Monthly Archives: February 2015

Book Review: “Rodin’s Lover,” by Heather Webb

Heather Webb’s second novel, “Rodin’s Lover,” is historical fiction, but it defies easy categorization. Rodin’s Lover tells the stirring story of the art-fueled, stormy romance between French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and his student, muse, and lover, Camille Claudel.  This story is much more than a romance. Told from Camille’s point-of-view, Rodin’s Lover chronicles both Camille’s struggles with her inner demons and her efforts to gain acceptance as a woman in a male-dominated field and society.

They met in 1883, but Camille’s story began much earlier. Webb takes the reader through Camille’s childhood in Villeneuve, where she showed an early interest in sculpture. Her mother disapproved of her interest in sculpture, but her father supported it. Eventually, her father arranged for Camille to move to Paris with her ultra-rigid mother, brother, and sister in 1881. She pursued studies in sculpture under Afred Boucher, who introduced Camille to Rodin.

Webb skilfully brings to life the sights and sounds of Paris in the late 1800s, from the gaslit streets and cafes to the ateliers where sculptors did their work, often using nude models.  What also comes through is Camille’s passion and devotion to her art, which borders on obsession. 

Similarly, Rodin was obsessed with Camille and pursued her relentlessly. While Camille resisted him at first, they began an affair that lasted for years, but he refused to leave Rose Beuret, his longtime companion whom he married late in life.

After the affair between Rodin and Camille ended in 1892, they remained in contact. Eventually, Camille descended into madness and was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1913. She spent 30 yearrs in confinement and died in 1943. Much of the book is devoted to the affair with Rodin and Camille’s struggle to attain recognition for her art.

Much of this gripping story takes place within the intense, perceptive mind of Camille and this is where Webb’s well-paced narrative shines. Webb’s tension-filled scenes dramatically show the tumltuous relationship between Camille and her mentor.

Rodin’s Lover is a fitting follow-up to Webb’ excellent debut, Becoming Josephine.    

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Reverse Engineering a Character

I came across the term “reverse engineering” when reading a story about the development of the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” The term was used to describe the process of taking the Saul Goodman character in “Breaking Bad,” and developing a back story to trace how he became a sleazy lawyer for drug kingpins, assorted con artists, and scammers. In the first episode we learn Saul’s real name is Jimmy McGill. In the opening episode, Jimmy is scraping out a meager living by taking public defender cases. He drives a rickety little car, and lives in his tiny office in the back of a nail salon.

The process of taking a fully evolved character and constructing a narrative to explain how he reached his status in a story is a fascinating challenge. I was intrigued with the idea of “reverse engineering.” If a writer is fortunate, a fully formed character will present himself, but for most of us, the process of constructing a multi-dimensional character takes a lot of work.

So how does a writer “reverse engineer” a character? First, let’s look at the definition of reverse engineering. According to a definition posted in Wikipedia, reverse engineering is “the process of extracting knowledge or design information from anything man-made and reproducing it or reproducing anything based on the extracted information.”

So what do viewers know about Saul Goodman by the end of “Breaking Bad?” He was corrupt. He attracted a clientele that was not exactly comprised of model citizens. His clients were on the fringes of society. They operated in a dark nether world. He helped criminals launder their money. He could even help a criminal to disappear if the heat got too close. He had a mordant sense of humor. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but it didn’t seem to bother him, at least on the outside.

Given that description, if I was designing this character, my first question would be this: Was Saul/Jimmy always corrupt? Did something happen early in his life or his career that led him to take that path? What was it? Did someone put the fear of God in him? Did he start with small sins and then work his way to larger misdeeds? Who in his life influenced him the most? In what ways? What was his upbringing like? Were his parents bad people? Was there alcoholism in his family? Cheating? What was his relationship with his family? Siblings? What was the turning point for him?

One can see how just be asking a few simple questions, story possibilities have emerged. The process of developing this prequel is not unlike creating a back story for a character in fiction. When writers come up with a character, they don’t write their story from childhood (unless it’s a Young Adult novel). The character is introduced to the reader “in medias res,” in the middle of the narrative. The character at the beginning of a novel will soon face a problem and the reader knows the character will face mounting challenges to reach her goal. The reader doesn’t know the character’s full history, but the writer should.

Here are some questions to address when reverse engineering a character (this will sound a lot like a character sketch) :

–What drives or motivates the character? Is it an emotional need? Where did this motivation come from?

–What was the character’s family life like? What were the character’s socio-economic circumstances growing up? How did the character’s upbringing shape who the character became in the story?

–What is a key turning point in the character’s life? What does it reveal about the character? How can the writer show this key turning point?

–What actions or events have led the character to her current status?

–What crises has the character faced? What key decisions has the character made in response to these crises?

–What or who does the character fear? How can the writer show the character in a situation where she must face that fear?

–What is the character’s key relationship? How did it develop? What is the source of conflict in this relationship?

–Who are the character’s adversaries? How did they become adversaries? Can the writer create a scene that shows that?

Take your main character in your work in progress and answer these questions in relation to that character. Think about scenes you can develop to show the answers. Re-read a favorite book and pay attention to how the author “engineered” the main character.

What do you think of the idea of reverse engineering in fiction writing?

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Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

Before he wrote his mega-selling novel, The Fault In Our Stars, young adult author John Green penned this 2008 gem that featured Colin Singleton, a child prodigy whose distinction was that he had been dumped 19 times by women named Katherine.

It was a difficult proposition for the reader to buy, but Green pulled it off. Katherine 19 dumped Colin at the end of his senior year in high school. Heartbroken and adrift, Colin embarked on a road trip with his best friend, Hassan.

A major theme in the book was the desire of young people to matter–to someone else and to the world. Colin had a desperate desire to matter; he wanted his life to have significance. Green would later return to this notion in TFIOS through the character, Augustus Waters, whose greatest fear is oblivion.

Obsessed with figuring out why he can’t make a relationship work with the various Katherines, Colin turned to math to try to derive the answer. He developed the Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability and plotted graphs in a notebook showing the peaks and valleys of the relationship between the Dumper and the Dumpee. What the reader knew and what Colin eventually figured out was that math and science cannot explain why people are attracted to one another and why some relationships last while others do not.

While this might seem like an obvious lesson for the reader, the journey Green takes us on is so much fun and Colin is such an engaging character that it is worth the ride. At least for me. Along the way, Colin and Hassan discover the purported gravesite of Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I, in, of all places, a town called Gutshot, Tennessee. That’s also where the due meet the irrepressible Lindsey Lee Wells and Hollis, her mysterious mother, the industrial mogul who employs the entire town.

What sustained this book was the verbal interplay between Colin and Hassan and Colin’s odd assortment of talents, which include an affinity for anagrams, learning multiple languages and his knowledge of odd historical facts. He is a lovable oddball and his coming of age tale provides valuable lessons about the nature of relationships.

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