Monthly Archives: June 2012

Book Review: “Canada,” by Richard Ford

Readers who pick up Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, expecting a Frank Bascombe character are in for a surprise. Canada is far removed from the Frank Bascombe trilogy in tone, setting, characters, and subject matter.

At its heart, Canada is about crossing borders—not the physical one that separates the two nations. The border theme is at work on many levels. The main character, Dell, crosses the border between a child’s innocence and the sober realities of life. Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, cross the border between normalcy and desperation, as evidenced by the shocking bank robbery they pull off that leads to their demise and destroys their family. Berner, Dell’s twin sister, crosses a border of her own, leaving the house after her parents’ arrest for the independence she craves.

The book’s dramatic opening line sets the stage: “First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Bev Parsons has just retired from the Air Force after twenty years, but he is ill-prepared for civilian life in Great Falls, Montana. After failing as a car salesman, he gets involved in a scheme with a group of Native Americans to sell stolen beef. When a deal goes awry, the Native Americans come after Bev for the money, which leads to the ill-fated decision to enlist his wife’s aid to rob a bank in North Dakota. When his parents are arrested, Dell is taken by a friend of his mother’s to a desolate outpost in Saskatchewan to escape a bleak fate as a ward of the state. Life on the harsh prairie is not much better. Dell works at a hotel for the mysterious Arthur Remlinger, who is on the run from his own past.

Dell is forced to grow up quickly, as he sees and experiences things no 15-year-old should. He learns to adapt, to cope with what seems an impossible life. After the bank robbery that destroyed his family, Dell reflects, “It’s best to see our life and the activities that ended it, as two sides of one thing that have to be held in mind simultaneously to properly understand—the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous–one so close to the other. Any different way of looking at our life threatens to disparage the crucial , rational, commonplace part we lived, the part in which everything makes sense to those on the inside—and without which none of this is worth hearing about.”

His parents’ disastrous choices leave Dell in a conundrum. “For reasons of our parents’ disastrous choices, I believe I’m both distrustful of normal life and in equal parts desperate for it.”

As she drives Dell across the border into Canada, Mildred Remlinger tells him, “Your life’s going to be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present. Don’t rule parts out, and be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing.”

For most of the people he meets, Dell discovers crossing the border into Canada didn’t change their lives, a fact Arthur Remlinger acknowledges. “You might as well go back. I would if I were you. Everybody should enjoy a second chance.”

What he finally discovers is that life is about crossing borders. “My conceit is always “crossing a border;” from a way of living that doesn’t work toward one that does. It can also be about crossing a line and never being able to come back.”

Ford chooses to tell the tale from the perspective of Dell as a 66-year-old retired teacher living in Canada. This perspective lends a maturity and a depth to the character. We see Dell develop as he must endure harrowing circumstances, as seen from a sober, mature lens.

This is a novel the reader must read slowly and savor. Dell’s remarkable journey is its strength. His survival gives him the gift of wisdom. As he looks back on his life, Dell states, “What I know is, you have a better chance in life—of surviving it—if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find.”

Canada showcases Ford at his best. I highly recommend it.

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Who Are Your Favorite Authors?

A blogger recently posed the question, “Who are your favorite authors?” It’s not an easy one to answer. Tastes can change as readers are exposed to different authors. J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, kindled my interest in literature. I was a teen-ager when I read it the first time. Until then I read mostly sports biographies: The Mickey Mantle Story as told to (insert name of author), The Phil Rizzuto Story as told to…These books could hardly be considered literature, though with the rose-colored treatment these athletics received, they could well be classified as fiction.

In my 20’s I discovered the work of John Updike, Philip Roth and, later, Saul Bellow—three of the most gifted and prolific writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the 1980s, after watching the movie, The Accidental Tourist, I read the novel on which it was based. I was hooked on Anne Tyler’s work. She has become one of my favorite authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. I was drawn not only to the excellent writing and craftsmanship, but also the subject matter. Stories about family dynamics have always intrigued and fascinated me. The family is the basic social unit. Everybody starts out life as a member of a family. These writers explored the complex relationships and frailties of families in an original and authentic way.

When I began writing fiction in earnest in the mid-1990s, I gravitated toward family sagas. I felt at home writing in that genre. Though I prefer reading family sagas, I believe it’s important for writers to read widely among all genres. I also believe fiction writers should read non-fiction books on a regular basis. Nonfiction can be a good source of research for novels, but it also informs and enlightens the reader about the issues of the day.

Today, I read an eclectic list of authors, including Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Jennifer Haigh, Richard Ford, Sue Miller, Anita Shreve, and Richard Russo, among many others. I enjoy discovering new writers, including self-published authors.

Reading is a continual source of joy and fulfillment. It will enrich your life.

Who are your favorite authors?

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When Is It Time to Kill Your Novel?

Nearly every writer will face a moment when he must decide what to do about a work-in-progress that is not publishable. That decision is much tougher when the writer has put much time and sweat equity into the work.

I recently abandoned my work-in-progress, a political novella entitled, “Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media.” It wasn’t because of the long, unwieldy title. I killed the project after doing a thorough read-through of my first draft. I made a number of comments in the margin and then conducted a candid self-assessment of the work. Two issues were decisive factors for me. First, the story needed a lot of work. It took writing the first draft for me to discover the essence of the story, but when I did, I realized all but about a half-dozen scenes either had to go or needed massive revisions. And, I needed to write a number of new scenes to embellish the story and the theme.

I could have fixed the story, though it would have taken a lot of work. The bigger problem, though, was the main character. I never felt I got the “voice” right and I didn’t know how to fix that. Compounding that issue was the fact the story was outside my genre and my comfort zone. I’m not suggesting writers should never venture from their comfort zones. I found it liberating and fun. But in the final analysis, the story has to hang together and all the elements must work.

When you have doubts about your work-in-progress, how do you know when to kill your novel?

Here are a few suggestions:

You don’t feel passionate about it. It’s hard to generate excitement in the reader if you’re not feeling it.

You know it’s not working and it doesn’t just need a few tweaks, but an overhaul. One caveat: if you have the passion about the story, do try to fix the problems.

You cannot get your main character to work for you. I believe novels are fundamentally built on strong characters, not plot. The main character is the foundation for your story. You must feel confident about your main character.

The story doesn’t work. It’s not believable or it doesn’t hang together and it cannot be repaired.

Here are a few other great tips from guest blogger Marcus Brotherton on Rachelle Gardner’s blog:

http://www.rachellegardner.com/2011/10/a-time-to-kill-your-novel/

Have you ever killed a work-in-progress? What were the deciding factors in your decision?

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Those Dreaded Cliches

They infiltrate your manuscripts like fungus. They creep into your writing without you even realizing it. What am I talking about? Those dreaded cliches.

We all know writers should avoid cliches–I was going to write, ‘like the plague’ but I stopped myself. It’s a habit that’s hard to break because cliches are so pervasive, but they are insidious and harmful to your writing.

A cliche will cause an agent to stop reading your manuscript or your query letter. So how do we stop ourselves from using cliches? A writer must have a self-awareness when she finds herself typing a cliche. The writer must stop and think. Is that really the best way to say it? Or is it the easiest. That’s why writers use cliches. When a writer uses a cliche, he is taking the easy way out. Agents and critics know cliches are the signs of a lazy, unimaginative writer.

When I find myself typing a cliche, I pause for a second and think. What’s a better, more original way to say it? How can I summon up more precise language? I’ve often thought writers who avoid using cliches are those who have a great command of the language. They have vast vocabularies and can conjure up just the right word when needed. Michael Chabon is a great example. Read his work and you will discover he has an amazing way of decribing feelings, events, and settings in original, creative ways.

My own view is that the review of the first draft is the time to get all of those cliches out of your system. I don’t spend a lot of time during the first draft in trying to craft the perfect phrase. However, during the first revision, all of those cliches have to go.

It’s a constant battle and one you feel you can never win, but you must fight the urge to use a cliche.

What strategies and tactics do you use to avoid cliches?

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Author Spotlight: Alice McDermott

In a 2006 review of Alice McDermott’s novel After This, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Ms. McDermott gives us an affecting meditation on the consolations and discontents of family life — the centripetal and centrifugal forces that bind husbands and wives, parents and children together and fling them ineluctably apart.”

That astute observation applies to all of her brilliant work. Alice McDermott is a master at the craft, an author who never wastes a single word. Her novels are not long (most are under 300 pages), but are packed with penetrating insights into family, loss of innocence, dreams and disillusion.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Alice McDermott is the author of six novels: A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), Charming Billy (1998), Child of My Heart: A Novel (2002) and After This (2006).

McDermott is best known for Charming Billy, winner of an American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1999. In an interview with National Public Radio, McDermott talked about the character, Billy, who is introduced to the reader at a dinner held in his honor after his funeral. “He died an alcoholic and the book explores his deep and fierce loyalty to the dream his early love represented,” she said. That dream centered on a girl from Ireland, who Billy fell deeply in love with and vowed to marry. His best friend told him a white lie about the girl when Billy asks what happened to her and why she failed to respond to his inquiries. The girl’s ghost haunts Billy all his life, even after he later finds out the harsh truth.

Speaking about Billy, McDermott said, “He’s that stereotypical lovable Irishman, drinks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everyone else has gone home and with tears in his eyes, tells you how much he loves you. He’s a great guy but also he’s drinking himself to death and no one can stop him.”

Charming Billy is “ultimately a novel about faith, and what we believe in and, above all, what we choose to believe in. And I think that Billy in this community is someone who the people around him have to believe a romantic tale about…They need to make something more of his life.”

Her stories are rooted in the Long Island suburbs where McDermott grew up as an Irish-Catholic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The themes of faith and loss run through McDermott’s work. Family members grow up yearning to break free, but them find themselves trapped by circumstances and loyalties, bound to a life they never envisioned. Billy is a dreamer who pines for his lost love in Ireland, while struggling to cope with his every-day existence.

There is a sense of duty and decency to her characters that, in spite of their flaws, evokes sympathy in the reader.

McDermott once described writing as an obsession. In a New York Times interview after That Night was published, she said, ”I suppose I don’t know any other way of living. Not even just making sense of my own life, as I think the narrator of my novel is trying to do with hers. But I just don’t know any other way of getting along in the world…When I’m not writing -and I have considered many times trying something else – I can’t make sense out of anything. I feel the need to make some sense and find some order, and writing fiction is the only way I’ve found that seems to begin to do that. Even if the story or the novel ends up saying there is no sense and there is no order, at least I’ve made that much of an attempt.”

Alice McDermott’s novels make sense out of the frailties and mysteries of family life.

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Should I Read or Write?

I have a confession to make. I read more than I write. I don’t write each day (except during National Novel Writing Month), but I cannot go a day without reading. Writers should read widely across all genres and read nonfiction as well as fiction. Most writers do just that, but many struggle to keep up their reading.

In a guest post on Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog on Writer’s Digest, author Dayna Lorentz made a persuasive case for why writers should read.

In summary, Lorentz gave four reasons: reading nourishes your writing, it builds confidence, it enables revision and it helps the writer to sell by allowing the writer to see where her work fits in among popular novels and genres.

Read Dayna Lorentz’s Writer’s Digest blog post

Writers know they should read, but it’s another activity the writer must fit in amidst writing, keeping up with social media, blogging and marketing.

My best advice is to carve out separate blocks of time for writing and reading. Generally, I write during the late evening and I read right before I go to sleep. Reading helps me to unwind and decompress from my writing session.

Reading can help your writing. By focusing on how writers develop stories and scenes, a writer can unlock her creativity. I find when I am reading a particularly good book, I get energized about my writing.

Stephen King reads 80 books a year. He brings books with him everywhere he goes. If he has a few minutes of down time while waiting on a line, King cracks open a book. I even saw a shot of him reading a book on TV during a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

I’m currently plowing my way through Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. I’m probably spending too much time reading them, but my writing hasn’t suffered.

Reading, like writing, is a habit that is woven into our daily lives. Let’s always take the time to read.

How much do you read? Do you find it difficult to read and keep up with your writing?

 

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Unfinished Novels: When to Pull the Plug?

It’s one thing for a novice writer to abandon a novel. I have two unfinished works that will never see the light of day. It’s another for a writer of Michael Chabon’s prodigious talent to leave a novel unfinished. That was the case with Fountain City, which Chabon abandoned in 1992 after five years.

Chabon began writing Fountain City as a follow-up to his fine 1989 debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The story centered on an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball stadium. After five years, he gave up on the project and then reportedly wrote Wonder Boys in seven months.

As this article in The New York Times points out, Chabon is not alone. It may surprise you to learn that other writers who abandoned novels include Harper Lee, Truman Capote, John Updike, Jennifer Egan, and Saul Bellow, among other famous authors.

Chabon revealed his emotional state during the writing of Fountain City when he published the first four chapters with annotations in McSweeneys 36. “Often when I sat down to work,” he wrote in his introduction, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

He also wrote in the margins of Fountain City: “A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.” It was a novel, he added, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

Chabon elaborated on his reasons for not finishing the novel in an interview with The Atlantic monthly.

One of the greatest benefits is that Fountain City allowed Chabon to write his next novel, Wonder Boys. “Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine that I could have written, or would have been moved to write Wonder Boys without having gone through Fountain City,” he said. “And I stole the greenhouse in that subsequent book clean out of FC. The only part of it I was ever able to salvage.”

Andromeda Romano-Lax discussed unfinished novels, citing her personal experiences among others, in this Huffington Post piece.

Between her first and second published novels, she wrote a different novel and several partial manuscripts. “They weren’t rejected by a publisher,” she wrote. “They didn’t get that far. My first agent—with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice—pulled the plug.”

Romano-Lax mentioned both Chabon’s futile novel and the tortuous experience of Mark Salzman, who was unable to finish his novel and wrote about it in a short book called, The Man in the Empty Boat.

How does a writer know when to abandon a novel in progress? The easy answer is when the writer has exhausted all efforts and the story still isn’t working. That’s not the whole answer. I suspect the real test is when the writer has poured every ounce of energy into the project and just doesn’t feel the passion. That’s the sure sign to give up: the writer lacks enthusiasm for the work. If the writer cannot get excited about a story, there’s no way the reader will.

How do you know when to pull the plug on a novel that’s not working?

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