Theory of Convergence

“I have this theory of convergence, that good things always happen with bad things. I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I just don’t know why they have to happen at the same time. I just wish I could work out some schedule. Am I just babbling? Do you know what I mean?” ~ Diane Court, ‘Say Anything’ 

“Julie, I’m so glad to know you are writing. With all that’s been happening, I wondered if you still had the energy or will to write…” So said my colleague as I stood in her doorway. I’d just regaled her with a breathless recap of the book proposal workshop I had attended the previous weekend (a shout out to publishing divas Jen and Kerry and The Business of Books. If they offer a seminar in a neighborhood near you, get thee registered).

The energy and the will. With all that’s been happening. Still writing. I was touched that someone would wonder if I continued to write despite the distractions of anxiety and anger. And surprised to discover that instead of becoming the thing I push aside, writing itself has become the distraction. The refuge.

Where do you retreat in times of crisis? I turn within. I read – finding solace in others’ worlds and words – January alone saw me plow through a half dozen novels. I exercise, tucking in the headphones and letting the miles unroll beneath my feet in an attempt to outrace, or at least wear out, the demons. I try to control what I can, while waiting for what I can not to play itself out. IMG_1105

And in the endless play of shadow and light, in the convergence of good things happening with bad, my writing life has blossomed. Two stories published in the past two months; writing workshops that have injected me with inspiration and motivation; connections made with writing buddies who surround me with empathy and enthusiasm; the application to an MFA program finally out the door after months of equivocation.

And 80,000 words. That’s where she stands.

In July, when I started The Novel (at another time of crisis; beginning to see a pattern here), I had a vague notion of a word count goal. 100,000 words seemed just shy of impossible; 50,000 wasn’t novel length. Seventy-eight grand sounded about right.

I upped it to 84,000 in October; 92,000 in December. Now I’m headed for …. 105,00? 110,000? Does it really matter? The story will know when it’s finished. And then the real work – the slicing and dicing, the killing of my darlings – will begin. And begin again. So much to do – the research, the details, the fleshing out of scenes, the dialogue to bring to life. So many revisions ahead of me that if I think about it all too much, I won’t attend to the blank page in my hand.

But in the meantime the story flows. Characters whom I never intended to introduce run into each other in the queerest of ways. Portals open in walls of solid stone. Characters find depths of compassion they are afraid to admit.

I have altered points of view and tenses. I have changed character names and flirted with revising history (talk about an A-ha moment: listening to Ben Affleck interviewed by Terri Gross for WHYY’s Fresh Air about the film Argo. Affleck discussing how a writer isn’t REQUIRED to follow historical fact with precision. The key is remaining true to history’s essence. Discuss.)

After grinding through an extended period of doubt and reluctant writing in the late fall, I find myself aching to get to the page each morning. I transcribe and add to my scribbles at the weekend, curious to discover what my brain wrought during the wee hours, while at its most relaxed and vulnerable.

In coming posts I’ll explore the process of assembling my book proposal, how I’m applying what I’ve learned about scenes in commercial fiction, what it feels like to change POV thousands of words, images and plot points into my story. And what I’ve been shy about discussing: being published, despite myself.

There is a hint of coming convergence of good with good in life as I know it. It may be February on the calendar. But it is looking like Spring in my life. Beginnings, renewal, growth, hope and all that.

“You probably got it all figured out, Corey. If you start out depressed everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.” ~ Lloyd Dobler,’Say Anything’

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, #2)Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit to having a bit of a crush on Thomas Cromwell. All right, he’s a bit long in the tooth for me, a perhaps a bit round from the life at court that fills his plate and goblet with rich food and drink. And more than a bit too cruel, as he neatly dispatches obstacles to the nearest hangman’s noose or executioner’s blade.

But there is so much to admire in the man who sits at the right hand of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who escaped his father’s fists at the age of fifteen, claims his fortune abroad and uses his cleverness and charisma to rise past sycophantic noblemen. He earns the trust of those who make the seats of power until the King claims him as his chief minister. Cromwell, as interpreted by Hilary Mantel, is sardonic with the fools who surround the king, vying for his attention. He is tender with his family – what remains of them after disease robs him of his wife and daughters. He is generous with his household, kind to the poor. And with himself he is circumspect, modest, resigned to his flaws. Irreverent, intelligent, kind, earthy – just a little bit sexy, you know? What’s not to like?

Unless, of course, you are Anne Boleyn.

Hilary Mantel’s brilliant, impossible-to-put-down Bring Up The Bodies is her lively follow-up to the Man Booker winning Wolf Hall. Which really, you’ve got to read first. It’s not that you don’t know what happens in Bring Up The Bodies (if you didn’t sleep through that day in your European History survey course). We know Anne’s head remains not long attached to her “little neck.” But Mantel is such a master of character and of the subtlest of details upon which the globe of history spins – you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice not to soak up the first of her (anticipated many) volumes of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies makes references to the recent past of Wolf Hall and its now-deceased characters, so just read it. It’s as least as astonishing.

And I admit to having a writerly crush on Hilary Mantel. She upends the notion of historical fiction, smashes it to bits and puts it back together in her crazy-unique way of writing. This is Tudor England, but presented in an entirely new way. No over-wrought 16th century language, no bodice-ripping trysts in candlelit corridors (oh, maybe just a few). Mantel writes in standard English, with cryptic Cromwell as her narrator. Her story, rooted in iconic history, feels as fresh and relevant as the headlines of today’s morning paper. It is history such as you have never considered before; meticulously researched – to the point that Mantel need only drop in a few key details to create a setting, then she lets the action carry the rest of the scene.

I love Mantel’s use of language. It is modern but never anachronistic, never ironic. The joke is not on the reader, it is on common interpretations of history. Cromwell narrates in present tense, setting the reader in the middle of the action, rather than as an observer, several centuries removed. Mantel gives me such a different way to think about presenting history – what we know becomes the outline, the foundation. The shadowy, the obscure, become the story.

I know what happens next – my history books tell me the facts. What I don’t know is how Hilary Mantel will tell the story. I can hardly wait.

View all my reviews

The Prisoner’s Hands

A few weeks ago I began work on a piece that’s been in my heart for several years. It is the story of a star-crossed romance that bloomed in the last year of World War II between a spoiled young French woman and a German prisoner-of-war with movie-star cheekbones and piercing blue eyes.

The tale is inspired by a true war romance, a story of characters whom I’ve known for many years. It was first told to me by my husband, who spent a year working near the village of Cognac in vineyards owned by the French woman’s brother-in-law. Brendan became acquainted with the sister and her husband during their visits to the farm from their home in western Germany. They took to Brendan, marveling at this young man who barely spoke French, yet who was willing to live with strangers, tending their vineyards and learning to make their Cognac in exchange for room and board. I then met the couple in 1993, several months after Brendan and I married. We spent ten days at the Bavarian home where the tall, elegant German man was raised, sheltered in the beauty of his Alpine village and by his parents’ wealth and gentility.

This couple is still alive. In their late 80s, they spend their days arguing in French in a comfortable apartment full of memories in the medieval village of Freiburg.We’ve visited them several times over the years, usually at their summer cottage on the Atlantic coast outside the town of Royan, which was smashed to ruins by German and Allied bombs alike. An ironic tragedy borne of desperation and mis-information as the War waned.

We know our chances to hear their stories are disappearing – we hope that at least Brendan can visit in the coming year. And I hope to bring part of their extraordinary story to life.

One detail of the real romance I heard once has served as my inspiration, and thus far, as the title of the story: The Prisoner’s Hands.

The young prisoner had fine hands: long, tapered fingers and clean nails, as clean as could be expected while living in the squalor of penal confinement. Because of those hands, and his ability to speak clear and sophisticated French, he came to the attention of local, influential factory owner. The businessman used his connections to “employ” the handsome young German prisoner as a day laborer on the grounds of his estate.

I have identified the prison camp as Stalag 180, outside the lovely, gentle village of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire River. In German hands it had been a transition point for captured Roma, French Jews and Communists before being sent to their deaths in the East. Under French control, it held Germans captured as Liberation forces cut a swath west across the war-trampled fields of north and central France. After some months, American soldiers took control of the prison camp; the German prisoners were released and the young man, still a teenager, returned to his Bavarian home.

This much I know is true. I also know that nearly ten years after the end of the war, the German prisoner married the factory owner’s youngest daughter and took her back to Germany, where they have lived since.

I am now in unchartered waters. I have embarked upon a journey where creating a story inspired by real lives straddles a razor’s edge. I struggle with the conflicts in my heart to offer an empathetic portrait of a man whose fellow citizens participated in crimes horrific beyond all comprehension. The details I weave from a collection of threads of the story as it has been told to me, of history as it has been recorded and from my imagination. It is easy to lose the singularity of these threads as the story takes shape and the characters go their own ways.

I began this story as my final assignment for my writing program, but I now set it aside. I will wait for a time when deadlines and word limits will not constrain a story that fills my heart with a pounding certainty that it should be told. I trust the story has been gifted to me for a reason. I will do my best.

Book Review: The O’Briens by Peter Behrens

The O'BriensThe O’Briens by Peter Behrens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would seem the greater the sweep of history encompassed by a novel, the more confined the writer. The facts of history are many and easily called out, the settings, characters and dialogue are well-defined by their eras and the more years a story covers, the shallower the characters can become as they are stretched and diluted by time.

It is, therefore, deeply satisfying to read a saga as intimate and profound as The O’Briens. Peter Behrens is a master of the art of storytelling. He understands the fine balance between enchanting prose and compelling facts.

The O’Briens begins deep in the pine forests of northern Quebec in 1887 and ends in a dinghy just off the Cape Breton coast in 1960. It follows the fortunes and tragedies of Joe O’Brien, the oldest of five siblings who lose first their father to the Boer War, then their mother to despair and disease. Joe, although taciturn and moody, is a natural leader with an affinity for numbers and an ambition that he uses to propel himself and his siblings out of Canada’s back country when he is barely a teenager. Fans of Peter Behrens will recognize the O’Brien determination from the author’s previous novel Law of Dreams, which tells the story of Joe’s grandfather, Fergus O’Brien, who escaped the famine in Ireland to immigrate to Canada two generations earlier.

Joe rushes across North America, from the forests of British Columbia to the beaches of Southern California and down to Mexico, building a fortune in railroad construction. In 1912, at a quiet real estate office in Venice Beach, Joe encounters a young French-American woman, Iseult Wilkins. Iseult has just buried her mother and she too is an orphan, as restless as Joe, yet constrained by her gender and limited financial resources.

Passion and recognition of kindred spirits bring Joe and Iseult to an altar within weeks of their first meeting. It is in depicting this marriage, an invisible ribbon that shreds to a breaking point by years of betrayal and grief and is knotted anew by tenderness and love, that Behrens reveals some of his greatest strengths as a writer. We come to know Joe and Iseult as much as they allow us to, their voices ringing true as they falter and succumb to their own vanities.

Other characters, such as Joe’s brother Grattan, his daughters Frankie and Margo and son Mike, are no less vivid for playing secondary roles. Their stories bring us directly into the emotional devastation of the men who fought in World War I and World War II and of the families left, waiting for the worst news.

Behrens is an atmospheric writer. His settings are vivid, his characters feel and react with tremendous emotion, his prose is rich and lambent. Yet his pacing is precise and brisk. He has such a great span of time to cover – one with many world-changing events – but he selects the most pivotal and delves deeply, showing his characters’ development by how they respond to their circumstances.

It was a difficult book to set aside each evening when I knew I had to stock up on sleep; I found myself longing for the free afternoon and early morning late in the week when I could be enfolded by Behrens’s story. This is a luminous read.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Spanish Bow, Andromeda Romano-Lax

The Spanish BowThe Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the treasures that await at Seattle’s “The Spanish Table” market, tucked underneath the Pike St. Hillclimb. Reflecting off the gleam of steel paella pans and bottles of port and Albarino, lining the way to the cheese and sausage cold case, are several rows of books: cookbooks from Spain and Portugal, travel books to illuminate the Santiago de Compostela, and works of fiction about Iberia or by authors who are connected to that peninsula so ripe with history and romance.

Enter “he Spanish Bow by the gorgeously-named Andromeda Romano-Lax. The eponymous bow is one of the few belongings a villager leaves to his children and wife – sent by post after his death in distant Cuba in 1898. Young Feliu Delargo is six at the time of his father’s death. He selects the bow from his father’s meager trove without understanding its use. Even after he begins violin lessons, he feels little more than rote interest in developing his musical aptitude.

Then a cellist visits his village, part of a trio featuring a famous pianist, Justo Al-Cerraz. From the first notes of the cello, Feliu is enchanted. His fate is sealed. What follows is a history of 20th century Spain, as lived through a struggling, then famous, musician. As a child, Feliu travels to Barcelona where he studies with a depressed but brilliant musician. He then comes of age in the fading glory of the Spanish court, befriending the Queen and learning to play duets by making love with an eccentric pianist, the daughter of his tutor.

As a young man Feliu again encounters the piano prodigy, Al-Cerraz. The two form a musical partnership that lasts decades. Music may be the central theme to the novel, but the partnership between Feliu and Al-Cerraz is the novel’s motif. The love-tolerance-mistrust-dependence that binds them mirrors how they feel about music, about Spain, and about Aviva, the beautiful Italian violinist who breaks their hearts. They cannot live apart from, yet are tormented by their love for each of these and for one another.

The novel has two distinct parts and feels. Feliu’s early years read like a fable, naively, almost as if the book were a translation. Once Feliu reaches adulthood and Europe plunges into World War I, the pace picks up and the tone matures and becomes more modern. It is somewhat disconcerting. Feliu as a character diminishes as the situation in Spain becomes more desperate. Other characters, most notably Al-Cerraz and Aviva, but also historical figures such as Picasso, Elgar, Weill and Goebbels are richly colored and have more immediacy.

Romano-Lax incorporates an astonishing degree of historical detail into The Spanish Bow. Feliu’s life is loosely based on that of the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals. The author clearly wanted to present a modern history of Spain in its entirety, using art and the pursuit of artistic independence and purity as a mirror to reflect Spain’s troubled quest for democracy. It’s impressive and engrossing, but the narrative does lose focus in this dogged commitment to history. Years are jumped over, Feliu’s rise to fame is foggy, Aviva- a Jew who lives in Berlin when she is not touring with Feliu and Al-Cerraz- has a storyline that begs better resolution. Too much time is given to Feliu’s touring and the daily drudgery of his life off the road- sections that could have been deleted in favor of a brisker plot and narrative momentum.

The Spanish Bow is a wonderful début by a devoted student of history, lover of music, and talented storyteller. Historical fiction lives and breathes with intelligence and passion under Ms. Romano-Lax’s pen. I see she has a new work debuting early 2012. It’s set in Italy, on the eve of World War II –  art, intrigue and the Third Reich. I can’t wait!

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

There is an art to consuming a cup of coffee, particularly if it is the first of the day, when your sleep-fuzzed brain and sluggish muscles yearn for the rush of caffeine. Drink it too quickly, you will burn your tongue and throat and negate the pleasure of its rich warmth curling thickly through your blood. Drink it too slowly and it will cool to a flaccid, bitter memory of what coffee could be.

Reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is like consuming that first, vital coffee of the day (I dedicate my very terrible simile to the Dutch, who created the modern stock market, based on the coffee trade in the century before the setting of this novel). If you rush headlong into the adventure, looking for the jolt of plot twists and intrigue, you will miss the nuances of tone and color that ripple through Mitchell’s narrative as the points of view and settings change. If you go too slowly, you will lose the heat of the mystery and its complicated cast of characters. But by reading carefully and allowing Mitchell’s pacing to steady the hand that is trembling for its narrative fix, you will emerge deeply satisfied.

If you have read any professional reviews of this book, you have been pounded over the head by the reminder that Mitchell has written a straight-on historical fiction. As if it wasn’t evident in Mitchell’s previous works that he is a master of historical details of language, tone, setting and weaving fact through his fantasy. In this instance, he lands us in Nagasaki Harbor alongside Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch clerk seeking his fortune as a member of the Dutch East Indies Company. As the 18th century comes to an end, Japan is still a nation of samurai and daimyo, determined to remain closed to foreigners. The Dutch outpost of Dejima, an artificial island in the port of Nagasaki, is the one remaining Western foothold in this land of mist and shadows.

That is the initial setting of the story. Where Mitchell takes you I won’t reveal- you’ve got to invest the time and energy into your own exploration. But read as carefully as the author has written. There is exquisite language that is a luxury to read and there are detours that frustrate until you realize you are happily lost and willing to stay the course because you trust the roads will all meet up again.

There is a secret delight at the start of a certain chapter in the final pages of the books that will have you weak with wonder at the magic of words.

I may return to give this a final, fifth star. I considered early in the novel that I was continuing on only because it was David Mitchell- there is some clunkiness that made me drag my heels and even set it aside for a couple of days. But as I continued to read, I realized I had to set aside my tendency to devour instead of savor. In the end, it was good to the last drop.

View all my reviews” target=”_blank”>http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1213607-julie”