Entries from September 2009

Eavan Boland: “Quarantine”

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking — they were both walking — north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Eavan Boland (via)

Categories: Poetry    Tags: ·

Barbara Mensch’s photographs of Fulton Fish Market


A few weeks ago I wrote about photographer Barbara Mensch’s lovely images of New York. Barbara recently wrote to point me to another series of her photographs, this one depicting the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan, which was closed in 2005. The photographs are different from the ones that first caught my eye — grittier, more documentary and personal in style — but they are fascinating. I especially like the portraits of the men who worked in the market, like the one above, “Nunzio an Unloader” (1982).

In an email, Barbara wrote, “I am a storyteller by nature and for years I have tried to weave together visual stories and oral histories.” That sense of story, of the rich experience of this place, really comes through in these pictures. Looking at them, you imagine the whole world of the Manhattan waterfront, all the stink and clatter and damp. It’s all gone now, taking a thousand stories with it. The world is full of lost places like this, of course, which were not so fortunate as to have a Barbara Mensch to document them.

The full story behind these photos is related here. Many of the images and accompanying stories have been compiled into a book called South Street, with an introduction by Philip Lopate. Barbara Mensch’s photographs are available at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York (41 East 57th Street).

Categories: Photography    Tags:

A cabin made of hours

“Like so many of the key skills of the writer’s life, the solution [to being distracted by the Internet] comes down to (groan) self-discipline. I came back resolved to break my habit of checking email and the Web (even to handle essential, chore-like tasks) whenever the urge strikes. I’ve converted to the ‘no email before noon’ productivity cult and save up any web-based activity for after I’ve done the day’s allotted reading and writing.…

“Now that I’m paying more attention to the insidious impulse to ‘take a little break,’ I see that it hits whenever I’m looking at a project that requires full and deep attention. I know that these projects are both more rewarding and more interesting that what people I barely know are posting on Twitter and Facebook, but trivia can be very seductive. Like potato chips, it’s hard to resist once you’ve allowed yourself ‘just a taste.’ You have to build yourself a cabin, not of logs but of hours, and not in the woods, but during some part of every day. And then you have to lock the door.”

Laura Miller, Salon critic who retreated to “the fabled cabin in the woods to think, read and even write a bit,” safe from the maddening presence of “the biggest distractor in my life — the Internet.”


“There’s certainly a brain basis to crime … the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us.”
— Adrian Raine

A burgeoning science suggests that crime is caused in part by biological factors, that is, by traits inherited through DNA or by the brain malfunctioning in very specific ways. Adrian Raine, a “neurocriminologist” and chair of the criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania, says,

“Seventy-five percent of us have had homicidal thoughts. What stops most of us from acting out these feelings is the prefrontal cortex…. When the prefrontal cortex is not functioning too well, maybe an individual, when angry, is more likely to pick up a knife and stab someone or pick up a gun.”

Some criminals, it seems, are biologically different from us.

“People who are psychopaths or who have antisocial personality disorder are literally cold-blooded. They have lower heart rates.  When they’re stressed, they don’t sweat as much as the rest of us. They don’t have this anticipatory fear that the rest of us have.”

Obviously I am not qualified to judge the science. But if it is true, as seems increasingly likely, that “freedom of will is not as free as you think,” as Professor Raine puts it, that fact would undercut the entire philosophy of our criminal law, which is that we punish the guilty mind, the mens rea — the conscious, purposeful decision to commit a crime. Where the defendant’s free will or judgment is compromised, because he is drunk or insane or a child, for example, generally the law attaches a lesser degree of culpability, sometimes no culpability at all (the proper finding for an insane defendant is “not guilty by reason of insanity,” not “guilty but insane”).

My third novel, to be published in February 2012, turns on just these sorts of questions. The story involves a father whose teenage son is accused of a murder, a crime that may have been triggered by the boy’s genetic inheritance — a “murder gene.” How should we think of such a criminal? It is not simply a question about crime or criminal law. It is the fundamental subject of crime novels, it is the reason we read them, to ask: What does crime tell us about ourselves and our nature? Modern neuroscience and genetics are beginning to provide answers Dostoyevsky could never have imagined.

Here is Professor Raine on the legal and ethical implications of neurocriminology:

A Thousand Words a Day

I have a new work routine. Mornings, I go into the city to write in the main reading room of the Boston Public Library, where I churn out a thousand words a day on my new novel. The BPL has wireless internet access, so I don’t bring a laptop. Too much distraction. Instead I type on a little portable keyboard, a gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo, which I’ve written about here before. In the afternoons, my thousand words complete, I work on other things: research, editing, email, this blog, etc.

Ordinarily I do not like routinized, quota-based writing schedules like this. It does not fit my personality very well. I prefer to work in intense bursts of three or four or even five hours at a time in which I start and complete an entire scene in a single heroic effort. These marathon sessions leave me exhausted, so one exhilirating hyper-productive day is usually followed by two desolate fallow ones. I would prefer to smooth this out, of course, and maintain a more professional, clockwork writing schedule. But my brain does not seem to work that way. My natural method is sprint-and-recover, sprint-and-recover.

I don’t recommend this method to other writers. Novel-writing is harrowing enough without putting yourself through the wringer this way. More important, the net result is fewer words produced. The hare may write better than the tortoise, but he will write less. And publishers value “more” over “better” — regular producers, however mediocre, are in demand; erratic producers, however brilliant, less so. Particularly at this point in my career, I simply can’t afford another missed deadline or long silence between books.

So, after an unproductive week last week, I’ve resolved to become a thousand-word-a-day tortoise for as long as I can stand it. Why 1,000? As you can tell from this (still new) blog, I am obsessed with other writers’ work habits, their daily routines, their work spaces. It is a natural curiosity for anyone in a solitary profession, I suppose. You want to ask, “Am I doing this right?,” but there is no one to put the question to. So you study other writers to see what works for them, and you experiment to see what works for you. Unfortunately there are as many writing routines as there are writers. On the low end, there is Graham Greene and his famous 500 words a day. Many writers talk about 1,000 words a day, including one recently quoted here, J.G. Ballard. The most common writer’s routine I’ve heard is “five pages a day.” (A thousand words comes out to only three or four manuscript pages. You’ve read about 450 words so far.) So I’ve chosen the middle way, neither especially ambitious or lax.

And it seems to be working. Why it is working I have no idea. Maybe it helps to get on the train and commute into town every morning like a banker. Maybe it is because the soaring, barrel-vaulted reading room at the BPL is a beautiful, inspiring space. Maybe it is just refreshing to dump a work routine that has ceased to be productive. Who knows? These writing routines tend to work for awhile, then, for mysterious reasons, they don’t. That is just the way it is in a creative endeavor.

So I’ll stick with it while it’s working. I’m not naturally a thousand-words-a-day kind of writer. I want to be great, and I worry that you cannot be great if you aspire merely to be consistent. But for now this is what I have to do. My book is due January 1.

Categories: Creativity · Productivity · Writing    Tags: · · ·

Throwaway novels

“The bestseller in fiction took a precipitous turn in the 1980s towards what might be termed the ‘throwaway read,’ a novel with a shelf life of yogurt.”

Nina Siegal (via)

Categories: Books    Tags:

Writer’s Room: W. Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham in his office at Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat, 1939

W. Somerset Maugham at his desk at the Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat, 1939.

The magnificent view was ignored, the writer turning his back to it and facing instead a row of his own leather bound books, so that, in a moment of weakness he could look up and say to himself: “I’ve done it before and I can do it again.” [Link]

Maugham was wildly successful in commercial terms. His home, Villa Mauresque, was “a nine-acre estate on Cap Ferrat, with a staff of 13 to look after him. His art collection alone, in today’s market, would probably fetch more than $100m.” (More photos of the estate are here.) By all accounts Maugham was a contemptible human being, but I loved his books when I was young, particularly The Razor’s Edge and The Moon and Sixpence, and this image pretty well captures how I always imagined Maugham from the voice in his books: the urbane literary man of the world.

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: · ·

Writer’s Room: Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow at his desk.

(Photo by Jonathan Worth. An annotated version of this image is available on Flickr here. Creative Commons.)

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: ·

How Writers Write: J.G. Ballard

I try to write about 1,000 words a day in longhand and then edit it very carefully later before I type it out. I have been known to stop in the middle of a sentence sometimes when I’ve reached my limit. But self-discipline is enormously important — you can’t rely on inspiration or a novel would take ten years.

I always prepare a very detailed synopsis before I start writing. Sometimes this will be anything up to 30,000 words in length. It’s just me working out my story and my cast. I once did one for a book called The Unlimited Dream Company where the synopsis was longer than the book.

I’ve lived in Shepperton in Middlesex for the past 40 years. I live alone now that my children have grown up. I write in my sitting-room on a large table, popular with my neighbour’s cats. I start at around 10am, and work until 1pm.

J.G. Ballard (2000)

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: ·

Inside “The Strangler”: The New Boston, 1963

One of the frustrations in writing a historical novel like The Strangler is that so much of your research never sees the light of day. When the book is done, all those index cards so lovingly compiled get wrapped up in a rubber band and tossed into a drawer, and the reader is left to wonder which bits of the story are fact and which are fiction. I thought I might pull some of those notes out of the drawer again and, over the next couple of weeks, share some of the background of the book — where characters or scenes came from, how they developed, what was left out.

Let’s start with the epigraph. It is ostensibly a quote from a 1962 chamber-of-commerce-type advertisement which begins, “If you haven’t seen the New Boston lately, you’re in for a surprise — America’s city of history is now a city of tomorrow.”

The epigraph establishes the time and place of the story, obviously. The setting is Boston in 1963, an annus horribilis for the city, the year of the Strangler and the Kennedy assassination. Also, the West End — a neighborhood of old tenements and narrow, twisting streets — has recently been demolished to make way for a massive urban renewal project, so the city is physically scarred as well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the moment when Boston, a city in a long, steep decline like many other manufacturing centers (Newark, Detroit), began to reinvent itself as the gleaming place you see today.

The epigraph is not authentic. I stitched it together from a few similar ads from the period. I especially liked the one below, which appeared in the November 1962 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The boosterism in that ad copy, with its jet-age hopefulness, makes a laughable contrast to the grungy reality of city life at the time, particularly in this novel.

Similar ironic devices show up pretty frequently. In the movie “The Full Monty,” the opening credits appear over a promotional film touting the glories of Sheffield, England. A montage of mock period footage is used in the closing credits of “L.A. Confidential” as well. I don’t know, at this point, whether I had “The Full Monty” in mind or not, but “L.A. Confidential,” both the book and the film versions, was an important model for my book.

One last thing: While you’re looking at the ad below, take a look at the image of the city, too. How low the buildings are. On the right, the “old” John Hancock building towers over the Back Bay though it is only 26 stories high. Downtown, at the left center, the 1915 Custom House Tower is still the tallest building at just under 500 feet. This is essentially a nineteenth-century skyline. Boston had seen no major construction in fifty years, a period in which the rest of America’s cities were booming. The Prudential Center in the Back Bay, completed in 1964, was the first modern skyscraper built here. (There is a neat image here of the Back Bay skyline in 1963, with the Pru nearing completion.) This fossilized skyline is a clue. It tells you one reason why the city fathers (no mothers then, sorry) felt so much pressure to see the Strangler murders solved: the “New Boston” had to come. The Strangler case arrived at an inconvenient moment.

Anyway, here is one of the real ads I based my bogus epigraph on. You can see a full-size version here.

1962 Boston ad, Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1962 at p. 72A


Categories: Boston · My Books    Tags:

William Manchester’s struggle

The next time I am tempted to whimper that my writing life is hard, I will think of William Manchester’s epic struggle, from 1963-1966, to write a definitive account of the JFK assassination, as described in this month’s Vanity Fair.

He was becoming unhinged. Once, while working on a homework assignment, 15-year-old John [Manchester’s son] asked his father what day it was. Manchester replied without thinking, “November 22.” On another occasion, he acted strangely during an interview with a friend of Jacqueline’s. Manchester had gotten up to look out the window, convinced that he saw something moving in the bushes. “I’ve been followed ever since I began this book,” he said. … By the second anniversary of the assassination, Manchester began to crack. “I had no appetite — for food, for beauty, for life. I slept fitfully; when I did drift off, I dreamt of Dallas. I was gripping my Esterbrook [fountain pen] so hard that my thumb began to bleed under the nail. It became infected … marring the manuscript pages with blood.”

Below is a cut-and-paste page from Manchester’s manuscript. (Click image to view full size.) An image of Manchester in 1964 is here.


Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

A few links

Random bits found floating around on the web today:

George Herbert: “Church Monuments”

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust,
To which the blast of Death’s incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust

My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet and marble, put for signs,

To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting: what shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent, that, when thou shalt grow fat,

And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

— George Herbert (1593-1633)

Robert Pinsky has a lovely appreciation of this poem in Slate today. You can hear Pinsky read the poem using the player below.

<a href="http://url" class="wpaudio">Artist - Song</a>

Categories: Poetry    Tags: · ·

Henry Ford: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted”

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said, “A faster horse.”

— Henry Ford (via)

Follow your own vision. Do not write what you think readers want. They do not know what they want until you show it to them.

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags:

Edmund Wilson Regrets

This note card from Edmund Wilson seems quaint today. The card was sent to a student group that invited Wilson to give a reading. Wilson’s handwritten answer reads, “I don’t give readings either unless I’m offered a very large fee. E.W.” (Click the image to view larger.)

Over at Crooked Timber, the card triggered an interesting discussion of the decline of the “public intellectual”: Wilson could afford to bat away requests like these because his income from writing was secure, a luxury few intellectuals enjoy now. But even a lowly non-intellectual midlist novelist like me has to smile at Wilson’s imperiousness, for no novelist today would dare declare, “It is impossible for me to blog, tweet, Facebook, appear at conferences, give ego-crushing readings in empty bookstores,” etc.

Today even reclusive novelists play the publicity game. As Nathan Bransford recently pointed out, Thomas Pynchon has put together a playlist of songs for Amazon and Cormac McCarthy dutifully appeared on “Oprah.” I don’t know where this ends — J.D. Salinger’s blog? Philip Roth on “Dancing With the Stars”? — but one wonders what will become of the brilliant but publicity-shy young authors out there. Is talent enough? Has it ever been? All I know is: there are no Edmund Wilsons in my shop, either.

Categories: Productivity · Writers    Tags: · ·