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Author Archive: "Gil Adamson"

Writers’ Comfort Zones

I was sitting around with a bunch of writers a while back, in a hotel bar in Wellington, New Zealand, during the (it must be said) splendid festival they have there. One of the writers, novelist Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows, Kartography), asked us all how we format our pages as we type. Double spaced? What font? What size? Do you count your progress in thousands of words or in pages? It was a strangely intimate question, a bit like asking whether you sleep in the nude and if not, what do your jammies look like?

As it turns out, there was little variation in how we all formatted, though we shook our heads at a few details (really, sixteen point? How can you stand it?), and I will admit there was a little note-taking over fonts we could download. The point being that writers (and students and nurses and geeks at IBM and folks who work for the government) have computing comfort zones within which they find it easiest to think and write. The first thing you do when you sit down at a new computer or install a newer version of Word is to personalize it. It's a kind of acceptable OCD behaviour. As hard as Word and iTunes try to make us all line up and do the same things on the same pages, to train us to ask for help from a web page not a person, to make the world look clean and branded, just as if the Nazis had won the war, we work just as hard to be... if not unique, then at least different. This prisoner rolls up his cuffs, this one leaves the collar open.

I had a boss once whose background colour for her desktop was the most horrifyingly violent pink — it fairly vibrated at me as we had our meetings, and it made me wonder when, not if, this otherwise well-mannered woman would climb a clock tower with a rifle and start shooting.

Beautiful and Necessary Lies

Now that I'm home again, I can go down to my bookshelves and look at our story collections — we have hundreds of them, it would take a year to read through them all... but still it seems like we're just starting, given the number of great short story authors, alive and dead.

The common wisdom is that short stories are a hard sell these days. Talented, even established, writers have trouble placing their collections. Publishers are, in some cases, even actively avoiding story collections. The form is currently a pariah in the industry. This perplexes me. There has always been a readership for short stories — smaller than that for novels, larger than that for poetry, perhaps... but we readers of stories have always been there, and likely always will be. It's not like there's been a virus that has wiped out only readers of short stories.

When I was writing Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, I was devouring short stories. Mostly modern American practitioners of the form, but I went nuts on the South Americans too (Borges, Cortazar), and European work in translation (Calvino, Bruno Schulz)... it didn't matter, I was just loving the form. Slowly, through writing and reading these controlled explosions of experience, where voice and precision of language are arguably as important as in poetry, I began to wonder (as others have) if the short story might be the most difficult genre to master. What do I mean by "difficult?" I mean honed, like Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," O'Connor's "Good Country People," Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O.," Cortazar's "Blow-Up," Carver's "Where I'm Calling From."

Walking Backstage to See What’s Happening

I wanted to talk about Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford and Mark Richard and other influences on my short fiction. But I'm on the road at the moment and can't wander to the bookshelf to paw at their collections. And the Internet isn't working very well, and this keyboard was designed by Satan. So instead, I'll talk about novels.

Cormac McCarthy said in an interview that " books are made of books ." Of course, he's just stating the obvious, reiterating what any number of writers, academics and regular people have said less succinctly before — that each book, regardless of genus and species, would be impossible if not for its ancestors (whichever they may be). But it sounds so much cooler coming from him.

McCarthy's work is a good example. It seems pretty clear that some of his novels, like Suttree and Blood Meridian, might be impossible had their author not read... well, he would probably say Milton; we might add Faulkner. The attitude to language, the way some books have almost biblical diction while others are pared to the bone. Would McCarthy have found these rhythms if Faulkner had never existed? Maybe. Likely not. Then again, where did Faulkner come from?

Writing about True Things

I'm still thinking about the anxiety of writing about true things. Taking other people's lives as one's raw material.

My late father, for instance, whose inclination, like his counterpart in my book of stories, was to rewire the house when he was nervous. Indeed, the thing my father was tense about (his relationship with my mother) needed fixing immediately, but that was a tough call, and all he could think to do was to fix something else. One could write an essay on the fuse box alone. Admittedly, he also built brilliant kitchen cabinets, rotated the car's tires, baked sourdough bread every few days, and sewed everyone in the family a new down coat — as it turns out, my father was a genius with the sewing machine. So, I guess sublimation's not all bad. As the old Woody Allen joke goes, we needed the eggs.

The ways in which we try to dispel our anxieties are legion, and fascinating. To a writer, this is good news. This is why I watch TV shows on people who hoard until there is no room left to lie down and sleep, who dress up as Minnie Mouse in order to get sex, who gamble till they're bankrupt and walk out of the casino grinning. In fiction, there is nothing more dreary than a logical character — or as William Golding said, "If a novelist makes an entirely explicable character, then the story drops dead." Similarly, any good playwright knows to make characters speak at cross purposes to one another, to mis-answer each other's questions, to ignore the last thing said, to speak in code as if to oneself, to self-contradict. People are much more human when they are unreasonable. You may not admit it at first, but you want characters to be a little unreasonable. When King Lear says, "That way madness lies, let me shun that; No more of that," we can't help but attend to the guilty inner voice saying, "Yes, more of that. Go crazy, you old coot. Do it, do it!" There is a delicious sense that if he goes crazy, we can follow him. We can see what it feels like. From a safe distance. People themselves are inexplicable, and that's one of the "true" things fiction reaches for.

It’s All a Damned Lie

What a delight it is to be invited to blog on Powell's website. When my first novel, The Outlander, was adopted by Powell's Indiespensable in 2008, I realized in what good company I'd found myself — so many of my literary heroes are here. I asked someone at Powell's how they handle such a torrent of orders and mailing. From the answer, I formed the image of my book travelling through this mechanism, each copy set upon by an arm carrying cellophane, mailing box, tape, string, Styrofoam peanuts... much like Charlie Chaplin riding enormous cogs in Modern Life. So when they got behind the reissue of my story collection, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, I clicked my heels. (But I did not run around with wrenches tweaking people's buttons off. I leave that to Chaplin.)

I wrote HMJC years ago. Looking back on it, I think I was either foolish or daring to take on the subject of my rather peculiar family. How in the world did I think I could make sense of that bunch of oddballs? Of course, anyone who does this ought to feel at least some ethical distress: "Should I hang so-and-so's cheese out in the wind, or is that unfair? Will they want to kill me? Do I care?" There is considerable anxiety around that issue, believe me.

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