The Place in Your Book

Shaker Heights, Ohio

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the leafy suburb just east of Cleveland where she grew up. In a vintage interview with David Naimon for the late lamented lit mag Glimmer Train, he asks about the particular characteristics of Shaker Heights that come through so strongly in her novel.

Ng explains that she lived there from age ten until she went to college, and the way life is organized there was normal to her. With a little distance and time, like all of us, she came to recognize (and in her case, appreciate) the unique characteristics of her community. Shaker Heights was one of the nation’s first planned communities, a garden-style suburb built on land once owned by the North Union Community of Shakers. That group of utopians inspired the later property developers, a pair of railroad moguls, and the suburb’s name.

The quest to create a perfect environment ultimately led to a lot of rules. Strict building codes and zoning laws restricted what color you could paint your house, the requirement to keep the yard tidy and mowed. (I don’t know whether the town fathers imposed the rule in my parents’ gated community that you had to keep your garage door closed. Who wants to see all that junk?) Ng explained that the community even used a fleet of tiny garbage trucks the size of golf carts that travel up and down every driveway, in order to collect the trash from the back of the house. No unsightly curbside obstacle course on trash day. In the old days, this was the function of the alley.

More important, and salient to those who’ve read the book or seen the television version with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, a strong thread in the community has been support for racial integration. It was the community’s deliberate response in the era of  blockbusting and “white flight,” Ng says. Community leaders believed that encouraging diversity among residents—in other words, embracing change—would, ironically, be the best way to keep the community the same, stabilizing it against the potential destructiveness experienced in so many other locales.

White residents went through a period of self-satisfied delusion, claiming a person’s race didn’t matter to them. They believed they were race-blind, suggesting that they, as one of Ng’s characters says, “don’t see race.” Many of us have heard people say things like this at some point or other.

Ng says the problem with such statements is clear, in Shaker Heights and elsewhere. “If you don’t see a huge aspect of someone’s life and experience, you are devaluing all the experiences they’ve had walking around in that skin.” In Little Fires Everywhere, despite articulated good intentions, the “little fires” of racial tension are flaring up, marking out the well-known road.

That idea, of people seeking to understand others, even other family members, and failing to do so permeates Ng’s work, including her 2015 debut novel, also set in Shaker Heights, Everything I Never Told You (my review here).

One of the chief values of fiction, she believes, is that “it actively asks us to empathize with other characters, with people are aren’t like us.” Even in a community ostensibly committed to bridging divides, understanding can be elusive.

Beyond the Human Gaze: Writer Jeff VanderMeer

octopus

Now that every issue in my complete set of the literary short story journal Glimmer Train is on its way to true vintage status, I’m taking a look at some of the essays the editors provided over the years—content I’d skip over to get to the stories!

In the fall 2018 issue, David Naimon interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, an award winning author in the vast realm of fantasy and science fiction, plus the landmark writing guide Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Consider adding that to your list of possible birthday presents for author-friends.

Their conversation began with a discussion of VanderMeer’s post-apocalyptic novel Borne, which includes a character that is a piece of biotechnology. Writing about non-human creatures, including animals, is a big blind spot in fiction of all types, VanderMeer believes. Writers do plenty of research to create a fictional world that’s believable, but, when it comes to animal behavior, blow it completely. We perpetuate the folklore that owls are wise; he says they’re not. (Don’t tell Harry Potter fans.) If an animal is cute, or if we believe it’s intelligent, it’s considered more worthy of attention, at least for fund-raising. We think of sharks as loners (not loaners, that’s something different), when some are quite social. “We do, I think, have to get beyond the idea of trying to find human-like intelligence in other animals, because their intelligence is very different.” Whoops! There’s my cue to mention octopuses.

Ursula K. Le Guin believed scientists’ reluctance to anthropomorphize animals’ behavior and emotional state has backfired. While we shouldn’t ascribe human motives and feelings to them, sure, we shouldn’t go too far in the other direction either, presuming they have no intention or emotional component to their actions. “It’s an act of empathy and imagination to at least try to get beyond the human gaze,” VanderMeer said.

VanderMeer is a believer in the ineffable. The more you explain about the science imbedded in a story, “the less the reader usually believes it.” Over-explaining signals a lack of confidence in what the story is saying. I personally like technothrillers with a generous amount of precise explanation, at least of things I can understand—the assassin’s requirements for the gun in Day of the Jackal, for example. But if the science is beyond lay understanding, best to assume the reader will accept the outcome and move on, VanderMeer said. A miracle happened. Now that’s something people will believe.

The State I’m In

Last week the New York chapter of  Mystery Writers of America sponsored a Facebook panel on “New Jersey writers.” It was a lot of fun, at least for me. On the panel, which was led by RG Belsky, whose books I’ve reviewed here, were Mally Becker, whose new historical mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow, is set in the Revolutionary War, Jeff Markowitz, past chapter president, also with a recent book, Hit or Miss, and me, who will have a book out later this year.

The first issue we dispensed with was “who IS a New Jersey writer”? There are people who live in and write about New Jersey (at least sometimes). There are people who live her but write about other places. And there are people who live somewhere else and write about New Jersey–wannabees. We can usually identify them.

Panel members agreed there’s a New Jersey sensibility—a bit of a chip on the shoulder, being constantly looked down upon by our near-neighbors across the Hudson, a lot of attitude, and a lack of shrinking violets. I complained (again, but I live in New Jersey, so why not?) about the Akashic book of short stories, New Jersey Noir, many of which for my money could have been written about almost anyplace. I didn’t get a chance to plug Bill Baer’s new book New Jersey Noir: Cape May, which hilariously captures several perfect specimens from the New Jersey ecosystem.

Some of the well-known crime/mystery writers who call New Jersey home are Harlan Coben, Joyce Carol Oates, and Janet Evanovich, whose protagonist, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, works out of Trenton. Equally witty is Brad Parks, whose early books drew on his experience as a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. A newspaperman like Belsky, he’s deserted the Garden State for Virginia.

The diversity of New Jersey crime writers is reflected in the day jobs they’ve held: Joe Hefferon (law enforcement), Steven Max Russo (advertising executive), N. Lombardi, Jr. (groundwater geologist, who has decamped to Cambodia), Nikki Stern (professional musician), Al Tucher (librarian), the aforementioned Baer (college professor and award-winning poet), and Sergio de la Pava (public defender). Their books are just as diverse! Me, I gave away money. Don’t call. That was a long time ago.

Even if these writers all chose New Jersey as the setting for their books, they still have a lot of choices—New Jersey Transit (a world unto itself), the notable universities scattered across the state, the honky-tonk and environmental treasures of the Jersey Shore, the densely populated north, self-contained communities of myriad ethnic groups, the Pine Barrens (where Markowitz likes to set stories. It’s the big green area in the southern half of the state), and the rural western and southern counties. No matter where you are, though, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the heavy Italian influence: pizza, pasta, and Sinatra.

Goalposts Moved for Spy Writers

Desmond Llewelyn, Q, James Bond, Spycraft

The Cipher Brief presentation this week from John Sawers, former Chief of the British Intelligence Service (MI6) covered a lot of ground, including how the world of espionage is changing in the networked age. John le Carré taught us how to understand the motives and tradecraft of Cold War spies, but those days are over. Writers about espionage, like those in the trade itself, must learn new skills.

Tradecraft Trends

Sawers emphasized the shifting importance of the data analyst versus the case officer. In the old days, case officers recruited, trained, and ran their agents. They were, in a way, laws unto themselves. Not any more. James Bond’s “Q” (pictured, as played by Desmond Llewelyn) is no more; agents don’t ask the technologists for help solving a problem, the data analysts and technologists help design the intervention from the outset.

This evolution takes place at a time when the domestic security services of target countries have upped their games considerably. They too may have sophisticated analytic capability, which changes how foreign agents must operate. An example Sawers gave is the availability of facial recognition software and biometric identification. The old methods of disguise—so integral to the spectacular television series, The Americans, set in the 1980s—are next to useless. “The technology is neutral,” he said, and security services have to make it an ally. Our fictional spies can’t put on a wig and run rampant in foreign nations any more.

Strategic Trends

Like many analysts, Sawers keeps a wary eye on China. The country’s behavior around the pandemic has led to “the scales falling from the eyes of EU countries” who’d been less prone to criticize it. While, as writers, we recognize that the Xi Jinping China of today is not the same China that Deng Xiaoping led just over thirty years ago, I admit to being a fan of Tang Dynasty China (700 AD), so I’m really 1300 years behind the times.

Sawers says Western nations are good at identifying security challenges originating from China, but it’s harder to counter Chinese economic strategies, like the Belts and Roads Initiative. Yes, that is an effort to improve the infrastructure of various low-income countries, but it’s also a way to tie the economies of these countries to China and attempt to influence their politics.

Despite recent bumps, the relationship between the US and the UK runs very deep, Sawers maintained, and the two countries’ intelligence agencies’ relationship is solid. The longer-term unease will be between the US and other countries with which it is not as close. Can they trust us not to whipsaw them every four years? That lingering tinge of suspicion should inspire some juicy plot points.

Sawers says the political upheavals and divisions that have occurred in both our nations are at least partly an aftershock of 2008’s economic collapse. This is especially interesting in light of a 2/10 Washington Post report that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges from the January 6 insurrection have a higher-than-average history of serious money troubles: bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures, bad debts, lawsuits over money owed, or unpaid taxes. Something to keep in mind if these disaffected folk are characters in your new story!

The Short of It

On the Writer Unboxed blog last week, publishing guru Porter Anderson speculated about reasons the changeover from the old year to the year always seems to generate news about short-form fiction. Perhaps, he suggests, the end/beginning of a year is a time writers have short fiction on the mind, intending to try out ideas they might spend the rest of the year working up into a larger project—that is, a book. Maybe so.

I went the other direction. To reduce the word-count of a novel, I cut way back on secondary characters’ stories. I liked these guys, but . . . These cutting-room floor episodes became three short stories, all of them now published. While possibly a commendable exercise in prose recycling, there were unanticipated pitfalls. First, they had to be real stories, not “excerpts.” That was relatively easy. Second, once those stories were out there, I had to take them into account when I made further changes to the novel itself. Probably not one reader in a million (should I have that many) would go back, find those stories and object to any discrepancies. Of course, that one would have an active online presence and a snarky temperament.

Anderson cites four international developments bearing on the status of short fiction:
1. A new independent publisher in France (L’Ourse brune) focusing on short stories written in French. Formidable!
2. Later this week, London’s Costa Short Story Awards will reveal the voting public’s favorite among three unpublished short stories.
3. The 16th BBC National Short Story Award program opened for submissions last week; cash prizes to be announced in early October
4. Spain’s Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize consists of cash, an artist’s residency in Umbria or the Writers’ House of Georgia, plus publication opportunities and more.

There’s (fairly recent) U.S. news in the world of short fiction, as well. You’ll remember that the long-running annual Best American Mystery Story anthology has moved from the purview of its founding editor, Otto Penzler, to the guiding hand of author and editor Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay), starting with next fall’s edition. It will have new title, too: The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

Penzler’s Mysterious Press reportedly will launch a competing anthology this fall: The Mysterious Bookshop Presents: The Best Mystery Stories of the Year. The attendant kerfuffle was covered by J. Kingston Pierce in The Rap Sheet.

Finally, the annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology, previously published by Level Best Books, will henceforth be published by Crime Spell Books, with Susan Oleksiw, Ang Pompano, and Leslie Wheeler as editors. Write on!

Photo: Pexel for Pixabay

Too Much of a Good Thing

scissors, blood, editing

If you read a novel like most people do, you try to picture the people, the scene, and the action as the story progresses, as if you were watching a movie. The details the author provides are, presumably, intended to facilitate not just the visualizing of the action, but your understanding of its importance. So more details are good, right? Not always. Details in and of themselves are not helpful; it’s their significance that matters.

A point-of-view character’s global state—physical, mental, emotional, and, at times, spiritual–changes as a story progresses. In novels where chapters alternate among different point-of-view characters, their “global state” helps readers differentiate among them. Yet, a moment-by-moment inventory of all these factors becomes tiresome. Worse is when authors pause the action in a tense scene or before a big reveal to give a rundown of a character’s feelings. If adequate groundwork has been laid, readers can guess how the character feels, anyway. Constantly interfering with the progress of the action makes readers stop caring—and reading.

Suppose a story provides a minutely detailed description of the appearance and state-of-mind of a man walking to a bus stop. And then suppose he’s hit by the bus and is only a walk-on in the story. Readers who followed the author’s lead and created a precise mental picture of a character they’ll never encounter again are justly annoyed. Still, the man did wear a mud-splattered overcoat with a missing button. Out of a lengthy description, those few details might be significant. Perhaps he was an inveterate jaywalker, which might be worth knowing, particularly when the bus driver goes to trial.

In other words, minimize the details that aren’t relevant to the story, and don’t merely strand readers on an island of facts. Here’s a good example:

“He was thirty-two years old, trim, a tough guy, six foot two, and, essentially, in your face. He was wearing one of his two-dozen identical black Armani suits, with one of this three-dozen identical navy button-downs, with one of his four-dozen thin black ties. . . . As for his hair, it was thick, the blackest black, and slicked-and-greased back like a Jersey guido.”

Every sentence raises questions. “A tough guy?” “In your face”—how so? What’s with the weird wardrobe? Is he a New Jersey guido? Questions like these keep readers reading. Which is what you want, and they do too.

(The excerpt is from William Baer’s entertaining new novel New Jersey Noir: Cape May.)

Private Eyes: 2020 Incarnation

spy, espionage, reading

Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker reviews a couple of recent books about the private investigation industry and its changing role. One of them, The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, by Tyler Maroney, was named a 2020 favorite by Kevin Burton Smith, who monitors PI stuff on his web site, for the Private Eye Writers of America, and for Mystery Scene.

More than thirty thousand private investigators are working in the United States, and while some of them engage in the activities that find their way into crime stories—investigating kidnappings, flagging cheating spouses or employees, and finding missing persons—a lot of what modern PI’s do is less juicy corporate work. They check out potential employees, track missing assets, scour proposals for multibillion-dollar deals, assess corporations’ potential partners, engage in (presumably) white-hat hacking, and amass opposition research from the undrained swamp of politics.

These activities are ubiquitous in the corporate world today. Globalization, deregulation, and rapid technological change have created the opportunity for whole new chapters in the secret investigations playbook, as well as new criminal opportunities and strategies.

Despite the growth in that sector of the industry, tales of insider trading, corruption, and fraud are a regular feature of the news media. You have to wonder, is the investigations business simply ineffective in curbing bad behavior, or is the malfeasance we read about only the tip of what would be a glacier-sized iceberg if the investigators’ weren’t on the job?

Says Keefe, the book “is not an exposé. It is part memoir, part how-to guide, a celebration of the analytical and interpersonal intelligence that makes a great investigator.” Those are the traits that have given Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes nearly a century and a half of popularity. Sounds like a must-read!

World-Rocking Reading List:
The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World
Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World
Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage

Story Endings – Part Two

ending, finish, party

Last week Washington Post book critic Ron Charles’s recent essay about book endings that disappoint was reviewed on this website. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued by this account. Says Post editor Stephanie Merry, his essay let loose a torrent of reader comments that aired “their personal grievances about the endings that still haunt them.” The result, she says, was a funny, eclectic, and, not surprisingly often contradictory view of how we want our books to conclude. She reports on that outpouring here.

According to Merry, there was “nearly universal agreement on a handful of books.” Perhaps readers were reminded of these loathed conclusions by Charles’s post, as the comments repeat many of the examples he highlighted. A “top contender for worst ending” was Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. After all the clever and powerful twisting back and forth between Nick and Amy, the consensus seems to be that it’s just too weak. Another popularly unpopular ending was that of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I think I read that years ago, but maybe I just remember Rene Zellweger.

In contrast to Gone Girl, in which the ending just flopped, the disappointment with Cold Mountain seems to be a case in which readers didn’t like the ending the writer chose (my problem with Tess of the D’Urbervilles). People have been saying the same about Romeo and Juliet, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina for generations It’s almost as if we readers are saying, don’t make us care about these characters so much unless you plan to keep them alive long enough for a sequel!

As one reader (Javachip) wrote more eloquently, “There’s a difference between endings that crush you with their sadness or horribleness but still work, and indeed you hate them because they work, (he cites examples), vs. endings that feel like a cheat.” (Emphasis added.) In that category he puts Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett—the first of hers I ever read, years ago—and I do not remember the ending at all. Must not have made much of an impression. At least it didn’t make me mad.

A surprising number of readers confess to reading the end first. “I always enjoy a journey more if I [don’t] have to worry about where I am going,” said Post reader Alison Cartwright. Something I would never do, would you?

And then there were the contrarian readers who suggested nominees for best ending, including The Great Gatsby and The Underground Railroad. Lopezgirl5 is a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s ending for Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” That might make a good first line for a certain kind of story, as well.

Photo: pixel2013 for Pixabay

Adding Some Theater Magic to Your Novel

Lady Macbeth

The set and costume choices used in theater are akin to how authors describe settings and the clothing their characters wear. Everything’s a choice—a tangible one or the words used to describe it. People (readers) evaluate our surroundings and what people wear all the time in everyday life, which puts a burden on writing about them. Are the details we choose meaningful? This is what set and costume designers understand to a fare-thee-well.

Where Are Your Characters? The Setting

Sets and costumes were the topic of my third “How to Watch a Play” class led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Theater J in Washington DC. Sets and costumes give a show its tone and style and help define where and when it takes place. Check Google images for different productions of the same play, and you’ll find “dramatically” different interpretations that serve different dramatic concepts. Authors can use their descriptions in the same way, in order to establish a vision of a person or place in the reader’s mind. Auntie Mame wearing “all her pearls” (tells you everything you need to know about her!) or the foggy treetop setting for Nick Petrie’s escaping hero in Burning Bright.

The big difference is, of course, the theater audience can take in the set and costumes in a glance, whereas a written text works best when it focuses on a few key aspects. Does it matter that the carpet is beige, or is it more important that all the tables and shelves are glass (later to be broken)? Does it matter that the protagonist’s shoes are black, or will it be consequential that those shoes are the aptly-named stilettos? As a reader, I don’t care that a woman’s suit is gray, I care that she hasn’t changed style or color in forty years.

Innumerable specific choices in the set design—the materials used, their color and texture, and whether they appear buoyant or heavy, for example—can be brought into the visual field or, in writing, into the text, to convey not just what a room looks like, but to suggest the kinds of things that have happened there and can happen again.

What Do Your Characters Wear?

To convey a sense of the status and personality of a tale’s characters, costume designers use line, color, fabric, accessories, makeup, and wigs/hair. One of my “unforgettable theater moments” was a costume moment during a Folger Theatre production of Richard III. The cast was dressed all in black, the simple set was heavy and dim. No color at all. As Act II (I think) began, Richard, wearing a black cape, trudged up a short stairway. At the top, he flung open the cape, revealing a spotlit scarlet lining. No question about his murderous intentions! Or think of a Walter Mosley character wearing a wife-beater.

Dressing a character in all black or all white also suggests something about them. White usually implies purity. A bit of counter-costuming often gives Lady Macbeth a long white gown. In one production I saw, she was on stage alone and turned her back to the audience to grip the iron bars of a gate in both hands (thereby breaking gel-packs of fake blood). She ran her hands up and down her torso and, when she turned to face us, the blood-stained white dress was a shocker and, of course, dramatically significant (the pictured costume accomplishes a similar message).

Writers can’t achieve the same visual shock on the page but can always rope in a gobsmacked observer. Next time you go to the theater or watch a well-designed tv show, notice how the choices about sets and costumes shed light on the story and characters. Those skills are there for adaptation in writing. Choices (good, bad, or indifferent) have been made.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Theme

There’s a place in the world for books whose sole aim is to entertain, but these books often don’t have staying power. Shakespeare, Dickens (the inspiration for the names of our kittens, Will and Charles), Twain—wrote stories that were popular and, because they explore universal themes, have continued relevance to readers today. Modern authors tackle difficult themes too: Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison. As do mystery/thriller writers: Steph Cha, Walter Mosley, Don Winslow.

Author Philip Pullman’s Insight

In a recent Guardian essay, author Philip Pullman discussed how he arrives at a theme. His works have themes, in retrospect, but “that aim or purpose, or theme, wasn’t where I started. It’s far too abstract.” He allows as how some successful writers can start with a theme and develop a novel to illustrate it. Not him. “I don’t start with a theme in mind at all,” he says, “but with characters in particular situations. If I’m lucky a theme becomes visible to me before I reach the end of the story, so I can go back and cut, or shape, or move, or amplify, or reduce various parts of the text in order to clarify the theme I’m beginning to see.”

I was so happy to read this, because I’d been feeling rather dim that I didn’t recognize sooner the theme of the novel I’ve been working on. I thought of it as a simple crime novel, in which a man fails to do something important and fears he’ll be found out. He torments himself about this, but before he can substantively confront his failing, a great many more bad things happen, to him and to those he loves. Not until I was writing query letters (better late than never) did I realize the story is about a man trying to regain self-respect. (You’ll have to read the book to find out whether he succeeds.) In other words, a theme can reveal itself organically out of the work.

Surprise!

This recognition was a surprise. I hadn’t counted on being skilled enough to create something around a Theme. Even the idea sounds like a prescription for deadly prose. However, I shouldn’t have been wary. As Donald Maass, in his excellent advice to writers suggests, no matter what the specific content (time, place, characters, plot) of a novel is, these specifics need to connect to something larger, to the universal. That’s what creates the emotional connection for the reader.

We may not have the experience of being stranded on Mars, but we know what it is to feel abandoned, to keep our spirits up by busily plugging away at tasks that are manageable. We may not have the experience of living in Margaret Atwood’s Gideon, but many women (at least) know what it is to play eternal second-fiddle to another group of people, to be systematically devalued. We may not have the experience of my character, architect Archer Landis, who discovers a murder and doesn’t report it, but we know what it is to feel shame.

For the past few Thursdays, my posts have examined influences in my crime novel, tentatively titled Four Proofs of Courage. I’m delighted to report that it is under contract with Black Opal Books, and when I have the schedule, I’ll share it. I appreciate the readers who have told me they like these posts. I hope you do too and would love to hear from you. Previous posts in “Where Writers’ Ideas Come From”:
Why an Architect?
Who Are These Women?
Seeing the World Through a Character’s Eyes
What Kind of Trip Is It?
Slivers of Backstory

Photo: pasja1000 for Pixabay