by Lois Leveen, September 15, 2014 10:00 AM
There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him.
He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well.
It's about Juliet and... her wet nurse.
At least, that's what the data junkies at FiveThirtyEight.com claim. As does Jim Carter, aka Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey.
What is up with the nurse? In the first scene of the play in which Juliet appears, the nurse first appears as well. And in that scene, when Juliet's mother makes a passing reference to Juliet's age, the nurse exclaims, "Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour." She then takes three speeches totaling over 40 lines to do it, somehow managing to work all sorts of details about her own life story in. You know that friend who always tries to make everything about her? That's the nurse.
So I figured I'd better give her the one thing Shakespeare couldn't: her own novel. (Back when Shakespeare was alive, novels hadn't yet come into existence — hence his failure ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize.)
There were a few big challenges in writing Juliet's Nurse. One was crafting the story so it would be compelling for readers regardless of how well (or poorly) they remembered the play. Don't tell my high school English teacher, but one thing that helped was that, until I lit upon the idea of writing the novel, I hadn't actually re-read the play since high school. So I had a good sense of how little one might remember about Romeo and Juliet, even as I quickly came to know way more than I'd ever imagined I would about it.
Another challenge was that although Angelica (yes, the nurse does actually have a name) is on the surface a comic, and often quite ribald, figure, even in the play she is also a tragic character, who by the final scene has lost everyone she loves. Thanks, Shakespeare! Telling her story meant giving depth to a tremendous range of emotions.
And the third challenge was what I call the "forsoothiness factor." This Shakespeare fellow is known for his brilliant command of language. But it's language that much of the time sounds arcane to us. How could I give voice to Angelica, and the other characters, in a way that wouldn't be too abstruse for 21st-century readers but also wouldn't sound inappropriately modern?
For one thing, although I do incorporate some words and phrases from the play, I avoided what seemed like over-the-top Shakespeare-speak. Farewell, forsooth. I think not, methinks. Thou gettest the picture.
I also decided I'd not use any contractions Shakespeare'd not use.
Did that last sentence sound weird? It should. I also decided I wouldn't use any contractions Shakespeare didn't use is more natural phrasing for us. By using Shakespearean conventions for contractions in Juliet's Nurse, I could make the prose sound right for the period, without making readers have to struggle so much to decode it that they stopped being carried along by the story. I doubt any readers will consciously notice the contractions, but it should give them a sense that there is something "Shakespearish" in the language.
They say you can start to look like your spouse or pet. But at what point do you start to look like the guy whose character and plot you've appropriated?
And now, having spent all this time carefully crafting every line of the novel, I've got to go at it one more time, Veg-o-Matic style, slicing and dicing a few key scenes. Why? Well, you might say because of Powell's.
As a Portland novelist, I'm delighted that Powell's will host the kickoff event for Juliet's Nurse at their flagship Burnside store. Before my first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, came out, I started going to a lot of readings at the Burnside store. Random readings. It didn't matter who the author was or what the book was about. It was like I was casing the bank before a big heist.
I haven't knocked over many banks. Okay, I haven't knocked over any banks. But at this point, I've done enough book talks about The Secrets of Mary Bowser that I can do them in my sleep. In fact, I actually did, once, thanks to a series of airline delays followed by a ride with a Chicago cabbie who got so lost I was lucky I didn't end up in Lake Michigan. I managed to arrive at my reading (which was being taped for WBEZ, the Chicago public radio station) bleary-eyed, about 3 minutes before I had to step up to the microphone.
One of the tricks I learned for a good reading is to ignore what's actually in the novel. Or rather, to cut, or add, or move big chunks of writing around, in order to create a passage that will be compelling when it's read aloud, out of context of the rest of the book. I didn't realize how strange this might seem until a friend happened to peer at a couple of pages of Juliet's Nurse I'd marked up for a reading.
She gasped. Forget the bank heist. This looked more like a mass slaughter.
One of the strange truths about Shakespeare is that most of us first encounter his work in exactly the wrong way. We're assigned to read one or another of his plays in school, something Shakespeare never meant to have happen (and not just because he couldn't have pictured the typical contemporary high school). He meant his plays to be performed, not read: the play's the thing; those words on a page are just a gesture at the play. For a novelist, the opposite is true. We create work to be consumed in the very private pleasure of reading. But weirdly, although we say we've got a bookstore reading, what a good author does at these events is perform.
That doesn't mean I'll be bringing my accordion to Powell's. Or dressing up like a 14th-century wet nurse. Or even trying to read one of Angelica's juicier speeches from Romeo and Juliet. It will just be me, and the some well-chosen and artfully edited scenes from the novel, and a bard's worth of good stories about researching the novel, and maybe one small Lego figurine.
Hope you can join me — or us — September 23, at 7:30. I'll be the taller one, who's not wearing an Elizabethan
by Lois Leveen, May 18, 2012 12:32 PM
[Editor's note: Please join us at our Burnside location tonight at 7:30, where Lois Leveen will be presenting her new novel
The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Click here for full event information.
Wayyyyy back in October, I found out my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser would be published on May 15. But it was only a couple of weeks ago that I began to wonder what I would actually do on May 15. And, for that matter, on May 14, and on May 16. I had no idea. So I asked some of my friends who are published authors.
Heidi Durrow (author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky) told me that the day her book came out, she had a "gussy me up day": she got her hair done, and also her nails and toes, to be ready for her book launch party. But then she panicked that no one would show up. Ten minutes before the reading, only a dozen people were there. But then everyone flooded in and, she said, it felt like magic.
Or at least I think that's what she said. I sort of tuned out after the part about nails and toes. I'm not really a salon type. The last time I had a pedicure, which was also the first time I had a pedicure, was eight years ago, with my sister. Who'd just had brain surgery. It's not rocket science, but still I figured she should get to choose how we celebrated. But now we were talking about my book, not her brain.
"Do I have to wear make-up when my book comes out?" I asked Ann Packer. Ann's published two novels and two collections of short stories (most recently Swim Back to Me — her books always have great titles). I figured that made her four-times as wise as me.
"You only have to wear make-up if you're going to be on TV," Ann said. "And then, who cares that you have to wear make-up? You're on TV!"
That seemed very reassuring, until I thought about actually being on TV. Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation, told me that before her first live television interview, she was so petrified, she asked the celebrity who was waiting in the greenroom with her for tips. "About what, exactly?" the celebrity asked. Jean, watching the clock countdown to her moment to go on air, said, "Anything!" To which the celebrity replied, "Well, I really hate to buy things at full price." And she proceeded to advise Jean about all her favorite bargain hunting spots, non-stop until Jean got called onto the set.
"Seriously, what's the worst thing that can happen?" I asked Ariel Gore, who, as author of How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead seemed like she would know all about how to be a famous writer.
She didn't even pause to reflect. She described going to a far-away city to do a reading, described it in trance-like second-person narration: "Plane, train, and car. You get there. And there is no review. And there is no name in lights outside that big bookstore. And the listing in the local weekly says only: "Al Gore's bratty daughter is in town again." And you are not Al Gore's daughter."
Okay, well, at least I do not have the same last name as any sitting or former Vice Presidents, so I am probably safe on that score. Still, I figured it was time to see the reading-glasses half full.
"Seriously, what's the best that can happen?" I asked Julia Quinn, or rather the woman who under the pen-name Julia Quinn has published a gazillion books with titles like A Night Like This and To Sir Phillip, with Love, i.e. romance novels, all of which sell a gazillion copies.
"Three days after my first book came out in 1995," she said, "my local Waldenbooks called me up and told me they'd sold nine copies. After I hung up the phone, I realized that meant that nine people who WERE NOT RELATED TO ME had bought the book. Quite possibly the best moment of my career."
A lovely story. But still didn't leave me with a clue about what I'd do the day my book came out.
"That's easy," said Cheryl Strayed — easy for her, since first of all she is Miss Sugar and thus used to doling out advice, and second of all her new book Wild is driving everyone wild. "The day your book comes out, you go to every bookstore in town, and sign every copy, and then they can sell them as autographed copies."
This seemed like good advice, provided she didn't expect me to strap on an 80-pound pack and hike to all those stores.
So on May 15, I started my day by walking to the Powell's Hawthorne store, about six blocks from my house. I presented myself to a very nice staff person. He punched my name into the computer. And then he said, "Looks like your books haven't come in yet. You might want to try again later."
At least he didn't call me Miss Biden.
I left the store, feeling a little blue, telling myself it was no big deal, I could always — "Hey, there's the Powell's truck!" I yelled. While jumping up and down.
Innocent Powell's tru
by Lois Leveen, May 17, 2012 11:35 AM
Fear of a red tractor. That is what keeps a novelist up at night.
Remember the good ol' days when barber, surgeon, and dentist was a single occupation?
Okay, maybe those days weren't so good. But at least back then, the dentist was probably too busy to be a literary critic, too. My dentist, however, is another matter.
Last year, while giving my molars the once over, the dear old DMD told me about a book he'd been reading. A book he really liked. Until he got to a description of "a red John Deere tractor" sitting in a field. He immediately put the book down, never to finish it. Because, as he put it, "everyone knows, John Deere has never made a red tractor. That was put in there by some New York editor."
Only a West Coast dentist can make a New York editor sound like such an unseemly villain.
Authors — and our editors — are always trying to add specificity to our descriptions, to make things more real. Except that when you get that "real" detail wrong, you have blown it big time.
As it happens, one of my New York editors is originally from Virginia, where much of my novel is set. She suggested that the bird's nest I'd tucked into a magnolia tree on the very first page of my novel should have gone into a dogwood, because that's the state tree of Virginia — it would sound more specific, less generically Southern.
As it also happens, I'm an obsessed lunatic. I'd already checked on whether magnolias grew in Richmond. But here was a bona fide Virginian making the case for dogwood. So what did I do? I emailed one of the Virginia state arborists, just to make sure that a bird would actually nest in a dogwood if it were in the exact location of the tree on page one of my novel. Only when he said yes did I make the change.
As you can imagine, this level of obsession takes an awful lot out of a novelist. I was reading the galleys of my book last fall, and lo and behold, I realized I'd made a reference to a straight razor.
You know, the olde timey open-bladed razor that any 19th-century character would be familiar with. And so I took my purple pencil (the red pen of galley proofing) and crossed it out.
Because nobody called a straight razor a straight razor, until after there were safety razors (that olde timey kind everyone's dad used, before disposables came along). Until then, they were just razors.
In writing a novel based on a real person, I focused on crafting a compelling story. Which means sometimes I intentionally deviated from what I knew to be true. I've also unearthed new facts about Mary Bowser since drafting the novel (I told you I'm an obsessed lunatic — of course I’m still researching), which means those details aren't in the book. Sometimes when I was writing, I made something up that I later learned was true, or close to the truth, which gives me goosebumps.
Still, I'm sure there are things I got wrong without realizing, in those devilish details. So if you happen upon a big ol' red John Deere in the field of my fiction, please forgive me. And don't tell my
by Lois Leveen, May 16, 2012 12:00 PM
"We're giving you a French flap," my publisher said.
"That's fantastic!" I said.
Then I immediately Googled "French flap."
Which it turns out is not, as I feared, some new variant on a Brazilian wax.
A French flap is a fancy-pants design in which the cover includes an extra folded bit on each side, which gives the publisher more room to tell you about the book, and gives you a built-in bookmark to fold into place. (Unless of course you decide to read the book in one sitting, in which case, I'm sure you can find some creative use for your flap page).
Belgian chocolate stashed in French flaps.
The French flap says, exquisite physical object. But, being bilingual, it also says pas trop cher. A French-flapped tome is not only elegant, it's less expensive, less heavy to schlep around, and less of a space-hog on your bookshelf than a hardback.
Yes, I said it. My book, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is not coming out in hardback. This is the kind of news that until not long ago was the equivalent of a movie going straight to video. Hardback books are big! They're important! That's the way it is! Or at least the way it used to be.
When I told my friend Ben Metcalf that my book was being published, he made me feel like it was the best news in the world. Ben was for many years the literary editor of Harper's magazine, so the idea that he could be thrilled over my little ol' book made me even more thrilled.
When I told him what I thought was the bad news ? that there wouldn't be a hardback edition ? he made me feel like that was even better news. "Nobody's published a hardback book in France in years," he pointed out, "and their publishing industry is thriving." Pop the champagne! Vive la paperback!
And that was before I learned about the French flaps.
I discovered Ben wasn't the only one who knew my news for what it was. Bookstore owners, librarians, literary agents (and not just my own) ? everyone told me this was great news. The only people who didn't say it were the ones for whom it was most true: potential readers. Particularly the people who would avoid meeting my eye while saying something like, "Your book sounds really interesting, but my bookclub usually doesn't read things until they've been out for a while." Out for a while meaning, cheaper because the paperback has been released.
As an author, it's hard not to want a hardback book. It's still prestigious. But the point of a book being published is not to inflate the author's ego. It's to connect readers with a story with which they will fall in love. And you can't fall in love with a book you can't afford to buy. You can't treasure a book that you have no room to keep. I wrote my novel surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books I own. A tiny percentage of which are hardcover novels. Why would I expect my readers to want a different relationship to my book than I have to the many books I love?
But I'll confess, there's one drawback of trade paper originals that still has me worried. They have a harder time attracting media attention, especially as fewer newspapers run book reviews at all (Portland being a wonderful exception, and Seattle as well). You read reviews and hear interviews all the time with authors who've come out in hardback. You may not buy the book until you read and hear the re-runs of those reviews and interviews a second time when the paperback comes out. But all the press adds up, whether you're shopping at the remainder table for last year's hardback or at the new releases for this year's paperback.
So make it easier for publishers and authors to make books accessible the first time around. Buy a trade paper original (I think The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an excellent choice, but it's a free market, find the one that suits you). It'll run you less than a couple of movie tickets. Or one movie ticket and a stop at the concession stand. If you like the book, tell people about it. In French, if you'd like. If we all make a flap, maybe we can Frenchify our own publishing world.
by Lois Leveen, May 15, 2012 11:53 AM
To an author, librarians are superheroes. First, they are incredible sources when we are researching and writing. Then, they are vital connectors for helping readers find our finished books. And if librarians in general are superheroes, Nancy Pearl is the superduper
hero, the librarian so cool she has her own action figure
. So when Nancy Pearl defines the four elements that make a person fall in love with a book, who wouldn't listen?
Story. Character. Setting. Language. Pearl calls these four elements doorways, "because when we open a book, read the first few pages, and choose to go on, we enter the world of that book." And since books take us places, I figure we might as well carry Pearl's four-door metaphor into sedan-land. That way, I can hotwire it and take it for a blog-entry spin.
Here's what Pearl means by her four doors:
A book heavy on story is a page-turner, and we fall headlong into its can't-wait-to-find-out-what-happens-nextness. What in graduate school I was taught to call narrative desire and what in real-life causes your honey to wake up at 2 a.m. and wonder why your bedside reading lamp is still on.
Pearl says a book heavy on character makes you feel so connected that when the book is over, it's like you've lost a friend. I'd amend that, because sometimes character can be captivating not because the person at the center of the book is drawn so well as to be endearing, but because that character is so outlandish, or repulsive, or... well, whatever it is, it's captivating.
Books heavy on setting are the ones that make you feel like you're in a place. Maybe a place familiar to you that you're amazed to find captured on the page. Maybe a place you've never been yet after reading the book you'd swear you know first-hand. Setting doesn't have to be a real place — just ask any science fiction fan, or the people who keep a map of Yoknapatawpha County pinned to their wall. It just has to be real to the reader.
Books heavy on language are the ones in which you can dwell in a sentence, or a phrase, the way someone inhabitants a formal garden. It's a deep sensory appeal, perhaps even meditative. You want to believe the world can be that beautiful, even though you know beyond the garden wall — and outside the covers of the book — it isn't.
According to Pearl, every book combines story, character, setting, and language — in different proportions. I know this as a reader. My reflex response is to say I'm most drawn to character. It's why I tend to prefer first-person narrators (although third-person narration that gets close inside a character's head, anything from Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, also grabs me). But character is never enough.
If a book's language doesn't entice me — if I feel the phrasing is hackneyed, or flat, or just plain wrong for the characters and setting — I can't get beyond the first few pages. Lack of connection to a book's language is probably the biggest reason I end up disliking, and thus not finishing, something that someone has recommended. It doesn't matter if a good friend or a respected reviewer found the book pleasurable, if the language doesn't pull me in, I'm on the curb as the sedan drives off. Language matters that much.
But — and here's what's amazing — I would NEVER read a book primarily for the language. In fact, I often hit the brakes in reading a novel or a literary memoir or a short story because it seems overly involved with its own language, what I think of as the peril of the MFA program. It's the literary equivalent of a gorgeous (and expensive, they're always expensive!) pair of shoes that hurt so bad you'll never wear them. Shoes are functional. So is literature. It's about what it does for the reader, where it takes us.
Of course, it's tough to quantify books this way. I know that Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes has unforgettable characters, compelling language, and a vivid setting — though it's not much of plot-driven page-turner story (non-spoiler alert: in the next chapter the McCourts will still be poor and hungry, although they may be living in even more appalling circumstances than they are in this chapter). But what exact combination does the book offer of the elements that are there?
This question is even tougher when I apply it to my own book. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is about a woman who spied for the Union by pretending to be a slave in the Confederate White House. But it's not really a spy novel, in the traditional sense. It's about the character, and her relationships. It's about the settings — Richmond and Philadelphia, in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s — where she lives. It's about the language in which she tells her story and how that language rubs up against languages of those who have more power and more privilege than she does, and those who have less. I spend a lot more time on crafting sentences than a genre-fiction spy novelist does.
But ultimately, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is also about story: how does someone go from being slave to free, and then to a spy pretending to be slave? A lot happens in the book, although not in the way someone who's looking for a more conventional spy novel might expect.
Those potential missed expectations haunt me every time someone asks me what the book is about. I wish there were an easy way to communicate the complex alchemy of the four elements, rather than just offering a plot summary or an elevator-pitch of what inspired the book.
This is where the engine really purrs in Pearl's metaphorical sedan. Although some people read exhaustively on a topic/theme — any romance set in Renaissance England, or any police procedural set in a contemporary big city — mostly what a book is about isn't what makes a difference to a reader. It's the right combination of the four elements that wins us over. Which is why Pearl suggests creating pie-charts for books. Let a potential reader know how much of this book's allure lies in story, how
by Lois Leveen, May 14, 2012 10:37 AM
I didn't know I was going to be a novelist.
Or a Civil War Enthusiast.
So how did this happen?
The embarrassing thing is that I now own both the Playmobil Civil War set,
and several volumes from that Time-Life Civil War set you see in the background.
Some years ago ? never mind how long precisely ? I was a geeky academic-wannabe, sitting in my grad school library, reading a book of women's history. Buried in the book's 300 pages were a few paragraphs about Mary Bowser. Born a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond, Virginia, Mary was freed by Bet, the headstrong (guess what that is code for) Van Lew daughter and sent North to be educated. But Mary returned to the South and, during the Civil War, became a spy for the Union... by pretending to be a slave to the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Wait a minute ? I thought the Civil War was boring. A seemingly endless list of dates, battlefields, and names of generals we had to memorize in high school. Who knew it could be so interesting?
The real meaning of the Ken Burns effect.
I was already teaching and writing about race and what it means in America. Mary Bowser's story seemed like a way to communicate those things to people who would never wander into my classroom or read an academic article.
There was only one problem. Besides what I read in those few paragraphs, almost nothing was known about Mary Bowser. If I was going to tell her story, it wouldn't be a biography. It would be fiction.
Not that I made it all up. I did a huge amount of research, about black life in antebellum Richmond (which it turns out was nothing like plantation slavery). About life in antebellum Philadelphia. And, yes, about the Civil War.
Me, the day my agent auctioned my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Then I took all of that and imagined characters and scenes and dialogue, the way any novelist does (although I wove in real people, real events, even real letters and newspaper articles). I'm proud of the book, but I'm also terrified. Because you'd be amazed how many people respond to the statement, "I've written a novel," with the question, "Is it fiction or nonfiction?"
Not that nonfiction is so pure a genre. As it turns out, that first history book in which I read about Mary Bowser doesn't contain a single footnote or cited source concerning her. In fact, most of what appears in books and on the web about the real Bowser isn't true ? or at least has never been proven. And I've already seen a few reviews of my novel that treat things I invented, and which I tried to make clear I invented, as historical facts.
So let me say it right now: just because you read it in a book, does not mean it's true. Even if it's a book about a real person who played an amazing role in the Civil War.
Mary Bowser may not have killed any vampires, but I still think she's pretty awesome.