Summer Crossing

book by Truman Capote

annotation by Kate Maruyama

It is unfair.

But let me start at the beginning.

Browsing in the library, I was glancing at the Truman Capote shelf when a title I’d never seen before popped out at me: Summer Crossing. This was impossible. I’ve read everything Truman Capote ever wrote, including the unfortunate ANSWERED PRAYERS, written when he was too far gone on drugs and booze to capture his old magic. But here was a novel that he had left on the curb for the trash when he moved apartments in New York in 1950. It was written in 1943 in four composition notebooks and abandoned when he took up Other Voices, Other Rooms, his critically acclaimed debut novel published in 1948 at the tender age of 22. A well-meaning neighbor had plucked it from the trash and it didn’t resurface until years later. His longtime lawyer, Alan Schwartz deliberated over the moral dilemma of publishing an author’s work that had been earmarked for disposal and in 2004, the book was published in its entirety. According to a disclaimer at the end, only punctuation and misspellings were changed.

I was hopeful that reading this book, like reading Carver before Lish got to him or Fitzgerald before Perkins, I would find the rough stuff of a nineteen-year-old writer with some promise; further evidence that shitty first drafts and meticulous editing were the path to solid writing. But after the first three chapters, I felt like Salieri lurking behind the banquette watching Mozart making fart jokes with his beloved, Constanze in Amadeus. I don’t yet have a career even close to Salieri’s, but it is obvious that at age nineteen, Capote had outwritten me.

Capote talked of his drafting process in an interview with the Paris Review, stating that he worked in his notebooks and revised as he typed them. While these four composition books were said to be filled with crossed out words and rewriting, this was rough draft material. There are some portions where he got over-flowery, there is some repetition and on rewriting, the overall story would probably have been ironed out a little, but the prose is way beyond rough-draft caliber. After a while, I got caught up in the story. No clumsiness emerged, no troublesome patches. Having given us the point of view of Grady, a New York debutante for the book thus far, on page 71, Capote switches seamlessly to the point of view of Clyde, the Jewish parking attendant from Brooklyn who had seen things during the war. In close third person he takes us into the head of this guy who had failed expectations at every turn in his young life: he was meant to be a baseball prodigy but it never went anywhere, he went in the service, but didn’t distinguish himself, he went to work for his Uncle Al in Acron, but lost his temper with his lascivious girl-child cousin and was sent home. Clyde’s point of view is much more real and rough than the debutante, but their lives clashing at high speeds is what makes the story crackle.

The tone of the book echoes James Baldwin’s Another Country and Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Yet this book came almost two decades before those two. His descriptions of New York are breathtaking, “It was wilting out on Lexington Avenue, and especially so since they’d just left an air-conditioned theater; with every step, heat’s stale breath yawned in their faces. Starless nightfall sky had closed down like a coffin lid, and the avenue, with its newsstands of disaster and flickering fly-buzz sounds of neon, seemed an elongated, stagnant corpse…Hot weather opens the skull of a city, exposing its white brain, and its heart of nerves, which sizzle like the wires inside a lightbulb. And there exudes a sour extra-human smell that makes the very stone seem flesh-alive, webbed and pulsing.”

Nineteen years old.

The overall story isn’t much in summarizing, a debutante falls in love with a man from the wrong side of the tracks. Left to her own devices for a summer in Manhattan, she has sex, goes to jazz clubs, gets married, gets stoned and gets pregnant. Our story ends as a car she is driving with her new husband careens onto a bridge, probably headed for a wreck.

But it’s the attention to details that makes Capote’s prose sing. Not only the physical details of environment (as above) but internal details of thought. Each character is wired differently from the next and we are privy to their thought processes which make each of them so singular. Clyde, in a sleepy attempt to get out of the apartment where he’d been crashing, encounters a girl startled by his half-dressed state, her face reminds him of a drowned woman he’d seen in a creek in Germany during the war, her hands still wrapped around the reins of her horse. Grady’s mind wanders constantly in a seventeen-year-old way, never where it is supposed to be, from when her mother is talking to her to when she’s with Clyde. The pattern of her thoughts create an air of dreamy danger as we know she will blunder into any trouble the city has to offer.

As writers, we are often so anxious to get the story told, the dialogue right, the descriptions exact that we forget to linger awhile longer in the details, to see what more can be pulled out of them. There is always something more going on in each paragraph of Capote’s work, in each layer of his characters. The subtleties of human gestures and intent do so much more than tell a story. And if his rough draft, written at age nineteen, looks so good, I know I need to work a little harder.


A Light in August

Book by William Faulkner

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

When I was twelve years old, my father handed me William Faulkner’s The Reivers. “You’ll like it,” he said, “it has a horse.” He was coming from that place all enthusiastic Dads do when they hand their children a football, shotgun, comic book, movie, peculiar food, whatever is their favorite thing, wanting to share their joy with their progeny. Only often the item is given a few years too early, with a bit too much enthusiasm. And I, like all reticent children at the receiving end of such a burden, took up the book and proceeded to plough through it.

Thus began my long, complicated relationship with William Faulkner. I started reading as if I were going through a foreign language and, the deeper I got into the book, the more baffled, frustrated and confused I became. The prose was too dense, too backward, the world too dark and foreboding. I believe I “finished” it, which at that age meant skimmed for the parts about the horse, noticed some fun descriptions of the whorehouse and had done with it.

In college I was made to read a few Faulkner short stories and a few sentences into reading, that cloud of incomprehension acquired in childhood rose again. I felt bogged down by the words, the language, the what-the-hell-was-going-on. I mastered what I could from what the teacher had to offer and was grateful it wasn’t on the final exam.

But twenty years later, in graduate school for writing, I asked my Dad for a book that was creepy and used different points of view. He recommended As I Lay Dying. I believe I rolled my eyes again, but a few pages in, I was hooked. I felt like I had been given a magic potion by which the words not only made sense, but they came to life on the page and when I got to Addie’s chapter, in first person as she rages free form with all of the life and power that she lacks in the events of the novel thus far, I had an epiphany. Guilt ridden, I realized my father’s passion for Faulkner (expressed in his books, Faulkner’s Narrative, 1973 and Three American Originals, Faulkner, Ford and Ives, 1984) was a far cry from a misunderstood hobby or enthusiasm. He was onto something.

So with a great deal less trepidation and some actual enthusiasm, I sat down to read A Light in August. The language now clear, I was able to marvel at the sheer mastery Faulkner had over the English language, character, mood and, in so many ways, time and space. It is like sitting close to a magician, certain you will see all of the tricks only to find things manipulated right under your nose that have no reason for working. Faulkner broke all of the rules, he switches point of view mid-paragraph, he goes back and forward in layers through a story, running through a narrative full speed and then stopping to drop back a few steps to fill us in on what was going on over there. Much of his narrative is hearsay told in stories so rich that we forget someone is speaking to tell it to us. After several chapters I had to stop trying to catch these movements and changes, for I realized it was as futile as trying to catch single bars of notes out of a symphony.

But just when I got into the rhythm of the story I was stopped, by two sentences I have only just learned are well known among English majors. Sometimes it’s nice to be ill-read in some areas, to find these treasures on your own without a teacher pointing it out. At the beginning of Chapter Six:

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”

How the hell did he manage that?

Another move that struck me was Faulkner’s telling stories through characters recounting them. It’s a southern tradition, as rural areas existed on stories retold, particularly in areas where many didn’t read. He blurs the edges a bit, so the stories, while being told, take on their own life and when we come back to the speakers we sometimes forget they were standing there. This is a style and pattern he uses throughout the book, but what’s most striking is toward the end in Chapter 19 where he has an incongruous character, Gavin Stevens (a recurring character in Faulkner’s work based on a friend of his) tell the story of Mrs. Hines visit with her grandson, Joe Christmas, in jail. For the first time in the novel, Faulkner steps out of the narrative by expressing the Gavin’s inability to capture the story, “But of course, I dont know what she told him. I dont believe that any man could reconstruct that scene.”(423) A part of me yelled, “Oh yes you could, you’ve done it before.” But I stopped. Maybe Faulkner wrote the scene, but it sounded corny. Maybe he was giving more weight to the scene by keeping us out of it. But what Faulkner had succeeded in doing was creating a scene in the reader’s head: an unforgettable character (Joe) with whom we’re intimately familiar in a closed room with an enormous, tragic old woman in a purple dress and a white plume whose heart was broken when he’d been taken from her as a baby. A grandmother confronting her murderer grandson, whose fate for which she felt responsible. Maybe the scene held more power for its not having been written.

But, as our purpose in annotating is to take some things back to our own writing, I nod my head to my dad, the guy who spent much of his academic career devoting time to Faulkner and stumble ahead with my own meager reading.

Or, as writer and teacher Rob Roberge says, “Steal from the best.” I can’t lay claim to Faulkner’s larger mastery of the language, but I hope I can steal some of his tricks. A Light in August gave me more courage in storytelling and its ebb and flow. As long as we can keep the reader anchored in where he or she is on any given page, we can probably dip in and out of the story as we see fit. I’m not sure I have the confidence to tell a story and go back to tell someone else’s point of view and thus change the reader’s knowledge of events, but sometimes side scenes do feed the larger story. Faulkner had a way of keeping us with the characters we were with at the moment and trusting that it would somehow come together in the end. And, while he annoyingly sometimes keeps us out of the knowledge of which character we are with for a paragraph, within a few pages, we know which part of the story to which he or she belongs.

Leaping back to Joe Christmas’ childhood was such a fabulous way to get us into his character. We know he’s a murderer and a drifter, but then we are taken into his close-up five year old world of eating toothpaste and witnessing grownups engaging in something baffling to a five year old: sex. We are learning the upbringing and background of a murderer, taking us through his psychological formation so that by the time he gets to the murder, we know his motives.

Faulkner is careful, also, to give us the physical details of each of our characters, so the old man watching Joe as a child is recognizable when he comes back later as Uncle Doc Hines. The tumblers click into place giving the reader a chill as we are told he is Joe’s grandfather. Joe’s childhood had been told so vividly that we think, “that old man was his grandfather?” and the reasons for his peculiar behavior, not elaborated at the beginning now have a chilling certainty.

And while I don’t think I’ll ever be brave enough to attempt POV shifts within a single paragraph or scene, I have played a bit in my two-POV novel with having a character witnessed and then seeing her point of view which reveals another layer to her behavior.

I am now working on a multi-character novel now that takes place in the present, but also in 1930s Hollywood, I am now cutting back and forth between scenes as they come to me, and there is a forward motion to the narrative, but as these characters rush together and into each others lives I feel I have a bit more courage to have their points of view clash or differ at some point.

It will take a few more readings of this book to unravel more of its mysteries and books have been written on the subject, but the reading of it was a good example of how even a superficial reading of an old classic can yield useful items for our own writing. Keep reading mindfully and keep annotating.

Olive Kittridge

book by Elizabeth Strout

annotation by Talya Jankovits

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of short stories that are all so expertly integrated that the collection can almost be read as a novel. Strout focuses on a small town in Maine, where the characters weave in and out of each others stories, much like familiar faces do in a local setting. Strout’s secret tool to her fluidity of stories is her consistent use of on character throughout them all.

Her “power character”, Olive, appears in each of the stories, sometimes as a main character, other times as only a reference or quick memory. This is the first time I have seen this done in a collection of short stories and it seemed effortless and brilliant; a tool to certainly steal. The character of Olive never seemed forced, she was believable, vulnerable and human, in fact, all the characters were which is what made Strout’s characterization so full and beautiful. Olive was so well conceived that I was almost convinced that somewhere in Maine, a large and vulnerable woman is walking around, barking at people and appearing grumpy while unknowingly causing little miracles of truth to transpire about her. Strout expertly used this woman to birth stories of other characters that just wouldn’t seem as relevant if they didn’t somehow know Olive Kitteridge. Strout masters characterization here, no one is without flaw and no one is without wonder. There is a strong sense of sincerity and honesty about the human condition that is explored through the characters. Everyone stirs the reader to some extent and on so many levels you feel like you know these people, this town.

Typically, I don’t write short stories, but after reading Olive Kittridge I felt that I must and if one is tempted to try it out, especially a writer used to novels, this is the collection to read. The tool of using the same town and the same characters, looking at them from different ages and different narratives really offers the reader a sense of unification within the collection and I felt that this is something that can make short stories approachable for novelists. And even if not, then just to read it for the sheer pleasure of being totally immersed in this town of richly developed characters.

Tender is the Night

book by F. Scott Fitzgerald

annotation by Tina Rubin

I wish I had discovered this book earlier, because its influence on me was profound. I had been eager to read it, not only because The Great Gatsby is a classic and I thoroughly enjoy the era in which Fitzgerald wrote, but because this story involved a sort of juxtaposition of qualities between the two main characters, which is a main element of my novel as well.

In Tender Is the Night, psychiatrist Dick Diver starts out strong and popular while his mental patient wife, Nicole, is weak and impressionable; as the story goes on he deteriorates and she grows strong. In my story, Tristan starts out unethical and Eve tries to keep him honest; in the end they switch roles.

To gain insight into the psychology behind these character arcs, I tried to identify the turning points for the characters in both stories. For Dick Diver, it was his early interest in eighteen-year-old Rosemary Hoyt, which went again his grain and caused him anguish (but didn’t prevent him from pursuing it); his doing so rocked his self-identity and was the catalyst for his excessive drinking. For Nicole, it seemed to be more a reaction to Dick’s gradual demise. In my novel, Eve is taken out of her familiar environment and thrust almost captive into Tristan’s realm of distorted reality, to the extent that she can no longer trust her own judgment. Tristan reacts to Eve’s gradual demise, like Nicole does to Dick’s. These are complex issues of human nature, so it was helpful to see how Fitzgerald accomplishes them.

The writing in this book awed me. It wasn’t just Fitzgerald’s way with words or the thought-provoking way he used the narrator to link the story to the broader universe, but also the unusual techniques he used to tell the story. Two stylistic elements in particular resonated with me. One—which I played with in one of my early chapters—was his use of the em dash with the character’s thoughts coming from somewhere outside the reality of the action and creating a double entendre. Fitzgerald first used it in the story on page 89, when Rosemary’s friend Collis Clay is telling Dick about Rosemary and a college boy making out on the train. Without identifying that these are Dick’s thoughts, Fitzgerald writes:

— Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?
— Please do. It’s too light in here.

He uses these same two lines in several more places throughout the book, and the reader immediately gets it. (I wasn’t quite that clever when I tried it, but it was fun.)

The other element that impressed me came in the second section of the novel, Book 2, when Fitzgerald goes back in time and recounts his meeting and courtship of Nicole the mental patient. Dick has just met Baby Warren, who holds the purse strings, and she disapproves of him as a husband for Nicole; she prefers to “buy” a Chicago doctor for her sister. Without bringing Nicole into the action, Fitzgerald then does four stream-of-consciousness pages from Nicole’s point of view, encapsulating the next few years of their marriage in diary-like entries.

This kind of avant-garde thinking really appeals to me. I spent quite some time pondering how Fitzgerald would write the pages of my novel.

One last point that made an impact on me was his use of the omniscient narrator, as was the trend back in the day, but it made me realize that I have much more to learn more about points of view. When I tried writing my first-person novel in the omniscient p.o.v. the way he did, my writing opened right up. Interesting, huh?