Are We Not Boyle?

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I’ve complained here before that writers shouldn’t use fiction to advance their personal causes or issues. Never say never, of course, and it took author T. C. Boyle to show how to have your agenda and tell a good story too.

My writing mentor, Doris Betts, once told me that either you’re a novelist or a short story writer, that trying to be both will diminish your talent at the one you’re really good at. This doesn’t daunt the best writers, though. Consider the ones who continue to try, including T. C. Boyle. I’ve read some of Boyle’s long fiction and quite a bit of his short stuff, and while he’s a most capable writer across the board, I think in his case Doris was right; Boyle’s gift is in short fiction.

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Which brings me to his story, “Are We Not Men?” in the November 7, 2016, issue of New Yorker magazine. Boyle apparently worries, as we likely all should, about the dark side of genetic manipulation. Gene tinkering hasn’t hit society full bore yet, which demonstrates another “ism:”social phenomena are born and have their first pronouncements through the arts. But back to how a skilled writer might editorialize and still have readers enjoy it.

I won’t go into a lot of boring classroom analyses here – just read the story. As you do, you’ll come across freakish, cross-bred pets which, if that were the sum of Boyle’s story, this reader would grind his molars, roll his eyes, and find a way not to notice Boyle’s wit, his cross-breeding of French and English. But he rolls all this into a family/marital drama I daresay everyone in the US of A can relate to, even laugh at.

This then is the trick, fellow writers: be subversive. grind your axe if you must, but slip it into a witty, trenchant story. All things register in fiction, perhaps in multiple readings, but they do register.

 

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What Makes The Master Writer?

 

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Thumbing through the latest New Yorker issue (March 28, 2016) turned up a pleasant surprise: a short story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” by Ian McEwan, probably today’s most highly regarded English novelist. Predictably for me, the story proved as satisfying as cold watermelon on a hot North Carolina summer day.

Then I began to wonder: What attracts me (and scores of other readers) to McEwan’s work? His stories  and novels hinge to perhaps an excessive degree on narrative and his voice, while distinct, is not an elegant one. When dialogue does appear, it’s no great shakes, either. And his storylines seem all too familiar from one to another, almost formulaic on the surface. And almost all of his work over the last decade has to do with social issues of one sort or another.

In other words, the sort of writing some 25 year-old MFA instructor-editor would reject with the usual, “This work doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but we thank you for submitting” sort of trash.

Every writer, I think, who can be seen as a master has his/her own approach to story, characterization, style, voice, etc. With McEwan I believe it’s his characterizations. He’s able to place characters into social settings with such apparent ease. In his case, his offhand narrative style prevents polemics, his characters simply acting out bits of life in the author’s chosen social context. Too, he’s a master of the story twist that underscores these given social contexts. In this particular story a mundane friendship between two writers hinges on plagiarization as the two – one successful, the other struggling – find their successes reversed.

Every writer needs to know his/her skill with the many aspects of literary writing, but in the end, as always, it comes down to the gifts of storyline and characterization.

 

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The Long and Short of Story

Doris Betts, my mentor, told me one day that you’re either innately a short story writer or a novelist. She didn’t mean one couldn’t be the other; she simply meant that one’s nature leaned toward either the short story or the novel.

I’ve quoted Lawrence Block below on the rigors of novel writing. I don’t necessarily agree to his analogies here, but he has given you the perspective of a novelist.

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“Short-story writing, as I saw it, was estimable. One required skill and cleverness to carry it off. But to have written a novel was to have achieved something of substance. You could swing a short story on a cute idea backed up by a modicum of verbal agility. You could, when the creative juices were flowing, knock it off start-to-finish on a slow afternoon.

A novel, on the other hand, took real work. You had to spend months on the thing, fighting it out in the trenches, line by line and page by page and chapter by chapter. It had to have plot and characters of sufficient depth and complexity to support a structure of sixty or a hundred thousand words. It wasn’t an anecdote, or a finger exercise, or a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. It was a book.

The short-story writer, as I saw it, was a sprinter; he deserved praise to the extent that his stories were meritorious. But the novelist was a long-distant runner, and you don’t have to come in first in a marathon in order to deserve the plaudits of the crowd. It is enough merely to have finished on one’s feet.”

~ Lawrence Block, Writing a Novel, 1979 ~

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A Funky Objective Correlative

Yesterday I promised a piece (which was an exercise at the VCFA Novel Retreat) using an objective correlative, or an object or some such about which a story is centered. The exercise was to write a complete one page story set in a rest room, the idea being that, set in a strange environ, new, fertile ideas would likely come into play in creating the story. Mine used a central character from a novel I’m currently writing – a period piece set in the U.S. of the 1960s.

Readers: Where do you see the objective correlative? Why did you choose this? Any other comments?

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The filling station rest room wasn’t Adam Claypool’s first choice, but when his gut rebelled like this, it was find a place, any place within the bounds of decorum. No exhaust fan, and the last guy in must’ve just dined on barbecued brisket and bourbon. But the good thing? It forced on Adam a moment to think. He wanted this kid, Dennis, to hand off some of his engineering workload to, but wife Cheryl was pressing him to keep Nate, the black kid with the militant attitude.

He cleared the dark, fetid stall, stepped to the lavatory to wash. The light over the mirror was bright, too bright, it seemed. Odd. Why would anyone want this much light in such a shithole? And the mirror—it was marbled with arabesques of color, managed only by cracks begetting cracks. And so at first he didn’t see it: a small bump, but then he knew it was another skin cancer.

Why? he wondered. He didn’t abuse his body, he exercised regularly, ate the right stuff, and made regular doctor’s appointments. Still, he knew by now it was something he couldn’t placate or run from. It was genetics. That fact failed to console, though, and that was the way he was beginning to feel about his construction company. Small, efficient as such companies go, but he could no longer avoid the complications of managing a growing business. Dennis and Nate. He only needed one, but to hell with it, he’d show Cheryl. He’d hire them both.

A fist banging on the restroom door. A block of a man stood at the threshold, his size preventing the summer sunlight from blinding Adam.

“You done?” the man asked.

“For now,” said Adam. He suppressed a smile at the man’s expression and then he strode toward his car.

 

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The Bandit Little Red, by John Hoddy.

I’ve made something of a habit of buying books by self-pub authors – at least the books that interest me. One never knows what to expect from such books – an unknown gem, perhaps. Or sometimes reading one feels like needles stuck in one’s eyes.

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John Hoddy and I were classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1966, he a sometimes bearded submariner and later a bureaucrat. As it turns out he and I lived on similar paths – educated in technical fields, but with a life-long love of books and writing. His first major work, The Bandit Little Red, is a 580 page read, but it’s hardly a tiresome read. In fact, I place it in the gem category above.

John consented to this interview, so I’ll let him tell you the rest of the story.

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GF – – Given your background, how did you become interested in writing?
JH – – I began writing at an early age, starting with poetry as a third-grader and a brief excursion into a science fiction “epic” in the seventh grade. My first excursion into serious writing, and my first published work, was in college, with a horror story that came into mind pretty much fully formed. A couple of other short stories followed, all of which were published in the college magazine.
After college, I set creative writing aside for years, although I continued writing poetry, and I dabbled with a Tolkien-esque fantasy. Lots of technical and bureaucratic writing filled the years before I took up the creative side again. Bureaucratese is deadly to prose. That meant unlearning any number of bad habits, and learning how to tell a story again.

GF – – This is a largely a fantasy work. How did you decide to write in this genre?
JH – – Blame Tolkien for that. The Fellowship of the Ring was an assigned work in my college literature class. It took half the book to get into it, and then I was hooked. When I started a work of my own, it was the aforementioned quest novel, where a hearty band of [fill in the blank] set off to save the world from [fill in the blank] etc. The faded hand-written text from that effort still sits on a shelf somewhere, but—
Once you’ve created characters and invested them with personalities and motivations, they never entirely go away. I’d check in on my creations from time to time, see how they were doing, find out how the lives were progressing and the like. Alisa was originally a secondary character in her 20s, the blue-eyed blonde sister of my intended protagonist Lathin, and the romantic interest of an antihero. The epiphany that led to The Bandit Little Red and plans for works to follow came when I was watching a PBS presentation of Riverdance. The lead female dancer was a tall, statuesque redhead. Watching her, it was as if Alisa turned, looked me in the eyes, and said: “I’m not a blue-eyed blonde, I’m a green-eyed redhead with a personality to match, and I have a story to tell. If you’ll get these muscle-bound oafs off center stage, I’ll be happy to tell it to you.” The rest led from there.

GF – – The locale for the book’s story seems similar to Eastern Europe, possibly the Middle Ages’ tribal Rus area, from what is now Russia to the Caspian Sea. Was this intended?
JH – – Yes and no. I modeled the time and setting on post-Roman, early pre-baronial Europe, where long-established political structures have broken down and new ones are being formed. I had the steppes of Central Asia in mind as a model for the location, although as the story evolved, the area you describe became the more accurate model. Apparently the story and its characters knew better than their writer did. That’s a region crossed by trade routes, inhabited in Classic times by the Scythians, superb nomadic horsemen, and later by Cossacks, people sharing a number of similarities with Grisha’s bandits.

GF — Please describe briefly for our readers Alisa’s evolution from a relatively well off child to a teen bandit.
JH — When the story starts, Alisa is on the cusp of her 14th summer, growing up the youngest child of an aristocratic merchant family in a walled city-state named Thysandra. Her brother is stopping by with the military, heading into an ongoing war that claimed her father’s life some 10 years earlier. Within a matter of weeks, her people’s military suffer a disastrous defeat with her brother presumed dead, and enemy troops are camped outside the city walls. When the city falls, she is among the few survivors. Alone and starving, she joins refugees from the continuing war headed for nearby Elbion, a city that surrendered to enemy troops without resistance.
Titled wealth still awaits if Alisa can make it to her father’s native city a week’s trek distant. Spending six months living on the streets of Elbion, she waits for a break in the fighting and the weather to try to make it to her father’s home. Before she can set out, she’s caught in a sweep of the city by slavers hired to rid Elbion of a vagrancy problem. On the way to distant slave markets, the convoy carrying her is sacked by bandits in an ungoverned region called the Wildlands. When she sees slavers dead and those like her promised relocation and given better treatment by the bandits than that received from civilized society, she determines to make a stand where events have carried her. Arguing her way into probationary status with the bandits, she intends to make it back to titled wealth when she can, but sees no reason why the waiting shouldn’t include a little adventure.
The remainder of the story has her winning her way to a place as an equal in a male oriented society. The outlaws, a rough but compassionate lot, make her no allowances. She must prove herself at every step as she seeks to become the bandit Little Red.

GF – – Perhaps the most memorable character interaction in the book is between Alisa and Leandra. In fact, to this reader, Leandra almost steals the show from Alisa. How would you describe their relationship?
JH – – It’s easier for me to write the interaction than to characterize it. In Leandra, I set out to create a character tough on the outside, caring where it counts, responsible and hard-working to a fault, and almost impossible to live with. She’s also one who’d never turn away a stray dumped on her doorstep, and Alisa fits the description. Want her for a housemate or not, practically the first thing she does with the half starving Alisa is to feed her.
Their relationship as the story progresses becomes one of older/younger sisters, with rough around the edges Leandra another mentor for her young housemate. Alisa gives as well as she gets, with the back-and-forth between them keeping things lively.
From an author’s perspective, I enjoy Leandra’s character and have a good time getting into her persona. Some of the elements come from my Appalachian born second-generation Irish grandmother. A tiny woman, into her 80s she could still work the rest of us into the ground.

GF – – Grisha seems something of a mentor to Alisa. Can you speak in more detail to their relationship? How is he similar and/or different to/from Lathin?
JH – – Grisha is a father figure as well as a mentor. Alisa grew up without a father, killed in battle before she can remember. Grisha lost his daughter into slavery years earlier. The two keep everything distant and formal, but each fits a psychological void in the other.
Earlier, before Alisa’s world was torn apart when her city fell, eight years older Lathin played a similar role, doing the best he could to fill the missing father’s place. When the story begins, he’s been absent two years overseeing the family’s broader business and political interests.
The two are similar in their caring about Alisa, mentoring her, and looking out for her where they can, something she doesn’t always make easy. They differ in that there was never any doubt that Lathin was nothing more than a big brother. Alisa sometimes sees Grisha as the father she never had.

GF – – What are you working on now? A sequel to The Bandit Little Red?

JH – – Yes. The sequel, In the Company of Thieves, is about 90% complete in first draft. The tale picks up about a month after The Bandit Little Red concludes. Alisa has just settled into her new life when she finds that her brother is threatened. Only one person can get him a warning, although that means crossing snow-choked mountains in the middle of winter, and it jeopardizes her hard won standing in Wildlands bandit society. Two more volumes in the series are planned, Vengeance and Fine Wine, where Alisa must do what she can to get a bounty lifted from her head, and Blood Will Find Blood, with Alisa finally reuniting with her brother, extracting retribution against the general who sacked her city along the way.

Marriage and Loss in a Novel

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This sort of thing has happened numerous times in cases of national conflict: a spouse disappears in the fog of war and is assumed dead. The spouse waiting at home finds love with another, only to be informed later that the lost one is alive. This is part of Jakob History’s conflict in our futuristic, dystopian novel, We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile, from which the first-person segment below was drawn.

What would you do in such a case?

“Jakob,” said Takira, “you seen the gloom. A ghost, yah?”

She’d always claimed that ghosts were a big deal in the Jamaica Isle where she was born, as much a part of life as she and I but having no faith in what I can’t see, I didn’t know how to provide a tender reply. Besides, my thoughts wouldn’t leave Abraham. While we Citadelians have always bent to doing whatever necessary to preserve our culture, believing that in the end it would somehow spread, that the Outliers would slowly see our way of life as the better one, Abraham seemed as insistently sure as a bluejay’s song that the Outliers’ primitive state was humanity’s future. For the first time ever, his boasting infected me and I felt our way of life truly threatened. I looked down, hands trembling. I tried to reply to Takira, but my mindfever-constricted voice wouldn’t allow words.

Takira has a way of sensing mindplague, the state our pre-Debacle ancestors called depression, or its twin, anxiety—our word for that: mindfever—and so she hugged me to her. She blocked the wind’s sharpness from me and her warmth began to penetrate. Her pulse, her breathing, began to circumscribe mine, to calm the fever that had invaded me

“You got to talk to me, Jakob,” she said, “you got to tell me what you feel.”

Feelings. This was what she always wanted from me, something from my depths, but being who and what I am, I had no way to put words to that. I could only reply in blunt fashion, tell her about the woman, and maybe we could go on from there. Coughing my throat clear, I said, “Did you see the woman standing by the third vehicle?”

She pushed away a bit, her arms on my shoulders, and gave me an odd look. She nodded.

“That was my first mate, Diana.”

Now she pushed away altogether, her feet tapping against the floorboard to some anxious inner rhythm. Were we back home, this would have launched her into minutes of freeform body movements. She was forever telling me her feelings about this and that, but it amazed me how, when words managed to elude her, bodily expression took over, pressing her into some whirlwind dance. Finally she steeled herself enough to swallow and say, “Oh, mon, no. Diana be dead. You tell me so, long ago.”

I nodded, and for the first time since we’d been together I couldn’t look her in the eye. “I thought she was,” I said, eyes to the vehicle’s floor. “She disappeared during an Outlier attack. We found bodies, decapitated, mutilated men and women with parts missing. I walked among them, picked out what I thought was her remains.”

“Then this woman, Jakob, she be a mistake. She not your mate.”

Looking up, I said, “I’m sorry, but it really was Diana.”

She edged to the far side of the seat, the wind luffing her dreadlocks as if they were frizzy clumps of windstormed grasses. Tears fluttered into waves on her angular cheekbones. “If that woman be your mate, then what am I?” Her eyes flitted, made her seem as desperate as a mouse in the presence of a hawk. She began to cry, moaning loudly enough for Harald to turn and frown. I reached, hugged her to me. She was alien to Citadel, an immigrant still fumbling with our ways, and I was sure she’d become unmoored if she were to feel our mateship had failed her. I’d find out some morning that she’d gone, had climbed aboard a refugee plane for some distant place, and that was the last thing I wanted.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Takira was born on a faraway isle she calls Jamaica. She’d come to the mainland as an orphaned teen, had been enslaved by a fruit picking consortium, had escaped and stowed away on a ship bound for Africaland, which was her place of milk and honey, as the Book of Ancient History refers to paradisiacal places. She’d gone to school there, somewhere in coastal Africaland, where she could commune with the sea. She’d learned to read, write, and cipher there, and had made a lot of currency as a barterer of gems, gold, and other metals the Africaners deemed valuable. She’s a trusting one, too trusting by our standards, and she lost all her gains to a man of scurrilous practices, the man from a place she calls China. Still, she managed to successfully sue him and collected enough to return to Jamaica Isle. There she learned a form of magic and dance she called religion: suppositions of invisible and superior beings, something we forsook after the Great Debacle.

She tried to explain her odd belief in such unseen things to me many times, but I simply don’t understand the need of some minds to wander beyond rigorous physical and mental examinations of reality. Too much imagination at play there, that’s my take on it. At any rate, Jamaica represented her past, her poverty, so after another year she left again for mainland America, spent her currency purchasing a certificate of freedom and trying to establish a business similar to the one she’d had in Africaland. But she quickly realized the mainland no longer contained enough mineral resources to support such a business. Impoverished once again, she caught a refugee flight, ended up somewhere called Pacific, and then two years ago she disembarked at Citadel Field, on our southwest border. After a week of her wandering about in our city, we encountered one another at a midday meal. We talked, and that was the beginning of our mutual history.

So I held her close, luxuriating in her tenderness and warmth, I confess, and whispered that she was my mate, my only mate, that I would rather have her as my mate than any woman I’d ever met.

Her crying stilled, she sniffed, pushed away, and nodded. Then she swallowed, said, “Jakob, what be this about? Why she there this day?”

“I wish I knew.” Then something hit me. I tapped Harald’s shoulder. “Take us to Slaughterhouse.”

Visit my website here to find out more about WE ARE STRONG, BUT WE ARE FRAGILE or to buy the book. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

And here’s the trailer for the book:

A Broader Take on Story

Today’s world is ever-changing, adapting, mutating. If you see that glass half full, fine. If you see it half empty, then let’s suppose that a given new thing under your microscope hasn’t been fully fleshed out…yet. But to stay on point, what’s changed in the structure of stories, and why?

I won’t cover well-trod theoretical ground, except in passing. There’s Aristotle’s inverted check mark (or whatever else you’ve learned to call it), reproduced in one of its forms here:

Aristotles-InclineIf you fancy yourself a writer and haven’t come across this, well, let’s be nice and just say you should study this diagram. But today’s writers are trifling with this structure, if not abandoning it altogether. Why? Since the era of Henry James, James Joyce, and the like, there’s been an increasing emphasis on characterization. Now I’m all for convoluted stories, upsetting structure and time, and emphasizing character, but a complete surrender to casual characterization can only work under certain conditions.

Full disclosure: when conceiving my first novel, I had only a vague idea of where the story should go. I spent most of my time developing my characters (even walked around my condo, acting them out). As it turned out, my characters determined the direction of the novel, and that direction was the story. So no matter how you devise a piece of fiction, there should always be some vestige of story.

All right, then, what are the rules to structuring fiction in our postmodern world? The thing to consider here is that in our world of flux, your responsibility, dear writer, can be summed up in perhaps two things:

  • What your characters confront should challenge your readers’ deeply held convictions. In a world of change, life, even in fiction, should have meaning. Being willing to leave the past is only half the solution, though; meaning much be transformed as well.
  • As a corollary to the above, the writer must change the way his/her readers see the world, it’s failings, its urge to move toward the future’s promise.

A caution: Reading is a private act. Have you ever read a book in your teen years, then read it again in your middle years and discovered new perspectives, new slants on old perspectives? Do you wonder why Emma Bovary maintains such a hold on modern readers? Do you wonder why the pre-revolution world of Tolstoy’s writing seems so relevant today? That Mark Twain’s tweaking of prigs’ noses works as well today as then? It’s the writer’s inspiration, if one is a true talent, to be able to reach beyond good and bad, beyond belief and certainty, into the always changing nature of the human essence. If reading were anything other than a private act, reaching such depths, allowing the alternative worlds of fiction to displace one’s certainties would be all but impossible.

If you seek simply to write dogma, whether it be social, religious, political, or historical, you’re not writing fiction. If you have an agenda of cut-and-dried good and bad, fiction isn’t what you’re doing.

But in all that the muses give you in the way of inspiration and talent, remember: whatever you write will be incomplete without the movement of life – and that’s what story is all about.

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