Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Translators often say that one of the things they like best about their job is research (though writers could claim the same). A proper rendering in the target language involves looking into the subject matter of the source text, with attendant crash courses in history and vocabulary. You can never quite predict the strange side alleys where translating will lead you. While working on the uncollected story “Talking Ape Clobbered by Clowns” (which appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Epiphany) I stumbled across Heidegger’s concept of Geworfenheit, or “thrownness”: “the accidental nature of human existence in a world that has not yet been made our own by conscious choice.” It seemed to describe perfectly this headlong tale of circus life with a climax in which the hapless heroine’s last words as she is hurled from a speeding motorcycle are “Oh Lord, what is this world where I've been flung?” (When I asked Châteaureynaud about Geworfenheit, he smiled, intrigued, and said he’d never heard of it.) In researching the story “Delaunay the Broker,” I scoured the sites of antique dealers to get visuals of silver sauceboats on pedestal bases and collectible decorated snuffboxes, the better to wrap my head around the objects described in French. I even paid visits to auction houses. On the whole, I’m very thankful to be a translator in the age of Google.
Châteaureynaud wrote “Delaunay” in 1988, and Words Without Borders published my translation in November 2005: the author’s English language debut. The discussion that follows may perhaps be most rewarding for those who've had a chance to read the story. Its plot ****SPOILERS**** is simple: the narrator, antiques dealer Edmond Thyll, obtains the services of the titular Delaunay, a broker noted in the business for being able to procure almost any item, down to the last detail, that a client might demand. Delaunay, is, in essence, that magical figure able to make dreams come true (in this case, within the admittedly narrow bounds of antiquarian collectibles, but chalk that up to Châteaureynaud’s sense of humor). No wonder, then, he excites the curiosity and cupidity of the narrator, who takes it upon himself to violate Delaunay’s sole stipulation: that he never ask where Delaunay gets his goods. Sneaking into Delaunay’s apartment, he finds Delaunay’s unsettling, even horrifying diary of the ordeals he suffers in the other world from which he procures his objects. Naturally, Delaunay leaves Thyll’s service, and in the end Thyll is left alone with a copy he made of the diary, “the only diary of the fantastic in the history of literature,” which it seems he will contemplate for the rest of his days.
There are several ways to read this story. One that immediately leaps to mind is as a variation on an age-old cautionary tale: don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. If curiosity does not, in this case, kill Thyll, it leaves him haunted and bereft. As in fables, action and moral are somewhat predictable, speaking to the perennial, if lamentable human desire to ruin a good thing. But is that all we can get from the story?
Châteaureynaud’s skill at sketching character with economy, sympathy, and precision is such that we might also deepen our appreciation of the tale by subjecting it to a realist reading. The realist short story is generally said to “reveal character,” and the psychological exploration of character and motivation is often cited as a goal of “literary” rather than “genre” fiction (scare quotes denote the "common wisdom" aspect of these definitions, rightly contested). Through this lens, the denouement of “Delaunay” has the inevitability of the well-told tale. Instead of speaking to a universal human failing—-ceding to temptation—-the story plots, step by step, the specific ways in which Thyll’s weaknesses prove his undoing. Right from the outset we get hints of the narrator's character from his behavior: vain, snobbish, easily flattered, grasping, envious, and mistrustful. The latter qualities are expanded on when he reveals how he first became acquainted with the private eye that he hires to follow Delaunay: he’d once hired the same man to follow a former lover. There's also direct reference to the narrator's homosexuality, his attraction to Delaunay, and his inability to have lasting relationships. Seen this way, the story becomes an investigation of the drive to covetousness and curiosity in which the fantastic element is merely a device, comparable to a more realist conceit, to shine a light on the operations of these emotions.
Ah, but what about the mysterious Delaunay, who’s never developed? What about the harrowing world he visits, so coyly referred to as “crossing the bar” (no reference to Tennyson intended)? For realists, this is the elephant in the room, and must at least be boiled down to metaphor, if not psychology. But in the literature of the fantastic, the fantastic is the raison d’être. The abiding richness of a fantastical element may in fact lie in its resistance to explanation and its refusal to be reduced to metaphor. It simply is. As Brian Evenson puts it in his preface to A Life on Paper, “Like Kafka, Châteaureynaud has little interest in explaining away the fantastic or in dulling its claws: the dreamy strangenesses to be found in his stories simply exist and must be taken at face value.”
“Delaunay,” then, presents us with a perfect example of story of the fantastic in its classical form, in which an impossible and inexplicable phenomenon, usually the crux of the tale, is briefly visited upon the protagonist. As critic and Surrealist Roger Caillois would say, the fantastic “manifests itself as scandal, rift, or tear, an uncanny, almost unbearable irruption into the real.” Sometimes the light that shines through this crack lays us bare, leaves us shriven. Other times, darkness comes through instead, making us unsure of the world we think to know when suddenly we find it shrouded in shadow.
Finally—and I owe this reading to my friend Ken Schneyer—“Delaunay the Broker” may be taken as a religious allegory. Any broker is a go-between, but one endowed with the power to fulfill desires becomes, in such a scheme, the intermediary between some unknowable Other, like God, and the world of flawed mortals like the narrator. His diary describes experiences tortured and ecstatic as those of mystics, and that other world where “all things are the same” but “the same as what I cannot say” resembles a Platonic world of forms. But in return, Delaunay asks trust: a leap of faith the narrator can't make. When the narrator betrays this trust, he is left with the writings of the prophet Delaunay: holy writ and scripture, a host and reliquary from which the incomparable, uncapturable spirit has moved on.
If you’ve had a chance to look at this story or any others by Châteaureynaud, what are some of your interpretations? Do you read realist and fantastical work with different mindsets or expectations? Share your personal narratives of reading in the comments section!
Monday, June 28, 2010
A doctor tells a man he’s dead, so he goes home to inform his family and arrange his own funeral. A taxi driver has the best night of his life on a street off all the city maps, but what awaits when, years later, he finally finds his way back? A father tries to ease his obsessive grief over his wife’s death by taking several photos of his daughter every hour of her life. A poet in a mid-life crisis stumbles into a museum devoted to his past, present, and… future? Returned from abroad and weary of war, a king tries to reconstruct a pavilion remembered from his distant childhood. An antiques dealer meets a scout who can furnish any item a client might desire. A fortunetelling parrot frightens a glove merchant contemplating suicide in one of the automated firing-squad booths conveniently installed around his city. To please his new girlfriend, a translator must give up the humming mummy he keeps in a double bass case. A musician returns to his hometown to discover his childhood sweetheart has committed suicide… but then again, the river Tartarus doesn’t just run through everyone’s hometown.
Earlier this month, Small Beer Press debuted French fabulist Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud in English with A Life on Paper, a collection of short stories spanning the author’s career from his beginnings in the mid-‘70s to his most recent collection in 2005. Handpicked from among the hundred-odd he’s written, these stories—-eerie, wondrous, monstrous, mocking, and genteel—-showcase the variety of subjects, influences, and structures unified by the author’s subtle, graceful style and his principal concerns: nostalgia, the intersections of dream and reality, the ironies of fate, and the painful knowledge of mortality.
How do you tell someone about something you’ve lived with for years in near silence? Where do you start? For so long, it feels like I’ve been the only reader for these stories—-and in a way, I have: there were people I could speak to about them in French, but whom could I talk to about them in English? Whom could I talk about their English versions to? Not editors who’d rejected them, often not even the overworked editors who’d accepted them for publication in literary magazines. After a day of translation at my desk, I’d emerge from work both exhausted and elated, as from immersion in a sea of stories. Now that these stories are finally out, able to be shared with an Anglophone audience, holding this handsome hardcover up to my ear is like standing in a landlocked state and hearing an echo of that distant ocean’s roar. But it's you readers out there--swimmers all--I want to hear from. I want to hear whether the water's warm or cold, clear or murky, calm or roiling. Send me postcards with a few lines about waves lapping at your feet, or radio warnings of riptides, photos of brightly-hued fish in quick schools. What do you want to know about Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud? What can I pass on about him, or from you?
I first came across Châteaureynaud’s work in 2005, in the Zulma reprint of his 1989 collection Le Jardin dans l’île. There are books you pick up that it turns out have been waiting for you, or you for them. Some are there as Virgil was for Dante, to take you by the hand and guide you through a dark wood. There are certain prose styles, of an instantly suggestive music, that sound to me like half a duet. They are waiting for their partner in another tongue to complement them with harmony and complete the performance. No doubt this is a translator’s fancy: coming after German, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Bulgarian, Greek, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Slovenian, Hungarian, and Croatian, English has certainly kept Châteaureynaud waiting.
What first drew me to Châteaureynaud was his use of the fantastic as an investigation of regret, a theme dear to my backward-glancing heart. But really, the Castelreynaldian fantastic does through indirection, unsettling symbol, or calm account of the impossible the very thing literature is meant to: lend voice to solitary experience or singular witness. How many of us, back from a foreign land, then face the difficulty of describing our time there? How often, over the breakfast table or even a lover’s pillow, have we found it hard to articulate a particularly compelling dream? How do we negotiate our return from the unrepeatable and unprovable; how do we import, intact, what only we have seen back into a social world—-a world of consensual meanings—-and make it matter to others? These concerns are central to the fantastic as a genre, which, as Tzvetan Todorov put it, forces the reader’s hesitation between natural (psychological) and supernatural (marvelous) explanations for the events described.
Here I am, then: back from a foreign land. Someone told me marvelous stories there. Impossible things happen in them, things that cannot be explained except by telling you each tale in its entirety. So I will do just that. I will pass these stories on intact, just as I learned them, but in the language you and I speak to one another.
Widely known in his native France, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud has been honored over a career of more than 30 years with the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle, and the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire at Utopiales. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, The Harvard Review, The Southern Review, Words Without Borders, AGNI Online, Epiphany, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Postscripts, Eleven Eleven, Sentence, Joyland, and The Café Irreal. His work has been compared to that of Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Cortazar, Isak Dinesen, and Steven Millhauser.
A graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the Centre National du Livre, Ledig House, the Banff Centre, and the American Literary Translators Association. His work has also appeared in World Literature Today, Subtropics, Absinthe, Two Lines, and Tin House. The winner of the 2010 John Dryden Translation Prize, in the coming year he will be a Fulbright scholar in Brussels, studying Belgian fantastical fiction.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Joan with her granddaughters Brittany and Bella (right to left)
A wise friend suggested I list some of the ways in which the calling of writing makes one happy—to ward off evidence that the work brings an apparently limitless supply of frustration, loneliness, difficulty so cunningly intricate it approaches a kind of Escherian sublimity, and in result, anguish.
An answering image comes to mind, from a silly Tom Hanks movie called "Splash." In it, Darryl Hannah plays a modern mermaid, whose fate is to own a pair of (drop-dead) female legs on land but, as soon as she’s in water, to manifest a glorious, scaly, powerfully-tailfinned bottom half. One scene I remember shows her filling a tub, with the bathroom door locked. The next moment we see her blissfully reclined in that tub: a brief retreat from the bewildering demands of humans, her fabulous tail flicking once or twice in peace and contentment. The bath has clearly restored an ineffable, deeply right state of things, down to the DNA.
It feels like that to be sitting at the keyboard.
I’m pretty sure I was imprinted to respond this way by my late father—a teacher who spent endless hours in the simple den he’d built behind our Arizona home. There he’d installed air conditioning, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a first-rate sound system, and a big desk made from a wooden door placed on two low filing cabinets. He burned incense in a little brass Buddha, played jazz, classics, Broadway, and opera on the stereo, and typed his head off—a rich, staccato music of its own, filled with the intensity of his thinking—at a Royal Portable typewriter which later became my high school graduation gift.
The objects, the tableau, the sounds and smells (sandalwood, sweat, books)—shaped me early, at what I’d have to call soul level. Anyone who’d known my father, and then lived to see my studio out behind our house today—its big old wooden desk, shelves of books, Glen Gould on the CD player—would be entitled to laugh, because it would appear I’d done my best to copy my father’s retreat in every detail (except the incense). Most tellingly, to "assume the position"—sitting at the desk, staring at pages or screen—still gives the instant, deep comfort of the fetal curl.
Here are similar moments, gathered in a free-association search:
- Intervals at the desk when it occurs to you that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and that you’re writing to find out. Your heart pounds.
- Finding a way through heinously painful passages that must nonetheless be told: being “accurately alive” to the framed experience, to borrow a fellow writer's words. Getting it right gives something and eases something, but I won't call it psychotherapy, because it's not.
- Rereading work after a long time away from it and feeling extreme relief to see that it still reads as it should.
- Feeling not ashamed but loyal, even grateful toward prior work. It was necessary, and you can stand by it.
- Driving alone in the car, and suddenly understanding what the title must be. (Titles are such a strange and delicate business—you seek them as if setting out to bag Tinkerbell in a butterfly net.)
- Swimming or walking or washing dishes or sweeping or staring at nothing, and understanding, of a sudden, what needs to happen next.
- Going into a piece of work to clean it up, and in some blessed flash seeing where certain material can naturally fall away. The unnecessary words almost turn a lighter shade before your eyes.
- Getting up from the desk as if from a long sleep, with only the dimmest sense of how much time has passed.
- Being unwilling to stop, even to eat. It happens. (And I really, really love food.)
- Bothering to turn on the light at night to jot the needed words, even if they wind up getting dumped. (You may insist you can remember without jotting. Good luck with that.)
- When life appears to be rocketing to hell and the known world exploding into gumball-sized shards, you can begin to write about it. The act is private, costs no money, keeps you company, gives validation, context, and some degree of control: a precious, slim tether to the sanity you feared for.
- Images and words surface like golden carp: from memory, from an odd photograph, from dreams. A kid’s face. Camellias in half-decay. A dead robin. A painting. An argument on a beach, long ago. A phrase—fitting the need to hand like a little key.
- Weirdly, there’s even satisfaction in getting stuck. It's a signal you’re underway. Somehow you'll dig out, or wander accidentally through a side passage—often unaware you did, until later. There’s excitement in the trust you learn to place in that process, in making yourself receptive to it.
- Stumbling into reading that helps, in some way, what you’re working on.
- A note arrives like a “message in a bottle,” telling you someone was reached and moved by your work.
- You send a note to someone whose work has reached and moved you, and (as frosting) receive a warm response.
Many of the above sound like the habits and consolations of a junkie: while the comparison’s a bit violent, it may not be completely inaccurate. But the tradition—of needing a writing life to survive—emerges from a long, distinguished, and not-so-distinguished past. Flaubert called it “a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Somerset Maugham said that after a good day’s writing, regular life struck him as “a bit flat and pale” by comparison.
I recall a "Saturday Night Live" sketch years ago, showing a couple strolling happily through a city park. As they did, a voiceover declared quietly, “These two people have not used any commercial product to make themselves more attractive to each other.”
In the same spirit: none of the above-described pleasures has much to do with publishing.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
In my alternate life as a book reviewer, I come across a practice that’s more and more pervasive, and it happens like this:
A first novel by a very bright, up-and-coming young author arrives for review. At the back of the novel the publisher has attached a section called (I'll invent a title to camouflage it) “Additional Info and More About Me.”
This section features the writer's photo—way handsome—followed by a little snack-tray of personal chat: a self-deprecating, witty narrative about his life, background, the writing of the book, and a quick tour of the books he's presently reading. For a farewell flourish he lists all the titles he'd first wanted to give the novel in my hands, and his funny reasons for rejecting each.
The purpose of these sparkling riffs is of course to draw readers. The “More About Me” section—promised in a shiny, medal-like sticker on the book’s cover—offers a literary amuse-bouche.
Of course I skip straight to this section, the same way I leaf through gossip magazines at the supermarket checkout. And in an instant, I want to tell the writer (and his publicist) with a groan: No, no, no. Please don’t do this.
It isn’t that the author's small talk isn't fun or tasteful: it's downright demure, compared with the antics of many websites and trailers. But a website or a video trailer—so far, anyhow—exists in a separate physical (or virtual) space. If you make a sandwich of the actual novel slapped up against the author’s jolly scrapbook-noodling, it strikes me that you not only devalue the novel—you make it almost irrelevant. Why should a reader bother with a flimsy, made-up story when she can zero in, between the same covers, on the tasty dirt of the writer’s life?
My guess is that most readers will skim the novel after having sucked up the more salacious stuff at the back—and only then if there happens to be nothing else to do.
And there’s always, always something else to do.
To survive, literary fiction—last time I checked—must create urgency, even inside the quietest tale. A reader’s got to need to push through, compelled by the story’s voice, or because she's curious about what happens next, or both. She’s got to care. One of the lines that still reverberates across decades, from J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, is Holden Caulfield’s tense refrain: If you really want to hear about it . . . Those words served as Holden’s sword and shield—and bait. Very few, he understood, really give a toss. It's a story's job to lure them.
I’m not arguing for piousness, exactly. I like the junk food of gossip as much as anybody, and to be fair, reading about artists' personal struggles (in their letters, for example) can inspire as powerfully as their works. Just, please—invoking that famous old New Yorker division between its advertising and editorial departments—can't we keep the elevator doors separate?
A writer offers a piece of fiction by way of saying Here is a dream I made. The reader takes it into her hands, answering I accept your dream for the duration of its reading—if it can hold me. The dream is a world. Unlike a website, film, or television show, a book doesn't commend itself to dreams when bound together with a series of outtakes, commercial tie-ins, funny bloopers, action figures, key chains, and the author tweeting what he ate for breakfast. Those latter forms of outfall may show up—but please, don't leash them to the art.
Introductions and acknowledgment pages aside—when personality profiling is packed cheek to cheek with fiction, it strikes me that the primacy of the “real” voice nearly always trumps. Some delicate membrane dissolves, a little sickeningly. Readers' sympathies naturally flow toward the "actual"—melting fiction's dream, rendering it gossamer, sometimes even silly. What's more, a reader can sneak back anytime and check out those dishy pages whenever she gets bored with the story (the poor story!)—like porn stashed in the back of a textbook.
So when that delicious suspension—okay: for this moment, this dream and no other—is punctured, what's left? The novel becomes an infomercial or larky exercise, winking the neon message Ha, Just Fooling Around.
A new genre? Possibly. And for some, that might be ideal—but I can't really say I want to hear about it. There's little time, and so much wonderful work out there yet to read.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Joan Frank with her granddaughters Bella, 9 , Brittany 11, and her husband, playwright Bob Duxbury.
Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Don Emblen was one of those tough old believers, a poet, publisher and bibliophile who lived hard. Lifelong friends included Donald Hall, Robert Bly, and the late William Stafford. He worked for what was then the Los Angeles City News Service, chased submarines in the Navy, married three times, had kids and grandkids, taught English Lit thirtysome years at the same Northern California college, and acted as a second father to my husband, whom he hired many years ago to teach there as well.
Don’s passions were myriad. He ran a hand-press; printed chapbooks and broadsides. He drove for Meals on Wheels; grew fruit and vegetables. He hiked and traveled, Nova Scotia to Prague, and wrote about all of it. He held soirées: people read from new work; chamber ensembles serenaded. He published a monthly newsletter called The Reader’s Rejoinder, a literary almanac produced on his outsized manual typewriter. In 1999, he was crowned the first Poet Laureate of Sonoma County.
All this is to describe a polymath, whose driving passion was language. He wrote perhaps 4000 poems, and several books—including an early biography of Peter Mark Roget, creator of the thesaurus. Though frail and wizened toward the end, Don’s verve never flagged. His gravelly voice often popped up on our answering machine with questions about a name or title or phrase. He critiqued our work; left sacks of fruit on our front porch. Don died a year ago. We miss him fiercely.
After his memorial service, I wandered to a table bearing some of his effects. I saw the famous Emblen typewriter, on which he’d scotch-taped the local library’s schedule. Then something else caught my eye: an early book co-written with his first wife, called Palomino Boy, a young people’s novel about a Mexican-American child, hardcover: Viking Press, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1948.
The clear plastic cover had clouded; the pages yellowed around their edges. I looked at the book’s first sentence: Juan was as brown as the side of a mountain.
I flipped to the back jacket flap. There was a stunning young Don, almost unrecognizably handsome, walking the beach with a dazzling first wife, arm tightly around her waist, their hair wind-whipped. They looked like movie stars: an ad for joy. It streamed from their bodies, their faces.
I felt a little seasick.
It wasn’t that I don’t know this is the way of things. Other remarkable friends have died, never attaining anything close to Don’s fabulous earthly score of ninety years. It wasn’t that I didn’t rejoice to see this evidence of a brilliant youth.
It was the book.
Who would remember it? To whom, besides family and intimates, could it now possibly matter? I held it in my hands like Yorick’s skull.
Days later, I looked it up online. A smattering of libraries held copies; bookfinders offered it as an antiquarian title, often for outrageous prices. I found a hand-typed 1948 University of Illinois Library list of new titles coming out that year, dismissing Palomino Boy with a sniff: “not a must.” (It pleases me to think that the sniffer must be long dead.) And I found an old New York Times review—a two-paragraph blurb from 1949. It used dated terms (“Negro”) but its verdict was kind, signed by Cornelia Ernst Zagat, someone I now wish I could have known: “ . . . Simplicity and a poetic quality in the writing and convincing characterization. Eight to ten-year-olds will appreciate this wise and beautiful story.”
The story broaches, with extreme gentleness, the problem of racism, or Other-ness. The orphaned Juan, who lives with an American foster family, worries that he is the wrong color. Animal and human friends, of different colors, teach him otherwise. The illustrations (called “decoration” in the Times review) are dreamily beautiful, like woodcuts.
Don had never mentioned the book. I’d never known it existed. Coming upon it felt like finding a mummy in my basement. The dismay was complicated by my own writing life: kin to the hauntedness I always feel seeping from used-book stacks—the eyeball-stinging smell of aging paper, the curled, flaking pages—but in this instance, more sickeningly personal. Yes, Don wrote other books. But Palomino Boy had been a novel by the young, for the young; an act of life, real and, apparently, au courant.
Now it was a relic.
An adult novelist understands certain things rationally: call it mortal realism. We suppose we grasp the fact of our own eventual deaths. Secular writers can recite all the usual brave existential bromides: meaning is bound up in the process of making, in the richness of the life. But just beneath that sane veneer a wildly stubborn part of us, a magical thinking part, wants things to add up in our favor. And in bald point of fact, things rarely add up—rather, they add up too predictably. That afternoon, I felt with new sharpness (in stomach, lungs and heart) the limits of the artmaker’s quest—which, if we’re honest, is to leave something that will last, something that will continue to pulse with meaning.
What do we think of, these days, as lasting? Fifty years? Five hundred? With novels, we’re speaking of an art form that only found its footing in the 19th century. All I can attest is that sixty years struck me, while I held Don’s book in my hands, as both a very long tunnel, and a handful of sand.
Of course at some level (mostly unspoken) we understand that nearly everyone’s books will go the way of Palomino Boy—all but those of a very well-known few. Beyond them, “the grave’s a fine and private place.” (It was one of Don’s favorite lines.)
Can one stop writing, after the physical reality of this truth enters one’s body?
Is there a way, in face of this, to make sense of the writer’s art, of the calling to make art, that avoids platitudes and specious sentiment?
Maybe. Probably not.
I don’t know.
Friday, June 11, 2010
Helen Simonson hails from Sussex, land of rolling chalk downs and many, many sheep.I recently drove seven hours from my home in the Washington DC area to the Hamptons. Driving alone, with just my dog for company, I listened to a wonderful set of CDs my mother had given me called The Spoken Word: British Writers, one in a series produced by the British Library Sound Archives. On three CDs, famous writers, including Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, spoke, lectured or were interviewed about writing. It was haunting to find myself barreling up I95, listening to writers, some of whose voices were only just able to be caught and recorded. The recordings are soft, the words often mumbled and the scratchiness of early technology (shellac discs) is evident. None of the writers had been given ‘media training’ and it was fun to hear the long pauses, coughs, striking of pipe matches and clinking of tea cups or train announcements in the background of various interviews. The voices too, spoke an English long disappeared; even from the royal family. They used ‘e’ instead of a short ‘a’ - so that Pall Mall became Pell Mell, and happy became heppy.
In a 1958 TV interview, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, was asked if the coming of recording technology spelled the end of the written word and if all novels would become spoken. He mused on the economic difficulties of publishing and suggested that the cheaper spoken word might be a way out, though it would require novels to give way to shorter pieces. It was strange to realize that the current debate over the rise of the e-book is really as old as the gramophone. I am comforted that if the eight-track tape recorder did not spell the end of books, that even in the internet age, they will survive. It is one of the joys of my email inbox, by the way, to hear from people who have read me on Kindle, or some other e-reader, and write to tell me they have then rushed out to buy a copy. It seems the books we truly love demand a physical presence in our homes.
In scraps of a 1937 radio piece, the only surviving recording of her voice, Virginia Woolf spoke of English as an ancient language where every word comes freighted with echoes of the ways it has been used before; such that the writer’s task of combining words in new ways is made almost impossible. I thought of the word (and place), ‘Agincourt’ and how difficult it would be to use it without conjuring Shakespeare’s Henry V. I thought of putting a posy under a ‘bell jar’ and how Sylvia Plath had taken those words out of circulation; much as a famous baseball jersey might be retired. Most of all, I decelerated to an unacceptably slow pace for highway driving, as if this might somehow extend the joy of hearing the real Virginia Woolf talking to me.
Meanwhile, Rebecca West, journalist, critic, author and early suffragette, spoke to her interviewer, in 1958, of what a shame it was that so many people were now being taught to read and how this post-war expansion rendered it much less feasible for any one person to distinguish themselves in the art. She seemed to genuinely deplore the mediocre masses being granted access to the treasure of books and education. This was a sad reminder that even the most progressive of people may hold bigoted ideas in some areas. And isn’t it funny how the advancement of others is fought so hard by those who already hold all the advantages? If Rebecca West had been in charge of post-war education, I might have been trained to run a sewing machine instead of being introduced to Shakespeare and Chaucer!
As I walked my dog in a highway rest area or tried to eat a hard-boiled egg while negotiating a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike, I thought about all the writers we will never hear on CD – those who lived before the advent of sound recording. I will never hear Jane Austen talk about Emma, or poor Boswell defend his obsession with Samuel Johnson. I gained a new appreciation of the importance of capturing, in sound and video, writers talking about their work.
Accepting that writers belong in a multi-media world is not a easy position for me. I’m not that comfortable on video (no close-ups please!) and I’m suspicious of recording devices – too many politicians have been caught making off-color remarks into open microphones. I want people to judge my work independent of what they might think of me and I’m afraid of being captured and preserved in some awful dress and unfortunate hairstyle (is that Helen Simonson with the mullet and caftan?). However, it was just too wonderful to listen to Somerset Maugham sum up his life’s work and muse, in 1949, whether a few of his stories might survive the ages. I wanted to talk back and let him know he was still read and had a new biography out! I realized that I want to hear and see all my favorite writers and I think this means I need to stop being afraid of the video camera myself. So I’ll be looking for more of these British Library sound recordings and I’ll be seeing you on YouTube, folks!
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
At Book Expo America 2010 from left to right: Leslie Sari, Kay Hodges, Helen Simonson, and Marsha Toy Engstrom, The Book Club Cheerleader
photo courtesy of Marsha Toy Engstrom
I’m just back from my first book tour! I published my debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, in early March and while not all debut authors are sent on the road, my book did well enough that my publishers, Random House, sent me on five weeks of touring. You are probably wondering what is so blog-worthy about a writer going on book tour? After all, isn’t that what writers do? But this is my very first novel and my very first tour, so I felt like a small child in a pink tutu on her first trip to the big candy store downtown. In security lines at regional airports, I slipped in and out of my ruby slippers. Arriving in new cities, I was as starry-eyed s if my media escort were meeting me with a glass coach rather than a Honda Civic.
I loved the hotels. They looked just like regular hotels, with lobbies and cute little bottles of shampoo and room service, but I didn’t have to pay for them, so they all seem more shiny, and I didn’t have to wait for my husband to leave the room to dive into the minibar (my husband believes minibars do not offer good travel value).
I loved being escorted. I made an immediate pledge to myself not to take unfair advantage of this service and act like some diva. However, I did allow many of my wonderful escorts to drive me around the nicest homes in each city and of course I always asked to lunch in some obscure spot, beloved of locals – but only if it wasn’t any trouble.
I had intended to treat my tour like a spa trip and eat nothing but salad and fish. But some of the obscure local spots had things like biscuits or maple pancakes and it would have been rude not to try them. I also tried to avoid wine, except wherever I was being toasted. I would not have eaten the chocolate-covered coffee beans, given to me by a nice bookstore owner, had I not been desperate for more room in my cute carry-on bag.
I may be making it sound fun, but many authors complain about book tours being very exhausting. I do have to agree. Some days I had to be chauffeured to two appearances, not one, and reading all those pages and signing books until my wrist ached was not easy; even though I am a trained professional. I had to chat with my readers, maintain my best behavior at power lunches with industry folks – and then there was all that flying, with the associated task of buying magazines in airport newsstands. Some days I really could have used an afternoon nap.
I can’t tell you what a relief it was to get home and back to being a stay-at-home mom with laundry and grocery runs and car pools. I welcomed a little relaxed vacuuming and washing the dog after all the hard work.
However, in retrospect it was such good fun that I believe most writers must live in constant danger of wanting to be on book tour instead of buckling down to write novels. Why face the blank page and writers’ block when you can instead face the impossible decision between room service and the hotel brasserie!
Monday, June 7, 2010
My writing style can be best described as procrastination plus panic. It took me five years to write my debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and it might have taken a lot longer, had the crashing economy not made it vital to finish my MFA thesis and go find a ‘real’ job. After a slow process in which a single chapter might take me a month to complete, and the computer date stamps showed weeks of inattention, I finished in a mad dash. I endured six weeks of terror in which self-doubt appeared as a very hairy little goblin woman who sat on my left shoulder and screamed abuse in my ear, while my world shrank to the three gray walls of a fabric cubicle and the glow of a laptop screen.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I really like the writing. What I like is the completely blank mind that comes …after I have said aloud the awkward meaning of what I am trying to say, only ungrammatical…and just before the perfect phrase pops up; syntactically shiny and glowing with freshness. Those moments make me get up from my office chair and do a little jig of joy. I also like the thrill of pages fresh and hot from the printer, with numbers in the footer and my name on the top left; Helen Simonson. Imagine then how fabulous it was when I was finally presented with my name in print, on the cover of a real book!
I have written only one novel so far and I am horrified to report that it began with the slightest of ideas. I had a moment of clarity in which I decided to write something for myself, and my mind immediately produced a small brick house in the country and an older man, wearing his dead wife’s housecoat, answering the door to a stranger. I believe this moment of authentic self – in which I refused to care what others would think of me – was important to me and will be to you. We’d all like to be Tolstoy or Chekov, or Alice Munro, and sometimes we want that so badly that we reject our own voice; the one with the tendency towards humor and the distinct lack of interest in alienation, suburban angst, drug addiction - or sex presented as an act of nihilism. However, at best we can expect to produce somewhat competent pastiches of more famous (more depressed?) writers. To write something unique, I now believe, we can only go with the voice we have and hope that it is enough. When I wrote for myself, something sprang to life that I had not been able to create before. Give it a try.
Once I had a few lines, I just tried to keep going. Writing is like making one of those awful mosaic tabletops with broken plates and grout. Small shards of ideas, experience and images seemed to funnel from my head into my fingertips. I wrote linear, chapter by chapter; I also made visual story webs with fat markers on large sketchpads, as if I were in middle school. What I refused to do is to jump around and write all over the place, hoping to fit it together later. Many people like this method but I found it too scary.
I don’t believe it matters whether we write in a writing studio or on a park bench, watching our kids playing. What we all need is just to pile up pages. I find the biggest problem in piling up the pages is headspace. If I so much as look at email, consider the dirty dishes in the kitchen, sneak into the refrigerator or fight with a telephone marketer, my head fills with noise and my writing is over for the day. I try to write in the mornings and to set aside anything else that pops into my head (call the plumber, pay the mortgage, am I picking up a kid or is he going to Crew?) by writing it in a daily planner under the heading ‘call after 1pm’. I also found office space outside of my home. It’s a place I can be ‘writer’ instead of ‘mother’ for a few hours. A coffee shop might do the same trick.
I think that any kind of space and support you can build around your writing will help it survive. A set writing time, a writing class, a weekly editing group, a brief writing window carved out lunchtime at your ‘real’ job– all these can be useful. As my pages piled up, I found that they provided a foundation of support under the idea that I could be a writer. My longtime writing group, with their acerbic edits and my MFA classes with their discussions of ‘craft’, helped make writing an education, while I piled up enough pages to make it a real job. Good luck with your writing!
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The More I Write
For the longest time, my husband and my daughter told me that I should start a blog in which I posted random thoughts and observations. I shrugged. First of all, my family could not advise me. And, I did not have anything interesting to say. My observations were puerile, my conclusions, unoriginal. Who in the world would want to read my musings?
Despite myself, however, I began writing. I gathered the courage to post my thoughts in a blog titled “If the World is Flat, Why am I on Edge?” It was strange. The day I started posting, ideas spammed my brain. Like Google Alert on Permanent PMS, I found myself increasingly on edge, tuning in to keywords, watching the world falter around me, bristling when something cramped my style, scouting the daily news with a sullen giggle.
When I received a postcard with semi-erotica splayed all over it, I started. Was my mailman flirting with me? Why, I wondered, did the postcard shout “Hello Bombshell”? My thoughts on the subject became a whacky post titled “Dear Victoria: Keep Your Secret”. Then, yet another day, I was in San Francisco taking public transportation from Russian Hill to Civic Center. I spun my trip on the Muni into a story about the charm of commuting with strangers from one point to another. My father’s fascination with the lunches I prepared for him simmered into an essay on our interactions during the four months he stayed with me after my mother passed away. Oh, and yet another time, I was furious about how I was treated at a consulate just because I didn’t look like Angelina Jolie in my passport photo. Then a few weeks ago, my pressure cooker burst in my kitchen. The mishap not only sprayed its gravy onto a video blog. It sprouted into a piece of flash fiction titled “The Nerve of My Myrtle” which you can read at the end of this post. Two weeks ago, a friend, a Saratoga councilwoman, passed away after complications from advanced lung cancer. I regretted that I had never really made an effort to know her better. I was amazed at the responses (on Facebook, on email, via telephone and in person) that the words of my post elicited. I could not believe how my thoughts resonated with so many women (many of whom were unknown to me) who said they wished they had taken the time to know the brave and accomplished young lady.
One thing is now clear, I tell you: the more I write, the more I have to write.
The Nerve of The Myrtle
“Rice today, again?” she asked me, her yellow-green leaves unfurling under the growing April sun.
“Why? You have a problem with that?” I snapped. “Not like you eat anything I make anyway. You always eat out.” I don’t like my crepe myrtle prodding me about my cooking.
I hurried back inside the house. I let the door bang. She must have felt the gust of wind. The nerve. This is the problem with everything I’ve tended to gently, adoringly.
She was a bare brown twig just a few seasons ago. Then she was ablaze every May, coquetting pink with everyone who drove by. But all on a sudden, she stopped coloring her branches. I fed her the same thing that I was feeding all my other trees. She began standing there, her claws up and out, an emaciated witch with her broomstick stuck in the mud. I don’t know what was eating into her.
I really didn’t care to discuss my culinary plans with a tree which decided to boss me around simply because I came out several times in the day to hang out in my front yard and get some sun.
On one of those recent mornings when I was out, I heard her bare-knuckled twiggings.
“What?” I barked. I can’t hold it in when I’m miffed.
“Oh, nothing!” she said, swaying a little, may be even sensing my prickliness. But I heard a crack rising in one of her branches. In the past, she had shaken so hard that she lost a glad-load of leaves when she found out I’d overcooked my cauliflower, again.
“The potato was perfect today. Crunchy-roasted. Spicy. Just enough salt and spice,” I said, to no one in particular, standing on my driveway.
“Goo-od.” She rustled the “good” with her fifth branch anti-clockwise and creeped me out, I tell you. Her gnarly sixth branch was about to ask me something.
“Whatttt?” I hissed.
“Heard your pressure cooker burst last week? Was that your third? Or fourth?”
“So? Think I can’t cook without one?” I challenged her, digging my heel into her bed.
“The world didn’t have pressure cookers. People just cooked their lentils for forty minutes or three hours. As long as it took. Pressure cookers are for people under pressure. Not for people like me. Don’t you understand? NOT FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME WHO HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD. Which is why I am talking to a tree. Can’t you see?”
Just then a strong sheet of wind sailed our way and she shivered and I could swear she quickly bent over to tell my boxwoods something funny because they rippled to the right, all of them together, until seconds later I saw my miniature rose projectile-sputter and scatter its peach-pink flower petals all over my driveway.
The sprinkler came on many times that day. The water ran down my driveway and down the road until you couldn’t tell the tears apart from the real thing.