Thursday, December 23, 2010

Publishing success for Yellow

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It's only a step, but a very gratifying one: A chapter from Yellow was just accepted for publication by The New Delta Review, a fine journal published out of LSU. The excerpt will appear in the spring, just as the magazine is switching to an online format. That's good news for anyone in the blogosphere who would like to get a little taste of my Van Gogh novel. I will certainly post about it when the issue is up and running. The chapter will run under the title "The Evangelist."

I'm quite happy at the news of this acceptance. Publishing novel chapters is always a tricky business. Some journals simply won't take them; others, understandably, only want to see novel chapters that work as stand alone stories. Culling one's novel for chapters that function that way is intriguing and delicate work, often requiring significant cutting and recombining. Fortunately, in Yellow, a somewhat episodic novel, I found several such chapters. ("The Evangelist" is the first to be accepted for publication.) Interestingly, more than a couple of these were chapters that featured a different point-of-view character than Vincent. I'm guessing the reason that these stood out is that they are literally stand alone in the novel itself, the only chapters which feature those particular point-of-view characters.

The chapter accepted by The New Delta Review, like all the novel's chapters, is told from the 3rd person limited point of view with the point of view character being one P. C. Gorlitz, a man who rooms with Van Gogh in Dordrecht. Gorlitz is an actual historical figure, one of those minor names who come up when you start to research Van Gogh's biography and read his letters. Very little is known about him now, except that he was a young schoolmaster when he shared a room in a boardinghouse with Vincent. In 1914 an article about Van Gogh, written by one M.J. Brusse, appeared in a Rotterdam newspaper. The article quotes from a letter Brusse received from Gorlitz in which Gorlitz recalls his months rooming with Van Gogh. I used a few of the details from Gorlitz's recollection to build my chapter, but the personality of the man himself and the core facts of his life, such as his attitude toward the teaching life, were utterly imagined. This, of course, is one of the great joys of historical fiction: taking an actual person and giving him a new life through the exercise of one's creative faculties. After writing the chapter I felt, of course, that the real Gorlitz must have been exactly like my Gorlitz. Well, maybe he was and maybe he wasn't; but in any case, my Gorlitz feels as real to me as anyone--living, dead, or imaginary. Is there a difference?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Once more to the novel class

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I know I already bragged up my novel writing students in my last post, but after looking over their Final Folders I just have to go one more time to this subject. Their Final Folders contained a few different items, one of which was a reflective paper about the whole semester and the act of composing a novel in such a short period of time. In reading the folders, I'm amazed by, and proud of, them all over again, especially at the extent to which they get it. What the semester was about, what I was hoping to accomplish, and how by necessity that accomplishment happened. No kidding, I was almost moved to tears a couple of times. (Or maybe that was just relief that I hadn't caused them to lose their minds.)

Perhaps my favorite reflective statement came from a student who is not even a Writing major, but who understood the class and its utility as well as any one. This is a student who on top of taking classes in his major and on top of taking my novel writing class, spent the semester working on an iPhone application called "Video Game Trivia," for which he had to compose 1000 questions, an endeavor that forced him to write another 78,000 words on top of the 55,000 he wrote for his novel (and however many he wrote for his other classes). He didn't tell me this until our very last meeting, after all the novels had been turned in. My jaw literally dropped. Talk about a semester to remember. I quote from his reflective paper: "Going into this class, I had certainly never written anything of this magnitude or scale before. Designing and crafting a story that would span 55,000+ words just didn't seem like something I was cabable of. Maybe in ten years but certainly not as a junior in college. It's removing that roadblock that I believe was the most important accomplishment forward in writing and for my life in general. I know I'm capable of creating another novel if I need or choose to. If my boss tells me he needs a fifty page report on howGoogle uses their public relations (my major), then I'll nod and begin thinking how it pales in comparison to the task that I accomplished when I was 20 years old."

That really choked me up. This student was in my peer review group (I broke the class into groups of twos and threes for semi-regular peer review sessions; that way, they knew at least someone was going to read and keep tabs on their progress), and I know how hard he worked on his book. I think I was even more relieved and grateful by what he said next: "I believe I may have learned more from this class than in nearly any other class in my college tenure. In a weird way, I think it may be partially because we, being the students, kind of act as the teachers in this class." Yes. They certainly were. I took a huge step back this semester and essentially turned the class over to them. Either they were going to leap into the challenge, take it up, and assist each other in the taking up, or they were going to flounder, divide, and turn sour. Remarkably, almost no one reacted in the latter fashion. Unable to workshop in the traditional sense, the learning had to come essentially from the doing and from regular meetings with their peer groups. They had to be almost completely responsible for their own education. All I did was check word counts each week and collect response papers to the chapters we read in our textbook, No Plot No Problem by Chris Baty. (And of course compose a novel of my own right along with them.)

The success of the whole enterprise really did depend on them. Not only did this group rise to the occasion, but I think they found the process of doing so--of just pushing and pushing and pushing ahead on their books--incredibly liberating. As my student wrote: "We create the material we will be discussing by writing our novels, and we don't have to worry about memorizing every ligament in the kneecaps. All we have to worry about is when our cabin is going to be overtaken by zombies and who is going to survive. The work can still be a burden, don't get me wrong, but never once did I feel like it was a waste of time." I guess that what happens when you're engaged in a project you feel passionate about. And so many of them were. How many times can I say it? They were amazing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Novel Class Survives!

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A few months ago, I blogged about one of the classes I'm teaching this semester: Novel Writing Workshop. As I explained at the time, I had taught the class twice before, somewhat successfully, but decided to do it differently this semester. Rather than have my students simply plan and begin novels, workshopping the chapters as they went, I decided that this time they would all start and finish their novels. In one semester. They would be producing a draft of a novel, of course, not one immediately ready for publication, and the word count I asked for--55,000--would put their novels on the short side. But, even so, let's not kid ourselves. 55,000 words is an awful lot to ask of students in one semester. A friend of mine taught a Novella class last year. His minimum word count was 15K and apparently a few of his students struggled to produce that much. So I didn't quite know what to expect when I presented my semester plan to them. But I know what I feared: A goggled eyed response, a few choice epithets relating to my sanity, and an empty classroom the next week when the whole group sensibly dropped my course. That first week of the semester, whispers, recollections floated through my head: a presentation I'd heard years ago about a Novel Workshop taught in England for graduate students--a two semester affair in which, the presenter explained, we of course don't expect the students to actually have finished their novels at course end; a teacher of mine in graduate school gossiping about a class taught by John Gardner, a graduate level class in which he demanded that the students finish novels in one semester and at the end of which most had dropped out and more than one suffered a nervous breakdown or divorce or both; an AWP session I attended two years ago about teaching novel writing workshops and at which the general notion of the panelists seemed to be "Of course, you could never do this kind of course with undergraduates."

Did I really know what I was doing? No, but I did know that I really didn't like hearing that students in my previous novel workshops had barely taken any steps toward completing their novels once the semester was over. Most had done no further writing past chapter 4. So how much--I thought and thought and thought--did they actually learn about writing novels?

I'm happy to report, now that we've reached exam week at UCA, that of the original 15 students, 11 endured to the end of the semester. And of that 11, 10 have already given me their completed 55,000 word novels, with the 11th to be delivered to me at any moment. 11 of the 15 finished their projects. That's a hell of a good percentage. (I wrote one too, meeting the same word counts they did. I actually like my little book a lot, but that's material for some other post.) What's more, several of them went over the 55,000 goal. One enterprising guy--who never came close to having a nervous breakdown--actually produced over 75,000 words. Another student quietly reached the 55,000 goal a week before she had to and then refrained from saying so because she was afraid the class would resent her for it. (She didn't need to worry; it wasn't that kind of class.) Another student not only finished a 55,000 word novel for me but at the same time composed an Honors College research thesis about an entirely different subject altogether. (I have no idea how she survived.) I am just so proud of this group. Not a one of them blinked when I explained the set up of the class; many of them were actually excited. And they are even more excited now at having finished their books and their word count. One student announced last week with a huge smile, "I can take that Novella course and it will seem like nothing!"

Most important is they learned from doing about the process of composing a book length fiction. They struggled with juggling characters, plots, story arcs, rising action and climaxes. What to leave in, what to leave out. All the messy, and even onerous, decisions of book writing. (A couple students realized they were actually composing the first of what must be a series. One of these students asked if I was teaching the course next semester, so she could write Book 2!) Most of all they now know what a commitment it takes to stick with and finish a novel. And they've each discovered what writing habits/schedules work for them. One student, a talented but extremely intuitive writer, struggled much of the semester to keep up with the words counts but in the last few weeks hit on a schedule that worked for him: 1000 words a day. That was not too much to overburden him and it was plenty enough to keep him connected to his book. He found it not so very trying after all and told me that he wished he had been writing that way since the beginning. He hadn't, but the important point is that the class allowed him to discover that way of writing.

Yes, I am now faced with a pile of novels to read. But here's the most satisfying part: They're good novels! Some of them are actually really good. Now I haven't gotten all the way through them yet, and I won't for a while, and maybe I'll be singing a different tune come January, but let me just say that I don't think I've ever been more impressed with and proud of my students as I read these semester-long labors of love. There's no way, as an undergraduate, I would have felt ready to take on a novel--not in one semester. 11 of my undergraduate students just did. And they didn't just survive; they thrived. Kudos to you all. It was a great four months.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Blackwell's bite

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Several months ago, I blogged about the novelist Elise Blackwell and her thoughts on how and when to use research in the writing of historical fiction. Recently, I’ve been reading her fine novel Grub, a contemporary reworking of George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), that renowned satire of English literary and publishing circles of the late nineteenth century. Grub is a wonderful read: skewering without being mean-spirited, clever without being trivial, clear-eyed and tender at the same time. Blackwell loves her characters but is completely honest about their faults. Anyone who is a writer or is married to one or who works inside a writing community will recognize some of Blackwell’s creations, if not all of them. Writers may also find themselves nodding in agreement at a few of Blackwell’s zingers at the big New York houses. Coming on the heels of the criticism I leveled in my last post, the following passage certainly caught my eye. In it, Blackwell is writing from the perspective of Andrew Yarborough, a novelist and editor who, thoroughly disenchanted with the practices of the big publishing houses, has decided to leave them for good.

There was little good will there toward talent that didn’t sell well, small tolerance for the sophomore slump, no willingness to risk a quiet novel that might prove a sleeper. What bothered him most was the shift to decision by committee. No doubt it prevented some truly horrible books from being published, but it was clear that it overemphasized market concerns and selected for lowest common denominators. He’d had to write rejection letters for several brilliant but peculiar novels he’d badly wanted to publish. . . . He couldn’t say whether he’d quit or been fired, but he remembered the shaking anger with which he’d argued with one publisher over a nine-hundred-page labor novel that was as dazzling and important as it was desperate for substantive editing. “It’s the writer’s job to have the book ready for the copyeditor,” was the line that had infuriated him and started the fight that ended in unemployment.

I’ve got nothing against expecting writers to edit their own work as carefully as possible, but I sure do understand the complaint that publishers choose books according to lowest common denominators. I see that phenomenon all the time in books I peruse. And a prejudice against 900-pagers? Well, I’m afraid that goes without saying.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Specter of Stone

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It wasn't as if I'd never heard of the man . . .

As difficult as it is for some people to believe, I conceived of, researched, and began writing my Van Gogh novel Yellow before I knew of Irving Stone's earlier Van Gogh novel Lust for Life. Sure, I knew Stone's name. I'd heard of The Agony and The Ecstasy, his fictional take on Michelangelo, if only because of the celebrated 1965 film starring Charlton Heston, a staple of local "4:00 Movie" programs during the pre-cable 70s of my childhood. But I think it was my wife who casually asked one day, "You do know he wrote a novel about Van Gogh too, don't you?" Uhh . . . Truly, my blood ran a little cold. But with some quick internet leg work I found the dates on Lust for Life the novel (1934) and the movie (1956). I breathed a little easier. After all, the book was published more than seventy years in the past. Should a book from that long ago permanently mark as "Off Limits" a famous man's life? It's one thing if the book was 10 or 20 years old, but 70? If anything, I figured it was time for an updated examination of the painter. Isn't that what writers and scholars are supposed to do? After all, in my research for the novel it became clear that the number of Van Gogh biographies ran into the dozens. Dozens of biographies, but only one novel allowed? Surely not. And, besides, how many other people--and here I mean readers, not just the public in general--were probably as ignorant of Stone's book as I was?

So I happily solidered on, spending years drafting, revising, editing, and shaping Yellow. The result is an admittedly long novel--though I cut out a great deal--but long for a good reason: I'm showing Van Gogh over virtually his whole life span, from his childhood in rural Brabant to his release from St. Paul's mental hospital in Saint-Remy, France, three months before he died. I realized, of course, that some agents and editors might balk at a novel close to 800 pages long. What I didn't expect, but what I've heard recently, is concern over the legacy of Stone. Lust for Life, I hear from some quarters, is simply too embedded in our culture--it's still in print and still selling well--squeezing out the possibility that any other novel can try to tell the story of Vincent's whole life. If one writes about Van Gogh these days, it must be from a drastically restricted vantage point. It's disheartening to hear such opinions, not only because it means the speaker won't be representing my novel, but also because I suspect the speaker is misguided. After all, another way to think about the same set of facts is this: The continued success of Lust for Life, more than seventy years after its first publication, shows just how deeply ingrained is western society's fascination with Van Gogh, how we revel in his many evident quirks and gape awestruck at his determination, how we see him as the truest archetype for the iconoclastic, starving artist--a "real" artist if you will. And how willing we are to lay down money for him. If we're that interested in Van Gogh, doesn't this suggest other Van Gogh books could succeed as well as Lust for Life? Or simply succeed? After all, our media--books, television, movies--is, if anything, famous for its willingness to recycle ideas and characters. How many Da Vinci Code knockoffs appeared in the wake of Dan Brown's book?How many new vampire series have appeared in the last five years? Yet there's only room for one Van Gogh novel?

Ironically, Yellow isn't a knockoff of anything. I still haven't read Stone's book, though I'm certainly more aware of it these days. While I was writing, I avoided it on purpose. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to achieve in Yellow, and I didn't want to feel like I had to pull back or change course because of something Stone did; whether that meant trying to avoid being like Stone or trying to actually mimic something about Lust for Life that I admired. I wanted and needed to stay true to my own vision of Van Gogh and of my novel. That seemed easiest to do without Irving Stone's 70+ year old Van Gogh vision running through my head. And it seemed the only way to make a Van Gogh biographical that could stand on its own and draw new generations of readers. Even now, as I'm more or less done with the book, I still don't seek out Lust for Life. In part it's lethargy, in part it's because I have so much else, for a variety of reasons, that I simply have to read. But of course, having not read Lust for Life, I am arguably not the best person to say whether Yellow charts new territory or not. So what do you all think? Does it sound like I have case, or does it seem true to you that Lust for Life has permanently coopted Vincent Van Gogh from fiction?

I began this project after being so purely blown away by the Van Gogh paintings I saw in Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. My feelings were so stirred they simply demanded a fictional response. I didn't know what else to do with them. I simply couldn't turn this subject down. I still believe I made the right decision in pursuing it. But Irving Stone is trying his best to shake that belief.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Cure for Dismal Reading

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I’ve finished a novel that I just have to recommend. As a historical novel, it certainly is a proper subject for Creating Van Gogh and should be of special interest to readers of this blog. But to call Joseph Skibell’s A Curable Romantic, released last month by Workman, a successful historical novel is to suggest only the beginnings of its breadth and its charm. You could also call it a supernatural novel or a religious novel or a comic novel or a World War Two novel or a novel about modern Jewish identity (the prevailing theme of every one of Skibell’s books). But the best thing to call it is simply a wonder. A Curable Romantic takes you from Szibotya, a small Galician town on the rim of Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the seventh heaven--literally. Along the way one encounters dybbuks and angels, reincarnations and possessions, exorcisms and excursions into the afterlife. Too there’s Sigmund Freud—who in Skibell's humourous characterization is at turns brilliant and ridiculous, cowardly and insightful, dead set against all religious “fantasy” and at the same time ready to believe almost anything . (Perhaps my favorite moment in the novel is when Freud shows a map he has drawn for the narrator, Jakob Sammelsohn. The map details the history of Sammelsohn’s soul as explained to Freud by the dybbuk Freud has been psychoanalyzing for weeks.) Skibell's rendering of Freud is emblematic of the book as a whole: a quirky but seamless blend of history, personality, tragedy, and impossibility. The novel introduces us to other historical figures as well, most importantly L. L. Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto. As Zamenhof replaces Freud as the most important father figure in Sammelsohn's life, we are led through a (somewhat fantastical) history of that language’s bid for world acceptance. The latter part of the novel, meanwhile, chronicles the creation of the Warsaw ghetto. And as if that wasn’t enough, we are finally taken through several layers of heaven by our narrator and a semi-psychic, semi-magical rabbi with whom he has become associated.

Readers of Skibell’s first novel A Blessing on the Moon are already familiar with his idiosyncratic blending of magic realism, world history, black comedy, and Jewish folklore. But that unlikely bouillabaisse is all the more delicious, and ingenious, in his latest book. The novel is simply startling: bitingly funny, sexually urgent, and gently nostalgic all at once. It is also in many ways a perfect book for America and for these times. So much of the history of immigration in this country, after all, is tied to the events in Europe from 1890 to 1945, events that culminated in the war that opens when A Curable Romantic ends. And so much of our bestselling fiction these days is tied to the magical that it seems perfectly natural for a novel to describe a standoff between Sigmund Freud and a sexually frustrated dybbuk. Yet because the magic in Skibell’s book is so smartly done, and so not presented merely to dazzle or gross out, the book becomes relevant--even important--in ways that a Twilight or a Shining or a Harry Potter can never be. While as entertaining and as fantastcial as any novel you will ever read, A Curable Romantic asks seriously universal and profoundly eternal questions while leading a reader through some very real byways of late 19th and 20th century European history. If this seems too much to ask of a single volume of fiction, I am happy to report that A Curable Romantic delivers on all fronts.

I have long thought that Skibell deserves as much acclaim as other more heralded novelists of his generation (including one that recently landed on the cover of Time). I can only expect that A Curable Romantic will finally win him what he so richly deserves.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A novel experiment

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I've mentioned several times on this blog that I teach creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. My students are great, talented and up for anything. They have to be this semester, as I'm trying out a brand new experiment in my Novel Writing workshop, a 4000 level class that I've taught before but am teaching quite differently this fall. When I've run the class in the past, all I've asked is that my students start novels, the first 3-4 chapters, which we workshopped over the course of the semester. And too they read books about novel writing and gave reports on those books. It worked, sort of. They all planned out and did start novels, and they did learn a few things about the artistry of novel writing. But they never really confronted the other and perhaps more important fact of novel writing--that it's an endurance test. It's that fact and not a lack of artistry that keeps most would-be novelists from being actual ones.

So this semester, having seen too many promising novels simply stop at semester's end, and inspired by a provocative session I attended at the AWP conference a couple years ago, I'm asking a lot more. Both from them and myself. This semester my students aren't just starting novels but completing them. That's right, they'll each be writing a full novel (albeit a short one) over the course of one semester. And I'll be right there in the trenches with them. This semester I'm going to write a novel of my own, start to finish (or a draft, at least). To do so I'm going to have abandon my usual longhand first style of composing and go straight to the keyboard. (In fact, I already have, because we've already started.) I'm also going to have to shove a few other favored activities aside. And I know I'm going to have to be fiercely efficient when it comes to knocking off my other teaching and university responsibilities. But I've got to do this. Because I can't ask my students, who are plenty busy with their other classes and their own projects, to take on the challege of writing a whole novel in a semester if I'm not willing to join them at it. Plus, what an opportunity for me. Having recently completed my Van Gogh novel Yellow, a six+ year project, I get to start and finish another one in a relative blink of an eye. What a refreshing concept!

Will it be a great novel? Will theirs? I don't know, but that's not really the point. The point of the class is to learn about novel writing, and there's no better way to learn than to actually write one. So that is what I have to ask of them and what I am asking of them. To feel it and fight through it every step of the way, start to finish. When the semester is all over, not only will they have finished a draft of a novel, but they'll really know and appreciate all that someone must rise to, deal with, and overcome to complete a major creative project like a novel. Of course, plenty of revision will be ahead for them once the semester is over--for me too--if they want to truly complete their novels, but at least they will have the experience and satisfaction of getting through a whole draft. That's a significant accomplishment, especially considering that completing the first draft seems to be the biggest obstacle against novel writing for most of my students. Many of them start and stop one. Then start and stop another. Then a third. And so on. (They've told me this themselves.) But this semester they'll have no choice but to finish. And I think the prospect really excites them.

I've adopted the National Novel Writing Month plan, with some alterations. NaNoWriMo partcipants must write a 50,000 word novel in a month; my students will write a 55,000 word novel in a semester. Why 55K? Well, last spring the Writing Department ran a novella writing course. Because 50K is considered the upper limit for a novella I felt I had to ask my novel writing students to go beyond that. Thus I tagged on another 5K. I've broken down the whole semester for them, with 4600 words due every week (except the last week when I merely ask for 4400). We will also be reading a couple of short novels and will talk about how the authors of those books make their novels do such good work in 50-60K words. And while workshopping has to be less of a concern--production has to be the emphasis--my students will form small peer groups this semester and will periodically share their developing novels with members of their groups. So far so good. I've had remarkably few complaints and seen a lot of energized, committed faces. They're ready for the adventure, and a couple weeks into it I'm already seeing sizeable (and growing) word counts. I'm proud of them. And I'm sure it's going to be quite a ride before we're done.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The debate continues . . .

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I hardly knew that when I mentioned my decision to portray Van Gogh as a lefthander in my novel Yellow that the subject might cause such commotion in the blogosphere. My new internet friend Svend Hendriksen--I mentioned him in my last post--continues to send me various proofs of Vincent's lefthandedness. A couple of them certainly bear repeating in this space. First, Svend recommends that I look at Van Gogh's famous Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, a picture the painter cared so much for that he made multiple copies. Svend, with his engineer's eye for detail, points out a few telling features of this painting: 1) the water pitcher on the rear table sits with its handle pointed to the left, a position only favorable to a lefthander; and 2) Vincent chose to put his pillows at the far end at the bed, a position more advantageous to a lefthander. According to Svend, a righthander would naturally put the pillows at the lower end, as getting in and out of that end would be easier for a righthanded person. Svend has sent his analysis to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and presently awaits a response. Svend also references Van Gogh's pictures of potato and peet diggers. About 90% of these drawings portray the diggers as digging in a lefthanded fashion, an unusual abundance given that most of humanity is righthanded.
Meanwhile, a lengthy and informative comment from "Stuart," coming in response to my last post, points out that Gauguin's famous picture of Vincent working in front of an easel shows Vincent holding the brush in his right hand. Now, one must be careful to take at face value anything that Gauguin said, wrote, or painted. Notice his apparently invented account, published in his memoir Avant et Apres, of Vincent publicly charging him with a razor blade. Notice too his taking credit for advising and influencing Vincent during the creation of the Sunflower series, when that series was completed before Gauguin even arrived in Arles! That said, we can't simply discount the fact that in Gaugin's painting he portrays Vincent as a righty. From this and other evidence, Stuart wonders if Van Gogh was ambidextrous, sometimes using his right hand and other times his left. (See Stuart's comment to get his full explanation.) A new and fascinating possibility! If anyone has an addtional insight to add to this unexpectedly hot topic, please let me know. You can comment on this post or email me at johnv@uca.edu.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Van Gogh the lefty--verified!

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I posted several weeks ago about my reasons for portraying Van Gogh as a lefthander in my novel. My choice was based solely on Van Gogh's personality profile, backed up by my amateur's knowledge of the theories of handedness. (And, admittedly, some personal projection, as I myself am lefthanded.) What a pleasant surprise then to receive an email from Svend Hendriksen, a Danish gentleman currently living in Greenland, who has looked into the question of Van Gogh's handedness with considerable attention. Svend tells me I'm right: Van Gogh was undoubtedly a lefthander! And the evidence can be found in the paintings themselves. Svend calls my attention most particularly to an 1888 self-portrait by Van Gogh. (That's it over there). Notice that Van Gogh holds his palette in his right hand, indicating that he paints with his left. Now many would (and do) look at the portrait and say that since Van Gogh must have employed a mirror while painting the picture, what we see is a mirror (that is, reversed) image of the man. Thus, they conclude, he painted with his right hand. And Svend reports that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam does describe Van Gogh as being righthanded. However, Svend points out that the button on Van Gogh's coat is on the same side as the palette he holds, and on men's coats of the period this button would have always been situated on the right side. In other words, this evidence suggests that Van Gogh in real life, not just in the portrait, held the palette with his right hand. It's perfectly possible that for the sake of his painting he corrected the reversed image to show the world how he really worked: with his left. From what I know of Van Gogh generally, it is not hard to imagine him being stubborn on this point.



Svend has passed along a number of other interesting tidbits about Van Gogh, for instance that photographs of the man's paint box reveal that he kept it quite full. As Svend says, it's "a huge volume for a poor man's palette." Well, certainly paint was dear, an expense that Van Gogh avoided for years by concentrating solely on his drawing. But when he began painting he sacrificed almost everything else--food included--to keep himself supplied. And looking at his effusive, glorious pictures, especially from the Paris and Arles periods, it certainly looks as if he operated with a full box. Svend's comments make intuitive sense.


Svend, by the way, was not trained as an art historian but as an explosives engineer. He served for years in the Danish army. Yet he now brings his mechnical know-how to the study of paintings. His story reminds me of a phenomenon that I find profound: There is something about Van Gogh--his story, his paintings, his personality--that draws people to him like a magnet. Not only professional art historians but informed amateur sleuths and everyday idlers alike. For instance, the man who owns the house at which I stay when I visit Arles, a science teacher and devoted amateur astronomer, has done considerable work studying Van Gogh's use of constellations in his night paintings. He has even advised academics from America on the matter. Amazing how this Dutch painter, who struggled so and was so little known in his lifetime, has attacted and keeps attracting such a broad, enthusiastic audience. Perhaps this simply proves that Van Gogh knew exactly what he was doing all along: painting not for his time but the future. Indeed.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Van Gogh in the Middle

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As we all know, schools are starting these days--at least here in the U.S.--and that means too the beginning of football season. In fact, tonight I will be taking my youngest son and his friend to Estes stadium at UCA to see the Bears' season opener. With football so much in the air and on the news and in people's hearts--at least here in the U.S.--I think, strangely enough, of Van Gogh. And I think of the position of middle linebacker, the man at the exact center of the defense: midway between the sidelines, midway between the defensive line and the defensive backfield; the man with the most leeway of anyone on defense to circuit freely and make whatever plays need to be made. That could mean rushing up to help the line stop a running play, or dropping back to help cover a receiver, or blitzing to try to sack (tackle) the other team's quarterback. A successful middle linebacker sees and understands the field as a whole, and the developing play as a whole, and he uses his roaming freedom to enhance the whole defense.


It may be a stretch of a metaphor, but I feel safe in calling Van Gogh the middle linebacker of the Neoimpressionists working in Paris in the 1880s. That is, he moved freely between factions, between cliques, between individuals, and between styles, with only one end in mind--and it was a good one: learning and absorbing as much as he could. Having just spent several years working alone in the Dutch provinces, and then a few disappointing months in Antwerp, he was not just willing but eager to listen, to watch, to discuss, to experiment, and to change. And he refused to let interpersonal squabbles--replete with their petty resentments, paranoid suspicions, and blatant attempts at empire building--distract him from his purpose. He set up walls against no one, was willing and able to see value in the working practices and painterly results of many different kinds of artists. Whereas almost every other leading neoimpressionist eventually chose a particular camp to belong to, and thus allies to swear by, Van Gogh stubbornly resisted making such choices. He felt that he could and did learn from all of them. Certainly in his paintings from his Paris years we see him trying on and trying out many different artistic gestures. He did not carry all of these gestures with him to Arles--by his own admission, he "abandoned" much of what he learned in Paris (something of an overstatement, actually)--yet it was by carrying on these experiments at all that he grew as a painter; it's why his Paris period counts as the one in which he learned and grew the most. It was in Paris that Van Gogh became a modern painter. And he grew the most because he circulated the most. Whereas Van Gogh's associate Emile Bernard became a disciple of Gauguin and thus turned his back on the Divisionist group of Seurat and Signac and Pissarro, and whereas Seurat despised and scorned Gauguin and thus avoided company with all members of the so-called "Symbolistes," Van Gogh had friends in both camps. He literally worshipped Gauguin and for a long time was terribly close to Bernard, yet he ate and drank with Signac, and he admired Seurat's breakthroughs deeply. He did not fully buy into the optic theories behind Divisionism, but he did see the divisionist method as an excellent way to vary the texture of a painting. A quick scan of his Paris paintings reveals the number of works in which he played with and tried to learn from this method.


Finally, sadly, Van Gogh's attempt to stay above the fray wore him out and depressed him. His resentment over the exaggerated factionalism and trivial backbiting among painters in Paris drove him out of the city. At the very least, it played a significant part in his decision to leave. Probably playing into that decision too was the realization that he had learned as much from these people as he could, and the fear--which he wrote about in his letters--that if he stayed in Paris much longer his health would be ruined and himself turned into an alcoholic. (Much drinking among the painters in Paris of the day, not shockingly.) Shortly after moving to Arles he wrote Theo about how much better felt in his body and how much more at home. (Van Gogh was always fundamentally a rural person.) Ironically, however, only eight months later he suffered his first epileptic attack--if that's what it was--an infamous breakdown greater and more devastating than he ever could have imagined in Paris. At that point, the linebacker had taken more than enough shots, and it was all he could do to get up and off the field with dignity.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

As the classroom beckons . . .

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A new semester starts tomorrow at my university. As usual, I greet this fact with equal measures of regret, excitement, and trepidation. While I'm wistful for the summer that is passing, and while full-time teaching (professors, even tenured ones, carry a 4/4 load at my university) certainly does stress one's time in many ways, forcing one into the familiar and maddening jitterbug between writing, teaching, and family (and dog) obligations, there are undeniable satisfactions to be found in the job. There are also real benefits to be had for our students, at least in the Writing Department at my university. Our students, like most of our faculty, get the connection between writing, research, and teaching. They do not argue for and would not accept the false mythology of a dichotomy between good teaching and good publishing. It's never made sense to me how someone who remains active in writing and publishing won't finally have some critical expertise to bring to the classroom, moreso than someone who writes little and doesn't care if he or she gets published at all. It's difficult to accept that the latter individual has as much to offer budding, hopeful, sometimes very talented, young authors as the former. The former has proven his or her commitment to the craft. The latter? While in the middle of a busy semseter it's easy to forget this, I hope I remember that my writing activies and teaching activities are--or at least should be--twins.

Another myth that I and others in our department find maddening, and I'm happy to say that we don't promulgate, is the idea that writing is a special act that should be undertaken by only a select, talented few while the rest would be better off not even trying. You, dear reader, may not share that absurd belief, but I promise you I've heard it expressed, sometimes from people who intend to go into teaching. Can you imagine a more ridiculous premise for a would-be educator to promulgate? What would happen to all those precious test scores in our country if math teachers decided that math was just for a select few, and the rest of the students shouldn't even try. Or how about history? Can you imagine walking into a history class and hearing the instructor tell you that understanding history is a special skill, so only a minority of students should just give up? How bad then would be the state of mathematical and historical knowledge in this country? You get what I'm saying. Should only those who plan on being full-time professional musicians try to learn an instrument? If that were true, how much joy would be lost by amateur and semi-professional players? How much good music would be lost by those who listen to them? Should only those fated for the NBA or the NFL take up basketballs and footballs? Of course not. Writing, believe it or not, is no different. There's not a single person in the world who won't find important skills honed, as well as their lives enriched, by exploring and developing their creative natures. Will all creative writing students become famous novelists? Of course not! But that's not the point of the creative writing course. What most of them will become is more stylish, more articulate, and more demanding communicators, and I've never heard anyone say that communication skills, both written and verbal, are less than priceless in the 21st century world.

I'm also proud to say that neither I nor my colleagues feel it's our duty to decide who will or won't "make it." For the uninitiated, let me stress that there certainly are teachers out there who think it is their duty to decide this. And not only decide it but declare it openly. I can't imagine a greater offense against a student. Anyone who's taught even for a few years has seen those brilliant, prodigious, seemingly unstoppable talents who, strangely, don't in the long run amount to much, while sometimes it's that quiet figure in the corner--that solid talent who you perhaps respect more for her work habits than her product--who surprises you ten (or twenty, or forty) years down the road by making it, maybe even making it big. The fact is, that we the teachers don't know who will "make it." How can we? We're not gods; we're not wizards. All we can do--all we should do--is work our damnedest for every student in our classrooms, and then let them show us who will make it and who won't. Some of them are sure to surprise as, and nearly all of them will have something to teach us, just as certainly all of them will have something important to teach themselves--while hopefully all of us have a blast along the way.

(Picture note: It may or may not fit my entry, but I thought the image was a hoot.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dog days

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I grew up in Southern Maryland, not even a half hour from Washington DC. The entire area is famously muggy and not at all cool in the summertime. DC was built on swamp land and for generations, at least until the dawn of air conditioniung, residents were forced to flee the city during summer, when it turned insufferable. In 1993, I moved to south Louisiana, possibly the only place in the country more muggy--and considerably hotter to boot--than the DC metro area. With temperatures never dipping below 90 and with nearly unimaginable humidity, stepping outside your front door in the summer literally felt like entering a sauna. Yet, I was never really all that bothered by weather; I even went running everyday: 5+ miles. I read the newspaper on the front stoop each morning, armed with a big hot mug of joe. All that is to say that I'm a warm climate person, better able to ignore it, withstand it, work in it, move in it, thrive in it, than most. And yet this summer in Arkansas, I must say, has been wicked. It's been at, near, or above 100 for what feels like two months now. According to the weather people, we're well on our way to setting an all-time record for average daily temperature. (Still don't believe in global warming, people?) And by all-time, I mean all-time. Higher than has ever been recorded since they started keeping records in the 19th century. We've been absolutely baking here. Maybe it's a matter of being 13 years older or maybe it's the difference between 95 degrees and 105 (when the high merely reached 97 the other day, it felt like a relief), but I don't remember the summers in Louisiana being as blindly searing as this one in Arkansas has been. Down there, we stewed in June, July, and August; up here we've been frying.

All this makes me think again of Provence, our three summertime visits, and of course Vincent Van Gogh. The region is renowned for its soaring summer season temperatures; its bright and searing sun. I remember reading in one of Peter Mayle's books (I can't remember which) a good-humored account of Englishmen and other visiting Europeans wilting, red-faced and sweating, in the provencal summer. Van Gogh was not exactly immune to the heat. He certainly felt it, but he also felt that he thrived in it. In letters he recounted heading out each morning, planting his easel in a field, and working all day in the blazing climate, "contented as a cicada in a tree." (The cicada, by the way, is the unofficial symbol of the region.) It's no coincidence that the famous "high yellow" of his Arles paintings most accurately characterizes the paintings he painted during the summer of 1888, his only in Arles, and in my opinion when he worked at the height of his powers, reaching an artistic peak that he never found again.

Well, for all of Provence's celebrated heat, and whatever the part, however minor, that it played in bringing on Van Gogh's physio-psychological meltdown in late 1888, I can tell you from experience that Provence has nothing on Arkansas. Yes, the provencal sky is a gorgeous, bold, clear, blue. Yes, the sun is bright. And yes, it's warm. But the climate of Arles in July/August, I assure you, would be a vacation from the July/August of 2010 Arkansas, or for that matter just about every summer we've experienced since moving up here in 1997. (One of the many reasons I'd love to be there right now.) Our dog this morning even uprooted a cicada nesting deep within the grass of our front lawn. He wouldn't leave the poor thing alone, so up it flew, pulling its thick, round body with its buzzing wings, finally reaching a safe place in a nearby tree. There it settled very happily inside the hot hot heat.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The intriguing case of Caleb Carr

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This summer I plucked a book from my shelf that had been there a while, waiting to be read: Caleb Carr's The Alienist, a bestseller from the mid-90s. It came recommended by a friend several years ago, but as with so many books it sat idle while I read other things on my list. It was about time to get to it, I figured, given all the reading in historical fiction I've been up to. I'm glad I did. And not just because it makes an interesting cul-de-sac to the subject I blogged about in my last entry: How historical fiction is both a serious literary form and a pop genre at the same time. The Alienist--let's just start by saying it--is a gem of a book. It's large, both in scope and length, and yet a quick read all the same. As with most quick reads, it becomes an urgent, physical pleasure to get through. And perhaps most interesting of all is how it both is and isn't a pop suspense novel. A group of (mostly) independent investigators carry out a secret investigation into a murder against a backdrop of social unrest and intense, negative police pressure. The investigation turns into a manhunt, with our heroes very nearly losing their lives before they catch their man. Sounds like it could be the plot of a tv PI drama, right?

Well, yes, in fact it could be. Carr doesn't pretend to be writing what isn't a crime thriller. He's well versed in the genre and shows it, occasionally demonstrating the kind of logical snafus that bother me in fiction that is suspense driven, such as when a character fails to figure out what is perfectly obvious to the reader and should be even more obvious to the character, who seems to be perfectly intelligent and, after all, is "living" through the situation. While sometimes they turn out to be only minor annoyances in a novel, episodes like that cause me to lose heart and not a little faith in the author who I fear has given up the simple act of telling a story in favor of using his characters to effect a certain, preplanned and unjustified end: in this case, surprise. An example from the book: At one point in the novel the alienist (i.e. psychologist) Lazlo Kriezler discusses a love interest with the narrator John Moore. It would be obvious to a second grader that Kriezler is referring to the character named Mary, not the one named Sara, as Moore first thinks. And yet the realization, coming to Moore too many minutes late, like a big old failing steam engine, stuns and befuddles him. He subsequently demands an explanation from Kriezler. Clearly, Carr felt he needed the surprise moment in order to get Kriezler to say more, but it comes across as forced, phony, and unfair to Carr's own narrator, the talents and wiles of whom he has steadily revealed over the course of the novel. I tell my students all the time: Stop putting all this writing energy into the big Surprise moment (which rarely is) and instead put that energy into building a good story. In fiction that relies on the last minute twist, the next surprise around the corner--as genre fiction tends to--one is more likely to run into gaffes (at least what I consider gaffes) such as the one I just described, at the expanse of engaging story telling.

But here's the thing. Carr's novel is so much more than a genre book, even while at the same time it remains happily one. It is also a beautiful and eye-opening survey of late 19th century New York, when so much of the technology that we took for granted in the 20th century was just beginning to find purchase and yet so much badly needed social and political reform was still decades away. The novel--the first chapter of which is actually narrated from the vantage point of 1919--looks ahead to much of the history of the next century, including the late 20th century's (and early 21st's) fascination with the serial killer, while at the same time offering an exquisitely detailed picture of Old New York. There is also the fascinating personage of Theodore Roosevelt--not quite as fascinating in the novel as he was in real life but not far off--and that man's semi-tragic political and purely tragic personal history that lingers grayly over the book like a prophet's voice. Finally there is the intriguing figure of the alienist himself, committed to the new science of psychology, including criminal psychology, that nearly the whole world, and certainly the New York police force, regards as hocum and voodoo. And yet, not surprisingly, so much of the gains in the investigation come about just because of that new science.

I guess my point is that the book cannot be tossed away as a mere genre effort, as some have tried to, even while it embraces aspects of the genre itself. It's a fascinating and elucidating study of a period of history; better yet, it's a study occupied by characters that (mostly) manage to avoid the creaky stereotypes that drive me and most other readers mad, and that literary fiction is supposed to offer an escape from. (Supposed to. It doesn't always.) The Alienist is a historical study and a genre book in which you can easily find yourself caring about the people inside it, investing in them and relying on them and in some cases growing wary of them, in the way that one would actual people in one's life. In other words, it's a great book written in the form of a literary historical novel and yet one that grips you as tightly as the biggest potboiler you could wish for. It takes a rare sort of talent, and maybe a rarer background, to write such a novel. Carr clearly has it. I'm thankful that The Alienist found its outlet in him.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Historical fiction's double identity

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As my Van Gogh novel developed over the past four years, so did my attention to historical fiction. And what strikes me as one of the great curiosities about form is that it both can and can't be assigned the "genre" label. With the possible exception of science fiction, I'm not sure there's a fictional genre out there that leads such a double creative life, that has such a schizophrenic reception among readers and writers. On one hand, for decades historical fiction has been the locus for writers--many of them, let me say, perfectly hard working people--who aren't really intent on or concerned about creating books that can be lauded as "literary" so much as books they contribute to already existing and familiar genres. Many historical novels, for instance, were and still are little more than gussied up mass market romances or adventure books. There is too an abiding and popular genre of historical mysteries. And, of course, plenty of authors have written historical novels for children and young adults (some of them fine, and occasionally classic, books). While authors who write such books often do carry out quite extensive and valuable period research--research that does find its way into their novels--the end products are the type that cause historical fiction to get tossed into that long list of typically sneered at genre fictions. You know the list. You've seen it in every discussion of the literary marketplace, and in every journal's description of what it does or (more likely) doesn't want: romance, western, horror, suspense, children's, fantasy, sci-fi, sports, mystery, crime, etc. Now it goes beyond the purposes of this post to debate whether we ought to sneer at such genres at all--I know a lot of awfully smart people who say we shouldn't--but it's safe to say that the genres do earn sneers, even in this era of the ubiquitous, bestselling vampire novel that delights and consumes (no pun intended) so many people, even when so many stylish young writers (I see them in my classes) are absorbed by and committed to writing fantasy.

But here's the thing about historical fiction. Even while it lives out a full, happy, abiding life among the genres, at the same time it is embraced--increasingly so--by many "literary" writers. (I don't like the term, but for convenience sake I have to use it.) Don't get me wrong. There have always been acclaimed historical novels. But I feel an especially keen interest in the form now, even among younger authors, which certainly would not have been true in the past. Every year at conferences like AWP sections, sometimes multiple sections, on historical fiction are featured and are well attended--and not by anyone wishing to write a romance book. Some literary writers--Ron Hansen comes to mind--have more or less made their careers writing historical novels; others--e.g., Madison Smartt Bell--have completely re-made their careers, earning considerably more prestige for their historical novels than any others. Hansen and Bell have no interest in hack work and don't for a second think of themselves as doing such work. Because they aren't. (Read their books if you doubt my word.)

When you think about it, there's no reason why character-driven, realistic fiction need only be situated in contemporary times. You place the exact same character-driven, realistic story a hundred or five hundred years in the past and suddenly it's given the label of historical fiction, even though for the author he's not fundamentally doing anything different from his last novel, set in L.A. in 2007. Oh, for sure, there are some additional concerns. A great deal more research becomes necessary. (But nearly every piece of fiction requires some research.) And if the author is working with an actual figure out of history the author must struggle with the parameters of what "really happened" to this person versus what the author wants to have happen in the novel. These are not unimportant matters, but still at the end of the day the writing process for a literary historical novel is not that much different from writing any literary novel.

Historical fiction is quite the two (or three or six) headed monster, and it appears to be at an interesting crossroads. Tell one reader you're writing a historical novel and you earn a tolerant, even condescending, smile; tell another reader the same thing and you earn awe. Meanwhile, more and more authors give the form a try, discovering its pleasures and considerable challenges. "Form," I just said. Should I have written "genre"? I'm trying not to.

In a coming post: The intriguing case of Caleb Carr. Can an author explore both form and genre in the same novel?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Van Gogh the Lefty?

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For several decades now, the fact that the different hemispheres of the brain control different functions and influence different abilities has been popularized in western media. Especially commented upon is the fact that human "handedness" is influenced by which brain hemisphere is dominant in an individual, and with an inverse relationship, i.e., left-handed people are right brain dominant and right-handed people are left-brain dominant. The left brain, we are told, controls functions such as language--both spoken and written--computational ability, and reasoning. The 4 Rs, if you will. (Schools, it is often noted, are designed to teach and promote left brain activities.) The right side of the brain controls one's intuitions and emotions, one's musical ability, one's visual and spatial abilities, and one's creative and inventive potential. Ever since these ideas were popularized, there has been book after book celebrating the unique qualities of the presumably right brain dominant left-handers among us. And since I'm one of them, I've been given several such books over the years: from my parents, from my friends, and from my wife. The latest, called A Left-Handed History of the World, might be the most ambitious in its argument. After a short introductory chapter in which it lays out general tendencies of left-handed people, Left-Handed History goes on to profile 25 different and very prominent individuals, all left-handed, implicitly and explicitly arguing that it's left handers who have repeatedly made and remade the world. (Some of those profiled: Ramses the Great, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Napolean, Isaac Newton, Queen Victoria, Ghandi, Marie Curie, and Paul McCartney.) Given that only 7-10 percent of the population is left-handed, the profound influence of left-handers on history, the book asserts, is all the more startling. (Btw, if one counts Ronald Reagan, who naturally wrote with his left-hand but was made to switch to his right at any early age--typical of that time--4 of the last 5 presidents have been lefties.)

Brain scientists will tell you that it's not merely a matter of Lefty=This and Righty=That. We all use both brain hemispheres. It's a matter of when and how much. We can get into those sticky issues on another post or another blog. On this blog, and for this post, I want to talk about Van Gogh. Early in my composing of Yellow, I decided to show him as a left-hander. Partly the choice was intuitive, partly projection, and partly because I had in some remote corner of my brain a faux-memory of seeing him listed among history's famous left-handers. Don't get me wrong. It's not like this is a major theme in the novel or anything that I'm pushing in every scene. But I do point out in a few scenes that Van Gogh is drawing or painting or writing with his left-hand. In one scene I even reference the "left-handed scratch" that is his handwriting. The latter reference is admittedly a matter of me identifying with my protagonist--or vice-versa--because unless I am terribly careful my handwriting instantly descends into "left-handed scratch." (This is especially true, and especially problematic, during the white-hot rush of a first draft, which I still insist on doing by pen in a notebook.)

But my choice of making Van Gogh a left-hander wasn't and isn't simply a matter of trying to insert myself into my novel. It also made real sense to me, based on what I knew about him, and about the theories of handedness. It also wasn't a choice that I deliberated about ahead of time. The idea just occurred to me one day as I was composing a scene and so I went with it. It seemed to work. And if it allowed me to better identify and empathize with my protagonist, to see him from the inside, that's all to the good. Besides, whether Van Gogh was or wasn't left-handed, he certainly showed--and shows in my novel--a number of the characteristic traits. Visual acuity, first of all, demonstrated not only in his numerous paintings and drawings but his copious letters, filled with exacting descriptions of pictures and landscapes. His stubborness and his well-chronicled tendency to emotional spasms, whether that meant anger or romantic infatuation, also fits. Also related is the fact that Van Gogh never put his best foot forward verbally as he did through other means. By most accounts, he was a clumsy and naturally awkward speaker. He had a great deal of fire as a human being and as an artist--he made and kept (and lost) some close friends, along with his brilliant paintings--but smooth and orderly did not by any means characterize his speaking style. Left-Handed History goes out of its way to point out that left-handers are fundamentally distrustful of the world's organization and its institutions--perhaps because it was not designed by them or for them--and they can react in two different ways: They become agitators, openly working to overthrow the status quo, or they retreat deep inside themselves, intellectually and philosophically removing themselves from what they regard as a deeply flawed structure. It's safe to say that Van Gogh did both. Perhaps more than any other neo-impressionist, he was determined to evolve modern art, not just sell paintings. He worked doggedly to that end. But he also was a strikingly interior person, tending to withdraw for long stretches from the society around him, in order to go his own way, to follow his own drummer. I'll repeat: He made friends, even close friends, everywhere he lived. Like everyone, he needed human contact, human conversation. But funadmentally the man was a loner.

Last but not least is what Left-Handed History calls Lateral Thinking, the "ability to make unorthodox connections." Apparently, this explains why some left-handers become ingenious and original military strategists (e.g. Alexander), and why others became brilliant, quirky political maneuverers (e.g., Bill Clinton). A talent for strategy-making certainly defined Van Gogh's life. This, more than anything, struck me as I read about him and wrote about him. He almost always had a plan, sometimes quickly evolving and radically changing plans, for how to accomplish his desired ends. This was true when he wanted to become a lay preacher, and it was certainly true when he decided to become an artist. He knew where he wanted to go and was always confident that he knew exactly how to get there. Demonstrating the daring to act on a strategy was never a problem for him. Convincing others that he was right, however, always was.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What sells?

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I have a friend who's written a brilliant book that, through the lense of fiction, examines the strange, complex, and disturbing social compound that is the current Middle East. The book began as a collection of short stories, one that featured a variety of protagonists, some that are native to the region, many that are not. The point was to show, in some cases expose, the various and confounding strata of human lives and human interactions in this unique and terribly important part of the world. At the advice of an agent, my friend--who for several years lived and worked in Abu Dhabi--turned his collection of stories into a novel. But, staying true to the diverse nature of the stories, the novel very much features an ensemble cast. It is difficult to claim one of its protagonists as the Central Character. Don't get me wrong. My friend put in years of work metamorphosing his story collection into a unified fiction, making sure that the plot lines and characters interweaved and overlapped sufficiently, making sure the structure was tight enough and the final effect singular enough to deserve the designation of novel. It just happens to be a novel with several important characters and several substantial viewpoints.

My friend's book has received serious looks from a number of leading publishing houses. But it has not yet been picked up, despite glowing reviews. Apparently, one reservation is this lack of a single main protagonist. That's just not how most novels go. Well, maybe not most novels, but I'm sure you, reader, can think of a very good novel, one you enjoyed and maybe even treasure, one that might even be regarded as a classic, that involves an ensemble cast. I know other authors whose novels have been written off by editors because they start too slow. As if there aren't dozens of classic novels that refuse to jump out at you with a murder or bomb explosion or car crash on page one, that begin far more humbly than that. As my friend said to me the other day over coffee, "Look at War and Peace. Nothing happens for the first hundred pages!" And what bothers these authors most of all is when the It starts too slowly comment is delivered by someone who has not read the entire book--who, in fact, read only the first ten or twenty pages--and thus has no clue as to whether or not the novel's opening makes sense for the book as a whole. Indeed, maybe that opening is integral to how the book plays out; but the reader never read far enough to judge. I think most novelists, at least the ones I respect, see themselves as writing whole books not writing openings with some extra stuff added on to reach a page goal. Ironically, I have also read articles in which editors complain about manuscripts in which the first 50 or so pages are jam-packed, as if the author felt that he or she had to introduce every major character, each essential plot point, and some sub-plots too, right off the bat. Non-stop action, the editors complain, no room to breathe, everything a jumble; they give me a headache. Well, I think, can you blame the writers for this, when they are constantly preached at that their books must begin fast? I'm sure those authors thought that they were giving you exactly what you wanted.

My point is that there are clearly an understood set of musts in publishing, musts that get stricter every passing year as budgets become more and more tight and publishers become more and more afraid. And, even understanding (I really do) that the bottom line is the bottom line, I can only regard these musts as regrettable. Because every year books that no one could have predicted to do well capture the imagination--and the dollars--of the reading public. Other books that seem to fit all the required musts fall flat on their faces. Every year I read at least a few contemporary novels that simply blow me away, that astound me, that leave me in awe and with terrific hope for the state of literature. (In fact, I've written about a few of these on this blog.) And every year I read novels that leave me cold, leave me bored, leave me dry, books that make me wonder how in the world they got published because they are significantly inferior to some unpublished books I've read. And then I realize: Oh, it's because they fit all the musts.

What sells? Can anyone offer a definitive answer to that question? I doubt it. I can't, except to say that it seems to me that books that finally sell very well do so because they are striking in some unique, idiosyncratic way. Because they are not like everything else out there. And I have to think that the best way to get to such books is to encourage authors to tell their stories in the manner that their stories demand. Even if that means an ensemble cast.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Missing the mistral

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Before I'd traveled to Provence I'd heard of course of the mistral, the wickedly strong wind that comes up suddenly and then blows and blows and blows for days on end. I was a little skeptical. How was this possible? And this happens routinely, like getting a heavy rain shower in Arkansas in May? In fact, yes. It's such an ordinary part of life in Provence that no one thinks to say much about it. Van Gogh's only reference to the mistral is when he noted in one of his letters that he was so determined to finish a painting that once he drove the legs of his easel into the ground, strapped the canvas in place, and kept on painting in spite of the wind. I recreate this scene in my novel. I couldn't not do so, after having traveled to the same territory and experienced the same wind. But after living through a mistral or three, it's awfully hard to imagine Van Gogh could have completed that painting, at least to his satisfaction. (He doesn't in my novel.) The mistral blows so hard that once, riding on a bike, I had to get off and push the thing, because simple pedalling became too hard and too slow. I was almost literally going nowhere. On my trip last May I set off on a morning run in the face of a (unusually brief, as it turned out) mistral and could barely move forward against the force of the wind. (It lessened a bit when I turned onto a side road.) My wife has recounted stories of visiting the Arles craft market during a mistral and see all sorts of boxes and items cartwheeling away from vendors' tables.

Having done our French tours always in late spring or summer, we haven't faced the numbing bitterness of a winter mistral. I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for residents to wait those out. Summer mistrals are a mixed blessing. One hand it knocks the top off the southern heat. (Although compared to summers in Arkansas or Louisiana, I've always found the supposedly scorching temperatures of the south of France way overstated.) It's also fascinating to watch the landscape of this rural, agricultural region sway in the wind for days. And for my wife there is no more special pleasure to be had in France than to lie in the comfort and security of our bed and listen to the mistral howl outside.

On our first trip to Provence, in 2005, we stayed for two weeks and faced one mistral in the middle of the trip. It lasted three or four days at full strength and then quickly leaked away. We woke up one morning, and it was over. On our second trip--a quick stopover not quite one week long near the end of my wife's research trip to England in 2006--the mistral met us the second we stepped off the plane in Nimes. In London, we had been watching the weather reports from Provence and realized a mistral had begun. Given that it was drizzly and terribly cool in London, this at the end of May, a mistral seemed a small price to pay for some Provencal sunshine. Once we'd arrived, however, I began to become impatient for the mistral to pass. We would only be there for a week, after all. It lingered, however, for at least four days, holding back the summery heat that I was actually looking forward to. But when it cleared we had a blessedly warm couple days before returning to England. On my last trip, a year ago, there was only the single, brief mistral (i.e., it lasted a couple days) though I spent five full weeks, and my family two, in the country. That's either a lucky or unlucky development, depending on how you look at it. Most would count it as lucky, I think. But I know that by the time we left, my wife was missing the mistral.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

metahistorical classics

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I blogged a couple months ago about the great joy and utility I take in audible.com. In the last month or so the value of the downloadable audio book has only made itself more evident to me as I've listened to two Wallace Stegner titles: Angle of Repose (1971) and The Spectator Bird (1976). Not only are these long-recognized modern classics, but they also can be read as historical novels--valuable ones for any writer of historical fiction to study. One could even call them metahistorical novels in that embedded in the structure of both is the very act of looking backward, an act carried out not simply by the author but by characters in the storylines themselves. Thus each book becomes not just an exploration of the past but a meditation on what that effort means. In the former novel--which earned Stegner a Pulitzer prize--Lyman Ward, a middle-aged and disabled historian, reviews letters written by his modestly famous grandmother, a Victorian era easterner who followed her engineer husband to the west. There she settled and lived a rather difficult life as a mother, wife, painter, and writer. Ward intends to write a history of his grandmother but the intense personal nature of the letters quickly leads him to write something quite different than conventional history. Instead, he writes a "history of a marriage," and in a style that is indistinguishable from that of a novel. What first annoyed me, but finally interested me is Ward's habit of pulling away from the story of his grandmother's life to discuss his own far more mundane and modern one. While at first I was impatient with these sections, eager to get back to the grandmother, I realized what Stegner--through his narrator Ward--was up to: drawing a comparison between the sexually liberated, socially chaotic early 1970s, and the seemingly more staid Victorian era. What the reader is delighted to discover is that while differences abound, fundamental similarities abide, similarities that speak to human nature, family personality, and the unavoidable chains of history.

The Spectator Bird is a less ambitious but just as engaging book. After all, it won Stegner a National Book Award. Like Angle of Repose, the book cannot help but be a study of aging--its narrator is 69 and feels it--but is even more significantly an examination of history itself. The narrator, Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is writing an account of his life. The project is his wife's idea and not one he's too excited about. In looking over his files in preparation for starting the project Allston finds something that interests and even scares him: a journal he wrote during a trip to Denmark in 1954, shortly after his only son died. When his wife realizes that he kept a journal during that trip she is amazed and even bothered; she immediately insists he read it aloud to her. The book, similar to Angle, moves back and forth between Allston's journal-bound account of the Denmark trip and the present day life of Allston and his wife in California. Not surprisingly, Allston's account of the trip sounds more like a brilliantly composed fictionalization by someone who very much knows what he is doing than the everyday journalizing of a non-writer on vacation. But that's a mannerism I'm willing to allow Stegner because I am so drawn into Allston's story. I won't give away what happens on the trip, but I can tell you that, like Angle, Stegner expertly begins drawing his two narrative lines--the past and present--together. Once again, history, for Stegner's characters and for his readers, becomes less something to be studied objectively than a force we cannot deny or escape. In Stegner's hands, history is something that must be confronted and wrestled to a compromise.

If you like historical fiction, or simply well written realistic fiction, I emphatically recommend both titles. Read them, listen to them, whatever is easier for you. Just do it soon. I must admit that it took a while for both to capture me. But capture me they did--and how. I may have found one of my new favorite (historical) writers.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Next Big Step

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My Van Gogh novel has entered a vital new stage in its progress. Yesterday I sent off my first query letter to an agent, a person with whom I've had various email conversations over the years in regards to different writing projects of mine. His agency is the natural one for me to approach first. And if his agency requests to see the entire manuscript, it will be the only agency looking at Yellow for a while. (Actually, that agency is quite conscientious about not holding manuscripts too long.) Most agents, if they have asked to see your entire book, want an exclusive look, which I understand. But if you're sending out anything short of that--a query letter or email, a synopsis, the first ten pages, a few chapters--authors should, and do, feel free to contact as many agents as they like.

In any case, this new development means something significant for my novel and for this blog. Instead of working at the privacy of my desk every morning trying to make the book just a little bit better, I've officially--at least for now--declared myself done and am essentially releasing Yellow to the world. The work is no longer about editing and revising but about mailing, emailing, hoping, waiting, photocopying, developing requested synopses, mailing again, waiting, mailing more, waiting, getting depressed, getting hopeful, mailing, waiting, emailing, photocopying, waiting, developing a longer (or shorter) synopsis, mailing, emailing, waiting, photocopying, mailing, waiting. You get the idea. Makes me think of that Tom Petty line: "The waiting is the hardest part." Well, maybe. But it's also the most hopeful part. Finding an agent--hopefully the right agent--for your book can be a short process or a long one. Sometimes, it can be an interminable process. At this point, as I start out on my efforts on behalf of Yellow, I really have no idea how long it will take.

But I do know that moving into the agent hunt phase means there will be fewer day to day thoughts and insights that I'll be driven to share on this blog. (Funny how this should happen so soon after celebrating my 100th post.) After all, how many times can I say to the world "I sent out a query letter today!" without sounding uselessly boring? Certainly if any issue regarding historical fiction or how I put together my own book is on my mind, or if I care to comment about a historical novel I've read, or I have some great news about Yellow, I will be back in this space sharing my thoughts. But I figure my posts will drop to maybe one a week, and some weeks not even that. I'm in a different phase now. Let's hope it's a good one. Thanks to anyone and everyone who has kept up so far. I'll let you know how things turn out.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Burnt Norway at BEA

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While throughout the world--and in our household--writers busily bang away at their books, in New York an annual Big Event in the pubishing world occurs this week. Formerly known as the ABA (American Booksellers Association) convention, Book Expo America begins tomorrow at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. The Expo runs through Thursday. While the basic point of the Expo is to allow publishers to show off their current and forthcoming titles, the Expo also includes some fascinating and entertaining speakers. Barbra Streisand delivers the keynote on Tuesday evening--will the singer deliver a high "note"? (yuck yuck)--while Wednesday's Children's Book & Authors Breakfast features Cory Doctorow and Richard Peck and will be mc'd by none other than Sarah Ferguson. That's right, that Sarah Ferguson--the Dutchess of York, who has penned numerous children's books of her own (and who, as I write this, is getting some rather embarrassing personal publicity). Thursday's Adult Book & Author Breakfast will be mc'd by Jon Stewart (yes, that Jon Stewart) and will feature Condoleeza Rice and John Grisham, among others. Finally, Thursday's Adult Book & Author Luncheon will be mc'd by comedian/actor/forthcoming zombie novelist Patton Oswalt and will feature sci-fi legend William Gibson.

All I can say is that I wish I were there. Because my book is! Not Yellow, but my earlier novel Burnt Norway. That's right. Burnt Norway will be present at the Expo in the flesh and featured, along with hundreds of other titles, in the Expo catalogue. I'm excited for it and curious to see what difference, if any, this makes for the book. But having paid to enter the Expo, I'd really like to hear Jon Stewart! Oh well. In any case, if you live in the New York area and are interested in book publishing (or Barbra Streisand) I suggest you drop by the Expo. Say hi to my book. It will be having all the fun while back in Arkansas I keep hard at work on its big brother Yellow.