Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Creating Van Gogh will take a mini-vacation this week as I head out of town for a Christmas related trip. (No, not on skis.) After we ring in the New Year, if not sooner, you'll see original posts again as I gear up for a new kind of semester: one in which I am no longer on sabbatical. I'm sure the reality of a full-time teaching and advising load will impact my posts, but let's try not to think about that at the moment. For now, I want to send out a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and/or Happy Kwanzaa to all of you who have kept up with, or merely checked into, the blog this semester. It's been a fun adjunct activity to working on my novel--a way to blow off steam, chew over some questions, and pass along anecdotes that come to mind as I write. I hope it's been entertaining; informative may be more than we can reasonably hope for. I'm not sure what new issues, information, ideas, or recollections will strike me next semester. I guess that will depend on the development and fate of the book, won't it? Well, whatever happens, you'll be the first to know. Happy Holidays.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
With Christmas almost upon us, you probably aren't in need of, or in the mood for, more gift giving suggestions of the literary kind. Just in case, however, let me recommend a newish (2008) book by first time novelist Hannah Tinti. Her novel is called The Good Thief, and it's another in a line of historical novels I've been chewing on as I carry out my sabbatical semester. You may have heard of Tinti's book already since it appeared to near universal acclaim last year. You may also be familiar with her through her roles as founder and co-editor of the important journal One Story. In either case, all I can tell you is to buy, beg, borrow, or steal her novel. It's a rollicking good, rags to riches, tale with--as many commentators have already pointed out--echoes of Dickens classics such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. The characters are all individually articulated, with supremely distinctive qualities, both personal and physical. (Watch out for a giant, a dwarf, a mannish deaf woman, orphaned twins, and a slippery con man, to name only a few of the author's memorable inventions.) Even better, each of the characters--from major to minor--has a compelling story of his or her own. In fact, I would say that it is hard to distinguish between major and minor characters in this book because they are all so well drawn and so necessary to the plot. That alone should tell you it's a successful novel.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Over here I don't watch them much anymore, but during my stay last May in Arles I found myself gravitating to French game shows. It was something to do during my lunch and dinner breaks from writing. Not only were they fun but they proved an easy way to keep up on my French and gain a little "cultural insight" into contemporary France. My favorite show was a French version of Family Feud (Une famille en or)--I am being completely serious here--which featured a host way cooler than Richard Dawson and also some notable twists. For instance, instead of one member of the pair being led off stage during the big money round (if you've ever seen F.F. you probably remember this), that person would be kept on stage but given dark glasses and headphones through which loud dance music was piped. Then, while their partner answered questions, the person was required to dance for the camera. As you can imagine, some of these people were just not funky enough to carry it off. (But that was kind of the point.) A surprising number carried it off perfectly well. My favorite question asked on the show was "What is the most annoying thing about Celine Deon?" A few of the survey responses, i.e. the ones I can remember: her nose, her family, her accent (something about being from Quebec, I guess), and her voice.
Monday, December 14, 2009
I thought I should write today about how I organized my hours during my writing retreat in Arles. It was the first time in years, maybe decades, when I had complete control over my schedule from sunup to sundown, and that, I must admit, felt like a real gift. I think my natural waking time is somewhere around six a.m. This sounds early for most people, I realize, but when I'm engaged in the busyness of a semester's teaching/parenting/etc. I find I have to set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. in order to actully get writing done. (No, I am neither kidding nor exaggerating.) In Arles, I found myself waking on my own between 5:30 and 6:00 inside of pleasantly cool mornings. I'm a newspaper addict--a habit I am both proud of and regret--but in France I found myself pleasantly exiled from the morning paper. Instead of a newspaper with my morning pot of coffee I read real books (I brought a stack of English language novels with me), priming both my body and mind for the work ahead. Every once in a while, I'd finish up a journal entry from the night before. I suppose I ate something, but it was usually light. The coffee was the main thing. I'd then work for 2-3 hours, kind of a moderate, getting-into-the-swing-of-it-session. After, mid-morning at this point, I would slip into running clothes and take my ritual exercise. There's nothing like running to clear your head, and to get to know a place better. This was certainly as true in Arles as anywhere.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Lots of writers take retreats, stays of weeks or even months at various artists colonies around the country, usually--especially for writer/teachers--during the summer. The higher profile retreat locations are very competitive; many offer scholarships or at least partial financial assistance. For better or worse, I've always kept an arm's length away from the world of writers retreats, preferring to simply work at home during summer breaks, saving myself the expense and trouble of the travel, and enabling me to take care of / stay connected with my two sons while my wife carries out her summer duties as director of the Great Bear Writing Project. I kinda sorta understood the idea and the utility of the artist colony but was not exactly driven to participate in one. That all changed last summer.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Count this post as another exploration into the sticky practicalities of past times. What did people do, how did they live? No, I'm not writing about the "gassy issues" you think I am. What I'm refering to is gas lighting; more specifically, the time and place of gas lighting versus oil lighting. I admit with a little chagrin that the old style oil lamps--with their shades and chimneys, their oil fonts and wick raising knobs (see picture on right)--so familiar to viewers of movies or tv shows set in the nineteenth century, dominated my imagination while I composed this novel. Or at least dominated it whenever I had to account for artificial lighting in a room. Probably because I've been too busy pondering so many other issues of versimilitude, it has only been late in the novel writing process that I've stepped back and questioned some of my oil lamp assumptions. I've known for a long time that before he moved into the Yellow House Van Gogh had it outfitted for gas. But this didn't sink in, didn't quite matter to me one way or the other, until this semester when, in editing my chapters very hard, I realized I may have gotten a few matters of historical fact wrong. For example, if gas lighting was available in Arles in 1888, would it not have been available--even standard--in Paris years earlier? It turns out that the answer is yes. The city of Paris began using gas lights (like the ones in London pictured above) on its streets in the 1850s. Okay, I ask, those are the streets. What about apartment buildings? Were they lit by gas or oil? By the mid-to-late 1880s, gas had almost certainly become the standard, eliminating the need for those messy wicks and oil fonts from homes and offices. Also, therefore, from my novel.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Last weekend, for the sixth time in seven years, I ran the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. The day was cold, but the race went well--for me and thousands of other crazy people who pay money to put their bodies through 26.2 miles. (An even larger number put themselves through 13.1 miles.) Out there on the road for 4+ hours, you have a lot of time to think, and you try not to think too much about how sore you're getting, although it's hard to think about much else once you get to mile 20. (Well, that and "Where is the next #%*!&* mile marker? Shouldn't it be here by now?") Another thing you try not to think about is how much longer you'll be out on the road. For this is the strange, or maybe not so strange, thing about running long distances: If, in the middle of the race, after already running way farther than most sane people ever will, you allow yourself to think "My God, I'm going to be out here for 2 1/2 more hours," you'll lose heart. You might even stop. So you simply can't put it that way. It's probably not wise either to say "Well, 15 more miles to go." The best thing to do is say "Okay, that's mile marker 11. 12 in a little bit." Or: "That's mile marker 22. 23 in a little bit." You get the idea. By not letting yourself confront exactly how much more is ahead of you, you don't stop--and you eventually get there. This is true about my training runs as well. I never ever like to tell myself that I'm heading out into the darkness of a November Saturday morning to run for 4 straight hours. It's a lot more comfortable to think that I'm going to run 20 miles. Or, even better, that I'm just going for a training run.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Several years ago, I wrote a short story in which a wife follows her husband to the site of what she thinks will be an adulterous liaison. At the last moment the wife changes her mind and decides not to confront her husband. She turns around, leaves the hotel parking lot, and heads back the other way toward home. For convenience more than anything else I set the story in a part of southern Maryland that I knew fairly well. In fact, the hotel where I decided the liaison would take place actually exists on Maryland Highway 301, near LaPlata. However, the scene as I imagined it only worked logistically if the hotel stood on the right side of the highway as one drove south, as the wife character did. For the sake of my story, the wife had to take a right hand turn into the hotel from 301, but go back in the opposite direction--northward--when heading home. Problem: the hotel in question doesn't sit on the right side of Highway 301 as you head south. It sits on the left side. In fact, there is no hotel on right side of that stretch of highway. So, I asked myself, what should I do? I actually did worry about this, especially if some squirrelly grandma southern Maryland reader got his or her paws on my story, but finally I decided that verisimilitude was a lot less important to the story than that my scene be allowed to play out as I imagined it. So what did I do? Simple: I moved the hotel to the other side of the highway. Problem solved! Whether or not this would satisfy the famously scrupulous fact checkers at The Atlantic I have no idea, but since the story did not appear in The Atlantic but a different literary journal, who cares.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
In my last post, I described the somewhat off-the-beaten-path Van Gogh site of the Langlois Bridge, or "Pont Van Gogh" as it is actually designated on maps (because the real Langlois bridge was removed several decades ago). Besides the bridge itself, what I was most intrigued by when I went there was the tall, dying, long unoccupied house that sits very close to the bridge. (That's it in the photo.) Even on my first visit to Pont Van Gogh I think I took more pictures of this house than the bridge itself. And on my most recent visit last May, I left the bridge behind and walked through waist high weeds to circumnavigate the house. I would have taken more and closer pictures of it except that the battery in my camera died. So I brought out my sketchpad and starting drawing it from several different angles. Having to do so was a real blessing, because it forced me to look a lot more closely at the house than if I were merely snapping a photo.
Monday, November 30, 2009
One of the interesting if also offputting aspects of traveling around Arles is the amount of Van Gogh related siteseeing. In the summer months especially, individuals, walking tours, and even tour buses hurry from place to place inside and outside the city, looking for the exact spot where Van Gogh painted this or that painting, catching amused sneers from the natives who--probably rightly--are sure there are lots better ways to spend a day in southern France. I have to admit that in conducting research for my novel I too have been just such an individual and even a member of such tour groups. One of the first places I sought out when I arrived in Arles for the first time in 2005 was the "Langlois bridge,"designated clearly on all the tourist maps as the place where Van Gogh created his first important Arles painting. In fact, nowadays it's also referred to as the "Pont Van Gogh" (the Van Gogh bridge).
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
When I was a senior in collge, I walked out of my bathroom one day having just shaved off a beard. One of my roommates--a wizened, mid-20s, perennial student/non-student type who was supposedly a history major but didn't take classes --gave me a scrutinizing stare and said, "You're working on a paper, aren't you?" Indeed I was and told him so. How did he know? "I can't tell you how many beards I lost to papers in my career." He then went on to explain to me his theory: Growing or removing a beard was not a mere matter of altering one's "look" but represented a reaction to some external stress; more specifically, a decision to address that stress with concrete action. In other words, it represented a change in your inner person; perhaps even your outlook.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
One of the many challenges when writing a historical novel, especially one set on a different continent, is making sure you are truthful to the layout of foreign cities. Even if, like me, you have traveled to many of the cities featured in your novel, you're still not off the hook, because while it's extremely important to get a boots-on-the-ground feel for a location, the cityscape you're seeing is a 21st century one. Sometimes that does coordinate passably well with a city's 19th century layout and dimensions, but certainly not always. Neighborhoods grow and change, new neighborhoods arise, new parks are built, new statues are erected, businesses rise and fall. If nothing else, street names change, and you don't want to be caught using an embarrassing anachronism. In writing my Van Gogh novel I have had to do a great deal of meticulous internet searching to make sure I am not including a street name--in Paris, let's say--derived from some 20th century cultural hero. Your pretty safe with Rue St.-Vincent but Rue Cortot? Rue Paul Feval? Even if, as with Feval, the person named is from the 19th century, that doesn't mean the street had that name when Van Gogh lived there. (Almost certainly not with Feval, since he died in 1887.) Arles is an interesting case, in that the layout of the city itself hasn't changed much from Van Gogh's time but the street names have frequently. In some cases, the former ("ancien") name is helpfully posted there on the corner building, next to the new name. I spent some time in my visit last May furiously writing down as many as these older names as I could find.
Friday, November 20, 2009
I'm a slow reader, in every sense of the word. Maybe it's my training as a poet, but I read virtually everything carefully and deliberately. Word by word. I like to think this allows for a heightened experience of any work of literature, but it also means that I just don't get to as many books as I would like to. (Well, who doesn't feel that way, no matter how fast they read?) It also means that it may take me many years to finally read a book that others discovered long ago. I mentoned in an earlier post how much I enjoyed and appreciated Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. But the sad truth is I didn't read it until at least 10 years after its release. I find myself in a similar situation with Sena Jeter Naslund's fascinating Ahab's Wife (1999), a work of historical fiction (sort of) that I've only just gotten around to as part of my regimen of literary historical fiction. (Since that's what I'm trying to write.) It's an audacious book, thrilling in how the author is able to curry into the novel's world characters from out of canonical literature (i.e. Melville's Moby Dick), actual history, and her own imagination. I can only compare it to E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime in how determined Naslund is to link together in one narrative just about everything of note that happened at one place in a given historical period (in this case, Nantucket Island in the decades leading up to the Civil War). And then she does Doctorow one better by also incorporating Melville's character's into the mix. It's both historical fiction and metafiction at once. And a whale of a tale, if you'll excuse the bad pun.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
In my last post, I wrote about one foundational decision I made in regards to the book's structure. That decision I owed to another writer's novel. But a different aesthetic decision I can trace back to Van Gogh's paintings themselves. This feature of my book came to mind almost immediately after I conceived of writing it at all: To distinguish each of the separate "eras" in Van Gogh's life with a signature color. After all, his metamorphosis as a colorist is one of the most significant--perhaps the most significant--aspects of his development as an artist. (Not to sound too banal, but what blew me away in my visit to the Van Gogh museum was the intense, literally glowing, brightness of the pictures.) At different times during his career, different colors dominated. And it occurred to me that you could even characterize the years before he became a painter with signature colors; not colors that are found in paintings (because he was composing none) but colors which capture the "shade" of his life and ambitions. I would emphasize these shades by using the respective color words, or synonyms, frequently in the respective chapters. I didn't want this to be over the top, too heavy, too obvious, or too distracting, and so far I think I've succeeded. If anything, as I've revised I've cut back actually on these color words. But the scheme should still apparent to anyone reading carefully. Or even anyone reading loosely, since each chapter carries a color word as its title. In fact, the title of the whole book (have I mentioned it yet on this blog?) is one big fat color word of its own: Yellow.
Choosing the signature colors wasn't very hard. Some are obvious. Yellow, for instance, for Arles, where he famously and deliberately strove for the "high yellow note" that so dominated his paintings from that time. For his time in the hospital at Saint-Rémy I chose aquagreen: a decidedly cooler color than yellow and one, in fact, that does appear in the Saint-Rémy paintings. But his actual use of the color is less important that what the choice indicates: a deliberate effort to scale back from extremes, an overt desire to calm down both his pictures and his life. Nuenen became brown because there is simply so much brown in those very earthy paintings; the Borinage became black because a.) What else can you choose to describe his time among coal miners, and b.) in the Borinage he suffered through the worst depression of his life. His years trying to learn how to become a missionary and lay preacher? White, of course, because it suggests both purity and a white-hot fanaticism. His childhood in rural Brabant? Green. Paris? My first inclination was red. I thought it captured the dynamism of the city and suggested too his foray into intenser colors. But finally I went with orange. Because I see more orange than red in the Paris paintings and because there's something more off-center and sickly about the former color. (Van Gogh always recognized that he learned a great deal in Paris, but he also thought the city almost ruined his health.) There are some other periods and other colors, but you get the idea. Color isn't merely what Van Gogh's paintings were made from, it's embedded in the structure of my text.
[Above on the right is the very brown "Cottage with Peasant Woman Digging" (1885), painted in Nuenen, and, on the left, "Arles: View from the Wheat Fields" (1888).]
Saturday, November 14, 2009
In the very first post I wrote for this blog (just click on "About" to see it), I explained how I received the idea to write a novel about Van Gogh in the first place. But that's just one aspect of the origins of this project, the "What." Equally pressing, and this is of course true anytime you write anything, was: "How?" That is, how did I want to approach my subject after I realized that Van Gogh must be my subject? How should I structure the novel? What motifs would I press? I guess you could broadly call these issues of style rather than subject. One very important stylistic decision I made stemmed from having reading Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy not long before the idea for the novel came to me. If you haven't read Hansen's delicious little book, you must. With exquisite delicacy and much quiet poetry, he details the life of a cloistered nun in upstate New York in the early 20th century. I know, that doesn't sound especially thrilling but, Hansen's book is a wonder and rightly earned considerable acclaim when it appeared in 1991. When I got around to reading it, what I marveled at most was how beautifully contained are each of the chapters. Every chapter, even if it details only single minute in his protagonist's life, is a universe unto itself. Hansen's narrative develops in moment-by moment-by-moment thrusts; there are virtually no bridging sections. This seemed a fascinating and atypical way to structure a novel, but it also felt just "right" for the subject. Since at the time I was exploring the world of monasteries in order to write a novel of my own, I knew how the lives of cloistered nuns and monks are purposefully kept the same--at the surface level--from day to day. They attend services on a fixed schedule, keep to regular work details, and engage in regularly scheduled meals, private prayers, and bible reading. On the surface, it's none too exciting and doesn't seem to ever vary. But that's the point and the purpose. Where the action is--where it's supposed to be--is on the level of the soul: those moments of profound confrontation with yourself or with God, wrapped by external quiet. The structure of Hansen's novel cannily emphasized this philosophy of living.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
The truth of this adage came home to me during Carey's visit. He told a few whopper anecdotes about getting slammed and having to pick himself up again. The first story came from his early years, when he was a young, college-aged guy working at an advertising agency and, on his own time, writing fiction. His first novel--the very first book he'd ever written--was quickly accepted for publication by a house in Australia. He received this news in a glowing letter from the publisher: a heck of a thrill for a young man! But during a later meeting with editors from this house it gradually became clear to him that they weren't nearly as excited about the book as their letter had indicated. In fact, they weren't going to publish it at all. Talk about a change of heart! But they weren't exactly straight with Carey, even then. They gave him the runaround, made proscrastinating excuses, and finally "kicked the book upstairs" by sending it the to an editor in London. Carey waited a while and then took off on his own personal, self-financed tour of Europe, ending up, of course, at the office of this London editor. He introduced himself to the man's secretary and explained that he'd like to meet the editor because the man might be publishing his novel. The secretary went in to check with her boss. When she came out moments later she was carrying his manuscript. No need to see him, the secretary explained. He won't be publishing you. That experience rocked Carey, and certainly made him question himself, but the end result was that he redoubled his writing efforts.
Some years later, when his novel Oscar and Lucinda came out, Carey was slammed again. First, his publisher refused to pay for a book tour. So on his own initiative, with logistical difficulty--he was still working in the ad business then--and at his own expense, Carey traveled to California to attend the important American Booksellers Association convention. The good news was that his novel had just received a glowing, front page review in the New York Times Book Review. The bad news was that the just released first edition was so rife with errors that it had to be pulled immediately. All copies were ordered to be destroyed. So he traveled to America to promote his big breakout book only to see it become completely unavailable! He returned home understandably embittered. (To make it worse, despite the great review in the New York Times he felt like just a number in the madhouse of the ABA convention.) "That's the kind of thing that might make somebody give up," I said to him. He looked at me quizzically and then replied that the thought of giving up never went through his head. There was nothing else to do, he said, except to get back to writing. Indeed. (Btw, after this initial bump in the road it all came out good for Oscar and Lucinda, which won the Booker prize in 1988.)
I was only half-serious with my "giving up" remark. But it's true: Some people faced with those turn of events would have given up. But writers--real writers? Never. Real writers remain committed to the art form, and that commitment demands action. Commitment demands patience. Most of all, commitment demands that you work. Real writers don't worry about which cafes they should hang out at or which movies they're supposed to see or which political party they belong to or whether they need to update their Facebook status. Real writers don't let rejections and setbacks stand for anything more than the low level hurdles they are. Real writers work. No matter what. That's the definition of "making it."
I thought I should get around to posting a followup to my earlier post about Australian novelist Peter Carey and his book True History of the Kelly Gang. Carey visited my university late last month, and as is customary with these things, he gave a public reading one night and then held a small group discussion with students the next day. As it turned out, he read from Kelly Gang, after providing a substantial--and much needed, given his Arkansan audience--introduction to his native country, to Ned Kelly himself, and to the book. In my earlier post, I marveled at the half-illiterate, half-eloquent first person voice Carey had developed for his novel. As impressed as I was by that voice when I read the book at home, I was even more impressed in the public reading. Kelly's voice carries commandingly when spoken aloud. It seems real and true and compelling--at least when performed by the author himself. Carey reads with confidence and with experience; also with a useful touch of the showman. I thought he and Ned Kelly were both tremendous.
Monday, November 9, 2009
You never know what kind of dividends a research trip can pay. I remember hearing Tracy Chevalier say that while she was working on Girl With a Pearl Earring she only went to Delft one time and that was for a few days. But even so the trip paid off because it was on that trip that she noticed the great star embedded in Markt Square, a physical nuance that turned out to be extremely useful to the plot and structure of her book. Well, on a much lesser scale the trip I made to Arles last summer paid a similar divdend just yesterday, in this case allowing me to enhance the verisimilitude of an action. I was revising the scene in which Paul Gauguin, in October 1888, arrives via train to Arles. I'm not sure why, but I inserted a vagrant character into the scene, a shabbily dressed man lingering on the platform who eventually scuffles with Vincent. The vagrant--if that's what he is--acts strangely and wants to communicate something, but he speaks in a language that is not French, Dutch, English, German, or Spanish. Neither Gauguin nor Van Gogh understands him. Prior to the scuffle, Vincent tries to buy the man's departure, if you will, by giving him a coin. The man, who apparently is not begging for money, reacts with horror, immediately dropping the coin and kicking it. Well, without really thinking about it, I had the kicked coin bounce off the wall of the Arles station house.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Several years ago, I participated in a writing group comprised of differently faculty members from my university. The group went by the rather creative appellation of "The Bachelor Hotel Second Monday Riding Club" (too difficult to explain). While enjoying conveniently strong margaritas, we critiqued each other's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. At the time I was working on a (different) novel, and I remember remarking to a fellow group member, a poet, that I anticipated at least two more years of work before I finished the book. The poet was flabberghasted, almost physically bothered. Used to working in short, intense segments, he couldn't imagine such a prolonged, sustained commitment to one creative work. The simple endurance of it. "Yes," I said, picking up on his analogy, "writing a novel is like running a marathon." The odd thing is that when I said that I had never run a marathon before. I had read about running marathons. I had hoped someday to run one. But I'd never actually done it. Today, having trained for and completed five marathons, I can tell you that writing a novel is not just like but almost exactly like running a marathon.