Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Summer of Faulkner

 


For many years, I’d look forward to summer as a time to catch up with some reading I wasn’t able to tackle during the cooler, busier months. I’d choose a series—such as Hilary Mantel’s first two books in the Wolf Hall trilogy (still haven’t read the third), or I’d tackle a classic I thought might be laborious—a collection of Chekhov stories or Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (very laborious!). And in 2018, I made this habit a formal endeavor when I christened “The Summer of Chabon” and read four novels by Michael Chabon. And so, each summer I choose a reading project based on a theme. 2019 was The Summer of Trees, 2020 was dedicated to books related to France, and last year, The Summer of Houses books all featured a house as an integral part of character, plot or theme.

In recent years, my leisure reading has slowed down overall, as I began to read more for my day jobs of teaching and editing. Where I used to read 50+ books a year, I’m lucky to get into the mid-20s these days. This year I’m sitting at thirteen novels read. With so much going on, I often find myself lacking the mental stamina to sit and read for long periods. What better time to pick up several novels by an American master who’s also considered one of the most difficult to comprehend?

For 2022, I’ll be reading and re-reading several books by and about William Faulkner. When I was in college, I took a course on Southern Literature with Professor Margaret Whitt. That class, and that teacher, was one of the seminal experiences of my life (maybe I took 2 or 3 courses with her?), and it ignited a love of gothic lit and introduced me to so many authors—Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter (everyone should read more KAP!), Carson McCullers (!!!), Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, etc., etc.—the combined influence of which I believe has had the most seismic and lasting effect on my own writing. 

For The Summer of Faulkner, I have five novels and one biography on my list. I realize this is probably unrealistic, but here we are. The good news is, I’ve already finished the biography, William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist. It’s excellent, written in a novelistic style, taking the reader from 1902, when “Billy” Faulkner’s family relocated to Oxford, Mississippi, to his death in a Byhalia sanatorium in 1962. Faulkner was, of course, famous for his writing but also for his prodigious drinking, and his life was struck by tragedy and a series of troubled, complicated romantic attachments and relationships. The emotional frustrations and drinking coexisted and interrelated, like linked, winding strands of his psychological DNA. He told an early paramour “Between grief and nothing I’ll always take grief,” and his biographer returns to this sentiment several times. Faulkner certainly weathered his share of grief, and physical ailments as well—he suffered a terrible burn after a drinking bout, and he had recurring back problems—more reason for him to turn to liquor.

I learned much about Faulkner, including his love of fox hunts (the “thrill of danger,” he said) and his time in Hollywood writing screenplays—primarily for the paychecks—and his travels back and forth. Later in life, he wrote about “the Negro problem” and his complicated sentiments about the South and Civil Rights that appear in these essays and, of course, throughout his entire oeuvre of fiction. Writers may want to reacquaint themselves with the wonderful speech he gave in 1950 when he won the Nobel Prize. You can read it here or listen to Faulkner himself here.

William Faulkner published 19 novels, 125 short stories (I didn’t mention the stories! So many stories, including “The Bear,” which some consider one of the best of all time), 20 screenplays, one play, six collections of poetry, and various essays. It seemed to me there were several approaches to choosing which novels to read but in the end, I went with a fairly simple strategy. I chose five novels in chronological order, during a particularly productive era of the writer’s life. Two of them I have read before, but it’s been many years. These five novels are:

The Sound and the Fury (1929)

As I Lay Dying (1930)

Sanctuary (1931)

Light in August (1932)

Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

There was a book in 1935 called Pylon, but I skipped that one. And to be honest, if anything doesn’t make the cut this summer, it’ll be the last one, Absalom, Absalom! I have read two of the more famous novels on the list, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, and considered leaving the former off the list. But I didn’t, and I’ll be starting with The Sound and the Fury (if you recall, a title taken from Macbeth). Looking to confound and frustrate yourself over the calm, summer months? Join me! I’ll be reporting back on my progress as I take this adventure, and I’d love to hear your impressions as well.


Note: in 2005, Oprah did a Summer of Faulkner as part of her reading club, and you can buy three of these novels in a boxed set, if that's of interest. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Film influences in Starling

 


Films and books have long held two neighboring places in my heart. As forms of storytelling, they have shaped and influenced me, each informing the other. I warn students of any class I teach that I will be referring, indiscriminately, to all forms of storytelling in our discussions—but what I mean by that is you will hear me talk about books, movies, television shows, Netflix series, songs, theater, etc.


Sometimes, writers are said to write in a “cinematic style” or with a “cinematic perspective,” and that has certainly been said about my writing from time to time. What is meant by this? It could mean the writing provides encompassing and vivid settings that are easy to visualize. Perhaps it means the form lends itself to the shape of film, with abrupt cuts from scene to scene or other techniques. Maybe it just means we can easily picture the book as a movie. For an excellent discussion of cinematic writing, look here.


I have a new novel, Starling, coming out in May. I started writing it a long time ago, and it has gone through many iterations. There are—what I suppose you can call—stylistic flourishes in it. I might as well be up front about this. In my experience, most people question or resist stylistic flourishes! Probably a result of our modern times, most of us feeling like we don’t have time for anything other than a direct line from A to B. But in Starling, aside from the main themes and story I wanted to explore, I also wanted it to say something about film, and about how these two forms of storytelling exist amicably for me, side by side.


Like me, the main character in the novel holds a lifetime of images in her mind. Gina has settled into a comfortable routine over the years, and feels her love of watching stories has expanded her horizons in many ways:


“Through television and movies, she had travelled all over. She knew Italy from Roman Holiday and Room with a View, California more from Chinatown and Irreconcilable Differences than her few visits to Deborah in Sacramento. She had digested entire chunks of history by watching television miniseries: twentieth century Australia in The Thorn Birds, the Civil War in North and South.”

 

Gina may have been influenced by her mother, a woman who named her oldest daughter after the actress Deborah Kerr and who sought refuge in a darkened living room after the kids had gone up to bed.

 

“Gina remembered a frequent sight: her mother, legs tucked underneath her on the tweed sofa, face lit by a flickering television screen. There was no getting her mother’s attention if she was watching something.”


And speaking of Deborah Kerr, there are certain images, certain scenes you will never be able to budge from your consciousness, once seen. Forward to 3:30 for the good part.

One of the inspirations for the novel was the idea of people creating their own realities. This has been a preoccupation of mine since college when I read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities in a history class. A strange influence for fiction writing, I know, but the idea that nations could be/are formed by the collective imagining of their members—well, this has been something I’ve transferred to my fiction again and again, substituting "reality" for nations, and applying this idea to individual characters and families (even, especially, when “truth” is questionable). I never could have predicted how this basic premise would eventually affect my life, drastically and quite personally, but that’s another story altogether. In this novel, Gina has been living a life of her own making. And sometimes, the life we make can have illusionary aspects. We have so many films about alternate realities now and the ways technology has infiltrated our personal lives but when it came out in 1998, The Truman Show presented something novel—a person whose life ended up being something entirely unimagined. Gina catches glimpses of this movie on a long, international flight.


There are many visual references in the novel but in its first version, the opening scene was a protracted, stylistic flourish: a sequence of downtown Chicago during a storm. I wanted to describe and set the scene as a movie would. Here, the shot of commuters huddling underneath a bus stop shelter, there, cars inching down a drenched street. Then we follow the camera view to a single window in a high rise, where we focus on our hero, standing at the rain-streaked glass. This flourish has been shortened over the many drafts of the book, but the main intent is still there. The thing about images and stories and characters and silky dresses that bounce and glide around a palatial room—these things tend to attach themselves to other images and stories and the impossibility of a boat piercing through a piece of the horizon—and sometimes, something from our subconsciousness is unearthed unexpectedly. And this is what happens to Gina as she stands at that window. She’s been humming the tune from a Gap television commercial all day. It was a popular commercial at the time, in the 1990s, and I wish I could find a version with better quality.

 


“The song is simple, mesmerizing, and it’s been in her head all day. The visuals: dancers in t-shirts and khaki pants converge and split into various groupings…The dancers are young and happy, perfect skin in various hues. And somehow this song, these gliding forms, are tied to a memory of Gina’s father, talking about Elvis at a dinner party.” 

 And so it goes, memory tied to memory, images linked to others.

 

 

 

"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