Friday, February 22, 2013

Geneva White reviews The Qualities of Wood

The Qualities of Wood is a about a young couple who moves out into the country. Nowell (the husband's name) is writing his second book after the first one got published. Vivian (the wife’s name) is cleaning out the house that belonged to Nowell’s late grandma. I like how the book describes how Vivian and Nowell change over time and that they become a closer family. The book also describes the way Nowell and Vivian bond. Nowell’s brother and his wife move in with Nowell and Vivian. Vivian thought for sure they were going to sell the house but as the story goes on she has second thoughts about selling the house. I thought The Qualities of Wood was very suspenseful because of the mystery of the girl who died, and I found it hard to put down the book. I would recommend this book to everyone that likes a good book! My mom rocks. You can read more about it at this website.

Geneva White is a ten-and-a-half years old and a fifth-grader. She enjoys dancing, singing, playing piano, hanging out with friends and of course, reading. She also likes earmuffs.
**Geneva received a complimentary copy of the novel for these purposes, but no payment. It should be noted, however, that the author and her spouse foot the bill for all of Geneva's living expenses.**

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Book a Year: Too Much?

Last week it was announced that Donna Tartt will release her third novel this Fall. Why was this big news in the publishing world? Well, partly because her debut, The Secret History, was so well-received. The New York Times called it “forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled,” and predicted “a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists” which, in fact, it had. But the hoopla is also partly because there is a ten year gap between each of her books. The Secret History was published in 1992 and her second, The Little Friend, in 2002. Ms. Tartt is famously reclusive, refusing to give interviews about herself and her writing. In the last interview anyone could dig up, with the Guardian in 2002, she said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year.”

And yet that’s exactly what many of us authors are being told, in conferences and online, by publishers and agents and anyone else with an opinion on how to become successful in the writing game. Personally, I’m always slightly concerned when an author says they’ve written twenty books in say, ten years, or that they have to write at least two or three a year. Can they be any good, I wonder? Wouldn’t you just be writing about the same thing over and over?

I think copiousness makes more sense in some genre writing—romance, mystery, thriller, perhaps. That’s not a condescension at all; it’s just that sometimes, there’s a standard formula these genres follow and to plug in new characters and circumstances still creates variety and a rich reading experience. But because I write mostly from considerations of THEME and CHARACTER, it feels like novels take time to percolate. Certainly, there are writers who grapple with the same themes throughout their careers—love, death, identity, bad mothers, etc.—but usually, there’s enough time in between for transition to other branches or deeper consideration.

In the Guardian interview, Ms. Tartt quotes William Styron, who once said “he had about five books in him, and that was OK.” How many books do you have in you? Can a writer be too prolific or too unproductive? One of the arguments for the book-a-year philosophy is that your readers will forget about you if there’s too much time between novels. And yet, no one has forgotten about Donna Tartt.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Visiting with John Gardner

I’m reading a bit of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction this morning, sort of a mental callisthenic to start the week. A certain section caught my attention, where Gardner is talking about a dual purpose for fiction - reaching the reader on an immediately pleasurable level and at a deeper, more introspective level.

He claims “Anything we read for pleasure we read because it interests us,” and the writer does well to remember the things that interested us from the start, as children. Color, melody, story. It isn’t until we’re grown that we’re schooled to think about the complex, the abstract. But the appeal of the immediate should be retained: “To read or write well, we must steer between two extreme views of aesthetic interest: the overemphasis of things immediately pleasurable (exciting plot, vivid characterization, fascinating atmosphere) and exclusive concern with that which is secondarily but at times more lastingly pleasurable, the fusing artistic vision.”

“But what gives a work of fiction aesthetic interest?” Well, Gardner is the first to concede the old adage about the impossibility of pleasing all of the people all of the time. He writes: “Nothing in the world is inherently interesting—that is, immediately interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. And nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer.”

So he begins to talk about technique, the proper application of which should stimulate the immediate interest of the reader. A good story, good characters, good atmosphere. These things are the lure that will reel a reader into your artistic vision. “Yet all writers, given adequate technique—technique that communicates—can stir our interest in their special subject matter, since at heart all fiction treats, directly or indirectly, the same thing: our love for people and the world, our aspirations and fears. The particular characters, actions, and settings are merely instances, variations on the universal theme.”

Read more about John Gardner, “one of the most important names in 20th century American literature,” here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

It's a Mystery Conference

In March, I’ll be attending a conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado, called Left Coast Crime. From their website, Left Coast is “an annual event sponsored by mystery fans, where readers, writers, librarians and other mystery and thriller enthusiasts gather to share their mutual interest in the genre.”

To me, people are the biggest mystery. When someone asks me what type of books I like to read or what type of books I write, what they’re usually talking about is genre. But I think the labels are so confining because I read all types of books. I do know what I like best is reading about people. The many different types of people in this world and how they interact with other people. What sort of things they can find out about each other, about themselves. I like books where the characters are the driving force, where I am left wondering and guessing, empathizing and reacting, as though they are real people. And I believe that writers, perhaps, are happiest when they’re writing the type of fiction they love to read. When character development is the main focus of a novel, some might say it’s literary fiction. But I’d question anyone’s assured labeling of any book. I’ve read mysteries and fantasy books that were peopled with some of the most vivid characters I’ve ever encountered. I’ve read novels billed as literary fiction with fantastical, amazing plots.

Like many lifelong readers, I had many reading phases in my life. I read Agatha Christie, so I knew what a mystery was. But I was an English major in college (in Colorado!) and by then, actively avoiding “genre.” Let’s face it, most of what you read as an English major are classics or modern classics, all of them grouped together under that “literary fiction” label.

When I began to think about The Qualities of Wood, the initial conception was tied indirectly to genre. I wanted it to be a mystery within a mystery. There would be a “traditional” mystery within the story, but the real mystery would have to do with the characters, the way they navigated through the setting, the things they learned and did not learn about each other. In the way that people are not always what they seem, I wanted to write a book that, in the end, wasn’t what it seemed to be. And the forward progression of the book, the thing pressing it forward, would be the discovery by the reader of these characters.

In the novel, Vivian and Nowell have just moved from their city apartment to his late grandmother’s country home. Nowell plans to finish writing his second mystery novel while Vivian cleans up the house and prepares it for sale. A brief hiatus from their normal lives. Nowell has moved out to the house some weeks before Vivian, so when she arrives there is a certain nervousness and tension between them, having never been separated for so long. From the moment Vivian arrives, they become enmeshed in a local drama when a teenaged girl is found dead in the woods behind the house. As Vivian sifts through the items in the house and gathers stories and gossip from the locals, family secrets come to light, the mystery of the girl deepens, and she begins to come to some realizations about herself and her marriage.

As I said, I had read mysteries before but my own story was going to be what it was no matter what existed before or after. A bit naïve on my part, in hindsight, but I think the book benefitted because of it.

An early reader of TQOW on said it reminded her of Laura Lippman. A heady compliment I received with much humility, because Lippman is an acclaimed and prolific author who has not only penned countless best-selling novels but has also expanded the genre of mystery to include her particular literary flavor. I’m thrilled that Ms. Lippman is a keynote speaker at the upcoming conference, and I’m excited to be part of a panel called Literary Inspirations for Traditional Mysteries. If you’re in Colorado or want to be, March 21-24, stop by and say hello.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka