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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 0 comments
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
A Matter of Inspiration: When Characters From One Book Find Soul Mates in Anotherby Julia Glass
Nearing the end of my book tour for Three Junes, I'm surprised to find that my favorite part of the "events" is not reading aloud from the book itself but answering questions about my life as a writer (which suddenly feels a lot less dull), the lives of my characters (whom I'll talk about as interminably as I will about my children; all I'm missing are snapshots), and my "methods" (best summed up as seat-of-the-pants). Certain questions come up repeatedly: How long did it take you to write this book? Are the characters based on people you know? Did you write from an outline? Others catch me off-guard: Are you writing a sequel? Where did you get those shoes? But there's one question I'd been told to expect yet so far haven't been asked: What writers influence your writing?
Perhaps my questioners know, as I have learned, that influence is (somewhat sadly) a matter of serendipity and of largely unrequited craving. It's a lot like true love: It tends to come, if and when it comes, from somewhere you'd never have predicted. But that doesn't mean you can't pine, now and then, for the might-have-been. Beyond Shakespeare and Pope and other Unattainables, what writers do I wish might ravish me with influence their ways with words, with morality and humor and pathos, seeping like sap through the neurons in my brain, the keys of my computer, deep down into my prose? At times, such longing feels like another, more youthful kind of angst: those writers like the boys in leather jackets who rarely if ever looked my way.
But oh, I have my list. At its head resides George Eliot though perhaps she's more like a patron saint or muse, a benevolent Unattainable. Behind her, depending on my current struggles, the wish list tends to vary but almost always includes Andre Dubus the Elder (for the way he writes about love), Alice Munro (for the way she writes about the mysteries and epic repercussions of chance), Jim Harrison (for the gloriously flawed people he creates and the glorious predicaments they land themselves in), Iris Murdoch (for the devilish, earth-shaking choices she makes her characters face), Ralph Lombreglia and John Dufresne (for being both so exquisitely, painfully funny, so full of heart, inciting laughter on a sensual par with good sex). Charles Baxter, Rachel Ingalls, Richard Russo, John Casey....I'm greedy once I get going. Alas, influence is something for which you can only pray.
But inspiration, that's a kinder, gentler matter and if I turn a less covetous eye on my list, I could say it's a list of writers who inspire me: amplify my senses of the physical world, my joy in language, my faith in the power of make-believe. The only impediment to reading their books is the urge the almost literal itch they sometimes give me to heave them aside like burning coals and get to work on mine.
I have heard writers claim that while they're working on a new book, they won't read anything contemporary, won't read anything they haven't read before, or simply won't read at all. They're too impressionable, they claim. I find such restrictions as absurd as protesting that you can't eat out if you're the household cook or can't give birth if you're an obstetrician. And when, after all, is a writer not working? In my head at least, the business of spinning stories has no closing time. Twists in my characters' lives, glimpses of their secrets, obstacles to their dreams...all arrive unbidden when I'm getting cash at the ATM, walking my son to camp, singing a hymn at a wedding. A significant character in Three Junes was conceived in a traffic jam, after prolonged exposure to this bumper sticker: LIFE. WHAT A BEAUTIFUL CHOICE. The point is, I'm never not working.
The books I read, if they intrude on my writing, do so as weather will pass through and touch a landscape affecting it, yes, but only now and then leaving a permanent mark. This kind of inspiration struck, perfectly timed, when I was about two-thirds of the way through writing Three Junes. I'd bought simply because I picked it up in a bookstore and found it appealing Peter Cameron's third novel, Andorra, which I consumed with the appetite of a pie-eating contestant. Its narrator is a genteel but enigmatically haunted man who makes of himself a literal exile only to find, of course, that's there no escape (from what, he will not fully confess, even to himself). The great pleasure of discovering a "midcareer" writer is having more to read at once, so I went right out and bought a collection of Cameron's stories and his previous novel, The Weekend, a book that would prove fortuitous to the completion of mine.Three Junes, as I see it, is a novel about how we live beyond heartbreak, shame, and regret over opportunities lost because of the emotional barriers we raise; how we manage not to give up on love; how mysterious, intangible gifts come our way through the people around us, both people we love and people we hardly know. In each of the novel's three parts, a different character has suffered through a recent death, though the ways they live with their losses are as different as the characters themselves: a wealthy Scottish widower in his sixties, his gay expatriate son, and a young American woman whose life intersects with both of theirs on either side of a decade. Nearly all the book's characters are "privileged" people: well educated, well housed, bolstered by family, worries about money rarely urgent. And the settings, too, are mostly places of privilege: a fine old house in Scotland, an island in Greece, a cottage with a view of the ocean on Long Island. Periodically, writing about such characters, I have a crisis of faith: Who cares about the pain of such people, of people in such beautiful surroundings? Does it even, in this world of so much unbearable sorrow, "rate" as pain? Come to think of it, how trivial are my sorrows, and just how sheltered am I?
I was floundering at such a place when I picked up The Weekend. I was also facing down the true challenge of writing a novel: ending it. I knew who the characters were in the final third of the book, I knew the present action would take place over a weekend at that house on Long Island, I knew the alliances as they would stand at the end and that the end would be hopeful, but I did not know quite how the characters would get there. In The Weekend, I was surprised (and a little unnerved) to encounter a cast of characters from the very same world, even (as in Three Junes) a man still mourning the loss of another man to AIDS and a mother preoccupied with the fate of a small child. More remarkably, the novel ended, as I knew mine would, with the main character's return to New York City. I might have been depressed at the similarities, but I was energized (as well as deeply moved by the novel itself) and I became curious about what it was that had moved the modest "actions" of this story so powerfully forward in feeling. Where was the engine of change in these characters' lives? For Cameron's characters, like mine, do not face the consequences of war or famine or hurricanes or murder (bad manners might be their worst crime). They face the consequences of their memories, their emotions, their loyalties and betrayals, their words to the people around them.
I felt as if I had traveled abroad and run into next-door neighbors I'd never met at home or as if my characters, drifting about in my head, had discovered a gang of soul mates souls who seemed not frivolous but tragically weighted. I was heartened by this kinship, even though Cameron's writing has a conciseness I could only envy. (Two thirds through, I was wrestling with 300-some pages and counting; The Weekend, like a prayer book, is paradoxically quite small.) And now I confess to an act of theft.
I looked at the superficial features our stories had in common: a weekend at a summer house; characters in mourning and characters fretful (as parents, as lovers, as siblings) for the future. What I saw in The Weekend was how everything that happens is created by a collision of the various characters' longings and fears and that accelerating this collision is the unplanned intrusion on a group of intimates by other people who are incompatible or somehow estranged. In the haphazard chemistry of their mingling emotions, seemingly ordinary interactions drive these characters together and apart in ways that crack open their hearts. Perhaps it's a variation on the old "stranger comes to town" plot device, but never mind; this is what I was striving for. What I stole was, simply, the arrival of unexpected guests, including a virtual stranger. I played here with a number of characters, two of whom I ultimately banished. Thinking about parties I had been to in the past, I came to the intuitive conclusion that gatherings of five are especially precarious.
In a strange way, Peter Cameron's novels and stories (whose settings are as rich as their characters) also revealed to me two things about my book that I had not seen quite so clearly before. I saw that I had chosen some of my settings not because I knew them well (some I hardly knew at all) but, unconsciously, because of the way they complemented the predicaments of my characters: For instance, that I chose Greece as the place to which a man flees when he wants to get a view of his past, and Scotland (land of clans and tartans) as the stage for a drama of family allegiance and deceit, suddenly took on added depth which I was able to work with as I revised Three Junes. I saw as well, without apology, that it is about people who appear to the outside world as if they have everything and while it's true that they have almost everything, that almost is a narrow but treacherous chasm mined with tragedy of an intimate kind. Such people, conscious of the good fortune they do have, often conceal their inner mourning in ways that only deepen the sorrow.
Last May, as I waited for Three Junes to become a real book, I was pleased to discover that Peter Cameron's latest novel, The City of Your Final Destination, was also landing on bookstore shelves. Reading it savoring it was an especially rich experience. Just like his previous novels, it is a page-turner whose suspense is almost purely emotional. A book about letting go of defenses, secrets, ambitions, and other internal barriers it is moving, exquisitely written, and ends perfectly, the only way it can.
At my readings, people who've read Three Junes often tell me they miss its characters and want to know what's become of them since the novel's end. Two people have surprised me now by asking if I'm plotting a sequel. The answer, for now, is no. But if I never bring them back from literary limbo, perhaps there's a heaven of sorts for characters readers still wonder about and if there is, I know where mine are now: at a beautiful weekend house, by the sea or in the mountains, all in love but continuing to struggle...and sharing that heaven are the characters laid to rest by Peter Cameron.