Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 47

Journey to the Center of the Novel

I finished writing Chapter IV of my novel in progress in November 2007, right before my 37th birthday. I finished writing Chapter V about two weeks ago. There was a seven-month interval in between there that I’ve already lamented was too long, although not entirely unproductive. I did manage to write a few other things, including an essay that is headed for publication in The Other Journal called “Hope on the Wing: Encounters with The Innocence Mission”. But I did a lot of stumbling around and not getting a whole lot of writing done. (Also had the small matter of the arrival of my third child, to be fair to myself, so it wasn’t entirely procrastination.) I started to have a number of other ideas for writing projects large and small, fiction and nonfiction, and while I was grateful to be having ideas, the time came when I felt like the motivation and commitment to the novel I am writing was starting to slip away from me. So I vowed to make a ‘massive attack’ on the manuscript. I went back to Chapter V and finished it up. After all that struggle, I must admit that, at least for now, I was pretty pleased with the way the chapter turned out. Now it’s time for me to move on with the story.

That means starting on Chapter VI. I only have some vague ideas of what sort of material is going to populate the chapter. That’s all right, because they all start out the same way. Vague, nebulous, like a vapor.

Entering into the drafting of a chapter, I feel like I’m almost floating in a kind of pre-creative state. In a very miniscule but also significant way, it sort of feels to me like the state of things in the beginning, before God created the earth, as described in Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” I realize how pretentious and ridiculous this may sound, but I don’t think it is. If you consider the artistic impulse in terms of a fallible human being’s honest, if insignificant, attempt to imitate his Father, who “created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), you can see why this feeling may occur in some way inside of me or anyone else who attempts to create something.

Before putting down one’s story, there is a kind of dark place you must go to, your creative pool. Even Stephen King realizes this, and sort of gave it a different and a lot more simplistic form in his novel Lisey’s Story where he developed the concept of a mysterious dream place called “Boo’ya Moon”, the main physical characteristic of which was a big pool of water. Say what you want about Stephen King, but the man is not lacking creativity, nor a well-wrought knowledge of the process. He may well feel that darkness upon the face of the deep just before he concocts his own creations. Of course, the novel also contains more words than have ever been necessary about everyone’s favorite prepared food product, Hamburger Helper – so you might take it all with a grain of salt. Hamburger Helper may be a great metaphor for King’s novels, but I won’t go there; I respect Stephen King.

(If you’re wondering how any single piece of prose could go from the Book of Genesis to Stephen King to Hamburger Helper in just a few paragraphs, well, that’s the beauty of journaling.)

Anyway, now it is on to Chapter VI, and in terms of timeline, the story is now moving into the Great Depression era of history. I remember early on, we’re talking years ago, I always pictured this novel to be a ‘Depression’ novel. Never would I have dreamed that I might have been required to work on writing it for two years before even cracking into the 1930s! That’s a first novel for you – a labor that keeps growing even as you learn how to do the job. But now that I am finally entering into the Depression period of my novel, I understand that it is only at this stage that I really entering into the heart of it – or as William H. Gass might say, “the heart of the heart” of the novel I am writing.

I have my work cut out for me. This novel will not work if it does not effectively bring the Great Depression to some kind of recognizable and hopefully potent life. This country has seen many writers bring the era alive in novels far more accomplished than anything I could write – Steinbeck, Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, etc. – but not a lot of people are writing novels set in the Depression today. Time is marching forward, and those who actually lived through the Depression are now dying off. My Dad is one of those who still survive who can tell about what living in that time period was like. For people like him, who were only kids when their family was struggling through those times, it was a social and cultural event that marked their lives forever, indelibly. My novel is being written as an attempt to restore that time and all of those struggles to the fore of my own and hopefully to readers’ attention, in order to better understand why it left such a mark.

It’s all very daunting, and this could be the time, more than any other that has gone before, for me to be afraid – very afraid. There must be a million reasons I can think of for why I am not the guy for the job. Yet if I want to be a novelist, it’s my charge to ignore them on and charge ahead. Thus, while it might be a time for fear, it’s really a time for wonder and excitement. THIS is the heart of the struggle. I find myself approaching the center of the novel and what I really feel more than anything else is the thrill of the hunt. It is a ridiculously daunting challenge to think that I might finish this story, revise it, craft it to my satisfaction, send it out, and have someone read it, buy it, and put it on the shelf. But then again, if you told me two years ago I’d have written a total of six chapters and would still be very much alive in the hunt for a first novel, I would have thought even that was insane. So we’ll see.

In spite of the fact that I am not sure where it will go, Chapter VI does have a working title, which is ‘The Black Giant, Obeisance to Mammon’. It will focus somewhat on advancing Walter Brogan’s story into the early Depression, but will also place unusually heavy emphasis on some of the ‘outsider’ characters in the novel – people like Myron Devreaux, Peter Heinricks, and in particular Cal Wittenburg. Witternburg will emerge, if he has not already, as a driving force in the story, for he represents the farming community, and provides a window into that world where Walter Brogan will find his sympathies and his compassion inexorably drawn.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Duke Altum's POTM #64: Ask Me Why I Love Poetry...

...and a poem like this provides the best answer. This short offering from the British poet Ted Hughes (great friend and sometime mentor to Seamus Heaney) is a perfect example, to my anyway, of what makes poetry fascinating and powerful and worth reading. Here you have a simple little observation about a flower, and not even a very pretty one at that. And yet, through that mysterious alchemy that only a very small number of gifted people seem to be able to conjure up and harness, Hughes somehow summarizes the entire history of a people (in this case, the fighting Scots - as most everyone knows, the thistle is a national symbol of Scotland) in a few short lines. (Could any verse seem to sum up the tragic history of this country and its constant, futile struggle for independence better than these?: "Their sons appear/Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.")

He manages to convey menace and violence and bloodshed and turmoil all while describing a miniscule purple flower. So much complexity packed into such simple lines. This is what truly captivates and fascinates me, this power of the poet to say so much with so little. To observe the smallest and most seemingly inconsequential detail and somehow squeeze out of it some kind of clue, or at least insight, to the mystery of our existence here on the third rock from the sun. THAT'S why I love poetry, when it is done well - like this.



Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Say You'll Read These Stories

When I heard several months ago that there was a book of short stories coming out about Africa that was written by a Jesuit priest, a product of an American M.F.A. program in fiction writing, I was astonished. I never thought I would see a book of contemporary short stories by a Catholic priest emerge from a major U.S. publishing house. But that is what we have in Say You’re One Of Them, which was published last month by Little, Brown & Company. The author is Uwem Akpan, S.J., from Nigeria.

The book has generated a lot of attention in literary circles, and has received exceptionally strong reviews in almost every major publication I have seen. Indeed, I have yet to find a negative review for it. As Duke and I are Roman Catholics interested in literature and the spiritual life, I remember showing him a news item saying that this book was forthcoming, and commenting on how ideal it was to receive some attention on this blog. I would have liked to have rushed right out and bought the book, which I did not do for budgetary reasons, so I did the next best thing: I asked my local library if they had it. They did not, but ordered it specially upon my request, and it was in house in about a week. Man, you have got to love libraries. The poor artist’s best friend!

This post is no book review, as I have just finished reading the book, and it is still resonating in my mind to a large extent – which is another way of saying that since I am not writing a review, I am not yet completely sure of precisely how I feel about it. One of the reasons I enjoy writing reviews is to fully articulate my response to a book. That is not what I am doing here. I just wanted to write some impressions down.

I am not sure how many people I would even recommend this book to. That statement has nothing to do with the book’s literary quality and elegance of execution, which are both of the highest order, and especially stuning in a first work of fiction from a writer who happens to be almost exactly my age. This is a hell of a book. That phrase can have more than one meaning as well, as I will attempt to explain.

There’s no question that Fr. Akpan is a gifted writer with a flair for language, an ear for interesting dialogue, and eyes with which to see the terribly vivd colors spayed around a tortured and troubled contintent. In a very interesting story in the New York Times, the writer-priest attributed some of his literary success to his religious training, an idea which I found utterly fascinating:

A great help to him, he said, was his order’s tradition of Ignatian spirituality, which encourages the visualization of certain biblical scenes — the Sermon on the Mount, say. “You try to imagine Jesus 2,000 years ago. You try to see the faces, picture the scenery. I used to really get into it, and I thought if I could imagine 2,000 years ago, surely I could do it for the contemporary world.”

Fr. Akpan has certainly done that in this book, which is closer to a collection of three short stories and two longer novellas.

If the book is so good, so well executed, why wouldn’t I recommend it? The answer is that I would – I just don’t know how many people would want to read it or would enjoy it. For ‘enjoy’ is not the best way to describe one’s experience with these stories, unless you are like me and you take pleasure in watching a skilled artist intelligently and beautifully work their magic. The problem is that the stories in Say You’re One Of Them depict unthinkable evils – abusive acts, mob violence, tribal warfare, starvation, prostitution, drug use, religious tyranny, persecution, corruption, even unmitigated slaughter – and they do so forcefully, so that you have trouble forgetting what you’ve ‘seen’ in your mind’s eye.

But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that all of the stories are written from the point of view of children. Which means that the children Fr. Akpan creates in his intense fictions are eye-witnesses to the horror, and frequently victims themselves. If you have your own children or even if you don’t, this is the hardest part of the book to contend with. The images will stay with you, all right. It’s a troubling, moving, difficult reading experience.

Now, in my opinion, this makes Fr. Akpan’s achievement all the more laudable. What he has done is give voices to the ones that have no voice, and through the power of his stories – a power that stories only can generate, as opposed to journalism or memoir – he forces the reader to listen to them. Skillfully drawn characters are easy to recognize; the litmus test is whether or not, when you read their stories, you feel like you know them yourself. When you do you’ll know it because, if something terrible happens to them, you’ll feel it. That’s what happens in this book. You get to know these frightened, maligned children, and you fear for what seems inevitable. So that when you reach the utterly terrifying moment when something horrific happens, as in the story “My Parents’ Bedroom”, where a young girl watches her father murder her mother in front of her with a machete, you recoil with stultifying shock.

I know a lot of people though, avid readers all, who would not want to read a story like the one just described no matter how well written it was. No matter how moving it was. It’s a question of why a person reads. So many people I know might say something like, “I barely ever get the chance to pick up a book, and when I do, I want to be entertained, not depressed. I care about what happens to people in less fortunate countries, but I don’t want to read stories about violence, child abuse, murder and poverty.” This isn’t turning a blind eye to the problems of the world; the same person may go on a missionary trip to Africa or Latin American before you ever do. It’s just that this person knows why they read – for entertainment. Who can argue with that?

For me, though, the whole idea of fiction writing is such a source of inspiration and fascination that the act of reading is every bit as much about my own artistc education as it is about entertainment. I want to read anything that genuinely moves me on an emotional level, and I want to see if I can figure out how they did it. I want to write as well as I can, so I should read writers who write well. If I pick up Father Akpan’s book knowing it’s about Africa’s victimized children, I’m not saying to the writer off-handedly, “Don’t go there” as I begin the book. I want him to go there, and since I’m not going there anytime soon, I want him to take me with him. If he succeeds, as this remarkable writer does, he will make me feel as though I have seen the horrors of Africa myself. That’s incredible considering I have never been to Africa, have no prospects of going there, and doubt I will have the opportunity in the future. (You never know.) It should be noted that Say You’re One Of Them’s five stories are all set in different countries, a clever way for Fr. Akpan to demonstrate that these evil forces at play are not simply confined to one nation but to much of Africa.

The title of this collection comes from a piece of advice that the doomed mother gives to one of her children in the story referred to above. She knew she was in peril, and so she told her daughter that if anyone in the civil war-torn nation of Rwanda asked her to state her business, she should say she is “one of them”, meaning a member of whichever tribal group is represented by her questioner. Given the context, is that phrase alone not extraordinarily powerful?

Congratulations to Father Uwem Akpan, who has succeeded in creating an unforgettable testament to the power of literature and in so doing has simultaneously taken a bold stand for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I urge any reader who takes an interest in what is happening in other corners of the world to seek out this book, to read it, feel it, and gain a broader sense of compassion and understanding.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Latecomer's Thoughts on 'The Kite Runner'

I must say it feels strange to be posting some thoughts today on a book that has been so wildly popular for at least four years now, and has been talked and raved about all over the world continuously since its release… talk about being behind the curve! But as they say, better to show up late to the party than never arrive at all…

Regardless of my poor sense of timing, I wanted to offer up some thoughts about a book that has obviously struck a chord with millions of readers and continues to be digested and discussed to this day: Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner. Now that I’ve finally read it, the book’s overwhelming popularity is an interesting (and somewhat perplexing) phenomenon to me. I realize how that sounds, and I don’t mean to say it’s not a good book worth reading – I think it is, though in my opinion it is not without its flaws either. Rather, what surprises me is the degree of its popular appeal relative to its subject matter. I also find it interesting and worth exploring that the book seems to appeal in particular to women. I have no idea why this would be so, but in my own experience, many people told me I should read this book, and for whatever reason, they were ALL women. Obviously this is purely anecdotal evidence and nothing even remotely scientific, but still, I can’t think of another example of that happening.

At any rate, on to the novel itself. As just about everyone in the free world knows at this point, The Kite Runner is the story of a privileged young boy growing up in the Kabul area of Afghanistan in the 1970’s, just before the Russians occupied the country and everything went to hell. He is from a well-off family and his best friend is the son of the servant who serves (and lives in a small shed on) his father’s estate. A tragic event occurs that permanently mars their friendship and leaves the protagonist, Amir, wracked with guilt. They two boys are separated, the country becomes a war zone, old neighborhoods crumble and Amir escapes to America with his father, with whom he longs to connect emotionally but can never seem to. As an adult, Amir returns home to see what’s left of his old country, and learns that his former best friend has been murdered along with his wife – leaving their only son orphaned and alone. The rest of the book entails Amir’s struggle to rescue the boy from the country and adopt him as his own, which he feels would help him to at least somewhat atone for sins committed against his old friend that led to their painful separation and, at least in Amir’s mind, the friend’s tragic death.

Plot-wise, The Kite Runner is an engaging, albeit somewhat familiar, tale of a man trying to atone for wrongs he has committed in his youth to a childhood friend, with healthy doses of class struggle and father-son difficulties mixed in to magnify his sense of guilt and provide the requisite need for personal redemption and meaningful love. I did not think the storyline was anything particularly original, nor did I find the prose to be remarkable in any way – it’s solid and unadorned, but not especially interesting. Some of the plot twists near the end border on the implausible to me, and there seemed to be plenty more opportunities to directly confront demons of the past than real life would naturally afford. (I was also honestly surprised a bit at some of the clichés that were allowed to be kept in the narrative – things like commonly-used phrases or metaphors, or dream sequences in which Amir relives horrific events he witnessed in the past, only to see the man committing the act turn around and reveal his own face!!)

So yes, I did have some issues with the book – but there is much to recommend about it too. What helps it to if not quite overcome, then at least counterbalance, the problems listed above is its setting - both physical and within the context of recent geopolitical history. I don’t think Hosseini was capitalizing on recent events in his home country with this book either, because as he makes clear in the story he’s telling (and herein lies so much of its value and importance), the cultural and political problems ravaging Afghanistan have been going on for decades now – a long and bloody battle for the soul of a nation crippled by rampant poverty, sectarianism and religious zealotry. First the Russians, then the warlords, from whom rose the ugly specter of the Taliban – regardless of who’s been in power, basic life necessities have been cut off, neighborhoods allowed to descend into chaos and destruction, and women suppressed and abused. In short, it’s immediately clear that Hosseini’s not making this up, he’s lived through it – a fact which lends crucial credibility and weight to the narrative, and makes his earnest desire to share the plight of his people through story both admirable and significant.

I say this in part because I recently listened to an interview with Hosseini in which he explained where the impetus to write both this novel and its much-anticipated follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, came from. I was impressed with how articulate and intelligent Hosseini obviously is, his passion for his people and homeland and his humility in the face of the worldwide popular appeal of his work. He makes clear that while his first and foremost priority is to tell stories that human beings of all stripes and backgrounds will be able to relate to, the fact that he can open peoples’ eyes and minds to what is going on in modern Afghanistan while doing so is an added bonus – and an opportunity that he wants to make the most of. From what he was saying, it sounds like his second novel is particularly valuable in this regard, since Afghan women have been enduring repressions and indignities that modern Westerners can barely comprehend, let alone imagine, for centuries. If A Thousand Splendid Suns succeeds in bringing their plight to the fore of readers’ minds in vivid and accurate detail, as I suspect it does, that alone makes it a book worth sharing, reading and discussing.

But The Kite Runner is the topic of this rambling essay, and I’ll conclude with a few thoughts about a question raised earlier: why has this novel proven to be so incredibly popular over the course of the past four years? It’s not a question that lends itself to any one facile explanation, of course. Trying to explain the ebb and flow of popular appeal is like trying to explain why the wind blows where it will. But it is interesting to speculate on why the story of a man looking back on his half-idyllic, half-nightmarish upbringing in Afghanistan and trying to find healing from wounds he has carried since would capture the attention and imagination of so many people around the globe.

The story has so much to do with past regrets, guilt and remorse over the sufferings of those less fortunate, that I wonder if the same overarching themes/instincts, as human as the tendency towards violence (also vividly on display here), are themselves a key to the riddle of the novel’s enormous and enduring impact. In other words, the near-universal embrace of Hosseini and his anguished characters may say a lot about our feelings as Westerners (and, more specifically, Americans) as the violence and heartbreak of this war-torn corner of the world has now hit home for us in a new and frighteningly personal way. Our recent appearance on the stage in this theater of pain has perhaps awakened in us a new and, one can only hope, enduring sympathy for those asphyxiating in the crushing grip of tyranny, injustice and persecution. Any story that holds out the possibility of hope and escape from such horrible conditions is a sure bet to find purchase in the hearts of people of good will everywhere, who look forward to a day when “all the colors bleed into one," and peace will "flow like a river."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 46

Massive Attack

The day of reckoning is fast approaching for my ‘first novel’. I was really worried about keeping the project going once my third child arrived. The fact is that the novel was crippled under its own weight weeks in advance of this event. The hiatus between chapters has grown to exceed even the previous record, the 6-month snag I had in producing Chapter III in the Summer of 2007, but at least in that case we had a whole move of my house and home in there to blame it on. Now I have been languishing on producing the fifth chapter of the novel for nearly seven months and counting. I wrote an introductory scene for it, then stalled; later I gained some momentum as the last few journal entries reveal, but now have stalled again. I am trying to make it through to the end of Part I of the novel because I still have two other large Parts planned out and they will probably include 4-5 chapters each, so there is a long road to travel down before this novel is anywhere close to being finished.

The questions creep into your brain. Your confidence falters. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to do this. Maybe I never have. How long have I been writing creatively? I trace my start of ‘serious’ creative writing back to 1990. That’s eighteen years. What do I have to show for it? A 5-figure student loan with a locked interest rate. Payment to last into my 50s or 60s. Six or seven published essays or reviews in relatively small magazines. Zero published stories after around 12 years of sending out short fiction. Why keep at it? Even if I can get a draft of a novel done the odds against getting it published are so long it becomes a laugher when compared to the amount of time it is taking me to write it.

In the dead of night or the silence of the pre-dawn morning, facing a blank page or scrawling away to fill one up in more fortunate moments, a writer really doesn’t know why they persist. Why tell stories? For what? For who? Because some of us must. Perhaps God has called us to this sort of eccentricity. We move through the world thinking about odd connections, interesting tidbits of seemingly useless information, random story ideas or character sketches, and other such stuff that if we really told the people we loved about in all possible detail we’d probably end up institutionalized.

People who don’t write cannot realize how much writers obsess over ideas and possible outlets for their creative impulses. I will give you a taste of some of my own musings:

Maybe this one article I read randomly on Kenyan witch hunts can become fodder for a story some day. Who the hell cares that I’ve never set foot in Africa and don’t know the first thing about Kenya? Maybe I will read a couple books about Africa to see if I can stimulate something. Why do I keep thinking about Thomas Merton and this one guy I met 12 years ago at a retreat who was briefly a novice while Merton was the Master of Novices at Gesthemani monastery in rural Kentucky. I have not forgotten that guy ever in all this time. Answer: there is a story there somewhere. Maybe someday I will tell it. Why have I been thinking so much about Bono lately and the nature of our popular culture’s obsession with this guy? What do I have to say about this topic that has not already been said? By the way, the Swahili word “Uhuru” means ‘freedom’. Maybe Bono and Africa could be in the same story. I could call it “U2ru”. Hey, I never realized this before but my idea about crafting a climactic scene around the old Corn Festivals in Indiana reminds me a lot of the one scene in Madame Bovary where a guy attempts to seduce the title character while an Agricultural Festival is going on in the Provincial French village. Come to think of it, the old Corn Festivals they used to have in the late 30s and early 40s in Indiana are a lot like the festival that is described in Madame Bovary. There are striking similarities. And didn’t my father tell me that when he was growing up in rural Indiana many of the people he knew had French names????

See what I mean? Am I mental? Who knows. But writers are like this, or at least this one is, and I really doubt I am so different from others, except in terms of success!

I’ll tell you what I do know. The day of reckoning is at hand, like I said. My novel is foundering. I cannot allow that! How can I?! I have been at work on this thing for almost 2 ½ YEARS. The lack of faster progress is frustrating.


Now here I am again, three days later. I decided I am going to initiate a massive attack on my manuscript. I have to keep writing it no matter how poorly it has gone in the past. There are probably a million reasons to continue, but the one that is hitting me so hard at the moment is simply this. If I do not press on with my novel now, I will never find out for sure if I have what it takes to write one. And writing a novel is something I have dreamed about for almost 20 years. It would be a terrible tragedy to hold on to a dream for that long and then give it up after so much time just because I have some earthly struggles and may have hit a few rough patches here and there.

My brother and the co-founder of this blog, “Duke Altum”, had the audacity to suggest to me that I may be focusing too much on reviews, essays, and even short story ideas right now rather than putting all of my focus on moving the novel along. I explained to him that at certain times in the last two years when I hit a blockage in writing the novel but still wanted to keep fresh creatively, I have written essays and a story or two just to keep my muscles limber. Then I try to sell them; I figure if I’m not going to be writing the novel at least I can see if anyone will publish some smaller pieces in an attempt to ‘make a name for myself’. It’s a nice idea, and a hell of a rationalization for delaying any further work on the novel. The problem, though, is that Duke was dead right. I should be forcing myself to work on the novel and muscle through my problems with it. You’re either a novelist or you aren’t one. You are either going to tell the story, or stop pretending that you’re going to.

My attack is already underway. I picked up the manuscript and blew the dust off of it. I started writing on a scene in which the main character’s son is born – and now, I am able to draw on my own experience from the recent past, since my own son is now five weeks old, even though I was still waiting to experience it when I began the scene. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

As soon as I started writing again it became obvious to me that I am trying to do much in my fifth chapter and must therefore close this chapter off and write a sixth, which will be included in Part I. There’s no reason why Part I has to have only 5 chapters, and I don’t want the final chapter of the first part to be an arduous slog that no one can make it through. Thus, suddenly I am close to the end of Chapter V, or at least the draft of it, and that, friends, can be considered progress. The chapter has a new title: “Spinning the Golden Wheel, Before the Crash”. I will finish the chapter, edit it, type it up, add it to the other four, and continue planning and drafting Chapter VI, in the hopes of rounding out Part I of the novel. So the first part of the book will be as follows:

Part I
Chapter I: Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers
Chapter II: A Premature Death, New Experiences
Chapter III: The Fiery Cross, Revelations
Chapter IV: A Lawyer’s Return, Life After Death
Chapter V: Spinning The Golden Wheel, Before The Crash
Chapter VI: ??

And in this way the dream clings to life.