano is keyed to were completed in less than four months and involved 175 people working 24/7 in London. The “canvas” is a tennis-court-sized screen behind the band.

Co-producer Mark Fisher had free rein to imagine the set design. “What I was imagining was the creation of an over-the-top world that presented Elton as I saw him, dancing on the knife-edge that separates high art from low camp,” adding “I was looking to balance the huge size of the Colosseum stage with the human scale of one man at the piano.” Huge hanging keyboards, rockets and Sun King images, along with tall guard dogs whose gaze is focused on Sir Elton, add visual interest to the vast expanse.

Sir Elton is in Japan and Australia on tour now, but he and the Million Dollar Piano return to Caesar’s from April 16-30, 2016. It’s a sure bet for an evening of great entertainment. For more information, go to Caesar’s website.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings.

Literary Duds & Decor for Halloween

Halloween is just another opportunity to strut your literary predilections. Here’s a roundup of clever ideas that have crossed my desk this month.

pumpkin, book art

(photo: Topeka Library, creative commons license)

  • Turn books into Halloween art pieces – pulp fiction, 3-D constructions, collage, bent, torn, printed on—books can do more than sit on shelves
  • Jack o’ lanterns for readers – more Maurice Sendak than Jane Austen, but still . . . you know where the wild things are, and so will the neighbors!
  • Easy-to-challenging costumes – is the need “to die your hair” a bit too Freudian a slip? And for the Lizbeth Salander costume, find someone delicious to draw that dragon on your back!
  • Then check to see whether your costume idea is being overdone in your area with Google’s Frightgeist!
  • Miss Havisham

    “Did you hear that?” asks Miss Havisham.

    It may be more practical to look to short stories for costume inspiration (fewer people have probably read them)

  • But if you’d rather focus your creativity on writing, here’s a list of horror fiction ideas straight from recent news headlines – I have dibs on “Important Ohio bridge infested with thousands of spiders”
  • And a little of everything in this gallery of “literary Halloween” ideas. Love the “Nevermore” wreath.
  • Wearing your best Victorian garb, propping your foot on a pumpkin cushion, settle back to enjoy a “Hyde potion.” Bloody good cocktail, that.

(Thanks to Book Riot, Electric Literature, Pinterest, and HGTV for the inspiration!)

Booklovers’ Sand Sculptures

Alice in Wonderland, Cheshire Cat, sand sculpture

Alice (photo: Andy Field, creative commons license)

As the last weekend of summer approaches, a fitting tribute to two combined passions—going to the beach and reading—has been assembled by Kelly Jensen in this photo-essay for BookRiot, showing how sand sculptors around the world have interpreted the scenes of literature—from Gulliver to Alice—in that doomed-to-destruction medium, sand.

One wonders what the writers who created the books that inspired these creations might think of them. As they labored over a page, did they worry that their words would be as ephemeral as these amazing creations? Or that the tide of public opinion would soon wash them away?

Enjoy summer’s last fling!

Novelist as Theater Director

theater, stage

(photo: wikimedia)

A thrilling weekend in Williamstown and Lenox, Massachusetts, with a group of serious theater lovers—four plays in three days and rich presentations in-between. Unexpectedly, one of these presentations—a detailed review of the steps of play production—mirrored many of the challenges an author faces in preparing a work of fiction. Let me explain.

Once a theater company decides to produce a particular play its first step is to hire a director who will create the theatrical production. The director {the “author,” in this analogy and here you have to bear with me} helps build the creative team and find the cast {characters}, blocks the play and decides who does what when {plot}, and guides the aesthetic process of the production {editing}.

A large creative design team is needed to help put the play together. These designers take on various tasks, in keeping with the director’s vision for the play and what this specific production is to convey. While of course a director starts with a script, just as an author begins with a more or less firm idea, the way a play emerges in its staging is unique to each production. Literary critics have decided there are only about a half-dozen basic plots, which suggests much of what differentiates the tens of thousands of novels published each year results from loosely analogous attention to the same creative elements a play director must consider.

In theater, set design establishes the physical world of the play; costumes, makeup, and props help define characters. In novels, authors must use description of the scene, and the appearance and clothing of the characters for exactly the same purpose. Lighting and sound design help create a play’s mood and tell the audience “where to look,” just as authors establish mood and focus attention—or, in the case of a mysteries, misdirect it—on key information. Dialect coaches make sure the words come out the way a character of a given era, nationality, and class would say them, and on the page, dialog has to ring true, too.

Choreographers and fight directors design the more complex or risky stage action. Stage-fights have to be both safe and realistic. (Realistic is easy, we were told, safe is hard.) Fiction has similar problems. A battle between two people or a hundred has to seem dangerous—even when it involves a continuing character who we know will survive to appear in the next book. At the same time, heroes must escape in a plausible way. They can’t get off too easily. A recent thriller I read had a confusing scene near the end, in which it wasn’t clear which shooters were inside their cars, in the street, along the wall, or wherever. I couldn’t visualize it, even after three re-reads. In my writing group, we call this a problem in choreography.

While the theater director has a whole team to take care of these essential component parts, the novelist works solo.

In casting a play, a director thinks about the skills and personalities of potential actors, and whether they can fill their roles. The author likewise must decide what type of person to create for the role they will play in the novel. How much can people such as those they describe believably stretch when facing the demands the plot places on them? How are other characters likely to react to them? At the same time, they must avoid creating stereotypes and “stock characters,” who would move through the novel like cardboard cutouts.

The whole process of rehearsing a play—from the initial read-through, to the blocking, through final rehearsals—echoes the editing process. Plays aren’t rehearsed just once; it takes time and myriad adjustments and refinements for all the creative parts to mesh together. Similarly, thinking of a novel draft as similar to a theater production, it’s easy to see the kinds of editing an author must do: tuning up all aspects of design/description, focus, realism, choreography, and character development to best serve the ultimate product—that best-selling, award-winning novel taking shape in the theater of the author’s mind.

*****Against a Darkening Sky

great horned owl

Wilona’s spirit-guide (photo: SearchNet Media, Creative Commons license)

By Lauren B. Davis – I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I knew it was coming (Lauren is my writing teacher), because it’s such a departure from her novels with contemporary settings. Davis is a distinguished Canadian author, and I wanted to see how she’d conjure and portray events of 1300 years ago. Now I know. Masterfully.

626 A.D. is a restless time in the medieval Anglian kingdom of Northumbria (now northern England and southeast Scotland). The traditional polytheistic world of augury and healers is about to be displaced by the sweep of Christianity, and the king is constantly threatened by a more powerful rival from the Midlands. These large currents also wash over the small village of Ad Gelfin, where the novel is set.

In the middle of this maelstrom are the traditional spell women, the seithkona—Touilt and her apprentice Wilona—powerful, vulnerable. They use medicinal herbs and tinctures, pray to the pagan gods, and are the closest to healers the community has. The beliefs they espouse are part and parcel of every aspect of daily life and involve the animals and spirits inherent to their place.

When Christianity comes to their small village in great pomp, with it straggles a young monk, Egan. His faith is strong, but in many ways he’s a misfit, most particularly because he sees good in the seithkona, while others simply want to destroy them. Whether the two young people, Egan and Wilona, can find their life paths in increasingly harsh circumstances is the plot of the book, whereas its many meanings—about the persistence of faith, about the quest for dignity and belonging—are universal.

Davis’s enormous accomplishment is in creating a world for Wilona, Touilt, Egan, and a compelling array of secondary characters that is consistent, believable, and true. She’s described the several shelves of reading she did in order to learn enough about that period to write about it authentically, and the care of her research had paid off for her readers. Wilona is especially compelling as a translator and defender of the pagan belief system, grounded in nature and the world around them. Confronting Christianity, which depends on extrinsic religious authority, changes the game utterly. It’s top-down versus bottom-up wisdom.

Pulitzer-Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler says Davis “brilliantly achieves the ideal for a dark, historical fantasy: period and milieu seem utterly inextricable from character and theme.” Those are its remarkable literary qualities; but from the reader’s perspective, it’s also a fascinating immersive adventure!

Read more about Lauren and her work.

White Writing Black Writing White

At my writer’s group this week, we touched on the issues that arise when we try to write a character of a different race (or gender, or and so on). Coincidentally, a thoughtful essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda “Where Writers Go Wrong in Imagining the Lives of Others” is included in an early edition of LitHub. (If you’re interested in “the best of the literary Internet,” you may want to sign up for this e-publication, a new joint creation of Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature. It looks promising.)

Rankine and Loffreda explore the difficulties inherent in any effort to imagine the lives of people who have had vastly different life experiences and social conditioning than one’s own. Most of their argument applies to white authors writing about people of color, but could apply to other fundamental differences of the sort that influence not only how people see the world but how the world sees them. (This last point is why stories about people who “pass” are so powerful. They know who they are, but no one else does, and they would be treated very differently if they did.)

Many white writers, the authors say, believe “it is against the nature of art itself to place limits on who or what I can imagine,” as if imagination “is not created by same web and matrix of history and culture” that made the writer. The result is an unconscious racial subjectivity that has the power to wound, to do damage, irrespective of whatever benign motivations the writer may have. There are risks. At the same time, they say, writers of color may pull their punches, unwilling to negotiate territory, develop characters, and explore situations outside whatever conventions the literary establishment endorses.

Nat Turner, slave

Nat Turner captured by Mr. Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer (graphic: en.wikipedia.org)

Writing authentically and deeply even about characters one presumably knows best (people “like me”) is a difficult endeavor. Writers who want to create characters of a vastly different point of view should ask themselves some basic questions, they say: why do I want to write such a character and to what purpose? Not can I and how can I? In other words, is the choice to write this character worth the risk of, essentially, getting it wrong and causing harm? What is needed, they say, is to expand the limits of imagination, even if escaping them is impossible, because “history is not an act of the imagination.” At the same time, as James Baldwin once observed, race is “our common history.”

A Slate article written in response to reviewers’ qualms about Michael Chabon’s 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue (a book I much liked, by the way), offers a somewhat different perspective. Among the book’s principal characters are the proprietors—one black and one white—of a used record store located on “the ragged fault line where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted.” Writing a black character in this setting is both appropriate and necessary, enabling an exploration of (among many other issues) the community divide and the shifting forces of gentrification, answering the “why” and “to what purpose” questions posed by Rankine and Loffreda.

The Slate piece, which is by Tanner Colby, reviews the history of this continuing debate, which crested with publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, told from the point of view of the eponymous former slave. For some years after the criticisms of Styron, white authors shied away from writing black characters, and Rankine and Loffreda agree that issues of “race” and “racism” frequently become entangled. Colby has a cynical view of such critiques: “If you convince white people that they’re not qualified to tackle race, if you scare them away from the issue, if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.”

My takeaway from this is that authors who write across racial/gender/other lines need to be hyperaware of the need to push beyond the limits of their own understanding of the world. I suspect that with practice, identifying one’s blind spots comes easier.