Wylding Hall

514MoYIWDlL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_

 

book by Elizabeth Hand

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I got a glimpse of Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall last summer at Readercon, and couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it. Of course, life being life and work being work, I didn’t get to it until just last month. But the moment I opened it, I tore through.

Told in a collage format reminiscent of a rockumentary, Hand introduces us to a variety of characters with distinct voices: from the band’s manager with his outside view of things to Lesley, the sole American in the group, who is deeply enamored of the elusive and beautiful lead singer, Julian. The band has been sent to a remote manor, Wylding Hall, to record an album. The desire to remove them from all distractions and the remote nature of the manor itself creates a hyper-awareness in the summer’s observers and the variety of points of view builds its own tension as each character refers in bits and pieces to what is to come. “That’s why it was so strange about the girl.” The story is told to us in pieces, each character’s strong distinct viewpoints affecting his and her reliability in the matter. We are given bucolic surroundings and Hand creates the manor itself with mysterious twists and turns in such a tangible sense that the reader is left standing there, experiencing each moment.

Sometimes individuals have broken out into their own scenes, but often not. In the case of one beautiful afternoon in which the album’s greatest hit is recorded and a photograph is taken that will weave throughout the rest of the book, Hand gives us all of the points of view in each moment. She creates a multi-dimensional image filled with so many different kinds of want and different takes on one very specific scene, that it crackles throughout its recounting with mounting tension. The weaving of these tellings, back and forth in their own rhythm, evoke a dreaminess as well as a creepiness, as we are certain something will happen. This is storytelling at its most expert; as a reader you cannot help but surrender.

The world of the manor itself, with its shifting halls and curious encounters weaves its own mystery and fear. We know we are in the middle of the English countryside somewhere and the reader feels as cut off from the outside world the band. In this concrete space of beautifully described rooms and edges, Hand gives us turns and stairwells and “don’t go in there!” in a wonderfully creepy and unpredictable way. It’s a good reminder of how important specific, sensory physical description is in the paranormal. And it is quite lovely to feel in such good, certain hands when a supernatural tale is being woven.

Hand deftly invents an imaginary album and in the yearning descriptions of all of her characters and brings it to life.  Each of them, from a different perspective tries to describe the magic of that one album. By the end of it, the reader yearns to hear it, but also somehow has a grasp on its ineffable quality.

Will Fogerty (rhythm guitar, fiddle, mandolin) reflects:

I’ve never known anything like it. Music, it’s always hard to describe, isn’t it? You can describe what it’s like to hear a song, how it makes you feel, what you were doing when you first heard it. And you can describe what it’s like to write it, technically, and how to play it—the chord changes, slow down here, pick it up here. A Minor 7, C Major.

But this—this was different. It’s a cliché to say something’s like a shared dream, like a movie or a concert—you know…

This wasn’t like a dream. It was like being lost; not in the dark, but in the light. Blinding sun through the windows and that fug of smoke from cigs and spliffs, motes in the air like something alive, atoms or insects all silver in the smoke. You couldn’t see to find your way;’ we couldn’t even see each other’s faces, it was so bright and so much smoke. You could only hear the music, and you followed that. Lesley’s deep voice and Julian’s sweet one, Jon grabbing the edge of his cymbal so you could hear only this thin, silvery sound. Ashton’s bass. Me and that mandolin I built from a kit; Les wailing until she nearly passed out.

The writing throughout is lovely while remaining completely economical. There is so much room for Hand to launch off into the lyrical, but she remains true to her characters and their specific feelings of nostalgia.

Despite its collage affect, or perhaps because of it, Wylding Hall hangs together of a piece. The rhythm of the cutting, the building of different tensions across stories from petty jealousies to disagreements over specific events, these are artfully measured and stitched together. The moment you open the book, you know you are in very good hands. As if taking a page from the narrative music of that period of folk rock, Hand creates a larger musical movement throughout the book and a very solid, satisfying ending. This was likely not easily accomplished and probably took a great deal of rewriting and editing.

I’m constantly exploring different points of view in my new work. How different characters see things from completely opposing perspectives and how each point of view can be exploited for its degree of reliability or grasp on the story; especially when a different point of view gives us new insight on something we’ve already experienced in the consciousness of another character. Wylding Hall is such a fantastic use of different points of view, woven together to one end. Hand has got me thinking about the balance of voice, and how snatches of story can be as illuminating as spelling out the whole thing.
When I’m putting together a novel, I’m often stopped by “this isn’t working” or, “where the hell is this going? It’s not what I set out to do.”  I’m trying harder now to open up a bit, write at the outside idea all the way, listen to the secondary characters if they are starting to speak to me. They may have no place in the final draft, but this writing at can get me somewhere I’d never go if I tried to remain within the constraints of an imaginary book. I’m trying to listen to the story all the way and trust the drafting process. So often we get bogged down in visualizing the finished product while drafting. Which shelf will it fit on? Who will read it? When the truth is, we cannot truly imagine that yet and the book may take us on a different journey altogether. A number of times I’ve had books start out as one thing and turn into a completely different animal by the end. I’ve also become more content to throw out pages that aren’t working for the book. I think I cut over 100 pages in my last novel, which is now out to editors. But, had those pages not been written, I wouldn’t have arrived at the final product.

Wylding Hall is a gorgeous example of a book that is artfully and beautifully delivered. It’s important to remember as we beat our heads against our keyboards that the product is out there somewhere, and if we keep working at it we’ll get there. And novels do not emerge, fully formed. Even the most frustrating parts of the journey help us get there.

Wonderbook

9781419704420_p0_v2_s260x420

book by Jeff VanderMeer

illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have this compulsion to buy people books—books they MUST have. But long ago I learned that it’s impossible to sustain a family on that impulse, so instead, I recommend.  The recommendations frequently come with a bossy, “Seriously, you HAVE to get a copy, you MUST read this,” or run in punishingly long emails about said books filling unwitting friends’ inboxes.

But this year’s recommend,  Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer has gotten a bit out of control, as, since I first laid eyes on it, I want every writer and teacher of writing to have a copy. I would like to lay it in the hands of so many people and have written so many emails and have used giant hand gestures with my students, insisting they each get a copy that, well, it’s getting embarrassing.

It’s difficult to talk about Wonderbook without totally spazzing out about its awesomeness, but fortunately, in this space, it’s not about reviews or raving, it’s about talking about what is useful to us as writers. So I can calm down. And be in control. Right?

Because of its subtitle: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction and the writers who appear in its pages (Neal Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, George RR Martin and Michael Moorcock, among others,)  realistic fiction writers or writers not in the genre of science fiction and fantasy may think this book is not for them. And that’s where I start jumping up and down and ranting.

As soon as the book arrived in the mail this past October, I started using charts from its pages to help teach my students (all of whom write a variety of types of fiction at a variety of levels) plot, character, process and whatever my class was discussing in our last few lessons. I can yammer all day about plots, their varieties and patterns, but the plot lizards do so much work in gorgeous images, not to mention the Story vs. Situation dragons (pictured above,) the Storyfish (who brings on the Ass Backwards Fish in the revision section, a gorgeous illustration of exactly what was wrong with a certain element of my novel before a very skilled developmental editor got his hands on it) and the evolutionary Lifecycle of a Story.

What stopped me – totally stopped me – in a gobsmacking way in the book was an illustration of The Middle Zones (116) of story. There on the page, completely illustrated, was something I’d tried explaining to so many writers over years of doing notes for friends or in teaching . From my screenwriting days, I’d called it the Second Act Wall. It’s when the initial steam of starting a script, or novel, poops out. You’ve introduced these characters you had so clearly in your head, the world you’ve put them in, the circumstances that got you excited to write it in the first place, but you have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  In this illustration, one of Jeremy Zerfoss’s little faceless (but totally animated) creatures walks around a chart, saying  things I’ve heard from so many writers who are stuck: “This senseless slog.” “I never should have started.” “I will never get to the end.” “My outline is stupid, method suspect. I no longer know what I’m doing.” The chart provides questions to ask of your manuscript, suggestions how to proceed (or as Diane Sherlock has been known to say, ‘poke it with a stick’), but moves in a circle, demonstrating so completely the utter hell that is the Middle Zone. When you’re in it, you feel you’ll never emerge. Along the edge of this wheel are hopeful words of encouragement and suggestions, “persevere,” “new venue,” “new energy.” And to describe it further is not going to get you any closer to having the book, which, if you are a writer and/or teacher of writing, you should probably do. (Like now.) Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’ve used up only two-fifty in this chunk.

Useful (and beautiful) diagrams and gorgeous illustrations aside, the book is chock full of very useful and practical writing advice on every stage of writing, from inspiration, through characters, narrative design, world building, revision (progression was an revelatory for me and so useful now even in drafting) and the ecosystem of a story, which is my favorite section in regards to teaching:

 Like living creatures, stories come in a bewildering number of adaptations and mutations. Even within the constraint of written words, incredible variety occurs due to the near-infinite number of possible combinations. Anyone who tells you there are only a dozen types of stories should be viewed with as much suspicion as someone who tells you “all animals are the same.” A penguin is not a hamster; nor is a prawn a sea cucumber, an elephant a squid, an anteater, a dragon. (41)

So often I have students coming in with “rules” they have learned from various craft books, or from cranky teachers who believe that there is only one way to write. And often these rules have shut them down completely. It takes all manner of talking to open these writers up a little, to give them courage in their own process, and to give them the nerve to continue or sometimes to go back to the page at all. The greatest asset of this book is that it speaks gently and kindly to the writer. It contains volumes of information and knowledge, but isn’t bossy or didactic. It is more – like the chart of The Middle Zone – filled with gentle suggestions and useful information to help a writer proceed. Because at the end of the day, at least among the writers I know, we face enough demons, we don’t need an instructor prescribing our various processes.

But we sure could use a big, broad, colorful, but carefully laid out guide full of advice from so many writers who have been there, filled with encouragement, tools and tricks of the trade. This book has tools for novices, but also for pros and, were these words not copyrighted on another infamous Guide, DON’T PANIC (in giant font,) would be completely appropriate for its cover.

If you want to dip further into the world of Wonderbook, you can find more here.

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.

American Dream Machine

9781935639442_p0_v1_s114x166book by Matthew Specktor

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I dove right into American Dream Machine from its first pages, which open at the Beverly Hills Hamburger Hamlet on Doheny Drive, where I did about a year of waitressing in 1992 before heading into the film industry. But while this book was thrilling as it rang all of the familiar bells and whistles of Hollywood for me (After Doheny, I worked at WMA and a few production companies–all of the tertiary characters based in life were names I recognized), there were larger things afoot that made this a terrific book.

Matthew Specktor gives a crap about sentences. In a major way. There is an elegance that comes to his simple descriptions of the city and city dwelling that stopped me:

“A hot wind kicked up around us, one of those sinus-rattling Santa Anas that meddle with the mood of the city.”(85)

“The sky was lilac, the soft-brushed color of six o’clock. By the time they reached the lot it was proper twilight, all of them stumbling out of the car in a daze of wind and travel.” (130)

Even character moments are embedded with rhythm. Our narrator, Nate notices the subtle, but important moments that reveal so much:

“Right before he ducked back out to go retrieve the first aid kit that rattled around in the trunk, Bactine and Band-Aids in a white plastic box, right before I burst into tears, I saw it. Williams’s eyes flashed green, his pale lips tugged down at the corners. A wince or a grimace that was nothing like Beau, the fat man I automatically, if not yet consciously, associated with him. It was a terrible expression, small and involuntary: in it were fear and hunger, and some private pain that must’ve mirrored my own, else I would never have noticed it.”(136)

 This line about Hollywood in the eighties sings:

“They went to Charmer’s Market, to Jimmy’s, to Orlando Orsini’s and L’Orangerie; later, to Tony Bill’s place in Venice. They were fed and fat and fucked and fortunate: for a while, at least, they were happy indeed.” (208)

Even a scene of junior high kids at a skate park in the early eighties has its own poetry:

“His knees, which were white from ceaseless battering, came up tight to his chest as he grabbed his skate and flashed back into the air. This was more eloquent than anything any one of us could say: the clop and clatter of the skateboard, as stately in its way as a horse’s hooves.” (231)

But the writing is not twee, nor precious. The story pulls you along chapter by chapter with a careful weaving that lays not only a larger tension, but the tension from different moods of different scenes matched up against each other. We can be left breathless from one scene and are suddenly plunged into the past or the future to pick up a scene we had left before.

Specktor is terrific at keeping a large number of interconnected characters afloat over a fifty-year span, weaving the past with the present and creating an overall movement and pacing akin to a broad opera about Hollywood and three interlinked families. Things are not divided, like movies, into three simple acts. The book’s sections are balanced against each other by something a bit more ineffable and yet extremely satisfying.

The story is told by a Hollywood son, Nate, an observer of Nick Carraway distance and intimacy. The book is so engrossing, we often forget who is narrating, but Specktor pulls us back with a stray, “My father said,” –little reminders that this is from Nate’s perspective, years later. Nate is privy to a number of intimate scenes from his father’s life and he speaks from such authority and such distance of space that we believe it. While I figured (because I always have to figure) that Nate’s character had gone around and interviewed everyone with questions about his father in order to be telling us this story, there is really no need to establish the whys and wheretofores when the voice is grounded in such authority. We are given an explanation for Nate’s queries in the end that serves the larger story as well, but even had that not been supplied, the voice would have worked.

It is a good lesson when taking on a larger novel in remembering to think about how old your narrator is when he/she is relating the story, how long after the story happened, WHY, he or she is relating the story and to whom. While you need reveal none of these to your reader, the knowledge in the writer creates that narrator’s authority, which owns the page. It took me until draft three of my novel Alterations to figure that one out and once my character found her age, voice and distance, the whole story came together despite its three different points of view.

Nate’s narration has a tendency frequented by magical realists, to jump out into omniscient observations, which gives the novel a lovely dreamy feeling:

“His sensibilities were too vulgar, too crassly in line, really, with Waxmorton and Sam and even Davis, who by the end of the decade would be playing rascally rum runners and smug Southern cops.”(131)

“Picture three boys gathered over one comic book, the Spanish-style schoolhouse dissolved in Santa Monica fog, its milk-colored interior walls covered in construction paper, time lines, dinosaur dioramas, silver foil.”(169)

As a reader, I felt I was in good hands, that although I didn’t know where the journey was going every minute, the writer did and I could sit back and enjoy the ride. A few of these omniscient stingers also put Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” in otherwise peaceful scenes. A bucolic camping trip, where the Hollywood boys finally get out of their stoned skateboard city life and into the country becomes fraught with worry with one line:  “These were ten days of heaven, the last of a childhood that died hard in stages.” (281)

Through the various characters’ stories, Specktor gives us an intimate view of Hollywood, but also of how people’s interwoven lives, especially in an industry where business and personal are so perilously mixed, can, over a long period of time, have repercussions throughout a number of families. There is remarkable contrast in the fact that when catastrophic life-changing things befall our characters, Hollywood ticks on, same as it ever was. Beau, our central study who covers those fifty years, learns that when you give your life to the hustle, to that business, and the phone stops ringing, it is its own kind of death.

In a panel on books about Hollywood at April’s LA Times Festival Of Books, Matthew Specktor said that after seeing so many stereotypes, he wanted to write about Hollywood as “a real place, where real people live.” He succeeded by bringing a number of multi-layered characters to the page and braiding their lives thoroughly. The son of a talent agent, he grew up in the industry and later worked in it for a while. He could probably have written a scathing expose, or avoided the topic entirely for fear of offending. Instead, he took a world he knew well and wove a story with fictional characters into it.

This book is a strong reminder that any world we grow up in–a small town, a big city, an intricate extended family, a trailer park or an apartment building–is rife with a network of people living complex lives. People within a community have stories that are all interwoven, have an affect on each other and might seem too close for us to want to write about. But if we step back, without betraying specific stories of friends and family, we have a rich knowledge of relationships, a functioning society and an intimate knowledge of the gears that keep a place ticking. And that is narrative gold. That is a place you can take completely fictional characters and set them loose, see how they function and bump into each other. And most important, that is a place that no one knows better than you and is therefore a place you can share completely.

It is the specificity of the manner in which people’s lives rub up against each other in certain cultures that makes human stories so rich and interesting. We should all take another look at our upbringings and relationships–the ones we aren’t writing about because no one would find it interesting–and write.

As Nate puts it so well:

“We were all the custodians of each other’s catastrophes, after all.” (436)

Beautiful Ruins

51cwEmecIgL._AA160_book by Jess Walter

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have recently finished revising—for a fifth time– a Hollywood book, where one woman’s life decisions made in 1930s and 40s Hollywood have repercussions through three generations of her family. I was casting about for comparisons to my book and when I read the description of Beautiful Ruins, I got a twinge of fear familiar to most writers–that somehow my exact idea had been written before mine and was coming out from someone else in the world. And when I read the life of Claire Silver, young development exec, the twinge deepened, but once I got involved in Pasquale Tursi’s life and the young actress who comes to his remote hotel in an Italian Cove, all of this left me and the book carried me away so completely from any narcissistic thoughts of my own work, of marketplace, of competition that it took until I sat down to write this annotation to remember why I’d picked up the book in the first place.

And there’s a lot to learn from a book that transports the reader so completely. And a lot to learn from the complicated multiple Point of View multi-time structure Walter is able to create while maintaining an emotional tremolo that holds the book together.  Some chapters, particularly toward the end, hold a POV sleight of hand so clever it may take a second read to sort them out.

Pasquale’s point of view is very close and when we meet him, in his late twenties working his father’s hotel in a forgotten cove in Italy, we are given his frenetic energy and helplessness over his own life, but at the same time a curiosity and that frantic yearning we so often feel in our twenties. Pasquale’s English isn’t so great at this point and he has so many characters speaking very rapid complicated English at  him, it took me a while to figure Walter’s use of the thick dialogue. But cleverly, Walter gives us the English dialogue that we might get background and Pasquale’s frequent interpretations of what’s being told to him. Thus, we the readers are able to see the entire scene with all of its details while Pasquale doesn’t leave character. It is a theatrical trick—in a way the English speakers speak in asides to the audience while the other players on stage don’t know fully what’s being communicated.

Once I got over the fearful twinge on comparison, I adored Walter’s portrayal of Hollywood–from the long suffering D-girl, Claire to Michael Deane, a Robert Evans type mogul whose plastic surgery and various youth treatments have rendered him an aging man with a plasticky babyface. Walter gives us Michael through so many eyes, Claire’s, Pasquale’s, Dee’s and Michael’s himself—among others that we have a full portrait of this guy who will do anything for a deal. This makes the scenes through which he navigates terrifying as Michael bulldozes through people’s lives. When he plows into an extremely fragile grouping of characters in the end it evokes a bull in a china shop terror that would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. Michael has segued into movies from reality shows and is very close to selling the biggest idea ever—Hookbook—but I’ll leave the details on that pitch for your read.

What Walter manages to illustrate is the devastating affect people can have on each other’s lives through even brief contact. Richard Burton and Michael Deane plow a wide swathe through a large handful of people and the ripple effect through lives across generations—from Pasquale, his son and family to Dee and her subsequent family, to Claire, a development girl in Hollywood who can’t find her direction in life and Shane, a dude with a dream, it all ripples out and Walter pulls it in in the end.

Walter tells the story in painterly strokes, giving us one POV after another. Pasquale in the 1960s, Dee in the 1960s, Debra in the 70s and in the present, Claire in the present, Michael Deane in the 60s and then the present, Dee’s son, Pat in the present and the unlikely interpreter—Shane who has traveled to LA to pitch a movie about the Donner party only to find himself a witness and a pawn in a much larger game. Each stroke gives us insight into not only the story, but each of these characters, as everyone views each other differently. It is Dee’s view, Claire’s view, Shane’s view, Michael Deane’s view, Pat’s view and Pasquale’s view of himself that create this rich, many layered person. And still Walter is able to keep the crucial details to himself so that Pasquale is able to reveal something truly beautiful to us about his life in the end.

When all of our characters are assembled in the end and information is coming thick and fast, Walter manages to go in and out of various characters’ POV within one scene. This usually provides a complicated whiplash, but Walter managed me to keep close enough in each character’s POV that it all worked. This is definitely something to study as it so often goes wrong and Faulkner’s the only other guy I can think of who gets away with it so easily.

Walter reminds us that POV is not just a way to take us into different characters’ lives, it is a way to reveal character, plot, and that ineffable way in which we all affect each other. And it is a truly useful tool in portraying the great messiness that makes up human existence, how we all bump up against each other on this planet, sometimes having a deeper affect than we realize. He pulls this off without being overtly manipulative, without telling us what to feel. The result is a deeply affecting story and a really lovely flourish at the end.

I have three points of view in my novel—three people whose lives are inextricably entangled. But Walter makes me want to explore more tertiary characters in future books. To jump outside the central story and take some chance encounters for a drive. See what they might reveal. I suspect all of them may not stay in the final draft, but without trying, I may never know what those characters can reveal.

Untouchable

book by Scott O’Connor

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I was hoping for a book in which to lose myself. I’d been doing too much research for the book I’m working on and not enough reading. Fortunately, before a weekend at the beach, UNTOUCHABLE by Scott O’Connor came in the door. I was immediately drawn into our two main characters, Darby, who works for a cleaning service that cleans up after murder/suicide/death scenes and his son, Whitley, known as The Kid, who has taken a vow of silence despite his penchant for talk shows.

O’Connor paints a very vivid LA, as our story takes place on the edge of Echo Park just off Sunset and at the Everclean cleaning service in a lost corner of Glendale overlooking the river–a corner I happen to know well. The writer gives us details of streets, textures, colors and things to look at without bogging us down in geographical details—there’s no “at the corner of this and that, where the metro stop is.” It’s a case for letting your reader get into a physical space, rather than worrying about the geography. The writer knows exactly where his characters are, but it’s subtly portrayed. Through the Kid’s eyes, O’Connor gives us his neighborhood, including a massive mural in an underpass, which is being continuously covered by graffiti—the kid tries to capture it in a drawing before it’s completely obscured.

O’Connor reminds us that every intimate corner of any city has character, even the bleakest ones. There is as much for a reader to experience with the senses on a bleak street corner with a rundown bus stop as there is in a plush forest ridden with wildlife. The Darbys’ chipped cement front porch and barred windows with their ever present pickup truck out front are an indelible backdrop for narrative. The trick is to pay attention to the details, no matter where you are.

O’Connor also manages to use physical landscape as metaphor, from the dog who was stuck in the sewers beneath the Darby’s street for days (who comes out as damaged as the topdwellers,) to the closet where Darby’s associate loses his mind from going to his cleanup job alone. Every nuance of place is utilized and described to its full extent–an apartment above a Chinese restaurant, a hotel room where the suicide victim thoughtfully lay out plastic first, Darby’s garage where their life is cartoned off and secrets are hidden in drawers behind boxes. Even a blank spot on a bulletin board above Darby’s wife’s tiny desk becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The Kid and Darby have pretty wretched lives when we meet them—the Kid is routinely beaten up at school and is mentally abused by the school guidance counselor who seems to think the problem lies with him. He leads a perilous game of survival and he plots several different ways home from school to avoid his tormentors.  He holds a hope that the story of his mother’s death is untrue, that she has run away.  The Kid had a life ambition of becoming a talk show host, so he gives up the one thing he treasures most in an exchange with God–he won’t speak until his mom comes back.  In the Kid’s shoes, told in close third person, we are given an unreliable point of view—a boy whose very trauma has messed with his line of thinking. And his twisted line of thinking is what keeps the reader on precarious, but fascinating ground.  The mere unpredictability in his actions kept me turning pages. What will he do next?

Darby, the kid’s father is dealing with the loss of his wife by sleeping in the truck out front of the house and is has a growing unease with his job cleaning up after crime scenes. His point of view is also unreliable as we sense that he is coming unhinged. Darby fights off a “speck” in his throat, which at first appears only at a moment when he photographs the cleaned up crime scene, then later throughout. O’Connor weaves a careful narrative through Darby’s mind, and we descend into madness with him. But with physical details and Darby’s particular obsessiveness, we are never lost in his madness—we always know where we are, each terrifying step of the way. In both of these characters, we are fully immersed in their points of view, which are so particular and breathtakingly human, it is a difficult book to put down.

Both Darby and the Kid are tremendously likeable, from Darby’s nightly fried fish dinners with his boss, Bob, to his memories of and love for his wife and the sheer range of emotions he goes through every day he shows up on the job. The Kid has a fantasy talk show he can no longer perform due to his covenant, a motley pair of friends who change his life in unexpected ways, and an ability to find true beauty and meaning in the unlikeliest of places. A burned out house becomes a magical place that affects his life profoundly.

O’Connor finds a deep beauty in the every day and in bleakness itself through the eyes of his characters. Darby’s adoption of a hopelessly ill dog who is covered in sores and won’t let anyone near it ends up being one of the most life-changing actions of the books. The result is a heartbreaking very human beauty.

I’ve lived in LA for over twenty years and I set my first book in New York, my second book in present day Baltimore and 1930s Los Angeles, but this next one I’m working on has finally landed at home in present day LA. Scott O’Connor has made me more aware of every detail in the everyday, and how creating a psychic landscape can function on many deeper levels than just putting characters in a place. While this read was very useful to me as a writer, as a reader, I have to say it was one of the loveliest, absorbing and most moving books I’ve read in a while.

Kafka on the Shore

book by Haruki Murakami

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I had been recommended Murakami for years, but hadn’t read him, so I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to Kafka on the Shore. When reading a translation, I’m always partially aware that I’m not getting the whole scoop. One can only hope the translator got the feel and pull of what the original author was after.  I love reading Japanese translated into English and I’ve read a great deal of Banana Yoshimoto. Whether it’s a cultural thing or a language thing with Yoshimoto and Murakami, a great deal of attention is paid to color and objects. There is less time spent going into the trickle of sweat on a back, the feel of a fabric, the variations of smell, but often objects are introduced to litter up the landscape, create a painting. In Murakami’s work, I got the sense of the main characters moving through a painting, an odd filmic plane, which served the surreal nature story. And with both authors, we always know what our main characters are eating–I love that.

Murakami often creates a scene through the ritual of everyday tasks. We get into a character’s world through behavior. While his characters do think things out, they do so in an analytical, distant way. But behavior can reveal so much. Kafka, self-named in escaping his father’s house, is fifteen and wakes up in a girl’s apartment. The night before, he woke up in an alley covered with blood, no idea what happened.

In his creeping through his day cautiously, Murakami builds tension.

“I grab a carton of milk from the fridge, check the expiration date and pour it over some cornflakes, boil some water and make a cup of Darjeeling tea. Toast two slices of bread, and eat them with some low-fat margarine. Then I open the newspaper and scan the local news. Like she said, no violent crimes in the headlines. I let out a sigh of relief, fold up the paper and put it back where it was” (pg. 93)

There’s a great deal of quiet  in this book. Nakata is an older man who has been “off” for most of his life, who talks to cats, a “simple” man who goes through his days without much care for memory or speculation. Nakata is infuriating and fascinating in that he is being called by something supernatural, something urgent, but can’t seem to define it. A young trucker named Hoshino is taken along on Nakata’s journey and, as he did above, Murakami slows down time to an infuriating pace. After supernatural events that occur because of Nakata (a rain of leeches, a rain of fish, a conversation with the local cats), he tends to go to sleep for days at a time. Murakami counts the passage of time in meals as Hoshino kills time until Nakata wakes. In this sequence there is about a page and a half of time passing, meals eaten, cigarettes smoked:

“Dinnertime came and the sleep marathon continued. Hoshino went out to a curry restaurant and had an extra-large order of beef curry and a salad. After this he went to the same pachinko place as the night before and played again for an hour…” (pg. 234)

Images are presented plainly, time passes, but in the quiet of Murakami’s prose, enormous and peculiar things happen. As with the best magic realism, he tells his story, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “With a brick face.” Leeches rain from the sky, a stone is turned opening a door to another world, a boy has sex with the existential version of his mother and his sister and soldiers, lost since the World War I wander in forests and, if you ask them, will lead you to a purgatory, a quiet world where time is measured out in meals.

Here, Kafka stays at a cabin in the middle of a forest we soon after learn is enchanted:

“I pull on a windbreaker over my yacht jacket and go outside. The morning light pours down through the tall trees into an open space in front of the cabin, sunbeams everywhere and mist floating like freshly minted souls. The pure clean air pierces my lungs with each breath. I sit down on a porch step and watch the birds scudding from tree to tree, listening to their calls. “ (pg. 131)

Kafka takes what happens to him with passive wonder. While it may drive the reader crazy, this is Kafka’s fatal flaw and only when he takes control of his life can he come out of the dreamy haze the author has woven for us.

Murakami is a reminder to let the wonder of magic realism or the world of the fantastic lie–that there’s time to look around, like Kafka, observe and move through a story and incredible happenings without explaining everything at once. Hoshino is frustrated in following the enigmatic Nakata around the countryside, but knows he serves a higher purpose serving him. Kafka journeys and meets his fate in little ways along the way.

But in his spellbinding and imagistic language, Murakami keeps us rapt, and traveling and aligned with his characters. My characters tend to blunder through their lives, wrestling with each random emotion as it comes up; I love letting their minds wander, and my reader with them. But after reading Murakami, I want to get out of my character’s heads a little and look around: to stop and breathe into their physical surroundings, the minutiae of their days. There may be more tension and wonder to be found if I take a moment to breathe and look around.

The Intruder

book by Peter Blauner

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Reading books outside your given genre can still inform your writing on an elemental scale.  I love reading Peter Blauner because of his grip on various aspects of society and how they tend to slam up against one another in New York City. He has a mastery of character structure and contrasts very different lives with each other before a character inevitably crosses the line—and it is there that things explode and become something new.

Blauner’s work is painstakingly researched and informed deeply in a way that only a lifetime New Yorker can accomplish. This is a great lesson in how writers can take advantage of a lifetime knowledge of a place: and how many aspects of a character’s life, ego and story that place can affect. In The Intruder, there’s a many-layered conversation between an upper West Side transplant from Brooklyn and his contractor, where they talk about the old neighborhood. But they’re not just talking about the old neighborhood: the subtext is Jake saying, “I’m still a guy from the ‘hood, even though I live in this brownstone and you’re technically working for me…” and this the conversation also takes on a sinister undercurrent that the reader can sense, but not totally make out. This delicate social balancing act gets turned on its ear further on in the book—all starting in a conversation about the neighborhood. Blauner reminds us to pay attention: every detail matters.

Blauner explores the guilt of the innocent and the innocence of the guilty in this story of a homeless man who becomes obsessed with a family, stalking them and the patriarch of that family’s response to this threat. What results is a tangle in which he shows us that as separately as we try to live our city-dwelling lives, we are all tied together more closely than we think.

Once the characters start crossing between their social strata, disaster ensues. In close third person and in intimate detail, we meet Jake the well-to-do lawyer, John G the homeless man, and Philip, the Mafioso. We learn their motivations, background and the reasons for their choices. While there is no part of me that liked Philip, Blauner made me feel for the place life put him—his mobster boss uncle who sexually abused him as a child, his ideas of the success he’ll never attain. The deep sympathy he was able to maintain with each character made the impossibility of their situation all the more painful.

Blauner gives us John Gates in careful layers. We open with his reflections on how he ended up homeless in the park being pushed around by punk kids, who soak him in gasoline and are about to set him on fire. It was through Blauner’s interviews with a guy who had started out with a life, a job, a family, and ended up on the streets that he learned that these things happen in increments, not all at once. In order to show us how John G arrived at the low point where we meet him, Blauner points out that we have to see “each thing in light of what happened before.” We have deep sympathy for John G. His daughter has died, his marriage has fallen apart, he was given Haldol to cope, and started using crack along the way. He stayed at a friend’s apartment and one night just didn’t go home. Then he was on the streets. His paperwork has been shuffled around so much that when he goes to seek help at a hospital, where he encounters Jake’s wife, Dana, she can’t treat him until she sends him to a clinic she where she works–but then only if he gets the right paperwork. John G. is tantalizingly close to getting help, to getting some sort of a life back, but he spends the night in a shelter and it’s when he’s raped by a guard that he becomes truly unhinged and starts to stalk Jake’s family. Jake finds himself increasingly squeezed by this guy, incredulous that this city, which he has spent his life getting to the top of, is closing in around him.  Enter Philip the contractor and the web begins to circle in on itself.

The careful structure of the book is what makes it so difficult to put down and it is this structure that can inform any genre of novel writing. We gain intimate knowledge of each character and his motivation and Blauner ratchets up the stakes for each of them in every ensuing chapter, but it’s the cutting back and forth between the upped stakes that creates its own kinetic energy. John G and Jake’s lives become more entwined and just when you think John’s going to get things together, find his way with the aid of Abraham, who lives in the tunnels under Riverside Drive, Philip enters the scene. Philip encourages Jake to cross the tensile borderlines between homeless and property owner–Guy who has made it and disenfranchised. And it’s then that things explode.

Because of my screenwriting background, I enjoy the way in which cutting from one story to another can up the tension, but in the latest novel I’m working on, with three points of view, three people all in each other’s lives, I got so wrapped up in each person’s story I forgot for several drafts how they were affecting each other’s lives directly. Blauner reminds us that when the characters each step off their tracks and infect each other’s lives, stir things up, that the real action begins.  And if you can push characters beyond their limits, dangerously into each other’s lives, that’s where the story gets interesting.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

book by Wells Tower

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Short story collections are a tricky read. It’s difficult for one author to maintain the energy to move a collection along at the same reading pace as a novel. Frequently when reading a collection, I will put the book down every story or two, read entire other books and then go back to it when I’m strong enough to do more.

But with Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower creates so many different voices so vividly that every new story is a new journey, has a different arc, a different pace or circumstance, and varies in voice in a way that I’ve never seen in one writer before. Here is a writer who pays attention to voice in meticulous detail: how each character talks and what this says about him or her, within narration, monologues or in dialogue.

I was fortunate enough to hear a reading and Q & A with the writer while at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference last month. Tower had interviewed a man on a homeless basketball team while doing a larger story for a magazine. He  truncated two or three days of interviews into this man’s brick-face (Gabriel Garcia-Marquez spoke to the Paris Review of telling stories like his grandmother, with a “brick face,” letting the story do the work) account of his life. Tower captured not only his delivery and cadence, but the man’s character through how he talked and how plainly he stated the incredible life-changing things that happened to him.

It was this reading and Q &A that I took back to the book, and I turned my writers’ eye to the reading—this was a task, as the stories are brilliant at sucking you in and carrying you along seamlessly. The reason each of these many characters, from an aging huntsman to a teenage girl to a raiding Viking to a small boy—is so completely alive, was that each voice was utterly distinct and singular. Each voice told us more about the characters than their actions.

In “Wild America” Tower tells the story of two cousins, Jacey and Maya and, after describing their closeness through childhood, sums up their characters from Jacey’s point of view:

“Three weeks shy of sixteen, Maya had evolved into a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute, while Jacey still went round with a shiny chin and forehead and a figure like a pickle jar.” (151)

In one sentence he nails a very female mortification of puberty, teenagehood, feelings of inadequacies, cousin comparison and awkwardness. By the second page of the story, because of her strong voice, we are fully in Jacey’s smack-talking but articulate court and are ready to follow her wherever she takes us.

But not every voice is articulate or careful, because that would be too easy. We learn so much about our narrator in the halting opening lines of “Door in Your Eye.”

“My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear. I was not even through with my soup when she came out, very excited, with a stack of photographs.”(131)

We aren’t told until several pages later, about two thirds of the way through the story, that our narrator is in his early eighties. It’s his view on life, his spying on the neighbor woman whom he believes is a hooker, the manner in which he comes to conclusions and the peculiar way he puts things that brings him to life and brings us his age.

“I wanted so much to see the woman that I stayed on the porch for many hours, doing my art…I don’t know how the woman stood all the work she was doing. Men toe-ed and fro-ed along her steps all day and night, but in three days of watching, I hadn’t seen her.”(137)

But it’s not only in the voice of his narrators that Tower excels. He manages to bring a variety of characters into scenarios and bang them up against each other at high speeds. This captures, so accurately how chance gatherings work in life, how haphazard conversations can become and how everyone is not always being heard.

In “Executors of Important Energies,” Tower introduces us to a man and his father, who has Alzheimers, his stepmother who has a leaky eye which she explains, “Big Iranian bitch on my volleyball team. Stuck her finger down my eye. Seeing double now” (73)—just the use of the word “down” instead of “in” and her truncated explanation tell us so much about this woman—and Dwayne, a park chess-hustling, ex-trumpet player who lives in his car.

Dwayne’s take on hustling chess is carefully put, “Well, the game is a lucrative addiction. In my soul, I am a musician.”(79) Dwayne later explains,

“I did blow for Kenny (Loggins) on the European tour. My wife and me, we also blessed his outfit with some very beautiful backing vocals. Saw all the top destinations, stayed in fine hotels, rode all the major airlines, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic. I’m glad you brought it up. That was a happy time of life.” (81)

Dwayne’s gentle voice and his specific choice of words betray a man taking careful advantage of the very brief window in these self-absorbed people’s conversation to explain that he is much more than the chess hustler they made him out to be. This moment and this voice are an important setup to the end of the story, which I leave you to find on your own.

The careful work in Tower’s characterization, dialogue and voice made me stop in my tracks.  I find that my characters’ voices emerge from somewhere in my head, and as I revise my work I sort out inconsistencies (“that person wouldn’t say this”), and try to “listen” to them a bit further. But Everything Ravaged had me thinking about these voices in a new way, and of the many questions I hadn’t asked of my characters–reasons for their speech patterns, their history of interactions with other characters and their social backgrounds. Voice goes beyond verbal tics, it goes into the depth of character, character history, age and background, whether portraying a story in first person or in close third person or, as Tower uses in “The Leopard,” second person.

Tower has a knack for endings I haven’t seen before. So many short stories I read go to full closure, full redemption for their characters—the character changed, which is something repeated so often by writing teachers, but is not always the best place to leave a story.  Sometimes these people are never going to change, sometimes they are still on the same trajectory where we found them, or perhaps just about to step off it. Sometimes they wander around in the place in life where they are stuck and we are left to come to our own conclusions. And leaving a number of stories in different places throughout  this collection gave me more to chew on when I came away from each story. It recreated that feeling we so often get in life when friends wander out of our realm of consciousness. And we wonder…and that wondering brings them closer in our minds than perhaps an ending (happy or otherwise) or full closure would have. These characters are rattling around in my head a week after reading the collection.

I don’t want to go back to stories I’ve written and chop off the endings, because that’s not what happened here. These stories are very much complete. But Tower gives us a freedom to explore our characters’ lives in a messier, less pat way. To explore more natural patterns in conversation and in storytelling.

As to the title story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” I will need to leave it unexplored for your total enjoyment. Two accomplished writers I talked to who had read the collection asked eagerly, “Did you read the last story?” when I answered no, they both, at different times, shook their heads and said, “Read the last story…” Let’s just say it would need its own annotation and denying you the pleasure of that first unadulterated read would be criminal on my part.

Tower reminds us to listen. Maybe if we listen to people we encounter all the way, their tone and cadence will hold for us not only what area they’re from, but their upbringing, workplace, manner in which they relate to other people, insecurities and larger story. It is often how someone puts their personal monologue that tells us more than the words they are putting forth. Dialogue and narrator voice are not just something to let us know who characters are, they can carry layers of story within the larger story we tell. It is how our characters look at what is happening to them that reveals those careful slices of human-ness outside of the story.

So, when you’re out at a restaurant, a shop, at a party, or meeting new people remember to listen all the way, like the narrator of “Down Through the Valley” does as he catches an offhand conversation between two locals:

The waitress went by, and the boy called out to her. “Hey, Jenny. Your tits look happy tonight.”

“Yeah, well they’re crying on the inside,” she told him over her shoulder. (105)

The Knockout Artist

amazon.com

book by Harry Crews

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Rob Roberge introduced me to this underrated but brilliant writer who pretty much blew me away. He passed away Wednesday at the age of 76. In his honor, we’re re-running this annotation from 2009.

Given the dark subject matter, I had thought this noir book would be a chore, but found it instead a heartbreaking delight. Crews takes us directly into the dark underbelly of society, accompanying Eugene, the eponymous knockout artist, to one of his gigs. He gives us Eugene’s simple look at the world, taking stock in his surroundings, staring at the jackets in the closet across from him. When Jake comes in with Oyster-Boy, thin, pale, shedding skin, a dog collar around his neck led by the enormous and salacious Purvis, we know that he has crept into the darkest side of town, the part most of us don’t want to see but can’t help staring at. But Eugene keeps his head, protects himself by fighting off any interaction with these people and goes and does his job, knocking himself out.

Within one chapter, Crews has given us a coherent world and a solid hero with a strong voice. There is something uncorruptable about Eugene, made more obvious by his introduction taking place in a deeply corrupt society. What is it about this guy that is so decent despite the fact that he is a kept man and knocks himself out to make money? He is deeply buried in self-loathing, but there is something solid at the core of Eugene that will never be soiled. The complexity of a character having such opposing aspects to his personality makes for a compelling protagonist. I seriously need to work toward that, but figure I’m still years away.

Things for Eugene are bound to get worse, we know this from our classic noir surroundings; his simple act of blacking out regularly is very Phillip Marlowe. Of course we are introduced to the mysterious and tragic woman (Jake), then the user trouble woman (Charity).

Pete is a beautiful best friend character. Crews does a great thing by taking us inside Eugene’s hopes for Pete. When it looks like Pete is getting his life together, Eugene buys it. We know because of the nature of the book something awful will happen, but Crews is careful about weaving Eugene’s hope in a way that makes us feel it with him; Tulip cleaning up Pete’s apartment, the fact that the two are clearly in love. Eugene has a respect for this real love, and knows more and more clearly it is not what he shares with Charity. Crews has a real eye for finding the good in people readers might otherwise not think of: Tulip who had a sex act with a teddy bear on Bourbon Street, is the woman who gives Pete something larger to live for. And Pete, porn and snuff film projectionist, who could not make peace with Eugene’s knockout living, saw the good in her, which makes him more appealing.

There is such tragic beauty in Eugene’s dealings with Blasingame. It is Eugene who takes Pete into his deal with Blasingame, and it is Blasingame’s world that ruins Pete forever. In trying to free himself from corruption and kink (the knocking himself out) he has unwittingly led Pete down the path to destruction. It is on Blasingame’s boat that the clean Tulip uses again, which plants the seeds for her downward slide, making our final image of Pete, fully immersed in Blasingame’s world, a complete and utter destruction whose responsibility rests on Eugene’s shoulders.

The tenuous, frenetic hope that Crews weaves around Eugene and Pete’s plans for a future in boxing management reminded me a lot of April’s spinning hopes about Paris in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. You can feel the exhilaration of the character, especially when Pete gets on board and starts talking Blasingame’s ear off. But their enthusiasm creates its own tension, since the reader is fully aware that things are not going to end well. It is such a careful balance and I would like to somehow steal that for the climax of my book.  (I actually did end up stealing Yates/Crews’ technique which worked quite nicely)

Charity takes the Noir female villain to the next level. She has the upper hand when we first meet her, as she is keeping Eugene and cataloging him with her sex-produced recording sessions. Crews builds a dominating woman, but once Eugene gets into her files and learns that she was kicked out of school, she becomes even more vulnerable and therefore more interesting. Charity’s drive to get inside other people’s lives and destroy them is all bluster; this fragility makes her completely fascinating and when she takes an interest in Jake, Eugene and we feel genuine worry for her. This reminds me that I need to build my villain’s motivation in a more human way. If I can get into her human need to collect souls, beyond a supernatural level, she’ll be much more interesting. I have her motivation from a stance of pure evil and, frankly, that’s not enough.

Eugene has lost everything, including the one friend who had loved him for who he was and had kept him together. But Crews is careful to leave us with a sense of hope. Jacques comes into the picture only at the end, but we get the sense that his Cajun common sense may well be a solid calming force in Eugene’s life and may help him hang onto the shred of decency at his core. This is an important reminder that if you lead your reader down a dark path, you can’t abandon them there. A sad story works better with a glimmer of hope, or at least a foothold and forward movement for its hero. Something gained.

This was a truly artful book, a pleasure to read, completely not in a genre I’ve ever written, and yet it was totally useful.