History is Not the Past

It pains me to admit it now, but I dreaded the rewrite of Refuge of Doves. Setting aside the first draft of a novel that had poured forth so naturally from mid-January to early April, I opened the drawer on a novel that was already eighteen months old. And still in need of So. Much. Work. But that kernel of there’s something there, keep going had burrowed deep, fertilized by my inherent mulishness. Finish what you started, Johnson. Take this as far as you can. 

And so I dug in.

The very week I began the rewrite, Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed Bart Ehrman, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and professor of religious studies, about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeI will forever remember that Eureka moment, walking through the woods just east of the Chinese Gardens at Fort Worden, when Professor Ehrman said “.. there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that’s miraculous …” I did a little dance right there on that forest trail. Probably scared the bejesus out of any onlooking deer.

 

Serendipity, Baby. 

 

My protagonist is a historian faced with accepting past miracles made manifest in the present. The very suspension of disbelief she faces is the same that any religion asks of its followers. It’s the same that writers ask of their readers when the story leaves the realm of historical fact and plunges into the hinterlands of “what if?” I had been been flirting with this theme from the very first word, but finally I understood how to take the story deeper, to tie the narrative set in the present with that set in the 13th century. To depart from known history and delve instead into the nebulous past. 

 

The story became something different. Not hugely, but significantly.

 

The first change was immediate, drastic, even: I switched the protagonist’s POV from first person to third. Writing this character in first person allowed me to understand her completely, but the story is greater than her character alone. Intimacy and immediacy are richer in first person POV, but third is a better fit for the style of the story. We’ll see how I feel after this week’s read-through …

A minor character was shredded, his scenes folded into others. One major character has gone through three name changes in six weeks, bless his heart. A handful of new scenes written, and one dredged up from a long-ago draft. It’s one those darlings I hated to kill, and there it sat, waiting patiently to find its place. In the end, I excised 10,000 words. And more will go, I’m sure, as I sit down with a paper copy and red pen.

Plot holes opened and scenes were reengineered. The ending changed from happy to hopeful. Love scenes went from blush-making to black-fading or dropped altogether. Dialogue tightened, personalities sharpened but characters became more ambiguous. Hopefully, you’re not entirely certain whose side you’re on. Because few things in life are black and white. Especially the truth.

In two weeks, this happy mess is off to a real, live, professional editor. It will be time. I have a couple of passes to make, an out-loud read-through to get through, but I feel it in my belly. The story is becoming what it should be—its own. Now I am ready for someone to tear it apart and work with me to rebuild. I believe in it in a way I haven’t before. I feel a smidgen of giddy. this could be something.

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But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon. Romeo and Juliet Act 2; Scene 2

 

 

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

BirdsongBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone should have warned me. Someone should have known I am acutely claustrophobic and that opening the door to this book would be inviting in the specter of a panic attack. Picture me curled on the sofa or huddled beneath the covers, my breath shallow, my heart racing, my throat closing as soldiers worm their way through tunnels beneath the trenches. Feel the numbing of my extremities, the draining of blood from my face, the hot rush of acid in my belly, the rise of bile in my throat as those tunnel walls begin to cave and threaten to trap those young men in a tomb made of French dirt. Even now my hands shake with the memory of some of this novel’s most horrific scenes. For I couldn’t stop reading, I couldn’t look away, even through my tears and hyperventilation, I read on.

So, consider yourself warned. This book contains the stuff of nightmares. And it’s not just the dreadful tunnels, it is the unrelenting, unfathomable misery of the World War I battlefields. What is it about this war? All war is hideous, but there is something about this war-the number of casualties, the waves and waves of young men released onto the battlefields as cannon fodder, the squalor of the trenches, the chemicals-it was a war that obliterated a generation. Many of those who survived became empty shells, having left their hope and their souls and in some cases, their minds, to the battlefields of the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Ypres.

Birdsong owns the war, it lives and breathes in those trenches. Your skin will crawl with lice, you will feel the slip and muck of blood and brains underneath your boots; hell, you’ll feel your toes crumbling with trenchfoot inside your rotting boots. You will cry out in horror as a soldier whose name you’ve just learned, whose two or three paragraphs will have you aching for his girl and his parents back in Surrey, dissolves in a cloud of flesh and bone beside you. Yes, you have been warned. This is not an easy read.

But Birdsong is more than a black, white, red reel of warfare. It begins as a love story between an odd and doomed French woman, Isabelle Azaire and a very young and impassioned Englishman, Stephen Wraysford. Their adulterous affair in Isabelle’s home in Amiens six years before the war opens Birdsong. Part One, the first one hundred-odd pages-is an unsettling combination of tedium and floridity as Stephen and Isabelle tear off their clothes and Edwardian sensibilities under the noses of Isabelle’s husband and two stepchildren. The affair ends but their story carries on, surfacing many years later as the war tears into homes, flesh and families. It is Stephen whom we follow throughout the story, he who carries us onto the battlefield, into the trenches and down those dreadful tunnels.

Halfway through the story we jump to 1978, where Elizabeth Benson has taken a sudden interest in her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford and the fate of the men who died in or limped home from the trenches of World War I. Here the narrative stumbles a bit. Elizabeth, now in her late 30s, seems entirely unaware of the horrors of The Great War. This rang utterly false. “No one told me,” she says upon seeing the battlefields and monuments of the Somme. I think a British citizen of her generation would have been well aware of the magnitude of that war. But Faulks gives Elizabeth a strong voice and her own personal dilemmas that bring the existential quest for meaning and truth full circle. We don’t stay in late 70s London for long, but we dip in and out until the novel’s end as Elizabeth’s story becomes woven into her grandfather’s.

Sebastian Faulk’s writing is sumptuous and pitch perfect, capturing the essence of each era he writes: the tumescent melodrama that unfolds in Amiens in 1910, the desperation, emptiness and incongruous vividness of the war years, and the practical, surging energy and wealth of late 70s London. This is a great novel, an engrossing but devastating read. Just look up every so often and take deep, slow breaths. You’ll need them.

NPR aired the following segment on 1/23/14 about digitized British World War I diaries.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/20…

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Book Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

West of HereWest of Here by Jonathan Evison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In March 2012, the final pieces of concrete and steel of the Elwha River Dam were removed. For one hundred years, man tried to harness the power of this river that flows through the haunting green and glacial interior of the Olympic Peninsula. Before it was dammed (damned), it hosted annual runs of fish, which numbered in the millions – sockeye, Coho, Chinook, cutthroat trout, steelhead, char, among many; it gave life to black bear, cougar, madrona and red cedar. It flowed through the ancestral home of the Klallam people. Removal of the Elwha Dam last year and the Glines Dam this summer mean the renewal and restoration of one of America’s most priceless national treasures: the Olympic National Park.

But at the time Washington was granted statehood (1889), the western Olympic Peninsula – crowded with sharp peaks like a mouth with too many teeth and a vast rain forest where ferns and fungi grow to fairy tale proportions – was the last frontier of the American West. Its natural resources were too great not to be consumed by the appetites of entrepreneurs. And so the flow of progress stopped the flow of the Elwha. For eight decades, its power was channeled to fuel the grind and stench of the Port Angeles paper mill and the mammoth timber industry that reigned over the western-most reaches of the United States.

Jonathan Evison’s messy and beautiful West of Here was published in 2011 just as the Elwha Dam removal project got underway. It is situated in Port Bonita, a thinly-disguised Port Angeles, in the early days of its modern development (circa 1890) and the end days of its reliance on the Elwha for it economy (2006). His cast of characters is large and they are but appendages to the beating heart of the novel’s central character: the Olympic Peninsula.

As a reader and writer for whom “Place” is core to my intellectual and emotional orientation, I have a tender spot for stories which ground themselves so firmly into their setting. Evison does this to spectacular effect – giving the same profound sense of place as Ivan Doig’s Montana, Edna O’Brien’s Ireland, Mark Helprin’s New York City (full disclosure: I grew up in Sequim, fifteen miles east of “Port Bonita” and I now reside on the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. This land is in my blood).

This is not clean and tidy historical fiction that follows the strictures of fact. Evison himself states in the author notes “I set out to write…not a historical novel but a mythical novel about history.” He anchors the plot in fact – basing James Mather’s quixotic winter expedition to plot a route across the Olympic Mountains to the Pacific Ocean on James Christie’s Press Expedition of 1888-1889; nearly all place names are real; snippets of Washington state history – Seattle’s great fire of 1889 and Port Townsend’s subsequent quest to become Washington’s most important city (which failed, thank goodness – I love my beautiful, peaceful small town, where those homes and edifices built in its Victorian heyday still offer as much wonder as they do shelter). The novel’s backbone is this region’s history and it reveals Evison’s extensive research.

Evison presents many themes: the degradation to environment and indigenous peoples by the mindless pursuit of progress and development; the burgeoning women’s movement of the late nineteenth century; tribal politics and the plight of Native Americans who stumble between a lost past and an uncertain future; post-partum-depression; the throwaway life of the modern American. Evison has been criticized for presenting this jumble of themes without following them all to their conclusion. I counter by asking when in life do we really have closure? How often are we able to tidy up our moral dilemmas, our own pasts, and march on, certain of our path? Umm…never? Right. Not even with the hindsight of history do we ever achieve certainty.

Greater than his themes, in terms of quantity and quality, are Evison’s characters: we live 1890’s Port Bonita through the adventures of feminist Eva, explorer Mather, entrepreneurs Ethan and Jacob, civil servant Adam, prostitute Gertie, healer Haw, and Klallam mother Hoko and her troubled son Thomas; Port Bonita of 2006 offers up aging high school athlete and Sasquatch hunter Krig and his hapless boss Jared; Franklin, one of the Peninsula’s few black men; ex-con Tillman; Forest Service Hillary; healer Lew; Klallam mother Rita and her troubled son Curtis. And those are just the characters I can remember as I type. But each is rendered with affection – an affection I find striking, because not all these characters are sympathetic. Fairness and empathy are this writer’s imprimatur, I believe.

The cast of characters and the shifting progression of the plot in West of Here– from one era and storyline to the next and back again – made me think of hanging wet clothes on our backyard laundry rack in New Zealand, where the wind blew ceaselessly. I’d bend down to pull out the next shirt or bath towel and the rack would whip around, presenting me with an empty line or an already-crowded patch. But I stayed in place and kept hanging, knowing in the end it would all get sorted.

I faltered a bit mid-way through (and don’t let the 486 pages of text daunt you. Evison’s prose nips at your heels – forward motion is easy) because of the bleakness of modern-day Port Bonita. I remember the Port Angeles of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when the timber and paper industries stalled. In contrast to my rain-shadowed, blue-skied Sequim flush with retiree and dairy cash, Port Angeles was a gray and lifeless place. Heavy with damp lichen and lost dreams, it wasn’t a place to linger. Evison’s reimaging of Port Bonita twenty years later brought back that sense of listlessness.

But just when you think these lives are going nowhere, the author tosses you a laugh-aloud lifeline and a tenderness that promises redemption.

Rather than comparison to today’s Lit It Boys and Girls – the other Jonathans (Franzen, Safran-Foer) Dan Chaon, Zadie Smith – whose works have left me out in the cold, I hope I have found a writer with more classic sensibilities and a deeper appreciation for storytelling. I’ll keep reading Jonathan Evison to find out.

In the meantime, follow with me the progression of life returning to the Elwha. Return of the River

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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.

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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.

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