Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another country heard from


Just two days ago, my dear hard working wife chimed in with a series of thoughtful comments about my novel. It took her a while, partly due to the length of the manuscript and partly due to the fact that she was reading it on a flash drive, which saves printing costs but also makes ingesting a long novel far more laborious. But, regardless, she gave me some very interesting suggestions. Whereas my first reader seemed to think the novel's first half dramatically held together better than the second half, my wife felt strongly the opposite. (Maybe that's good! Maybe they both hold together!)

I've mentioned it on this blog that Yellow is still a rather hefty manuscript, even though I sliced out a third of its original length some months back. My wife's main suggestion is to look for further cuts in the novel's first half, especially those chapters that feature other points of view from Vincent or his family. Her reason is pretty straight forward: some of the "owners" of these other points of view are not particularly charitable toward Vincent, and she's afraid the chapters might bias the reader against him. Besides, she says, it's his story not theirs. She definitely has a point. So far I've left some of these chapters in as a way to show the attitudes that Vincent had to overcome. The chapters, in my mind, actually reflect more negatively on these other characters than on Vincent himself. Perhaps that is not adequately coming across. And, of course, there is too the fact that Vincent's decision to become a painter, the metamorphosis of his self-awareness, if you will, was certainly a gradual process. Part of what he had to overcome was his own misdirected energies, his passionate desire to follow in his father's ministerial footsteps even though the profession could never have suited him. When you're not in the right "place," the place where you're naturally supposed to be, people pick up on it.

That said, my wife gave me--along with much eloquent and enthusiastic praise (thanks, sweetie)--a lot to think about and process as I go forward into the next stage of revision. And that's exactly what I hoped for and needed when I sought readers for the novel. Now it's up to me to make some hard decisions that I hope will help the book find the form it's finally supposed to take. Letters and emails to agents will just have to wait until this darn book is truly done. But I've known that all along, haven't I?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Posthumously Styron


I realize that sometimes this blog reads a bit too much like a travelogue and other times a bit too much like a book review. I intended to spare you, for a while, any more opinions about recent releases, but I feel the need to blog about a little book of stories that I picked up at the library the other day. It's called The Suicide Run, an assembly of five fictions by William Styron that were not published in a collection during his lifetime. The five pieces span his career, the first having been written in 1953, the last in the late 90s. They all relate to, and make use of, the author's experience of serving in the Marine Corps as a young man. For lovers of Styron's work and for those curious about the man--I count myself in both categories--the collection is at turns exhilerating and sad. Exhilerating for the opportunity to live again within the beauty of Styron's prose and the forcefulness of his vision; sad for missed opportunities, for the promise of books never finished and the knowledge of how his still vibrant career was virtually halted by a battle with depression that almost killed him and then later did.

The first story in the book, "Blankenship," is a fine example of the younger Styron: the gothic, gloomy southern stylist still under the pall of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. It's a successful if unnecessarily dense story but not what finally makes the collection. The most engaging and fascinating pieces, the heart of the book, are the middle three--"Marriott, the Marine," "The Suicide Run," and "In My Father's House." The first two were written in the early 70s, the latter in the mid-80s, and they bear all the hallmarks of a writer at the height of his power. The prose is clean and rigorous; the stories are honest, virtually naked (literally and figuratively). While definitely fictions, the stories' first person narrators are Styron only thinly diguised. In fact, hardly disguised at all. That, in fact, being the point. What is heartbreaking about these three pieces is that they all stem from novels begun but not completed. Styron abandoned the novel that would have included "Marriott, the Marine" and "The Suicide Run" in order to write Sophie's Choice. While one can hardly regret the remarkable novel that resulted from this decision, one wishes he could have found his way back to the earlier novel--about a young writer on the cusp of first success who is called back into military service as a result of the Korean war--and seen it through.

But even more cause for regret is the beautiful, wistful "In My Father's House," about a young, would-be writer just home from WWII, trying to collect his life and his psyche after a disturbing tour of duty in the Pacific. This piece--the star of the collection and one of the best things Styron ever wrote--was meant to be the introduction to a novel that in the end he couldn't continue. Almost certainly because of his descent into, and long difficult escape from, clinical depression (famously chronicled in Darkness Visible). There is only one piece in the collection that derives from the author's later years, a tiny unsatisfying note of a thing called "Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco"; it's more of a gesture than a story, something that feels tossed off and tells the reader nothing that he has not already learned from "In My Father's House." "Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco" only makes one wish even harder that Styron could have continued with "In My Father's House" or fiction writing at all. It is a sad fact to swallow, and The Suicide Run only brings it home all over again, that even after his apparent (and, ultimately, temporary) recovery from depression, in the 1990s Styron's output of original fiction was nearly nonexistent. The medical tragedy that shook this great writer, and almost brought him to suicide, effectively shut down one of the most invaluable of 20th century voices.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mississippi Women


Following Erika Dreifus's recommendation on her excellent blog Practicing Writing, I picked up Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help recently. You've probably heard of the novel already. Not only is it a major bestseller--a literary book that has "broken out"-- but it is already being developed into a major motion picture. I heartily recommend The Help. Although you hear this sort of thing said all the time, I literally "could not put it down." It explores a flash point issue--the relationship between black house servants and their white employees--at a flash point time in our history--the early 1960s, when civil rights struggles were becoming white hot. These various tensions are expertly explored and manipulated by Stockett. Most impressive is how Stockett manages to capture a variety of white and black voices. I believe every one of her characters. I feel them as individuals not types.

My own definition of historical fiction is fiction that is set in a time prior to the author's birth. For the author, therefore, that time period is not simply remembered and described but a part of history to be evoked through imagination and research. That's a crucial difference. Stockett did grow up in Jackson, Mississippi--the setting for her novel--and did have personal experience with African-American help who worked for white employers (she recounts her own history in an afterword), but given that she was not alive in 1962-1964, I'll call her novel historical. Besides, given that the 60s were one of the most contentious and important decades America ever lived through, it's hard not to see any novel set in that time as evoking history. All that said, I must hold Stockett's feet to the fire for one or two instances of historical inaccuracy. For the most part she does superbly well, mentioning and/or dramatically using the events of 1962, 1963, and 1964 in credible and careful fashion. I did notice a big anachronism, however. One of her characters--in the summer of 1963--disparagingly describes a group of Yankee civil rights activists as "hippies" who flash peace signs all the time. No. Not in 1963. Not before Kennedy's death. The peace movement, and the peace sign, came out of the anti-Vietnam war movement. And as long as Kennedy was president, Vietnam was a minor footnote on the American political landscape. Civil rights was the much more prominent issue. Not until Johnson became president and greatly escalated our involvement in Vietnam--and the number of American deaths became noticeable--were there any peace protesters or peace signs. Certainly, "hippies" is a purely late-60s coinage. Just looking at photos of the northerners who traveled to the south in the early 60s to assist with voter registration reveals that these were not "hippies." (Not even the Beatles had very long hair in 1963.)

It's a minor flaw in a very good book that demonstrates few historical missteps, but given the glaring anachronism it did stick out to, and disappoint, me. It's an example of how easy it is for even a talented writer of historical fiction to go awry if she's not careful. Even so, go buy and read The Help.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When we look at our research


I posted Monday about a thought that came to me during a recent visit by novelist Elise Blackwell to UCA. (That's her on the right.) Blackwell said something else worth noting, so I'll raise the point today. Blackwell suggested that a writer should first do all her research for a novel but then put the research away when she starts to write. I understood her point immediately and have even made it myself in this blog: Writing a historical novel is all about telling a story, not showing off how much you know. Or having to feel burdened by how much you know. Understanding this point is crucial to understanding how good fiction works. But, even so, I felt moved to ask: You didn't research anything after you started writing Hunger? Weren't there new questions that came to mind as you wrote? Blackwell admitted that, yes, of course, certain questions of fact did come up and when that happened she would briefly revisit her original research or simply Google for an answer. But she stuck to her first point that a writer needs to put the research away. I then threw out something I'd heard years ago from writer Tracy Chevalier when she "visited" UCA (via a live feed from a studio in London). Chevalier suggested that a writer should write her story first--to make sure she really remains centered on the story--and then do whatever research seems necessary for the sake of that story.

Blackwell found that a tough one to swallow, and I admit that I do too. After all, aren't our stories often discovered or significantly shaped by the research? There's no way of getting around that they are. I simply can't imagine having started my Van Gogh novel without doing substantial reading into Van Gogh's biography, which directly affected what scenes I decided needing showing. And as for putting away the research you've already completed, I found myself only in half-sympathy. Yes, there is quite a lot of reading and notetaking that I carried out before I started composing Yellow that I never actually looked at while I wrote. Perhaps even the majority of my reading and notetaking. On the other hand, as I wrote I found myself having to research certain areas more substantially than mere fact checking (although I did plenty of that too). Most of all, I found myself delving deeper and deeper into Van Gogh's Collected Letters. These became my bible, my most important resource: for opinions on all sorts of matters but most importantly contemporary painters, for descriptive details about places and people, and for a sense of his emotional and intellectual life at different periods. Before I started composing Yellow, I read three different collections of selected letters, but while I was writing I had the nagging feeling that I might be missing something. So I ordered, at some expense, the hardbound three volume Collected Letters and plowed into it as I kept writing. I tried to read ahead. That is, I tried to be done with the letters from a certain period in his life before I wrote--or rewrote--the relevant scenes in Yellow. Carrying out this reading drastically improved and broadened my novel. Did it fundamentally alter the plot? No, actually, it probably didn't. But it made every scene more convincing, more vivid, more real. At least to me. If I'd just sat content with the already considerable research I'd carried out by the time I started writing, my book would be much lesser for it. Maybe this means I just didn't do enough in the first place. And maybe Elise Blackwell--an admirably thorough person and writer--did.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The seeds of our projects


Novelist Elise Blackwell visited my university last week and told some interesting stories about how she found her way to the novels she eventually wrote. What she said reminded me of how serendipitous--or simply unexpected--our writing lives can be. Yes, we work and work and work, trying to realize our various projects, trying to get them under control, to make them more polished or perhaps less. Then when we're done with them we try to find the best possible outlet through which to show them to the world. It's all on us, it seems.

But one can't ignore the power of the unexpected, the circumstantial, and how profoundly that can affect what we do and how it turns out. After finishing her MFA at Cal-Irvine, Blackwell was living in California with her husband, trying to make ends meet through a series of jobs and also trying to keep writing. In part simply to economize, the couple decided to grow their own produce. What started as a private, low level initiative became more successful, and they started growing produce for profit. Around this time, and as part of their business efforts, Blackwell joined the Seed Savers Exchange. It was through her participation in this organization that she heard a fascinating story about Russian scientists who worked at a botanical institute during World War Two. During the seige of Leningrad, as they--like most people in that city--found themselves starving, the scientists refused to eat any of the seeds or rare plants in their possession. They died in order to save the exotic plants and seeds they had worked so hard to collect. Blackwell did not speak Russian nor did she have any particular knowledge of or interest in Russian history. At the time she had never considered writing a historical novel. Yet she knew she needed to tell the story of these scientists. What followed was years of research and writing which resulted in her short novel Hunger, a project her agent thought she was "f****** crazy" to take up but which he eventually championed and which became her first published book. She has since gone on to publish two more novels--Grub and The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish (another historical fiction)--with her fourth novel, An Unfinished Score, set to appear within the next few weeks.

Obviously, Blackwell did the work to make Hunger the fine novel it is. Yet it's curious to consider what would have happened if she'd never joined the Seed Savers Exchange and never heard about those Russian scientists. Me too. What if I'd never been selected to teach in the UCA-Netherlands program for the summer of 2001 and thus hadn't visited Amsterdam and not stepped through the doors of that city's Van Gogh museum? Easy answer to that one: I would never have started writing Yellow. What would I be writing instead? And what will I write next? No easy answers there. Too much relies on what you can't predict and what you can never expect.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Obstacle course travel, Part Three


My train pulled into the station, situated just outside Avignon. I read the sign as we rolled past: Avignon TGV. It was a smaller station than I expected with only two tracks carrying trains--at least that day--but clean, bright, and airy. A sun-white, modern looking place, obviously not that old. (See photo.) I bought snacks and a Herald Tribune in a gift shop on the lower floor and settled into a seat for my layover wait. There were plenty of seats available, as the station seemed underwhelmed with travelers that day. Funny, I thought to myself. I thought it would be busier in Avignon. Nothing much happened as I watched the minutes pass and a few--very few--trains appear on the board. Then a short, vaguely handsome man walked into the station, with a skinny, glamorous woman on his arm, and a small host of reporters and cameramen filming him, studying him, asking him questions. Ah, a celebrity. Passing through ordinary old Avignon. I watched these goings on with mild amusement, and the perspective that comes from not knowing in the slightest what made this particular man so important. Eventually, the man and his entourage left. (Coincidentally, a week or so later, as I flipped tv channels one evening, I saw him acting in a French police drama.)

More time passed; I read, I relaxed, and I started to wonder when my train to Arles would appear on the board. Unlike Paris, they listed track assignments long in advance of a train's arrival or departure. Also disconcerting, the only trains I ever saw listed on the board were TGV trains, or buses. Then, with only 35 minutes or so before I was supposed to leave, feeling more and more uneasy, I started walking the station and ran into a posted map of the Avignon area. Glancing at it, I saw something that answered every building suspicion. Another train station: Avignon Centre. Of course. How could I have been so stupid? No wonder Rail Europe didn't recommend this route. One had to get from Avignon TGV to Avignon Centre. I ran back to my bags, found my tickets to make sure I was right. Yep, the train to Arles left out of Avignon Centre station. How do I get there? And, just as important, could I get there in time? At the information booth, the attendant did not speak English, but, thankfully, another employee who happened to be lingering did. I hurriedly explained the situation. She said a shuttle bus could take me to the other station. It was parked outside. Yes, I probably would make my train, she said. But I had to get on that shuttle. Let's just say I bolted for the bus, afraid it would take off at any minute. No, it didn't. But when I got there I realized that I needed a shuttle ticket. This wasn't free. The driver didn't speak English and I showed her my train ticket, just trying to explain my situation--again. She looked at me patronizingly--tsk tsk tsk--and said something I didn't understand. After some more back and forth, I figured out that she thought I wanted to hop a free ride because of my train ticket. No, no, I tried to indicate, I would pay. C'est combien? C'est combien? If I got kicked off this shuttle, I'd have to pay a cab to take me to Arles, and God knows how much that would be. Finally, she understood. Or I did. I should pay her, and it was only a euro or two. Whew. I paid, got my ticket and moved to the back. I didn't even sit down. I was too on edge and I needed to be ready to move when we got there. But the shuttle itself didn't move. Minutes passed--two, three, five, ten--and we weren't going anywhere. There was maybe 20 minutes left now before my train left out of Avignon Centre. With virtually no French capability at all, I was forced to go up and ask her how long it would take to get to Avignon Centre. She reacted spitefully. "Deux minutes!" she shouted, outraged that I dared to question her. I went back to my place, at least happy to know it would be a short trip. Well, it wasn't. She must have thought I was asking when we would leave because the ride itself took almost fifteen minutes, in busy late afternoon traffic. And when we got there, we didn't park at the station but across the street.

I ran for the station, crossing a busy intersection, my suitcase banging against the ground, knowing I had only minutes to get on that train. Inside, I looked at the board and thought I'd missed it. I saw no train to Arles listed. Damn. But I still had two minutes left, didn't I? French trains leave exactly on time, don't they? After everything today, I hadn't made it? Defeated and confused, I went to the information booth and showed my tickets (yet again) to another attendant. She looked at them, smiled, and told me what track to go to. So I hadn't missed the train? I looked at the board and realized my mistake. I was not on a train to Arles, but a train to Marseilles, stopping in Arles. Whatever. As long as I could still make the train. And I did. I hopped on about a minute before it left, as completely spent as I've ever been, covered with strangulated, unnerved sweat. I didn't stow my luggage or try to find a seat. This train, I knew, would arrive in Arles soon, and I sure as hell was going to get off.

Nothing more happened on that train ride. A kind looking, young French guy hung out in the back like I did. He smiled at me, but seemed to realize I was a foreigner and didn't try to make conversation. Each of us was content to just stand there and watch the Provencal countryside roll by. We arrived in Arles on time. The train stopped. I got off, along with a dozen or so other people. I made my way through the small but clean station. Really--really--this time I was here. As soon as I exited the station house I saw a cab waiting, as if put there just for me. The cabbie seemed surprised when I told him I wanted a ride to the Auto Europe rental agency on Avenue Victor Hugo, but he drove me there all the same. I soon realized the reason for his surprise. The place was only five minutes away. I could have walked. I didn't care. I didn't care! You have no idea, I wanted to say to him, how long this day has been. When I got out, he mentally tabulated my fare, adding--as is the custom--more for the baggage, and came out with 10 euros as my bill. I suspected he had added quite a bit more than just the luggage to bring this short cab ride up to 10 euros, but I didn't care at all. Gladly, I handed over the bill. 10 euros? After a travel day like this one, that was nothing. That. Was. Nothing.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Obstacle course travel, Part Two


So I wandered into the Gare de Lyon, happy to see that there was over an hour before my train left. It wasn't on the board yet, but I didn't expect it to be. All the extant seats were taken, so I meandered for a bit; then, sick of being overburdened with the bags, I just stopped and leaned against a pole for a while. Finally, a little spooked after the earlier mishaps, I decided to show my tickets to the woman at the information booth. Were these okay? See, reader, I'd bought them over here, weeks before I left, from an outfit called Rail Europe. Everything written on the ticket was in English and the price was in dollars not euros. I didn't want anyone to tell me the tickets were no good, not valid, just as I tried to step on the train and when it was too late to catch another one. I needed to get to Arles before 5:00 in order to pick up a rental car I reserved. And the rental car agency wasn't even in the train station. (A whole other story that.) So I actually needed to get to Arles well before 5:00 to get a cab to the rental car place before they closed. From previous trips abroad I knew that if a business says it is closing at 5:00, it is closing at 5:00, if not sooner. And if I didn't get my rental car, things were hairy, because I had no other way to travel the six miles to my rental house, to say nothing of carrying the groceries I hoped to buy on the way. In short, I had to catch the train I was booked on out of Paris.

I'd already encountered difficulties when I tried to get the tickets through Rail Europe. When I simply requested a reservation for Paris to Arles, the system showed me the route: TGV (high speed)train from Paris to Lyon, regular train from Lyon to Arles. Except that on the day I needed to leave Paris there were no seats available on a morning train to Lyon. It turned out that the day I was travelling was among the busiest travel days in the whole year in France, as it came at the end of a long holiday weekend (to celebrate the anniversary of the end of WW II). The first available seat was on an afternoon train. And that was too late to get me into Arles before 5:00. I cursed my luck--and myself for delaying buying my tickets--and raved (sort of) to my friend Garry Craig Powell, who shared an office right across from mine in Thompson Hall. Garry, who has toured the south of France before, suggested I look for a train to Avignon. If you can get to Avignon, you can get to Arles, he said. Sure enough, like magic, I found a TGV to Avignon leaving exactly when I needed it to. I simultaneously bought a one way ticket from Avignon to Arles on the same day, getting me in well in advance of 5:00. (TGV trains that could carry me non-stop from Arles to Paris for the return trip were readily available.) How come, I wondered, was Rail Europe so fixed on the Paris to Lyon route? (Reader, if you're smelling the scent of a looming problem, you're astute.)

The woman at the information booth in the Gare de Lyon scrutinized my tickets for a moment as my heart pounded and then pronounced them satisfactory. But you want to wait upstairs, she said. Upstairs? She pointed to a stairway nearby. Okey doke. I lugged my luggage up the stairway; when I reached the top and saw the upper floor of the Gare de Lyon, I had a comforting realization. I had been here before. While teaching for UCA in a summer-in-Holland program in 2001, me and my family had traveled to Paris for a school-sponsored "field trip." This was the station we had come into to and left out of. Now, it felt like an old friend. I moved to the waiting area, sat down, happy again to remove again the burden of all that damned luggage. On a nearby board, track assignments flashed, but only ten minutes or so before the departure time for each train. That was certainly cutting it close, but I figured I was okay. I could see all the tracks before me, lettered from A to I. No matter which track it was, I could be there in a minute. I waited and watched with amusement as employees of the national rail system rushed to meet a just arrived train, in joyful guerrilla style, hooting and shouting and clapping, even doing a spontaneous Wave as people exiited. Who are they cheering for, I wondered, and then I realized: no one, or, that is, everyone. It was a promotional stunt, a feel-good thing. The exiting passengers looked bemused momentarily, then laughed, getting the joke. The rail employees--they were likely hired just for this gig, because they roved the station with the enthusiasm and smart alecky self-possession of an acting troupe--wore t-shirts promoting train travel. This too amused me, because I didn't see the necessity. It wasn't like the French were going to stop taking trains anytime soon, and it's a nationalized rail system. It's not competing with any other. This promotional stunt was akin to the US Post Office running commercials at Christmas, advertising their services. So what, people rightly asked, the Post Office thinks it doesn't get enough business at Christmas already?

I had just about lost interest with the "players" when I saw my train's track designation flash on the board: 7. Seven? Where the *#*%* was track seven? I looked at the tracks before me once again: A through I. Meanwhile, with the announcement, a whole crowd of travelers surged to my right. With nothing else to do, and panicking again (was nothing going to go smoothly on this day?) I followed. I stopped to check a big station map and thought I made out where track seven might be. In pidgin French, I asked a Frenchmen nearby if I had my bearings straight, and I believe he answered in the affirmative. I didn't really have time to figure out, though, because the clock was ticking. My train--the train I had to be on--was leaving this station in under ten minutes and I still didn't know exactly where I was going. I went where I thought I should, moving as fast as I could with my luggage, flowing with a crowd of other travelers I could only hope had the south as their final destination. Sure enough, shortly after, I saw a whole other row of tracks, perhaps 15 in all, these all bearing numbers. I found track 7 and the the train. I saw travelers stopping to run their tickets underneath some machine. What for, I had no idea. Did I need to do that? Would my Rail Europe tickets even get "read"? I decided to ignore the machines and move for my car. Minutes later, my huge suitcase was stored in a luggage compartment inside, and I was sitting in a comfortable seat, my laptop and backpack at my feet. I was here. I'd made it. All I had to do now was just ride. In an hour and a half I would be in Avignon. I had a comfortable layover there, close to two hours, with the Avignon to Arles trip then taking only 25 minutes. I would make it. I'd get there. As the train rolled out of the station, out of Paris, and--in a shockingly short time--into the beautiful countryside and small communities beyond the edge of the city, I relaxed for the first real time that day. Sunlight broke through the clouds once in a while, sending stiff, wide rays across a landscape that could have been right out of an Impressionist painting. I brought out one of the novels I'd carried across the Atlantic--Rick Moody's The Diviners--and tried to read, but found myself dozing. I hadn't slept well in Paris--I never do when I'm just off a transatlantic flight--and the accumulated weight of exhaustion, combined with the frantic scrambles of a day that wasn't half over but had already unnerved me, was overpowering my brain. Go ahead and doze, I said to myself. You've got 90 minutes before Avignon. And from there the rest of the day is gravy. Go ahead. You're clear now.

Oh no, I wasn't.

(Tomorrow: Will I ever make it to Arles?)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Obstacle course travel, Part One


When I traveled to France last summer to do research for my book, everything went so smoothly for the first few days I should have been suspicious. No missed connections, no wrong trains boarded, no delays, no complications with my hotel room. By the time I was ready to leave Paris for Arles--two days after arriving in country--I felt like a veteran. It was a cloudy, dripping day in the city, but I had no reason to expect any problems. I had my tickets and thought I knew where I was going. I wasn't even in a hurry as I had (wisely it turned out) scheduled myself on a late morning train, leaving out of Gare de Lyon. I enjoyed a relaxed final breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and set off with all my overstuffed bags (mammoth suitcase choo-chooing along the sidewalk, backpack jammed with books and other resources for research sagging against my shoulders, loaded laptop bag strung over one shoulder on top of the backpack strap) for the RER--a train system that runs side by side with the Paris Metro but finally goes to different destinations. I had studied the RER and Metro maps thoroughly before I even arrived in France and knew that if I got on the RER at Notre Dame it should be a short, uncomplicated ride to the Gare de Lyon, although I would have to switch lines once, dragging all my stuff around. I actually probably could have walked all the way to the Gare de Lyon, but why do that, I figured, when I knew the RER. Hah!

I reached the Notre Dame stop easily enough but entered from the end opposite of where I had come out two days earlier. No big deal, I'd just walk down to the other end through the tunnel. This proved impossible. There was no tunnel, and only one RER track I could get on. Scrutinizing the sign, it looked like the wrong RER train. But I told the guy at the ticket counter where I needed to go and he directed me to that track. Or at least I thought he did. Someone misunderstood someone somehow, because after riding only a stop or two on that train, I realized I was going the wrong way. Mild panic. I got off at the next stop, walked to the other track and picked up the first train I could. Wait a minute, I thought, as the train pulled out, Is this going the same direction or opposite? I hadn't paid attention as the other train had pulled away which direction it was going and thus which direction was opposite of that. I was moving too fast and not really watching what I was doing. Within seconds, I suspected we weren't going back the way I came--the stretch of track didn't look familiar-- but only further in the wrong direction. But hadn't I switched tracks? Yes, I had, but apparently trains on both tracks ran in the same direction. A look at the map as we reached the next stop made it clear that I was even further now from my target. I got off as soon as I could, examined this station more carefully and realized what I needed to do. A huge staircase towered to my left. I couldn't simply step to the next track, but had to haul all my stuff up that staircase, work my way across the body of the station, and then down another staircase, in order to reach the correct track. Even if I hadn't been sweating already, all this unanticipated lugging and running was a veritable Cardio Blast. But finally I found myself on an RER train going in the correct direction and minutes later passed through the Notre Dame station I had so calmly entered some thirty or forty minutes earlier. Who knew all this would happen, I thought, thinking I finally had matters straightened out. I reached the transfer station, got off, and just to be sure I made no more mistakes I asked at the ticket counter for the right track to Gare de Lyon. Fortunately, this time I understood him (or he me, I'm not sure) and the directions were easy and correct. The wait for my next train was considerably longer than I expected, however. I had the time to wait, but still I was tapping my foot, checking my watch. Finally, the train arrived and I was onboard for Gare de Lyon.

I got out, and started toward the exit gate of the RER grateful that I still had plenty of time before my train to Arles would leave. All the mixups were over. Right. It should have been a clue to me that my troubles had only started when, upon reaching the gate and stuffing my huge suitcase underneath, I inserted my RER ticket into the slot and was told by the machine that my ticket was invalid. The gate would not open. What? I just bought the damned thing to get here! Then I realized my mistake. I'd made habit, the entire time I was in Paris, of sticking my used Metro and RER tickets in my wallet. What I'd been doing just then was trying to run the wrong ticket through the slot. But did I still have the right one? I tried another ticket. It didn't work. Another. No luck. Around me, people were surging through the other gates in working day hurry. Behind me, other people were eager to get through and I was jamming the line. With a great, sweating yank I pulled my suitcase back under the gate, squeezed my way backward--mulish with all this crap I had to carry--and out of line. I needed to find that ticket. A few moments search found what I hoped had to be the right ticket, because if it wasn't I was really SOL. I stepped up to the gate yet again, inserted the ticket, and voila, the gate opened. I shoved the bag through. I was there.

At the Gare de Lyon, that is. Not Arles. No, no, not Arles. Before I reached Arles there was a lot more this day had in store for me.

(Tomorrow: The adventure--and the obstacles--continues.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

More losses than one


Olive Hilliard, a dear friend and UCA colleague died last week from the complications of a stroke. This was an utter shock to anyone who taught in Thompson Hall, where the Department of Speech and the Department of Writing are housed. Without exaggeration, Olive was the most beloved person who does or has ever worked in that building. Everything about her shined: her intelligence, her warmth, her sense of style, her concern for students, her love for her children. Her family, of course, is most affected, most devastated by this loss. But there are other losses as well. My wife tells me that Olive was working on a novel when she died. This hurt my heart to hear, because if the novel had turned out like everything else Olive did, it would have been a superb and stylish piece of work. Radiantly beautiful. Now we'll never know. Thinking about this makes me realize again how a writing career is not merely a matter of educating yourself, training yourself, and working godawful hard to meet artistic challenges. It also means keeping on. It also means endurance. I shudder to think of how many great books we have lost over the years to premature death, whether those come from car accidents, substance abuse, unrealized or untreated heart conditions, or--in those most regretful cases--suicide. (It was not that long ago, remember, that we lost David Foster Wallace.) And why stop at books? Think of great music lost. Think of great paintings. The man who is subject of my novel died at 37, and before he had to. So I hope everyone out there dreams hard. But take care of yourself too. Please take of yourself. We'll miss you, Olive. And that novel in you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Another bit out there


I tried out part of the novel yesterday on a captive and public audience. My department hosts an annual writers festival featuring writers from around campus and around the state. With purposeful cuteness, we call the festival ArkaText. Anyway, at the faculty reading today I read in public from Yellow for the second time. (The first time, you may recall from a previous blog, was last October at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Philological Association.) It was the first time many at UCA had ever heard the book. We were under a strict time limit (10 minutes) and trying to find just the right part that will go over well in public is always tricky. I practiced reading (parts of) four different scenes: One in which, as boys, Vincent and Theo explore a graveyard and see a bird's first flight; the second, a scene in which Vincent's roommate in Dordrecht comes back from a night out to find Vincent fanatically scribbling bible verses; the third, a scene where, after moving to Den Haag, Vincent is visited in the hospital (he's caught the clap) by his father; and fourth, a completely invented scenario in which Vincent, so desperately poor in Den Haag, decides to look for a job and finds himself dealing art again. (One of my few blatant and conscious violations of historical fact in the novel.)

I decided to read this last scene, because of the four it contained the most dialogue--always a crowd pleaser. Even so, I kept questioning whether or not I made the right choice. Reading a crowd while you read aloud is dicey if also perfectly possible. But thankfully I sensed them warming to the scene, especially toward the end, when I "heard" a more concentrated listening, more weight to their attention. Afterwards, I received some very heartening comments. My friend and colleague Terry Wright--a remarkable poet and digital artist--opined that I had a winner with this novel. Let's hope so. Let's hope so. At the end of the scene, Vincent returns home disgusted with himself for dealing art again (even though he succeeds), argues with Sien, and then heads upstairs to the attic of their rented room, where he sees Sien's two children asleep, children that Vincent had emotionally adopted as his own. I realized after I read that I hadn't explained to my audience who these children were. They appeared out of nowhere. Let's hope the audience got it. They certainly did seem to be listening.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Making a great "film"


About a year ago, while driving to work, I heard an NPR interview with Arch Campbell, longtime movie critic for a television station in Washington, DC. Having grown up in that area, and lived there as late as 1993, I remembered Campbell and his entertaining, just-another-guy-in-the-seats approach. So I listened with interest. At one point, the interviewer asked, "What do you think makes a movie great?" Campbell's answer to this almost uselessly gigantic question was surprisingly specific. He said that thinking over what he regarded as the best movies of the last century, one quality they seemed to share was that they were set in the same era in which they were made. They confronted, questioned, revealed, and detailed the moviemakers' own time. The answer gave me pause. I'd never heard anyone say this before. So you can't make a great historical movie? And because I was deep into my Van Gogh novel project, I immediately extended Campbell's statement to books as well. Now, making a movie certainly is not the same thing as writing a book--and Campbell was answering a question specifically about movies--but there has been enough give and take between the two media over the decades that my extrapolation seemed a natural reaction. So you can't make a great historical novel? Or, stated more precisely, a historical novel can't rank among the greatest?

Boxing back, I started mentally listing all the classic historical novels I could think of. What about The Scarlet Letter, that fixture in high school and college literature surveys and arguably the first great novel our country produced? I thought of modern authors and the historical novels they've written. Bernard Malamud's The Fixer. E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Madison Smartt Bell's Haitian triology. Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. These books are ranked among the best their authors ever produced. And if I heard Campbell today I could throw in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which only won the Man-Booker Prize last year. I don't know if Campbell expanded on or explained his thesis further. Probably not, because I don't remember anything else from the interview. But, after my initial defensiveness, he certainly got me thinking. Was there something about taking on a historical subject that was inherently self-defeating? I know--and I've blogged about--all the nit-picking tribulations involved in trying to bring an earlier era alive. But it's not just a matter of finding out how people tied their ties or what bread they ate; it's also a matter of having an intuitive feel for the human climate and social psychology of a given period. When one writes about one's own time, one brings such knowledge and such intuition immediately to the writing desk. It doesn't need to be won through research. Does that make the writing process more clear, somehow, and more affecting? Does the chasm of history create a kind of invisible wall too high even for the best of us to overcome?

Finally, I think the answer has to be no. And not just because if the answer is yes, taking on a project such as I have with Yellow means essentially I'm shooting myself in the foot. The answer is no because I don't think there's any artistic challenge that's not worth taking up, and there's none that can't eventually be met. Whether my book succeeds or not, I've had a blast writing it. It's a challenge I can never regret, because I've learned so much from it and have had to push myself so hard in the doing. It's a far more ambitious book than I've ever previously composed--but finally ambition, for an artist, is a good thing. And if doesn't succeed, I'd rather not think it's simply a matter of that darn, inherently problematic, historical fiction. If it doesn't succeed, I'd rather it be on me. I'm eager for all comments/reactions on this question. Is writing a great historical novel that much more difficult than writing any kind of great novel? Are we establishing extra barriers, or are we pushing ourselves to do even better? Should we extrapolate on the opinions of a DC movie critic, or do we switch the channel and just keep on driving to work?