Friday, March 22, 2013

The One About the Camel...

Recently, Amazon announced the inception of two new literary fiction imprints in its rapidly expanding publishing business: Little A, which will release novels, memoirs and story collections and Day One, a digital imprint to focus on short stories from debut authors. We should all take notice of what Amazon does, be you author or reader and so, in the spirit of business research I downloaded the first story from Day One: "When a Camel Breaks Your Heart" by Kodi Scheer. I was curious about the type of story it would be--traditional or experimental, upbeat or dark--and whether, of course, it was any good. Something could be learned as well, I thought, about the editorial direction of Amazon's latest venture.

To cut to the chase: I liked the story very much. The narrator, known only by her boyfriend's nickname for her, "Heart," describes the last days of their relationship. As she tells it, one day her boyfriend, a first-generation American of Muslim descent, was a human and the next, he was a camel. An "exotic" animal, foreign smells and behaviors, unable to communicate with her any more. It's a metaphor for the difficulties of building a relationship between two people of different cultures, particularly when one person's culture has just invaded the other's to wage war. The camel watches images of bombs exploding with tears coursing down his face; the narrator addresses the reader in second person (a risky business that works here), because you should see the difficulty with your "heart," as she does, while she begins to understand after three years that the relationship is doomed.

I suppose this story accomplishes everything the author and Amazon could have hoped for because after I read it, I downloaded the second story from the imprint, "Monster" by Bridget Clerkin and I looked up Kodi Scheer to see what else, if anything, she had written. Turns out neither Ms. Scheer nor Ms. Clerkin are exactly debut authors. Scheer's stories have appeared in well-known publications such as The Chicago Tribune and The Iowa Review, and Clerkin is a regular contributor to McSweeney's. But both authors are young and female and let's face it--being a writer of short stories is a tough racket, so I'm glad they've had this opportunity. And I'll keep a eye out for what Amazon may have planned on the literary fiction front in the future.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Location, location, location

Not always but usually, stories begin with place. For me, at least. I like to think of setting as another character in the novel or story, a frame for the picture, a foundation for the house. Because aren’t people influenced by their surroundings, by what day-to-day life brings? Does the chilled wind relentlessly chafe their skin, do wild animals call and laugh beyond the perimeters of human life, or does the landscape stretch out on all sides, brown and barren, seemingly to the horizon?

My childhood was more of that last one. I grew up in the high desert of California. Sagebrush blowing along the side of the road, blinding white sun and the flat, sparse land, all dirt and cactus and rock. We lived in a valley though, so in the distance you could see mountains—gray, shadowy, fortress-like, sometimes even capped with snow; they stood as a tangible representation of what you had to conquer to get out of there. (Of course, some people find the desert quite beautiful and I will allow, nothing rivals it on a warm summer evening, stars covering the black sky, balmy air. It’s just that I always yearned for more green and taller buildings.)

I’m in Arizona with my oldest son this weekend. We drove here. Six hours across mostly desert and it came to me, slowly, that this is the setting of my next novel. I have written of places I’ve lived but never of the first, and the character I have in mind for this story is a girl with an itch to go places, to climb life’s mountains and see what’s on the other side.  People in all sorts of climates have these feelings but for me, the desert calls them to memory most vividly. It’s got a timeless quality, a grandeur, a feel of stagnation and yet, live things if you know where to look.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Writing that knocks you off your feet

Today is Gabriel García Márquez's birthday and I read this tidbit about him. He started to write short stories after reading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which famously begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.” This sentence, García Márquez claimed, “almost knocked [him] off the bed...When I read the line, I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone who was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.” Article here.

This got me thinking about novels that have knocked me off a chair, the bed, my feet, etc., and the first, the one that always comes to mind, is Lolita. It too has a famous first line: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” And the novel remains one of my favorites, vying for first place with Anna Karenina, depending usually on which I’ve most recently read (Lolita in 2007 and AK in 2010). I have an old Vintage copy of Lolita, with one my favorite covers ever. Since 1994, I’ve read it four times.

Lolita and its author, Vladimir Nabokov, have been in the news this week as well. A stage production in Russia has been plagued with controversy. The play survived Soviet censorship and postponement, the producer was attacked on the street, and activists have started a petition to ban the play and everything Nabokovian. Article here. The situation reflects the current clime in Russia as much as anything else, but Lolita’s reception has always been tumultuous. I always feel it’s a shame when any discussions of the novel center on pedophilia, because in a strange way, that’s such a small part of what it’s about, at least to me.

From its first stunning chapter, Lolita knocked me off my feet in the same way Kafka affected García Márquez. I could not believe someone could write that way. The writing is like a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, Proust with modern sensibilities, informed by post-war America—film, capitalism, the immigrant’s perspective and yes, burgeoning sexual liberations. But it’s also an affecting personal story, a story of weakness, obsession and failed hopes. Nabokov immerses us in Humbert Humbert’s mind so thoroughly that we soon forget any other vantage point. The novel is daring and important, funny and bleak, and as I type this, I realize I’m long overdue for a re-read. What novels have made you look at the world in a new way? Whose writing has had a lasting effect on you as a writer?

Friday, March 1, 2013

To Plot or Not to Plot

Gather a group of writers in a room to talk about their preparations before writing, and you’ll garner a range of answers. Some like to sit down before a blank screen and begin. Some commit word to keyboard only after months or years of careful outlining and research. Some do both, depending on the project.

I’d have to say that each of my novels have been organized in similar but disparate ways. Usually, there’s a messy notebook involved, where I jot down ideas for scenes, trains of thought, themes, and often—incomprehensible things like “if the mother was the impetus of it,” or “she never suspected he might do that.” (Sidenote: it’s always good to be specific when you’re jotting down tidbits from dreams or fuzzy, first-morning ideas).

For The Qualities of Wood, I worked from a pretty specific outline. Of course, throughout years of editing, the finished product diverged from the outline remarkably. But there was the notebook, and many research items—notes on Native American tribes, the behavior of tigers, Monet’s obsessive methods—and there were scribbles and loose sheets but rising from that, a typed outline, chapter by chapter. The total time between conception and writing the first draft was probably six to eight months.

The novel I recently completed is called “Fortress for One,” and I began its notebook over ten years ago. I envisioned the novel as a story in two parts and beyond that structure, I did not outline very diligently. I think because the novel and its characters ruminated with me for so long, by the time I actually sat down to write, it was all worked out in my head. At least the first part. For that section, I had a basic outline in mind, many scenes and ideas. I decided that the second part of the story would be determined as I worked through the first, and that’s exactly what happened. Also, there was another year between the writing of the two sections, lots of time for mental outlining.

Different methods were employed for each but in some ways, it felt the same. My current project is a collection of short fiction and I have no plans or outlines. Basically, the conception (and title) is “Human Stories,” archetypal, framework themes that repeat over and over in fiction. My idea is to show how these themes can be upended in modern times. For instance, an archetypal story might be “Boy Meets Girl,” but how can this story be new and unexpected?

The collection centers around three extended families, and my method for writing is just to wait until a scene involving one of the characters occurs to me. The scene supports the general themes, of course, but it can be about any character, at any time of their life. So the fiction jumps around not only amongst the characters but back in forth in time too. The stories are fairly short, really meant as glimpses to be read in small doses.

This un-plotted method presents certain challenges. Keeping a timeline straight has been very difficult. I’ll get an idea for a scene but then remember that I’ve already said that something else happened before then, or I’ll have to go back and change or rethink someone’s age or where they were at the time. But there are freedoms too. I write whatever I want and don’t worry too much about where it’ll fit in. I have a general structure, where I move from one family to another, but other that that, it’s a free-for-all. So right now, I have chapters seven and nine but not six or eight. And of course, I’m starting to have an idea of where and how it’s all going to end, but I won’t write anything down. This process feels organic and liberating and is quite fun. But in some dark corner of my mind, I’m also looking ahead to the next novel, which will be plotted and planned, because that’s what it seems to call for.

Do you have a singular method for writing fiction? How does the project dictate the terms of engagement? Do you think anything good can come from mere inspiration? And can you properly begin a story if you don’t know how it will end???
"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