Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Road Home

The road home from Woodside, thanks to cooperation from US 101, has the sun behind you, the long shadows in front and to the sides, making the mountains seem like prehistoric creatures with prominent spines.  Even the cows, on their evening feast of grass, seem to stand out, etched in shadowy light.  Thus you drive with an abundant sense of awareness of the features of agriculture about you, including the individuals who are at work harvesting it,     the enormous, complex irrigating devices that broadcast sprays of water which is caught up in the late afternoon wind giving the impression of hundreds of garden hoses, spraying water in out-of-control gyrations.

This is the beginning of the season of county fairs, of celebrations for such diversity as asparagus, garlic, broccoli, and cherries.  Soon now, very soon, California's number one cash crop will have its own public celebration.  For now, the mood of celebration is upon you and you are drawn by nostalgia to a roadside circus, its lights dazzling the approaching dusk much the way smells of onion and garlic, set to grill draw the crowds, tugging at their deepest instincts.  You have not been with a carnival or circus for many years and have rarely visited one, but on this evening as it approached dusk, you were for long moments seduced by the whir of lights, the spin of the rides, the dazzle of brightness cast upon the evening, making you aware of the tang of onions and garlic even without their actual presence. The carnival has changed on a relative jump from film to digital; it is brighter, its pace more frenetic; it is crisper than when you knew it.  The fascination throbs within you for long moments, but you are not tempted to move beyond the perimeter from which you stand, observing.

It is somewhat of a jump in logic, but you feel the same way about your nostalgia for Virginia City.  There is little you could have found earlier this evening by stepping into the actual pulse of the crowd.  For a few moments, you heard yourself chanting your pitch, Well, well, well, the ball game.  Don't have to knock 'em off the stand--just tip 'em over.  Three balls for a quarter.  You even heard the hoarseness that crept into your voice after a few weeks on the road, and you began the odor hallucinations of sensing the smell of the midway.  You have on any number of occasions moved to the perimeter of Virginia City, particularly a Virginia City with an inch or more of snow and the temperature down into the teens and you, standing out front of Piper's Opera House, warming a snifter of cognac with your hands, a snifter from The Brass Rail, to be exact, poured for you by Pat Hart, the mustachioed owner.  If you'd had enough cognac earlier in the evening, it was easy to imagine yourself waiting for the evening show at Piper's to end,and that equally mustached reporter from the Territorial-Enterprise, fellow who'd begun signing some of his pieces Mark Twain, to come bursting out.  A parade of individuals, many of whom were dear to you, haunt those streets and places.  With some regularity, you dream of being there, even more so by at least half than you dream of the midway, three baseballs in one hand, the sing-song inducements tumbling from your mouth.  Well let's try the ball game.

You experience nostalgia from a distance.  Whatever it is nostalgia for, you step in too close and you lose it, see it retreat from you with your recognition that something has changed, that you have frozen moments which you wish to keep alive, your photos from the time.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Soledad: A City to Watch

Yesterday, due to what you like to think of as the frustrations of technology, you were at home, essentially with the same gadgets before you at this moment, more than a little frustrated over maintaining and keeping an Internet connection for any great length of time.

Today, you are a tad over two hundred miles from home; you are sitting in a favored place, an open field, its dense growth of mustard rippling in a steady wind.  You are in an industrial park in the central coast city of Soledad, known for having a grotty mission, one of Father Serra's originals, known also for having a correctional facility, which designation is a euphemism for medium-security prison, and what you have come to think of as a funky, ingratiating solitude, which is to the point in that the name of the city is Soledad.  As you set up the same tools you had last night--a cell phone with a wireless hot spot generator, and a MacBook, the seven o'clock train came barreling in from some southern destination, heading to the rail station which is more or less in downtown Soledad.  You say "more or less" because as such things go, it is difficult to tell where anything begins or ends here except for that quality of solitude, which is one of the things you like about the place to the point of fantasying a small studio here where you and Sally could repair to experience solitude and hope for something more viable that the Starbucks ahead of you in the shopping mall that parallels the 101 freeway.

Were you to act on your fantasy, you would not leave coffee at Starbucks to chance, you would bring along a Rametta stove-top espresso maker and a quantity of Peet's coffee.  It is not lost on you that here, virtually in the middle of little, there is Internet reception through your wi-fi hot spot, a steady signal in fact, which does nothing to take the sense of solitude away from your technical tool kit.

Ahead of you, a large American flag, flapping in the wind with such vigor as to remind you of towel snapping in boys/ locker rooms, your presumption of course that girls have better things to do in locker rooms than snap towels.

Because of the open fields about you, the part of Soledad from which you write these vagrant lines seems agricultural, although the fact that you can see no actual crops nor furrows where there were once crops or, indeed, presently intended for crops, does nothing to dispel this agricultural aura.  The buildings, such as they are, loom as stolid steel corrugated boxes, as defiant in their attitude to wind as teen agers are to authority.  Soon the corrugated metal will not be shiny, nor the teen agers young and defiant; this is the way of things.

Beyond a few stucco buildings, eager to have their interiors rented as an office, thus to add to the sense of industrial park-ness, there is the previously mentioned mall area which in itself has nothing to suggest you are with any specificity in Soledad.  You could just as well be south of here in King City, whose own prospects for projecting any kind of uniqueness beyond Rotary signs that bid us welcome to King City, or somewhat to the north, where Salinas awaits with some potential for inducing you to say, yes, this is more like it; this is Salinas, California.  But then you would seek to add something you would not find here in Soledad or King City, or Gonzalez, or your favorite, a hamlet, really, named after the Spanish name for a type of grass that grows there, Chualar; you would seek, but you would find more stucco industrial parks, more corrugated sheds, and signs everywhere announcing forthcoming businesses and opportunities, standing aslant in the wind, conveying the slightly beaten down demeanor of Eskimos, left to die while the rest of the family traipses over the Aleutian Strait after the water has receded.

You have been a fan of ghost towns much of your life, having visited and frolicked in a number of them.  The most recent ghost town you visited was Bakersfield, California, which also has little to call identification to itself except for its postal code, but perhaps this is why you are drawn to Soledad and places like it, because of the ways it evokes within you metaphor for loneliness, remoteness, a sturdy defiance against the wind, and no identifying marks.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sang froid

You have had days such as this, but in installments.  Today, things appeared to converge however and where ever they can,  There is at the moment no available Internet connection except through the mobile hotspot provided by your telephone, already an anomalous emergency potential.  The source of your internet connection comes from a cable supplier, one you yourself have used for about fifteen years, until your recent move.

No, that isn't true, you still use it in the sense that you piggyback off your landlady, thus another advantage--until today--of living here.  

You have already rebooted her modem but alas, your Internet connection of yesterday and before has not returned. Nor can yu call Cox cable tv to explain that you are calling for technical apport and are, in fact, a squatter rather than a paying customer.

The cell phone Internet hotspot is not nearly so powerful as the signal you once piggybacked on, thus a good deal of frustration with download speeds, trying to get references and text to address your publisher's notes on your manuscript.

There is the added problem of your wireless mouse, which has never behaved to your satisfaction and which, today, you have tried to replace with its predecessor, but your computer subscribes to the theory that once they are out the door, screw them.  Maybe they can come home for an occasional meal, but that's it.

You are about sixty pages from being through with your revisions, but you are also constrained by having increments of about fifteen minutes in which to enjoy Internet connection before you are delivered messages informing you you are not connected to the Internet.

You are strangely acceptant of all this, seeming to survive in the midst of a sea of frustration.  How lovely it would be to get rid of your wireless mouse, your wireless keyboard, your wireless printer, your cell phone, which in earlier times you actually threw with a resounding intensity into the chaparral  adjacent Greenwell Avenue in Summerand, not to return to such things as a cell phone for at least two years.

So at the moment, you are at odds with your wireless keyboard, your wireless mouse, and your god damned wireless printer which is still better than its HP predecessor.  You have a book review due tomorrow, the edit notes to cope with on your book plus a three-hundred-mile venture northward along 101 to Woodside, a small enclave between Palo Alto and Redwood City.

Sometime in the near future, you will park somewhere along the border of a favored field in Soledad, a small town between King City and Salinas, where, with the very same computer you are now using and your cell phone with its wi-fi hotspot, you will undertake Saturday's blog essay, as it comes to you, having the same tools at your command as those you are now using.

At the moment, you are congratulating yourself for your sang froid.  In the months and perhaps years to come when you sift through these events in light of your curiosity about something, it is more than likely you will have resolved your Internet connection from its present state and wonder what you were about on this day of frustration that began at about seven this morning and which has extended until now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Interview #12

Dorothy Gale first appeared as a character about 1900, beginning with The Wizard of Oz.  A native of Kansas, orphaned, living with an aunt and uncle, she made repeat visits to Oz, eventually taking permanent residence in that fabled landscape in order to be close to her great friend, Ozma, the Queen of Oz.
Dorothy Gale:  Just don't go getting me started with Judy Garland questions.  I don't fucking want to talk about it.

Interviewer:  Then let's start with Kansas.

Dorothy Gale:  Some remarkable types living there,but not what you'd call a cultural capital.  No sense of connective tissue uniting ideas.

Interviewer:  What about the cultural opportunities in Oz?

Dorothy Gale:  Lots to do, lots to think about.  It was not an easy thing for a kid my age to become a role model, but role model I've become.  You see my first adventure, The Wizard of Oz, is a true representation of the dramatic paradigm.  Whose story is it?  Obviously mine.  What's the goal of the story?  Mine was simple enough, getting home?  Why should the reader care?  Judy Garland to the contrary notwithstanding,  I'm a simple kid with simple goals, and no movie mogul is slipping me uppers.  Having a place of one's own is important.  Being vulnerable is important for anyone wanting a career in publishing.

Interviewer: Were you making some kind of statement by taking up permanent residence in Oz?

Dorothy Gale:  You better believe it.  Kansas was a place where corn grows and where children are expected to grown up to fill templates of conventionalism, Future Farmers of America, creationists, a mediocre baseball team, schools that want to mess with the way a young person's mind is allowed to expand around ideas.  So next time you hear me reminding Toto we aren't in Kansas anymore, I hope   you'll grab on to the nuance.

Interviewer:  You're in effect saying--

Dorothy Gale:  I'm saying Darwin rocks.   The wizard told me, "I'm not a bad man, I'm just not a very good wizard."  The Kansas School Board is saying, "We're not bad people, we're just not very good administrators."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Interview # 11

Dolores Haze was born in 1955 with the publication of Lolita by the Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov, by most accounts a purposeful, imaginative novelist with an intellectual's curiosity and the ability to satirize without his target being aware of the ironic scrutiny.   In a number of interviews, Nabokov expressed his belief that Lolita was his finest work.  Its eponymous heroine was aged twelve at the time of publication; the time frame of the novel extends from its beginning in 1947, when Humbert Humbert, the lead male character, moves into a rented room in a small, fictional New England town with Dolores' widowed mother, to 1952, when Humbert dies of a coronary and Dolores dies in childbirth.  Alternately reviled and praised when first published, Lolita has achieved status as a modern classic.

Interviewer:  Were you at any time actually in love with Humbert?

Dolores Haze:  What do I look like to you?  It was one thing, getting it on with him because I could, but love was never a factor because I had no experience with the stuff I used to think was love.

Interviewer:  Such as?

Dolores Haze:  Hanging out together. Going to movies.  Going shopping.

Interviewer:  Humbert wrote of being appalled with some of your tastes relative to cultural things.

Dolores Haze:  Like that stuff he was always reading or talking about was so hot?  Gimme a break.

Interviewer:  And yet you were intrigued by his being attracted to you.

Dolores Haze:  I was a freaking orphan and along comes this guy who I have some control over.

Interviewer:  Some critics thought Humbert held you pretty much a captive.  A sex slave.

Dolores Haze:  Oh, please!  After that blow up after the school play that old Claire Quilty wrote, who do you think suggested Humbert and I take off on the road again.

Interviewer:  Scholars have suggested Quilty was Humbert's doppleganger.  What's your take on him?

Dolores:  An older guy who didn't have a thing for young girls.  I mean, didn't I try.  But no action.

Interviewer:  Had he been willing--

Dolores:  Like I said, you go where the power is.  I'm supposed to sit around and wait for guys my age to hit on me?  I had five years.  You know, carpe fucking diem.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Laundry Lists

Laundry lists are compilations of attributions or descriptions, cast as extras in novels and short stories to help convey background and personality, but, impressed by their exposure--their moment on the stage--they yearn for larger parts, more lines.

Anything that calls attention away from story is chancy casting, perhaps even risky.  If a list of qualities or types supports the story, the reader will welcome it, but such such motives as demonstrating your wit and cleverness, your "way with words," or in any other way upstaging the story will cost you.  The reader will know you for the show-off you deny being.

There was a time roughly between the 1950s and '70s, where the realists were inventing opportunities to probe someones bathroom, therein to probe the shelves and cabinets, producing through products the symptoms, habits, and brand tastes of the  characters who used the bathroom.  You could tell a good deal about a character if you knew he used a teeth whitener.  Back in your day, a person who was known to use tooth powder instead of toothpaste was invariably conservative, perhaps even stingy.  Laundry lists of products used were important "tells" of how the character thought of her- or himself.

Details that blend without intrusion add a sense of convincing presence, of plausibility; excessive details betray their laundry list origins, the literary equivalent of not knowing where the fish fork is set in relationship to the placement of the salad fork.  Even worse, to extend the metaphor, it is not even knowing there is such a thing as a fish fork.

Try to avoid too many occasions where you use two successive adjectives--a short, squat building (or person)--and be sure never to place three consecutive adjectives in place to modify a noun:  a short, square, gray building (or person).

The "Talk of the Town" sketches in the front matter of The New Yorker magazine are instructive in
their careful use of modifiers in general and adjectives in particular as well as their observation of word length in sentences, by way of holding forth in a conversational tone rather than imparting a sense of lecturing.  They'll throw the one-two-adjective punch at you by way of introducing a character:  "Mary Brown, a tall, slender brunette--" and then they'll connect that to a "with," to which they add an interesting caboose.  "--a tall, slender brunette with large green eyes" gives you a growing sense of her presence, to which they might add a "that," as in "that engage you in conversation even before you've begun to talk."  A good deal to learn about adjectives and revealing dialogue in those sketches, taking you well away from any thoughts of piling on laundry lists of detail and yet delivering, often in five or six hundred words, a picture of a real person in action.

The danger of a well-edited magazine is that it will produce materials that sound as though they have all been written by the same person, notable examples being The Nation and The National Geographic.   Possibly Harper's, as well.  Which in its way brings out the "foolish consistency" part of Ralph Waldo Emerson's reminder of what becomes the hobgoblin of small minds.  No worries for such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or Tin House;  they're too busy getting at the color and the texture.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Interview #10

Captain Geoffrey Spaulding was created for the Broadway musical, Animal Crackers, in 1928, the play itself running for 191 performances, after which it was filmed in 1930.  From the moment he appeared on stage, the audience knew he was a humbug, a fact Spaulding did nothing to discourage.

Interviewer:  When Jack Nicholson's role of Bobby DuPre in the film Five Easy Pieces brought him to the famed truck stop restaurant hold-the-chicken scene, it appeared to have informed the balance of his film career.  Do you think Animal Crackers did the same for you?

Captain Spaulding:  I was always this way.  I could, by the way, make you a good price on some genuine artifacts from the motion picture version.  A tablecloth where I spilled a drink on Margaret Dumont. If that doesn't get you, I have the authentic wig,worn by Billie Burke.

Interviewer:  Billie Burke wasn't in Animal Crackers.

Captain Spaulding:  Just trying to keep you honest.

Interviewer:  There are some critics who see you as the living embodiment of The Trickster.

Captain Spaulding:  Nah, that was Karl Rove.  Brilliant criminal mind.

Interviewer:  Still with the critics, there are those who have written about your use of Margaret Dumont as a foil, somewhat like the master and slave arrangement that formed the narrative device of Aristophanes' play, The Frogs.

Captain Spaulding:  The only frogs I know about are the ones I get in my throat from smoking cheap cigars.

Interviewer:  Could you ever see yourself being portrayed by an actor with the stature of, say, an Al Pacino?

Captain Spaulding:  He lacks a certain something.

Interviewer:  Could you tell me what?

Captain Spaulding:  Eyebrows.  Eyebrows and a mustache.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Interview #9

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, which fact alone sets the reader on edge because, hey, no problem with the younger man and older woman stuff, but Jocasta was no mere older woman, as such things go, she was also Oedipus's mother.  A figure from Greek mythology, Anti meaning against, and gone variously translatable as "the stuff of tradition," "motherhood," and "men," as in misanthropic. She was born into character about 440 years Before the Common Era when her creator, Sophocles, saw opportunities to fit his purpose by basing her on a real myth in a play with her name as its title.

Interviewer:  How did it feel, being moved into literature from myth?

Antigone:  A big turn-on, let me tell you.  Made the difference from being talked about as some bratty sorority girl type and listened to as a woman with an edge.

Interviewer:  How old were you when you made your debut?

Antigone:  Was supposed to be sixteen, which, contemporary sexual precocity given its due, was a different sixteen then than now.

Interviewer:  You do see your historical role as a lady with an edge?

Antigone:  Someone fucking had to do it.  You think Scarlet O'Hara had chops?  Antonia?  Hester Prynne?  Oh, sure, I can see it; you're going to throw Nora Helmer at me and that ditz, Starling.

Interviewer:  Clarice.

Antigone:  Whatever.  Most dudes, they don't know what to make of women.  Still see them as status symbols.  I mean fucking Helen.  The Monica Lewinsky of her day.  And to show you how dumb the whole thing was, Paris won her as a prize for judging a beauty contest, which was in a sense rigged to give him the most beautiful woman in the world.  You wouldn't go around calling Paris a schlimazel to his face, but he had to be a chariot without a horse, taking her when he found out she was already married.

Interviewer:  The goddesses did trick him.

Antigone:  Oh, right.  Excuse me.  But think about it:  How many goddesses does it take to trick a schmuck?  Wars were made to sound noble  back then.  Little has changed, right?  You know my creator, old Sophocles, was a general.  You've got to admit, he didn't propagandize war.  He went right to the after effects.

Interviewer:  That's where you came in, wanting to bury your brother who was killed in battle.

Antigone:  Because he was fighting against my uncle, Creon, it was thought he should be left to rot.

Interviewer:  And that would deny him entry into the underworld?

Antigone:  You believe all that crap about the underworld?  Disneyland for the dead.  Forrest Fucking Lawn.  Creon didn't want my brother buried because he wanted people to see what came from fighting against him.

Interviewer:  And you persisted in trying to bury him?

Antigone:  Fuck yes.  Wasn't going to let the old coot propagandize my brother.  Life is about taking a stand for things you care about.  You don't, next thing you know, they'll be after you with more rules and more propaganda.  After that comes uniformity up the wazoo.  Look at it this way, I must have counted for something.  People still remember me.  Who the fuck remembers King Creon?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Interview with Self

  For the past few days, you have enjoyed the potential for conducting interviews with certain special characters, creations of writers still living and others long dead before you'd even begun to read.  In thoughts, even hopes that these interviews might turn into one of your next non-fiction projects to be shared equally with a novel, you went so far as to fill many pages of a small Moleskine notebook with names for potential interview subjects before a series of interesting triggers were triggered.

Trigger number one:  the thought to interview yourself, detailing two questions to ask yourself in particular, the first being a major writing-related regret, the second being a writing-related pleasure.  (Applaud the notion of asking yourself questions as a means of starting forth on the day's writing time.)

Trigger number two:  the awareness that you'd not put in much work today, almost as though you were avoiding the work itself until you'd reached a point of calling it off for the day with the assurance that you'd be back on your game tomorrow.

Trigger number three:  reminding yourself that writing is not a game to be off or on, merely a thing to be worked at, thus the decision to spend some time before a blank screen until some writing equivalent of a musician running scales came to you so that at least the day's output would be some form of practice, thus enhancing the muscle memory.

Trigger number four:  the evoked memories of the times you'd sat death watches as you saw a project you had in the works begin to fade from your enthusiasm, retreating for any number of reasons into the shadows of calling it off for a time or for good.

Trigger number five:  recalling one of your major regrets, which was the wane of energy in a project you'd grown quite fond of to the point where you could visualize the ending to a better degree than you'd been able to visualize the ending of a long-form work while it was still in early draft.

Trigger number six:  digging out the major regret and reading the first three chapters.

Enthusiasm for you is a riotous collision of differing events and stimuli, interspersed with conflicting tugs at your attention.  You are not, however much you try to focus on doing so, a one-project-at-a-time person.  This has contributed to a number of times you watched the enthusiasm for what seemed like a promising project decide to cut class metaphorically speaking, and go to the beach.  True enough, you get things to completion when there is a deadline or a tsunami of a vision that will carry you single-mindedly to the close.  Of equal truth, you tend to invent new ideas at critical moments to keep you in that rush of early enthusiasm stage, as though that were enough to see you through to a conclusion.  (It isn't.  It never is.  The real rush, the mature love rush is in the revision, the running on a combination of fear and empty that puff out the sails of a work in progress, propelling it to what it wanted to be before you got to working on it.)

The major regret was not having finished Exit, Pursued by a Bear, the novel you have pulled out this day and begun to look at, all because you could not find your way into this blog entry, the intents of which were to a) get you at work on another book length project, and b) get your awareness of where The Secret of Casa Jocosa goes next.  Each is what could be called a noir thriller, although there is no similarity in theme or overview.  One is motivated by anger and frustration, the other by a curiosity to see how far the pursuit of  simple theme--entitlement--can take you.

Perhaps you'd do well to add trigger number seven, which was an extended walk about the new neighborhood, thoughts pulled in a number of directions by the smells, sights, sounds of this locale you have come to regard with such interest.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Interview #9

Arthur "Boo" Radley is an enigmatic, shadowy character from the 1960 Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, from Lippincott.  He does not speak on stage, is reclusive, painfully shy, known to be devoted to young persons, protective of them.  He was thought to be in his early forties, portrayed in the filmed version of the novel by the actor Robert Duvall.

Interviewer:  Being a product of a small Alabama town in the years of the Great Depression, presumably never venturing far, you probably had some early opinion of Bob Ewell before Tom Robinson was brought to trial for the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell.

"Boo" Radley:

Interviewer:  I take it, that's a no. No, you had no association with the Ewells?

"Boo" Radley:

Interviewer:  To have protected Miss Jean Louise Finch, otherwise known as "Scout," must have called upon feelings that resonated with some experience in your past.

"Boo" Radley:

Interviewer:  I take it, that's too painful for you to relive, even at this remove of fifty years.

"Boo" Radley:

Interviewer:  Because of the immense popularity of "To Kill a Mockingbird," scholars and critics have found opportunities to relate its characters to prevalent types in the South in general and, more specifically, in rural Alabama.  The attorney, Atticus Finch, and his nemesis, Bob Ewell, are seen as representing two prevalent aspects of contemporary attitude, seemingly at perpetual loggerheads, and you are frequently seen as a kind of Benjy Compson character, so tortured and troubled by the racial and social conflicts about you that you are rendered inchoate.

"Boo" Radley:  I really take exception to the comparison between me and Benjy Compson whom, you must recognize, stands out in an ironic turn as the most reliable of all narrators in The Sound and the Fury.  I'm not given dialogue in Mockingbird because my actions speak for themselves, using violence only when needed in the most absolute moral sense, being aware of and understanding youngsters but having hopes for their growth and development into sound, thinking individuals who have the opportunity to grow even beyond the example of simple decency and probity of Atticus Finch as opposed to the continuous, hopeless prospects of Mayella, who, we are given to understand,was abused at least physically by her father, possibly even sexually as well.  I am in place in the novel as the apparent presence of non-intellectual and non-traditional good, a kind of Rousseauvian parallel to Atticus Finch, Natural Good, you might say, a trigger that causes Sheriff of Maycomb County,Heck Tate, to invent the greater good for the most positive and telling outcome.  Remember, the jury, in spite of reasonable doubt, finds Tom Robinson guilty of the charges against him, a clear case of justice being shunted aside by the combined forces of bigotry and tradition.  I needed to be and was pleased to be called upon to step out of my own protective cocoon, not only to protect Jean Louise and Jeremy Atticus from physical harm but to give the entire of Maycomb County an outcome that could be instructive.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Interview #8

To hear Matthew J. Bruccoli tell it--and there is scant reason not to listen-F. Scott Fitzgerald 's last-minute decision to cast Nick Carraway as the narrator of The Great Gatsby was the crowning touch that sent his 1925 novel blazing across the skies of memorable American fiction.  Until his death in 2008, Bruccoli had turned his scholarly interest into a cottage industry, producing books, essays, and scholarly annotations that form a major platform for the way Fitzgerald is read, interpreted, and taught. He has presented more than one photo of the proofs that were to have been the final author's set prior to being formatted in page proofs, the then final production stage before Gatsby was printed.

Along with the photos showing Fitzgerald's heavy handwritten emmendations, Bruccoli also found a note Fitzgerald sent to his editor,Maxwell Perkins, expressing his enthusiasm for the implications.  To the point of Fitzgerald's epiphany, Carraway had appeared as a minor character; now he was in effect the stand-in for the author himself.  Born in Minneapolis in 1892, Carraway was four years older than his creator, who was born in St. Paul.  Both men attended Ivy League schools, both served in WorldWar I.
Carraway was 33 when Gatsby was published, Fitzgerald was 29.

Interviewer:  Do you think Fitzgerald decided to use you as his principal narrator because of the fact that you were Daisy's cousin?

Carraway:  As one of Fitzgerald's contemporaries, that Hemingway fellow, might have put it, isn't it pretty to think so.  Truth is, old man, Fitzgerald chose me because of my profession.

Interviewer:  You were--

Carraway:  A bonds salesman.  I represented something important to Fitzgerald.  Make no mistake about it, Gatsby was all about money.  Old money.  New money.  Rich money.  Poor money.  He chose me because I was decent, did not impart powers to money that money did not have.

Interviewer:  But didn't Gatsby use you?

Carraway:  To connect with Daisy?  You can think that if you wish; no skin off my nose.  He'd have found her without me, sooner or later.

Interviewer:  You make it sound as though they were fated to meet.

Carraway:  Well, of course, they were destined.  Romeo and Juliet were similarly destined.  There'd be no story without them.  There'd have been no Gatsby without Daisy having married Tom.  For that matter, you'll recall that television series, MASH?

Interviewer:  And?

Carraway:  There'd have been no Mash without the character of Frank Burns.  He made the humor work.  Theater of the impossible, as it were.  Without Daisy having married Tom, Gatsby would have simply not taken off.

Interviewer:  You said, toward the end, that Gatsby was a romantic.  Isn't it possible that he took you in?

Carraway:  My dear fellow, I'm not so simple minded as you suggest.  Because I've made a few good investments, kept myself focused, that's no sign that I was taken in.  Gatsby'd've given a pretty penny to have had my sensibility and background.  Yale, you know.  Gatsby could not have survived at New Haven.  Think of it, man.  Jay Gatz.  From one of the Dakotas.  Yes, I said it; Gatsby was a romantic.  Thought because he made money fast, bought shirts at Turnbull and Asser, he could turn Daisy's head.  To her, however much money he had, he was still a poor boy.  And you know what Daisy said.  She said, Rich girls don't marry poor boys.

Interviewer:  Do you think all romantics are fools?

Carraway:  Not fools, merely impractical in a world where practical matters matter most.  Gatsby, in the end, was not practical.  Not at all practical.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Interview #7

 Sisyphus was a character from Greek mythology, his actual existence every bit as uncertain as the alleged creator of The Iliad and The Odyssey, the supposed poet, Homer.  As those two iconic epics evoke the name of Homer today, the mere mention of Sisyphus conjures the image of an individual every bit the analog of the biblical figure of Job, playing out the role that made him famous.  In the case of Sisyphus, the role was the eternal chore of pushing a large boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it tumble down to the bottom where, once it came to rest, Sisyphus was fated to repeat the action.  Many of the accounts of Sisyphus and his severe punishment imply that he was in fact a king, one who had been given his punishment by the gods, Zeus among them, for, among other things, the temerity to assume he was on the same level as the gods.

The plight or, if you will, task, or punishment of Sisyphus is, in some critical deconstruction, a metaphor for boring, repetitious work that in addition to its unvarying routine is meaningless.

Interviewer:  There were those commentators who claimed you were assigned your punishment by Zeus for revealing secrets of the gods to mortals.

Sisyphus:  Are you suggesting I was revealing secrets as a way of demonstrating my importance?

Interviewer:  Other commentators still infer your punishment came as a result of your having flirted with one of Zeus' mortal, er, girlfriends.

Sisyphus:  I could tell you some stories about that old fart, Zeus, like the real skinny on that Leda and the Swan routine, but hey, I'm in this gig for eternity as it is.  No telling what would happen if I told what I knew.

Interviewer:  A twentieth century thinker posited in a longish essay using your name, that you are essentially a happy person because of the task assigned to you for all eternity.  He goes on to argue that  humans distrust chaos, are drawn to order and certainty.

Sisyphus:  Crazy Frenchmen.  Leave it to one of them to come up with such a theory.  Camus, right.  Al Camus?  All I can say is, before you can be so goddamned sure--get my joke there?--about a man's existential condition, try pushing a boulder in his shoes for an eternity or two.

Interviewer:  So you are not happy at your work?

Sisyphus:  I get by, but that's because I'm not afraid to put my mind to use.  Pushing a rock up a hill, you can see things from a whole new perspective.  The wife comes around, complaining we don't have as much quality time as before, and my mother, always with the "You never call, you never write."  Like I have all this time to call her.  Some graduate students come around, wanting to do their thesis on me--what they call my plight.

Interviewer:  Is your condition a plight?

Sisyphus:  I could never figure what the fuck a plight was.  Sounds like some colo-rectal disorder, you get me.  Listen, my father and his father before him, they were kings.  Lot of fucking good it did them.  Dead before their time, if you get my drift.  Me, I've got something they never dreamed of.  I've got job security.  Now if you'll excuse me, I got to get back to my boulder.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Interview #6

William "Bill" Sikes first appeared in 1836, when a serial in a magazine edited by an young writer who saw fit to lead off with his second novel, Oliver Twist, drew immediate attention.  Of all Charles Dickens' many novels, each seeming to deal with a different segment of society, Oliver Twist was memorable for bringing the working classes to life with the then equivalent force evoked by the 2002-08 television series, The Wire.  Sikes was a violent, uneducated man, a some-time associate of the master criminal, Fagin, beyond much doubt engaged in criminal activities because he had scant option to do otherwise.  He is a clear product of a statement being made by his creator, who could well have been seeing himself in some of Sikes' behavior. A number of filmed versions of Oliver Twist have appeared over the years, none more evocative in its presentation of Sikes than the one featuring the actor Robert Newton.  Sikes was frequently accompanied by his bull terrier, Bull's Eye, whom Sikes was seen to beat with some regularity.

Interviewer:  You've won the reputation of being utterly without redeeming quality among all Dickens' characters.  Are you comfortable with that.

Sikes:  Bleeding liberal he was when he wrote that story.  Still angry about his own upbringing and humiliations.  To him, we was more than just driven to crime, you understand.  To him, we was luxuriating in it, so to speak.  Acting out our plight, so to speak.  Wasn't there that time when we had a caper in the countryside and young Oliver, he fell and got his self hurt?  And didn't old Bill here, carry the lad to safety?  And what about all those times I was a great comfort to my Nancy, cosseting her here and there, encouraging her to have another go at life?

Interviewer:  But isn't it also true that after the botched robbery where Oliver was injured, you left Oliver unprotected and ran for safety?

Sikes:  Wasn't I running off to get help for the boy?  Wasn't I worried he'd hurt hisself?  You see the way of it, don't you?  Fellow like Dickens,he forgets how it was when he was in the game.  Next thing I know, you'll be turning on me like that ungrateful Nancy, who was the love of me life.

Interviewer:  While we're on the subject, there is some thought that your relationship with Nancy was more like, shall we say pimp to prostitute.

Sikes:  That's not the way of it at all, mate.  Mind, there was plenty of that going on in Mr. Dickens' London and all.  Nancy, she enjoyed her frolics, and we both got to thinking, why not bring in an occasional spot of coin to pay for our afternoon tea, don't you see?  So I ups and volunteers, Love, I'll be yer manager.  But it was nothing like I made her do it or any such thing.

Interviewer:  There are those who say Fagin was afraid of you.

Sikes:  Look, we're all of us in the Game,don't you know.  We have our little quirks and all.  What I'm sayin' is, Mr. Dickens was looking out for them kids being abused.  Couldn't come right out and say what Fagin was thinking with some of those young lads, that Dodger and such.  I told Fagan right off the bat, I didn't want to see no part of that, and while I was at it, I let him know not to even think of it, you understand.  So maybe I was a bit forceful once or twice in explaining my point of view.  Afraid of me, you say?  Lord, I should hope so.

Interviewer:  Was it really necessary for you to beat Nancy to death?

Sikes:  Don't be blaming me for that, gov.  I was just doing what Mr. Dickens wanted.  Although I got to say, she betrayed me.  Had a good thumping coming for that, don't you know?

Interviewer:  Could you please not hold my collar so tightly?  Thank you.  Now this one final question, speaking of betrayal:  Isn't it true that your own dog, Bull's Eye, led the police to you when you were on the run from killing Nancy?

Sikes:  Never liked that damned dog.  Mr. Dickens, he stuck me with the bloody cur.  And look how it played out.  Damned dog, led John Law right to me.  All this blather about man's best friend.  They just wait for their opportunity.  Then--

Interviewer:  My collar, please.  Thank you.  Then--?

Sikes:  Then they pounce.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Interview #5

 Interviewer:  With all the potential terrains you could have chosen for your home, including some lush terrains of California and the northern states, what drew you to the bleak, precipitous mesas and buttes of the Southwest?

Wile E. Coyote:  The Roadrunner.

Interviewer:   And your goal right now?

Wile E. Coyote:  The Roadrunner.

Interviewer:  Do you see any parallels between yourself and Captain Ahab?

Wile E. Coyote: Gotta go after the Roadrunner.

Interviewer:  Do you see any similarity between your life and the plight of Sisyphus?

Wile E. Coyote:  Sisyphus didn't have the Roadrunner.

Interviewer:  Do you have any sympathy for Brer Fox and his attempts to interdict Brer Rabbit?

Wile E. Coyote:  Fuck no.  Rabbits are a dime a dozen.  Particularly right after Easter.

Interviewer:  You use a number of imaginative devices from Acme Products.  Have you considered using other implements to help you trap the Roadrunner?

Wile E. Coyote:  Like you want me to switch to Amazon?  Maybe Zappos?   It's the way things are written.  I want to use devices, I order from Acme.  No  hassle. No credit checks.  No problems with returns.

Interviewer:  Isn't that something on the order of a country store mentality?

Wile E. Coyote:  Wall-Mart isn't country store?  Listen, I'm way out here in the boonies, miles from home.  No Famous Nathans.  No Zabars.  No Junior's cheese cake.  No Carnegie Tea Room.  No Barney's.  No kids on bikes, delivering Chinese.  No New York Times; I got to settle for the damned Arizona Republic, follow the Mets on ESPN.  You get a goal in life, you take what comes with the territory.  Listen, you think Krazy Kat had it so hot, all this distance from home, not a decent deli in sight?

Interviewer:  How do you cope with the humiliation?

Wile E. Coyote:  You ever read The Bhagavad-Gita?  Talks about one's dharma, one's destiny.  You got a duty, you do it.  No step aside, here that fucker comes.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Interview #4

Interviewer:  Do you feel your biblical name might have been a disadvantage to your career?  Might you have been influenced by the military and kingly implications?

Ahab:  Listen, in those days, when I was, you know, starting out, biblical was all the rage.  King James Bible this, prophets that.  I took some ribbing because of my namesake's wife.  Hey, Abe, so how's Jezabel these days?  But I gave back as good as I got.

Interviewer:  Wasn't that, in fact, your driving personality trait, giving back as good as you got?  And while we're on the subject, I see here you were raised as a Quaker.  Raised in America.  How do you account for your overarching quest for revenge?

Ahab:  Fucking whale.  I'm supposed to sit still for that?  You let some whale get away with such crap, biting off legs and all, they'll be back menacing ships of all sizes, the owners won't stand a chance.

Interviewer:  You forget the sailors.

Ahab:  They're used to getting fucked over.  Free market means free market, right?

Interviewer:  Things certainly haven't gone your way, and yet, look what a symbol of determination you've become.  Do you think you'd have remained so popular over the years if you hadn't lost out in the end?

Ahab:  Always thought it would have worked better to have found that whale before it found me, kick its sorry ass, then come home to Nantucket with this big sign, Mission Accomplished, spanning the entrance to the harbor.  That would have been a real triumph, but I'll say this, old Melville certainly knew his way around story.  People can't help reading it his way and thinking about what might have been.

Interviewer:  As in, Mission Accomplished?

Ahab:  As in, Mission Accomplished.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Interview #3

Interviewer:  Would we be getting off to a rocky start by asking how accurate your third husband's assessment was of you being his purgatory?

WoB:  We'd be on better ground if you got your numbers straight.  That was my fourth husband.  Dramatic sort to the very end.

Interviewer:  And wasn't it at his funeral that you met your fifth husband?

WoB:  Jankyn, you mean.  Actually, I'd been carrying on a flirt with him while number four was still alive and kicking, although kicking is perhaps not particularly apt.  Could not get that man to--how much leeway do we have here?

Interviewer:  Go ahead.

WoB:  Could not get that man to toss much of anything beyond dice and his cookies, if you get my drift.  No way I could lure him into throwing me a toss, if, once again, you get my drift.

Interviewer:  And Jankyn?

WoB:  Hoo boy.  All the difference in the world.  Trick is to find 'em young, get their attention with some kitchen stuff, feed them up, then--

Interviewer:  We get your drift.  How did you get chosen to have such a stellar role in The Canterbury Tales?  Didn't that come as a surprise to you?

WoB:  Piece of cake, really.  The old boy needed some razzmatazz, if you get my drift.  Some of the dudes he picked were, well, what you might call out of the game.  Story has to have some racy parts.  For all the action Jankyn--number five, don't you know--for all the action jankyn is getting, you'll note I had to tear a girlie mag out of his hands, get him to take a look at me.  You see, I not only give Jankyn what he needs, I give the old boy, old Geoff, what he needs too,which is a little--we still got leeway?

Interviewer:  Still good to go.

WoB:  There was some titillation in that Miller's Tale, well enough, what with it being a true and accurate account of life and all, but old Geoff, he needed the real deal, and so he, well, he dreamed me up, and so I gave him what was pretty much a role model.  Knocked the crap out of that Cressyde he come up with.  Didn't do much better when old Shakespeare took her up, either.  No, I gave old Chaucer the best seller list, ever since I came out.  And my secret.  I mean, come on, Sex and the City.  I gave old Chaucer the only way to romp.  Look at it, kiddo.  Still working, six, seven hundred years.

Interviewer:  What is your secret?

Wife of Bath:  Well, sir, the first four times, I did it for money or social advantage, maybe even a touch of both.  But the fifth time?

Interviewer:  The fifth time?

Wife of Bath:  Shoot, I done it for love.  I married Jankyn purely for love. And he knowed it, too.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Interview # 2

Interviewer:  So far as we have been able to determine, the oldest written examples of exploits were fragments of your adventures,  Do you think history has given you a fair shake?

Gilgamesh:  What fair shake?  Bunch of damned paparazzi and worse.  Couldn't even get the spelling right on my name.  I tell you, it has not been an easy time of it, scribes coming out of the academies, wanting to make a name for themselves, first thing they do, King Gilgamesh is not a righteous dude, knocking of a monster here, taxing a village to death over there, despoiling countryside I never even saw.

Interviewer:  If you had the opportunity, how would you present yourself?

Gilgamesh:  Well, given my background and all--you know--two-thirds related to gods, Dad being Lugabanda and all, and having had a big impact on pretty well caused what is now Iraq to be dug up all to hell and gone, which, incidentally, I visited, couple of times, actually, I more or less like the idea of rebranding myself as that guy, whatsis name?  Wrote a book about his exploits.  Decision Points, it was.

Interviewer:  You can't mean--

Gilgamesh:  Yeah.  Guy got out of the military with some flimflam about the National Guard.  Hell, man, I invented the National Guard, did you know that?

Interviewer:  But seriously.  Decision Points.  That was written by--

Gilgamesh:  Man, you don't want to go around believing everything you believe was written by everyone you believe wrote it.

Interviewer:    You mentioned having traveled to the underworld,

Gilgamesh:  Yeah, and when I got back, there was that big cuneiform tablet, Mission Accomplished.  I want you to know, I had nothing to do with that.  Not my idea.  You're a king, it's got to be like modest, understand. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Interviewer:  You first appeared in public about two years before the California Gold Rush.  How do you account for your consistent popularity, particularly as compared to a character who appeared almost to the day when you first did?

Eyre:  Oh, you must mean that Sharp woman, Rebecca Sharp.  We have in common the fact of our being social outsiders, but there the similarity comes to an abrupt end.  If you'll recall, she cultivated and used charms to seduce upper class men.

Interviewer:  But you married one.

Eyre:  Only after his wretchedly mad first wife committed suicide and in the process created a fire that cost Rochester a hand and the sight of one eye.  I might add that I had inherited twenty thousand pounds  from my uncle, and was thus independent before I married Rochester.  Need I remind you, twenty thousand pounds at that time was the equivalent of well over a million today.

Interviewer:  It is still a stretch for some of today's readers to see what you saw in Rochester.  He clearly would have entered a bigamous marriage with you, and when that didn't work, he urged you to come to the south of France with him, there to live as though you were husband and wife.  If I count correctly, he had two previous mistresses--

Eyre:  Three, actually.

Interviewer: And then there was the matter of Adele Varens, whom Rochester referred to as his ward. Isn't it possible that she was his daughter?

Eyre:  I don't think so.  Rochester doesn't think so.  If you observe the two of them together, you'll see no family resemblance.

Interviewer:  In filmed versions of your remarkable rise from the orphanage to humble governess to teacher, Rochester was portrayed by Orson Welles and George Scott.

Eyre:  Neither of whom, I thought, captured the real Rochester, the essential man who had, don't you see, changed greatly over the course of his life.  Welles seemed to be portraying himself more than Rochester, and Scott--well, he impressed me as practicing to be General Patton.  I was quite satisfied with the real Rochester.

Interviewer:  I notice yet another filmed version of your saga.  What advice do you have for an actress wishing to render a vision of you that you'd approve?

Eyre:  Don't even think feminism, not any more than The Wife of Bath thought feminism or issues of equality.  If you don't bring equality to the table at the very start, men all about you and the sorts of women I think of as toadeys will play boys' and girls' games.  Life is not a game.  Not unless you allow it to become one.  Life is a serious exchange of moral choices and a belief in one's self.

Interviewer:   Do I detect aspects of Ayn Rand here?

Eyre:  Oh, please.  Be serious.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cattle Call

You are interviewing potential employees prior to starting up an imaginative new venture for which you have already secured a significant investment of capital and as well tried to account for future needs and active demands.

It is not as though this is a new enterprise for you; there have been times in the past where you were indeed not a mere go to your office and do your work employee, you were cast in a supervisory role as well as the work you were expected to do in your office (but had to do at home or on weekends, when no one else was there, because of meetings, interruptions, reports, correspondence, telephone calls, and, yes, did you forget to mention meetings?)You actually had in those situations the pleasant experience of interviewing and hiring your own departmental persons, men and women who brought something of value to their work on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, you are hesitant because you do not have the nuanced vision for this new project that you had as an individual who was hired by a publishing company that had a nuanced vision of its own which you were invited to share.

The fact of the matter is, in most cases, when you were setting forth, you were doing so with the equivalent of what your forebears did so many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years ago, did when they started out:  they carried some pieces of flint that, when struck together, were known to produce a spark, which could be manipulated into a flame large enough to begin consuming sufficient twigs and logs for a fire by which to cook and warm one's self against the cold.  You were starting out with a spark or the equivalent materials for creating a spark.  Although you had no objections to a tummy filled with cooked food and a cozy enough space for sleeping and working, you were more interested in seeing the shapes of things about you in the night, lest you trip over them, mistake the commonplace for the extraordinary, discern presences and scenarios that were entire products of your fear-filled apprehensions.

Here you are now, interviewing individuals for a work-related venture for which you are experiencing inchoate visions and potentials, humming as though to itself, yet somehow the song has a vague familiarity you must extend yourself to recognize.  Once you recognize and are able to render that song in your own voice, however atonal and imprecise your voice is, you will have experienced the immense profit of having made that particular song a part of you.  From such riches, you progress.

Into the interviewing room now arrives a man of middle years, mid fifties, you'd say, an almost perfect size forty from the racks, if it were not for the slight appearance of a tummy, working against his belt.  You look toward the eyes and nose, alert for signs of the tippler:  bloodshot eyes, puffy under lids, a trace of red and blue highways running across his nose.  None of these outward symptoms of the incessant drinker is manifest; his jade green eyes meet yours with a friendly directness.  His gaze is steady, non-defensive.   His handshake is firm, his nails neat, trimmed.  His shoes are polished, his trousers, most likely Dockers or some mid-market catalog, are crisp; he either ironed them for this interview or perhaps went so far as to wash and iron them; they are a comfortable fit with his blazer that sits with casual ease on his bony shoulders.  In keeping with the current fashion, his blue gingham shirt is opened at the collar.  A neat pocket square has been folded into his breast pocket, a considerate wedge for his tortoise-shell reading glasses.  You know he will do, a fact that, for idiosyncratic reasons, rankles you.

"Please, please," you tell him, indicating a Bank of England chair across from you, "sit, Mr.--"

"Strether,"  he says, nods, sits, giving his trouser legs the slight pinch of a man accustomed to tailored trousers and to sitting in drawing rooms.  "Lambert Strether."

He did not, of course, have to introduce himself.  You knew him.  Of him, really.  Had done so for some years now.  And oh, how you'd hoped to find some reason for being put off, for being able to be dismissive of him, to use a number two Dixon-Ticonderoga pencil to draw a line through his name on the list of applicants in your folder, to be dismissive of him as you have been in the past, to be dismissive as well of the person whose ideas and notions Lambert Strether was from the beginning.  

As you know only too well, Strether was a significant force, you might say the filtering force through which Henry James filtered the events and awareness of his novel, The Ambassadors.  Here he is, nearly a hundred ten years after his appearance, accepted for work in a project you are venturing to design, joining others, men, women, and youngsters, in a vision you now see as a sort of dictionary of characters, entering your proposed pages with full credit to the pages in which they first appeared, but also as exegesis, in which their place in our minds and hearts has become so firm a presence.  In some ways, the proliferation of reading has given our species more myth and legend, figures with endurance to equal those who emerged from the shadowy stages of the oral tradition.

dramatis personae, including Howard Roark and Dominique Francon, in whom Rand appears to have been inventing herself.

Do not allow yourself to think that all the successful applicants for this dictionary will be chosen to allow your edge to brush against those with whom you have some form of grudge or, worse, against whom you bear the grudge of being boring.   Strether has quite turned you around, and of course, aware as you are of how boring agreement and approval can be, you will include favorites.  In fact, right here in your hand is an application from the potential next hire, a Miss Eyre.  Miss Jane Eyre.  And remember this, at one time, you bore her a grudge for having married Rochester.  In a lovely conflation/confusion of Oedipals, you wanted her for yourself.

Monday, April 11, 2011


You have bought your ticket, boarded the tour bus, settled back in your seat with some degree of humming anticipation.  Moments later, the bus clanks into gear like an arthritic knee extending, then careens off.  As the driver maneuvers through a series of preliminary turns, his voice a sudden nasal bleat over the intercom before welcoming you aboard, hinting at the excitement to come, your anticipation flattens like a souffle in a junior high school cooking class.  You tumble into the sinking awareness that you are on the wrong bus, headed toward a destination at some remove from your expectations.

Was it the turns executed by the driver?  Perhaps the lackluster welcome, or the sense of it being read without too much enthusiasm from a script that had been read again and again?


You are off, as in put off.

Off the bus.

The same process applies to a book you have in some manner come by.  Nor does this exclude so-called ARCs, advanced reading copies which you might be tempted to read in advance of their LD Date, which is to say lay down date at a book store.  You even bring to the table your own designation, the BLC, the belated reading copy of a book such as, say, Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, which you mean to reread prior to your review of it for the Golden Oldies cycle of your weekly book review.

Your purpose is transparent:  to entertain, maybe even instruct yourself.  This is the way it should also be for the writer in the act of composing.  Of course writing is a difficult craft, but why would difficulty prevent a writer from trying to write something that would give entertainment and possible instruction?

Who says writing, for all its potential for difficulty, should not nevertheless be pleasurable?  Without masochism.

The transparency of your purpose persists with this:  As you set forth, whether to read, to write, to reread, to revise, you feel the buzz of anticipation similar to the departure on a journey.  You expect to be transported somewhere.  Fuck the notion that reading is a passive experience.  You do not read in a passive manner; you are contributing and thus reading is not as mere entitlement; it is earned result.  So, too, is writing.  If you are not pleased with the result of it, you revise or throw away and begin anew.  If revision fails to please you, the option is there for re-revision.  Maybe it is not a perfect symmetry, but all the same a symmetry of some form.

The journey begins with a word.

Then another.

Aha, now you are going somewhere.

Where will you be taken?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Authentic Organic Prose

What notional and mischievous creatures we are with our responses to what is and what is not actual or, to use another plangent buzzword, authentic.

When you invent something from bolts of whole cloth of your imagination, then call it story, and in particular call it a fictional narrative, you are nevertheless presenting the material in such a way that most of those who read it will take it as though it could have happened in reality.  As they read, they will have let the pretense of the material as real slip into the background, all the subsequent while having suspended cynicism and disbelief, thinking the story is an eavesdrop on believable persons.

When you invent something from those same bolts of whole cloth, then say some if it or all of it happened in the reality before us, you are advancing the notion of yourself as a historian, someone with a degree of rigidity to his standards of reliability.  Thus, by inference, his narrative really happened.

The inexpert writer who is challenged by readers of his narrative that it lacks verisimilitude, the writer's defense is "But it really happened that way," as though that statement were sufficient cause for the reader to accept the narrative as true.

Of all the things that irritate you upon your entry into a place of performance, the disclaimer "Based on an actual story," or, better still, "Based on a real ( or true )story"  irritates most, causing you to wonder what part of the story was invented and what part real.  In some fast food restaurants, automated soft drink dispensers carry more honest labels such as fifteen percent juice, or contains lemon flavoring but 0% lemon.  You know where you stand.  In similar fashion, when you read that this is the actual juice taken from fresh grapefruit, you are alert to the fact of it not being from concentrated grapefruit or any other kind of fruit, but when you are informed of story being based on an actual story, you are in safer hands with the fifteen-percent lemonade.

The catch therein is in how effective the story--actual or shall we say "enhanced" is presented.  When we are presented with history and told it is historical fact, we may be safe in assuming the historian who researched the material was not a complete objective observer, but as he or she assessed the gathered data, came to some conclusion, which was then presented with due diligence.  Nope, that's saying historians are remarkable for not having a particular bias or vision.  Depending on the travel gear we bring with us when we sit to read or to watch, we are in no small way subject to the seductive dance of the text, presenting its evidentiary track of events and relics to us, leaving us no idea which if any events or relics were left out in the interests of space or time or both.

In some cases, as students and as writers, we are asked to provide a vision of a person, place, or event. The professor or the assigning editor may ask us to supply a new interpretation, a new read of probability based on what was at the time of writing a plausible reality as opposed to being based on a theory based on a real story.

The best we can hope for is to get ourself there to a point of as much belief and understanding as possible based on the material we have on hand and then the inferences come in, colored by the same cultural lathes that shaped our own psyche.  The best we can also hope for is that ineffable something that transmits plausible probability.  In that sense, fiction is more honest than fact unless it is the drama documented with journals, diaries, eyewitness reports.  The more plausible fiction becomes, the greater likelihood for the reader to believe it is the true account the writer wanted to tell in nonfiction but could not bring himself or herself to do so for fear of backlash.  You hear it with greater frequency now:  I'll read the novel to get at the actual story, which is the story by subtext, irony, and implication.  And even if the reader is presented with the actual score of a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, played at Dodger Field, and the reader knows for a fact which team won, the reader also wants to know other human details such as those that go on in the parking lots, after the game, out of the watchful or not-so-watchful eyes of the security guards, details such as severe and violent beating.

How much can we know?  How much of what we know is verifiable?  How can we trust the verification?  What would we have done instead of what we did do if only we had known the truth? 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

This is absurd!

Your strategy at the moment is to return to the novel in progress by the end of next week, picking up the clutter and broken china all about you as a result of having to put all efforts into revision on what was once The Fiction Writers' Tool Kit as it morphed into The Fiction Lovers' Companion.  That will be more of a leisurely process for at least two reasons, a significant one being you do not yet have a thematic closure in mind, a no less significant one being the questioned proposed by Ms. Lopoppolo, your literary agent, "So what's wrong with turning it into a murder mystery, Mr. Regional President of the Mystery Writers of America?" It was the same question raised by Jean Harfenist, a writer you much admire.  One robin does not make a Spring, but two robins make a hell of a lot of noise.  The obvious character to kill off is clear to you; you'd put in a good deal of work by which you all but demonized him, with the intent of causing him to experience the equivalent of a conversion in the desert.  All the more reason to kill him off; the reader would care, and you'd be off to the races.

There is also your wish to have another work out and working for you, a sort of platform for making the novel into a viable series, with one being expected eighteen months after it hit.  There is a list of five projects the publisher of Companion is considering, all of which but one you believe you could have done by 1 January.  And thus you are puttering with these, looking for a clue among them as to which wants to be up next.

You've already begun leaning,but just these past several hours, yet another possibility has emerged, one that would be similar in its way to Companion, but not imitative of it, one you could see committing to deliver by, say 30 January 2012; it is an adjunct of the years you spent in scholarly publishing, wherein you made friends with the acronym KWIC, key words in context, as it applies to an index format.  There would be little of the scholarly and much of the idiosyncratic about Key Words for Writers:  Words, Phrases, and Concepts That Trash Talk Fiction Conventions.  Several times this year, you've blogged about particular words that seem to you to have some direct bearing on what story is and how it is formed.  As you sat before your screen for today's installment of your blog notes to yourself, almost before you could evoke the presence of the blog template, the word "absurd" came throbbing into your mind.

Absurd is a valuable tool awaiting the writer's serious consideration and direct use; it awakens somewhat like a cat ebbing forth from a nap, stretching languorously, sniffing the surrounding air, wondering about decisions.  Absurdity is the irrational, considering the preposterous; it is an interpretation of events, perhaps even the events themselves, that moves the beholder from observers of the ordinary to a newer plateau on which the great dance of the improbable is in full regalia.  The characters are behaving as though this surreal world in which they find themselves is every bit as structured and nuanced as the landscape we think of as ordinary, everyday, even if we wish to show off a bit, quotidian.  The absurd is an exact reversal of, say, The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, are transported from the ordinary of Oz to the forest primeval of Kansas, made to seek the portal of return to Oz after experiencing trials and tribulations.

Life on many levels is absurd, even today,when we are, in so many cultures, away from primitive shadows of linear, power-based social structure.  Some forms of social structure may produce the tyranny of conformity, but the possibilities inherent in more democratic structures are every bit as surreal and tyrannic, each in its own way.  We speak of theater of the absurd as a means of dramatizing the nuances of a particular social invasion, but for the observer to understand the nuanced implication, the observer must first see the absolute power of anarchy in his own strata before any standard of absurdity can take root.  In a lovely topsy-turvy of logic, the more things are made to remain conventional, the greater they are likely to split apart at the seams, spilling the contents of sanity before our eyes.

An individual with a vision may be an artist, a dreamer, or a lunatic; he may be simultaneously all three.  How absurd, after all, is it when we encourage our young to think outside the box, then award them the punishment of ostracism for having done so?

Writers--in fact all artists--need to keep their own tabs on what is absurd; it is the trampoline on which great bounding leaps of creativity have their origin, allowing the leaper to see with incremental bounds a tad beyond any given horizon.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lost, Presumed Eaten By Coyotes: A Literary Voice

  The exciting thing about telling story is the way it lures you in by seeming so simple and direct a process at first, causing you to believe how you, too, with a little effort, can do it.

Soon, the honeymoon is over; you remain buoyed with romantic aftertaste, pleased to have made the commitment, but aware as well that you have only begun a journey where one thing is certain:  you have no idea of the destination.  To be sure, you have dreams about such things as venturing into something original or, failing that, becoming a force that affects untold numbers of readers.  Perhaps your dreams are more modest in scale, such as gaining proficiency in some category such as humor or tragedy; failing in those except on rare occasion, perhaps as an interesting educator.

Growing about you in stacks are the works of men and women, some of them young enough to be your children, others only a tad older than you, in each case with bodies of work.  Ah, there it is, the magic:  bodies of work.  Not one or two things,bodies of them.  From body it is easy to make the jump to ghost, thus instead of bodies of work to represent you, there are ghosts wanting things of you, wanting you to go back to undo egregious error whether of fact or deed or application, so that they might have some rest and stop haunting you.  Sometimes ghosts have vengeance at heart, wanting to exact something from someone, perhaps even you.

In some ways, because of the whimsical manner in which you were drawn into the other side of publishing,the editorial side, in which it was your work to help others extend the true timbre and resonance of their voice, editing had the same adventurous pull, causing you to think, why not, you'd be learning things to help your own storytelling.  Then, before you knew it, the editing experience conspired to get you one teaching job after another.

Now, perhaps because you are in between projects, still in a real sense at play with choices beckoning you, you are aware of the incredible number of individuals who present themselves as editorial and publishing consultants, in some cases even as writing coaches.  You are some steps away from being cynical about it, from day to day varying your stand about MFA programs in creative writing, even wondering what creative writing is as opposed to uncreative writing.  You toy with the idea of ordering business cards in which you are advertised as a literary voice coach or perhaps a literary detective,specializing in helping your clients locate lost or missing voices.

The best detective force in the world for locating a voice is a completed manuscript.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Laws of the Land

Of all the experimental things you have attempted with your writing, the most outstanding failures of all came as a result of your attempting straight on to define and describe reality.  These failures took you through the literary equivalents of clover-leaf exchanges in the Los Angeles Area freeway system, with subordinate and dependent clauses appearing as if from nowhere, taking tortured and unreliable curves and ultimate sighs of despair.  These experiments came at a time when you all but detested the long, rambling sentence, set forth like a Great Dane let off its leash.  You fancied short, declarative approaches, all but too literal in their directness, giving forth the effects of a beginning driver, learning to operate a vehicle with a manual shift.  Jerky going.  Not at all sounding of a piece with what you were hearing.

Writers you admired were able to slip in the occasional long-winded sentence and with them a sense of things going on about the narrative and its denizens.  You read them and did with them what you were being taught to do in low-level science and biology classes, dissect, study, then write about your findings.  It would be comforting to say that you learned a thing or two about sentences from your biological abuses of cats, mice, frogs, and the occasional prawn, but you were able to make some sense only of the complexity of the reality in which these unfortunate creatures once lived.  Some of your classmates, in particular those who seemed least appropriate, were accomplished at dissection, their work neat, their descriptions radiating a certain tidiness and respect while your lab work and terrible penmanship produced only traces of an impatience you could not identify with ease.

Well beyond your quasi-Dr.Mengele days in the laboratory, the booming wave of your learning curve brought you to the conclusion that the individuals whose writing you most admired were men and women who evoked reality by focusing on the details of beings attempting to find their ways through the various mazes and pathways of reality.  If you narrow your focus to a person or a thing, your first true and gifted mentor explained to you, it will be easy for you to see what that person or thing is trying to do, and the moment you know that--or think you know it--you will be off to--

--publication?  You ventured.

Ah, she said.  Perhaps that.  You will be off to discovery.  But you have to realize that writers who discover things are not guaranteed publication.  Now, she urged, which would you rather have?

You have experienced many discoveries since that day so many years ago, not the least of which is a tiny sort of a mantra that may wish to be a formula, may even sound as though it were one, but which is not.  The more specific you get, the closer you come to discovering what the specific wants, which takes you to the front door of story, which must now be knocked on, often more than once, before entrance is gained.

While all this knocking on doors and discovering is taking place, you will have come as close to describing reality as you can without encountering a mare's nest of logical and syntactical mischief.  In absolute fact, you would do better in evoking the sense of reality were you to concentrate on the mischief inherent in the behavior among the characters you have created.  Thus reality may be evoked through the mischief of invented characters as they are subjected to the trials imposed by the laws of drama.

It is not only well, it is proper for a writer to study the observations made and articulated by scientists about the behavior of matter in all its various forms from a cup of water to a fist full of electronic sub-particles.  But you must come to terms not only with Ohm and Boyle and Charles and Newton and others of that kidney but as well of openings, closings, reversals, and agendas of your imaginary crews who dance about your interior hallways at bed time and during those secret hours when you are paying lip service to work but are actually composing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Believe it. Or. Not.

 Another important word for the storyteller is "belief," which, as you understand the word, is a frame of reference or conviction about the existence and validity of a person, place, or thing.  Belief may also be a state of mind or an emphatic assumption that a proposition or some aspect of a noun has logical and emotional foundations in reality.

You believe in the reliability of a person, place, or thing; you believe in the presence of tangible things within that person, place, or thing.  In similar fashion, you believe in the unreliability or unsubstantial nature of the person, place, thing, even extending to the object being a construct such as a philosophy.  You believe, for an example to set this material in effect that "I think, therefore I am" is a construct without a stable foundation.  Thinking is not, you believe, the determining factor of your existence.  You would, you believe, exist without thinking.  All too often you have existed without thinking.  And so there we go on the adventure of defining a noun to the point where you believe it is believable, a condition you believe to be of significant importance for yourself and for all who would tell story.

Why is this so?  Even if you are inventing something, you must be able to sense enough of it to believe beyond thought about its potential to exist among the things known to you as real, without being pointed out as unreal, unconvincing.  There is no simple equation here, not according to your belief.  You may see an invention of yours, growing more sturdy with everything you write about it, to the point where you may have convinced yourself of its reality.  This does not assure you that anyone else will believe the reality of your imagined thing.  Others may, however, believe you are deluded, their belief enhanced by your insistence on the reality of your invention.

The best you can do is learn from your own practice, your own writing efforts, and your own thinking efforts to produce events involving invented individuals at invented locales in invented times, producing enough invented details to make the fiction appear real and, thus, believable.  It is your experience that many beginning storytellers use the argument "but it really happened" as a defense against the counter argument from a reader that it didn't seem real.

In real life, during the past few months, you have been involved in a contest of beliefs wherein you presented a scenario in which you were a participant, then heard another participant at the same event disagree completely with your assertions of relevant events.  Had this been a story, you would have gone for another opinion, looking for ways to make your version of the incident appear more universal in its believability, but since this was real life and you believed your version of events with such conviction, your first response was to laugh, which produced the triggering effect of causing a third party to feel you were in effect questioning his integrity.  Fact is, you were.  Added fact, challenged beliefs provoke and evoke strong feelings.

Test case:  You are at a family gathering or a gathering of friends.  Not really relevant if alcohol is being served.  Let's say the more prevalent spirit is the one of reminiscence, fueled by the punch being spiked by nostalgia.  You tell a story in which you recollect a past event, your narrative voice intending affection, amusement.  To add a detail, you even poke a bit of fun at yourself.  Now comes the fun:  another person at the gathering takes immediate umbrage to your account, questioning the propriety of you having told the story in the first place.  Aha, another point of view checking in on the same dramatic information.  You have a splendid demonstration of how multiple point of view can add questions as they relate to reliability and as they affect belief.

You are screwed if the reader does not believe you, even though you believe you've given a pretty reliable account.  Nevertheless, you revisit the material, wondering.  You believe you cannot please everyone, but do you have any real sense of the math involved? In some circumstances, you believe it possible to respond with a particular measure of schadenfreude is someone you do not particularly like has the temerity to take issue with your representation.  After all, what does he or she know?  Look at the things he or she has published.  But on the other hand,suppose that very person, the one you cannot abide, says of your story, it was believable.  Do you take credit for having moved him or her along the path toward sophistication in the slipstream of your invented landscape.

Just this afternoon, you were positing the great potentials for enmity among academics, a subject dear to your heart because you do have a concept floating about that you would like to play with at length.  One individual in your group reminded you that, large, supportive local writing community here in Santa Barbara to the contrary notwithstanding, there are rich veins of enmity among writers, two of whom you have been known to take off on in the occasional venting of spleen.  This caused you to flash on two of the more contentious writers of recent times, Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, their one-time fast friendship having come to the parting of the ways, you believe, because Wilson, not happy with some of the translations Nabokov was doing from his native Russian into English, undertook to teach himself Russian, whereupon he took Nabokov to further task.

Back to the world of accounting:  What do you do when someone does not believe you, your vision of reality, your stories set in your version of reality?

This has made you wary.  You hope your wariness has not made you too timid nor in fact at all timid; you prefer being the elephant in the living room or the salon, not above galumphing about, knocking over the furniture.  It is because you believe.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


  A favored word of yours is small in length and enormous in its implications.  It is by all accounts a writer's word; it implies a condition or situation that has not taken place or that may not yet be so.  By these hints, the word will have given itself away.  If.

In the event.  In that case.  Ah, precious speculation.  Conditions assumed to be real, predicated, linked to some future conclusion.

If is a world of wish and whether and suppose.  Link it to another brief word, only, and the literary equivalent of a big bang is created; the universe of a particular character's psyche is on the chopping block, neck--or at least passions--bared to the potential of disappointment or, worse, some emphatic no from the cosmos.

Without if, story would be set out on the dole, without expectations of employment for some time to come.  Without if, there would be certainty or such abject conservatism rampant that we would be visited by the growing sense of minus inertia.  Things would not stand a chance of evolution, might even be seen as suicidal or at least static.

If is also on the other hand, the obverse of a speculation or plan or system, a reason to doubt or trust, a reason to take sides, take risks, take chances.

If you want to take it that way is a lovely trope meaning you have chosen to interpret someone or something in an unanticipated way, perhaps even a contentious way, which is, after all, one of the essentials of a story.  But look at if in connection with that's the way you feel about it; a clear invitation to a rift or large-scale falling out.

If things keep up the way they're headed.  If that's all that matters to you.  If worse comes to worst.  If I can count on you.  If you can keep your cool.  And what about, if you weren't so stubborn?  Or If you would only listen.  If you only knew.  If you had any idea.

If is like being in the desert or mountains, away from a large metropolitan area in the dark of night, where the myriad stars are exquisite in their visibility, their distance from earth so apparent because of the magnitude of the light they emit.  Each of these stars is an if.  If you measure the distance from it to us, you get a sense of the light as it travels, wanting to demonstrate among other things, the fact of its distance and the visual measure of its intense, colorful light.

How remarkable to have a word in our language with so many meanings inherent within its two letters.

If you had your way.  Ah, if you were able to control the universe, well, perhaps only the stories it is capable of producing, you would find ways yet unrealized to put this fine two-letter word to work in stories such as had yet to be seen, all because they were not yet written because of the things you thought it prudent to do if you intended to keep your family in some relative happiness, your employers in an equal state of relative happiness with your production, forgetting how, if you had more time, you alone of all persons who thought to tell stories, would not be so abusive of the power, if you had the power and if you had the necessary understanding to use the power, and if you had the wit to bring it all off.

If you had such things, would you be able to sleep?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Dinosaur in the Living Room

IN her remarkable new novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson includes a scene in which one of her major players, a lady cop, is told with some rancor/bitterness by her superior how the world has changed since they both started in police work.  Being who she is, Atkinson pounces on the situation, whereby her lady cop has some ironic, even cynical things to say about the nature of such change, how "things" have evolved (some of them, by the way, quite wonderful).

At late breakfast this morning, you found yourself in what you will call a dinosaur conversation with some publishing chums, noting how the same sense of change pervaded the conversation to the point where you went so far as to observe, "We've become the dinosaurs in the living room."

You were with the former editorial director of Bantam Books and the former sales manager.  Your paths crossed on the occasion of you having been involved with hardcover properties you acquired, then tried to sell off so-called sub (for subsidiary) rights to Bantam, which was at the time the major massmarket reprint vehicle.  There were others, but you always started at Bantam, then went elsewhere if the offer was soft or non-existent.  At the gathering was also your literary agent who, at the time of the most serious details of the day's reminiscences, was promotion and publicity director at Bantam.

The notion of "The Filter" was prominent after a time, by which trope you meant how when you were all back in the game, the materials you saw had been filtered for you without your knowledge by a stream of agents and assistants.  Even the materials you saw from not-so-hot agents was a step or two above the tidal waves of material being produced and sent forth, thus your own speculation this morning that "back in the day" you could have picked almost any project from the filtered file, published it, and sat at the table with a greater than fifty-percent probability of it earning out.  A nice term writers do not wish to hear.  As all writers think well of themselves, none, you included, are comfortable with the thought that a particular project might not earn out, meaning it would have paid for itself, paid off its advance, kept you on a first-name basis with your publisher.

Yet another term or concept you bandied about was the one of taste. Never mind that if your "taste," which is to say your editorial judgement, did not reflect a preponderance of black ink, you were invited to take that long walk down that long hallway from the editorial department to the street.

When you'd said farewell to your dinosaur chums and were taking Sally to a well-deserved romp in some country terrain, you began wondering how much effect your having been an English major had on your taste as compared to how your taste was given shots of steroid by the "injections" of all the unfiltered manuscripts you'd read while on the way up.  It came to you as well that you'd been in a real sense exercising judgements gleaned from reading eighteenth- nineteenth, and early twentieth-century novels on your accept or reject decisions of the unfiltered manuscripts.  Made you wonder how you'd write about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, were you an English major now, your thoughts going back to those two archetypal English novels, Robinson Crusoe, and Pamela.

When you were starting, it was "So many books to read, so little time to read them."  You've just been awarded dinosaur points.  "So many books to write, so little time to write them."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Beyond One's Means

Child as you were of the Great Depression, the expression "living within one's means" has signified to you some respect being paid to budgetary matters, managing to put some emergency fund away, not living ahead of your income, which is in itself a euphemism for spending more than you bring in.  In fact, "living within one's means" is of itself a euphemism for pay-as-you-go, or even if you don;t have it, don't go.

You've lived all around those notions, at times so pleased to have a spare hundred or two cached away that you were even more able than you'd thought to be frugal, get by on the cheap, learning in the process that thrift is an acquired taste for saying no.  Not that any of this makes you a financial wizard or even all that thrifty or all that much the owner of the greater euphemism, the nest egg.  Barring calamity, you are on a nodding acquaintance with that kind of comfort.

The place--or perhaps it is places--you have yet to lure to the kitchen table for a bottle of ale or glass of wine is the uninvestigated side of "one's means," the emotional side.  You can point to sample demographics of various ages, in which none of them is living beyond their emotional means which also means none is taking any chances nor is apt to make some exciting discovery or gain some amazing insight.

All about you there are so-called support groups, peopled by sincere individuals, many of whom wish to help you variously accommodate to grief, depression, writers' block, adult onset diabetes, fear of death, eating problems,gambling problems, and fear of large crowds.  With the belief that you know enough about large crowds to enable you not to want to overcome such fears of them as you might have, there are no apparent reasons for you to visit any of the other support groups.  You believe you are sufficient support group for yourself.  You could perhaps use a support group to get you over the depression that sometimes attends reading manuscripts written by individuals who are quite sincere in their belief that their manuscript is a short hop, skip, and jump from publication at some reputable house, as opposed to one individual who, in order to make it seem she was a prophetess in her own country, paid exorbitant fees to be self-published in the UK.

Your emotional means still blaze out in optimism, even though you find yourself more often open to cynical rebuttal.  You do not think it a sign of failing health or hope to pass summary judgements of a cynical nature any more than you think it imprudent to embark on a project that might take you considerable time to complete.  You still recall your old pal, John Sanford, inviting you over for coffee and Sarah Lee pound cake to celebrate his three-book contract, achieved at age ninety-two (which he lived to finish).

It is your hope not to duplicate past transgressions of financial imprudence, but this is all the more reason why you are impatient to take on the profligacy of spending your feelings.  It will be as though you have won some form of emotional lottery and will be faced with the decision to take on all those glorious feelings now, or would you rather have them meted out over a ten-year period.  Freak no, being 'em on all at once.