South of Resurrection

 

resurrection

book by Jonis Agee

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Before I sign up for a workshop or class with any writer, I always read at least one of her books. If she has multiple novels, I choose the one that has some element similar to what I’m doing with my own writing. I selected South of Resurrection by Jonis Agee because it is in a rural setting with characters who are not wealthy; these are the people of my childhood. The characters also battle nature and a history of racism; this has been the chaos of my adulthood.

Immediately, Agee sets the stage with a place where the narrator, Moline, will experience turmoil. After 23 years away, Moline returns to her home town of Resurrection, “the sort of no-count, nowhere place … [that] could not be revived to a bedraggled glory” (1). The character’s musing about the place establishes her as an outsider who only crawls back home because she is broken and has no place else to go. The tension created between person and place makes the town of Resurrection a character in the novel, one that wreaks havoc on numerous relationships, not just on Moline’s. I want to make the setting of my novel come to life in that same way.

The character of Resurrection intensifies as the region experiences weather extremes. In the middle of a conversation with her childhood friend, Titus, who is the town’s preacher at the black church, Moline notices the “steady darkening of the sky from the clouds bellying up against the hills … the hollow went dim and smoky as if there were a fire just beneath the scattered pine needles and last year’s leaves underfoot” (180). The foreboding weather precedes a warning to Moline from Titus’s wife; she wants Moline to leave and take the trouble she’s stirring up with her.

Agee’s use of colloquialisms, gives Moline a distinct voice, representing the Ozark region in its glory and gloom. Early in the first chapter, one of the essential themes surfaces in the line, “Dreams hunkered down, refusing to be driven out” (3). Initially, Moline is critical of others and clearly indicates her stay is temporary. She mocks them, increasing the tension between herself and the people of Resurrection. She is clearly trying to avoid returning to some conflict from her past. But it is inevitable. She characterizes her attraction to Dayrell, “like going underwater, the sinking inside, all the resistance going away, the weight overhead insistent as a hand pushing me down” (231). In a town this small, she cannot avoid him, the man she once loved.  Or his horrible brother, McCall. This antagonist has no redeeming qualities, according to Moline. She looks at him with “the numb panic of the frog when it sees inside the dark of the snake’s open jaws” (185). But he is as complex as the other characters, manipulating his brother and charming the women of Resurrection out of their land, money, and dreams. He is a predator and Agee develops him with grace.

In spite of strong opposition from her own cousin, Pearl, Moline eventually tries to establish new dreams in Resurrection. With the help of several formidable female characters, including Great Aunt Walker and the sometimes weak, Lukey, Moline faces the abusive men and capitalist intrusion with resilience and determination. Agee has a cast of complex people who are damaged by their families’ past but determined to change the community into what they think is best for everyone.

Agee also uses detailed descriptions of furniture, buildings, and the natural surroundings to parallel the torment each character experiences. Moline helps her Aunt Walker and Uncle Able at their hotel, one that “even the special viciousness of raiders and occupying armies could not put an end to, that even the dying-out Rains family would not allow to expire, a hotel that housed not only the racial history of this town, but also the story of everyone and everything in its museum. If there was anything permanent at all, it was the Rains hotel” (212). This parallelism is effective at contrasting the weary tone Agee creates to portray the people and the land triumphant.

There are religious undertones scattered throughout the story as well; it is to be expected in the South. One character is a preacher and several are clearly God-fearing, Bible-beating, devout believers. In sharp contrast, Moline is skeptical and denies any belief. “Praying hadn’t worked before …God and I hadn’t been on speaking terms since I left Resurrection. No reason to think He was even listening anymore. It just seemed like one of the things you try when you hear the sounds of the well being capped above you” (169). Until she decides that she wants to hang on to her tumultuous relationship and remain attached to the dysfunctional community she is determined to protect.

Most prominently, this is a haunting novel, where a present-day mystery in the town is clearly connected to Moline’s dark past, the reason why she scurried out of Resurrection at sixteen and never looked back. With this added layer of conflict, Agee established the need for me to keep reading, turning each page looking for answers and hoping for resolution. It is not a fairy tale ending, but there is satisfaction in what she leaves unresolved.

Americanah

americanahBook by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

Annotation by Roz Weisberg

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has an interesting quality in the way the story and the writing expand and contract within the narrative. This element in the narrative is reflected in Ifemelu’s character, who I think comes across at times detached, even passive as events and attitudes unfold around her.

Although there is a steady voice and style to the piece, the scope of the story at times has a grand sweeping scale, no doubt due to the location of Nigeria (for a western reader) and the entry point in which Adichie discusses race married to small specific story elements that are as simple and as traditional a framework as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, primarily through the female point of view in the vein of Jane Austen. The story lays its bricks and mortar in an inverted way to me by starting with the relationship, small and specific and build out the wider themes and ideas that Adichie wants to comment on.

Her writing builds out the same way structurally, like an upside sieve. I often found myself underlining the last lines of paragraphs and chapters more often than first lines or middles because I found the last lines had a greater punch and evoked the emotional idea to the scene where the first lines of paragraphs were tight, specific or just expository. Often times, in other books I find the first sentences as the key to hold onto and the rest of the paragraph supports it, but here I felt it was often the reverse.

It felt to me that this was just true of the writing stylistically, but then I found it reflected in the character’s development. For example, when the story is in Nigeria, there is an intimate and familiar feel, the characters are most themselves (even when chaos breaks out) and they are in the process of discovering who they are. This quality is mirrored in the writing. The writing felt most alive and most connected emotionally when the story was in Nigeria or connected to Nigeria (such as when Ifemelu is with her aunt and nephew in America). Nigeria itself becomes a character with an undeniable presence when Ifemelu is in America.  This brings with it an emotional resonance and, as she makes her way through America, its physical absence is felt as her platform and experiences expand. In some ways, once Ifemelu is in America, the story feels a bit like The Wizard of Oz and Nigeria is Kansas.

However, I felt a distance from the characters when the Ifemelu or Obinze or Aunt Uju or Dike as the only representation of Nigeria in America and the UK respectively. The ancillary (white) characters felt like cyphers and the incidents felt episodic and in support of the larger themes and at times lacked surprise. The incidents in America became more of platform to show and comment on the issues of race in looking at situations through Ifemelu’s lens and eventual blog posts (the only place-private place-she can truly express herself, even when she has readers and followers (she doesn’t really express those points of views in a public venue). It is in these instances when events and relationships felt broader and Adichie’s writing expansive. In covering the things she wanted to say about race, there is an emptiness to relationships Ifemelu has with the men and America itself. One that feels detached. Perhaps that is the point Adichie is making; that the otherness does ultimately keep people disconnected and that home is home; Dorothy leaving Oz behind to return to Kansas.

There is something about Ifemelu’s character and the detachment she has that makes me curious what I can glean from her for my own protagonist. Although there isn’t a shift in voice in the writing, there is a difference in the writing once Ifemelu is in America. nice The incidents may be specific, but Ifemelu is primarily reacting to her circumstances, observing and digesting oftentimes not reacting until she sits down and writes her blog.

There’s a balance between the time we spend in Ifemelu’s head and how emotions to her circumstances are expressed because often in the moment, she finds she can’t react (in America). Ifemelu doesn’t feel passive and yet she is constantly reacting to what she has set motion or reacting to how other characters move through life. (This feels very Jane Austen to me). This balance I think is where my main character needs to live or at least somewhere in this space, I suppose it’s making more active decisions at the fork in the road. The question is when the character is in a position where they are reacting how to maintain their presence so they don’t feel like observers in their own story? I’m not sure if that is always accomplished here, but there is the veil that Ifemelu is driving things forward. Maybe it’s about the critical turns where oftentimes she just shows up and the choice to show up is enough.

A Life in Men

9781616201630

 

book by Gina Frangello

annotation by Kate Maruyama

The structure of A Life in Men is as carefully wrought as it is difficult to unravel. Gina Frangello keeps us moving, ostensibly through the stories attributed to specific men in her heroine Mary’s life – but there is a larger structure and rhythm that goes on, moving from location to location, back and forth through time. I can only imagine she wrote and wrote – as each scene is fully realized, each of its characters fully honored – and then saw how the scenes balanced against each other. Perhaps she moved certain scenes up, others later, as the life and revelations and observances of Mary and the other characters in the story unfolded. So much of the beauty of the story is in the rhythm of its unfolding as each element of the story reveals itself. “Rich tapestry” would be the cliché compliment here and is insufficient. Frangello has woven what feels like the actual fabric of an actual life with all of its complexities and offshoots. This book is a dynamic example of how writers can pull things apart, out of chronological order, put scenes up against each other and see how they play, creating their own tension. I advise so many writers I know to index card their scenes and try shuffling things a little. Characters are best revealed in layers, and not always chronologically. Sometimes we can use a slice of their past or future to inform events going on currently, and while flashback is sometimes employed, a cross-cutting and shuffling often serves a story better.

Frangello employs other tools in giving us the multilayered lives of her characters. In the midst of an already climactic scene in which Mary visits her birth father, bringing a married man with whom she’s having an affair, only to be introduced to her father’s mistress, Frangello throws in a magical realism omniscient glimpse forward, all the while enriching the scene we’re in:

Two months later, when Daniel tells this story to his artist friends in San Miguel, He will transpose the facts so that it was Eli who called Esther Daniel’s concubine and Esther, standing by, flushed with wine, will not contradict him as everyone laughs. Six years later, when Mary tells the story to Sandor over an Indonesian rijsttafel, she will say that it occurred to her only later that maybe Daniel was lying and Gabriella was completely in the dark–there was no way, after all, that either she or Eli would go up to her and ask or ever mention Esther’s name. Thirty years later, when Diane is at last succumbing to an epic, two decade battle with cancer and Eli is unburdening his soul…(153)

You get the idea. The combination of these different tangents of the story in unison at once, within several stories already working in unison, creates a symphony that frankly, I can only tip my hat to—amazing work. It is a good lesson in remembering that novels take years and layers, and that this level of craft doesn’t come from simply trotting off a story, shoving scenes together and hoping they stick. This level of craft comes from bringing characters to life, seeing how they interact and affect each other’s lives, breathing into the scenes and imagining the ways in which those characters’ lives continue, having spun off from the central story being told.

Frangello keeps us anchored in her deft manipulations of space and time and characters through Mary’s body – its limitations, desires, discomfort and pleasures, and the very way in which she experiences each place she visits, each person she meets. Our heroine has Cystic Fibrosis, which serves not only as a ticking clock, but her changing relationship to the condition and to her body, unfolds with each aspect of the story. It goes from the hilarious, with her keeping it secret with great tension and fear on a visit to Daniel’s only to have her cover blown in an unexpected way; to oddly sexy when her alarming symptoms make her instantly desirable to someone who hadn’t considered her before; to terrifying as she struggles for air far from any help; to devastating. There is something about Mary’s ticking clock, her need to gasp for air, which emphasizes her drive to eat up life; her illness also brings together people who would not have otherwise have met in fascinating and random and life-like ways. So often we forget that our living, breathing complex characters are in our strange, varied, pained, twingy, hungry, sexual bodies. A Life in Men is a study in how a body can keep your reader anchored, can propel a story and can add an underlying thrum to each scene it’s in.

Nalo Hopkinson gave a lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2013 talking about how readers are “hungry ghosts,” yearning for the experiences of life. They want to be put inside a story that makes them feel as if they are in a real person, walking around inside a real experience. With Mary’s illness, her deeply felt experiences with sex, food and the richness of different locations as our characters travel from Greece to London to Mexico to Amsterdam to Morocco, and through the broad spectrum of life shown through each narrator’s point of view, including those little jumps into the future, Frangello leaves her reader well fed indeed. And the whirl around Mary, who is a catalyst in so many lives, becomes something bigger, illustrating way in which we bump up against people on this planet, and the very fiber of reality changes and morphs and grows richer as we do so.

 

 

My Brilliant Friend

9781609450786_p0_v1_s260x420book by Elena Ferrante

annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author whose latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, is a character-driven story with a plot that is relatively quiet yet rich. The novel, the first in a trilogy, is set in motion by a mysterious disappearance. Motivated by this mystery, the narrator, Elena Grecco—called Lenú—sits down to write the entire story of her life-long friendship with her vanished friend, Lila. Imbued with the gift of perspective, the narrator reflects on the 1950s childhood and adolescence of the two friends. While Ferrante does many things well in this book, I believe one of the main ways she creates a successful novel is through precise characterization of the protagonists, as well as the minor characters.

While Lenú is the narrator, Lila is arguably the more fascinating protagonist in the story. Because we have only a first person narrator, and therefore do not know what is going on in Lila’s mind, the eccentrically intelligent friend becomes a marvelous mystery to the reader in the same way she is to Lenú. Ferrante establishes the singular bond between these two protagonists at the outset when Lenú introduces the reader to Lila, who’s real name is “…Rafaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over (loc. 103).

Ferrante illustrates the life-long nature of the girls’ friendship beautifully, as in this scene early in the book when as children they bravely approach the house of Don Achille, a man with a reputation as the town ogre, to retrieve the dolls Lila has purposely dropped into his basement through a window: “She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was…She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand” (loc. 171). Lila is simultaneously a solitary outcast and the most beloved in the town. She consistently acts according to her own, highly intelligent mind, which is frequently in opposition to the status quo. As a result, she regularly pushes Lenú outside her comfort zone and on to success. Lila’s character grows and changes quite a bit throughout the book, but what always remains is the intrigue, or brilliance, of her persona.

Lenú and Lila grew up in a small, impoverished town in Naples, which is where most of the story takes place. Even Lenú’s characterization is largely dictated by that of Lila, as in this scene where, as an excellent student, she has received the honor of an island vacation where she can think and rest. It’s something that is unheard of in the poor town she’s from, and is also her first time outside Naples: “I missed only Lila, Lila who didn’t answer my letters. I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence. It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance” (loc. 2694). Throughout the wave-like ups and downs of the novel’s plot, Lenú consistently describes this type of conflicted love, frustration, and doubt about herself. Lila, in effect, has determined who Lenú is.

There are many other characters in this novel, as well. So many in fact, that there is an “Index of Characters” at the beginning of the book (loc. 16) that the reader can easily refer back to. However, I found that it was rarely necessary because of Ferrante’s skill with creating memorable characterization of each of these relatively minor but recurring personas. There’s Marcello Solara, who falls in love with Lila after she holds a shoemaker’s knife to his neck (loc. 1626). The intelligent Nino Sarratore is the railroad worker/poet’s son and also Lenú’s main love interest (loc. 601). There’s Gigliola Spagnuolo, the smart, pretty baker’s daughter who in many ways becomes Lenú’s main rival (loc. 2501). One of the most memorable characters is Melina Cappuccio, the crazed widow and town outcast who everyone shuns except for Lila (loc. 295). These minor characters and their relationships with Lenú and Lila often say as much about the protagonists as their own actions do of themselves.

There are far too many characters to mention them all, but one of my favorite characterizations is of Lenú’s mother:

The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course. It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking. Nor did her right leg work properly—she called it the damaged leg. She limped, and her step agitated me, especially at night, when she couldn’t sleep and walked along the hall to the kitchen, returned, started again. Sometimes I heard her angrily crushing with her heel the cockroaches that came through the front door, and I imagined her with furious eyes, as when she got mad at me (loc. 387).

While it is expanded upon throughout the course of the story, this demonstrates the level of characterization in the novel well. Although Lenú’s mother is a minor character, Ferrante instills the relationship with a complexity of villainy and sympathy beginning with the choices she makes in the narrator’s description of the mother.

As a fiction writer, what I appreciate that Ferrante has achieved nearly unlimited plot potential by populating the world of her novel with well-developed characters. Furthermore, she is able to sustain consistent and ever-deepening characterization over the entire course of the novel. The characterization—particularly that of Lenú and Lila—becomes the main aspect of the plot. This is a powerful skill for me as a writer to learn, because much of my writing seeks to explore the nature of relationships through literature, without turning the story into melodrama.

In My Brilliant Friend, the external conflicts are many and the stakes are high, but they feel secondary, existing only to serve this exploration of the relationship between the two girls. In this way, Ferrante achieves a realistic and multi-faceted meditation on the nature of female friendship.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655book by Neil Gaiman

annotation by Lee Stoops

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.”

~ Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the end of the Lane (170)

The more I read, the more I want to find stories that can disregard rules (carefully or not, at least with full knowledge not only of the rules but also of their reasons) and fuse genres. These are the stories that address my needs as a writer and offer permission to really dig the story out in whatever way it insists on its own excision. The way a story is unearthed, or unearths itself, matters because each has extensive power to change the way readers see the world and the way they envision themselves in it. That power (or, potential) is not the point, though. Responsibility is the point. The writer’s responsibility is to his characters, to their world, because those things matter to the reader for more than just entertainment. Sure, I started reading the way most do: for some kind of entertaining escape. But it’s not enough, now. I still want that escape, but in doing so, I want the promise I’ll come back changed. For me, the stories that make familiar things strange make that easier. Set a story in reality and embody it with surrealism, and I start to believe almost anything is possible. The human being in me loudly claims it knows what’s real and what’s not, but the storyteller/lover in me begins to ceaselessly chant “I want to believe.” And that is where a writer like Neil Gaiman with his The Ocean at the End of the Lane both adheres to his responsibility as a storyteller and sends his characters (and readers) into an adventure of actual, possible mythic proportions.

Typically, when I write about writing, I look for specific language and craft techniques or examples at play – the things I can identify as either working or not – because identification usually leads to a better understanding of how I apply myself to my own work. In the practicing of my craft, I hope that I’m honing skills, sure, but more than that, I want to be growing in my awareness. While I could look at Gaiman’s short novel from a strict craft/construction/language perspective, I think it deserves a different lens – a bigger picture lens, and I hope to do that here.

The pond was smaller than I remembered…the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called…

It wasn’t the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was…what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.

And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.

I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything (7-8).

Gaiman’s story opens with a short, intentionally ambiguous prologue, narrated by the adult version of the protagonist, arriving, serendipitously, at a small pond he knew during a short window of his boyhood that he only begins to remember while coming upon it (and will likely forget again once he leaves). His memories arrive all at once, in a wave that forces the story backward in time, the entirety of it to be told by the same narrator from his seven year old point of view. And though his narrator takes on the voice of a young boy, Gaiman’s done something significant: he’s established authority in the voice – authority for an ageless character to tell an ageless story about memory and magic and humanity. But more than that, the grown human nature of the story’s introduction give the reader permission to be swept away by a story that is full of things unbelievable: a pond that is also an ocean, a young girl and her family of women who seem to know everything and have lived forever, monsters who take various forms and remain invisible at times and to the willingly doubtful.

But through the telling of the story, Gaiman’s narrator calls on familiar tokens of human youth and frustration to lend even greater credence to the narrator’s somehow-forgotten-and-then-remembered impossible childhood story. The boy’s birthday party is a failure. He has no friends. A man his parents rent his room to runs over his cat. His parents refuse to listen to him. His sister is vile. Everything in life is unfair and pitted against him. And then the monsters show up. So, maybe it’s not just youthful themes. Gaiman, with clean prose and a personable, reasonably- (and intelligently-) voiced young narrator, has sneaked in those themes readers generally consider abandoned in adolescence but have really just relabeled as adult contentions.

“…Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”

“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. “Except for Granny, of course” (112).

And along the way, he injects the narrative with bits of enormous wonderings, universal truths, (often) unspoken things. Rather than bludgeon the reader with these notes on humanity and the power of story, he gives them to the narrator, the narrator’s mysterious friends, and even the monsters. At the end of the boy’s narrative, the narrator says, “A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change” (170). His questions and statements (taken with any tone they might elicit for a reader) force similar questions and statements, oppositional, or not, from the reader. They force, in some subtle and in other not-so-subtle ways, growing consideration.

I started writing for the same reason I started reading. And when my reading needs shifted, so did my writing needs. Daily, it becomes clearer that the process is not a series of stops and starts but a continuum of shifts in need. Stories like The Ocean at the End of the Lane affirm the continuum by illuminating the evolution of need. It’s not so much a disregarding of rules or an eschewing of genre as it is a welcoming of different tactics to the widening melting pot. I want to be a writer who makes room for anything that needs representation in my work. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller who proves there’s always room, as long as there’s consideration.

You Are One of Them

9781594205286_p0_v1_s114x166book by Elliott Holt

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

Finding solutions to the problems in your work in progress isn’t always a matter of sitting down and figuring them out. Sometimes you have to place a question in your mind and ride around with it for a little while. It will solve itself at an unexpected moment–on a walk, a drive, while cleaning house or sometimes, when you are reading a book.

My most recent solution came to me when I was reading Elliott Holt’s YOU ARE ONE OF THEM. The solution itself isn’t really that important to anyone but myself, but why I came to it is the manner in which Holt, over the course of twenty years of fictional time in her book, creates a complex relationship between two people, weaves in an obsession and holds it together with a tether of mystery. This is a very solidly constructed book, and I’m guessing the structure came after character for Holt. This does not feel like an executed outline, more like a story that grew organically and layered itself with delicate strings and webs—I’m also guessing a lot of the writing was cut in order to bring the relationship and the story into sharper relief.

The book is a good reminder that characters don’t always come to us fully grown. We often start with a sketch of them and then start asking questions.

After a moment in Russia in present day, our heroine Sarah starts out the book with her history—A sister who died at a young age and changed everything—turning her mother into an anxiety-ridden mess, separating her parents by a country. As an adolescent, Sarah is plain, and, because of her fearful mother, her life is very small. She is set up, ready to be swept off her feet, and so she is when her ebullient, pretty, outgoing neighbor Jennifer Jones moves in. Holt sketches their childhood friendship in intimate detail and it doesn’t take long for the reader to get a handle on the flavor of that friendship, and how desperately Sarah needs it. The writing is absorbing, and, as we are told of Jennifer’s death from the first pages, we are kept interested, waiting to see what led to what.

But what’s so lovely about this novel is that nothing is guessable.

Holt instead immerses us in Sarah’s obsession with her friend, which only grows when a rift comes between the girls, involving a letter sent to Andropov. We are taken back to the present and Sarah’s search for Jennifer, whom she has been told, may not be dead. While this mystery keeps the pages turning, the story is more a reflection of that painful self-defining time of life, our early twenties. Sarah’s search does not lead us down the alley of a clichéd thriller or to a nail-biting ending, but to a much more satisfying place arrived at through character.

Holt’s prose is anchored in the reality of surroundings. It’s a good lesson in details, from the green, insect-laden humid suburbs of DC to the cold, cigarette smoke-choked, alcoholic winter in Russia. We are always with our main character, in her body, her discomforts, her nagging obsessions, even her eye-rolling over her neurotic mother. There is a truly present three-dimensional person for us to get a hold on.

As I start a new project, having spent over a year doing revisions of two others, I seem to have forgotten that those characters I know didn’t come from nowhere. They were built in layers. Only through asking them questions, putting them in situations to see how they’ll act, throwing them into conversations did they come to life. Aside from creating a really good read, Holt reminded me which questions were the right ones to be asking. And to trust that it is not an elevator pitch that gets a novel written; it is in the writing of the novel that you eventually arrive, much richer, at the pitch.

Out of the Woods: Stories

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book by Chris Offutt

annotation by Lee Stoops

“His arms were sore and his back hurt, but anything

was better than prison, even moving graves in Idaho.”

~ Chris Offutt, “Moscow, Idaho” from Out of the Woods (55)

 

Chris Offutt makes me want to write about the mountains of Idaho. Not because the mountains of Idaho are home for him, but because they’re home for me. Offutt’s characters are Kentucky hill people. Outcasted, exodused, escaped, and sometimes boomeranged, their stories happen out of Kentucky and in Kentucky all at the same time. The deep hills of Kentucky are Home. Home becomes the lens through which Offutt’s people see their lives, and it’s because it’s the lens through which Offutt writes to make sense of everything else.

I opened the collection knowing nothing of hill families of Kentucky, and while I learned a thing or two about the culture through his stories, what mattered more was the sense I began to feel for the importance of something intimate from the writer and his characters. Home. It means – in a variety of senses – everything. And while that lesson whets a specific creative appetite, it’s Offutt’s writing that succeeded in teaching. His prose is rhythmic, full of short beats and direct sentences. His dialogue roots in a name-based culture where stories are shared down generations by people who need to say very little to get across a point. His stories rely on characters comparing new experiences to the things they know from a place proudly isolated. I found it impossible to put the book down, and impossible, once I did, to slow the feelings stirred in me.

Short, strong sentences fill the pages of this book. Offutt’s rhythms are brief but anything but staccato. In fact, for the lack of unnecessary lettering, his work’s pacing begs even the fastest reader to slow down and let the gravity of direct language do its work. It bothers me to no end when someone describes writing such as this as “simple.” Simple implies easy. It implies an absence of complexity. It implies little or no work. Offutt’s work is the opposite of simple. He has (not) simply determined the essence of his stories and chosen to deliver the leanest forms. I want my own work to be distilled to the point where it cannot be distilled further. Another word for this? Pure.

Tilden wondered if a view of the river made men sadder or gave them hope. He figured the prison psychologist would like it, since he favored anything that was different, even a new coat of paint. Tilden had learned to give the shrink what he wanted, which was mainly the impression that you wouldn’t shank the first son of a bitch who looked at you mad-dog. Getting through the joint took the ability to make everyone think you were crazy enough to be dangerous. Getting out was the opposite. Tilden wasn’t sure what it took to stay out (57, “Moscow, Idaho”).

 

I examined the bird. Both legs, the skull, each wing, its neck and ribs – all were broken. It’s [sic] head hung from several shattered vertebrae. I’d never seen a creature so clean on the outside and so tore up on the inside. It had died pretty hard (121, “Barred Owl”).

 

Dialogue is hard. And it’s funny that’s the case considering we spend our lives talking. There’s a point to be made here that might be bigger than the point I’m after in Offutt’s work, so I’ll stick to the book. Dialogue needs to elucidate both characters and narrative without becoming something the narrative or characters rely on. That’s the first part of why dialogue is hard. The second part is this: people need to talk the way people really talk without talking the way people really talk. Throw into the mix vernacular or dialect, and it’s easy for dialogue to destroy an otherwise powerful piece of fiction. Offutt’s figured it out. Moreover, he’s made it look easy. Here’s an example between a man, formerly of the hills, working in a jail in town and a man fresh from the hills who wants to be locked in the jail for reasons unclear at the meeting’s onset:

“I heard tell a Goins worked here.”

“That’s me. Ephraim Goins.”

“Well, I’m fit for the pokey. What’s a man got to do to go?”

“Drunk mostly.”

“Don’t drink.”

“Speeding.”

“Ain’t got nary a car.”

“Stealing’ll do it.”

“I don’t reckon.”

The man kept his head turned and his eyes down. Goins decided that he was a chucklehead who’d wandered away from his family.

“Why don’t you let me call your kin,” Goins said.

“No phone.” The man jerked his chin to the corridor where the cells were. “What if I cussed you?”

“I’d cuss back.”

“Ain’t they nothing?”

“Let’s see,” Goins said. “Defacing public property is on the books, but it’d be hard to hurt this place.”

The man walked to the door and stood with his back turned. “Come here a minute,” he said.

Goins joined him. The man had unzipped his pants and was urinating on the plank steps leading to the door. Goins whistled low, shaking his head.

“You’ve force put me, sure enough,” he said, hoping to scare the man away. “Looks like you’re arrested. Lucky they ain’t no lynch mob handy.”

The man inhaled deeply and hurried down the hall to a cell. Goins opened the heavy door. The man stepped in and quickly pulled it shut behind him.

“Name? said Goins.

“Gipson. Haze Gipson.”

He lifted his head, showing blue eyes in rough contrast with his black hair and smooth, swarthy skin. They watched each other for a long time. The name Gipson was like Goins, a Melungeon name, and Goins knew the man’s home ridge deep in the hills. He glanced along the dim hall and lowered his voice.

“Say you’re a Gipson?”

“Least I ain’t the law.”

“What’s your why of getting locked up?”

“You been towned so long,” Gipson said, “I don’t know that I can say. I surely don’t” (36-38, “Melungeons”).

The above also touches on Offutt’s characters’ processing difference in the world. Writers are slammed continually with conflicting messages of writing what they know, what they don’t know, what they want to know. But it’s in processing, in weighing something seemingly understood, at least experienced, with something yet to be understood or experienced that writers often find that elusive element of what to write about.

Offutt left a small community of hill people at an early age, traveled the country and worked more odd jobs than many people work in a life time. So in writing characters from these proud and thin lines looking for something – meaning, affirmation, surprise, reconciliation – in places removed from what they know, Offutt’s exemplifying his message to other writers. It’s not about what you know – it’s about how what you know looks when it’s aligned with what you don’t know or what you want to know (or, better, what you don’t want to know).

I went back to the motel and stopped at the bar. It was called the Sip & Dip, and had a tropical décor with plastic parrots, bamboo walls, and fake torches. Any minute you expected a cannibal to jump out at you. An older couple was arguing at a table shaped like a kidney bean. A tall man about forty came in, ordered a whiskey ditch, and began talking to me. He was from Mississippi. His southern accent made me feel good, as if I were talking to a countryman.

“Luck always turns,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do when you’re running bad but develop yourself a leather ass. How did you happen to be here for the Tough Man Contest?”

“I borrowed a car from a guy at work. Me and Lynn wanted to get out of Billings and run around.”

He told the bartender to bring a couple of drinks.

“On me,” he said. “You’re a guy who needs a lot of outs right now.”

“You know I can’t buy the next round.”

“There was a time when all I owned was on my back. So you and Lynn were on the loose?”

“Yeah,” I said. “We had a couple hundred bucks and four days off from work. We’re thinking maybe we’ll hit the Chico Hot Springs when bang, we’re pulled over by the Highway Patrol. I’m sober and we’re not carrying dope, so I’m not worried. I’m good with cops, I say yes sir and no sir, and all that. They have a tough job. I respect that because my job ain’t the best. When you’re a cook, everything will cut you or burn you.”

He said he understood. The older couple who’d been arguing were kissing now, pecking at each other’s faces like a pair of chickens.

“Do you live here?” I said.

“No. I have a cabin up in Big Sandy. I’ll do some bird hunting this week.”

“There’s a river in Kentucky with the same name.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” he said. He looked at me like he was gauging my worth. “Is Lynn beautiful?”

“Definitely.”

“Beautiful women make me fear death.”

I sat and studied on that for a while. Dying never scared me, but life does every day. I couldn’t tell him that, though. I wondered if he was sick with some disease, or maybe he was older than I thought (159-160, “Tough People”).

 

Everything I read instills in me something I can take to my own searching for story, but it’s rare that someone else’s words will so astoundingly flourish in my imagination. The response Offutt’s evoked in me is the response I want to evoke in others. It goes beyond stories that compel or infect. It goes deeper, even, than connecting with the other, the human experience, or even the self. It’s the response of “I have stories I have to tell, and I am the only one to tell them.”As much as we need our stories, our homes, we must be held accountable for sharing our needs, for writing our stories, for owning whatever is Home.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

9780312429294

book by Wells Tower

annotation by Lee Stoops

“He considered for a moment the many miles that lay between him and

his own wife, and what it would take to cinch that distance up again.”

~ Wells Tower, “The Brown Coast” from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (17)

His real name is Wells Tower of Power. Like the funk group, he has a signature sound. Tower has enviable ability to deliver a reader from this world into his imagined one. The voices of his narrators are individual, well-rendered, real. The content and delivery of his stories – whether sentimental, blackly comic, or savage – left me taking notes and contriving ideas, all while having a hell of a good time reading. And maybe that’s what struck me with Tower’s book – the fun of it. He’s a remarkable writer, an instinctual storyteller, and a craftsman worthy of study. However, the most important thing to me in finishing his collection was that it was something I enjoyed and lamented ending. It seems rarer and rarer that happens, especially with the growing darkness of contemporary literary fiction. It’s not to say Tower’s collection isn’t imbued with darkness – it’s thick with anger, loss, violence, and fatalism. But, again like Tower of Power, it brought me up and started some good funk brewing in my brain. Because of this, it was easy to identify the elements of his stories that worked for me: the sentiments and perspectives of characters struggling but (in ways) winning, his vocabulary of description and imagery, and dark (in most cases, black) humor.

When I read, I’m on the lookout for characters I can admire. While I might admire the character for who he/she is, what I admire most when I find one is the way the author has given life to someone invented. It’s easy to come up with caricatures or stereotypes or tropes, but it shows real craftsmanship on the writer’s part when a character is familiar enough that I can plug in, yet de-familiar enough that I can’t stop thinking about him/her. Tower, despite sometimes overwriting or explaining his metaphors, loves (and loves to challenge) his characters. Their lives, their mind machinations, their experiences, fights, arguments, emotions fill the pages to the point where the stories themselves don’t matter as much as how the reader comes to know Tower’s people by the end of a story. I’m glad not all short story collections are like this, but if some end up this way, Tower is the guy to do it. Here are some examples of character reality:

Already, I was regretting doing Jane this favor. My mind was wandering. You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up. her belly slumping against the small of you back on a cold morning. The slippery marvel of her soaped up in the shower. A night long ago when you moved on each other so sincerely that you sheared off two quarter-inch lag bolts that held your bed together. But start playing back all the old footage, and pretty soon Mendocino Barry steals into the frame, his bare dark-brindled haunches in your bed, candles and an incense stencher fuming on the nightstand. You can see him tucking a yellow thumbnail under the scalloped elastic of her bikini underpants and shucking them down slow, maybe with a word or two about lotus blossoms. You don’t want to picture how she lifts her hips off the bed, the openmouthed anticipatory shivers, or Barry rearing up in a sun salute between her splayed knees, his tongue lolling like a tiki god in ugly throes (97-98, “Down Through the Valley”).

If you say no to your stepfather when he asks you to drop everything to do some chore, this is known as “lip.” “I’m sick of your lip,” he says, or “I’ve had it with your fucking lip.” He is a thin, delicate man with wire-frame glasses, but neither his slightness nor his way of talking like a corny Hollywood thug makes you any less afraid of him. He has slapped you a few times. Not long ago, you father stopped by to pick you up and your stepfather argued with him. He pushed your father down, and then he picked up a stone the size of a football and made like he was going to throw it at your father’s head. But he just tossed it away and laughed. For many years to come, whenever you think of your father, the image of him cowering on the lawn, his hands clutching his skull in forlorn defense against the crushing stone, will be part of the picture. You are counting the days until you turn sixteen, which you’ve arbitrarily chosen as the age at which you’ll be able to take you stepfather in a fight (117, “Leopard”).

In the above examples, the characters come to life, but there are other ways Tower paints pictures. His images burned into my head and still won’t leave. As a writer, I value that ability above most others. The work a writer does with language to let readers see what the writer values as needing to be seen is one of the great challenges of the craft. It’s also one of the most necessary. Our imaginations rely on memory, and our memories tend to rely on our imaginations, and the emotive responses the writer is counting on from the reader can only become fully realized when the writer does his or her job of empowering the reader to see, remember, and extrapolate meaning by unearthing the roots of the meaning in memory. So, the writer has at his or her disposal words, countless words and combinations, that charge the imagination. Blend them well, and he’s got imagery that brings a story into experience-mode.

Bold as an athlete, she shrugged off her top and pushed her skirt down. Across her breasts and oval hips, her skin looked soft and new and pale as paraffin (17, “The Brown Coast”).

The men stepped back to give Djarf room to work. He placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod’s spine. He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he’d made an incision about a foot long. He paused to wipe sweat from his brow, and made a parallel cut on the other side of the backbone. Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings (229, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).

I spotted my stepmother by the dry fountain, where she was watching some young people make a film. I left my cistern at my father’s feet and jogged to her. Since I’d seen her last, Lucy had reached a new status of tiredness and age. Looking at her, “lady” is what I thought, a word that summed up her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks, her many clattering bracelets and her lipstick, an alarming coral shade leaking into fresh hairline rills around her mouth. Her right eye was bloodshot and brimming with brine. We embraced. All she wore against the chill was a lame’ shawl over a flimsy black top, so thin I could feel the gooseflesh on her hard arms (73, “Executors of Important Energies”).

While Tower’s work is full of other solid linguistic displays and craft examples, I’d rather spend a little bit of time addressing his use of (dark) humor. The stories in the collection are all tragic – death, grief, adultery, violence, grunge and grit and hate. And, I love that stuff, but it also tends to get so heavy in short story collections that the stories usually end up depressing the reader rather than giving the reader perspective for his or her own life/writing. Tower’s stories don’t drag the reader down, even though the fatalism he employs is some of the best contemporary fatalism I can call to mind. It’s the humor, subtle (and often not subtle) that does it – the funny moments or lines or even the delivery of an entire train of thought bring a twisted levity to the stories. And they satisfy.

Derrick came back from the kitchen, talking into a cordless phone, his voice loud with expertise. “Say what? Did you take a look? Can you see the head? Uh-huh. Red or whitish? Yeah, that’s natural. Sounds like she’s getting ready to domino. I’ll be over.”

Derrick came back into the living room. “Gotta take a ride over the bridge,” he said. “Need to go pull something out of a horse’s pussy.”

“What kind of thing?” Bob asked.

“A baby horse, I hope” (11, “The Brown Coast”).

My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear (133, “Door in Your Eye”).

“Hoo,” he said, shaking water from his hair. He jogged in place for a minute, shivered, and then straightened up. “Mercy, that was a spree. Not so much loot to speak of, but a hell of a god-damn spree.” He massaged his thighs and spat a few times. Then he said, “So, you do much killing?”

“Nah,” I said. “Haakon killed that little what’s-his-name lying over there, but no, we’ve just been sort of taking it easy.”

“Hm. What about in there?” he asked, indicated Bruce’s cottage. “Who lives there? You kill them?”

“No, we didn’t,” Orl said. “They helped put Haakon back together and everything. Seem like good folks.”

“Nobody’s killing them,” Gnut said.

“So everybody’s back at the monastery, then?” I asked.

“Well, most of them. Those young men had a disagreement over some damn thing and fell to cutting each other. Gonna make for a tough row out of here. Pray for wind I guess.”

Brown smoke was heavy in the sky, and I could hear dim sounds of people screaming (234-235, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).

As far as contemporary (and young) short story writers go, Tower is a strong talent, and I think we’re only seeing the beginning of a huge body of work. I hope as he continues to write and publish that he doesn’t lose the fun he’s written into these stories. And, while I don’t like to cut any slack for overwriting or explaining or ruining metaphors with explicitness, I had to in this book for the sheer enjoyment of believable characters, strong imagery, and humor that won’t let the reader forget that life is really one big, dark joke.

Writers Dreaming

book by Naomi Epel

annotation by David A. Napier

Writers Dreaming is a collection of essays by 26 authors who share their experience, strength and hope, with respect to writing, and the influence that dreams have upon their work.  There are common threads among many of these pieces.  Many refer to the psychological influence of Sigmund Freud.  Many say they never use dreams in their work.  Many tell stories of how the dreams influenced them and helped them to carve out new dimensional experience which never would have surfaced had it not been for a significantly vivid dream.

Beyond their dreams, most of the authors describe in great detail how they organize their lives, their writing lives that is, to enter into the world of the proverbial fictive dream.  Techniques, as varied as the writers themselves, are applied to help them enter the fictive dream.  Some meditate, some organize their thoughts, some organize their desks or work areas, while others magically drop into the dream after they start writing and the work overtakes them.  They cannot explain it but perhaps by metaphor or analogy, but when it does they feel it take over.  Entering the fictive dream is a feeling, a feeling process which overwhelms them.

In my fictive dream experience, it’s all about me, and it should be, it’s my work.  Well, that’s not entirely true because after I segue into the dream, I cease to exist.  I disappear.  The characters take over and the authentic voices of the characters come alive.  For me it’s like a holographic experience on Star Trek.  I’m standing there in the middle of this fantasy, a created scene, and the action happens around me.  I watch.  I observe.  I look for the vivid details in the story.  And just when I say it’s time for lunch, I look up and it’s four o’clock in the afternoon.  I awake from the dream and there it is.  I don’t have to worry about forgetting, as with most dreams that flit away in seconds, it’s there in black and white on the page.

But sometimes I’m eyeballs deep in a fictive dream and creating the most magnificent prose the world has yet to read.  It’s breathtaking, and I relish in the glory of creating a masterpiece beyond any yet seen by the naked eye.  I wrap up my day and pat myself on the back because I know a true artist is in the room, and I am the only one there.

The next morning, however, I open my laptop and reread this literary, pièce de résistance, and discover it’s rotten.  It’s not a fictive dream.  It’s a nightmare in black and white.  What was I thinking?

I can’t always control or predict the outcome of the dream.  Sometimes it’s magical, sometimes it’s maniacal, and sometimes it’s just not happening – it’s just not.  I have “not” days when it’s not happening and I’m not into it.

My favorite lesson to extrapolate from this book comes from page 66.  Sue Grafton says, “The truth of the matter is that if you give yourself away every single time, you fill up like a well.  It always replenishes itself.”

Entering the fictive dream is an investment that keeps earning interest.  Don’t always bank on that advice, but if you dream hard enough it may come true.