Tag Archives: Keith Richards

Genre-Bending: What are the Rules?

I recently enjoyed a concert by the Spampinato Brothers, an ensemble that featured Joey Spampinato, bass guitarist and a founding member of the fabulous eclectic band NRBQ. If you’ve never heard the music of NRBQ you’re missing something special. If you didn’t get a chance to see the line-up of the band that featured Spampinato on bass, Al Anderson on lead guitar, Terry Adams on keyboards and Tom Ardolino on drums, you really missed something special.

NRBQ, which is the acronym for the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, has drawn the attention of prominent fans, including Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards, who invited Spampinato to play bass guitar on one of his solo projects. Bonnie Raitt has reportedly called NRBQ the best live band she’s ever seen.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? Music critics have described NRBQ is a genre-bending band, a gifted ensemble that could move effortlessly from rockabilly to jazz to Beach Boys-style pop, to R&B and even country music. Fiction writing gurus warn aspiring authors to stick to one genre. There are solid reasons for this advice. Your genre is your brand. When you think about JK Rowling, Young Adult/fantasy comes to mind. Robert B. Parker? Crime stories. John Grisham? Legal thrillers. You get the picture.

This subject is on my mind lately because my latest project is a radical departure from the genre in which I normally write. My genre is family sagas. That’s what I like to read (though I read widely from a number of genres) and that’s where my comfort zone is as a writer. My self-published novel, Small Change, is the story of two families in the Midwest who become intertwined after meeting each summer at a lake resort in Wisconsin. My three unfinished drafts are likewise family sagas, though one includes a murder-mystery.

Earlier this year, the urge hit me to do something totally outside my genre. I wanted to leave what was familiar and try something totally different. At the time I had been working on a political novella that I eventually abandoned. However, the main character stayed with me. I just had to develop him. The original story was the wrong vehicle, but there was a minor scene in it that had the potential to take this character in a new direction. So I pursued it.

That wasn’t the only leap outside the comfort zone. My good friend, Jamie Beckett, another self-published author, told me he had embarked on a serialized science fiction story consisting of multiple parts that he was going to release, one at a time, on Amazon.com. Another writing colleague was doing the same thing. I was intrigued, especially since I wasn’t sure my new project had the potential as a full-blown novel. So I approached it as a trilogy: three short stories, the succeeding one picking up where the last one left off.

That mature voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me, “This is a bad idea. Stick to what you know.” I usually listen to that voice, but my heart is telling me to plunge forward. I can’t think of a good reason why not. What’s the risk? If I don’t like it, I don’t have to publish it. If I publish it and it takes off, it makes me a much more versatile writer.

Though the conventional wisdom is to stick to a single genre, there are exceptions. Stephen King is one shining example of an author who has branched out. King’s stock-in-trade was horror, but he has expanded his horizons into science fiction and even historical speculative work with his 2011 novel, 11/22/63 about a time traveler who tries to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Of course, King is a huge name. He can afford to do genre-hopping. It’s a much riskier strategy for an unknown author looking to break into publishing. I’ve never advised genre-jumping, but I do believe a writer must follow what’s in his heart. A writer must write about that which stirs him. A writer must follow his passion and if that means writing in a different genre, so what? But a writer must also have the judgment to evaluate his work in other genres. Is it as strong as the work in the writer’s best genre? If so, go with it. If not, every writing experience is a growth opportunity.

What about you? Have you stuck to a single genre? Did you ever have the urge to write outside your genre?

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My Favorite 2011 Book: “Faith,” by Jennifer Haigh

There were a lot of great books published in 2011. I enjoyed The Adults, by Alison Espach, The Red Thread, by Ann Hood, The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, and The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. My favorite book published in 2011 was Faith, by Jennifer Haigh.

Faith tackles big issues. The plot centers on the sexual molestation scandals in the Boston Archdiocese, but the story explores family secrets, the role of religion in family life, loyalty, compassion, and those opposing twins, faith and doubt. The main character is Sheila McCann, a lapsed Catholic whose half-brother, Father Arthur Breen, is accused of molesting a young boy. The main character conducts her own investigation, which is described in a dispassionate manner. While Sheila has doubts about the church, her faith in her brother is also shaken.

The story centers on the events of the Spring of 2002, the height of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston. Father Breen was abruptly summoned to the Cardinal of Boston’s Residence on Good Friday. He was shown a letter from a law firm that told of charges against him and the Archdiocese placed him on administrative leave. His mother, whose life revolved around the church and her oldest son, refused to believe the charges, but was nonetheless crushed. Her brother, Mike McCann, launched his own ill-fated investigation and became convinced his brother was guilty.

Haigh skillfully peels off the layers behind the events leading up to the charges against Father Breen and the aftermath, while at the same time probing the family’s difficult and complex history. Sheila related a story about how she found out about the charges from Mike, who thought their mother had already told her. Sheila reflected on her family in this brilliant passage by Haigh, “Evasion comes naturally in my tribe, this loose jumble of McGann, Devine and Breen. The reasons for this are not so mysterious. My father is a man of shameful habits. My mother is lace-curtain Irish. She will settle for correctness, or the appearance of it; but in her heart she wants only to be good. The space between them is crisscrossed with silent bridges, built of half-truths and suppressions. The chasm beneath is deep and wide.”

Sheila then offered further insights into her family’s history of deception. “Those same bridges exist across the generations: my mother and her parents, my father and his. On both sides, we are a family of open secrets. When I was a child they enclosed my innocence like a tourniquet. Without knowing quite how I knew it, I understood what might be said, and what must be kept quiet. If from the outside the rules appeared arbitrary, from the inside they were perfectly clear.”

Later, when Mike pressed his sister for proof behind her opinion that Arthur was innocent of the charges, she said, “‘Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe.’ It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form it is a choice.”

Haigh’s novel looks at the child molestation scandal from all dimensions: its effects not only on the victims, but on the accused. It would be easy to write a preachy novel about the subject, but Haigh manages to create a story that is poignant, sad, tragic and at the same time illuminating. Haigh raises legitimate questions regarding the impact of the priest’s life of celibacy on the outbreak of sexual abuse cases. Toward the end of the novel, Sheila reflected, “Like many people, I have wondered: is celibacy to blame? That renunciation of human closeness, of our deepest instincts: is it, in the end, simply too much to ask? Good men–sound, healthy men–can’t make the sacrifice, or don’t want to; has Holy Mother settled for the unsound and unhealthy? Has the Church, ever pragmatic, made do with what was left?”

Father Breen’s tragic story could be interpreted as the story of the church or the story of any family that refused to face its darkest secrets. As Sheila reflects, “Art’s story is, to me, the story of my family, with all its darts and dodges and mysterious omissions.”

Haigh, who lives in the Boston area, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Condition, as well as Baker Towers, winner of the 2006 PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. She also wrote Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Haigh’s short stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications.

My favorite non-fiction book of 2011 was Keith Richards’ Life. You don’t have to be a fan of rock music or the Rolling Stones (I am a fan of both) to appreciate this spirited autobiography, which offers keen insights into the life of one of rock and roll’s most colorful and enduring figures.

What was your favorite book of 2011 and why?

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:

Fiction

The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Non-fiction

Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?

 

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