Monday, August 31, 2009
My name is Karen Bender and I’m a guest blogger this week for the Kepler’s site. I’m a novelist(Like Normal People) and short story writer—you can find recent work in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best 2008.
I teach creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I’m currently finishing a new novel called “Allegations” and story collection, “Refund.” I'm going to post some thoughts about reading and the creative process this week.
My first post is about reading--more specifically, how to keep kids reading. As a creative writing teacher, I’m often struck by how many of my undergraduate students—who enjoy writing!—are not always eager readers. They like to write, but they are sometimes surprisingly shy about reading. And this may be because of the way that reading is taught in elementary schools. I learned this from my experience as a parent of two young children—my son Jonah is 10 and my daughter Maia is 6—at our public elementary school in Wilmington, North Carolina.
At out elementary school, a highly regarded magnet school in our county, children learned reading through a program called “AR,” which stands for Accelerated Reader. It works like this. Jonah was tested for his reading and given a “level”—sat 1.6 to 3.0. That meant he could read books between these grade levels in the school library. He would trot off to the library and pick out a book. Each book was assigned a point level—1 point, 2, etc. Longer books were worth more points. After he read a book, he’d take a multiple choice test. If he answered a number of questions correctly, he’d earn the number of points that book was worth. He had a point goal—say 20 points—and once he finished his goal, he could join the class pizza party.
I couldn't believe this program when I first heard about it. It seemed like a kind of Orwellian joke.
But it was true. And worse, parents were buying into it! They were bragging about their kids’ point goals, as though a higher point goal meant the child was a better reader, were pushing their kids to read the longer point-heavy books, were threatening them that they would miss the pizza party.
I found it horrible. I hated it because the kids couldn't read books out of their “level” if they wanted. I hated it because books were reduced to multiple choice tests. And I hated the idea that he would miss out on a party because he didn't answer the multiple choice questions correctly.
Our son, who loved reading, began to resent it. I couldn't blame him. How could one enjoy reading when a test based on factoids was being held over your head? For him (and for me as a child) reading was about diving into a book, consuming it. It meant reading slowly or quickly, depending on how involved I was in the narrative, maybe skipping ahead to check out the end if I couldn't stand it anymore, reading the same passages over if I wanted to. It was not about memorization—it was about exploring. And it was about reading anything—a chapter book, a magazine, a joke book, a comic book.
At our elementary school, I noticed that some parents really only wanted their children to be reading chapter books—the longer the better. There seemed to be a competition between the parents—how early could your kid read Harry Potter? Third grade? First? It was a bizarre bragging opportunity. For even if a kid could sound out the words of Harry Potter at age six, would the child be developmentally ready for it? Aren't some books more meaningful if they’re read at the right age?
I think this might be some of the reason why some of my students hate reading. They've been taught to approach books as tasks. They view books as things you read to prepare for a test! The AR program, which is used to teach reading all over the country, is a problematic intersection between the desire to get kids to read and to measure how they’re doing it.
I think children should fall into books, like a puddle of mud. They should be able to sit and muck around in a book, reading it for the passages they enjoy, for the messages they take from it—which can be very individual messages. I think they need to fall in love with books their own way. As parents, I think we should just have them around, sit and read with them. And stop worrying about when they’ll get to Harry Potter.
Friday, August 28, 2009
I ordered this Ramadan lantern from Egypt. Ramadan traditions vary around the world, but Egypt has a long-standing tradition of Ramadan lanterns. Children insert candles into small ones and then walk along the streets at sunset, singing a song thousands of years old (no one is quite sure what it means anymore) and receiving gifts of fruit and nuts.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a lunar calendar, like most ancient religious calendars. The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad during the month of Ramadan in the early 7th century, and the Qur’an states that fasting is prescribed for Muslims, as it was for those who came before (meaning the Jews). Islam has always accepted Judaism and Christianity as part of its own tradition, with some differences, of course. When Muhammad first started preaching his religion, he urged his followers to fast on Yom Kippur in solidarity with the Jews.
For the 29 or 30 days of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, refraining from food, water, sex, and smoking. After sunset (and until dawn, when the fast starts again), normal practices are allowed again. Fasting is required only for healthy adults; those who are elderly, traveling, sick, pregnant, menstruating, or nursing should not fast. Fasting is meant to be difficult, but not dangerous. Any danger to health excuses the fast.
Muslims fast for several reasons. There’s long been an acknowledged connection between fasting and piety, and most religions observe some type of fasting. Fasting allows for leaving bodily concerns behind so that we can concentrate on higher and more spiritual goals, to reflect on and give thanks to God. (And okay, I admit it, I do always secretly hope for weight loss, but that’s incidental.)
In addition, fasting forces compassion upon us. Every hour, about 1,000 people worldwide die of hunger, hunger-related causes, and lack of drinkable water. We all know about world hunger. But nothing brings it home so personally as going without food or water yourself. I think many people would be surprised to know that what’s debilitating about fasting is not hunger pains and growling stomachs – rather, it’s the fatigue, apathy, lethargy, and inability to think clearly that is so dramatically difficult. And that’s despite knowing that we can eat and drink at sunset – a very lenient fast indeed, when compared to the starving people who don’t have an end in sight. No one takes food or water for granted during Ramadan.
Most people wake up before dawn to eat a small meal before the fast starts; I don’t, as I’d rather forgo eating than wake up at 4 am. It’s traditional to break the fast with water and dates. Muslims must break the fast immediately upon sunset, as extending the fast is not allowed, both for health reasons and for discouraging posturing (“I can fast longer than you can!”). During Ramadan, Muslims pray additional nighttime prayers, as well.
The day after Ramadan (the first day of the next lunar month) is called Eid ul-Fitr, or “Festival of the Fast-Breaking.” In many countries, feasting and celebrations take place over three days’ time. In the United States, Eid was always a disappointing holiday for me as a child; though my parents tried to make it festive, nothing we did could approach the glamorous lights and decorations and holiday music that annually heralded the arrival of Christmas. Moreover, many adults didn’t get the day off, and most Muslim families lived far enough away from each other that holiday gatherings were logistically difficult.
Still, Eid meant that we children received traditional new clothes with the reminder to wear something old underneath to keep us humble. We got presents or money, as well. And of course, everyone ate! Every culture has its traditional Eid food. Being Indian-Pakistani, my mother made kababs, biriyani (chicken in spicy rice), and sheer khurma (a milk pudding with pistachios, cardamom, and vermicelli noodles).
My daughter's palm, decorated with henna for Eid. The
stain washes away in about two weeks.
When my kids were toddlers, I decided that I wanted to make Eid more festive, so we began to throw a holiday dinner party for seventy people. We invited all our friends, whether they were Muslim or not, and distributed presents to the kids, decorated our guests’ hands with henna, and played loud Bollywood music. We greeted our guests by sprinkling rose water on their shoulders and offering them scent for their wrists. Eid parties are always formal in India and Pakistan, so we all wore formal clothes, even my husband (though not without much groaning and rolling of eyes).
During the last few years, some Muslim mosques have organized Eid festivals or fairs, featuring games and for children and various vendors selling food and textiles and clothing. Eid ul-Fitr is the most prominent holiday for most Muslims. After accomplishing a month of fasting, a celebration is in order!
Me, with guests, at our Eid party. My collection of lanterns sits on the table, and the banner reads "Eid Mubarak," or "Eid Congratulations."
The traditional Muslim greeting is also used as a farewell (like "aloha"), and is As-salamu Alaykum, which means “peace be upon you” in Arabic. The response is wa-alaykum salam, or “upon you be peace.”
So that is my Ramadan wish to everyone this year and every year: may we continue to build multicultural bridges and may we have peace upon us, whoever we are, whatever our background.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The hardest thing about writing a book on religion was how to make it interesting and fun to read. And, mind you, this wasn’t a book on just any religion, either, but Islam, a subject about which many people harbor fear and suspicion. What I had to do, I concluded, was write a nonfiction book that read like fiction. I mentioned this when conversing with my adviser, under whom I was earning my degree in Islamic law.
“Yes,” he nodded, “people believe fiction. I believe fiction.”
After a college friend of mine, a government terrorism analyst educated at Stanford and Harvard, told me that he couldn’t get past page 4 of Karen Armstrong’s Islam (written for the lay reader) because it was too dense, I nearly threw in the towel in despair! It was apparent that no matter how educated or intelligent my readers were, they didn’t want to study after a long day at work. I couldn't blame them. Eventually, I found a solution. I avoided following the traditional historical or abstract theological approach. Instead, I wrote my book in a first-person narrative, interweaving the substantive information – seamlessly, I hope – with anecdotes and vignettes of growing up South-Asian American, Muslim, and female in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. I strove for a conversational tone reminiscent of a memoir, and I wrote it in as heartfelt a manner as I could. The explanations are set in an everyday, Western context; and, though the stories are personal, the information is academically reliable. This is why The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing is a genre-bending book! It contains elements of both a memoir and an introduction. My personal stories illustrate and sometimes distinguish between Islamic doctrine. My approach was not to say, “Here’s what Islam says,” but instead: “Here’s what everyone agrees Islam says, but here’s where Muslims can disagree within the parameters of Islam, and here’s how it played out in my life.” Speaking at the Commonwealth Club on the status of women in Islam, which is one of the top two subjects I'm asked about in my personal life and in public I felt unexpectedly exposed while writing this book. (Do writers of memoirs feel minutely scrutinized under the microscope?) Although I’d always answered questions on religion freely, I had always grown up believing that religion should be private. I avoided talking about religion unnecessarily; rather, I wrote my book to answer all the questions I’d received, and continue to receive, about Islam. Writing the personal stories – many of which I had never revealed to anyone – bared my unprotected self to the public spotlight, and I didn’t like it. But I did it, because I wanted to build multicultural bridges. I wanted to write a book for all the people who didn’t have a Muslim next door to chat with at a kitchen table over a pot of tea. Enlivening a book with personal vignettes can be embarrassing...here I am with my husband, putting on my daughter's "Clown School" birthday party The reactions to my book have been interesting. I’ve received a fair amount of hate mail from non-Muslim Islam-haters (including some threats), but by far the reaction to my book has been positive. I have received many letters that give me hope for the future of a multicultural, multireligious, pluralistic society, both in the United States and elsewhere.
And I love the letters from those who tell me that they read my book far into the night or read it in two sittings or couldn’t put it down. After agonizing for years about how to make the book readable, I deserve the big, happy sigh that brings!
Eventually, I found a solution. I avoided following the traditional historical or abstract theological approach. Instead, I wrote my book in a first-person narrative, interweaving the substantive information – seamlessly, I hope – with anecdotes and vignettes of growing up South-Asian American, Muslim, and female in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. I strove for a conversational tone reminiscent of a memoir, and I wrote it in as heartfelt a manner as I could. The explanations are set in an everyday, Western context; and, though the stories are personal, the information is academically reliable.
This is why The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing is a genre-bending book! It contains elements of both a memoir and an introduction. My personal stories illustrate and sometimes distinguish between Islamic doctrine. My approach was not to say, “Here’s what Islam says,” but instead: “Here’s what everyone agrees Islam says, but here’s where Muslims can disagree within the parameters of Islam, and here’s how it played out in my life.”
Speaking at the Commonwealth Club on the status of women in Islam, which is one of the top two subjects I'm asked about in my personal life and in public
I felt unexpectedly exposed while writing this book. (Do writers of memoirs feel minutely scrutinized under the microscope?) Although I’d always answered questions on religion freely, I had always grown up believing that religion should be private. I avoided talking about religion unnecessarily; rather, I wrote my book to answer all the questions I’d received, and continue to receive, about Islam. Writing the personal stories – many of which I had never revealed to anyone – bared my unprotected self to the public spotlight, and I didn’t like it. But I did it, because I wanted to build multicultural bridges. I wanted to write a book for all the people who didn’t have a Muslim next door to chat with at a kitchen table over a pot of tea.
Enlivening a book with personal vignettes can be embarrassing...here I am with my husband, putting on my daughter's "Clown School" birthday party
The reactions to my book have been interesting. I’ve received a fair amount of hate mail from non-Muslim Islam-haters (including some threats), but by far the reaction to my book has been positive. I have received many letters that give me hope for the future of a multicultural, multireligious, pluralistic society, both in the United States and elsewhere.
Monday, August 24, 2009
When I was ten years old, I produced hundreds of handwritten pages constituting a first draft of my Epic Novel, only to find that I’d written my characters into a corner from which I couldn’t extricate them. With the disgusted optimism of a ten-year-old, I chucked the whole thing into the wastebasket and never looked back.
It’s somewhat surprising to me that, given my childhood ambitions, my first book wasn’t the Great American Novel, but rather genre-bending nonfiction. It’s called The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, and I’m proud to say it’s a Bronze Medal Winner of the 2009 Independent Publishers Awards. I can’t help but reflect, however, that it is as much a result of my childhood as that aborted 5th grade epic novel would have been.
I grew up in Southern California, a South-Asian American Muslim girl. Though Muslims have lived in the United States for years, their communities have been small, and I was often the only Muslim my acquaintances had ever known. Remember the Star Trek concept of “first contact”? Tread carefully and cautiously when approaching an alien species for the first time? Well, that was me, the first Muslim (read, “alien”) contact for many of my peers and teachers.
Consequently, I grew up routinely answering questions on Islam. Why couldn’t I eat the pepperoni pizza at the birthday party? How could I go without food or water during Ramadan? (What was Ramadan, anyway?) And what did I mean that I couldn’t go to the prom because of my religion?
When I left home to live in the freshman dormitory at Stanford University, I found myself newly engaged in interfaith discussions, because suddenly my private life, like that of everyone else in the dorm, came under close scrutiny. I found myself answering a plethora of questions: why couldn’t I date? Drink alcohol? Dance? (Actually, my not dancing stemmed more from a fear of public humiliation than from religious restrictions.)
Sumbul in her courtyard: A blend of East and West - Moroccan tiles and a Stanford sweatshirt.
By the time I began working as a corporate lawyer in the 1990s, Islam had become increasingly prevalent in the news. But the media coverage of Islam was crisis-driven and political; instead, my acquaintances wanted to know what Muslims believed and practiced. So I continued to receive questions about my religion, and – for the first time – I also began receiving requests for book recommendations.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t recommend any books on Islam. The only books populating bookstore shelves were dry, abstract textbook-type books or the occasional volume of Sufi poetry. There was nothing for it; I decided to write a primer on Islam myself.
If I’d written it then, my book would have been based on my cultural, “family” Islam, the Islam I grew up practicing. But I didn’t write it then. Instead, I left my job and earned a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London. I could then write a book that grew not only from inside Islam, but that was also based on an academic understanding of Islam. I could write a book that clearly discussed my personal views, but as one part of the entire spectrum of diverse beliefs that reside under the heading of “Islam.”
Almost as soon as I began writing, however, I got stuck. How, I thought with the specter of writer’s block looming before me, was I to write a book on religion that readers would want to read? How was I to write an entertaining introduction to Islam that would keep my readers turning pages, but would simultaneously fly free of exaggerations, hysteria, sensationalism, and fear-mongering (the usual page-turning devices when it comes to Islam)?
I searched for the answer and suffered through a few months of false starts before I became completely sidetracked and sleep-deprived by new motherhood. Writing at night after my baby and toddler had kept me running all day was rarely efficient. (And try taking preschoolers to the graduate library to do research!)I did progress, but soon hit another snag: the tragedy of 9/11 changed the world and changed the perspective of my potential readership. I threw out nearly all I had written and began again.
My son at an age at which he was uninterested in research.
In other words, the time lapse from when I first conceived my book to the time it hit bookstores in September was embarrassingly long. But, ultimately, perhaps it was simply kismet, because this book really is a culmination of my life – of a lifetime answering questions about Islam and Muslims, understanding exactly what Western non-Muslims don’t know but want to know about Islam, and growing up Muslim and American while never really perceiving any conflict therein.
I did find the answer to my writer’s block question of how to write a page-turner on religion. The accolades I value the most come from those who tell me they couldn’t put my book down. But that’s a tale for my next blog on Wednesday!
Friday, August 21, 2009
Hi, all. It’s Dan Chaon, blogging about my upcoming book, Await Your Reply, which will come out next Tuesday, August 25th.
This is a weird time. My publicist at Random House tells me that reviews are coming—in the New York Times Book Review, and People and Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post and so on and so forth. All of this will come down in the next few weeks. I’m trying to maintain a Zen attitude about it all, whatever will be will be.
It’s actually pretty nerve-wracking. It’s like being in school again, and waiting for your grades to come in. Or maybe more intense than that. It’s like writing someone a love letter, and waiting to hear how they will respond.
It has been five years since my last book, You Remind Me of Me, came out. In the subsequent years, I worked on a few different projects. I had several ideas for novels that I was toying around with before Await Your Reply began to gel. Then, even once I began working on the book in earnest, it seemed like it was a long while before it began to seem like I would ever actually finish the thing. The first hundred pages of the book were written over a pretty extended period, revised and discarded and revised again, between 2005 and 2007. The rest of the book was written over the course of a year, 2008, once I’d finally figured out what I was doing….or thought I had it figured out. As it happened, a couple of the novel’s twists and turns didn’t come to me until the final stages of writing. When I finally turned in the manuscript in late 2008, it still felt wet, newly-born and squinting in the daylight.
Still, even though it was a long time coming, it was surprising how quickly the book left my private imagination and began its way into the public world. Surprising, and a little alarming. By early 2009 I was finishing the final copy-edits, and talking to people at Ballantine about cover concepts, and filling out questionnaires for the publicity department, and I was aware that the book was now out of my hands.
There’s a weird moment when you send in the final page proofs and you are aware that you can’t change anything anymore. In the movies, the writer opens a bottle of champagne. Personally, I opened a bottle of Ambien.
Dan & his wife Sheila and Philip.
As it happens, 2009 was also the year that my oldest son, Philip, left for college. He packed up his things and cleared out his room, and at the beginning of August he drove off to California, where he will be attending Humboldt State in the fall. Readers, that’s a long way from Ohio.
I guess that launching a book is a little bit like seeing your first born head off into the world. You hope and pray for the best, but at the same time you have to accept that the outcome is now pretty much out of your hands.
Bon Voyage, Philip! Bon Voyage, Await Your Reply. Don’t forget that I will always love you, no matter what happens.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
The world loves you back, Dan Chaon!
Janet Maslin wrote a splendid review of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply in The New York Times:
August 20, 2009
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
Who Are These People? Well, That Depends, by JANET MASLIN
AWAIT YOUR REPLY, by Dan Chaon
324 pages. Ballantine Books. $25.
Dan Chaon’s strange, stunning new novel, “Await Your Reply,” is both a ghost story and a valentine. That combination isn’t as peculiar as it sounds. At the end of a book that makes spine-tingling use of shifting, elusive identities, Mr. Chaon takes time to applaud some of the authors whose great, spooky stories have haunted his own memories. His list includes not only the usual suspects (Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien, Shirley Jackson) but also relatively overlooked popular authors like Ira Levin and Thomas Tryon. Flash back to “The Other,” by Mr. Tryon, for a classic tale of scary twins.
You can read the full article here The New York Times.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
One of the things that was fun for me about this new novel is that it takes place in a wide variety of settings—from Ohio to the Northwest Territories of Canada to the Las Vegas Strip, from a hotel in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to the Centro Historico neighborhoods of Quito, Ecuador.
This is a pretty big departure for me. I started out my writing career thinking of myself as something of a regionalist writer, focused on the Western Great Plains area of Nebraska where I grew up. It’s a funny thing, since it’s been almost 25 years since I lived in that region; but the landscape remains a really big part of my imagination and often provides an inspiration for my writing. Even in this new book, a large section takes place on the Nebraska prairie.
The apartment building in Cleveland Heights where my character Miles lives.
At the same time, though I’ve lived in Cleveland for almost twenty years, Await Your Reply is the first time I’ve used Northwest Ohio as a main setting. What’s that about? I’m not sure—I guess it takes a long time for a sense of place to soak into my brain.
But I also think that my canvas has naturally begun to expand in recent years because I’ve been doing a lot more traveling. When I was growing up, my family tended to stick close to home, and we didn’t make many trips beyond the Nebraska-Colorado-Wyoming area where we lived. Even as a young adult, I tended to be a homebody. I moved away to go to college in Chicago, at Northwestern, and then later went to graduate school at Syracuse, but it wasn’t until I began going out on book tours that I really did any significant amount of traveling. Readers will notice that a significant portion of this book takes place in hotel rooms, and that owes a lot to the time I’ve spent on the road doing readings and lectures and signings.
And as I’ve begun to have more experience with a national and international audience, as I’ve worked with translators and traveled abroad to literary festivals, I’ve been increasingly inspired to expand the world of my fiction. I’ve been interested in finding ways in which I can work with a larger canvas, without losing the essential grounding that I found in those Midwestern landscapes that I’m so attached to.
In You Remind Me of Me, the main character, Jonah, believes himself utterly alienated from the larger world: “…he had no connection to the major world of human endeavor—no relationship to politics, or sociology, or economics, or the great movements of his time. The stuff that would be remembered. What could he say but that his people were the detritus of various empires.” In contrast, Await Your Reply begins to imagine the ways in which even people like Jonah are connected to the larger world, and especially the ways in which globalism and the age of mass communication has begun to touch the lives of the marginalized characters that have been my particular interest over the past few books.
Here's a picture of the dried-up lake in Nebraska, which was one of the early settings that inspired me as I writing Await Your Reply.
In any case, the geography of the book is a mixture of the real and the imagined. The lake is based on Nebraska’s Lake McConoughy, where I used to vacation when I was a kid. Lake McConoughy really is drying up, and there really was a motel with a lighthouse theme in the area. The image of the lighthouse on the edge of an empty lake was one of the early inspirations. A lot of the Cleveland locations are taken directly from my observations, having lived here now for over twenty years. Matalov Novelties, is, of course, invented, but Parnell’s Pub is quite real. You can usually find me there on Monday night. Some of the other locations were inspired by my travels. I wrote a good portion of that Las Vegas chapter (Chapter 14) while staying at the Mandelay Bay Hotel as a guest of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And I wrote parts of Chapter 24 when I was visiting Quito, Ecuador, with my son Philip. Still more of the places here are completely invented. And luckily, I’m a fiction writer. When I didn’t know something—or when some geographic detail didn’t quite fit with my plot—I just made it up.
Here's the street in Quito where I decided I wanted one of my characters to live.
I patched together my version of Inuvik from YouTube videos and travel brochures that were kindly sent to me by the town of Inuvik; similarly, I researched Abidjan via the internet and through books I collected at my excellent public library.
I found this photo of a Banks Island NWT research station on the Internet. That was one of the places that I wanted to visit, but I never got the chance.
A lot of the Cleveland locations are taken directly from my observations, having lived here now for over twenty years. Matalov Novelties, is, of course, invented, but Parnell’s Pub is quite real. You can usually find me there on Monday night.
Some of the other locations were inspired by my travels. I wrote a good portion of that Las Vegas chapter (Chapter 14) while staying at the Mandelay Bay Hotel as a guest of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
And I wrote parts of Chapter 24 when I was visiting Quito, Ecuador, with my son Philip. Still more of the places here are completely invented.
And luckily, I’m a fiction writer. When I didn’t know something—or when some geographic detail didn’t quite fit with my plot—I just made it up.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Dan in Scotland, June, 2009.
Hi, Everyone! My friend Aggie at Kepler’s asked me to try my hand at blogging, which I’ve actually never done before. I’m here to talk about my new novel, Await Your Reply, which is coming out at the end of August. It’s a funny-sad-spooky book which takes place in the world of identity theft and scams, and which focuses on three different sets of characters whose stories begin to intertwine as you go along.
To some extent, this book is a stylistic departure for me. I started out as a short story writer, and my first two books are collections. My first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was somewhat introspective and meditative, a story of adoption and brotherhood and missed connections. On the other hand, this new book is intentionally meant to be a page-turner, a thriller, that keeps the reader guessing.
Dan, circa 1982, engrossed in Peter Straub's novel "Ghost Story." Yes, this was actually his "senior photo" for the High School Yearbook.
The truth is that I’ve always been a fan of the thriller genre, and in fact it was one of my first loves as a young reader. The big books for me, as a kid, were works of dark fantasy like Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The October Country and Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. I loved books with twists, like Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying and books with breathless plots and complex, deeply-rooted mythology, like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Peter Stroub’s Ghost Story and the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.
When I started writing this book, I knew that I had such books in mind, though I didn’t exactly know what the plot was going to be. The early drafts had a lot of pastiche.
I named my main characters, Hayden and Miles, after the twins Holland and Niles in Thomas Tryon’s wonderful horror novel, The Other; I drew on Robert Bloch’s grim motel from Psycho, and Daphne Du Maurier’s West Country Estate, Manderley, from Rebecca, and I had the image of a severed hand at rest in an ice cooler which I think must come from some outside source, but it seemed like it appeared in a dream.
In any case, I started out with all of this iconographic imagery, which I knew I wanted to write about. I wanted to pay homage to all of these stories that had been crowding my consciousness since I was a kid, but I didn’t know what to do with the material.
And so I had to start over, to go back and begin to place real, ordinary people, people that I recognized, into this fantastical garden of imagery. It was then that book began to gel for me. I saw the way that I could connect my love of the thrillers I loved as a kid and the more introspective, character-based work that I’d come to admire as I grew older—stuff by Alice Munro, William Trevor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and so on.
In literary circles, there has been a lot of debate in recent years about how to define the terms “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction. Writing this book has made me more confused about the definition than ever. I’d like to think I’ve written a “literary” book, but I’d be proud if someone called it a “thriller” or a “mystery” or a work of “dark fantasy,” as well—particularly since I feel like the authors who have often been labeled as “genre” are really at the root of my genealogical tree as a writer—my secret family, whether they would recognize me or not. As I’m girding myself for the upcoming reviews, I’m curious to know what people will say.
Friday, August 14, 2009
In the end is the beginning.
When I first started writing novels, I always knew the final scene. It might change as I went along, but knowing who was still standing when the dust settled, and where, made it possible for me to traverse the long path between my first lines and that last scene—which I wouldn’t write until I got there, since its job was to pull me on, like the nearby tree on which a jeep winches itself out of a ditch.
Around the seventh book, I was about a third of the way into the work in progress when the awful realization dawned on me that I didn’t know the book’s end. I had no image in mind, no purpose, no tree. Only dust. I couldn’t write for days as my mind desperately tried to cobble a vision together, and couldn’t. But because the book was already sold, and because I hadn’t been having any particular trouble to that point, I made myself sit down and keep working as if the end was clear. And I learned that it isn’t necessary to have a tree nearby, if you just keep driving on the road.
But endings are tough. I personally dislike the artifice of a final scene in the library When All is Revealed, but without one, how do I show how the plot works? I try to sprinkle as much as possible before the actual ending without robbing the reader of all surprise, but that means there are times when doing so deflates the final scene of any satisfying heft: one of my books has a thrillerish end when all the puzzles have been solved and the only question is whether or not the protagonist is going to survive. And after I’d written the line that she was still breathing, I couldn’t think where to go: scene in hospital? Scene with the two children she’s been sheltering, some months later? Trial scene? Everything felt like anticlimax, so I just ended the book with the fact that she was breathing. And got letters from readers asking if their copy had left something off, because it was too abrupt.
In crime fiction, a book’s ending has to complete the story by tying off at least the majority of loose threads. I have a particular dislike for would-be literary crime writers who turn around at the very end to dangle a question before the reader: ambiguity is not a sign of superior creativity.
Still, in my last book, The Language of Bees, I had to leave a couple of threads unclipped because they were going to lead into the next book. And to indicate that I was well aware that there were unclipped threads, I put at the end three dread words: To be continued. And received a ton of flack for that because people hearing about it assumed that all the threads were unclipped, which really, honestly, they are not.
But beyond finishing off the story, the end needs to reward the emotional commitment of the reader. It has to gather up not only the plot threads, but those of theme and what can only be called flavor, and entwine them all in a sturdy and aesthetically pleasing knot. If the book was a thriller, the end needs to remind the reader of all the sweat they’d had while reading it. If the flavor was comic, the end needs to preserve that light touch. One of Dorothy Sayers’ novels deals with dark issues but has its share of lightheartedness, yet when she came to its end, I suspect that the darkness overrode everything else in her mind, because the final note is jarringly bitter.
So, just a simple matter, right? No responsibility there, to leave the reader, who has sunk twenty-five dollars and several nights into the story, with a note of satisfaction and an impulse to close the book and pat the cover with gratitude.
My current work in progress, (its working title has been The Green Man, although we’re still fiddling with the final title—and if you’re interested you can follow the blog posts about the writing process in “Mutterings"), has seven points of view and five intertwining plot-lines. It is, as mentioned, the conclusion of lat year’s book, which means its conclusion has to carry the weight of two years and 800 pages of story. It has to make sense, and it has to make sense of the story—logically and emotionally.
When I gave the first draft to my editor in April, I wasn’t satisfied with the ending—although hey, at least it had one. In the rewrite, one POV at a time, I shoved and bullied and cajoled the characters to play nice and come together. And when I finally reached the place in the rewrite where I either had to bring all those plot strands together or tell my editor that we’d be publishing this one with a do-it-yourself ending, I sat down one morning and in six hours, hammered out 3500 words of a new ending. And it worked. All those long musing times drifting to sleep, all those weeks of wrangling and wrestling with intractable characters moving around an illogical countryside, the seven points of view came together on Westminster Bridge at half past two in the morning, and gave me their ending.
The first line of the book is—
A child is a burden, after a mile.
The last line is—
Honestly, you didn’t expect me to tell you that, did you? But rest assured, when you read it next year, you’ll remember the first line.
Laurie R. King’s twentieth novel will be published next spring.
You can read excerpts of the others, and her blog and book club and Twitter and… at http://www.laurierking.com/
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
A couple of months ago, I was having plot problems. This is what happens when you can’t outline for the life of you, and also when a book is being written when your husband is ill and things are crazy and, well, when life happens. But even if life had been normal and calm, I probably would have had plot problems because the book had five separate and fully realized points of view, which meant five separate and fully realized story lines that not only had to run in balanced and interesting parallel tracks, but to intersect at given intervals, and finally come together in a great crescendo at the end.
And it wasn’t—or, they weren’t. I had finished the first draft in good time, back in April, after which I’d talked it over in New York with my editor, who told me some things I knew, and some things I hadn’t seen, and gave me her invaluable viewpoint (which, being based on the question, Will it sell? acts as a necessary counterpoint to my own attitude, which is based on the question, Is it fun?) The editor is a writer’s First Reader. If she doesn’t see something, if she doesn’t like something, it’s a good bet that nine out of ten readers won’t get or like it either. And since, much as I enjoy the writing process, I don’t spend a year on a story just to entertain myself and my patient family, I figure it’s nice to keep the readers in mind at some point before the book is finished.
And the hard fact is, readers appreciate a plot that makes sense, even when the writer herself would much rather play with the characters and then send them off into the rosy mist of sunset with a cheery, “Have a happily ever-after, guys.”
So: plot difficulties.
At precisely this time the good folk running the Book Passage crime writing conference wrote to say that they had scheduled me for a 90 minute discussion with Tim Maleeney about, yes, plot. Doesn’t Fate just love to rub it in?
Whenever I’m desperate for something to say, I look around to see who I can steal from. I picked out one of my favorite books on writing, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—I know it’s subtitled “Notes on Craft for Young Writers” and I’m neither young nor even very new, but it’s never too late to learn, right?—and sure enough, he has a chapter all about plotting. I make my way through that, and I read:
But, but—that doesn’t help any, that’s what I’m doing now! You mean to tell me even John Gardner had to wrestle his plots to the ground, one point at a time?
Since plotting is ordinarily no hasty process but something the writer broods and labors over, trying out one approach, then another, carrying the ideas around with him, musing on it casually as he drifts off to sleep…
That’s my mind getting the 390 pages of closely linked action and personality into motion, huge effort that only slowly shows results, until the train is in motion, then picks up speed, and moves from a walk to a jog to a run until last week I sat down to rewrite the final scene…
And The End will come on Friday.
Monday, August 10, 2009
I love Indy bookstores. I love to shop in them, talk to the owners and employees, I appreciate they way they made my career, and I was happy to run a contest this May supporting them. And when my friends at Keplers asked me to write not one post but three for the Well Read Donkey, I was happy to agree.
Now, being a crime writer, I like a bit of structure, so with three posts, what else should I talk about but beginnings, middles, and ends? But being my kind of crime writer, those three topics probably won’t have quite the sort of sequence you might expect. Anyway, today’s for beginnings.
Writing began as a thing I could fit into the corners of my life. My first forays into the world of fiction were in 1984, when I had finished my MA thesis and found the urge to throw words onto paper took a while to die down. I spent a month in Oxford, England that summer with my two kids (then ages 4 and 18 months) and mother, who had never been out of the country before and found it an unnerving experience. I wrote at night when they’d all gone to bed, ending up with about a third of what, twenty years later, became the futuristic novel Califia’s Daughters (by “Leigh Richards.”) When I went home, I fiddled with it a bit, but gradually put it aside. I was busy.
It wasn’t until three years later, the first September in my adult life when everyone but me went back to school, that I took out my pen and began to write seriously: “I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes,” I wrote. “Fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.”
If I may be forgiven a truism, the difference between a writer and a wannabe writer is that the writer writes. The writer puts words on a page, one at a time, until there’s a book, and then another book, and then a third, all of them fit into the corners of a life made up of small children, a family, a garden that brought us to the edges of self-sufficiency, and all the canning, driving, and laundry that kind of life entails. I wrote 280 pages and called them The Segregation of the Queen (later to add 100 pages that moved it from a series of loosely linked adventures into a novel, changing its name to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.) I wrote another book that was a little longer and a little more like a real novel, and called that one A Letter of Mary. While I was writing it, I began to send Beekeeper out, to one publisher, then another, and a third. By the time I finished Letter of Mary, I decided my failure to sell the first one meant that the publishing world didn’t want to hear about Mary Russell and her relationship with Sherlock Holmes (hah!) but that was okay because I was thinking of making a change anyway.
The third book A Grave Talent, started with the idea, What would Rembrandt look like if he were a woman? This was not a seed that could be planted in the ground worked by Russell and Holmes, since that would-be series was more or less based on, What would Sherlock Holmes look like if he were a woman? A book can only explore so many alternate identities at once.
I kept the idea and moved it from 1920s England to a place and time closer to home: San Francisco, at the time I was writing, 1989. I found an agent that spring, and turned over to her the responsibility of mailing out manuscripts and filing the rejection letters.
I started Grave Talent at home in California, and took it with me during a six-month sabbatical to England. I worked on it during a holiday in Brittany that summer, and finished it that fall during my son’s soccer practice. (By this time the kids were 6 and 9.)
Soccer, basketball, piano, dance: all times when I probably should have been shouting encouragement and bonding with the other moms. Instead, I sat behind the wheel of our Volvo station wagon with my oversize artist’s clipboard, buff-colored legal pad, and Waterman fountain pen, and wrote. I would drive, deliver, and write while I waited, then drive back. I would park so I could look up occasionally and see what was going on, or hear the sounds if it was piano, which would give me something to talk about on the ride home and make me feel like not a completely awful mother. But mostly I would write.
New mothers, through sheer self-preservation, quickly learn the art of the nap. I learned the art of the on-off writing switch, wasting no time getting started, working all out for my given hour, and capping my pen when other people needed me. My life was full, and the corners of my life were full, and my daughter didn’t fully realize that Mom was writing a book until Mom told the family that it was sold.
In December, 1991, St Martin’s Press bought A Grave Talent for the vast sum of $2500. Adding foreign sales made the total something approaching a real income. In a few years, we built a study for me, and so the kids could have separate rooms. The corners of my life grew a little wider, the time dedicated to maternal responsibilities shrank a bit. I was a writer, a real writer who earned actual money. Eventually, mine was the primary income in the house. I have a big study now, with built-in bookshelves and a laser printer and computers and all that stuff.
But this year, I took my laptop on holiday with me, and I wrote a large portion of next year’s book, just to see if I could. And you know? I think I could still write with a pen at the wheel of a parked car, if I had to.
Laurie R. King's web site www.LaurieRKing.com links to her blog, the Virtual Book Club, Mary Russell's Twitter page, and lots more.
Friday, August 7, 2009
This week, I’ve been talking about the connections between my own life experience and those of the fictional characters in my new novel, Labor Day. I am not Adele, the single mother in Labor Day. But the experience of single parenthood is one I know well, having raised my own three children as a divorced woman for most of the years they were home.
A post-script to this story. I am older now. We all are. I don’t throw screw guns any more. But I understand the deep sorrows in the hearts of a woman who would behave this way. Now I do something more constructive with my familiarity with those feelings: I write fictional characters who experience them.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Monday, August 3, 2009
I remember one time, when my son Charlie was around nine, and we were living –my three kids and me— in the not-very-big New Hampshire town we’d moved to after my marriage to their father had ended. Charlie had come with me to the supermarket that day. As the guy at the cash register was adding up our purchases, he’d recognized me from some book jacket, I guess, because he started talking with me about my writing, and how much he liked my books.
After I paid, and we were heading to the car, Charlie nudged me. “That guy might be a good boyfriend for you,” my son told me. “You should let him know where we live.”
There were a few problems with this idea—the first one being that for reasons nearly impossible to explain to my son, this particularly friendly and well-read supermarket checker was almost certainly gay. (How to explain this to a nine year old? All I came up with, when Charlie asked me how I knew, was the observation, “Well, he’s just so….nice.”)
But our conversation, and my son’s hopeful and well-meaning efforts to fix me up with the man at Hannaford’s revealed a deeper issue: the idea that a nine-year-old boy would feel responsible for locating a boyfriend for his thirty- seven-year-old mother.
He did this because he loved me and wanted me to be happy, and because he knew I would have loved to have a little romance in my life, and I didn’t. Then there was this, I think: if someone else stepped up to the plate, to become the man of the house, he might have felt less weight of responsibility on his own young shoulders.
The original title I gave to my new novel, Labor Day, was The Man of the House—and one of the reasons it came to me, I know, was that I knew well (as did my three children) what it was like to live in a household where no such person exists. I was a single mother for most of the years I raised my kids, and though I am a very different person from the single mother in my novel—and my sons (both in their twenties now) were different boys from the fictional character of Henry-- the themes I explore in Labor Day are ones I knew well: Longing for romantic love. The dream of a family. A parent’s responsibility for a child. A child’s, for a parent. The fear of loss. The dream of a second chance.
For Henry, the surprising event, one hot summer day at the start of a long Labor Day weekend, of meeting Frank, the man who will embark on a love affair with his mother, Adele—inspires painfully conflicted emotion. As a boy whose own father has largely disappeared from his life, he’s drawn to this man who fixes the car and offers to play catch with him and—most importantly—makes his mother happy. But he’s scared too: that with Frank on the scene, his mother may abandon him.
“All this time I’d been picturing how now it would be the three of us together, like when we played catch in the yard, only really, it was going to be the two of them,” Henry thinks. “And me left behind.”I had no idea, when I started this novel, where my characters would end up. But I have this faith—learned over my many years of writing fiction—that if you bring a character to life on the page, he will take on a life of his own, and lead you where you need to go. Once Henry started telling his story, and I started writing it down—almost as if I were transcribing what he had to say, more than inventing it—the story unfolded before my eyes. I know why I wrote this novel more swiftly than any other I’d written: Because I had to find out, for myself, what happened.
I should add here that though the story appears to be coming from the perspective of the boy, the person who is telling the story is actually Henry, twenty years later, looking back from the perspective of an adult, on the events of that one extraordinary weekend that changed, forever, the lives of three people—himself, his mother, and Frank.
From a personal perspective, my own children are also grown and off living their own lives now. My son Charlie—the boy who so tenderly attempted to set me up with our supermarket checker—is twenty seven now, and living in Brooklyn, where he works with children helping them write and record hip hop songs, and performing in a band. His brother is twenty five, and working in Los Angeles. My oldest child—my daughter—is a counselor with kids in our home state of New Hampshire.
A few years back, I dedicated my memoir, At Home in the World, to my daughter. Labor Day is dedicated to my sons. Whatever it is I know about the hearts of thirteen year old boys, I learned it from them.