No Need to Flinch at Atticus Finch

Harper LeeGo+Set+A+Watchman

 

Comments and discussions are flying around everywhere regarding the release of Harper Lee’s long lost manuscript. One of America’s most cherished literary characters, Atticus Finch is now seen in a different light. The image so indelibly imprinted in our minds is the elegant and thoughtful Gregory Peck, sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, portraying the southern gentleman as a kind and intelligent father. In Go Set a Watchman, we may begin reading with that image in mind, but it fades within the first few pages. Another man begins to emerge: thoughtful, yes, judicious, yes, elegant- maybe not so much. What we do see is a very real portrait of a man seen not through the eyes of a young girl, but as a fully fleshed human being, caught up in the changing times. It is surprising to see him clinging to old ways of thinking, and it is slightly horrifying to our modern sensibility. Advance copies given to members of the press yielded the news that our beloved Atticus Finch was a racist.

 

Having traveled in Jim Crow’s south in my youth, I have a picture of what life looked like back then. We took frequent train trips from Toronto down to Florida. You had the white south and the “colored” south, clearly divided. It was as if each place had two different cultures, living side by side, but with one having the best of everything and the other, out on the fringes. You would see blacks lining up for the bus in maids uniforms, or in overalls with mechanics rags in the back pocket, but rarely in any other roles. One clearly served the other, and for the most part relationships seemed to be jovial. The courtesy delivered on both sides of the great divide was clearly evident to me. Somehow I got the idea, probably from my grandmother, and mother and father that the whole subject was off limits and in polite society, the great divide was not discussed. Efforts should be made to be extra courteous at all times, given the difficulties of the whole history and structure. That is the very crux of the matter that Scout attacks in Go Set a Watchman. Having lived in New York and returning to her hometown, she is no longer willing to hush up.

 

Going back to what I learned from my parents was more in keeping with the Finch household that Scout thought was the one in which she lived. Every chance should be given to helping people improve their lives. I was never given the impression that intelligence, or certainly athletic ability was in any way inferior. It was more that time and circumstance had created this unfortunate situation, and that change was inevitable. So reading Go Set a Watchman had me pulling for the grown- up Scout to whom I felt so endeared. Harper Lee has an astonishing voice. Not publishing this novel had nothing to do with Lee’s talent as a writer; it had everything to do with its content. What I came away with is an understanding of the craft of writing a novel. Any writer has freely flowing ideas, and things he or she wants to say. Issues, statements, and a desire to create change can keep many a person typing away late into the night. She found the characters, she found her voice, she ripped the scab off polite society in the south and exposed a great deal of fear and ignorance. The story that became To Kill a Mockingbird is embedded here. You see that she did get to have her say, but in a totally different way. I found I was in awe of her editor. Why Lee did not continue writing more books is a mystery. How she had the courage to begin again after hearing she needed to go back to the drawing board is a great testament to her character. Any writer who reads this may well fish out those buried manuscripts and look at them in a new light. Is there one aspect that can be salvaged? What drew me to the character in the first place, and how do I focus on that more fully? Go Set a Watchman may detail a very universal experience in the lives of young women. There is the father you saw at nine, the man with the answers, the work ethic, the discipline and the good judgment versus the flawed human being you confronted later in life. The girls who went from climbing trees and playing with the neighborhood boys to the teen who was criticized every single day in order to make a lady of her often do have something to say. I loved Lee’s brashness, her intelligent voice, her saucy wit and her guts to challenge the archaic social mores.

With events in Charleston unfolding as they have in the last while, perhaps this long- buried story has emerged at just the right time.

Taking a Look at Sarah Waters and The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests

Like most readers, if I thoroughly enjoy an author’s work, I am usually keen to read their subsequent novels. Because I was engrossed in The Little Stranger, which I read it a few years ago, it was with that particular anticipatory glee that I cracked open The Paying Guests. Sarah Waters writes comfortable, homey stories with very adept description making the reader at home in the parlor with her characters. You almost feel as if it is you who dropped round for tea, or came clamoring to the front doorstep having just heard the news- whatever that news may be. She writes of families and groups where you have the odd sensation of feeling you are one of them. It seems so natural and so friendly; I would not hasten to call it a device. Is it not the goal of any story to draw you in? This she manages with alarming dexterity. At first, a sleepy house in a fine neighborhood inhabited by a widow and her unmarried daughter would not inspire most readers to pick this up, unless you happen to be a certain type who absolutely loves this kind of cozy British drama. That was all the impetus I needed.

 

It would take more than tea and biscuits to keep the story going. When we learn that the two women are to take in boarders, I was prepared to read about all sorts of petty conflicts, judgments and disapproval cropping up everywhere, but that alone would not have been enough either. What keeps the story moving very quickly through 564 pages, is a knack for getting the reader more and more deeply involved. In The Little Stranger, the author had the same effect on me. The tale got darker, the characters in much greater peril, the family in more trouble, until I simply had to know what had brought them so far off course. In both books, it is as if the reader starts at the top of a staircase and then just keeps going consistently down, until you fear for these characters so much that you cannot close the book and go to sleep. They all set out innocently enough, with good food in their bellies, good clothes on their backs, good values and intentions all in place, their standing in good order, but piece by piece, it starts to go south and then keeps right on going. You begin to fear that they are associating with the wrong sort, as they would say in England, and that they are in danger of getting in over their heads. Disgrace, scandal, and being the object of gossip, all being a fate to be avoided at all costs, seems to dog Waters’ characters from start to finish. Reading this book brought me back to the days when I would sit in my grandmother’s living room hearing her recount various stories of people she had known, who seemingly through no fault of their own, had gotten mixed up with someone who had done nothing but drag her friend down, and may be leading them to a bad end. You hear these stories, and you file them somewhere in your mind, not to resurface until you dive into a tale like The Paying Guests, and it all comes back. The warnings were there… but she deliberately went back… and why she wouldn’t listen… and on and on until the unfortunate circumstance can no longer be changed. It is for this reason that Water’s novels become thrillers, although they would not be categorized as such.

 

As I usually read reviews of books after I have finished them and have formed my own opinions, I was happy to learn that others agreed with my assessment.

 

“Brings to mind the dark and ominous atmosphere of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. . . . Waters’ skillful mastery of detail and atmosphere brings the suspenseful tale to life.”

—Winnipeg Free Press

 

 

“Waters is so confident – and, line by line, her writing so beautiful, precise and polished – that she sweeps all before her. . . . [I was] helplessly pulled along by the magnetic storytelling. Twice in the last few pages I shouted aloud – though whether in joy or horror I will not tell you. Sarah Waters skilfully keeps you guessing to the end.”

—Tracy Chevalier, in The Guardian

 

“Waters’s page-turning prose conceals great subtlety. Acutely sensitive to social nuance, she keeps us constantly alert to the pain and passion churning under the “false, bright” surface of gentility. From a novelist who has been shortlisted for the Booker three times, this is a winner.”

—Intelligent Life magazine (The Economist)

 

The weather is delightful these days here at Windy Bay. Last Sunday, I lounged on our floating dock in a comfortable chair, getting up from time to time for a swim, and thought that I was actually in “beach read” mode. Reading hour after hour, on a beautiful afternoon, with no thoughts of putting the book down until I reached the end, is my idea of heaven. If it were a rainy afternoon, I would have had the kettle on and be every bit as deliriously happy. A good story teller will have that effect.

Home Sweet Home

The Old Mill          The Old Mill, Toronto

According to James Scott Bell, in his book entitled, “Plot and Structure,” the power inherent in describing the world in which your characters inhabit is paramount. He uses this example from Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River.”

“After work that night Jimmy Marcus had a beer with his brother-in-law, Kevin Savage, at the Warren Tap, the two of them sitting at the window and watching some kids play hockey. There were six kids and they were fighting in the dark, their faces gone featureless with it. The Warren Tap was tucked away on a side street in the old stockyard district.”

In a few short sentences, we know exactly where we are; we can picture it. No back story is necessary here.

A character does not exist outside of a culture. If you describe a traveler, you must identify, not only where they came from, but also the strange new world in which they find themselves. If you are writing about a period in history, the clothes, the method of transportation, or the way the enter a building, will give necessary clues.

Taken to fiction, it means the place and culture of which you are the most familiar, your first home, must now be examined with a new eye. In order to understand the essence of a place, the best way to grasp its meaning can be found in peeling back the layers of civilization. Who was there first? Who was driven out and by whom? Who fought for this land? Who won and who lost? Is a suburb built on what was once farmland and if so, what remnants of that rural community still exist? Is there an Inn that was once a Blacksmith’s Forge, or a Mill? It may still be the focal point of the region.

I used to describe the neighborhood of my youth as a typical, Leave it to Beaver suburb in the west end of Toronto. That may have sufficed for conversation, but in order to create the setting for a novel, it had to be fleshed out more fully and put through the writer’s lens.

We lived on the banks of a river called the Humber. In 1615, the explorer Etienne Brule, traveling with Champlain, became the first European to enter the happy hunting grounds that once were home to the Seneca tribe. A plaque outside an old mill, now converted to a restaurant, and Inn, commemorates this event. As a child, it would give me chills to think about it. 1615! What was our world like then?

More research led me to new discoveries about my former home. The Seneca tribe inhabited those shores for over five thousand years. Then in the 1920’s, a development company bought a vast track of land and created a neighborhood with a theme. Anglia pars, anglia procal. A little bit of England, far from England. They set out to duplicate a setting reminiscent of a fine borough in London. Winding streets, stone houses, leaded paned windows, oh we looked English all right. Did we in any way take on this sensibility? We did indeed, until more groups came and great diversity toppled this little enclave. The buildings remain, remarkably and beautifully preserved; now the inhabitants are different. Nothing stays exactly the same, yet the character of the place is unchanged, immovable and stalwart. As a writer, a place can be the fabric from which we cut the cloth of our characters. The style of the setting, sets the tone, and puts the characters on their initial footing.

Where do they go from there? Do they want to stay, or are they desperate to get out? If they do want to remain, will they be able to ride all the changes in store? Very few of us in modern times live in the places we inhabited in our youth. Given this, the coating of nostalgia can be draped over the past, and we can look at it from a distance and through rose colored glasses. If home is where the heart is, does the allegiance we feel for our first home remain with us forever, or do we shed it as a reptile leaves it skin? If so, do we not still see the outline of the former inhabitant if we happen upon that skin?

While I am not sure who said it first, the old adage of write what you know is apt. If your character is set in a place entirely foreign, then read as much as you can of its history. If writing fantasy, a place still needs its nouns. It needs something indigenous. It must have its rocks and trees.

” Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” Charles Dickens

 

The Art of Journal Writing

 

 

My first journal, begun in the summer between the fifth and sixth grade,  sits on my desk as a reminder of my love of writing. I loved that little blue plastic book with its tiny lock. To record my private thoughts, with no worries about uninvited readers, seemed like total bliss at the time. However, as I apparently come from a long line of hackers, it took the spies in my midst all of two seconds to pry their way into my deepest secrets, only to repeat them for general entertainment at the dinner table. Nevertheless, I plodded on, writing diaries and journals through most of my life. I can be sporadic, missing a year or two here and there, but I am happy to say that I can at least fill a modest bookshelf with my efforts. Lest you think they would make for interesting reading, a record of my time as a teen, then a young wife and a mother, followed by the trials of middle age, I can only attest to the fact that, they are nothing short of pure drivel. How did this happen? I tended to use my diaries and journals as a place in which to beef. The stings and arrows of life that tended to swirl around in my mind, distracting me from my goals, were a nuisance, and so I found a way to expunge them. I have had to make it very clear to my husband and children that they are for my eyes only and in no way a record of my happy, family life. My complaints, when read in bulk, are totally depressing to me now. Why did I not record the cute things the kids said, my thoughts about life, my dreams or my aspirations? I can only confess that they record an inner relationship I have with myself where I like to process things slowly.

 

In the past, I have thoroughly enjoyed well-written journals and have spent weeks and even months reading volume after volume. The top three on the hit parade are as follows: Virginia Woolf, Noel Coward, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Virginia Woolf, like me, set down many frustrations. The unwanted criticisms, the interruptions from writing, and the stings of patronizing male reviewers are all preserved for prosperity. My admiration for her as a writer could never be overstated. Her brilliant work, A Room of One’s Own, tells us flat out, what we, as women, will have to carve out for ourselves if we are to have any chance at all. To know that anyone would disturb her clear and acknowledged genius, over a question regarding lunch, made me want to chase her housekeeper around the yard brandishing a rolling pin. Her ups and downs, pain and sorrow, small moments of triumph, gave me a clear picture of the path, the road and the way a writer must take. Her bouts of depression and sad end did not deter me either, as it was clear from the start that she suffered from a malady that had no cure in her day. Describing her struggles, in the light of her illness, afforded an even greater level of inspiration. Her courage astounded me.

 

By contrast, Noel Coward had a much more exciting life of glamor and parties in London, but he had his endless frustrations as well. In reading his journals, I found much to delight in. The obstacles in his life had a similar ring and can be summarized in one word: interference. Again, I was shocked that anyone would dare think they had a better way to say a line or to put on a play than he did. I wanted to shoo them out the backstage door. I also loved his take on critics which would be summarized by, “Insulting review in The Times.” I gained an understanding that opinions that some people seem to value, are often nothing short of hostility, for whatever reason, and the greatest minds in our midst, those who crafted works of pure genius, seem to have a great ability to not listen to any negativity of any kind.

 

The third and best grouping I did not read until a few years ago, and when I did, I became so involved in them, it changed the way I go about my daily life. For some strange reason, I read the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, in reverse order. I understood her life from her last days to those preceding The Great War and predating the creation of her most famous work, namely, Anne of Green Gables.  It gives me chills to this day to think of her sitting at the kitchen table, in a simple farmhouse on Prince Edward Island, warmed by the fire in the cook stove, with pencil and notebook in front of her, and no idea of the future ahead,  in the process of composing the greatest selling book of all time. Her novel was rejected, and stuffed in a hat box, shelved in a closet, and all but forgotten until a spring cleaning project had her take a second look. Astonished to rediscover it with the understanding that it was quite good, she vowed to try again, and the rest is history.

 

In many phases of my life, I have turned to reading journals when I am stuck and casting about for ideas. This often leads me back to keeping a journal once again. As I scribble away, getting things off my chest and out of the way, sometimes new ideas begin to take hold. When we see a published group of diaries, we are looking at entries that have been recopied and reworked. Some editing and piecing together form the finished look, and no doubt a lot of what is mundane and downright petty is discarded.

 

From the Selected Journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery

The first entry:

 

1890

Monday, Jan. 20

 

“Mollie and I have made a decidedly startling discovery about some of our little personal affairs. I am not going to write it down because it is a dead secret. We have refused to tell Nate what it is but we have hinted just enough to fire his curiosity to the blazing point.”

 

 

 

 

Love the Idea

Tolstoy

 

When writing about Anna Karenina recently, I remembered a passage from Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries. I only had to type a few words into Google, and voila, there it was. I copied it into my blog post, but something else stayed with me. What lingered was this:

“Yesterday L.N went to his table, pointed at his notebook and said “Oh how I long to finish this novel (Anna Karenina) and start something new. My ideas are quite clear now. If a work is to be really good there must be one fundamental idea in that one loves. I love the idea of family; in War and Peace I loved the idea of the people because of the 1812 war; and now I see clearly that in my next book I shall love the idea of the Russian peoples powers of expansion.”

His great novels had to do with being in love with an idea. Authors are commonly asked this question: How did you come up with the idea for your book? It speaks to the heart of the matter. We all have tons of ideas; we may even have notebooks full of concepts for novels. Once decided upon, our love for the idea must remain in the forefront of our minds for years.
Dadcropped
When my father died, I did not want him to go. I didn’t want to forget about him either. I wanted to cling to everything I could remember about him and keep it in my mind forever. It is this idea I am currently in love with, bringing my father back to life. Folly? Yes, no doubt. Can a person we loved appear as a character whom the reader can picture? Can I recreate a certain time in my life, 1961 to 1971, to be exact? Can my interpretation of the sixties rekindle memories for others? Can I bring readers into my story? As I have other family members I am missing now who have gone on to join my Dad, I am in love with remembering them too: I am in love with this idea of family, just as Tolstoy was when he wrote Anna Karenina.  Even though I am not in possession of his talent, not within a country mile of it, in fact, I still persist. Why? The answer is simple:  love. I have a love for my Dad, for my Mom, for my sister and brother, who are all up in heaven now. I have a love for my old neighborhood, for my old home, for my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I have a love for my city and my country. There is no end to my love. Being in love with an idea, can fill up a lot of pages. The one fundamental idea of my story can be boiled down to the old adage that blood is thicker than water.

 

Where does it come from, this love? Does it spring from the same wellspring of our most universal emotion, or is it more academic than that?

 

If you write a novel and get on a talk show, someone will ask you how you came up with the idea for your story. You will have to think back to that first spark and be able to elaborate. If your face lights up and your speech becomes more animated, so much the better. Enthusiasm is infectious: people see it and want to have that same feeling. Readers want to be in love with ideas too. When I gaze at the picture above, knowing I was the baby stuffed into the snowsuit, I see us all as a fun loving, keen and zestful bunch with good times, too numerous to count, just around the corner. When this picture was taken the Queen was beginning her reign and we were part of suburban life, in the post war years, in Toronto. The future looked bright and rosy back then. We were on the dawn of a new era, marked by hope. We all had our parts to play and we certainly played them.

 

How does this story end? Stay tuned…

What is Your Intention?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “ A good intention clothes itself with power.”

In order to write a poem, a short story, or a novel the beginning is set by the intention. Writer’s are inevitably asked this question, “What prompted you to write this book?”

J.K Rowling, riding a train and looking out the window, had this thought: What if there was a wizard school? That one idea evolved into an empire. It made her a fortune and touched the lives of an entire generation.

She said that in her mind, she thought that the trick would be in getting it published, but after that it would be really big. She set her intention from that minute forward. Her thoughts came tumbling out, and she had nothing with which to write. As soon as she could get pen to paper though, her intention was very clear. She would write a book about a wizard school. She wrote as if on fire. An agent picked it right up, but eleven publishers turned it down. She did not despair because she focused on her intent. The rest is history.

The Irish have a saying about this topic. Throw your cap over the wall. You’ll have no choice but to go after it. The race to the moon, described in these terms, was achieved in record time.

Is it enough? Yes, if the focus is constant. A writer is essentially creating something out of nothing. It feels, at times in the dark nights of despair, that the nothing wants its nothingness back. Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.

Books have shaped my life; they have given meaning to my very existence. Sharing our stories, telling others about the beauty of North Idaho, about the people who came before us, unearthing great moments in history and bringing them to life, that has meaning.

My father had a book of poems reprinted that were written by his grandfather. When he gave me that book, I had a glimpse of another light, one that had fallen away in the busy post-war years. I knew the heart of a man I had not had the privilege to know except through his poems.

He helped set my path. I would not dare to presume I could do the same, but it has always been my intent. I want to share what I have gleaned with someone who will never meet me or see me, but will know something of me, nevertheless.

That is why I am given to writing.

The Literary Marriage

 

August 19th, 1978

Howard Nicholas Brinton marries Elizabeth Irene Smythe

 

Very early in our relationship my husband professed his intent to see me achieve my writing dreams. He told me that it would happen. There have been many times when I have asked him if he wasn’t perhaps deluded, or just plain wrong. These are joking comments from me because his steadfast belief has sustained me from start to finish.

Many writers have described unions where both parties are committed to the literary life. Female writers joke about needing a wife, one who types each draft, brings lunch in on a tray and does not say a word while the genius is at work. If early success yielded substantial financial success, that just might work, but for most of us, it is not that cut and dried.

 The ups and downs are all imaginary.

He asks, “How was your day?”

“A new character arrived!”

“That’s great!”

Or, “How was your day?”

“My novel is falling apart. I just wasted the last decade, no the last four decades, no my entire life. I should have gone to law school.”

“How was your day?”

“My agent called. The book is going to auction. There’s talk of a movie deal too. They think it will be perfect for Johnny Depp.”

I never stop thanking God for the gift of my imagination.

If you read copious volumes of writer’s diaries, you learn a great deal about their marriages.  Lucy Maud Montgomery had a terrible time of it, and I could all but cry for her as she listed her trials and tribulations. I wanted to whack her husband over the head with a hockey stick and said so aloud to my beloved as I waded through the volumes. She created a fine fictional husband for herself in the person of Gilbert Blythe. Ted Hughes, married to Sylvia Plath, is not held in very high esteem either. Leonard Wolf, married to Virginia, tried very hard, but as it was she who wrote the diaries, he did not fare very well either. What of Zelda Fitzgerald and the Hemingway wives? If you read The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, you know what I mean.

I will state here and now that I owe everything to my husband. In changing times, I was afforded the choice to be home with my children, a decision I will never regret. In fact, I miss those days sorely. My husband has helped me with computer issues, printer foibles, discouraging setbacks and several lapses in confidence. Being a creative person himself he knows that the power of the imagination can leave artistic types rather unhinged from time to time.

Tolstoy had the secretarial sort of wife, and by all accounts, she did not exactly have the life of Riley. What would the marriage of two writers look like? I shudder to think.

“How was your day?”

“Chapter five is falling apart again. What about you?”

“Our accountant called. He said we should just pay off the mortgage with the last royalty check.”

Constant support and eternal optimism. That is what marriage has given me. Last night we watched back to back episodes of Downton Abbey.

“Should we really be watching last week’s show when we’ve seen it already?”

“Yes,” I answered. “We can discuss each developing storyline and then watch the new episode in silence.”

“Oh.”

Do we know of any really admirable literary marriages? Stephen King writes only for his wife. She does not read each developing page, but is given the privilege of being his first and most important reader. She is very independent according to him and has no trouble filling the hours where he is unavailable. He is not to be interrupted for any reason. She once slid a note under his study door to inform him of a plumbing emergency. He considers himself lucky, as do I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The Writer to the Reader

 

 

We are pleased to offer this wonderful piece of advice from one of the greatest American authors.

John Ernst Steinbeck

Feb. 27, 1902, Salinas, California

Dec. 20, 1968, New York, N.Y

 

“Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, and then steps in it.” 

 

      Dear Writer:       Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all – so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher’s side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic ’20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

I was told, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

It wasn’t too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

She told me it wouldn’t.

 

 

1963

The Intelligent General Audience

 

 

Richard Flanagan, Man Booker International Prize Winner, 2014

 

In my way of thinking the intelligent general audience refers to just about everyone.  It is also the stated intention of the Man Booker Prize International’s committee of judges. Once a book is chosen as the winner, it will always deserve my interest, and in most cases, an immediate order from Amazon. The Best Food Ever Book Club is nearly always game to read the top pick of the esteemed judges. In short, the Booker Prize is a stamp of approval. It is designed by its very nature, to put great books into the scattered framework of our attention. How do we choose the books we read? If Amazon, or my local bookstore has failed to put a selection before me that is truly aligned with my tastes, I will turn to the experts and look at authors who have won prizes. As with Hollywood, it is a great boon to be nominated. It is a matter of course for me, if I have already read the Booker prize winner, to browse the short list and then the long one. Sometimes, after reading those great novels that nearly won, I find myself in passionate disagreement with the judges. It can be rather like Figure Skating contests; it has to be subjective to some degree, particularly when the field is ripe with excellence. If I were ever selected as a judge, it would be a happy day for me indeed. While others might complain about having to read so many books, I would proclaim, “I can’t do anything. I have to read!”

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan won the coveted award for 2014. Born in Tasmania in 1961, Flanagan spent twelve years crafting this masterful work. His writing is so vivid; his ability to put the reader right in the scene made for some grueling nights for our book club. The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, once a captive of the Japanese army has the great misfortune to be enlisted to work on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. Their inhumane treatment of prisoners is regrettably, all too prevalent. Never before in my life have I read descriptions of atrocities with more turning of the head and knotting of the stomach. I found myself getting thoroughly depressed. Man’s inhumanity to man is nothing new to me but never before has it been described in a manner so profoundly real. Flanagan puts you in the sensibilities of the prisoners. You want to get away, but you cannot.

The story shifts between Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s young wife. It was another case of being captive, but this time by desire. As he recalls various times with young Amy, he also continually fails to let us forget who she is and how flawed he must be to have gotten himself involved with her in the first place. He can’t avoid thoughts and memories of their time together any more than he can get away from his captors. This is not a story of straight up redemption. We wish it to veer in that direction, but perhaps Flanagan wanted to paint a more realistic picture. In reading about the book on the Man Booker Prize International’s website, I learned that Flanagan’s father had been a worker on the infamous narrow road. He survived his experience and died on the day his son finished the novel which was twelve years in the making.  The writing is very vivid. The prize speaks volumes, as always.

From Page 22:

“Looking back down the railway pegs, Dorrigo Evans saw that there was around them so much that was incomprehensible, incommunicable, unintelligible, undivinable, indescribable. Simple facts explained the pegs. But they conveyed nothing. What is a line, he wondered, the Line? A line was something that proceeded from one point to another-from reality to unreality, from life to hell- ‘breadthless length’, as he recalled from Euclid describing it in schoolboy geometry. A length without breadth, a life without meaning, the procession from life to death. A journey to hell.”

The Washington Post:

“Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has shaken me like this.”

The Irish Times:

“Homeric… Flanagan’s feel for language, history’s persistent undercurrent, and subtle detail sets his fiction apart. There isn’t a false note in this book.”

For much of the country, 2015 has begun with bitter cold and day after day of epic snow. Out west, we seem to veer from snow to rain. While I prefer snow, what I love most about winter is that it is so conducive to my great loves: writing, reading, skiing and fine dining. It is my hope that whatever the choice may be, the intelligent general audience finds a warm hearth, a cozy nook and a stack of books to enjoy this winter.

 

 

Sleep Tips for Writers

 

                                                             Dr. Hugh Smythe

 

Where do you rest your weary head? An unsettled mind will wake you up in the middle of the night. What do you do then? Get up? Stare at the ceiling? Go to another room? Read? Turn on the computer and abandon hope of any decent rest? I know, you are thinking, all of the above.

 

Have any significant contributions been made to the science of sleep? Yes. My uncle, the late Dr. Hugh Smythe and his friend, Robert F. Clark, created the shaped pillow. Dr. Smythe used his knowledge of medicine to study how mankind has dealt with sleep through the ages. With his electric carving knife and some foam padding he went to work to invent a better pillow.

 

Do you toss and turn and punch your pillow? Do yourself a favor and get a new one that supports your head and neck. As writers we cannot afford to block any ideas that may flow in the night. You will not be sorry, I promise you.

 

When writing My American Eden, I took a trip to Plymouth to see what how colonials lived in the mid 1600’s. Floored by the short beds, I asked the guide, sitting at her spinning wheel, to explain why people did not lie flat. Pneumonia, the old man’s friend, was the answer. Fearing death in the night had weary farmers sitting up. Noting the pillow, as was my training from my uncle, I saw that they used round and quite firm bolsters. The sheets were made of linen, hence where we get the term bed-linens, and it looked altogether Spartan to my jaundiced eye.

 

The expression, sleep on it, has always made good sense to me. Our brains are over-stimulated, and that condition gets worse by the minute. Sleep specialists always advise not to watch television as an aide to insomnia, as it only makes the condition worse. A long walk, in the fresh air, followed by a healthy diet, during the day, restricting processed foods and refined sugar, dining early, and other good habits really do help. Yet so many nights I am wide awake at an ungodly hour. Warm milk with turmeric and cinnamon, a tip I learned from watching Dr. Oz works wonders. Years ago, I used to refrain from getting up and would lie in bed driving myself crazy running through a litany or worries. Now I get up and read until my eyes are tired, or I listen to sleep tapes I found on YouTube. If I find that I am at a loss for words during the day, and thus am awake and trying to sort out whether a chapter in my novel should stay or get the ax, I often find the answer in the morning. Stephen King was on a vacation in London when he he awoke in the morning with a story in his head. He told his wife he had to write, asked the hotel manager to set him up with a desk and wrote Carrie. The rest is history.

 

Nothing changed my sleep problem as significantly as a visit to this website: www.shapeofsleep.com.

Having purchased memory foam shaped pillows in department stores I have long been sold on this concept, but the real deal is much much better.

 

 

“Through human history, people would sit on soft pillows during the day but set them aside at night in favour of neck support pillows. Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesians and Africans all used neck supports made from a variety of relatively unyielding materials, including: wood, ceramics, leather, alabaster and ivory. The bolster used widely in Europe is mechanically similar.”

www.shapeof sleep.com

 

Good health to ye.