Entries from November 2009

As if they had been around all along

The best new movies carry intimations of permanence along with their novelty and very quickly start to seem as if they had been around all along.

— A. O. Scott, “Screen Memories” in last week’s Times Magazine

That odd feeling you get when you first run into great artworks — they “very quickly start to seem as if they have been around all along” — strikes me as a pretty good definition of success in any art form, not just movies but novels, pop songs, or any other. Once you have met them, it immediately becomes hard to imagine the world without them. There ought to be a word for this feeling, some German train-wreck of a word like schadenfreude.

Categories: Art · Movies    Tags:

Title Trouble

I remember the moment I came up with the title “Mission Flats” for my first novel. It was late, long past midnight. The house was quiet. I lay in bed unable to sleep, which is common for me. (I am a chronic insomniac.) I had been playing around with the word “mission” for the title. The book is about Ben Truman’s mission, his adventure far from home, an odyssey that roughly follows the arc of traditional adventure myths described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The novel also drew on the Boston neighborhood of Mission Hill as part of its inspiration. In fact, I considered both “The Mission” and “Mission Hill” as titles. But a lofty, aspirational, resolute word like “mission” needed a downbeat flat note to balance it. So I swapped in “flats” for “hill,” thinking perhaps of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. The words fell into place — click — and there it was.

I knew I had it. Right from the start, from that first click, the words “Mission Flats” seemed inevitable, perfect, unimprovable. The proof of its rightness was that the title, rather than just being a sign hung on the front of the book, began to shape the story. The high-low sound of it — Mission (up), Flats (down) — catalyzed the writing. Intentionally or not, I began to write a story to fit it.

There was no such parting of the clouds for “The Strangler.” My own working title for that book was “The Year of the Strangler,” which I still think is a truer reflection of the story. The novel is not just about the Boston Strangler case. It is — at least it is intended to be — a panoramic view of the Boston underworld in the early 1960’s, taking in the formation of the Mob order that would rule the city for the next forty years and also the reconstruction of the city both physically and economically. Alas, my editors, both here and in the U.K., loathed “The Year of….” It sounds like a history book, they said. And because I was inexperienced and too eager to please, I accepted the suggestion of “The Strangler” as more focused, more evocative, and more marketable. Let me be clear: the fault was entirely mine. If I did not like the title, I could and should have said no. I understand that. But I did not, and the title still rankles. It simply does not fit the book.

So this whole business of choosing a title is deadly important. And for my novel in progress, I still don’t have one. No click. No itchy inkling of a Really Big Idea trembling just out of reach, about to reveal itself. Nothing. I don’t even have a working title. On my computer, the manuscript resides in a folder called “Book Three.” This has been going on for over a year.

The problem occupies more brain-space than I can afford to give it. In the sprint to the finish line, my thoughts should be 100% on the story. Instead I churn one title after another.

The candidates fall into some of the usual categories.

  • Wordy, colloquial, faux-conversational titles — oh so trendy at the moment (Then We Came to the End, We Need to Talk About Kevin, It’s Beginning to Hurt, This Is Where I Leave You, all descended presumably from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love).
  • Solemn one-word titles (Atonement, Possession, Damage).
  • Place names (Cold Mountain, Mansfield Park, Gorky Park).
  • Character names (Jane Eyre, Billy Bathgate).
  • Allusions (Tender Is the Night).

Of course, there are as many categories, as many ways to name a book as you care to dream up. These are just the ones I have been turning over in my head.

The title candidates, for the moment:

  • Line of Descent: because the story involves a teenage boy who is descended from several generations of murderous men and is himself accused of murder.
  • Cold Spring Park: the public park where the murder takes place.
  • Jacob: the name of the boy who is accused (probably used in some construction like “About Jacob” or “Regarding Jacob”).
  • The Murder Gene: which the boy and his parents fear he has inherited.
  • Guilt, violence, inheritance, blood, nature: all words rolling around in my head like loose marbles.

Some of this confusion is self-inflicted, no doubt — paralysis by analysis. At this point, having thought about it too hard for too long, I may not recognize the click when I hear it. Or, more accurately, since in art the eureka! experience is a subjective one — there is no such thing as a perfect title, there is no “right” answer — I may not be allowing myself to think that any title is right, or right enough.

Anyway, the struggle to name Book Three goes on. Cast your vote, if you like. I need all the help I can get.

“This Is Where I Leave You”

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper is a terrific novel. The emotionally repressed Foxman family of Westchester County gathers to sit shiva for their dead father, and over the course of a week the four siblings and materfamilias work through a lifetime of suburban traumas, grudges, and neuroses. A comedy of manners has to maintain such a fine balance. The action has to be broad enough to be funny but realistic enough to be affecting. Tropper pulls it off beautifully. This Is Where I Leave You is smart, raunchy, touching, keenly observed, and very funny. The last few days I found myself missing my subway stop, lingering too long over my morning coffee, and worst (or best) of all reading Tropper’s novel when I should have been writing my own. Highly recommended.

Categories: Book Reviews    Tags:

Cormac McCarthy: “My Perfect Day”

“Your future gets shorter, and you recognize that. In recent years, I have had no desire to do anything but work and be with [my son] John. I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.”

— Cormac McCarthy, asked how aging has affected his work

I’m young yet, younger than McCarthy anyway, but I feel the same way. I don’t want to waste a single day on anything but work and my kids, as my vacation-deprived wife will confirm for you.

Categories: Writers    Tags: ·

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Swimming under water”

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from an undated letter to his daughter Scottie, reprinted in The Crack-Up (1945)

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Ted Kooser: “Daddy Longlegs”

Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,
a life rides, sealed in a small brown pill
that skims along over the basement floor
wrapped up in a simple obsession.
Eight legs reach out like the master ribs
of a web in which some thought is caught
dead center in its own small world,
a thought so far from the touch of things
that we can only guess at it. If mine,
it would be the secret dream
of walking alone across the floor of my life
with an easy grace, and with love enough
to live on at the center of myself.

Ted Kooser

You can watch Kooser read this poem on video here.

Categories: Poetry    Tags: ·

Book 3 Update: The Final Push

Bates Reading Room - BPL

Toward the end, writing a novel is a race against the clock. Deadlines that once seemed absurdly far off suddenly loom into view. The story itself demands that you write faster, too, with more urgency, so that the reader will feel the acceleration and she will be pulled along with you to the finish. That is the stage of writing I am entering now, and I am dreading it.

I am behind schedule, as usual. It seems unlikely I will make my internal deadline of January 1 for a completed manuscript, but I am going to kill myself trying. The real deadline, when the manuscript is actually due on my editor’s desk (well, in her email inbox), is April 1, and the cost of missing it — the loss of my publishers’ trust, the loss of future prospects — is simply too high for a midlist, erratically productive writer like me to survive at this point in my career. So the internal deadline remains January 1. That should leave me enough time for rewriting and polishing. Alas, November and December will not be much fun for me.

The good news is that the book itself is working. I have never been one of those writers who feel, as many claim to, that the characters come alive and act on their own while the writer merely watches, furiously writing down the action like a medium at a séance. It is always work for me, always an uphill push. Still, when it is right, something happens: the material feels rich, it generates ideas organically, the direction of the story becomes more obvious. With this book, thankfully, that something has happened.

In terms of pages, I am probably only halfway through the manuscript, maybe a bit further. In terms of story, I have reached act three, the final build-up to the climax. The story concerns a Boston prosecutor named Andy Barber whose teenage son is accused of murder. (A film producer who read the existing manuscript described it in perfect Hollywood-speak as Presumed Innocent meets Ordinary People, which, I am embarrassed to say, is pretty close.) As act three opens, the case goes to trial. I have never written a courtroom sequence before, but I am confident I can. I have been in court many, many times in my prior life as a prosecutor. More important, the courtroom is such an inherently dramatic arena and trials are so scripted and rules-bound that there is a ready structure for the storytelling. So again, this is all to the good.

I continue to labor over the title. The working title remains Blood Guilty but I detest it. This is a bigger problem than you might imagine. The title crystallizes the story in my mind. Not having a title makes the whole project feel foggy and uncertain to me. I have churned up alternatives — Seed, The Good Father, In Our Blood, many others — but each seems worse than the last. It is some comfort to remember that Fitzgerald never liked the title The Great Gatsby for his masterpiece and he tried to change it right up to the time the book went to press. The Great Gatsby, it must be admitted, is not a great title, so maybe this is less of an issue than it seems at the moment.

That is where it stands. I am turning for home. It is a difficult stage in the process, but then they’re all difficult. I am back to writing every morning at the Boston Public Library reading room (pictured above), though my old quota of a thousand words a day is not going to get it done anymore. I am now just writing as much as I can every day until I run out of gas.

I am not complaining. It is a privilege to do what I do. There are only a handful of full-time novelists on the planet, meaning novelists who make a decent living at it without the need for a day job. So I am blessed and I understand that. Still, these next eight weeks are going to suck.

Photo: “Study” (main reading room of the Boston Public Library) by Haydnseek (link).

Categories: My Books · Writing    Tags: · ·

Walt Whitman for Levi’s

I was struck by this ad for Levi’s jeans, which features a few stanzas from Walt Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” If you dislike the spot, I understand. The bullshit factor is high even by advertising standards: half-naked slackers as “new American pioneers,” hawking these surpassingly American jeans that are actually made overseas, using a poet who probably never heard of blue jeans. And all this solemnity over … pants. But to me this looks like an ad for Whitman, not Levi’s. When was the last time poetry looked this cool or sounded this stirring? Whether the ad will actually sell jeans I have no idea. But it will get plenty of people asking, “What is that poem?” And that is a very good thing.

By the way, the actor reading these lines is Will Geer, recorded in 1957, before he became Grandpa Walton.

Categories: Poetry    Tags: · ·