Pneumonia’s healing process, I’ve learned, is one-step- forward, two-steps-back kind of progress. It’s humbling to be told in no uncertain terms by your body that she’s had enough and rest is mandatory NOW.
Reading has kept me from going insane. I want to share these book titles with you. They have been good “friends” who aren’t worried I might be contagious. Some of them have bowled me over in their new approaches to narrative. Mostly, they brought me as much joy as one can experience while resting bed.
Faithful Place by Tana French
Broken Harbor by Tana French
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison
Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie
Many Ways to Say It by Eva Saulitis
Into Great Silence by Eva Saulitis
I’d read Tana French, Kate Morton, and Jim Harrison previous to this jag. French writes police procedurals set in Dublin, Ireland. The Wall Street Journal had this to say about her:
“Ms. French has come to be regarded as one of the most distinct and exciting new voices in crime writing. She constructs her plots in a dreamlike, meandering fashion that seems at odds with genre's fixed narrative conventions. Sometimes, it's not even clear whodunit. Her novels have been translated into 31 languages, with 1.5 million copies in print . . . Broken Harbor has the hallmarks of a standard police procedural: a cocky homicide detective with a troubled past who educates his younger partner with pat lessons; a shocking crime that seems to defy explanation; a heart-stopping twist at the end. But Ms. French undercuts expectations at every turn. The victims begin to look less like victims; the case starts to unravel and the lead detective makes compromises that could ruin him.”
(The Wall Street Journal)
Check out the line I’ve highlighted: Her stories do have that feel at the start. There’s no sense of urgency. Both these books read like character-driven novels, where the change in character functions as the plot. Here’s where French is different (and brilliant): By the end of the book, you realize that she never once lost control of her plot, and in a genre like mystery, the writer must be in control, the crumbs dropped, the red herrings placed, the tale is brought to fruition with that twist or surprise we all missed. She is that good, and apparently, with every new book, she gets more accomplished. (She also writes in Irish dialect. Successfully!)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-HourBookstore is a first novel, and debut novels are frank and magical. Probably it has to do with not yet being reviewed. Robin Sloan creates the collision of two worlds, technology and old-fashioned books, the type that must be read over and over again, and teach the reader something new with each read. His first person narrative is seductive while being innocent, commands empathy without sounding whiny, is humble while informative, and filled with a wisdom that seems well beyond his age—go watch his book trailer on Amazon.
Here’s what Newsday said about him:“What makes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore so impressive is Sloan’s great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters. Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of wonders at which to marvel.” —Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday
Nice comparison! Joseph Cornell is an incredible artist. Here’s a YouTubevideo.
What stuck me about these two books in particular is that the approach to narrative was fresh and involving without being “experimental.” The same can be said for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It appears to have grown out of the playwright’s stage play, her first novel as well. The UK Times said:
“Harold’s journey is ordinary and extraordinary; it is a journey through the self, through modern society, through time and landscape. It is a funny book, a wise book, a charming book—but never cloying. It’s a book with a savage twist—and yet never seems manipulative. Perhaps because Harold himself is just wonderful.... I’m telling you now: I love this book.”—Erica Wagner, The Times (UK)
It’s easy to teach the same books over and over again. We know them so well. They are classics of our age, us Boomers. Cathedral by Raymond Carver, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the only book she ever wrote, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. If you haven’t read them, get thee to a library posthaste.
But reading new writers is like having a taste of green tea ice cream. Fifty years ago, Neapolitan ice cream was the fanciest thing out there. Reading new writers, debut novels, collections of poetry, I cherish that experience. I learn from it. The older I get, the more I realize that the most important thing to teach a writing student is to just tell a story. When I was a writing student, the similes, metaphors, flowery language I used, well, it embarrasses me today. But if that’s how a writer falls in love with words and images, think of it as a step on the staircase.
Readers want a story. Just tell a story.
Often I steer my writing students to poetry. This is one of my favorite poems ever.
Look at that poem! Study it. It contains the entire blueprint for a novel. Beginning, character, conflict, epiphany, denouement. Sometimes story exists in what isn’t written, but possibly hinted at. Like the white space in a poem, the themes, metaphors, and truths dawn on the reader in the process of reading.
If you want to write, you had better read. Sometimes, not often, students get huffy when I ask them to rewrite, or occasionally, set a hundred pages aside and start over. Excuse after excuse bubbles from their lips. Yes, I’ve made a few students cry. I am a mean little old lady. But the writer who grows and accomplishes multiple projects is the writer who in her downtime is reading, studying books, how they are structured, experiment with style and narrative, and other areas of craft, and rewriting.
That’s about it. Oh, wait. One more thing:
This morning I posted on Facebook:
Wandering around part 2 (of my new novel), looking for the one sentence that will get me headed in the right direction...where is the writer's compass? Who sells them? Are they like Leathermen? Swiss Army knives? What?
Because I am a cowboy boot freak, my FB friend Cindy Schnack Arsenault Coffell posted this:
Did you look in your boots?
And I grinned like crazy because she nailed it. The cowboy boots in my new novel matter. Ron Carlson always says, What’s in your inventory? What is the smallest object and how can you use it? Skye’s boots are custom made Old Gringo boots with bluebirds on them. When she got to Santa Fe, she fully intended to sell them because she is broke. But she doesn’t want to sell them. Boots make her feel strong. They are the one beautiful possession she owns. Now, I see. The boots are rapidly approaching metaphor.
Gotta go write now. Thank you for reading my posts, and 49Writers, for asking me to blog.
Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of eleven novels and a book of short stories. Her work is widely anthologized and her literary papers are being collected by Boston University’s Twentieth Century Author’s Collection.Finding Casey, featuring some of the characters from Solomon’s Oak, was published October 2012. Core faculty and co-creator of The University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency MFA Program in Writing, she lives with her husband and their three Italian greyhounds in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is at work on a new novel. Owen’s Daughter will be published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishers. Meet her on YouTube or at her website.