Tag Archives: Richard Ford

Does Your Main Character Need a Job?

One of the major decisions a writer faces when creating an initial character sketch is what job to give to the main character. This is a crucial decision and must not be taken lightly.

Why does a main character need a specific job? What difference does it make whether she is an accountant or a lawyer? The occupation a writer chooses for her main character speaks to the character’s values and identity. It should also tie into the story. So how does the writer choose a job for her main character?

In some cases, the choice is genre-driven. In a mystery, the main character will be a detective or a private investigator or involved in law enforcement in some way. In a spy thriller, the main character will be, um, a spy. Duh! In a legal thriller, the choice of a lawyer is a no-brainer. In other genres, the choices can be far more complicated.

In Richard Ford’s classic Frank Bascombe trilogy, the main character went through a major career change. In the first book, The Sportswriter, Bascombe is, well, a sportswriter. However, in the second book, Independence Day, Bascombe transitioned to real estate. Sportswriting to real estate? What a strange and unlikely transition, one might think. Ford makes it work. Bascombe’s writing career is on a downward arc, as his marriage falls apart and he becomes unglued. Real estate works for Frank. He gains satisfaction from helping people achieve the American Dream of home ownership and this career gives Ford the opportunity to make a number of insightful observations on the way a person’s identity and worth are bound up in the homes they choose to buy.

Similarly, in John Updike’s “Rabbit” series, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom sells a kitchen gadget and then works for a printing company. A former high school basketball star, Rabbit finds his work and his marriage unfulfilling. By the third book, he has moved on to work for his father-in-law’s car dealership. This career choice allows for rich scenes as Updike chronicles the ups and downs of the auto industry tied to fluctuations in the price and availability of oil in the 1970s.

Anne Tyler has come up with some of the most interesting occupations for her characters. In “A Patchwork Planet,” the main character, Barnaby, works for a company called Rent-A-Back, and his job is to move heavy furniture for elderly clients. This job speaks volumes about the burdens poor Barnaby carries. In “The Accidental Tourist,” writer Macon Leary writes travel guides, even though he hates to travel. By traveling, Macon is running away from his problems and he accidentally finds love in the person of the woman he hires to train his dog.

How does a writer choose an occupation for her main character. Here are some questions to ponder:

  • How does the choice of occupation support the theme?
  • Is the character’s job consistent with his character?
  • Is the job of the main character important to the story? In genres like mystery, this is clearly the case.
  • Does the character need a job at all? A character who is enduring a period of prolonged unemployment or bouncing from job to job can provide a number of story possibilities?

How do you choose a job for your main character?

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Favorite Book of 2012: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I read a number of outstanding books in 2012. Among these were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers, Defending Jacob by William Landay, and Canada by Richard Ford. However, my favorite book of 2012 was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

This is a highly subjective judgment, but, for me, a great book not only must have great characters and tell a compelling story, but it must say something important about the human condition. Chabon’s book does all of these things and more. It holds a mirror up to the times in which we live. The 2012 national election was proof yet again that we live in a divided nation, with 51 percent of voters supporting President Obama and 49 percent voting for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet, political analysts noted a subtle, but permanent change in the electorate in 2012. No longer will elections be decided by older white males. The demographics of the country are changing. As I write this, Congressional leaders are deadlocked over a fix to the fiscal cliff, further evidence of what divides us.

Chabon acknowledges this diversity in Telegraph Avenue, but his message is one of hope. Telegraph Avenue is the fault line between a hardscrabble neighborhood of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley campus. Chabon mines the rich diversity of this area as the setting serves to underscore the themes of racial, gender and political divisions, but he is not just interested in what divides us, but what brings us together.

The story centers on business partners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a barely surviving used record store called Brokeland Records. The store is threatened when superstar athlete-turned-business-tycoon Gibson Goode,  proposes a mega entertainment complex for the neighborhood, including a used record store that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

One of the major aspects of this novel is music, specifically the soul music of the 1970s. At one point, Goode laments the changes he has witnessed in music. “The world of black music has undergone in many ways a kind of apocalypse, you follow me,” says Goode. “You look at the landscape of the black idiom in music now, it is post-apocalyptic. Jumbled-up mess of broken pieces. Shards and samples. Gangsters running in tribes. That is no disrespect to the music of the past two decades. Taken on its own terms I love it…But face it, I mean, a lot has been lost. Ellington, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, we got nobody of that caliber even hinted at in black music nowadays. I’m talking about genius, composers, know what I’m saying.”

Goode is talking about soul music, but he could just as easily be discussing politics, civility, or the state of our nation as a whole.

Later in the story, Nat Jaffe reflects on the unlikely business partnerships that he and his white wife, Aviva, have struck with Archy Stallings and his wife, Gwen Shanks. The breakup of their partnerships, he concluded, had more to do with class than race. “The differences in class and education among the four of them canceled out without regard for stereotype or cultural expectation: Aviva and Archy both had been raised by blue-collar aunts who worked hard to send them to lower-tier colleges. The white guy was the high school dropout , the black woman upper middle-class and expensively educated. It just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to hold up the world.”

In the end Stallings has an epiphany of sorts and the reader is left with a feeling that things will be okay, that this volatile cast of characters will figure out a way to get along.

What was your favorite book of 2012?

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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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Author Spotlight: Richard Ford

It’s rare when a reader comes across a protagonist who seems to speak directly to him. For me, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, the main character of his trilogy of novels, was such a character. Perhaps it’s because Frank was a middle-aged male who did a lot of thinking about the world, his connections to the people in it, his emotional state, and the right way to live.

Ford is best known for his three novels that feature Bascombe: The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. Bascombe is the embodiment of the rootless, restless, middle-aged male—a character who evokes those of John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom from the Rabbit series), Saul Bellow (Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift) and Phillip Roth (American Pastoral).

In The Sportswriter, Bascombe’s marriage falls apart after the death of his son, one of three children of he and his wife, Anne, referred to as X in the first novel. The story takes place over Thanksgiving weekend. Frank is visiting the family of the woman he is dating and has arranged an interview with a former Detroit Lions football player who was paralyzed during a game—an interview that is as disastrous as it is hilarious. Much of the novel—and the sequels—take place in Bascombe’s head. He is a man who seems to crave the security of a marriage and family, and yet he finds himself out on his own, trying in his own way to maintain some semblance of a relationship with his ex-wife, son and daughter.

Imbued with an intense introspective quality, Frank looks for meaning in the ordinary routines of daily life. Having suffered the unimaginable horror of losing a son and a marriage, Frank avoids emotional entanglements. After writing an acclaimed first novel, Frank finds he cannot write fiction and becomes a sportswriter. Ford wrote fiction before turning to a career as a sportswriter for the short-lived Inside Sports magazine.

In Independence Day, Frank tries to connect with his emotionally fragile son, Paul, by taking him on a Fourth of July weekend tour of the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame, a trip that starts with the best intentions and ends in utter disaster. A related subplot focuses on Frank’s new career as a real estate agent, a well-chosen profession as it underscores how people’s hopes and dreams are often bound up in the homes they buy.

The Lay of the Land finds Frank somewhat more at peace with himself. Still selling real estate, Frank is in a committed relationship and he is attempting to make up for lost time with his daughter, Clarice, who we learn is a lesbian. In the third book, Frank seems to have learned how to get over the things he has lost in his life. As Ford once said, “The art of living your life has a lot to do with getting over loss. The less the past haunts you, the better.” With Frank no doubt in his mind, Ford observed, “Life is the thing that happens…a sort of acceptance that is not incompatible with aspiration, or self-knowledge, or joy. Frank wants to fail less often, even at the expense of trying less hard, and that seems to me a philosophy of life that a person could actually live.”

Ford has a singular devotion to his craft. He once said, ”A lot of people could be novelists,” he says, “‘if they were willing to devote their lives to their own responses to things.”

A native of Mississippi, Ford received his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California, Irvine, where one of his professors was E.L. Doctorow. His first published novel was A Piece of My Heart, which he followed with The Ultimate Good Luck.

Ford’s newest novel, Canada, will be published in June. I can’t wait to read it.

 

 

 

 

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Sue Miller to the Rescue

It must be the NaNoWriMo effect, but writer’s block is on my mind these days. Last week, I wrote about the “creative pause,” the positive effect  a short break can have on stimulating your creativity. Stepping away from my work in progress when I’m stuck has worked for me. Try it sometime.

Another winning strategy for unlocking my creativity is to have a “go to” author to read. I have several, depending on the nature of the story in progress. In my NaNoWriMo novel, there is a romantic relationship between the main character and a woman who, years earlier, was accused of murdering his baseball teammate and best friend. Through a series of circumstances, the main character tracked down the woman years later and they ended up in a relationship. I was having trouble writing the scenes where the two characters were together. I turned to author Sue Miller.

There are few authors better than Sue Miller at writing these types of intimate scenes between two people involved in a complicated relationship. A lot of writing coaches and bloggers talk about authors who pay attention to the small, precise details that make a scene come alive and propel a story forward. That’s one of Sue Miller’s greatest strengths.

An author and creative writing professor, Miller has written a number of best-selling novels. These include The Good Mother (1986), Inventing the Abbotts (1987), While I Was Gone (1999), The Senator’s Wife (2008) and The Lakeshore Limited (2010). She writes in the genre I like to read and the one in which I like to write. Her stories focus on families in conflict.

In an online interview, Miller lamented the decline in the number of novels that centered on families. “It seems both a more fragile and more important institution than it ever has been, more multifarious, more invented, as it goes along, more necessary. It’s been too easily dismissed as the subject or setting of serious fiction. American fiction in particular was for awhile pleased to think it had moved beyond the family, left it behind as a kind of low topic, suited only to women and children. But it comes around again and again…”

When I got stuck writing a scene for my NaNoWriMo novel, I drove to my local library and checked out While I Was Gone. The protagonist is Jo Becker, a veterinarian who is happily married to a minister. They have raised three daughters together and finally have an empty nest. Jo is content but feels somewhat unsettled, when a man from her past re-enters her life. He triggers memories of a time of personal upheaval, capped by the mysterious murder of her closest friend.

Read more about Sue Miller here.

Miller is among several “go to” authors I read, a list that includes Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, and Alice McDermott. I have read and re-read their work, with an eye toward how they set up scenes, develop characters, move the story along, and deal with large themes.

Eight days to go and I’m at 46,200 words.

Do you have a ‘go to’ author you read when you get writer’s block?

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