by Gil Adamson, May 17, 2010 11:02 AM
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
), 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.
Of course, I'm not suggesting formatting your page is some kind of universal experience. Not everyone in the world has a computer. But if you are reading this post, you obviously got here somehow; you likely own a computer, are literate, speak English, and give a crap about books. So bear with me as I get a little specific.
Not all of us with access to a computer actually use that computer, either. I read somewhere that Woody Allen writes exclusively on those crappy pads of yellow, lined paper... and he uses a pencil. That's how he started writing, and that's how he still does it. Cormac McCarthy used an old Olivetti for 50 years until it died (sold for a pretty penny at auction, too) and then he went out and got an exact replica. Joyce Carol Oates used a typewriter for ages — and given her backlist, I don't think anyone could argue it slowed her down. I saw a guy at a poetry reading the other day taking notes in shorthand — I was watching over his shoulder. I even heard of a visual artist turned children's novelist who uses a brush and paint and one of those enormous white pads you see in public school on easels. She stands back and writes in longhand. It helps her think.
Everyone uses whatever tool seems most helpful. And they avoid whatever seems awkward. It's all about utility, really. I mean, a computer with its luminous screen is a prosthesis anyway. An artificial hand. It's not much different from a typewriter, except you don't have to retype every last thing until you want to scream.
Lots of writers have recently become besotted by Sharpie pens. We love our laptops for their portability. Some of us keep notebooks — and we could bore ourselves into the grave if we took a poll on what constitutes an acceptable notebook. Since the late 1990s, Moleskines have been a white-hot hit with writers thanks to their supposed literary background. Of course, these notebooks are tough, the paper's nicely opaque, and they come in all kinds of groovy formats... but the success of this product is uncanny. They affect writers the way Hannah Montana affects little girls — the alchemy of success is too weird to suss out. (Open disclosure: I have a Moleskine ... okay, I have several. I love them. Bruce Chatwin wrote In Patagonia, and I've never read it. End disclosure.)
A while back, my husband Kevin Connolly was involved in a charity event that asked poets to write three poems "live onstage." As horrifying as that sounds (both to the writer and the audience), it was in fact fun and sort of beautiful. The room was a cabaret-style martini bar with couches and cafe tables. It was darkened except for candles set out here and there, and computer screens were projected onto all four walls: four walls, four poets. At the centre of the room was a clutch of bar tables with laptops set up on them, at which the writers sat on stools and composed on laptops — they each had 10 minutes.
Between the writers was a rising umbilicus of cords and cables that went up into the darkness and connected the laptops to the illuminated screens. As each author typed, his or her words appeared, enormous and clear on the wall. You sat in the dark, your head swivelling to watch each writer type, backspace, re-think, reformat, change a line break, check spelling. There was no music. The audience was quiet and respectful, but they weren't dumb, and you could hear the frisson of approval or displeasure as a line ticked out in 1500 point type. There was the occasional whispered opinion or smattering of applause.
Sure, the poets were in acute sweaty misery the whole time. But for the audience, it was like being at the ballet, sitting in the dark and watching pretty little objects flit across the stage. The geek in me wonders how it might feel to sit alone in my office at night and write straight onto an illuminated wall. A bit Howard Hughes-ish, I guess. But fun too.
Ah well. For now, I'll have to work within the walls of the benign penal colony that calls itself Word version
by Gil Adamson, May 13, 2010 10:14 AM
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."
One book that deeply influenced me when I was writing HMJC was The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard. There are only ten stories in it. Richard was 34 when he published it and this was his first book. He was a wonder. As his publisher put it, he could "draw fully realized characters in two sentences, render the surreal completely palpable." But there's also great sadness and compassion in the comedy Richard offers, like the boys in "This is Us, Excellent" who clearly know how completely their home life has become a nightmare, and yet they hold fast, instinctively perhaps to themselves and each other: loud, crashing, optimistic little boys, surfing the chaos while their world goes to hell.
Less gothic but no less brilliant at the time were the stories in Richard Ford's Rock Springs, and Tobias Wolff's Back in the World and In the Garden of the North American Martyrs — especially the gob-smacking story "The Liar," in which the young narrator deals with the difficulties in his life by telling everyone who'll listen morbid stories about awful tragedies and trials that have wiped out his immediate family. Problem is, he gets so good at lying about them that in the end he reaches a strange state of grace. It's the kind of story O'Connor might have written, except a little more compassionate.
In the final scene of Wolff's story, his young liar sits among his captive audience on a bus pulled to the shoulder in a downpour, and in trying to concoct another gruesome dispatch of his parents (in Tibet, "killed when the Communists took over"), improvises a song in Tibetan... which he doesn't speak, so he just makes it up: "The windows went blind with rain....Outside the muddy light flickered to pale yellow, and far off there was thunder. The woman next to me leaned back and closed her eyes and then so did all the others as I sang to them in what was surely an ancient and holy tongue." It's hard to think of a more apt explanation of the urge to tell stories, and of our need to hear them. Many writers would see themselves in this kid. The writer as liar. The lie as a beautiful and necessary
by Gil Adamson, May 12, 2010 11:31 AM
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?
Admittedly, you can disappear up your own ass if you follow this logic too faithfully, and you also sell the world short if you pretend that nothing good can grow in an empty field. It can, and regularly does. But influence is a decent place to start talking about those books that inspire us, books we wish to understand better. And for the writer reading other writers, for the poet reading other poets, it's fascinating to try to figure out which books the author's been "returning to." It works as a kind of ghost image on the text. Or... occasionally, it's a little more robust than a ghost.
Case in point, I just read a remarkable debut novel named Finn by Jon Clinch (about Huck Finn's diabolical father). Clinch is obviously influenced by Twain, file that under "Duh." But it's equally clear he's been influenced by Cormac McCarthy. Here's the first sentence:
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
What a glorious way to start a book (and you won't believe whose body it is). Just as Tom Stoppard took two characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet and followed them backstage (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), Clinch has followed Pap Finn in and out of his more famous son's life. This story, shifted to the adult perspective, is not what one expects. So, in the process, Clinch has managed to piss off more than a few Twain scholars. Good for him. If you use a foundational work as your springboard and you don't manage to annoy anyone, what is wrong with you? In essence, Clinch has done what all young'uns must do, he's clambered up on his influences and leapt into the air.
I've often said that McCarthy has become something more than just a writer, just a guy with great books. He's entered that weird realm where writers become engines for generations of other writers — the Ernest Hemingways, the Sylvia Plaths, the Eugene O'Neills. Like it or not, they have changed the terrain. This is where I fit in. I am influenceable. I freely admit, and as a few reviewers have noted, my first novel is a bit McCarthyesque. I can also point to influences such as Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy, and Ron Hansen's Desperadoes, and Michael Ondaatje's poetry, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. Who knows, maybe even The Wind in the Willows... Grimm's fairy tales. The brain starts listening to language pretty early.
Interestingly, a few Canadians have seen a commonality in my prose with such work as Sheila Watson's The Double Hook, a book I've never read... but keeping in mind the viral nature of literary influence, who's to say I haven't been infected through other vectors? There is great tension surrounding questions of influence. And part of that tension comes from the fact that it's not entirely controllable. I'm sure McCarthy never set out to create his own massive literary wake and pull so many writers in behind him. He just set out. In someone else's
by Gil Adamson, May 11, 2010 10:07 AM
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.
But there is an equally unnerving feeling a writer gets when she takes the real and makes it her own by departing from the original story. It's one thing to have someone say: "You wrote about my divorce," when they did, in fact, get divorced. It's another to have someone say, "That's me in your book, but I never drowned a hobo in my pool!"
In my novel The Outlander, for instance, I based one character on a real person named William Moreland. He also had an excellent nickname: The Ridgerunner. It scared the hell out of me to "borrow" his name, but I did it, and the character worked out all right. Readers find him charming. Moreland, the real Moreland, was a youngish hermit, or what I prefer to call a "solitary," who I'd read about in Cort Conley's wonderful book Idaho Loners. It's a nicely written book and the loners within, both men and women, are absolutely lovely characters, viz the stuff I was talking above.
A hermit is by very definition unreasonable. Right? Who wouldn't want to live with other people? (Who wouldn't want to spend half their life in rush hour traffic listening to the guy on talk radio complain about the government?) I'd give you William Moreland's dates, but most hermits don't have exact dates. They tend to be off the grid anyway, and when they die, there's usually no one there to mark the date. But the Ridgerunner was alive a little later than I suggest in my book. I didn't alter much besides his dates, and from what little we know about the guy, there is much room for speculation. But I did put dialogue in his mouth, I ascribed to him attitudes and motivations, and I made him fall in love. Personally, I think he'd get a kick out of seeing himself portrayed that way. But who knows? He's dead now and can't tell us.
Of course, a writer has no obligation to present the truth, to stick to historical fact. Far from it. Fiction is fiction, and it has its own rules and logic, and if you don't follow that logic, the story "drops dead." The titular character in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient was named László Almásy, after the Hungarian count, but that might be where the resemblance ends. Rather than worry about what was true, Ondaatje made the character his own. And that worked out pretty
by Gil Adamson, May 10, 2010 10:36 AM
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.
My solution was simple. I took real stories, real people, anecdotes, sad tales, embarrassing mishaps, real neighbours, real dogs, real secrets, and put them all in the food processor and pressed chop. Nearly everything in the book is true — it just didn't happen that way... well, not exactly, anyway. To my enormous relief, no one in my family recognized themselves. Personally, I think they were too busy recognizing other people, and laughing. The disclaimer on the original edition says:
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is not only coincidental but also a damned lie, according to my mother.
One detail in this book that is actually true (i.e., isn't a chimera made of true things) also happens to be the most ridiculous. In the story "Fear Itself," the bullying and unpleasant Uncle Castor, who has collected a menagerie of white animals, decides to play a game to cheer everyone up. He takes one of each animal (cat, dog, horse, goose, duck, etc.) out in the rowboat and lets them all go at once in order to see which one makes it back to land first. I won't tell you which animal wins, but I will say that anyone who owns a cat knows which animal is most motivated to get-the-hell-out-of-the-lake. The truth is, my great grandfather did exactly that. He was back from WWI, where he'd spent nearly the entire time at the front. His survival was way past miraculous. I think he had slowly but predictably become bored with civilian life. He had a rowboat, and a lot of white animals, and time on his hands. So he did it. He played his game. And the cat won