It’s the year 2000 and a cache of documents from the 17th century written in Portuguese, Hebrew and English has been discovered in a London suburb. With the help of a graduate assistant, an elderly female history professor begins to uncover the mystery of their origins. For her, it’s a last chance to go out on a high note; for him, it’s a distraction from a Ph.D. thesis on Shakespeare that’s not going well.
But The Weight of Ink is not just about that discovery and what it
reveals about the past, although what they learn is quite startling. Instead,
Kadish tells us the story of the people who composed and preserved the
documents themselves. Dry? Pedantic? Just the opposite.
In today’s environment of openness and explicitness, when virtually anything can and will be said and written, it’s a logical assumption that our level of communication and understanding is higher than ever—that very little is left to be revealed.
This has always intuitively seemed wrong to me, but it was the happy coincidence of reading Andrew Sean Greer’s best-selling novel, Less, and Anthony Trollope’s 1867 opus, Phineas Finn, more or less together, that helped me understand why.
If you’re not familiar with Trollope, or with
Victorian writing generally (or, for that matter, with Henry James, the primary
link between 19th and 20th century aesthetics and
sensibilities), it helps to know that these novels are really, really long.
“I write to make sense of my life.” —John Cheever
I’ve been reading Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, and it’s been extremely illuminating in many ways. John Cheever, considered one of the best 20th Century short story writers, struggled at times, as most writers do, to trust his impulses in creating short stories and novels. Many of his works first appeared in the New Yorker, and for much of that time, William Maxwell, long-time editor at that magazine, was both his good friend and editor. This relationship eventually became a problem for them both.
Maxwell, a fine writer himself, wore blinders when his writers attempted to move beyond the traditional realist fiction that he favored. At a critical time in Cheever’s life and career, Maxwell refused to publish any Cheever stories that didn’t fit into this narrow groove, causing Cheever to doubt his craft.
Jerusalem has been called many things. “City of Secrets” probably not until that is Stewart O’Nan chose that title for his 2016 novel of the tumultuous years in the “Holy Land” after the end of the Second World War.
The title implies the story is about the city of Jerusalem, which to a large extent it is, but it’s primarily about one member of a group of people campaigning to get Great Britain to fulfill its 1917 promise that the land west of the Jordan River become a homeland for the Jewish people.
O’Nan assigns his protagonist
the single un-Jewish name “Brand.” Brand is a Holocaust survivor who makes his
way through the blockade set up by the British to prevent Jewish refugees from
the Holocaust from reaching the Holy Land beyond the small annual quota.
Do you have a new book? Are you working on one? If so, please let me know.
I’m offering this call to help publicize new writers and writing projects here on Late Last Night Books. I’ll even help with a not-so-newly published book.
There’s no gimmick. I’m looking for writers to interview in future blog posts. Whatever your write or wrote or are writing, you almost certainly qualify.
Any kind of writing is fair game: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, translations, and anything else involving putting words together. I’d love to know more about what you’re doing.
I’m offering up this space to writers in need of publicity once again because, frankly, the well has run dry.
These days many of us are glued to the news as conflicts near and far are reported with up to the minute details. Can you imagine then how it must have felt to residents of Dubno in Soviet occupied Poland in June 1941 to hear rumors that Germany was about to invade? Jewish families in particular had few if any choices to assure their survival. In one family a young man decided to ride his bicycle to a near-by town to learn what he could. For Wolf Kogul that was the beginning of years struggling to survive war, tragic loss and future guilt.
Each story of that time adds
concrete knowledge of those terrible years, bringing the truth of specificity
that history books can only generalize about.
Let’s start with the Associated Writing Programs Conference, since that’s the one most US writers are familiar with. It’s the biggest, the glitziest, with superstars like Margaret Atwood and Karen Russell giving keynotes, and–so one is told–it’s a great place to ‘network’, which actually means, as far as I can gather, to behave like a salesperson, using sycophancy, your natural oodles of charm (it’s well known that fiction writers are captivating extroverts, isn’t it?) to sell–well, yourself. Hmm… isn’t that a teeny bit like, well (am I still allowed to pronounce this word?) prostitution? Not that there’s anything wrong with prostitution, of course! But in fact, for most writers, AWP is an utter waste of money (especially) and time. It is, to use a British expression, rubbish.
Do writers read differently than non-writers, and if so, what do they do that is different, and can non-writers benefit from the difference? The answers to those questions is ‘yes,’ ‘I’ll explain shortly,’ and ‘yes’ again.
To put it simply, writers observe how a novel is put together as they read the story. What writers observe and how that can add to one’s reading pleasure is what I’m about to explain using a novel by Jeffrey Deaver as my model example.
Deaver, who keynoted at two
Washington/Maryland writers’ conferences in recent years, is a meticulous
plotter. He spends as much time researching and plotting each of his novels as
he spends in the writing. One reason is that he writes thrillers.
My brother, Larry Haavik, is a fine musician who defines music as an “adventure for the ear.” I recently attended his two lectures on the history of jazz. He talked about how from the earliest times, people have used sticks, animal skins and other materials to make music, gradually expanding and transforming their repertoire as they sought new sounds and new adventures for the ear. Exploring Longer scales, more beats per measure, unusual instruments, different rhythms, and other variations all contribute.
The same, of course, applies to art as painters seek new ways to paint the world and people around them. We can easily see how photography made realistic interpretations boring. The artist seeking new adventures in paint moved on to impressionism, expressionism, and so on to explore new ways of presenting the world around them.
Roz Morris: We’re both writers. We’ve both taught and mentored authors as well. I find it’s a double-edged sword. Getting involved in another person’s creative process can be draining because you want to do your best for them.
Garry Craig Powell: It’s incredibly hard not to be drained by it—and that’s one of the best arguments I can think of not to become a creative writing teacher.
RM: Do you find it’s a struggle to protect your own creative mojo?
GCP: It’s a constant struggle, and most teachers fail to do so. During term-time, my own creative and intellectual energies were almost entirely absorbed by my students’ work. Sometimes, especially when working with highly-motivated, talented graduate students, that was worthwhile.
Serendipity and Writers’ Conferences
The annual conference of the Maryland Writers’ Association was held two weeks ago. For a writer like me, this and other writers’ conferences offer a slew of opportunities and the serendipity of meeting new people and old friends–all at a relatively low cost.
The keynote speakers alone were worth the price at the MWA conference. Chuck Sambuchino, freelance editor, bestselling book author, and former longtime staffer for Writer’s Digest Books, opened the conference with a half-day session on how to query an agent. For many years he edited the Guide to Literary Agents and the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market.
Keynote speaker Crystal Wilkinson, feminist poet and author, talked about character development and agreed to a quickly arranged and informal “fireside chat” on poetry.
I’ve been thinking recently how writers are like detectives. They need to be constantly observant, picking up clues from what people are wearing, how they gesture, the words they speak, the way they interact with others. They study people’s facial expressions and what they suggest, storing away the data in their memory banks or taking notes in a writer’s journal that they’ll refer to later.
Detectives need to ask questions, the right questions, without arousing the suspect’s suspicions. Writers are also usually operating undercover in this way, querying their family members, friends, and acquaintances on unfamiliar subjects, building up their store of knowledge.
A good detective, like an amateur psychologist, also is skilled at looking beyond surfaces, trying to discover the hidden meanings in words, expressions, gestures, aware that most things have multiple meanings.
Writing these things is pretty much like sending out a message in a bottle. If I’m lucky–and often I’m not–a handful of family and friends might glance at my blogs. I often feel like giving up.
Why should anyone read what I have to say here? Everyone’s busy. I get that. Heck, I don’t read most of what my friends write, so why should they read my stuff?
And why should they read my book review of a book that has already been reviewed countless times?
Honestly, the last thing the world needs is another blog by an obscure writer. But obscure writers with newly published books need blogs about them desperately.
That’s why this month–instead of my usual solipsistic musings on reading, writing, and literature–I’m going to make an offer.
Many great stories start with the author asking themselves, “What if x then y?” And a new story is born. “What if there was a boy who lived in a cupboard who was actually a wizard?” These two simple words have incredible powers in a writer’s mind.
One of the tutors for my Masters programs preaches the power of “what if.” If you’re stuck for a story idea, just start writing out a bunch of what if possibilities. -What if aliens came to the universe on a motorcycle? -What if the earth stopped spinning, and a 10 year old girl was the only person who could set it right again? Just think of as many what ifs as you can, until your brain hurts, and then go back through your list and start writing the one that sticks out in your mind the most.
Roz Morris: The publishing business, like all arts businesses, has been through many upheavals in recent years. Has this affected creative writing courses? Do some students come to a course because they think a qualification will give them an extra foothold for a publishing deal?
Garry Craig Powell: I don’t think it’s affected creative writing courses enough. They have a responsibility to be absolutely honest with students, who often do begin their courses thinking that the degree will give them an excellent chance of getting a publishing deal—which as you know, is far from the case. In fact no one in the publishing world cares what your academic background is, as far as I can tell.
One of the reasons I keep traveling out to Tucson each March is to attend the Tucson Festival of Books, which has become one of the country’s top book festivals by attendance and by the quality of authors it attracts. This year 140,000 patrons were exposed to books and authors––fiction and non-fiction, geared to readers of all ages. I prefer sessions where I can hear fiction authors talk about their books and writing careers. Here’s a sample of authors readers might look for in their librarys and bookstores.
Rachel Kadish. Kadish is the author of The Weight of Ink, a complex historical novel that took her 12 years to write. The story takes place in London in two time periods—the year 2000 and the mid-17th century and traces the lives of two women––a history professor nearing the end of her career and an orphan who becomes the scribe to a blind rabbi.
Can merging two personal book collections break up a marriage? I asked this question last month and got some excellent tips on how to deal with domestic disputes that arise when “marrying” two systems of organization (or lack thereof).
Merging and Arranging Book Collections
Some people grappled directly with the issue at hand. Others responded with ways they organized their personal book collections. Some simply said, or implied, that the best system is to donate books once you’re done with them.
Beth Dietricks’ first response to my question was that she doesn’t have many books anymore because she’s “tired of accumulating things” and tries to “pass them on to get rid of them.” After trying to organize her remaining books by size, though, she discovered that she still had books in every room of her house.
In my day job, I am a project manager. I can’t help but notice some parallels between getting projects done and what we go through as writers. For example, in the continuum between the “Pantsers” and the “Planners,” I have late in life embraced the Planner philosophy. Map out your direction and then write to that plan. As someone who struggles with procrastination and closure-phobia, I value Plannerism as a way to actual complete something rather than draw it out into eternity. In project management, we would call pure plannerism the “Waterfall” methodology.
Construction or aerospace engineering projects have always benefitted from extensive planning with the final product design in mind. By all means, Boeing, keep covering every little safety detail, please!
Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon is a fascinating literary novel and also a treasure of quotable wisdom. On the walk to work a Bern schoolteacher experiences a life-changing moment when he saves a woman from jumping off a bridge into the river. If he doesn’t become haunted by the woman herself, he becomes haunted by her language and, after a ride on the night train to Lisbon, her country. In a secondhand bookstore he buys a little-read memoir and begins an excursion into the life of a physician who grew up devoted to his father yet in conflict about the fact that his father was a judge under the dictator Salazar. The passage on anger that so struck me, being someone who has spent a lifetime feeling that his temper is his worst enemy, comes from the fictional memoir within the novel.
As a fiction writer, I often ask myself why people read novels and how can I convince them to read mine? That question occurred to me again recently when I finished a novel that had me questioning why I read fiction. The book was engaging enough. The writer was competent and had created characters that seemed believable (though that isn’t necessarily a criterion for me). There was enough tension to keep me reading in order to discover more about these lives I had immersed myself in. But the experience felt flat, and I wondered why I had spent several precious hours on something that wasn’t more satisfying.
So why do I read? For me, reading isn’t necessarily to escape my daily life.
Money. Religion. Fidelity. Those are supposedly the top issues that destroy relationships. But for some bibliophilic couples, a more challenging issue is how to arrange the books.
My husband and I share most values, or so we’ve always believed. We have a common religious and educational background. Our lifestyles and life goals are compatible. We even survived a 3-week bicycle trip through 1980’s China before we decided we could spend a life together What we failed to realize, however, was that combining our two book collections would be harder than combining our finances.
It turns out many of our friends, usually academics and/or writers, share this problem. People who love or use or need books turn out to care quite a bit about how to shelve them.
As my first post on Late Last Night Books, I thought I’d introduce myself.
So hi there! My name is Hannah, and I am currently working toward my master’s degree in Bath, UK. Bath Spa University has an amazing MA program called Writing for Young People. Yes, the obvious answer to your question is—I’m loving it.
Even though I earned my BA in General Creative Writing, I focus on young adult literature. It’s what I write, read, and love. There are often stigmas surrounding writers who choose to write for young adults. People believe that YA is not true art or is mindless reading. But I beg to differ. If you look at some of the amazing literature that has come out of both the Middle Grade and Young Adult genres, you’ll be quite surprised at the social change they are making, as well as the beautiful literature they are writing.
Last year Roz Morris interviewed me on the subject of creative writing courses, specifically, and more generally, how to learn to write. It was a long conversation, so we’ve divided the interview into four parts. This is Part One.
Roz Morris is a professional writer, editor and
blogger. She is the author of the Nail
Your Novel series, as well as the novels My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form Three. She is also the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without a Sense of Direction, (for which I
interviewed Roz in this blogzine exactly one year ago, January 26th,
2018). She teaches masterclasses for The
Guardian newspaper’s writing classes, and has ghost-written bestselling
Aminatta Forna, Happiness (2018)
Happiness is a story of subtle changes. Aminatta Forna’s protagonists, an African psychiatrist specializing in trauma and an American naturalist, meet by accident on a bridge in London. Coincidence repeats and a relationship is built over a relatively short time period of time based on open-mindedness, shared natures, and eventually physical attraction, but what is this story about? Forna seeks to keep us interested in the slow evolution of these characters’ relationship by weaving each person’s past in with present events––which include the search for a lost child, dealing with the needs of a former lover institutionalized for dementia, and being tuned into a city populated by foreign nationals, foxes and escaped pet birds.
At one point, the
psychiatrist, whose name is Attila, suggests happiness might be found in a
village in Cuba which is cut off from that island’s poor infrastructure.