Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ho Ho Ho


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

Steal this one


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.

The Good Thief is set in nineteenth century America, and credibly recreates the time period. There's nothing that stands out as anachronistic or ill-fitting, but on the other hand neither is the novel obsessively filled with facts and descriptions out of the 1800s. Throughout, it's the story and the rascal characters that push this book along. It's pure, literary entertainment.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Success for my 2nd novel


I'm taking time with this post to let everyone know about a new publication of mine, for which I am particularly proud. The novel I completed before I started my Van Gogh book is titled Burnt Norway and an excerpt from the book has just been published in the online version of the esteemed Exquisite Corpse journal. To check out the excerpt click here. (FYI, there is also a newly revived, and editorially separate, print version of EC. That's called The Exquisite Corpse Annual.)

Unfortunately, the online Corpse does not publish author bios, so I didn't get a chance to explain to readers that the excerpt comes from a novel of the same name that is available for purchase through Lulu.com. But now you know! If you read the excerpt and like it, click here to find out more about the book. Burnt Norway was quite a different writing project from my current Van Gogh novel-in-progress (i.e., metafictional and comic rather than historical and serious). But I am just as proud of it, and I'm thrilled that the Exquisite Corpse liked what it saw in the excerpt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Wonder of French game shows


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.

While French Family Feud was a lunchtime routine, I often scheduled my dinners around French Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (Qui Veut Gagner des Millions?) Mainly because I was able to follow it better than anything else that was on. The format was more or less identical to the American version. I have to say, however, that I'd always feel a lot better about our oft maligned system of education when I watched the French version. Maybe it had something to do with the segment of the French population that aspires to appear on game shows, but so many times the contestants seemed to miss atrociously easy questions. And when the contestant had to "phone a friend," the friend--supposedly selected for his or her knowledge--proved useless about 90% of the time. This amazed me more than anything. Who were these "friends"? (Before I get too haughty maybe I should remember my own experience decades ago of appearing on a quiz show for high school students in Washington, DC and realize that you can never underestimate the power of brain freeze in front of a rolling camera.) Btw, in case you're wondering: No, my French isn't that great. But with the questions being posted on screen--reading a foreign language is so much easier than listening to it--and with a French-English dictionary beside me, I usually caught the gist of what was going on.

Another game show I looked at from time to time was not an American import but a homegrown product. The name of it, I hate to say, escapes me. But I remember its raucous studio audience and how they frequently broke out into dancing. The host, a very lively, Hollywoodish guy, despite some weird birth or burn mark on the side of his nose, liked to run into the crowd and engage in ad hoc, tongue-in-cheek interviewing. The format for the questions varied from round to round but in the middle of the show, the competition paused to allow for what, in a loose translation (I couldn't find the actual word in my dictionary), was a "naughty" question. Loud red hearts would flare on the screen and the audience would "woo woo" while the contestant let himself or herself be interrogated about some apparently personal matter. All in good fun, of course. It was about this time, however, I would ask myself why in the world I was still watching. I'd click off the tube and head up the stairs to my bedroom to work.

I felt rather embarrassed to admit this game show "habit" in my daily emails home; at least until, while on a train to Marseilles, I read an article in The Times of London in which the writer, an Englishwoman who teaches French, recommended game shows as an especially useful way to learn the language. Because one hears and sees the words simultaneously. She herself once appeared on a French game show and won big. I clucked to myself, enjoying this eminent justification. "So," I said, "I guess I need to do more Family Feud when I get back to Arles."

Monday, December 14, 2009

My French retreat, Part Two


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.

I'd lunch on good bread (often I go down to the bakery as soon as I returned from the run) and cheese and Perrier and apples while I indulged my ancient fondness for game shows, French style. (I'll have to cover that in another post.) After lunch I carried out a long afternoon writing session, usually about four hours, occasionally longer. As you can imagine, by the time I finished this session my mind was more or less shot. So that meant it was a perfect time to go to the grocery store or take a swim--once the weather starting warming a bit--or just fix an early dinner. If I had reason to go into Arles for something, I would let myself wander, enjoying the slowed down feel of the place on a weekday early evening, when typically the tourists were gone and it was only locals around: lounging on benches at the public park, wandering through some half-hearted window shopping, skateboarding at the Place de la Republique, a big central square outside the Cathedral de Saint Trophime. One day I saw a bicycle race start from the square. There was as excited and energized a feel to the place as at the start of any marathon race in the U.S.

As I mentioned in my last post, I took some day trips for Van Gogh research during my retreat, two or three a week. On those days, I would make sure to carry out my full morning writing session and do my run. The trips were usually to sites no more than an hour away and I always could be back by mid-afternoon. On returning, I'd fixed myself another pot of coffee and screw my butt to my writing chair for a couple hours, just to make sure I didn't waste any working time. I knew darn well the clock was ticking, always ticking, on my retreat, and I was determined to get my money's worth.

With dinner--the house came with a very serviceable kitchen--I'd allow myself a couple beers or glasses of wine. I am not ashamed to say I took advantage of the great prices on French wine at the Geant store, where I bought almost everything I ate or drank during my stay. I think anyone who has really worked all day at a writers retreat, or at any mental work, can appreciate the special bliss of a couple well-earned drinks with dinner. I'm not and never have been a smoker but I'd guess that only the "first cigarette in the morning" bliss that smokers recall can rival beer after hard mental work as a pure soul and body pleasure. After dinner, I'd sometimes write in my journal. Or I'd read. Or I'd email my wife with the day's news. (Sometimes, she'd just be getting up while I was heading to bed.) I usually skimmed through French tv, a never ending fascination, mainly to see which American shows they liked enough to show (with dubbed French, of course) and to try to figure why those shows. I probably conked out around 10:30.

It was a serviceable and successful schedule and I kept to it, more or less, seven days a week. (All right, so maybe I lounged a bit more on Sundays.) I don't know if it sounds to you like I made it too easy or too hard on myself, whether I allowed myself enough opportunity to simply see Provence, but I'd say that I pushed myself exactly as hard as I should have--and, besides, I got to see Provence every single morning of my stay when I went out for my run. When my family arrived at the end of the month, I put down writing work and enjoyed the place as thoroughly and normally as any visitor does. At the point I was ready, I was so ready, to see them again; and because I'd worked so hard I didn't feel the least guilt in soaking up the south of France for another fortnight. We did a lot of great things as a family, but looking back the really glorious and unique time was those three, nose-to-the-grindstone weeks.

(Above: My writing desk in Arles. In order to give my knees room, and not kill my back from leaning over, I had to prop up the thing on old books I borrowed from the homeowner's shelves. I hope I didn't ruin them. I took this picture shortly before I pulled away the books and "broke down" the desk in anticipation of my family's arrival. I spent as much time at that desk as anywhere in the house. I was feeling nostalgic by the time I started setting it in order.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My French retreat, Part One


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.

Before last summer, I'd twice visited the south of France to conduct research for my Van Gogh novel, trips of a week or two that left me wishing I could stay longer. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to come here for a month or two and just work on my novel? About a year ago, it occurred to me that there was nothing really keeping me from doing just that. The spring semester at UCA, where I teach, ends in early May, and my sons are in school until late May / early June. Why not spend a May in the south of France, writing about Van Gogh? Well, why not? My wife graciously agreed to the plan. (It didn't hurt that we decided she would bring the boys over at the end of the month, so everyone got to enjoy Provence.) And so that was that. I already knew of a place where I could stay (see my earlier post about Mas Ballot), and I had reason to expect I could get research funds from the university to cover the costs of my travel and stay, albeit not the family's.

Well, it wasn't as smooth as all that. There certainly were bumps in the planning road. (One big bump: No funds of any kind proved to be forthcoming.) But the long and short of it was that last May I ended up spending a few days in Paris and then almost three weeks in Arles--by myself, slaving away on the novel. I have to say, I never enjoyed slavery so much. Before I went, friends warned me of the dangers of trying to get write in a beautiful location. "It always sounds like a good idea," they would say, chuckling. "But then . . ." No, I said, if I'm spending this much money to just be there, I'm going to get serious work done.

And I'm proud to say I stuck to my word. Sure, I took plenty of day trips--or rather half-day trips--to different locations around "Roman France": Saint-Rémy, Fontvielle, Tarascon, Salon, Montpellier, the ruins at Glanum, the Abbaye de Montmajour. (Driving roads that look like the one pictured above.) I took ready advantage of the two bakeries and the spectacular rustic scenery within easy walking or driving distance of my house. Afternoons I took swims in the pool. Mornings I jogged the country roads. I watched my fair share of French tv and probably spent more time than I should have discovering what could be had at the local grocery store. But I think I got more writing work done during those three weeks in Arles than during any three week period in my life. Before I went, I told everyone (I guess to sound more practical) that I was doing another research trip for the novel, but really what I was up to was a self-financed writer's retreat to the south of France. My advice to anyone considering a similar idea? Get on the next plane!

(Next post: What exactly I did there.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

gassy issues


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.

But wait! That's Paris. What about Antwerp? What about The Hague? Better yet, what about Nuenen? What about the whole province of Brabant, especially during Van Gogh's childhood? Indeed, it's not so simple a matter as tossing all the oil lamps, so to speak, out the window. It's very unlikely that gas lighting was employed in Brabant at all, or only much later than in Paris. And definitely not during Van Gogh's childhood. So my explorations, and my revisions, go on. I still don't have the defnitive answers for all my gas vs. oil questions, one of several minor, practical aspects of the novel that I'm trying to nail down as my book goes forward. Or perhaps I should say seemingly minor. Because any change in an interior or exterior landscape can't help but affect the writer's visualization of a scene and thus what happens in it between characters. And that's no minor detail at all.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Conquering time


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.

But here's the thing. It's not just trickery. By not thinking about it, by living inside it, you keep time at bay. You melt it. You bend it. Dare I say, you defeat it. By the time you finish the marathon, it never really does feel like you've been on the road for 4 and a half hours. Yes, the race started at 8:00 and it might be 12:30 at the finish, but it simply hasn't felt that long. Because you've been so busy inside your mind, tending to the business of holding soreness and all those bad thoughts away, substituting any and all thoughts of another kind. Yet there you are at 12:30 with a shiny medal newly hung around your neck and grinning with relief. (See me above.)

And--I'm sure you've seen this coming--how true this is about working on a novel as well. Heather Sellers, a writer and writer-about-writing whom I admire, recalls in her book Chapter After Chapter hearing from so many people who feel like they have to get their books done now. Because time is running out. Because life is running out. Because they have to finish so they can get it to an agent. Or to a publisher. Or to a competition. Or because they are just sick of working on it. But, Sellers suggests, the problem is that many of these people are finishing before they're finished. They are like marathoners who quit at mile 20 because they can't face another hour on the road. Instead of speeding up, Sellers advises, slow down. Be patient. Take all the time you need to get it right. Because you have all the time in the world.

Sellers' advice is so comforting because it's so true. When I started my Van Gogh project I did not anticipate that it would take me 4+ years to complete, although I didn't anticipate a short cruise either. I knew what kind of time and effort novels demand. Mostly, I didn't think about time at all. That was my way of dealing with it. I stayed focused on the work at hand, which on any given day might mean reading more about Paul Gauguin or getting that crucial childhood scene down in my notebook or typing a handwritten draft of a scene into a Word file, or--as now--nailing down some last necessary and crucial revisions. I kept my head down and my shoulder to the wheel; one day I looked up to realize 4 years had gone by. But they really didn't feel that long. Those years feel like mere weeks in retrospect. I know I'm not unique in this regard. This is just the working novelist's experience of time. And, best of all, at the end you've got a finished book to show for it, which is an even greater satisfaction than a big fat marathon medal.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cooking in Paris for Stein


A few times in this blog I've recommended various books of historical fiction, ones I've read during this sabbatical semester or earlier: The True History of the Kelly Gang, Ahab's Wife, Mariette in Ecstasy. (And don't miss an even better historical novel by Ron Hansen, one of the best novels I've ever read in any genre--his Hitler's Niece.) I recently finished a book quite different from any of those and perhaps from any I've read before: The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. Truong's first novel, it is a dreamy, fluid, at times almost formless construction that delves into the mind and the past of a Vietnamese man who worked for several years as the personal chef to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I must admit that it took some time delving into the novel before it completely held me, but Truong's eloquence is irresistable and her pictures of pre-war Paris and of pre-communist Vietnam are intriguing, concrete, believable, and engaging. (Keep an eye out for the appearance of someone who almost certainly is a young Ho Chi Minh.) What you shouldn't anticipate on approaching the book is that it will act as some kind of tell all about Stein and Toklas. Indeed, I venture to guess that more pages in the book are devoted to the protagonist's life before he meets Stein and Toklas than after he does. There's a coolness and even an unexpected lack of curiosity in how he describes the two women; and yet at the same time he seems to know or have intuited some rather intimate details about how they regard and have regarded each other. But, ah hah, this brings me to my last point--the stroke of genius that underlies the book and finally makes sense of nearly every one of Truong's moves. We realize, late in the narrative, that what we are reading was not, in the fictional world of the novel, composed by the chef himself but--similar to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas--written by Stein from the perspective of her Vietnamese employee. She apparently has, from a distant remove, regarded him as quite the curiosity over the years, enough to compose a book with him as the narrator. The title of Stein's manuscript? Why, of course: The Book of Salt. This explains so much about the book that I cannot even begin to tell in this brief post. It also means that the Book of Salt is not merely a good read, but will make for a great second and third and fourth read as you uncover more and more gems served up (if you'll excuse the pun) with brilliant and subtle acumen by this very talented writer.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Turning houses (and hotels) around


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.

I ran into a similar situation last May when I took a third visit to the "Pont Van Gogh" outside Arles. (See previous posts.) Staring again at the house sitting just behind the little drawbridge --a drawbridge identical to the one portrayed in Van Gogh's The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing and other paintings--I realized for the first time that I was looking at the back of the house. Wait a minute?! (Checking the above picture, it's probably perfectly apparent to you that what you are looking at the back of a house. What I can say? I can be awfully slow at times.) There are two small canals in the area and they run parallel to each other. The drawbridge in question spans one, the front of the house in question faces the other. This would not be a problem except that in my novel Van Gogh walks out from Arles to the drawbridge and while enjoying the view of the homey little edifice, he spots the bridgemaster coming out of his house via the front door. This, as it turned out, would be physically impossible as Van Gogh would not even be able to see the man's front door. So, again, I had to ask myself: What do I do? I could have the man come out the back, but this seemed unlikely and would also be increasingly awkward, as the scene also features the bridgemaster's wife and one of his daughters coming out of, and going into, the house. Also, since on my third visit to Pont Van Gogh I finally circumnavigated the house and rendered some very particular drawings of its front, I decided that the front of the house was a piece of scenery I really wanted in my novel. So in the end I had three choices: 1) Ditch the scene; 2) move the drawbridge to the other canal; or 3) turn the house around, so its front faced the bridge. Of these three options, #3 seemed the least drastic, the easiest, and the one that best allowed my scene to do the work it needed to do. In fiction writing classes we talk about staying true to what the story needs rather than what a reader or the author wants, we talk about a hierarchy that puts the story at top, the reader second, and the author last. Sometimes "giving the story what it needs" can be as broad as completely changing the plot, adding a character or characters, or moving the action to a whole other part of the world. On the other hand, sometimes it simply means turning a house around. I'm not sure if such a move would be sanctioned by the Guardians of Purity in creative nonfiction writing, but to me a little move like this is exactly what the freedom--and the responsibility--of fiction writing means. Giving your story what it needs. And it's also why I declare, and will keeping declaring until I am out of breath, that my Van Gogh book is a novel not a biography. That single word designates something crucial, not just about what happens inside the book but about my entire method of composition.

That said, it's certainly true that we writers of historical fiction research our subjects thoroughly in order to render accurate pictures of past peoples, costumes, and geographies. Other posts on this blog have detailed just such efforts. And later ones likely will too. So when, in the making of historical fiction, is it okay to depart knowingly from strict factuality? How much leeway do we give ourselves, and why? Anyone care to comment? Advise?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Langlois bridge?--Part Two


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.

I cannot swear to the age of the house, but I have to assume it was once occupied by whomever was responsible for operating the bridge. In fact, in Van Gogh's painting of the real Langlois Bridge, a similar structure does sit off to the right. When I decided for the sake of my novel to accept a tour guide's story that the Langlois Bridge was really called the "L'anglais" Bridge in Van Gogh's time, because an Englishman was the bridgemaster, this old house became more important. It would be the home of this unknown and unnamed Englishman, who I decided would feature prominently in my Arles scenes. After all, Van Gogh depicted the bridge in several paintings and must have walked to it from his hotel room in Arles repeatedly. Plenty of occasions for interaction. In my novel, his friendship with this English bridgemaster has essentially stood in for the friendship that in real life he seemed to have enjoyed with his postman Roulin. That is, a good-natured, easy going, rather masculine give and take, which allowed him, as I imagine it, to escape for a few moments or hours the severity of his commitment to painting. Roulin's physical appearance, as depicted by Van Gogh in a well known portrait, actually influenced my mental image of the English bridgemaster, whom I've named Portis. They aren't identical by any means, but elements of Roulin's appearance--his heft, his beard, his hail-fellow-well-met redness--coordinate pretty well with an Englishman occupying an easy job who enjoys his pint (or more) every day.

But it's a fair question to ask: "Why do this?" All I can give as an answer is to say that I never asked myself the question; instead, I asked "Why not?" I liked the idea of semi-slothful expatriate Englishman in my novel, one who lives in a crumbling old house with his lovely provencal wife and two children. And just as in real life Van Gogh eventually painted Roulin (see photo) and his wife, in my novel Vincent--at Portis's suggestion--paints Portis's daughters. On of these daughters, who I've named Elise, is in my telling the model for Van Gogh's famous "Mousmé" sketch and painting. (I posted about that some weeks back.) Later, Van Gogh's fallout with Gauguin is catalyzed by tensions and jealousies involving Elyse and the entire Portis family. In real life, the failure of the experiment of the Yellow House was rooted in differences between Van Gogh and Gauguin over matters of art, taste, and technique. Fundamental aspects of any friendship--like respect--were in question. It wasn't simply a matter of one man getting angry over unwashed dishes. This is all true of my novel as well. But it's a rare interpersonal combustion that has only one cause, and deciding to bring the Portis family into the mix has made, I hope, for a more drastic, believable, and intriguing blowup between the two proud men.

Next time: Even more about the Pont Van Gogh! Who knew there was this much to say?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Langlois bridge?--Part One


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).

The bridge is outside of the city, a ten minute drive at most. It's a curious combination of bustling tourist spot and hushed artistic retreat. It sits peacefully on a thin canal with little in the way of modernity nearby, except for the paved road that drops you off there. A modest stretch of roadside gravel exists for parking. It's a homely but enormously quiet, even reverent, spot, with this small and antiquated and inoperative bridge sitting in a permanently raised position, a dilapidated house beside it, and a nearby cover of trees that once passed through puts you out on a foot-worn path that runs alongside the canal. You can walk as far as you want northward or southward, with nary an interruption or distraction. When I visit the bridge I immediately want to stay. I want to sit. I want to absorb. Each time I go, I stay longer. Not just photographing, but sketching and journaling, soaking in the quiet, the greenery. I know I'm not alone in this feeling. Usually I see at least one other person there--always alone--lounging on a stretch of earth, with book or picnic basket or sketchbook in hand. You should not be surprised, however, if while you visit a enormous coach pulls up for ten minutes to let out a gaggle of Japanese tourists, who take a flurry of pictures and then get back on in search of the next Van Gogh destination. The tourists come and go in a cycle. The place takes them in, absorbs them, and then sends them on their way. You stay, getting the longer, richer experience; and quickly you stop noticing them.

The place has a feeling of genineness and subdued beauty that has in fact little to do with Van Gogh and his painting, though that it is his painting that brings all the visitors. You see, this bridge, proudly proclaimed on the nearby sign as subject of Van Gogh's Langlois Bridge, actually isn't. If you read a little deeper into Arles information you find out that a string of fourteen or so identical small bridges once spanned the canal. At some point in the 20th century they were removed for being useless vestiges of an outworn technology. And, sad but true, one of the bridges removed was the actual bridge Van Gogh painted. In the name of historical preservation, however, a single bridge was left standing. Since this bridge is identical to Van Gogh's bridge it is proudly (and self-servingly) proclaimed by the tourist industry as his bridge, which in some sense it is. For the working novelist trying to soak up atmosphere, it's certainly accurate enough. And a pleasant place to vist. Things get even murkier though. Later in my 2005 visit I was told by a tour guide in Arles--a white-haired American woman who moved between a kind of noisy and nasal, northern accented English to a fluid, deeper-toned French within which you couldn't hear a trace of the American midwest--that everyone had the name of the bridge wrong. It's true name in Van Gogh's time was not the "Langlois" bridge but the "L'Anglais," or the "English," bridge, because the man who tended the bridge was known to be an Englishman. I've not heard that story from any other source--and Van Gogh's painting always goes (and always has) by the title The Langlois Bridge--but nevertheless I immediately jumped on the story. It captivated my imagination, and it ended up affecting what happens in the Arles section of my novel. More on that next time.

(Photos: Van Gogh's The Langlois Bridge with Women Washing, and the still extent "L'Anglais" bridge on a peaceful if cloudy day last May.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My turn at thanks


American readers of this blog are well aware that in the United States we are enjoying what is known as Thanksgiving weekend. Lots of food, lots of time with extended family, lots of American football on television, and--for some zealous folk of a type I cannot understand--lots of early Christmas shopping. It also common at this time of year for Americans to state publically all that they are thankful for; one of the more charming aspects of the holiday, I think. In regards to Yellow, my Van Gogh novel, I have quite a lot to be thankful for and I think it's time to say so.

First, I am thankful for Van Gogh himself: his commitment to his craft, his dogged determination, his willingness to listen and watch and learn and experiment. Also his willingess to be stubborn and follow his own convictions when he had to. I am more thankful than I can say for the brillantly bright paintings he created. If not for them it would never have occurred to me to write my novel in the first place. I am thankful that my university in 2001 was able to send me to teach a summer course in Maastricht, Holland, the only reason I visited Amsterdam and the Van Gogh museum in the first place. I am thankful for the funding I received in 2005 and my wife received in 2006, making travel to Europe, and research for my book, possible. I'm thankful for all the many resources out there regarding Van Gogh. On one hand, it's a real challenge to write imaginatively about someone whose life has been so well documented and exhaustively analyzed. On the other hand, for almost every question I need answered an answer can be found. And for that I'm grateful. I'm thankful for the sabbatical I am enjoying, for I can assure you I would never be as far along on the novel as I am without this time away from classroom teaching. I'm thankful I am married to a fellow fiction writer who can provide me with seasoned guidance, a sharp editorial eye, and, more than anything, informed encouragement. I'm thankful for computers, even though I also hate them.

Most of all, I'm just thankful to have the life I have. That I can write and produce. That I can work on finishing this book and dream of writing others. I wanted to be a writer from the first time I ever thought seriously about making a career for myself. And here I am, years later, having worked myself into the life I wished for. No life or career is perfect. My life and my career provide me as many headaches as anyone else's does. But on this day and in this post I need to stop and admit I could have done a lot worse. And for that I am very very thankful.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beard-No Beard


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.

I thought of my roommate this week as I removed a beard I've owned since December of 2008, a record length for my beard keeping. In my life, I've grown and removed perhaps a half-dozen beards, keeping them for little more than a few months, always reverting to a bare face. This one lasted nearly a year, and shows up in several identification pictures: my driver's license, my international driver's license, my university ID, the "Profile" section of this blog, the back of my novel Burnt Norway, and the web site of the UCA Writing Department, where I work. Though I've been bare faced for probably 90% of my adult life, in every significant official record I am presently identified as bearded.

Blame it on Van Gogh. I did not grow my beard with him in mind, but as I composed the Paris scenes last spring (the section I wrote last), began significant revisions on the entire book last May while I stayed near Arles, and continued those revisions last summer and this fall in Arkansas while on sabbatical, the idea of shaving off the beard occurred to me several times. "Usually, it would be gone by now," I said to myself over and over. And yet I resisted shaving it off. I didn't want to, and it had nothing to do with how I looked. I just wanted to have it. Recently, I reached a point with the novel where I don't think anything more of substance needs to be added, I have removed as much as I feel comfortable removing, and I've line edited the entire manuscript. In other words, I might actually be done. At the very least I am at a major pause point in which I now need to wait for feedback from my wife and others before I can move forward into the next stage of revision--whatever that is. Having reached this point, however, I suddenly became comfortable with the idea of removing my beard. I thought of doing so one morning, and it was gone that afternoon. No fretting, no debating, no hesitating.

Only after shaving it off did I fully realize my reason for keeping the beard all these months. Being so involved with Van Gogh and his life, I think I counted it as a psychological aid to wear a short, clipped beard like he did. While my beard was salt and pepper and his was reddish brown it felt to me, especially as the months drew out, as an immediate and intimate way of drawing close to him. I didn't want to sever that bond, out of an almost superstitious fear for what it might do to my novel in progress. But the novel, as I said, may be done or has at least reached a significant point in the history of its making. While I wait for feedback, I've actually started writing other things! I finished a 20 page short story yesterday morning and began another story yesterday afternoon. I can't tell you how long it's been since I wrote a shortstory--or anything that had nothing to do with Vincent Van Gogh. I can now safely begin to put space between myself and my manuscript and Vincent. I've made the decision. And, just as my old roommate would have predicted, I finally did something about that beard.

(Above: Me with and me without, as photographed by my son. No, I never did look like Van Gogh. But that wasn't really the point.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Past geographies, or Where are you Lotte C. van der Pol?


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.

The best solution is to find good, clear maps that date from the period you are writing about. I have been lucky to find on the internet old maps of The Hague (pictured above) and Antwerp, but even so reading them is at times difficult, as they are time darkened, with the street names in small cursive script. Online, too, I found listed a 19th century postal map of London offered for sale by a dealer in that city, but he wanted $300 for it. More than I felt like paying. (But maybe I should have.) But that's only one aspect of using streets correctly--getting the names right; you also want to be true to the character of those streets, and this can be especially tricky. For instance, it's a fact that Van Gogh, in many of the places he lived, gave business to prostitutes. (Having read a book on the subject for my novel, I can tell you that nearly every other man in the 19th century did as well.) This is assuredly how he met the woman he came to call Sien. (See my earlier posts about Vincent's "wife.") But on which street or streets did the prostitutes hang out in The Hague (Den Haag) of the 19th century? I've examined the old map posted online and I can recognize street names. But which ones constituted the "red light" district? (See the questions you find yourself having to answer when you write a historical novel? I won't get into my struggles regarding underwear.) I've even gone so far as to try to track down one Lotte C. van der Pol, a historian who, among other things, has written an encyclopedia article about prostitution in The Netherlands in the 19th century. I simply want to ask her: On what streets in The Hague did the girls hang out? Surely, these were infamous locations at the time. Even though I've discovered that Dr. van der Pol appears to be on faculty at Utrecht University, I have been unable to find an email address for her or a listing for her on the university's web site. So my question remains unanswered, and my search continues.

One school of thought would ask: Why worry if you get the street names exactly right? Who's going to know if you don't? My answer is: Eventually, somebody will. And if I can avoid it, I don't want to discredit my novel to even a single reader, not over something as fixable as street names. I want my novel to sink or soar in a reader's heart based on what really matters: the characters I develop and the story I tell. But I know very well how much harder a task that becomes if you've slipped up on smaller matters. Once lost, a reader's trust is hard to earn back. And I guess too there's a part of me that thinks that if you are lazy about the little things you're likely to be lazy about the big ones too. True in life, true in novel writing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Return of Ahab


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.

One certainly sets a great challenge for oneself when one decides to incorporate Frederick Douglass, Maria Mitchell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson into the same narrative that already has introduced us to the infamous Captain Ahab, to Starbuck, to Queequg, to Daggoo, and to so many other characters from the legendary Pequod. Naslund's protagonist, an "immigrant" from the woodlands of Kentucky, even comes to know (quite well) the mysterious Ishmael. It's a dizzying and delightful high wire act. Not everything works, but the reader can only applaud Naslund for trying. And there are even moments when her sonorous writing approaches Melville's. I recommend the book to any enthusiast or admirer of Moby Dick. You won't be offended or disappointed. In fact, I expect you'll be intrigued by how able Naslund is at keeping Ahab's fundamental sternness and aloofness and obsessiveness while at the same time making him seem a real person, someone with whom the narrator can fall in love. Naslund does not alter Ahab out of all recognition in order to make him more palatable. He remains Ahab, after all--and yet we get to know him so much better. I dare say old Herman himself would approve.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More about how


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

Beginnings of How


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.

When I conceived of my Van Gogh novel, I immediately thought of Mariette and wanted to adopt Hansen's structure as my own. For some reason I felt it would be "right" for my subject too. My book would be a small book, composed of a series of wildly divergent but significant moments in the painter's life. Even more so than in a conventional novel, my book would proceed scene by scene, rather than chapter by chapter or year by year. Like Hansen, I would create very few bridges. Well, I've actually stuck to that plan during the four years I've worked on the book. Except the novel, in its present incarnation, is not in the least short. Scenes, after all, require pages to effectively be dramatized, and if you write enough scenes you end up with a heck of a lot of pages. And since, unlike Hansen, I am more or less covering the entire life of my protagonist, brevity is virtually impossible. That said, it's important to recognize that this commitment to scene over summary can sometimes be the most efficient way to cover a broad span of years. I think of some of Jo Ann Beard's essays in her brilliant The Boys of My Youth. She'll present a scene from one year in her life, then jump to another year, and then another, allowing that one scene to represent all the fundamental tensions of the speaker during that period. In this way, she can suggest her whole life in 30 or 40 pages, whereas as a more overtly inclusive narrative would have taken many more pages and perhaps not achieved any greater payoff. As I said: efficient. I guess with my novel so far I've not been courgeous enough to let a single scene represent Vincent in each of his various life "periods." (He had several such periods.) Some of these periods--notably Paris and Arles--I've rendered in several scenes. At this point, I've written so many scenes I have a hefty--too hefty?--novel, even after doing quite a lot of cutting. But the thing is, I can honestly say that each of the scenes contributes something important and unique to my picture of Van Gogh. I'm glad I developed the novel in this manner and can't really imagine doing it any other way. I only hope my book can do justice to the influence of Hansen's beautiful and exotic Mariette.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lessons in perseverance


While composing my previous post, a few other thoughts about novelist Peter Carey and his visit to UCA came to mind. I need to return to him one more time. Here's why: I'm always telling my students that being a writer is as much about having a thick skin as it is about having genius. There is a lot of talent in the gene pool, but also a lot of obstacles and too many distractions just begging to become excuses. The world gives us so many reasons not to write, not the least of which are the inevitable rejections along the way. Enduring those--and keeping on--is a real and absolutely vital talent. That talent has a lot more to do with how far you go than whether you can or did dazzle your Intro. to Creative Writing classmates. The ones who finally "make it," as an old teacher of mine was fond of saying, are the ones who keep getting the work done. Finally, it's all about perseverance.

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."

Peter Carey live


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.

As I suspected, that voice, Carey told us, was an invention, as was most of the action in the novel. According to Carey, very few personal details about Kelly are established in the historical record, necessitating that Carey's biographical novel be just that: fictional. More interesting, though, was something else he told us: A couple dozen or so pages of writing by Kelly actually do exist. Carey's first approach to the novel was to try to exactly imitate the voice that appears in those extant pages. He tried it but wasn't satisfied. In the end he invented his own Ned Kelly voice, which holds up remarkably well over hundreds of pages, in which there is very little punctuation. What occurred to me, however, as I listened to him comment about the book is how fictional any character in a novel must be, whether real worldy or not, whether a lot or a little is known about him. I hope the Van Gogh of my novel comes across as believable and interesting, but no doubt he's my Van Gogh. Not a couple dozen but thousands of pages of his writing are available as well as numerous anecdotes and memories by people who knew or met him. And then there are all the paintings! His life is about as well documented as a person's can be from the 19th century, yet the entire time I was drafting my novel I felt I was making him up.

Personally, Carey proved a friendly, gracious, open visitor. He seemed genuinely curious about the writing lives of his UCA hosts and about UCA itself. Impressed by our (quite lovely) Writing Department building he took pictures of it to take back to show to his students in New York. He showed a complete lack of pretension and could not have been more direct, more honest with his answers to questions. Best of all, he demonstrated for our students--through his reading, through his comments, through his anecdotes, through his honesty--what a commitment to the writing craft and the writing life means. He's a pro, in only the best sense of the word, and a writer who deserves far more attention from U.S. readers than he's received heretofore. In England, I am told, he is held in the same esteem as Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. How ironic that his adopted home country has yet to truly embrace him. Carey, I must say, seems unphased by this. He's got his life in New York--and he's always working on a novel.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Kicking a coin, or the unexpected benefits of a trip


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.

However, having arrived and departed from that very station myself last summer--that's the actual platform pictured above--I realized that my original conception of the scene was fundamentally flawed. Gauguin, coming from Brittany, arrived on a southbound train. Southbound trains arrive into Arles on the far track (i.e., the one on the right in the picture). So this vagrant kicked the coin, on a hop mind you, all the way over the tracks to hit the station house on the far side? Uh uh. Again, having been there, I know there is a waiting room beside the far track. So I had my vagrant kick the coin that way. The coin now bounces off the wall of the waiting room, which is perhaps two feet away, rather than the wall of the station house many yards away and across a set of tracks. Much better. A minor detail? Yes. It is. But it could be an extremely distracting detail to any reader who has actually traveled through the Arles station and knows its layout. The very last thing I want to do is take one of my readers out of the story. And as many writers of historical fiction will tell you, the greater number of little details you get right, the more likely it is that your reader will buy into the fictional story you have to tell. So there's one detail--having flown all the way across the ocean to get it--that I'm happy to make right.

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.

I suppose this connection is on my mind at the moment because I am currently training for another go at the St. Jude's Memphis Marathon, which is held every year on the first weekend of December. (I did a 20 mile training run yesterday morning.) But the connection is also on my mind because it's so true. There are stretches in any marathon race when you feel great, when you feel better than you have any reasonable right to expect, when you tell yourself you've never run faster or sounder, when a PR (personal record) is a sure thing. Too, there are stretches in every marathon when you feel numbed and dully achy and vaguely discontented, when it seems so far from the finish and you know the worst is still ahead. And then there are, I guarantee, stretches in every marathon when your legs gams hurt so bad and your feet are so sore you don't understand why in the world you signed up for the race in the first place. You can think of a million other, better ways to spend your morning than running 26 miles. What's the point? you think. Was I insane? A masochist? The end to the torture seems only farther away, not closer, with each step. Yet there's nothing you can do except to keep pushing on through the pain. One step at a time. But too there is a stretch late in every marathon when you realize you will finish, you'll even finish with some muscle tissue intact, and you start to feel much better. Your soreness all but disappears. You feel a surge of new, unexplained energy, along with a rush of relief, pride, and gratitude that is as difficult to describe as it is profound to feel. Your step picks up and, weary legs and all, you fly to the finish. That's why I signed up, you think as you cross the finish line. That's why.

So too with novel writing--and novel revising, such as I'm engaged in now. There are days when I'm amazed at how accomplished, even profound, some of these scenes are. I read them aloud to myself not quite believing that I wrote them. And there certainly are other times when I'm less than sure about a scene but I know I have to keep going, keep pushing on: editing, fixing, cutting, adding. Whatever it takes. Doing what looks like it needs doing and hoping for the best. And too there have been the sloughs of despond: days in which I suspect the project is a mistake, a waste of not hours but whole years of my life. I don't let such suspicions linger. I push them from my mind, or fight them with some useful facts. I tell myself that the novel has been a blessing. I've learned so much about Van Gogh and about Neoimpressionism. I've been to the south of France. I've learned to speak a little French and will eventually speak more. I've had a hell of time taking a real life and make it imaginary. All that's true, of course, but in those moments I'd feel a lot happier if I could be sure the novel will turn out to be the thing I know it can be. Lately, however, as the final shape of the manuscript comes closer and closer into view, I've felt a deep, resonating satisfaction. In many ways this book is exactly what I hoped it could be when I started. In fact, it might even be better. Oh, I'm not done with it yet. Don't get me wrong. I've still got months, more revising, and many crucial decisions, ahead. But I'm feeling a new energy. The end is finally in sight. And I'm sprinting.