Monthly Archives: October 2016

Darkness Wrapped in Sugar

Cork, Ireland

Cork, Ireland

“I’m not into any of it. I’m just pulling you up on assuming your right to religion if you’re going to deny it to whores.”

Let’s pause in the exciting rollercoaster of this blog to quietly read a book. I recommend a novel called The Glorious Heresies, by a contemporary Irish writer named Lisa McInerney. As far as I can tell, this is McInerney’s first novel, a book that has won literary prizes.

I know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t we hate someone who writes one book and wins prizes for it? It’s a valid question, but I have to say that this is a very good book. The novel is set almost entirely in Cork, Ireland, what they sometimes call Cork City as distinguished from the surrounding County Cork. Nearly every character in the book lives in a state of highly developed dysfunction, and they are using whatever fate gives them to make sure it stays it that way.

If any one character could be considered the main focus of the book, it is Ryan Cusack, who goes from 15 to around 20 years old in the book, though in terms of what he experiences of life, Ryan might be said to go from 15 to 45 in those five years. The author, McInerney, allows us to see that Ryan has a softness and empathy for other people, but he has certainly chosen the wrong life to use those personality traits.

Other characters include Ryan’s father, who seems fated to criminal ineptitude, Jimmy Phelan, a vicious gangster burdened by looking after his difficult mother, Georgie, a prostitute who tries for a while to find religion, and Maureen, Jimmy’s mother, who initiates much of the plot by accidentally killing an intruder who shouldn’t have been there anyway.

Ironically, Maureen is also the conscience of the book, the only person who seems to be honestly trying to steer the other characters in the right direction. Maureen is also in some ways the conscience of the book for Ireland itself. In amongst the gangster goings-on, Maureen recalls a part of Irish history when the Catholic church ran slave labor camps for girls and young women. Technically, the slave camps were called Magdalen “laundries” (the last one closed, amazingly, as late as 1996). Maureen expresses a justified anger at a church that behaves worse than gangsters, and she even tries to take an ineffectual revenge.

In style, McInerney reminds me of other Irish writers who show such a great facility with language. The tone of the book is necessarily harsh, given the subject matter, yet that darkness is often alleviated by a smart, snarky voice, with a very imaginative use of language, as we see in the following examples:

  • An effervescent liar from the phone company had sold Tony a broadband subscription, which had had the effect of lobotomising his three teenagers and giving him the cold comfort of meditative silence.
  • Jesus, he thought. I’m like those gobshites who clap when the plane lands.
  • That he was driven to drink by a taciturn child was as good a reason as being defective in spirit and in genetics…

McInerney also uses Irish slang throughout the story (craic, fecker, bollocks, slash, to cite a few), but in addition to sprinkling the text with particular local words, she has an ear for the sound of Irish speech. This book is a river of rich dialogue, and streams of Irish phrases and syntax flow into that river, currents that grow heavier or lighter depending on the situation (“Era go on outta that,” or “Ah for feck’s sake altogether.”)

In one way, this book reminds me of novels by the British writer Kate Atkinson. When I finish a book by Atkinson, I often think “What a grim, dark story” and yet while I’m reading it, the the pleasure is so great that I don’t notice.

The pleasure of art can sometimes overcome the darkness of the subject, which is what McInerney has accomplished in The Glorious Heresies, wrapping her hollow-eyed leery Corkonians in a rich linguistic tapestry.

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Line My Room With Velvet

View from new apartment

My new view

What conditions does a writer need to write? In 1929, Virginia Woolf famously wrote that for women to write fiction, one of the requirements was “a room of one’s own”. Of course she was referring specifically to the impediments women faced as writers, since a lot of men in those days (like now) were insecure and stupid, and they tried to make their small lives seem bigger by dominating women.

If we stand back and take a wide view, we see that Virginia Woolf’s implied condition, of having a space to write, is true for any writer. Her “room” also implies something more, a space where a person can work in peace, undisturbed (which is why it is one’s “own” room). Even without a dedicated room, a writer must at least have a space, as writing requires notes, papers, shrunken heads, wine bottles, etc., in addition to working in peace. If you are writing at the kitchen table and must clear it all up for meals, you are much impeded.

The writer Marcel Proust lined his writing room with cork, to keep it quiet enough that he could write in peace. Writers who could afford it have created spaces that sound good just to hear about them, with views of mountains (Steven King), gardens (Edith Wharton), the ocean (Ian Fleming), or a city skyline (Norman Mailer).

Nice if you can get it, but you do what you can. When I was in my early 20s, facing a wall on one side of our small bedroom, I built myself a barely functional desk out of 2X4 boards that I cut up and nailed together. I know I must have found those boards, because I certainly didn’t have enough money to buy them. Now I have a cheap desk, but it’s real, with a flat surface, and it faces windows with a view of trees and nature.

This past Saturday, I moved to a new apartment. I could say I moved to avoid the brainfuck shrieking horror of Atlanta traffic, and indeed I am on my knees offering frankincense in gratitude for being out of it. However, the real reason I first thought of moving was because I was frustrated from lack of time to write, and yet I sat for hours every week in long lines of cars, idiotically throwing my life away.

You probably know from experience how the eyes sparkle and the soul sings just from the thought of moving. But I think this new apartment will be well worth the months of effort and planning, the money spent, and the much higher rent that I now have to pay every month. In deciding where to live, I chose a place across the street from my job, so now I walk to work in less than 10 minutes. I’ve estimated, conservatively, that compared to my old commute, I’ll gain at least another 20 hours per month of free time.

I’m thrilled with this act of chronological magic, but having “enough” time to write is relative. Over the years, I’ve known people to talk about how they were going to write when they could, but they were waiting until they really had time. If you’re waiting until you have time to write, then you’re probably not a serious writer, and maybe you aren’t going to write at all. The world will never give you time to write, so that’s the end of that. If you’re compelled to write, you have to take the time. This means that writers can be selfish about their time and can seem self-absorbed. I have been, and I don’t remember that bad behavior gladly, but it’s true.

In addition to a writing space and time, every writer will also have various requirements that allow them to work—maybe long stretches of uninterrupted time, maybe a state of calm and tranquility, maybe a mind clear of the details of the day (so that early in the morning might be better), maybe certain kinds of inspiration, or maybe a feeling of affirmation from other people that what the writer is doing is worthwhile.

When I was teaching, I would sometimes read things telling students what conditions they needed to write, “Sit quietly to gather your thoughts, blah blah blah.” In fact, every writer has to find their own conditions, and I would try to teach my students that. Some writers need a bottle of whiskey and a Def Leppard CD cranked up to 11. Others need a cork-lined room.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Stars Fell on Georgia

Me at the Highland InnThis past Sunday we had the book release party for the short story collection I’d Tear Down the Stars. When I was thinking about the evening, I admit I did not approach it gleefully. And I always tell the truth, but you know that. Somehow the idea of being such a focus of attention kind made me uneasy.

Unless my memory grows weak (ha! what is the chance of that?) when I was younger, I think I was shy, or at least reticent with public display. No, I’m sure I was shy. I believe I still am, at least partly. Given an option to stand in the glare on a stage or sit in a coffee shop with a book and watch people, I’d like a cup of coffee.

And yet . . .

And yet, if you saw me on the stage, you’d never suspect I felt that way. I look like I’m loving it, thriving up there, and in some ways, in spite of what I just said, I probably am. I’m totally comfortable in front of a crowd. I could talk at the UN. I wouldn’t care. I had a long apprenticeship of standing in front of people talking, from 20 years blabbing away as a college professor. I know how to get the room’s attention, I know what to do with it, and when I read, I read well. That can be a useful skill for a writer.

The book release party started out slow, with not many people present, certainly not the large masses of people I had expected, literary afficianados chanting my name and waving ten-dollar bills to get in the door. I don’t know why that didn’t happen. Maybe because parking was difficult around there. Folks came in gradually, and I was really grateful for every person who showed up. After all, they didn’t have to come, did they? I had a number of friends attend, and I was particularly touched by two friends who drove four hours down from North Carolina.

We began the event with the four writers on the stage, drawing names out of my hat for order of reading, and I read last. Each of us read twice, with a break in the middle for people to . . . I don’t know what they were doing. I was talking to people and was asked to sign a few books.

As to the three writers who were kind enough to come and read with me, I was glad to hear them, and I was pleased to hear some clever, interesting writing. As I considered the writers to be my guests, I covered their bar tab, given that we had a bar in our venue. At the end of the evening, I was a little surprised that the tab was more than I expected, at $79, but you know—writers.

No doubt when you buy a copy of I’d Tear Down the Stars, you’ll be curious to know which stories I read during the world premier of the book. I started with “A Sharp Knife for Cutting Limes” (written as an attempt to try something dark and sharp), then I read an excerpt from the middle of “A Night at the Carnival” (a story that began as a description of someone I knew, who seemed to stumble from one problem to another, though that’s not what the story ended up being about), and I finished with a third reading, the title story of the book (which was told to me as an astonishing true story, but I changed the specific details).

The purpose of this book release was obviously for publicity and marketing. The reporter from The New York Times never showed up, probably that parking thing again. The main benefits I saw from doing this were (1) giving my book to people who came, so I put the book in people’s hands, and maybe they’ll read it, and isn’t that the whole point? (2) I slightly got to know the other writers, which can be good, and (3) there was, in general, the publicity of simply having the event. I’m estimating, since I haven’t counted, that we may have given out as many as 40 books.

I was talking to a friend later about the book release, and I compared it to a band just getting started who play in small bars. I think in terms of such a process, that you do what you can, take what publicity you can get, and keep trying. Maybe over time, you build up to something bigger, but mainly, you don’t stop, and you do an honest job at each place you go, even if it’s small.

And above all, you keep writing. I’ll be doing that.

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Here in My Mind, I Read a Book

love-of-beautyOccasionally a friend will call me at work and ask if I want to meet for coffee when I get off, to chat for a bit. I like to meet when I can, because we don’t see one another as often as I’d like, and he provides me with conversations of such great interest that I hardly know anyone who could do the same. No one else I know sends me lines of poetry to ask what I think of them.

So this past Monday we met, and for half the time we were together, we discussed Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” and different performances of it. I admit it was my cultured friend who actually knew of various performances—Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

A question that came up in our discussion was whether an audience in a country with a good social welfare system could fully appreciate the play. If people knew they could survive if they lost their jobs, could they properly understand the anxiety of the salesman in the play? He lives at a time in America where he will be destitute if he loses his job, with no social system to support him.

Audiences necessarily bring their background and understanding of the world to their experience of art. From the idea of what people bring to an experience, I went on to make the point to my friend that in writing (which of course I’ve thought more about) readers bring so much to the reading that in fact they help to create the text.

That may sound radical to you, but I’ll illustrate it by starting with something excessively simple. Suppose you see a text, but you don’t know the writing system (Russian: я люблю тебя), or perhaps you know the writing system, but don’t know the language (Polish: wszystkiego najlepszego), or you know the alphabet and the language, but the subject matter is foreign (epigenetics discussion: highly methylated areas tend to be less transcriptionally active).

My point is that if the reader doesn’t know how to interpret the symbols in the writing, turn them into meaningful words and sentences, and then make sense of the sentences, whatever the writer wrote lies there incomprehensible. No piece of writing says anything. It’s just a piece of paper with ink on it (or a screen with pixels). When anything happens, it happens inside the mind of the reader.

I’ve thought about this so often that I don’t know whether its a difficult idea to really understand, or whether it’s quickly obvious. It seems to me that many people consider writing to have a definite, obvious meaning, and that meaning is just there because—look—it’s written down.

It’s written down, like the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, or the Constitution, or even Hemingway. It says what it says. Isn’t this what most people would think? Is it what you think? So maybe my point is not so simple, even though it’s true.

Of course reading is so much more than merely knowing the words. Let’s look at the first sentence of the Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” And let’s propose that this is rather straightforward in meaning: it gives a man’s position lying on the ground in a forest, it gives his physical position, and it gives some of the natural setting, with the wind blowing.

Now let’s propose two readers, one who grew up in pine forests, and another who has never even seen a pine needle. One of them knows the smell of such a forest, has seen it the daytime with sunlight coming down through the trees, knows how the pine needles fall down from the trees, knows the very slight crackle when you walk across them, and knows the sharp way they feel when you lie on them. The second reader doesn’t know any of this.

Surely these two readers will have extremely different reactions to the opening sentence of this novel. For the first reader, the sentence may even evoke personal emotional memories, which become part of that reader’s experience of reading. The second reader is getting only a very bare physical description from the sentence, with no feeling. Already in the first sentence, two different readers will experience the book in dramatically different ways.

With what readers bring to the reading, they turn a lifeless piece of paper into thoughts and feelings inside their own minds. Readers are helping to create the text, and no writer can control that.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

Georgia Writers!

Highland InnI hope you’ve already got your plane ticket and hotel room, as the date approaches of the book release party for I’d Tear Down the Stars short story collection. I’d say the date approaches like—let me see, what would be a good metaphor? Like a bus coming down a steep hill driven by the Joker from Batman.

You don’t want to miss that. Perhaps you’ve heard how much writers love to promote their work, maybe even more than they like the actual writing. . . No, wait, that’s in Bizarro World, where everything is backwards. Although in Bizarro World all the writers would be rich.

So October 9 lurches upon us, and on that day I’ll gather loved ones, and acquainted ones, and some who I could imagine being loved ones if I could get them drunk enough, and we will celebrate the release of the new book. It is being released you see, like a dove from a cage, where it will glide in a glorious gyre, going ever higher. That’s the idea anyway.

We now have the event pretty well arranged, and it will flash its fabulousness at the Highland Inn Ballroom. You remember where Plaza Drugs used to be, near the Majestic Diner? Anyway, it’s around the corner. As our flyer says, the doors open at 3:30, and a bartender or two will be on duty, because after all, this is a writing event. As a sponsor, we have the Conjuration fantasy convention (and I’ll be speaking at that convention in November).

During the book release party, I’ll read from some of the short stories in the collection, and I feel very fortunate that several good writers have agreed to participate and read from their work as well. Also on the line-up we have Stacia Brown (Accidents of Providence), Chris Bundy (Baby, You’re a Rich Man), and Jonathan French (The Grey Bastards). If you haven’t bought your plane ticket yet, you’ll also want to know that my brother Donald and his daughter Sarah will be doing music.

I will confess, here in the privacy of a blog post, that getting all this set up has not been easy. Or I assume it hasn’t. My publicist has done most of the work, but he looked tired one day. Since he was working so hard, I offered to take on the burden of feeling stressed and anxious about every little thing.

Because this is a book release party, whose purpose is to, you know, publicize a book, it seemed like a perfect adjunct to the event to have an actual book on hand. So OK, this one little detail has allowed me to practice inner Buddhist would-be tranquility, and practice, and practice, and where the fuck are the books? I wouldn’t dream of boring you with actual details, but let’s just say that as the bus is coming down the hill, the Joker is waving a pistol out the window and laughing maniacally.

Yesterday I gave final approval to the printer on the book, and then, in an act that I personally felt required a bit of boldness, I ordered 100 copies. I haven’t seen a print copy, which would have been ideal, but that bus is rolling, October 9 is coming, and those books need to go in a box and get shipped. For this event, we will charge $10 to get in, and in return people get—ha!—a free copy of the new book. Once I receive the books. I trust fate to do this.

I’m sure you’re looking forward to the book release party. It’s a chance to hear Georgia writers reading from their work. How can it get better than that? Plus we have bartenders.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)