Best Reads of 2016

Looking back on a year of reading can reveal surprising patterns. Considering the books I read in 2016, I notice that in the vast majority of cases (24 of 36 to be precise), I was reading the author for the very first time. I'm not sure what this means, though it does seem to indicate a certain restless curiosity, or maybe a disinclination to revisit familiar terrain. But it seems to me that there are lots of writers I've previously read who I return to when they publish new work, and others whose past catalogues I'll explore after coming to them late. Maybe 2016 was just unusual.

It occurs to me now to wonder how often I’ve read more than one book by the same author in a given year. I remember years ago I went through a Dickens phase, reading maybe six or seven of his novels in succession. Later, for a few months, I became similarly infatuated with the novels and stories of Joseph Conrad. Lately, however, I don’t seem inclined to go “all in” with a single author, choosing instead to spread my reading around to as many authors as I can fit into my schedule. I'm attracted to new voices: either new to me with several books to their credit, or altogether new: ten of the books I read in 2016 were the author’s debut publication.

But it doesn’t matter if I’m reading an author’s first or twentieth book, what I’m looking for is the same: an engaging story told with verve and imagination and a sensitivity to language. I want to be pulled into the lives of characters I care about. I want to turn the pages because I have to find out what happens next. But I don't want to be comforted or coddled. I want to be surprised, maybe even shocked, and definitely thrown off balance. If the writer can challenge me by shattering my expectations while also bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, so much the better.

The books listed below do all of these things and do them well.

 

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The Spare Room by Helen Garner

Helen Garner's remarkable novel The Spare Room is an unflinching and brutally honest exploration of a loving friendship between two women of late middle age. Nicola has journeyed from Sydney to Melbourne to stay with Helen while receiving a 3-week course of treatment for advanced cancer. Helen, anticipating Nicola's visit with a mix of anxiety and dread, has prepared the spare room in her house for her dear friend. Nicola arrives a wreck. Helen fears Nicola is at death's door. But the sick woman rallies and regains energy and her good spirits in what becomes--during the next several weeks--an agonizing pattern of euphoric highs, miserable lows and sleepless nights that grinds Helen down until she can take no more. Nicola's alternative treatments, dispensed at an independent clinic in the city, are expensive, controversial and based on a kind of science that, when Helen digs into the root of it, begins to seem not just dubious but downright fraudulent. As Helen watches her friend's suffering deepen she grows impatient, first with the treatments and then the clinic, and finally with Nicola herself, whose relentless optimism and cheerful stoicism start grating on her nerves. The rage that bubbles to the surface of Helen's normally pragmatic demeanor shocks her with its raw intensity. She doesn’t want to betray her friend by cruelly destroying her faint hopes of recovery, but after two weeks she can no longer endure Nicola’s breezy insistence that the treatments are working and that she’s going to get better. Garner’s narrative is engrossing but sometimes painful to read. In this book we confront one of the most deeply ingrained of human fears. What are we to do when someone we love is dying, but won’t face up to it? Under such dire circumstances, with the inevitable outcome looming, how important is the truth? In the end, Helen and Nicola work out a compromise based on their own selfish needs. Helen Garner is an unsentimental writer who cuts through the crap like few others, dissecting human motivation with surgical precision: like a scalpel, her writing is sharp and effective. The Spare Room tells a potent story that acknowledges the inevitability of death, while also recognizing that for the person approaching the end of life, acceptance and defiance both serve a purpose.

 

This Marlowe by Michelle Butler Hallett

This Marlowe is  a spellbinding account of the last months of the life of English playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was murdered brutally under mysterious circumstances at the age of twenty-nine on May 30, 1593. The historical record suggests that Marlowe was an agent working for the English government who carried out assignments on the European mainland, where tensions had arisen between Protestant and Catholic factions. The novel accepts Marlowe’s role in international espionage as fact and fleshes out the scant official record with sufficient incident and dialogue to make for high drama. In 1593 Queen Elizabeth, at age sixty, had no heirs, and there was no apparent successor to the throne. The lack of an heir was causing unrest at her court, and behind her back a struggle was underway to gain control of how events would unfold after her death. Central to the action is the scheme hatched by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to discredit his main rival, Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and Marlowe’s employer, by implicating Marlowe in an incident that became known as the “Dutch church libel.” Notices were posted around the City of London threatening Protestant refugees with violence while making overt reference to Marlowe’s plays. Butler Hallett slowly builds a story in which much whispering takes place behind closed doors, innocent bystanders fall victim to a byzantine political mechanism, and where everyone has an agenda. The author’s Elizabethan London is a damp, filthy place where concepts of innocence and guilt are malleable and even those who have done nothing wrong have good reason to fear a knock on the door in the middle of the night. But Marlowe himself is the main attraction, a man with a conflicted and contradictory nature, whose self-destructive tendencies in the end spell his doom. Openly homosexual and ungodly in an age when being just one or the other would be enough to place him at odds with prevailing morals and civil and religious authorities, he does not bother to conceal his defiance and often baits and provokes those in a position to do him harm. This Marlowe asks a lot of the reader. It deploys a sizable cast of characters whose motivations are sometimes hazy, and it speaks in a voice that will sound alien to our modern ears. But this is a marvelous and masterful novel. Taking up the challenge it presents is more than worth the effort.

 

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

The Millstone is Margaret Drabble's third novel, published in 1965 when the author was twenty-six. Rosamund Stacey, a young graduate student writing a thesis on the English Romantic poets, maintains a solitary and emotionally isolated existence in her parents’ flat in London (her parents are living in Africa). Rigorously intellectual and self-aware, she’s plotted out her neat and tidy life every step of the way. Even the romantic involvements she’s permitted herself are planned and calculated for minimum fuss and muss: she goes on occasional outings to pubs and movies with two different men, neither of whom she finds particularly attractive and each of whom is under the impression she’s sleeping with the other—the result being that neither pressures her for a physical liaison or deeper commitment. But even Rosamund can’t control forever her own desire for human connection, and one night she meets a man in a bar, gets tipsy, brings him to her flat, and they have sex. It’s her one and only sexual encounter, and against the odds she discovers she’s pregnant. It’s at this point that her analytical approach to living breaks down and she begins questioning her motives and objectives. Reason dictates that she have an abortion and put the episode behind her. But almost without reaching the decision consciously, and without any help from her family and with very little from her friends, she foregoes this option and proceeds resolutely onward, making arrangements for the birth and for the presence in her life of someone who will depend on her for everything. Drabble’s assured narrative—first person from Rosamund’s perspective—is touching, thoroughly engrossing, psychologically penetrating, and sometimes very funny, as Rosamund, the middle-class intellectual, struggles with feelings and passions that often take her by surprise, and is shocked again and again to discover how profoundly ignorant she is about life in the trenches. Drabble’s voice in this book is refined and mature and never lets the reader down. Her later novels are longer and more complex, but by any measure The Millstone remains a literary achievement of the first order.

 

 

The Lost Girls by Heather Young

Heather Young’s first novel is a captivating mystery, a gorgeously fashioned entertainment , and a solid piece of writing. It is a family story of loss, betrayal, cowardice, courage and dark secrets. Many dark secrets. The novel is narrated in two streams. In the historical story, Lucy Evans, nearing the end of her life, decides she must write down an account of the events that took place during the summer of 1935, the last summer her family (sisters Lucy, 11, Emily, 6, and Lilith, 13, and their parents) spent together at their vacation home on the lake in Williamsburg, Minnesota. The contemporary story is a third person narrative from the perspective of Justine Evans, Lucy’s grandniece and Lilith’s granddaughter. Justine is living in San Diego with her own two daughters, Melanie and Angela, and her boyfriend Patrick. Upon Lucy’s death, Justine is astonished to find that she is the sole beneficiary of her great aunt’s will (which skips over Justine’s irresponsible and frequently inebriated mother, Maurie), inheriting the house and a substantial sum of money. Seeing an opportunity that she didn’t even realize she was waiting for, and without a word to Patrick, Justine packs her daughters and a few belongings into the car and takes off for Minnesota. Both narratives proceed at a leisurely pace, gradually and effectively ramping up the tension and suspense. Lucy’s story of that last fateful summer is heavy with foreboding, focusing mainly on her relationship with her sister Lilith, whose behaviour she is beginning to find perplexing, rebellious and occasionally mean-spirited. As the summer progresses Lucy notices changes in her family and in herself, noting especially the odd and distressing antipathy springing up between Lilith and their devout, straight-laced father. Meanwhile, Justine’s story shows her coping with the challenges of a house in an advanced state of dilapidation stuffed with the dusty belongings of people long dead, and the severe Minnesota winter, all while trying to placate her two daughters, deal with Maurie when she shows up not entirely unexpectedly, make ends meet, and keep her whereabouts secret from Patrick. Heather Young has conjured up a spellbinding drama with a cast of unfailingly interesting characters. The prose shimmers with evocative sensory detail that brings the rustic Minnesota setting to life. One of the greatest pleasures of this novel are the descriptions of the house, the lake and the surrounding forest. There is a sensual, full-blooded, multi-dimensional quality to the writing that makes it memorable and raises The Lost Girls to another level. When Lucy ventures into the wild, we are there with her experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. What's more, the story is masterfully paced, the mystery unravels in a most satisfying manner, and the book comments meaningfully on human frailty and endurance and the strategies we use to live with our transgressions.

 

The Afterlife of Birds by Elizabeth Philips

In The Afterlife of Birds, Henry Jett is alone, his latest girlfriend having packed it in after being freaked out by his unconventional hobby of reassembling the skeletons of birds and small animals. Even though he has no interest in cars, he works a menial job at Ed’s Garage. Unlike his self-centred brother Dan, whose looks, charisma and athleticism have made him a social dynamo and girl magnet all his life, Henry is unassertive and unremarkable: the friend whose face you have trouble remembering but who can nonetheless be counted upon to answer the call for help when things fall apart. Henry’s life is going nowhere at a snail’s pace, and he knows it. But what is he to do? However, change is happening all around him. His brother falls off the radar after deciding to run a marathon and embarking upon an obsessive regimen that takes over his life; his mother decides to sell the nursery that she’s been operating for as long as Henry can remember and go to Australia; Marcie, an employee of long standing at the nursery and close friend of Henry’s, decides she wants to be a mother; and Mrs. Bogdanov, an elderly acquaintance of Henry’s who he’s been helping in numerous small ways for years, runs into health problems. As he observes the effects these changes are having on himself and those he loves, Henry finds it is impossible to stay unaffected and untouched. Elizabeth Philips’ novel is about an ordinary man who discovers that to be ordinary is to be anything but. Drawn into a world of change, Henry Jett is forced to acknowledge wishes and desires he didn’t even know he harboured. The novel is closely observed and emotionally resonant. The action moves at a slow burn, but Philips writes complex and beautiful sentences that must be savoured. Entertaining and poignant, The Afterlife of Birds is literary fiction at its best.

On Rejection

There’s no point embarking on a writing career if you’re not prepared to handle rejection. The aspiring writer (for that matter, any creative artist) has to start somewhere, and for the majority of us who are not prodigies, this means setting out on the creative journey before we have any clear idea where we want to go. An obvious fact about most things in life is that you have to do something badly before you can do it well. It may be a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it holds a kernel of truth. For anyone writing fiction or poetry, the apprenticeship is long and arduous; some argue that it never ends. The creative process follows no logic or formula. Writing is exploration, and exploration is by definition messy and chaotic and leaves a trail of detritus in its wake. Eventually we gain confidence and master aspects of the craft, taking lessons learned from one project and applying them to the next. We recognize where we’ve gone wrong and learn how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. But even when we finish a story or novel and feel satisfied with the result, it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like it.

 

Writing may be exploration, but it is also communication, and I’ve said before that anyone who claims to write for no other reason than personal satisfaction is probably lying. People who commit themselves to a craft and spend years refining their skills want affirmation that the time has not been wasted. When we complete a new work—a poem or short story or novel, say—the only rational thing to do is to show it to someone and ask what they think. Placing your work in another person’s hands involves risk, but if the person is a friend, a lover, a spouse, a mentor, a teacher, a writing group, or some other trusted individual or collective whose function is to provide support and encouragement, the risk is likely to be small. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that feedback from someone who doesn’t want to hurt your feelings is of limited value.

 

Once your friends and relatives have had their say and you’ve smoothed out the rough edges at a workshop or maybe in a mentorship program, the next logical step in your journey is to try to get published by sending your story or poem to a journal that publishes stories or poems, or your novel to a book publisher. This involves risk of a different sort: when you unleash your work on the world at large, you expose yourself to the opinions of complete strangers who don’t give a damn about your feelings.

 

An inescapable fact about publishing is that 99% of the material that’s submitted is rejected, and rejection happens for any number of reasons, many of which the hopeful author could never anticipate. That being said, there are lots of things an author can do to make sure his submission gets a fair shot.

 

One important but frequently unobserved rule of the submission game can be stated this way: never place needless barriers between your work and your reader. In this context, reader means the editor at the journal where you’ve submitted your story, or the publishing house where you’ve sent your manuscript. When you’re preparing your submission, keep in mind that editors are busy people with many and various demands on their time. To gain perspective, imagine a desk buried beneath piles of unread manuscripts and a phone that never stops ringing. Often they’re working for peanuts (or for nothing at all), and would rather spend their afternoon or evening doing something other than reading your short story. In fact, what they are looking for is a reason NOT to read your short story, and if you’ve decided to make your manuscript stand out from the crowd by printing it in orange ink on purple paper, then you might as well toss it in the recycle bin yourself because that’s where it’s going to end up.

 

That’s an extreme example, but wherever you send your work, read the submission guidelines and follow them. When you do that, then at the very least your manuscript arrives on an equal footing with the hundreds of others with which it is in competition.

 

If you’re submitting to journals, it pays to look at copies to see what they’ve accepted in the past. This can be helpful. It can also be daunting (if you let yourself believe that the quality of what they’ve published is beyond your capabilities), and even misleading. If you notice that a journal has published cat poems recently, that journal is probably not the right place to send all those cat poems you’ve been working on: they’ve done their cat poems and won’t want more for the foreseeable future. If your strength is realism, submitting to a journal that leans toward speculative fiction is probably a waste of time. What you’re looking for when you study a journal to see if they’ll be receptive to your work is broad thematic and stylistic compatibility. Admittedly this is subjective, and there are always exceptions. In this instance, let common sense be your guide.

 

By now, you’ve taken care of the preliminary grunt work. You know which journals are going to treat your submission seriously, you format the copy in a clear and readable fashion, you formulate a brief but reasonably informative cover letter (brief is more important than informative: if they want to know more they can google you), and you make the submission online or by snail mail according to the journal’s guidelines. You are absolutely prepared to wait an appropriate period before making any kind of inquiry about the status of your submission (3 months minimum for a journal submission, 6 months for a manuscript sent to a publisher). And you understand that 99% of all submissions are rejected. You have armed yourself well for disappointment.

 

Rejection from The New Quarterly

Rejection from The New Quarterly

Still, when they come, the rejections can be heartbreaking. They will seem cruel, mean-spirited and relentless, especially if the work you submitted is the result of weeks or months or years of painstaking effort and incorporates the wise advice of mentors and workshop leaders and fellow writers who want and expect to see you succeed. Not only have you failed yourself, you’ve failed them. It’s tempting to become discouraged. It’s easy to fly into a rage. If it goes on long enough you might even become paranoid and imagine that editors everywhere are communicating with each other in an organized conspiracy to keep your work and only your work out of the pages of their journals. What’s more, since editors and staff readers rarely have time to make comments on rejected manuscripts, what you receive back comes in the form of a frustratingly uninformative standard rejection notice that tells you nothing about why the decision went against your submission. You feel stymied and helpless as you ask How can I make my story publishable if they won’t tell me what’s wrong with it? Looking for answers, you return to the journal and say, My story’s better than that one. Why won’t they publish mine? Reaching for an explanation, you might think, That author’s probably sleeping with someone on the editorial board. When your work is being rejected over and over again, everything seems unfair. The advantage is never in your court. You’ve hit a brick wall and there’s nowhere to go.

 

Rejection from Prairie Fire

Rejection from Prairie Fire

During these dark days, it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind. For one, though it might not seem like it, you’re not alone. For another, there are a lot of good writers out there and journals have limited space. For another, no piece of writing has universal appeal; even the most seasoned editors make his or her selections on a basis that’s at least partially subjective. Where editorial decisions are concerned, any number of factors can come into play, and one of those is personal preference. Editors are readers. They like what they like. Don’t expect them to apologize for it.

 

You can also derive hope from this: there may, in fact, be nothing wrong you’re your story. For example, it could be that your timing is off: the journal where you’ve sent your submission has just committed the last open pages of their upcoming two or three issues and they don’t want to hold up your work. Or you were simply unlucky: the story you submitted is a comic piece about a breast cancer survivor who divorces her selfish husband, abandons her selfish children, and rides her Harley cross country, and the editor whose desk it landed on was unable to make the imaginative leap necessary to appreciate it because her own mother’s struggle with breast cancer ended badly and she sees nothing funny about it.

 

Rejection from Prism International

Rejection from Prism International

The lesson here is that it’s pointless to worry about things that are beyond your control. Worry about the things you can control: your ideas, the quality of your writing, the appearance of your submission.

 

Rejection from The New Yorker

Rejection from The New Yorker

Believe it or not, rejection is a vital step in the creative process. It’s a chance to review, revise, and re-evaluate. If your submission comes back with recommendations from the editor, so much the better. Those words are gold. Consider any suggestions seriously and treat them with respect, but do not let them prevail over your own editorial instincts, unless you don’t care that the story you’re writing will no longer be your own. If an editor says he will reconsider or even publish your submission if you do this or that to it, act with caution and don’t get your hopes up. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a promise has been made. Don’t be disappointed if you resubmit your story and find that the editor who communicated with you is no longer associated with the journal. Perseverance in the face of rejection is what separates the dilettante from the serious artist. Some writers stop writing and let their voices go silent. Chances are they weren’t real writers to begin with. A lot of famous writers endured years of rejection and didn’t give up because they had faith in their work. The annals of modern literary publishing abound with stories of manuscripts that were rejected over and over again only to become blockbusters or classics when they finally found their audience (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Flies), proving once and for all that editors are not infallible. It’s also okay to give up on a story, or poem, or novel, to admit that some ideas simply don’t work. Don’t obsess over the fact that bad writing gets published and good writing doesn’t. If what you’ve written deserves to be published, it probably will be. If you’ve served your apprenticeship and mastered your craft, it won’t matter that your work is rejected far more often than it’s accepted. That’s just the odds. Like the rest of us you’ll dust it off and send it back out. Then you’ll do it again. And then do it again …

Lost and Found

In the library where I used to work I came across the novels and stories of Phyllis Bottome while taking part in a weeding project. The sad truth is that libraries regularly cull their collections, discarding outdated volumes to make room for new material that is in demand. Personally, I have a problem with throwing a book away—any book—even if nobody’s signed it out since 1950, and my contribution to the weeding process was not as substantial as it might have been if I’d allowed myself to be ruthless. Mostly, I was sidetracked by what I discovered on the shelves: row after row of novels and story collections by writers I had never heard of. (I had always thought my education was comprehensive. How could I not know who these people were?) Some of the volumes had about them an acid pungency reminiscent of books found in a trunk in an overheated attic, a quality that discourages close inspection. But most were near-pristine examples of the 20th-century hardbound book in America and the UK. I wanted to read them all.

Phyllis Bottome at age 18

Phyllis Bottome caught my eye for no other reason than the immensity of her output (her books fill almost three shelves). I later learned that during her lifetime (1882-1963) she published nearly fifty books, predominantly novels, but also story collections, travelogues, collections of essays, and volumes of biography and autobiography. Her 1916 novel The Dark Tower was a best-seller in the US, and The Mortal Storm, her novel of the impending European crisis published in 1937, was made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

 

Bottome was born in Rochester, County Kent, England, to an American clergyman father and an English mother of aristocratic lineage. She had two older sisters and a younger brother. The family moved a number of times while she was still young, settling in New York with her father’s relatives in 1890. However, by 1896 they were back in England.

At an early age Bottome developed an acute social awareness. She published her first book, a novel (“a modern story of social conditions”— NYTimes advertisement dated Oct. 18, 1902), when she was barely twenty. Working with the poor of her father’s Bournemouth parish, she sympathized with the plight of children forced to labor in factories. Later, she and her husband, a World War I veteran, traveled widely in Europe, where Bottome worked to assist those left homeless after the collapse of the Austrian Empire. During the 1930s she witnessed the flood of refugees escaping the Nazi reign of terror (she and her husband fled Vienna just days before the Nazi invasion). It is not surprising that a preoccupation with social, political and domestic injustice dominates her fiction.

If there is a common thread running through Phyllis Bottome’s novels, it is that her female protagonists are intelligent, independent and strong-willed. If they are impulsive, the impulsiveness results from courage and a high sense of mission. A typical example is Ida Eichhorn in the 1946 novel The Life Line. Set in 1938, this novel follows the adventures of Mark Chambers, an Eton master, fluent in German, who is recruited by a friend in the Foreign Office to deliver a message to a man in Innsbruck. Mark regularly vacations in the mountainous Tyrol region of Austria, where he indulges his passion for climbing. He resents the Nazi occupation, but only to the extent that it interferes with his enjoyment of the people and the countryside. Initially, Mark strikes us as selfish and privileged—a typical spoiled upper-crust Brit. He wants to deliver the message and get on with his vacation. However, despite a great many misgivings, he finds himself drawn into the Austrian anti-Nazi underground. (It is a point of pride. He abhors the insinuation of the man to whom he delivers his friend’s message that he is shirking a larger moral duty by ignoring the plight of the Austrians.) Mark meets a group of people engaged in the resistance, Ida among them. And though he acknowledges the sharpness of her mind, he instantly dislikes her: “The question her cold speculative eyes demanded was simply whether Mark could be useful or not.”

The mission he has taken on eventually requires that, in order to hide from the Nazis, he pose as a mental patient in the institution where Ida is a doctor. The pervasive evil clouding their everyday existence drives them together, and Mark comes to admire Ida for her nerve, her ingenuity and the valor with which she carries out a final harrowing treatment on her patients. Before he returns to England bearing vital information, they marry. For Mark it has been a learning experience and a chance to grow. Thanks to Ida he emerges from the novel a more complete human being.

In an age of narrative experimentation, Bottome’s prose style remained steadfastly traditional. This no doubt contributed to her success during her lifetime (on April 7, 1946 The Life Line shared space on the New York Times best-seller list with Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber). Yet it probably also explains why she is unknown today: The Mortal Storm is the only one of her titles currently in print (Northwestern University Press).

Phyllis Bottome was not an innovator, but she is a prime example of a born storyteller who carries the reader along on the strength of her convictions and the primal energy of her narratives. She is romantic, sometimes excessively so, but her work is neither sentimental nor comforting. Occasionally didactic, she writes with an urgency we rarely see today. She gives us beauty in abundance but does not shy away from what is brutal, degrading and ugly in human experience. A contemporary reviewer writing in the Saturday Review of Literature described The Life Line as a “tense and somber narration … tightly and articulately written.” It is just one of her many works in which a modern audience would find much to admire.

 

Why are you reading that.2?

 

Recently I reread a novel that I first came across forty years ago, when I was in high school and working part-time in a public library. In a previous post I commented on my scattershot early reading habits and described how, driven by curiosity but unencumbered by taste or discernment, I would pick up and read whatever happened to be lying around. By the late seventies however I was starting to develop actual reading preferences, which led me to seek out authors whose work I could be fairly certain I would enjoy. Part of the process involved speaking to others about what they were reading and following up on recommendations.

At the library I worked with a young woman from England. A keen reader, her favourite authors were female, and one she spoke of with particular enthusiasm was Margaret Drabble.

By the late 1970s and not yet forty, Drabble had published eight novels along with works of criticism and biography. The protagonists in these early novels tend to be upper-middle-class, intellectual, intensely self-aware, emotionally isolated young women living in urban or college settings. Generally speaking, they are engaged in a quest for one thing or another—usually happiness, sometimes love, and always independence—and their search is made complicated by a variety of obstacles.

Rosamund Stacey is the character I encountered when I opened Drabble’s 1965 novel The Millstone. The novel is short (less than 200 pages, which is probably why I chose it). Rosamund tells her own story. As a narrator she seems to know herself very well. A graduate student writing a thesis on the English Romantic poets, Rosamund maintains a solitary existence in her parents’ flat in London (her parents are away, living in Africa). Her days are structured to an almost stultifying degree, but she needs routine in order to work. She has suitors, but a loathing for messy passions and emotional complications compels her to sanitize her romantic life, keep it neat and orderly. Indeed, the romantic involvements she’s permitted herself are planned and calculated for minimum fuss and muss. She goes on occasional outings to pubs and movies with two different men, neither of whom she finds particularly attractive and each of whom is under the impression she’s sleeping with the other—the result being that neither pressures her for a physical union or deeper commitment.

Still, there are times when she is at a loss to explain the motivations for her actions.

The novel's opening sentence is revealing: “My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, one might say, made by it.”

This tone—unhurried, proper, inquisitive, probing—is maintained throughout, in flawless prose, using language that is sophisticated and precise. Only twenty-six when it was published, Drabble’s voice was already mature and refined, her descriptive powers those of a seasoned writer. Perhaps an argument could be made that prose polished to such a high sheen blunts the novel’s emotional impact (a criticism often levelled at Drabble’s works). But for me, reading this book at the tender age of eighteen, it was a revelation.

At an age when my friends, if they were reading anything, were entertaining themselves with adventure stories, science fiction, or tales of international espionage or battlefield carnage, why would I want to read a story about a young woman pregnant and alone in 1960s London? Truth be told, I wasn’t that far removed from the Hardy Boys. But from the opening sentence Drabble’s novel grabbed me. Aside from the prose, in itself impressive, the emotions it evokes are genuine and the small drama it depicts heartbreakingly rendered. I found the book engrossing, psychologically astute, and sometimes very funny, as the intellectual Rosamund struggles with feelings that often take her by surprise, and is shocked again and again to discover how profoundly ignorant she is about life in the trenches. I was shocked as well to discover how much I could enjoy a book that was categorized by some as “women’s fiction.” But most of all, The Millstone helped me understand that reading tastes are personal, that I didn’t have to read what other people were reading and didn’t have to make excuses for myself, though it was also true that the circle of people with whom I could expect to discuss this book was a small one.

 

 

Best Reads of 2015

In 2015 my reading took me around the world and back and forth in time, to 1960s Ireland, to England just after the reign of King Arthur, to the recent past on an obscure island off the Newfoundland coast, to modern war-torn Iraq, to suburban 20th-century Baltimore, and lots of points in between. These diverse and sometimes fanciful locations are a persuasive reminder of how important it is for an author to situate the action of a work of fiction with specific and exacting attention to detail. Effectively drawn, setting can enhance the sensory appeal of a story or novel and lend it the authenticity of lived experience: what some describe as a cinematic quality. Just as images that are burned into the reader's mind are not easily forgotten, so too with sounds and smells.

But while the setting may vary, human behaviour does not. Characters will always be motivated to build a better life for themselves and their families, to solve a mystery, to risk everything for love, to evade a miserable fate or to atone for past mistakes. Some characters want to reveal the truth. Others want to cover it up.

And in all these instances--and regardless of setting--the author's job is the same: to make us turn the page because we have to find out what happens next.

The authors of the books listed below do this and do it well.

 

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It is the 1960s and Nora Webster's husband Maurice has died young, leaving her to fend for herself and her four children in a small town in Southern Ireland. Maurice was a teacher who was loved and respected throughout the community: a presence whom people gravitated toward, known for his love of company, his compassion and his strong political beliefs. For the years of their marriage Nora was content to exist in his shadow. But with his death she is thrust into the front line of life and must make a go of it. The two girls, Fiona and Aine, are more or less grown and out of the house, but still at home are Conor and Donal, youngsters who must find their way without a father. Every day Nora feels the tremendous loss of her husband--almost minute by minute--but she has no choice but to heal, a process that is gradual and begins with her wishing out loud that people would cease their unannounced visits and pitying stares and let her grieve in peace. Eventually she finds herself facing major lifestyle choices (selling the cottage, returning to work) and with each one a subtle distancing from Maurice and his influence takes place. Toibin's novel chronicles Nora's gradual awakening, from tentative widow and mother deferring to the wishes if others and second-guessing her every move, to independent woman getting on with things and building a life she can call her own. The novel is set in life's trenches, where people drag themselves out of bed each morning to face a day that might very well defeat them. Toibin's prose achieves stunning elegance in its very simplicity. The writing is sometimes little more than a chronicle of what happens moment by moment. But this is Toibin's genius. He immerses the reader in Nora's conscious thoughts so that not only do we see the world through her eyes, but we feel her needs and desires and suffer keenly her losses and injuries. Such drama as exists is built around encounters and Nora's anticipation (or dread) of them. Because this is art imitating life you might be fooled into thinking you are reading a novel in which nothing happens. It is only at the end when you emerge from Nora’s story and realize where you've been that you grasp the level of skill needed to create a complete and entirely engaging world in prose.

 

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Miriam Toews’ extraordinary novel All My Puny Sorrows is an examination of the tragedy inherent in the condition of being human, possibly one of the most brutally honest such chronicles we’re likely to encounter. This is a novel primarily of two sisters. Yolandi, the narrator, is an author with several moderately successful YA novels to her credit and Elfrieda is a concert pianist with a global reputation and a devoted fan base. Yolandi is more or less contented with where she is in life, if she forgets for a moment that she has given birth to two children by two different men, neither of whom is married to her, that she’s broke, and that she’s bored with her novel series and carries the manuscript of her unfinished literary novel around with her in a plastic bag. Elfrieda, intensely intellectual, childless and married to doting and long-suffering Nic, has built a riotously successful concert career. She can write her own ticket whenever she wants by going on tour because everywhere she goes her concerts sell out. The difference is that Elfrieda is desperately unhappy and wants to die. Indeed, desperation is at the crux of the novel: the action revolves around Yolandi’s desperate efforts to keep her sister alive and Elfrieda’s equally desperate efforts to slough off a life that has become a torment. Elfrieda’s latest suicide attempt has taken place in the weeks leading up to another concert tour. Yolandi, her mother and Nic struggle to bring Elfrieda through this latest crisis, hopefully in a way that won’t jeopardize the tour. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that the tour will not happen. Central to the novel is a loving, supportive and emotionally intimate relationship between two siblings. At a certain point Yolandi realizes that she will never convince her sister that life is preferable to death, and with this realization finds herself facing a crisis of conscience. The brilliance of Miriam Toews is her ability to take a situation fraught with grief and despair and unbearable sadness and leaven it with humour. This is a family that has suffered a similar loss in the past (the girls’ father killed himself) and as Yolandi struggles to decide on a course of action and we approach what seems an inevitable outcome, Yolandi's behaviour grows erratic and the prose develops a frantic demented momentum that makes it a joy to read. Most of us have been touched in some manner by suicide. It’s impossible to not feel strongly about it. The decision to end a life, even (especially?) your own, should never be easy or simple. All My Puny Sorrows teaches that only by accepting the tragedy of life for what it is will we triumph and move forward.

 

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Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread is about family and the joys and challenges of growing and living as a unit. Red and Abby Whitshank raised their four children in the house on Bouton Road (in Baltimore) where Red spent his own childhood. In fact, the house was built with loving (some would say obsessive) care by Red's father, Junior Whitshank. The story begins in the 1990s with Red and Abby trying to figure out their feckless son, Denny, who has left home and whose unanchored style of life, which follows no discernable pattern and includes long periods with no communication, is a constant source of worry. Later, Red and Abby, now in their seventies, are beginning to come to terms with the process of aging. This is when tragedy strikes and everything changes. The novel then switches gears and we return to the late 1950s, with Red and Abby in their teens and just starting to know one another and fall in love. The story then jumps further back in time to Depression-Era Baltimore, where Junior Whitshank has gone in an attempt to find work and make something of himself. And lastly, we return to the contemporary and post-tragedy Whitshanks, who are facing the questions and challenges that all families face when people get old and have to accept unwelcome changes in their lives. This bare-bones description makes it sound like Tyler has taken a scattershot approach to constructing her novel, but this is not the case. She is simply dramatizing the past in order to bring the present more fully to life, and in this she succeeds magnificently. Nobody is better at depicting family in all its peculiar, maddening and messy particulars than Anne Tyler. By the novel's end we probably know the Whitshanks better than we know our own family, because their secrets have been exposed and we've seen them at their very best and very worst. It is testimony to this author's talent that her characters can be mean and generous, suspicious and unguarded all within a single scene, and are more believable for it. In Tyler's world spouses defy one another, daughters argue, sons come to blows and yet the relationships survive and people are still capable of laughter. A Spool of Blue Thread demonstrates that twenty novels into her career, Anne Tyler remains a witty and observant student of the human heart.

 

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The Blackhouse (the first volume of Peter May's Lewis Trilogy) is remarkable for several reasons. It is a rapid-paced and absorbing who-done-it. It is a brilliant character study of a man haunted by his past. And it is a thoroughly engaging, deeply imaginative and often dazzling piece of writing that makes liberal use of elements of literary fiction to gradually reveal why over many years its varied cast of characters have behaved and acted in secretive and hurtful ways. Detective Inspector Finlay Macleod has been sent to the Isle of Lewis (off Scotland's north-west coast) to investigate a murder that bears a striking resemblance to an unsolved case in Edinburgh on which he is the lead detective. What's more, he is a native of the island, and so is returning home about 15 years after he was last there. Fin is seeking common elements between the two murders, and his search is initially inconclusive. But as the days go by he encounters one person after another who was part of his life as he was growing up—school friends, ex-girlfriends, casual acquaintances and antagonists of long-standing—and each adds another layer to the story. The novel is constructed of chapters that alternate between the present (narrated in the third person) and the past (narrated by Fin in the first person), and it is a treat for the reader to slowly figure out why this is necessary. Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of May's writing is how he uses the wild, beautiful and brutally unforgiving setting of the remote Isle of Lewis to reveal and reflect the inner lives of his characters. This is a land that has hardly changed in hundreds of years, where the residents live in the grip of ancient traditions and where people scrape a meager living from the island and the sea that surrounds it. It’s a place that bestows its gifts grudgingly and stands ready to kill you if you give it a chance. Nothing has come easily for the inhabitants of Lewis, and so it is no surprise that they don't give up anything easily. Peter May doles out the clues to the solution of the mystery in a measured fashion, raising the tension to an excruciating pitch in the book's final sections as Fin gropes toward an answer. Darkly atmospheric and intricately plotted, The Blackhouse is one of those rare novels that satisfies on multiple levels.

 

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Deborah-Anne Tunney’s engaging and enjoyable story collection, The View from the Lane, treats time in a fluid manner, looking both forward and backward, drawing the reader irresistibly into a world of memory and nostalgia. The volume consists of nineteen closely linked stories and can be read as such: each story a separate, intimate drama. But taken together and read in sequence, Tunney’s stories coalesce to build narrative momentum in the manner of a loosely structured novel. The stories focus on the Howard family of Ottawa, whom we first meet in 1920, the last year that the nine surviving Howard children (the firstborn having died of scarlet fever at the age of six) lived together in the house on Nelson Street. However, the book’s central presence is Amy—daughter of June, youngest of the four Howard sisters—who, in the book’s brief “Overture,” set in 1956, is four years old. The stories are told from a variety of narrative perspectives and range more or less across the ninety years of June's life, from her childhood to her death in an assisted-living facility. Along the way we spend time with each of the Howard sisters as they grow into young women, marry, have children, get divorced or become widowed, and mature into old age. As we progress through the collection, this generation recedes into the background and Amy’s generation steps forward onto centre stage. Amy herself grows up, marries, has a son, and divorces. These are stories that make subtle and poignant drama out of the stuff of ordinary life--some might say "mundane"-- with all the joy and sorrow and triumph and tragedy that living in the real world entails. This would be reason enough to hunt down and read this book. However, Deborah-Anne Tunney is not just a skilled storyteller. She is a careful and observant writer. Her precise and restrained prose, exquisitely crafted, is a joy to read. This is fiction bursting with vividly imagined detail that brings to life on the page the middle decades of the previous century, as well as our contemporary world. Tunney’s characters are fully individualized, their interactions and dramas small and large entirely convincing. “The Wedding” is a particular standout, a story that takes place in front of the church as the guests and wedding party await the arrival of the bride. The story gathers together an ensemble of characters from several generations and shifts its focus seamlessly from one to the other, each taking his or her turn providing the voice of the narrative. In the process we observe them observing each other and see revealed their hopes and desires, their fears and disappointments and petty jealousies. In some respects The View from the Lane is a modest book. It does not pretend to be about anything more than the lives of some very ordinary people. But there is nothing modest about the accomplishment it represents. This is a fine debut collection of short fiction by a talented writer and well worth seeking out.

 

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Tony Breau's career as a corrections officer has ended in the wake of an incident that resulted in the death of an inmate. Guilt-ridden, he has returned to his Nova Scotia home, in the village of St. Ninian. Awaiting him there are various friends and neighbours as well as ghosts from his past:  Catherine Stewart (Caddy), with whom many years earlier he was in love but who left town one day without explanation, Neil MacDonald, a tormentor from his school days, and Dwayne Strickland, a much younger local man whose criminal actions led him to cross paths with Tony in his professional capacity. Dwayne is a charming manipulator, an ex-con who knows how to read people and push their buttons. When Tony arrives in St. Ninian, Dwayne is living on his own in his family's old house and building a reputation among local youth as the go-to for drugs. Unfortunately for him a girl has died of an overdose under his roof--Mary Stewart, Caddy's grand-daughter--and he has been charged with murder, and because of their shared history he seeks out Tony for advice and for testimony on his behalf. However, the facts of the case are inconclusive, and when it comes down to the crunch the case is thrown out for lack of evidence before it can go to trial. With Strickland free and the girl's death unresolved, Tony finds himself at the centre of a volatile mix of emotion, accusation and speculation, all of which contribute--in a series of troubling and tragic events that as the story moves forward begin to carry the weight of inevitability--to the book's searing climax. In the world that Linden MacIntyre conjures in this novel truth is layered and multi-faceted: the deeper you dig the more you find, but even when you hold it in your hand it changes appearance depending on the angle of the light. Morally compromised and struggling with an array of demons, Tony Breau attracts our sympathy even while we acknowledge his many personal weaknesses and the numerous poor choices he's made in his life and continues to make in the pages of this book. Punishment can be enjoyed as a crime thriller, but it is one that probes human motivation in unsentimental fashion and unflinchingly demonstrates that secrets and lies long past can have far-reaching consequences.

Why are you reading that?

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A few months after I graduated from university (for the last time) and was working at my first full-time professional job, I was having lunch alone in a food court downtown. This was many years ago and I was still young enough to pass as a student. I was reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It was the Penguin softcover edition, a compact but solid handful of about 900 pages (including text and notes). Between the summer after high school and my release from university into society nine years later I had read almost everything by Dickens, some of it on my own, much of it for English literature courses. For some reason though Dickens’ harrowing satire of the English legal system never made it on the school curriculum and I hadn’t got around to it in my recreational reading until now.

I was innocently reading when a woman approached me. I recall that she seemed “older” (she was probably no more than forty). She asked me if I was reading the book for a course I was taking. I think she phrased the question, “Excuse me, are you reading that because you have to for a class, or because you want to?”

When I told her that I was reading Bleak House because I wanted to, she seemed pleased and gratified in a way that left me feeling that I’d restored her faith in humanity.

“Are you enjoying it?” she asked then.

“Immensely,” I could have answered, though it’s more likely I simply said, “Yes.”

She might have said thank you as she left, or maybe apologized for disturbing me. I can’t remember.

The details are fuzzy, but the gist of this exchange has stayed with me for thirty years. The woman (probably a teacher, maybe just a devotee of the Victorian novel) evidently thought it was remarkable that in 1986 a person could be reading a novel by Charles Dickens willingly, for entertainment. And it cheered her to be told this was the case (I imagine her going home and saying to her husband, “Guess what happened today!”).

Recalling this incident makes me wonder what made me a reader. When did I turn to books? What were my earliest reading experiences?

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When I was a child my parents took me to the public library. Every week I carried home an armload of picture books (I vaguely remember my favourites being Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog). When I’d grown up a bit I read the animal tales of Thornton W. Burgess and later, like everyone else, I read Hardy Boys and Tom Swift adventure books.

The first books I bought with my own money were anthologies of Peanuts cartoon strips by Charles M. Schulz. I read and re-read these avidly because they were funny, and then read them again years later because of Schulz’s virtuoso comic genius.

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However, I recall (even more vaguely) that around age ten I came into contact with a copy of Robinson Crusoe. I think what happened was that in grade 5 we had a Christmas gift exchange. Through some process that made it anonymous and random, we were given the name of a classmate and bought that person a gift. The wrapped gifts were placed under a Christmas tree and at some point before being dismissed for the holidays we were presented with the gift that had our name on it. My gift was a copy of Defoe’s novel in a small paperback edition with a message on the cover that was either “retold for children” or “easy reader” or some such. I read the book, but I don’t think it made much of an impression because I didn’t go looking for literary works for many years. (I do remember feeling cheated when I discovered that Robinson Crusoe is actually a very long novel and that what had been foisted on me was a dumbed-down version for people whose reading skills weren't up to the job of tackling the real thing).

Through the rest of my school years I read what was assigned but not much of anything else. Maybe if I was desperate for a distraction and it was raining out and there was nothing on tv, I would pick up a book. Mostly though, I spent my time doing the things that kids did in the 1960s and 1970s, which was pretty much anything but reading. Through the first two years of high school the only books I read for class were very short: Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, and (oddly enough) One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich.

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I was good in science and in grade 12 I signed up for advanced courses that would improve my chances of being admitted into university and maybe even winning a scholarship. However, English was mandatory and I ended up in a class with students who, it was silently acknowledged, could probably get to where they wanted to go without reading any serious works of literature. Our teacher, Mr. Macmillan, would loosen us up by tossing a tennis ball around the room. Teaching consisted of him talking about this and that, mostly sports (I was one of the few non-athletes in the class). However, he did two things that influenced my intellectual development, which sounds more pretentious than it is. He assigned us a textbook, an anthology of short stories. It was called Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine and originally published in the 1950s. We were expected to read the book because we would be tested on its contents (he had to test us on something). The other thing he did was encourage us to read. He did this using an honour system. For every book we read and noted beside our name on a list he was keeping, we would be awarded a point toward our final grade.

I suppose the anthology was the first such book I had ever held in my hands. Not surprisingly, I didn’t know many of the authors. Some I had heard of but never read (O. Henry, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner). Others were new to me (Conrad Aiken, John Cheever, Eudora Welty). As far as reading books was concerned, I was motivated and I had an advantage: I had recently started a part-time job at the public library, shelving, keeping the collection in order and doing a bit of public service work. The range and variety of books available to me was staggering and choosing what to read was not easy. So I used the anthology as a guide, reading those stories and looking up authors whose stories I had enjoyed.

Before this, as noted in a previous post, my reading had been sporadic, undirected and random. But once I got a taste of what writers can do when they are sensitive to language and possess a genius for storytelling and a singular vision, I was hooked. I remember being especially fascinated by two stories in the anthology: John Cheever’s “Torch Song” and “The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams, examples of concise, suspenseful storytelling that uncover something strange and perilous within ordinary, everyday experience.

I read a number of books that year and was duly awarded points toward my final mark. But the reading didn’t end after high school graduation, and I suppose that’s what Mr. Macmillan hoped would happen. That summer, while still working part time at the library and resting up before embarking on a university career that would last nine years, I started reading in earnest, novels and stories by Dickens, Cheever, Welty, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the start of my real education, which continues to this day.

 

Writing Character

Nothing about writing fiction is easy, but everyone who’s ever set their mind to the task knows that the most challenging part of writing a good story is creating interesting and believable characters. Character is the heart and soul of fiction, the one essential element that on its own can sink a work or make it soar, regardless of how strong the other elements might be. Think of the best works of fiction you’ve read. What immediately comes to mind? If the work is truly great, or even just really good, it could be any number of things: vivid setting, poetic language, a haunting scene, a startling and unexpected twist in plot. But without a doubt, standing front and centre in your memory of that work will be an unforgettable character.

What does it take to create a character in whom a reader will want to invest time and emotional capital?  Where do memorable and enduring characters come from? These questions have no definitive answers.

More than any other aspect of writing fiction, creating character is personal. There’s no formula for writing great characters and every writer has his or her own approach. Some writers start by envisioning the person they want to write about. Others start with situation. A young pregnant wife discovers her much older husband is having an affair with a woman who is closer to him in age, a woman she has always regarded as a mentor and friend. The story could start with the wife (let’s call her Lianne) making this discovery and then struggling with what to do next. Lianne loves her husband (let’s call him Philip), and the other woman (Christine) is someone whose friendship she values. Being pregnant limits her options. Her marriage to Philip is a good one, or so she thought. At this point the writer is facing some crucial choices, mostly involving Lianne. The reader’s response to Lianne depends on what the writer has her do, think and say. If Lianne goes on the offensive and attempts to gather evidence of the affair in order to divorce Philip and take all his money, we might see her as resourceful, or we might see her as calculating, especially if the story has told us or implied that Philip has always treated her well. If Lianne barges into Christine’s office and goes ballistic on her, we might see her as impulsive or irrational. If Lianne blames herself, grows despondent and contemplates suicide, there’s a chance we’ll regard her as weak. If she goes out and has an affair of her own—pregnant or not—we might look on her as someone who gets payback. Other factors will come into play as well and influence how we feel about Lianne. If she and Philip live in the city where Lianne grew up and she has a tight network of friends and family to help her through tough times, that’s different than if Philip has forced her to move to a town where she doesn’t know anyone and feels isolated and lonely.

So how does the writer make the right decision? What is the right decision? Is there a right decision? Is there a wrong decision?

A lot depends on the kind of story the writer wants to tell. Lianne sad and lonely is a very different story than Lianne cunning and vengeful. Writers of genre fiction don’t have to face this issue. But writers of literary fiction face it every time they sit down at the computer or typewriter because there are no rules and the stories we tell are as rich and varied as the number of lives being lived on this planet. This is where the writer must find a way to learn everything about his characters inside and out, to understand who they are as individuals and intuit what they’re going to do under any circumstances. This is where the writer has to trust the power of the imagination. If the writer doesn’t really know Lianne but plows ahead with her story anyway, he might find himself undecided about how she reacts when she discovers, say, that Philip has bought a gun. If the writer hesitates or gets stuck on Lianne’s response to this discovery, it’s likely he hasn’t imagined her clearly and will probably start doubting everything he’s written about her to that point. But if the writer trusts his instincts and allows his thorough knowledge of Lianne to dictate her next move—or, better yet, if it seems as if Lianne is acting on her own, independently of how the writer might want her to behave, making a surprising move that the writer hadn’t anticipated but which seems inevitable—it’s a sure sign that the writer has a firm grasp on the character he has created.

In my experience, fully realized characters will tell you what they’re going to do, or just go ahead and do it, and you have no choice but to follow their lead. The worst thing a writer can do is push his character in a direction she doesn’t want to go. It's also very difficult for a reader to sympathize with a character who acts against her own best interests.

None of this really adds up to practical advice.  So I’ll offer this.

Readers can relate to characters whose concerns mirror their own. We all know what it’s like to worry about money or love or keeping our children safe or whether or not the car’s going to start or writing an exam when we haven’t studied enough or if we’re going to get an interview for that job. In other words, we all know what it’s like to have something to lose. Ask yourself this: who’s more interesting, the young, pregnant woman who’s alone and thinks her philandering husband wants to kill her, or the young, pregnant woman who coolly drains her husband’s bank account and flies off to the Cayman Islands? Whose story has more dramatic potential? In each instance, what’s at stake?

The way I see it, characters who are vulnerable on some level are the ones whose stories make the strongest impression on the reader. This is the Damsel in Distress motif, which has been a literary mainstay for centuries. Not all vulnerable characters will fear for their lives the way Lianne does when she learns about Philip’s gun, but they still need to put food on the table or make a good impression at that interview or pass that exam. The character’s weakness or vulnerability can be anything, so long as the writer convinces us that it’s something we need to care about. For instance, we might not be naturally inclined to care very much about whether or not a woman is noticed by a man at a social gathering. But by using her absolute command of the craft of writing fiction to probe her characters’ motives and build dramatic urgency, Jane Austen makes us care very much about whether or not Mr. Darcy asks Elizabeth Bennet to dance. Characters don’t have to be sympathetic either for us to care what happens to them. They just have to be interesting, and perhaps have something at stake, something to lose. The criminal fears discovery. The liar fears the truth. The drunk fears the morning light. The bully fears retribution. The brutish, bigoted skinhead fears for his younger sister’s safety. A good writer will always find ways to make his readers care what happens to his characters, because he cares what happens to his characters, and if he cares enough he won’t have to work to make his readers care, it will simply happen.

What makes a character unforgettable? Unfortunately, that’s beyond the writer’s control and has everything to do with how the reader responds to the story on the page. All the writer can do, to the best of his or her ability, is create. The reader will decide if that creation deserves to be remembered.

Much like Charles Dickens, John Gardner (1933-1982) was a master at characterization. His books are crawling with lovable, infuriating, hilarious and frightening characters. He was also a teacher, and for guidance and instruction you can't do better than to read his books on writing, The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. If you don't have time for those, start with the Paris Review interview.

The Rush

In October 2003 I began working on the first of what would eventually become a collection of twelve linked stories that was published in 2008 under the title Evidence. When I started writing that story I had no idea where it would lead or that I would eventually write eleven more from the perspective of the same narrator. At the time, I wasn’t even sure if I had what was necessary (in terms of resolve and fresh ideas) to finish that story, let alone a whole book. 

The memory of writing the first Evidence story is vivid because of when it happened. I had a full-time job at a university and in October the academic community is at its busiest and most hectic. My days were occupied with time-sensitive tasks and a variety of responsibilities. As I proceeded very slowly through that first story, adding a sentence or two or maybe a paragraph on any given day, something singular and amazing started to take place. I found that I began visualizing the world of the story in a detailed manner and with a degree of precision that I had never before experienced with any of my fiction, which to that point included about twenty stories and two unpublished 300-page novels. As I worked through the mysteries of character development and dramatic opportunity that this new story presented, I found that it was encroaching upon my conscious thoughts when I was occupied with other things. It didn’t matter what I was doing or who I was with, characters from the story would be clamoring for my attention. And as I worked at something related to my profession as an academic librarian or spoke with friends or colleagues, my mind was busy deciding how best to move the story forward. I must have seemed distracted, but if I did nobody said anything.

By the time I finished that first story I was so completely immersed in the world of my character, whose name is Kostandin Bitri, that the second story in the collection had more or less taken shape in my mind. Unknown to myself, I had been thinking ahead. The story was waiting to be written, so I wrote it. I don’t mean to imply that the writing was easy or simple. It was still a matter of finding time to get the words down on the page, and get them in the right order. But when I was writing, I didn’t feel like I was inventing or discovering. Because I was visualizing the world of the story so clearly and in such fine detail, writing the story felt more like I was writing about something that already existed. An inevitable comparison is to say it was like entering a room and describing what’s there. I was hearing what the characters were about to say and seeing what they were going to do almost before I’d had a chance to consider what any of that might be. I wasn’t being called upon to make decisions about what direction the story was going to take because that work already seemed to be done. Most extraordinarily, I found that if necessary I could put everything on hold. If I knew I was going to have twenty minutes for a coffee break later in the morning or afternoon, I could turn off the story and concentrate on my salaried work until break time, then switch gears and write down everything that was waiting to be written, and then switch back to the other work without losing a word.

I suppose this is what people mean when they talk about inspiration: a state of mind where you find yourself living in the world of your story. You develop a clarity of purpose that nothing can shake, and no distraction (short of death, the ultimate distraction) can deflect you from that purpose. Even while sleeping the mind remains active, working out issues with plot and character, rehearsing gestures and dialogue, listening for the knock on the door and opening it to see who’s there. When you sit down to write, the words arrive unambiguously and seemingly without effort—because all the heavy lifting is being done elsewhere. This level of creativity has been compared to taking dictation. As if in the grip of a master storyteller, you watch events unfold before your eyes and record what you see. And because the grip is firm and the vision clear, everything seems to happen as it should. There is rarely a need for second guessing plot points or word choice, and revision seems unnecessary (at least while you’re writing). It’s only when you emerge from the dream state and return hours or days later to review what you’ve written that the veil falls away and you spot errors of logic or missteps in diction and syntax. But if your experience of this heightened state of creativity has been genuine, and if the original vision was pure, these errors should be minor and easy to fix. 

I proceeded through the collection in this way. When I completed one story, the next was ready to go. The momentum swept me along until the following March, when, abruptly, it all came to an end. I finished the 12th story in the sequence and no subsequent story presented itself. I waited a couple of days and tried again. But there was nothing I could do. It was over. 

I only mention this to emphasize that most writing is not done this way, at least in my experience. Most of the time the drama does not arrive pre-assembled, the room seems cloaked in fog that obscures its contents, the characters sit in silence and won’t be coaxed into speaking, and the words come one by one, if at all. And you’re reminded moment by moment that writing is hard work—and that sometimes it’s not even fun. 

But every so often the fog lifts. The world of the story offers itself completely to view. You feel that rush as the words begin to flow. This is the moment that writers live for and that makes the rest of the struggle worthwhile.

The Reader Becomes the Writer

I’ve been a reader almost all my life. Since graduating from high school I’ve rarely gone more than a few days without having a book on the go. If I’m not reading I feel like something’s missing and a kind of malaise sets in. I can even begin to feel depressed. For me, being immersed in a story is a crucial part of the experience of being alive. Admittedly, it’s an escape: reading provides distance from the things that happen from one day to the next. It’s a way to retreat and assess.

I have not been a writer all my life. Writing came later, after I figured out that a book doesn’t miraculously sprout from the ground, that someone has to sit down and write it, and that the people who write books do so out of a compulsion to express something that needs to be expressed.

When I graduated from high school I was not prepared for much of anything. I was stupid and naïve on so many levels that I find it scary (and embarrassing) to contemplate now. Among other things, when I graduated from high school I was totally unequipped to recognize good writing for what it is. I don’t know if the system failed me or not. More likely, I just wasn’t ready.

My early reading was undirected and random. I read whatever was lying around the house: bestsellers, murder mysteries, political thrillers, a few classics. In the process I discovered that I enjoyed some types of books more than others. I also discovered that not all readers are attracted to the same kind of writing and that writers write with a conscious purpose, aware of the specific audience they are trying to reach. Most importantly, I discovered that the writing that affects me most intensely and that I find memorable and moving is the kind that digs deep into human experience while trying to do something original with language.

It was at this time in my life that reading became something more than just an amusement. It became important.

Jump forward a few years. I decided to pursue literary studies at university. I would turn my love of reading into a career!

Then something happened. For my university classes I had read the classics, but when I read fiction on my own time I gravitated toward modern and contemporary writers, specifically a group of 20th-century American authors whose short stories I had discovered and admired greatly. One of these writers was John Cheever, and one day I read his short story "The Country Husband."

Cheever was at the top of his game when he wrote "The Country Husband" and the first paragraph of the story is, by any measure and regardless of taste, a stunning achievement. It’s almost unnerving, the way it completely arrests the

reader’s attention and pulls him into the world of the story. Cheever introduces his hapless protagonist, Francis Weed, on a plane that’s about to make an emergency landing. In the scene, Francis is a spectator: his fate rests in someone else's hands and all he can do is watch events unfold. Cheever’s masterstroke is showing Francis to the reader from the outside, allowing us some distance, which enables us to take in the larger scene and share intensely the helplessness of everyone on the plane. Cheever selects language that is lulling and arranges the words to create a smoothly flowing and gently rhythmic syntax. The paragraph ends with stillness and held breath. In that moment, when the passengers don't know if they're going to live or die, an eerie silence takes hold as the plane is being buffeted by the weather. And out of the silence, faintly but distinctly, emerges the sound of the pilot singing.

I believe the minute or so that it took me to read that paragraph was transformative. My conception of how language works and what it can do changed. I was one person when I started reading and a different person altogether when I finished. I went from appreciating and admiring what other people can do with language to wanting to do it myself.

No doubt I’m romanticizing the moment when I decided to become a writer. For instance, I can’t remember if I read the story on a bus, or in bed, or in the library, or in the middle of winter or on a sweltering summer day. And it’s likely the process was less a conscious "decision" than a gradual shift in my manner of thinking about literature and storytelling.

But no matter. I was a reader, and then—suddenly—I was a writer. It’s much more fun to remember it that way.

An Artistic Statement … sort of

It’s probably safe to say that anyone who writes literary fiction and had their work published, or shared it with others, has at one time or another been faced with these or similar questions:
• Why are your stories so depressing?
• Why does nothing good ever happen to your characters?
• Why can’t you write a happy story?

All of which are legitimate and reasonable questions to ask. Often, when I’m considering story ideas, I wonder what draws me to dark and painful subject matter. It could be that I’m attracted to characters approaching a crossroads or facing a moral quandary. Their lives already have or are about to change, and not necessarily for the better. There is a looming threat of some kind, or they make a poor decision, or they are simply unlucky, and they spend the rest of the story digging themselves out of a situation that could have disastrous or even deadly consequences. Sometimes they make it. Occasionally they don’t.

This is nothing new. Much of our literature tells stories of suffering and endurance. It seems unavoidable. We are captivated by tragedy, by stories in which a character’s striving comes to nothing, by stories that depict the worst that human nature has to offer, by stories in which honest and decent people through no fault of their own must struggle against adversity. Look at any literary prize shortlist. Maybe we don’t think of it in these terms, but it’s worth asking why grim or shocking or disturbing fiction is valued so highly. Or, to turn the question around, we could ask why fiction that is lighthearted or comforting or written with no purpose other than to entertain is considered inferior to so-called “serious” fiction and swiftly dismissed.

This gets somewhere close to the point. Whether reading or writing, what I’m looking for is a story that is dramatically compelling. When I write, I want the story I’m working on to hold the reader’s attention, and to do that it first has to hold my attention. So if my fiction is depressing, if none of my characters ever have anything good happen to them, if none of my stories are happy stories, it comes down to what I find interesting as a reader, which are the same things I find interesting as a writer. Obviously the fault here is mine and nobody else’s (including the university professors who put all those depressing plays and novels on their reading lists).

What does this mean? In practical terms it means that any story I willingly spend time and energy on will include a character the reader cares about suffering some kind of setback. This does not necessarily mean physical suffering. It can also mean the character discovers his goal is harder to reach than he’d expected, or he is forced by circumstance to make a difficult decision or recognize a painful truth or commit an act that has morally questionable or hurtful consequences. In order to be meaningful, however, the reader must care what happens. As a writer, the response I want is visceral. The character’s struggle has no meaning if the reader doesn’t care. The character’s fate has to matter.

This is, of course, a principle that goes back to ancient times.

I once criticized a book for having a soft ending that is “content to provide everyone with exactly what his or her heart desires.” Some might ask, what’s wrong with that? The only justification I can offer is to say that the most satisfying art is art that imitates life, and in the 21st century we know that it’s rare for anyone to get exactly what their heart desires. My feeling was that the author had let the characters off easy and left several dramatic possibilities unexplored. 200 years ago Jane Austen could close her novels with happy marriages because aesthetic tastes and reader expectations were different (and we still read her because her exceptional genius allowed her to avoid sentiment). But a succession of traumatic events including two world wars have altered the world we live in, and these days happy endings in fiction carry a whiff of wish fulfillment and in literary terms are unconvincing.

Still, there’s no formula for writing good fiction. The writer’s relationship with the blank page is exclusive and personal. There’s no room for anyone else. I don’t write fiction to confirm things I already know or to give people an excuse to feel good about themselves. I write to understand what it means to be human. And if nothing else, events from the recent and distant past have taught that the experience of being human exposes us to beauty and ugliness in equal measure.

In a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka wrote that the books we read should “bite and sting us.” “A book,” he says, “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” In other words, a book should shock us into new ways of thinking and change the way we see the world. The prose, the ideas, the twists in plot: these should take our breath away and make us grateful that of all the books out there, this book has found its way into our hands. A book should carry the justification for its existence on every page. And it doesn’t have to be pretty to do this.

Ultimately, though, the author’s commitment to the reader is to write a story that is so fascinating and beguiling the reader has no choice but to keep turning the pages. Even at their most gruesome and pessimistic, Kafka’s stories honour this commitment. Ninety years after his death readers all over the world continue to be mesmerized by the works of an obscure Czech insurance adjuster. And no one ever read Kafka for the happy endings.

So when people ask me these questions:
• Why are your stories so depressing?
• Why does nothing good ever happen to your characters?
• Why can’t you write a happy story?
my answer—that I write fiction I would want to read myself, that I’m searching for a new angle on the human condition, that the struggles I envision for my characters are ones I find dramatically interesting—may be a simplification but it at least gets us somewhere near the truth. Anyone looking for a happy story won’t be picking up one of my books anytime soon. But I can live with that, not that I have any choice.

The Typewriter as Weapon

My first book is a collection of short stories narrated by a refugee from Communist Albania. While I was researching it I learned a lot about the authoritarian regimes that dominated the political landscape in Eastern Europe from the end of World War II to the late 1980s.

Imagine living in a country where the government operates under a shroud of secrecy, where questioning official policy is a punishable offense, where your next-door neighbour or best friend or cousin or brother might be watching and reporting on your activities, where a harmless act or innocuous remark could land you in prison. That’s what life was like for people in Eastern Europe for much of the previous century. The fear was real, the threats genuine.

The edicts of Communism do not make oppression inevitable. But because an essential theme of Communist philosophy is that the prosperity of the collective comes before the prosperity of the individual, it’s not surprising that the idea that the state knows best in all matters forms an ideological cornerstone for many of the regimes from that period. In countries like Romania, Albania and Yugoslavia, the notion that the common rabble is ruled by self-interest and doesn’t know what’s good for itself translated into decades-long dictatorships characterized by one-party rule, a lack of tolerance for opposing political views, profound mistrust of foreign influences, and the brutal suppression of dissenting ideas.

Where books and writing are concerned, people had few options. Only those works that praised the state and its rulers, or were deemed acceptable by a team of bureaucrats, were printed and distributed. Any writer whose aspirations included publication had to conform to a prescribed set of ideas. Those who were unable or unwilling to compromise stopped writing, worked in secret, left the country, or were blacklisted or jailed. Often, classic works by iconic writers from previous centuries were suppressed because government censors felt the ideas they promoted did not conform to the prevailing ideology.

A common absurdity of the time was that some of a writer’s works would be well known and widely available, while others were treated like they didn’t exist. Works by foreign writers were likely to be banned altogether and anyone caught with these in their possession would be arrested. In Romania a 1983 law declared the typewriter a “dangerous weapon,” and anyone who wanted one had to obtain permission from the police. If permission was granted, the new owner had to submit a typeface sample so that unique characteristics of the machine could be registered with the authorities. The private person-to-person sale of typewriters was forbidden. Typewriters were only available for purchase from state-run shops.

Censorship was everywhere, but many people were willing to take risks. Unsanctioned manuscripts were secretly copied and circulated through underground networks. Sometimes a work critical of the regime would be smuggled out of the country and published elsewhere. If this happened and the identity of the author was known, he or she had to go into hiding or find a way to leave the country. More than even violent resistance or outright rebellion—which could be quashed with brute force—those in power feared the uncontrolled circulation of subversive ideas. Unlike typewriters ideas are dangerous, and who better to know this than a ruling elite that was able to grab power in the first place because of the spread of ideas?

All information exchange and all forms of media—the press, television, radio, printing—were controlled by the state. With absolute control over the message that reached the public, the regime ensured that reality became what they wanted it to be. Government reports would gush about a booming economy while people stood in line for hours to buy a loaf of bread and endured service shortages and utility breakdowns because the tools to fix things were hard to come by and because the infrastructure had been falling apart for decades. The arrest of dissidents was never made known because that would be an admission that dissident activity existed. When the Berlin Wall fell in August 1989, the Romanian press did not report it. People in Romania only became aware of this momentous event through a trickle of foreign news reports that within a few weeks became a torrent. In the end, even the government couldn’t stop the flow of information.

It has been said, facetiously, that Communism failed because people didn’t want to wear Bulgarian shoes. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other socialist states in Eastern Europe is due, at least in part, to an unwieldy and ponderous and, as it turned out, unsustainable system of surveillance and control that over many years burgeoned in support of an inefficient power structure. East Germany has been described as a country where half the population was watching the other half. It couldn’t have been a surprise when the system eventually collapsed under its own weight.

In Canada our freedoms are enshrined in a constitution. We can read (and write) whatever we want. We take for granted that a vibrant, clamorous and vigilant media stands ready to pounce on the smallest gaffe or misstep committed by our political leaders. Despite how some people feel about Harper’s conservatives our freedoms have never been seriously threatened. But all you have to do is read a little history and you’ll see that Canada is an exception. We should celebrate our freedoms from time to time, if only to remind ourselves how lucky we are.

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The text presented here first appeared as a guest blog entry on CoreyRedekop.Ca during Freedom to Read Week, February 2015.

Best Reads of 2014

What do I look for in a book? First and foremost, a good story. Almost any weakness can be forgiven if the story develops with the irresistible forward momentum that pulls the reader along with it. Story includes character. The author has to make us care enough about the character’s fate or moral conundrum to read every page and follow the story through to the end: any other outcome is failure. Language helps too. The reader can revel in a slow moving story if the language is rich and inventive.

Like anyone who reads fiction for pleasure I like to be surprised. I like to be kept guessing and a bit off balance. I like mystery. These are some of the books I read in 2014 that continue to resonate into the second month of 2015.

 

Foreboding hangs heavily over the action of Canada, Richard Ford’s 2012 novel. This is the story of Dell Parsons, who in 1960 is fifteen and growing up with his mother and father and twin sister Berner in Great Falls, Montana when the family unit is blown apart in the wake of an ill-conceived bank robbery committed by their parents. After their parents are arrested the resentful Berner walks away, apparently to forge a life elsewhere. Dell waits and is eventually rescued by a friend of his mother, who had agreed to take both children to Canada to live with her brother in rural Saskatchewan, a place that Ford depicts as bleak and harrowing and smouldering with repressed violence. Dell spends his time in Saskatchewan observing the strange people around him, keeping his emotions in check and committing himself to nothing, all the while trying to reinvent himself. It turns out that the man into whose care he has been delivered, Arthur Remlinger, has spent years doing the same thing: struggling to emerge from the shadow of an act of violence committed by the passionate and idealistic youth he used to be. Ford’s vision is fatalistic, and much of the novel explores how past acts contribute to the person we become in the present, the impossibility of denying these acts, the inescapable consequences and the need for acceptance. It is also a novel about crossing borders, physical and moral. The narrative, first person from Dell’s perspective, is dark and taut and teeming with untrustworthy characters all keeping an eye on each other. The brief final section shows us Dell and Berner reunited fifty years after the main action, each sibling having responded in his and her own way to their parents’ fateful decision. Canada is a wise and profound work of fiction that you will not soon forget.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s story follows Alma Whittaker from her birth in 1800 into her old age. Alma is the daughter of Henry Whittaker, who from humble beginnings in 18th-century London builds a vast corporate empire stretching across several continents. Henry is a pragmatist who has no use for superstition or religion and nothing but scorn for established and polite ways of conducting business. An expert amateur botanist, he has a scientist’s fascination for living things and is knowledgeable of habitat and what it takes to make plants grow and thrive. However, coming from a hardscrabble upbringing and having endured for years the contempt of his “betters,” his primary interest is making money, and this is an activity at which he excels. Alma, born into comfort and knowing nothing else, gains her maturity at the enlightened Whittaker estate, where curiosity and skepticism are encouraged, surrounded by the stimulating influence of the books her father has collected and the almost nightly company of intelligent and inquisitive dinner guests. Alma shares her father’s fascination for the natural world, but with her keen intellect, the luxury of leisure time and a single-minded devotion to her quest for knowledge, she transforms amateur curiosity into scholarly ambition. Alma’s life unfolds against a backdrop of continuous scientific discovery, religious upheaval, and the occasional war, a time when ancient and sacred assumptions were being debunked on an almost daily basis. But apart from the historical details Gilbert devotes just as much if not more space to Alma’s personal discoveries, and this is what gives the novel its soul. In this engrossing story of a deeply intellectual woman alive at a time when women were expected to keep to the shadows and speak in undertones, we see Alma Whittaker at her best and also at her very worst. Alma is, above all else a seeker of answers who will let nothing interrupt her quest. To be sure she makes bad decisions and repeatedly displays poor judgment (especially in matters of the heart), but this only makes her a more endearing character and her story all the more poignant. What greater compliment is there than to say that though this is a long book I didn’t want it to end? The Signature of all Things engages on multiple levels and is a richly satisfying reading experience.

Colony, Hugo Wilcken’s second novel—published to scant publicity and little fanfare in 2007—is a gripping and suspenseful book that can perhaps be described as a close examination of the fluid nature of human identity. It is 1928 and Sabir, a French veteran of the Great War, is being shipped out to a penal colony in French Guiana. Sabir is naïve but also smart enough to know that his survival depends less on who he is than on who he can become once he reaches his destination. Once in the colony he is able to adapt quickly as circumstances change, and with lies and cunning secures a cushy position as gardener, working for the camp commandant. In the first part of the novel suspense builds as we approach Sabir’s escape attempt with several partners, one of whom—the enigmatic Edouard—is an acquaintance from Sabir’s time in the trenches. In the novel’s second part another French veteran, Manne, arrives in the colony on a mission to find his friend: the same Edouard. But Manne’s origins are as obscure as his intentions—he is already traveling under an assumed identity using forged papers and a bogus story to justify his presence in the colony—and he foolishly risks everything by forming an ill-considered alliance with the commandant’s beautiful but unreliable wife, agreeing to help her escape. This is a story that, scene by scene, conceals as much as it reveals, and by doing so suggests that trust between individuals is virtually impossible because in our heart we are all hiding the person we really are. Wilcken’s spare and coolly efficient prose is filled with jaundiced observations on human behaviour and displays true power in its terse evocation of lives being lived at the point where the struggle for survival intersects with the pursuit of something more. Readers will find themselves turning the pages to discover what happens, but also wishing to delay reaching the end because the reading is so pleasurable. It’s an exquisite dilemma.

In Nickel Mountain, published in 1973, John Gardner’s genius is on full display. This is the story of Henry Soames, who runs the Stop-Off, a diner situated along a highway in the mountainous Catskills in southeastern New York State. Henry—obese, timid, thoughtful, unambitious—waits for whatever life brings his way, much as he waits for customers to darken the door of the Stop-Off. Grossly overweight (a trait inherited from his father) and with a bad heart, he is living on borrowed time and knows it, but is content to let things continue as they are because he is simply unable to envision his life differently. When a neighbour asks if Henry will let his daughter work at the diner, though he fears and resents changes to his routine, he relents rather than annoy the man. Thus teenage Callie Wells enters Henry’s life, and though neither of them have any reason to think this is anything but temporary, she stays. Henry’s passive and accepting approach to being alive means that he is little more than a spectator to his own fate, and yet we come to care deeply for him. Callie is a wisp of a girl who speaks her mind, makes mistakes and often acts rashly and ill-advisedly, and yet we grieve for her when her lover takes off and she is forced to a decision that changes her life. Gardner populates the community around the diner with a clutch of grotesques, misfits and eccentrics who—be they narrow-minded, pigheaded, brain-addled, misanthropic or some combination—are always interesting. The action and setting are vividly rendered. The natural world, especially the forest, with its suggestion of things beyond our knowing and its threat of chaos, is a pervasive if murky and mysterious presence that informs the narrative at all levels. Remarkable for these reasons and more, Nickel Mountain demonstrates that even for someone like Henry Soames, life is an adventure that can lead anywhere. This is a major novel by one of America’s best writers.

Anyone who writes short stories knows how difficult it is to get their characters talking and stitch scenes together and provide just enough backstory and create a complete drama in 20 pages, more or less. The trick is making it seem easy. In Hellgoing Lynn Coady makes it seem easy. These are nine entertaining, thought-provoking stories drawn from life in the here and now, narrated with energy, verve and irreverent humour. Coady’s characters are insecure and questioning their place in the world, concerned that they are not living up to expectations and terrified that they will fail in a way that exposes them to the contempt and ridicule of colleagues, friends or family. Their actions are often guided by an instinct for self-preservation or a desire to make things right or to protect themselves from embarrassment. In “Wireless” alcoholic Jane, travelling alone on business in Newfoundland, cuts short a booze-inspired relationship with Ned when she realizes she’s being manipulated. In “Dogs in Clothes” Sam, a young publishers’ rep charged with accompanying author Marco through a whirlwind series of interviews and public appearances, emboldened by alcohol finally cracks and tells him off for being a rude and insensitive jackass. And in “Mr. Hope,” Shelly’s relationship with her teacher evolves over time to become something mysterious yet oddly comforting that she realizes she will probably never understand. Coady’s full-throttle approach almost makes it seem like the stories are slapped together, but if you slow down you will see how much care has been taken not just in the writing but also in the editing. These are stories as remarkable for what’s in them as for what’s left out. Some reviewers have remarked on the lack of resolution, but that’s a matter of taste. For those who enjoy the open-endedness of art that imitates life, Hellgoing is a treat.

Following the death of his wife and daughter Alexander Fox moves to Andorra to start his life anew. He quickly falls under the spell of this tiny isolated country that moves at its own pace, its ancient stone buildings and people who come from everywhere and nowhere. In Andorra’s capital, La Plata, he meets an Australian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Dent, who have moved to this strange place seeking a fresh start for reasons of their own. He also becomes involved with the Quays, a family of aristocrats, well established on La Plata’s outskirts on their luxurious estate. But as Fox builds new relationships his old life comes back to haunt him, and he begins to understand how difficult it is to re-invent oneself and leave the past behind. Andorra is a mesmerizing and seductive novel. Peter Cameron’s prose is a delight to read, memorable and evocative and gently rhythmic. The story unfolds slowly—building mystery and suspense but so subtly that you hardly notice how gripping it is. If you prefer fiction with all the questions answered and everything tied up in a neat little package, then maybe Andorra is not for you, but if you don’t read this book you’re missing a brilliant work by a master novelist.

Writers on writing

Ask anyone who practices a craft, and they will tell you that the learning process never ends. It doesn’t matter how advanced your career is, how many works you’ve completed, how many prizes you’ve won, each new project brings its own challenges, and these challenges are not necessarily easier to overcome just because you’ve put years into sharpening your skills.

Where fiction is concerned the issue is compounded because, as long as the writing doesn’t follow a formula, a writer doesn’t take very much from one project to the next. Other than the confidence one gains from completing a manuscript and (maybe) getting it published, the writer confronts the challenge of the blank page with an idea or two and no safety net. Ideas are capricious and untrustworthy traveling companions. They can take you a long way or they can push you out of the car in the middle of nowhere–you never know where you’ll end up until you set out on the journey. After a while the writer learns to accept that most ideas don’t pan out. Failure is a huge part of the writing process (as are second-guessing and procrastination). The bitter truth is that writers throw out most of what they write.

All of which makes it worth asking if established writers have anything useful to say to aspiring writers. What advice or instruction can they pass along that will make a difference: that will hasten the journey toward publication and perhaps save the inexperienced writer a bit of heartache along the way? If writing is a subjective process–as we believe–it means that writing can’t be taught. The teacher of writing can talk all he (or she) wants about style and structure and plot and character and setting and tone, but the student of writing still has to come up with an idea that works and get her (or his) hands dirty (so to speak) through a personal encounter with the page and the word. There’s no other way to do it.

Of course, this does not stop writers from teaching writing. I’ve done it myself and have discovered it to be a profound and enriching experience. Despite the subjective nature of the craft there is value in teaching creative writing. The thing to remember is that anyone who can hold a pen or navigate their way around a keyboard knows how to “write.” The real skill you are teaching is how to tap into a mode of thinking: about language and its relation to the world around us, and about words and how they combine on the page and act upon the mind. Things get murky at this point because we’re dealing with an alchemical and largely inexplicable process: that transformative moment that the successful writer learns to harness and prolong in order to conjure up convincing characters whose words and actions and ultimate fate matter to the reader.

The tradition of writers commenting on writing is long and fascinating. We can probably take it on faith that anyone who goes to the trouble to formulate and record their advice to young writers is genuinely trying to be helpful. But part of being a writer is learning to tell the difference between advice that’s worth taking to heart and advice that’s simply not right for you. And sometimes we should just let ourselves be amused, especially when a great writer cloaks his advice behind a curmudgeonly persona and tells a story about how he did it himself, a case in point being this New York Times piece from 1999 by Ed McBain (born Salvatore Albert Lombino in 1926) who wrote crime and detective fiction under several names for more than fifty years. He’s describing a world that no longer exists and sounds a bit cynical about it, but he’s actually saying some wise things about character and motivation and literary form.

This blog will address writing and related topics: my own writing activities and, more generally, books and creativity and words. Elsewhere on this site you will find reviews and links to other sites that I’ve found useful, informative and/or entertaining. Take what you want and leave the rest. Thanks for reading.