Monday, October 20, 2014

New Van Gogh collection!

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When I was working on my Van Gogh novel, Days on Fire, the one source I found myself coming back to constantly was the mammoth, three volume, hardbound Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, published originally by Bulfinch back in the 1950s.  It's an incredible resource: a better, fairer, clearer view into the mind and world of Van Gogh than any biography or novel (shhhh) or recollection "by those who knew him" (which are often marred by how little they really knew him).  Exacting descriptions of place he has visited; despair about his artwork and exultation about the same; resentment toward his brother and exhortations to him; disputes with his father; chatty discussions about (now long forgotten) artists or art dealers or paint supply store owners; opinions about the (countless) books he read; revelations about the women he loves and about love itself; depictions of the depressingly, growingly hopeless life at St. Paul's asylum in Saint Rémy--it's all there, along with so much more.  A whole adult life documented with a fantaticism of detail that is just about one of a kind, really.  As I say so often, I think surely it must be these letters--and Van Gogh's roadside eloquence--that accounts for our continued fascination with the man, just as much as his beautiful paintings and a life that was marked with so much tragedy, idealism, and stubbornness.   The one drawback to such a thorough recored, of course, is its necessary length.  The Complete Letters runs to something like 1800 pages.   Not a weekend read!  And while it's useful to watch the arc of the man's life play out over these hundreds of missives, long and short, profound and mundane, energized and bored and despairing, it's also true that not every letter is crucial to understanding Van Gogh, his time, and his milieau.  Or not crucial in the same way.  

So it's welcome news that in December a new selected edition of Van Gogh's letters will be published by Yale University Press, one with the beguiling title Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.  You might have read Dan Piepenbring's early glimpse into the volume, published recently in Paris Review.  It certainly does sound like a promising new book: almost 800 pages in length, with 265 out of the extant 820 letters included, along with family photographs and 87 pages worth of reproductions from the actual handwritten letters.  At $50 it doesn't come cheap, but for a Van Gogh lover--or anyone simply curious about learning more about this fascinating person--it looks to me like money well spent. Of course, which letters you finally deem "essential" will depend on who you are and what you are trying to learn about the painter, but without yet having had the chance to review the collection I can take a pretty fair guess at some of the letters regarded as "musts": the letters written to Theo in the period of abject despair and loss of identity after being removed from his position as lay minister to miners in the Borinage region of Belgium; the letters to Theo explaining why the "no" delivered to Vincent by his cousin K was not really a "no," and why even in the turbulent state of his emotions it was better by far to feel such a powerful love than none at all; the letters to Theo glorifying the peaceful home life he enjoyed with his new life partner Sien and why, despite her being a former prostitute, Vincent regarded her as his wife and insisted the family do as well; letters describing his almost manic level of energy and the resulting "high yellow note" that marked his painting in that fitful, historic, crucial summer in Arles in 1888; the heartbreaking letter from St. Paul's in which he describes the painting he has just made in honor of the birth of his nephew (named after him) and his desire to bring it to the boy in person.  Interesting man, yes?  And let's face it, 800 pages--while hardly an inconsequential entry into Van Gogh's life and writing--is a much quicker read than 1800 pages.  This sounds like the perfect introduction to the other Van Gogh: the riveting literary artist.

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Not to blow my own horn, but I am amazed and humbled by the fine reception my story collection Island Fog is receiving from book bloggers and other reviewers.  Here are two I found out about just yesterday: one comes from the book blog Books Are Love; the other from the Australian book blog The Bookshelft Garogyle.  (Great title, huh?)  Then there's the really positive one I got from Kirkus.You just write the stories and try to make them the best you can; then they go out there and you can't ever really (really) know if they are as good as you hope, not until such kind words come back to you.  I can't say how grateful I am.   And a little amazed.

                                                       


Monday, October 13, 2014

Changing history, refining character, winning the story

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Last week in my historical fiction workshop class we were discussing the second half of one of the model novels I assigned them: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride.  Virtually to a person, the class loved the book: its narrator, his dialect, the humorous situations, the seeming fidelity to the time period, the insight into crucial historical figures (e.g., John BrownFrederick DouglassHarriet Tubman) and an event (the raid on Harper's Ferry) that proved to be one of the most significant catalysts for the Civil War.  But what proved especially interesting to the class, and significant to me as a writer, is the extent to which McBride gently--or not so gently--toyed with historical facts in order to reinforce the characterizations that he was consciously trying to establish.

Before we begin, the obvious needs to stated: John Brown's reputation has been pretty low for a pretty long time.  There have been some recent efforts to revise our inherited notions about him and his raid, but--and the comments of my students bore this out--our general understanding of the man is that he was violent, self-righteous, and humorless; a religious zealot on the order of a terrorist; and that his plan to take the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and lead a slave rebellion was the height of lunacy.  Guaranteed to fail.  It's safe to say that James McBride doesn't--and never did--see Brown this way.  In fact, he dedicates the book to the man and to all who have helped keep Brown's memory alive.  In interviews, McBride is not afraid to admit that he regards John Brown as one of his personal heroes.

The challenge for McBride as an historical novelist, therefore, is to show John Brown and his failed raid in a way that does not repel a reader inclined to be suspicious of the man.  The challenge is to find a way to lead such a reader into the narrative and keep him there.  One immediately apparent way is his choice of a narrator.  McBride doesn't even consider having Brown tell his own story.  Instead, the job of narrating falls to Henry Shackleford.  Henry is a fictional creation, a character who when he knew Brown and was drawn into the events at Harper's Ferry was a young boy, barely an adolescent.  (He ages from roughly 12 to 15 over the course of the novel.)  Henry, or "Onion" as Brown calls him, is funny, honest, and salty.  He's a fantastic narrator, one whose living situation--he is made to dress like a girl and tries to fool everyone, white and black alike, about his real gender--is not exactly original but is handled in a thoroughly entertaining manner by McBride.  With the Onion narrating one can't help but listen to the story of John Brown.  

But what's more revealing, and more instructive, are the many subtle and not so subtle ways that McBride alters the historical record in order to make Brown more sympathetic, his character more in keeping with the gruff and loopy but good-hearted and uniquely likeable "Old Man" that McBride tries to establish.  Whereas in real life, Brown was the one making decisions and making mistakes, in the novel Brown is seen in many separate instances as the victim of others' wrongheaded choices or lapses in duty or outright criminality.  In the book he trusts people too much and seems convinced people will do the right thing when given the choice to.  One can't help but admire and even love a person like that, even as his trust and high opinion of others leads him into personal disaster.   Without doubt, Onion loves John Brown by book's end, he would do practically anything for the old coot.  But, again, this depiction is the result of some very cagy nudging of and yanking on the historical record.   For instance,  in one riveting chapter, Brown, after many weeks of exhausting fundraising among abolitionists groups on the east coast, turns over all the money he has raised to an Englishman named Hugh Forbes.  Forbes promises to meet up with Brown in Iowa, where Brown's army is quartered, and train Brown's men as only a professional soldier can.   Brown is ecstatic at this development, on fire with optimism, convinced that Forbe's aid will be the difference between his men being a ragged militia and an effective, fighting army.  In the novel, Forbes walks off with Brown's money and never shows up in Iowa.  Poor Brown, one thinks, how could he have been so trusting, and what is he going to do for money now?  Well, in real life too there was an Englishman named Hugh Forbes who Brown enlisted to train his men.   That Forbes did go to Iowa, and did try to train the men.  In fact he stayed on the job for three months.  He only left because Brown was not paying him his promised salary and Brown was also meddling with Forbes's efforts.

In the book Brown sends one of his men ahead to Harpers Ferry to rent a large house for his army.  This man, Cook, is a complete ne'er-do-well, a womanizer who will put his own desires above the needs of a group at any time.  Brown knows this, he's warned of it, and yet he believes in Cook enough to give him the important job anyway.  He also sends along Onion to keep an eye on Cook and, more importantly, recruit blacks for the rebellion.  As the reader expects, Cook royally botches his responsibilty, renting a house that is in such a terrible location (in order to be near a buxom working girl) that the essential plan is compromised and must be critically altered.  Onion, meanwhile, mostly fails in his recruitment efforts and then also fails in what proves to be his singlemost important duty: to pass on a secret password to Brown's men, a password that will tell a large contingent of blacks, arriving on a train from Baltimore, that the attack is on.  Because Brown's men never receive the password, and thus have none to give, the blacks turn away (as Onion had been warned they would).  They don't join the rebellion, leaving Brown and his men to face the army of the U.S. government alone.  In real life, Brown rented the house himself, and the failure to recruit a sufficient number of black men for his army lay in the unfeasibility of the plan itself.  

These are just a couple examples of the many historical alterations rendered by McBride.  I should say that in several matters McBride does stay true to what events happened and when; also to the names of principal historical figures.  It's not like he's just rewriting history out of whole cloth.  No, he's far more strategic and artful than that: bending facts here and there to color impressions.  One more example, this involving Frederick Douglass.  The renowned abolitionist spokesman and former slave was of course the most respected and listened to black voice at the time.  And Brown did indeed know Frederick Douglass and tried to enlist his moral support for the Harpers Ferry raid.  In the book, as in real life, Douglass does not support the raid.  He thinks it is suicidal and says so.  But what in real life comes across as a cautious and reasonable--if not exactly heroic--calculation, is presented in the novel as an act of betrayal by a hypocritical, thin-skinned, dandified man who has forgotten where he came from.   Douglass is presented as having two wives at the same time--one white, one black--as well as shown trying to loosen up the young Onion with alcohol so he can have his way with "her," in his own house, with his wives only rooms away.

As several students pointed out, despite Douglass's idealistic fervor in support of freeing the Negro, in the novel he has no trouble "enslaving" women to his desires, keeping them essentially as chattel.  Crucially, in The Good Lord Bird only slaves-- both men and women--are able to see immediately into Onion's true nature.  It's the whites and fancy, free negroes who are fooled (constantly) by his dress and by his smooth, young, mulatto face.   The fact that Douglass cannot tell that Onion is really a boy tells you exactly on which side of the divide McBride wants to set the great orator.  (In contrast, at novel's end we find out that Brown knew all along that Onion was a boy.) Through the voice of Onion, McBride ridicules Douglass as a man who just likes to hear himself talk, who won't ever really risk anything, even for the sake of the Negro, and who so can't handle liquor that he gets drunk under the table by a 14-year-old.  In real life, Douglass was never married to two woman at the same time.  He took a second wife only after his first died (as many widowers do).  He was actually an impassioned advocate for women's suffrage, speaking at the Seneca Falls Convention and at one point even serving as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull, the presidential nominee of the Equal Rights Party ticket.  And since Onion is a complete fiction, we can't say whether or not Douglass was able to recognize 14 year-old-boys disguised as girls. 

I hope this discussion does not make it sound like I'm criticizing McBride.  Far from it.  Instead I am trying to suggest (once again) the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.  The latter uses history--as faithfully as possible--but finally the historical fiction must be  committed to story and character above all else.  If it wants to succeed in the eyes of a reader, that is; if it wants to earn a reader's love and admiration.  Even if that means winking at the historical record and giving that record a conscious, cagy twist.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

The burden of the opinionator

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I return to my writing classes tomorrow after canceling for a week to allow my students to attend the many different writing-related activities that went on during UCA's LGBT History Month celebration.  (See last's week's post.)  I'm grateful to return to the classroom, and eager to hear the students' impressions of the writers who came to campus, but there's one aspect of the teaching business that I won't exactly welcome back with open arms.  And that is the necessity of always having an opinion.  For a long time, but especially the last few years, this has increasingly been the single aspect of my job that I've struggled with.  One hears now and again about teacher burnout.  Usually what's evoked is misbehaving students; or meddlesome, government-enforced testing requirements; or ill-informed administrators; or a lack of financial support for important educational initiatives; or a widespread lack of respect in the community.  And I'm sure that for K-12 teachers those factors are extremely prominent.  But for a university writing teacher, especially a creative writing teacher, I thinkwhat burdens them more often is simply the matter of having to constantly deliver opinions about student writing.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not talking about the burden of reading student writing.  I am thrilled to see what my students come up with.  Sure, not all of it is world-changing, but to see what ideas and approaches they employ can be insipring.  Just this semester, for example, the different stories my students are working on in historical fiction workshop class make a study in the variety of human curiosity: a young mother goes missing in Kansas in the 30s, a teenager goes missing in New York City in the 70s, the son of a musician struggles to cope in German-occupied Paris,  Canadian soldiers battle on the front lines in World War I, a nineteenth-century woman invents a lurid, bestselling tale about sexual abuse in a convent, a miner in the 20s falls for a woman he can't have, a patient in a dubious mental asylum in the 60s resists authority, Leah (from the bibilcal account) expresses her secret resentment of Rachel, workers riot in the 30s.  Reading these stories is never a burden.  But having to constantly lay down judgements about them, and advice for them, can be exhausting.  Not because I don't think I have good advice to offer--at least part of the time I certainly do--and not because my opinion-making is restricting the students' access to others' opinions.  (There are several possible mechanisms for feedback in a workshop course.)  But because reading with the idea that I will have to present at least one typed page of feedback on the story--and the student is waiting impatiently for such feedback--is a very different and demanding reading experience from any other reading experience in daily life.

When I read an author for pleasure, I tend to read rather forgivingly.  This is not to say that I do not notice weaknesses in some of the books and stories I read, or that I won't finally grow testy about those weaknesses, but that I tend to grant the author the benefit of the doubt for a good long time.  I tend to give a book a chance to prove itself to me on its own terms; to withhold judgement until I have a better sense of what the book is "about," what it's up to, how it's put together.   In short, I tend to read with an open mind.  But when reading in order to give opinions one must read with considerable more ferocity. Sometimes that's a good thing, because it means you are also reading with a great deal more attention.  But many times it just feels more draining.  Having to be the expert, the one with all the answers, can indeed be a burden.   Sometimes you just feel like saying, "This looks pretty good.   Keep going."  (And occasionally this is, more or less, what I say.)  But I tend to think that if that's all I say too often, the students will feel cheated of their tuition money.  And they would be right.  Indeed, the weird truth of the matter is that I am paid to have opinions.  So I do the best I can, sometimes stating what is working and what isn't with more absolutism than I actually feel.  (Other times, however, those determinations seem perfectly obvious.)

I say a second time, don't get me wrong.  I feel extremely fortunate to have the job I do and to work where I do.  Most days at most hours I am content, even quietly blissful.  But even good jobs have their tough parts; that is, the parts that don't match up so well with one's personality.  I think the fundamental problem is that creative writing--especially in the heady first draft stage--is almost entirely a matter of opening yourself up, flipping the switch so the current flows and keeps flowing.  It's not about being critical or doubting or judgmental.  It's getting started, letting yourself go, and forgiving all the temporary lapses.  It feels great,  it's absolutely crucial, and I'm convinced it's what hooks so many people so early on creative writing.  And it's what keeps us there.   Reading in order to have an opinion about what's wrong is the exact opposite mental condition.  It's like having to hold one huge muscle in my mind in abeyance while stressing another entirely, even unnaturally, almost to the point of taxation.  And it's not exactly soul-satisfying.  I don't know if this  comes as a surprise to anyone or not.  I suspect that most students think they're professors are enthralled by the idea of being the expert, the one at the front, the one with all the answers.  I suppose some professors do feel that way.  But I believe that more probably feel like I do: that being the expert can be an awful pain in the rear.  As well as being at odds with who you are and what you do.  Being an expert isn't how I get any story started.  Being an amateur explorer, a dubious risk-taker, and a weekend cliff diver is.  That way the education comes to you from the writing itself.  And so too does all the fun.

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More book news!  (Please excuse the self-promotion.)  Island Fog is fully out!  The paperback can be purchased through Amazonbn.com, and lavenderink.org.  Meanwhile, a Kindle e-book version is available through Amazon and Amazon.co.uk.  If you do read it, please put up a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon and/or bn.com, etc.  I'd love to know how it struck you.


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Goodreads giveaway winners!  The Goodreads giveaway contest was a lot of fun.  Thanks to author/blogger Erika Dreifus for insisting that I get it started.   In the end, 873 people signed up, and three of them won free books: Melanie Ciaccio of Brandon, Florida; Ken Gilmour of Petersborough, Ontario; and Tasha Mellins-cohen of Bristol, England.  Congrats to Melanie, Ken, and Tasha.

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I'll be on the radio today!  An interview I completed with KUAF radio in Fayetteville, Arkansas will be broadcast today (Oct. 6, 2014) at noon and 7 pm (central time, USA) as part of their daily Ozarks at Large program.   You can listen live via the internet at www.kuaf.com.  If you miss the live broadcast, an archived version should be avaiable soon.   Happy listening!

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My new website!  Dang, I've forgotten to tell blog readers about my new website, gorgeously designed by UCA MFA-er Rebecca Hawkins.  Go to johnvanderslicebooks.com to get the latest news on appearances and or reviews.



Monday, September 29, 2014

A necessary week

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Starting today and running through Saturday, October 4, UCA's College of Fine Arts and Communication (CFAC) will present a series of events  meant to recognize and celebrate LGBT culture.  You may or may not realize that October is designated as National Diversity Awareness Month; and on my campus we have an Office of Diversity and Community which each year around this time plans a few events to recognize LGBT culture and history.  This year CFAC just decided to up the ante.  It started with the Writing Department deciding to invite to campus two authors, Bernard Cooper (pictured left) and Jericho Brown (pictured immediately below), who happen to be gay men.  From there we took the idea to CFAC--which foots the bill for all artists in residence--to bring Brown and Cooper to campus during the same week and create an LGBT weeklong festival.

And from there everything fell into place.  I mentioned some of the events in my post last week.  In addition to readings by Cooper and Brown, there will be a talk given by John Schenk and Robert Loyd (pictured below), warriors in the cause of gay marriage in Arkansas and founders of the Conway Pride Parade; a lecture by Dr. Raymond Frontain on the Arkansas-born writer Peter McGehee; a weeklong exhibition of a segment of the AIDS Memorial Quilt; a miniature film festival featuring the LGBT documentaries Paris is Burning (1990) and The New Black (2013); a reading presented by PRISM, our LGBTQA student organization; and a reading presented by Sibling Rivalry Press, a publishing house located just outside Little Rock that does so much to promote gay and lesbian writers.  Click here for a detailed schedule of festival events sponsored by UCA's College of Fine Arts and Communication.

Of course a festival, any festival, especially a new one, needs promoting.  And some of the reactions have been curious if not disheartening.  Don't get me wrong.  There are plenty of students, and not just our LGBT students, who are happy for this festival, students who feel it's more than overdue.  Others see it as no big deal, a "So what?" But at the same time, I'm surprised at the extent to which the local media regards the idea of an LGBT festival as something radical, advant-garde, even dangerous.  It is?  I guess I'm naive--and I guess I'm not from around here--but that reaction strikes me as a little drastic.  After all, the idea of celebrating LGBT history during National Diversity Awareness Month has been around for years.  Neither UCA nor the CFAC invented it.  But to listen to local reactions, you'd think the president of my university woke up one morning and just decided to "give" LGBT people a month.  (I can guarantee you that he had nothing to do with it.)  Literally within hours of a press release going out from CFAC about the festival, I was called by a Little Rock television station.  They wanted to come to campus, film me, film our students, and discuss this "controversy."  Days later a second Little Rock television came to campus to do the same.  The resulting story they broadcast was fine, but I was both shocked and amused to hear the comments of one older gentleman they found who declared he could not support UCA's funding "public acts of unchastity."  Unchastity?  These are poetry and fiction readings; lectures by community organizers and professors of English literature.  This is a quilt!  Where exactly does the unchastity come in?  From his biased brain and its inherited stereotypes; that's where.

And since I've been promoting the festival and talking to others about it, I've heard equally disheartening stories: a student worker afraid to install posters around campus advertising the festival for fear she will be labeled as gay; an email from an angry local citizen who insists that LGBT people don't deserve a history month "any more than black people do"; anecdotes about how, even now, even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, gay, lesbian, and trans teenagers are chased away from churches, illegally discriminated against in the regional school systems, expelled from their homes by their parents and left to live on the streets.  Parents who have somehow convinced 
themselves--who are allowed to convince themselves by their own toxic support systems--that they are acting righteously.  Righteously?  I'm a parent, and I can't imagine more inhumane, unnatural, and ungodly behavior than to toss my child into the streets and all that awaits him there.  I can't imagine a greater violation of the parental bond or of simple human decency.  Both for my wife and I--and I think for most parents--such behavior is literally unthinkable.  That it still goes on in Arkansas and elsewhere is even more unthinkable.  Thus the need, apprently, for this festival at UCA.  And another.  And another.  And another.  Until our collective humanity can overhwelm the madness.

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LAST CHANCE FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!!  Since I've started the Goodreads Giveaway contest for my short story collection Island Fog, over 430 people have signed up for it.  I'm thrilled.  Well, we are almost at the end of the giveaway.  Wednesday, October 1 will be the very last day to enter.  On Thursday October 2, the contest will be over, and Goodreads will tell me who won.  You can always purchase the book (see late-breaking news below), but why not enter the giveaway contest while you still have the chance?  Just click on this link.  Good luck!!  

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THE BOOK IS OUT!!!  Just found out from my publisher, Lavender Ink, that 
Island Fog is now available for purchase in paperback on Amazon.  You can also order it through Lavender Ink's website, lavenderink.org.  If you're a fan of e-readers, don't fret.  A Kindle version is forthcoming in a few weeks.   For readers in the UK, it should be available very soon on Amazon.co.uk.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Suspense builds!

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In an odd conflation of life events, jury duty on the federal court in Little Rock, Arkansas beckons just as my book's big release is set to become a reality.  As I write this, it's Sunday, September 21, and in a few hours I make a call to a Little Rock number to find out if I must show up for duty on Monday morning.  If so, let's hope it's a quick and easy case! In the meantime, I eagerly anticipate Island Fog becoming available to order on Amazon any day now.  The official release date is, and has been, October 1, but my publisher Lavender Ink will likely make it available this week to satisfy demands for early ordering.  (In any case, one can already order the book through the Lavender Ink website.)  To top it all off, in the week of September 28-October 4 my university hosts two major visiting authors as well as a host of other speakers as we launch our first ever festivities in honor of National Diversity Awareness Month.  I am one of the co-organizers--and thus co-administrators--of the festivities.  Talk about a lot on your plate!  It's all good, but it's all huge too.

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Pre-release reviews and other online activity seem to pop up every day or so.  At the end of last week I was notified of a review on the Oh My Bookness blog as well as the publication of a short "Books by the Bed" segment I was kindly asked by writer Cheryl Olsen to submit to the website We Wanted To Be Writers.  (The idea is to talk about what books are next to your bed or just were or will be shortly.)  She has also kindly agreed to review my book in the next couple of weeks.  Thank you so much, Cheryl.

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Forgive another obnoxious reminder--maybe my last one!--that a Goodreads giveaway contest for Island Fog is still ongoing.  The end of the contest is imminent, however.  You only have until the last day of the month to enter.  Click this link for a chance to win one of three giveaway copies.



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I can't know what jury service will look like or how long it will last, but I hope to write you next week with more details about UCA's weeklong festival in honor of National Diversity Awareness month.  The bad news is that both the idea of a Diversity Awareness month and our on-campus activites are long overdue.   The good news is that we have a fantastic lineup planned.  This lineup includes world-class creative talents like fiction and nonfiction writer Bernard Cooper (The Bill from My FatherGuess AgainTruth Serum) and poet Jericho Brown (The New TestamentPlease); also, the exhibition of a segment of the AIDS Memorial Quilt; a lecture on the origin and turbulent history of Conway, Arkansas's Pride Parade; artifacts from and a lecture on the late gay novelist Peter McGehee and his dark comedies of manners; the screening of two landmark documentaries about LGBT culture: Paris is Burning (1990) and The New Black (2013); a first ever reading put on by members our campus's LGBT organization, Prism; and a reading organized by Sibling Rivalry Press, a renowned and deeply respected publisher--located right here in central Arkansas, by the way--of many gay and lesbian writers.  If you're in the area the week of September 28-Oct 4, check it out!  If you're just interested in finding out more, contact Dr. Gayle Seymour (GayleS@uca.edu) or Joshua Miller (JDMiller@uca.edu) in the office of the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, University of Central Arkansas.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The fictional fine line

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For my historical fiction workshop class last Wednesday,  the group read T.C. Boyle's novella Wild Child (from the 2010 collection Wild Child and other Stories) based on the famous true life case of the "Wild Boy of Aveyron." To summarize the true life case in brief: In 1800, in France, a boy was found living feral in the woods, naked.  No one knew for certain when he went in or for how long he'd lived there, but based on earlier reported sightings authorities estimated that he had lived for seven years or more in that environment, alone.  The boy seemed to have no knowledge of any language and did not react to any sounds.  It was assumed at first that he was a deaf-mute.  When it was discovered that he could in fact hear, a determined young doctor named Icard tried to civilize him, the hardest work of which was to try to teach him to understand and even speak the French language.  Icard also chose the name Victor for the boy.  After years of fantastic effort, Icard had to give up his experiment.  Victor simply was not progressing in his language acquisition, and in some ways he seemed to be regressing.  He was henceforth allowed to live out his life in the home of Madame Guérin--Icard's housekeeper--serving as Guérin's houseboy.  Victor did not cause the woman any undue trouble, but neither did he seem terribly happy.  To say the least, the attempt to turn the "savage" into a civilized man was deemed by all to have been a terrible failure.


From what I knew about Victor of Aveyron, and from what my students could tell, Boyle seemed to be sticking very closely to the known facts of the case.  Many of them also described the tone of the narration to be distant, clinical, impassionate, observing rather than participating.  (Perhaps this is what led one of them to call Boyle's style "stodgy.")  What Boyle appeared to be doing with the story was taking the facts of the case and lining them up inside a fluid, readable narrative.  I use italics on appeared because neither I nor my students knew enough about Boyle's intentions or his method of working to speak conclusively.  I had tried to find an interview with Boyle or an article about him in which he discussed the novella and his research in detail, but I wasn't successful.  The way the discussion was going I wished I had tried a little harder.   One student wondered aloud what made the novella fiction since Boyle's apparent modus operandi could describe a great deal of narrative nonfiction, including some very celebrated examples of such.  I have to admit the question stumped me.  I was completely unprepared for it.  (I'm much more ready to respond to those who attack a work of historical fiction for playing too loosely with the facts.  Fiction writers are rarely if ever questioned for being too faithful to the historical record.)  I said that since it was published in a collection of fiction I just accepted it as such, which is true but not a terribly convincing argument.  And I offered my apology for not finding out what Boyle himself had to say.  A pretty meager response.


Later, after I'd had time to think about it, I realized there were aspects of the book I could and should have pointed to in order to nudge it, in my students' minds, clearly to the side of fiction.  First, despite the complaints about the distant and clinical narration, the novel isn't written in third person objective; Boyle doesn't narrate, not completely, from the stance of the neutral historian.  Instead,  he shows the perspectives of a variety of the book's characters, most importantly, Icard, Madame Guérin, and Victor himself, especially in one especially fraught scene when Victor flees from Icard's control to find himself lost and and at a loss on the streets of Paris.  Given how shut out from Victor's mind the people around him felt, this scene certainly represents a leap of the imagination for the author.  A leap based partly on the facts of the case, of course, but even more on Boyle's intuition.  And too,while the novella's narrator demonstrates more powerful control over what we know and find out and believe and interpret than is typically the case with contemporary fiction--in which scene is primary--it's not like Wild Child is without scenes or without dialogue.  As I frequently say to people who like to discuss research vs imagination as if they are strict writerly dichotomies,  just because you know Mr. Brown had a conversation with Mrs. Smith at French restaurant in New York in 1931, and you even know the subject of their conversation, there is little to no chance you know what the actual words were that they used in that conversation.  And even if somehow you know the actual words, you don't know what the sky looked like outside the window; or what oddities marked the appearnce of the passersby; you don't know the state of the tablecloth on their table or how dingy was the lighting; you don't know who was sitting at the tables nearby and whether their conversation might have made it hard for Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith to concentrate; you don't know if Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith's conversation became a distraction for them.  These are just a fraction of the possible details that could potentially make up a scene in story, and they are details that the historical fiction writer must often create with his or her imagination.  Yes, that's right.  Must.  Those details are certainly evident in Boyle's story, even as he also relates a tremendous amount of factual information about the Wild Boy's behavior, the other principals and their backgrounds, and the philosophical debates of the time that made Victor such a crucial test case.

Meanwhile, a strict writer of narrative nonfiction would forbid himself or herself from risking such a liberal assertion of the the imagination.  I remember once hearing a radio interview with Sebastian Junger in which he claimed that every single detail in The Perfect Storm, even conversations between the principals, was derived through research, whether that meant through reading or by talking with knowledgeable people, including the families and friends of the men who died in the storm.  Junger refused to allow himself to speculate about how a person involved might have felt or might have thought or might have perceived something.  If he could not derive a detail convincingly from research, even if that detail might have made his narrative more vivid,  he left it out.   Clearly, this is not the way of the fiction writer.  And I think it's safe to say it wasn't Boyle's way in writing Wild Child.  Perhaps he came as close to the fiction/creative nonfiction line as any writer of historical fiction dares, but I'm not willing to write him off as not being among us.  He is T.C. Boyle, after all.  Don't you want him in your corner?

(Pictured on right: Boyle, in our corner.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

At long last--the historical fiction class

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[This post is being dual-posted on my other blog, Payperazzi.   For weekly reflections on writing, teaching writing, publishing, and the writing life, check out Payperazzi.]



For years at UCA we've talked about it: running a workshop class solely devoted to historical fiction.  There seemed to be a pressing need.  After all, as I've written about repeatedly on my other blog Creating Van Gogh, historical fiction is enjoying an especially fruitful time right now: as popular as it's ever been in terms of mass market sales, while at the same time its writers routinely win or make the short lists for prestigious prizes like the Man Booker, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Award.  Most importantly, the students want to try the form out.  They want to focus on it.  They want to study it.  So really it's about time.  And, yes, now it's happening, and I'm honored to be the instructor allowed to teach it.  The crop of students in the class--a nice mix of graduate students and undergrads--are all genuinely interested in the form and eager to throw themselves into at least one, if not three different, past times in order to write a story or stories.  (I've given them the option of writing three separate fictions or one longer one.)  One of the undergrads is a history major.  Another is a business major/writing minor with an interest in the form that dates back several years, when I first had him in workshop.  Then he was writing about medieval Japan; now he's interested in Joan of Arc.  One of the graduate students is working on an historical novel for her MFA thesis; another wants to explore family stories from out of Kansas.  They're excited.  I'm excited.


Because the course was created under our Topics in Creative Writing rubric, for now it's a one-time shot.  Let's hope the class succeeds, which means the students like what they read and, more crucially, what they write.  And because it's a brand new course, it's an utter experiment, as any brand new course is--making it, from the teacher's standpoint, both thrilling and anxious at the same time.  I'm giving the students quite a mixed bag of work to do: required readings in historical fiction (including two longish novels), presentations on articles about historical fiction as a craft, the original fictions that they compose, in-class journal writings and reflections, peer group meetings, and, later in the semester, full class workshops.  It will be a full room of fifteen people and, as is usually the case with any workshop course, trying to figure how to balance all the different elements within the time alloted will be the biggest test.


I got the ball rolling last Wednesday with a short presentation on some of the issues surrounding the form.  First of all: What is historical fiction anyway?  Opinions definitely vary.  (Does historical fantasy count?  What about alternative histories?)  And: What are the "rules" of writing it? Here opinions vary even more widely.  I was hardly trying to lay down the rules myself but instead trying to suggest some of the areas of most sensitive and commited disagreement.  For instance, when employing an actual person out of history in your story, can you make things up that you know never happened?  When setting the story in a much earlier period is the writer required to describe in detail the physical setting of that period?  How closely should you--or even can you--try to mimick the way people spoke in the time period?  And what if the language they would have spoken is medieval French or Turkish or Russian, and you're writing in English for an English language audience?  How do you approximate one language through the other?  I do have my own measured opinions on these questions.  Opinions I'll certainly share with the students.  But I'm hoping and expecting that as the students write their own fictions and research what others have to say about the form, they'll uncover lots of different opinions about such questions as well as plenty of questions that I haven't yet brought before them.  It seems true, in the end, that what the governing rules are for historical fiction is something that each writer of historical fiction has to decide for himself or herself, just as the governing rules of any novel have to be determined by that novel itself.  So in the end what rules my students choose for themselves will likely be as varied as the projects they are working on.  But we're only at the beginning now; the ending is quite far off indeed.  I'm excited and anxious to see how this ride goes.

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Giveaway reminder:  Just another reminder that through Goodreads I'm running a giveaway promotion (on three continents!) for Island Fog, my forthcoming book of linked short stories.  The book is half historical fictions, one of which my class is reading for this coming Wednesday.   Let's hope they like it!  And if you haven't yet, let's hope you sign up for the giveaway.  Just follow this link.  The promotion ends on Oct. 1, which is the official release date for the book.