Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Do I Know You?

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”

Assignments

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

GRACE UPON THE VISIT

Grace Upon The Visit painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley          

Even at this late date in the arc of my life, I am occasionally invited to speak to high school kids about the career path of a writer. When I explain to those soliciting me to speak that I am not a journalist or a non-fiction writer or a writer of murder mysteries or bodice rippers or young adult dystopian vampire novellas, but rather a writer of unclassifiable fiction and essays, and I further explain that I don’t recommend my career path to anyone because that would be to recommend working long hours seven days a week for five decades, my wages paltry and unreliable. After such an explanation, the invitations are withdrawn.

I have on a few occasions over those five decades earned noteworthy chunks of money for books I’ve written, but that hardly qualifies as a career path; more like staggering through a trackless wilderness and every seventh blue moon coming upon a clearing with potable water and catchable fish where a tent might be pitched for a year or two before I stagger back into the wilderness.

Reading a story by E.B. White yesterday, The Hotel Of The Total Stranger, I came upon a line that struck me as an apt description of my career. “…the sense of again being a reporter receiving only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments.”

Hello. I’ve been asked to speak to you today about my career as a writer who receives only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments. I want to emphasize the vague and mysterious aspects of my career path, as well as the notion that I am being assigned the mysterious writing I undertake. Who, you may ask, is doing the assigning? Who is my boss? And what kinds of companies employ artists to undertake only the vaguest and most mysterious assignments?

To be honest with you, I have no idea who or what is behind these assignments, I am unaware of there being any sort of boss, and there are no companies who employ such artists. In other words, if you choose this career path, you are entirely on your own and will probably get paid little or nothing for many years of hard work. Interested?

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.” George Bernard Shaw

The last literary agent willing to represent me, 1996-1997, was a wealthy New York socialite married to a venture capitalist. I met her only once when she came to San Francisco to meet with her west coast clients, and my fifteen-minute tête-à-tête with her in an exclusive hotel was a memorable moment in my career trajectory.

Imagine traveling for many years on a barely discernible path traversing rugged mountains and hostile deserts and murky jungles as you follow the quixotic scent of vague and most mysterious assignments, when quite unexpectedly you find yourself in the plush lounge of a snazzy hotel bar having drinks with a person with the body of a shapely woman and the head of a manikin.

“Buzz says there could be a bidding war for the movie rights to Ruby & Spear,” hummed the literary agent. “That’s why Bantam took a chance on you. Despite your previous flops. They think this could be huge.” She sucked hard on a golden straw sunk deep in a massive strawberry margarita. “There are some worries about the lead male being a bit anti-hero, the lead female too strong, the lesbian stuff risky, the multiple wives dangerous. But your main thrust is right on the money.”

Something about the expression main thrust emboldened me to look directly at her, and I was stunned to realize that only her eyes, small beady brown eyes, gave any clue to the actual person’s face. Which is to say, she was so heavily made up, her foundation color—Tan Caucasian—applied so thickly, her face appeared to be an oval shell on which the garish details of an Anglo geisha were painted.

“Buzz,” I gurgled, imagining a sad angry little girl behind the mask.

“Tell me,” she said, smiling a sad angry little smile. “How much money would you like to make every year for the rest of your life? Think big.”

“Oh…fifty thousand?” I croaked.

“Come on,” she said sternly, her smile vanishing. “Be serious.”

“A quarter mil?” I said, giggling.

“No problem,” she said, raising her hand to beckon the waiter. “Now listen. Here’s your assignment. I want you to read and analyze the top ten bestsellers on the New York Times list and give me something that will fit in there nicely. Okay? Good. You’ve got a foot in the door again, dear. We want to sell your next something before Ruby & Spear takes off or doesn’t take off. These windows don’t stay open long. Oh, here’s my next client. Stick around and meet Gina. We just sold her memoir for high six-figures. About all the celebrities she slept with during the Disco craze.”

“Happiness is racing along in a chariot on a dark night toward an unknown destination.” Henry James

As I hurried out of that snazzy hotel on the fringes of Union Square, my first thought was that I had escaped yet another emissary of the evil ones. But my second thought was that the evil ones are just sad angry children venting their anger and sorrow by despoiling our culture with ugly imitative junk, sad angry children hiding behind masks so we cannot see who they really are and cease to be afraid of them.

I did not do the assignment given to me by that agent, and she found my next book so revolting she had a lackey inform me on scented stationery of the dissolution of our connection—that revolting book being Under the Table Books, my cherished result of a long journey beginning with a vague and most mysterious assignment, the antithesis of the New York Times bestseller lists of then and now.

Worth

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

1.50

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I have my piano tuned once a year. I used to have the beauty tuned twice a year, but that was when a good tuning cost sixty dollars and I was making much more money than I make now. My last tuning cost one hundred and forty-five dollars, a ten-dollar increase over last year, which was a ten-dollar increase over the previous year. Barring a bank error in my favor, another increase in the tuning fee will force me to go to once every two years. Is my piano tuner being greedy? Not at all. He’s keeping pace with the real rate of inflation, not the fake one our government reports while they funnel trillions of dollars to the Wall Street criminals to keep the global Ponzi scheme going.

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Stephen Stills

Today I went to the nursery to buy a few six-packs of vegetable starts. I bought a six-pack of petunias, a six-pack of basil, two lemon cucumber plants, a purple penstemon, a small pineapple sage plant, and a packet of arugula seeds. Total: 27.69. Are the folks at the nursery being greedy? Nope. They’re keeping pace with the rising cost of everything else.

“There’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Stephen Stills

My credit card bill came today. I like to guess what the total will be before I open the bill and I guessed it would be next to nothing. Oops. I forgot that a few weeks ago I purchased two pairs of shoes from REI, a new pillow (my first new pillow in thirty years) and a Giants sweatshirt, having worn my previous Giants sweatshirt into a frayed remnant. Total: Three hundred and nineteen dollars. And all those items were on sale. Am I being ripped off by the commercial enterprises of America? No. They are simply riding the roller coaster of Ponzi-created inflation until The Big Pop, after which anybody with ready cash will find things cheap, indeed.

“Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away.” Stephen Stills

Having recently completed the writing of Ida’s Place Book Three—Rehearsal, the third and longest volume of my massive fictional opus set in a mythical version of Mendocino, I evaluated my cost of manufacturing the first two volumes at Zo, the one and only and most excellent copy shop in Mendocino, and came to the conclusion that if I hoped to break even on this latest publishing adventure I would have to sell Book Three for twenty-four dollars, and that’s assuming I eventually sell seventy copies of the goodly tome.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to ask that much of my readers, so I set the price at twenty-two, which is the unprofitable price of Book Two. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I join my piano tuner and nurseries and REI and pillow and sweatshirt companies and the post office and shipping companies and mailing envelope manufacturers and oil companies and vegetable growers and muffin makers and pharmaceutical companies and web masters and dentists and lawyers and doctors in raising my prices to keep pace with inflationary reality? The short answer: I’m a doofus. The long answer: I’m a conflicted doofus.

“Three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful: 1: It must have a precise and suspenseful plot, 2: The author must feel a passionate urge to write it, 3: He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Yesterday in the post office, a woman who looked vaguely familiar approached me and said, “The reason I’m not buying your Ida books is we’re spending all our money remodeling our house, so we’re seriously tightening our belts and only spending money on essentials.”

Before I could ask her to tell me her name, she continued, “We went to San Francisco last weekend. We just had to get away. Stayed at the Mark Hopkins. Glorious. God, the restaurants. I gained five pounds. Speaking of which, want to get some lunch? Trillium has a pork loin to die for. I went with Cal yesterday, we skipped salads and got out for under seventy. And that was for both of us.”

“The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and, lastly, the solid cash.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Before I began making a living selling short stories and novels, I felt alone in the world, save for a few fellow artists I consorted with. But then something happened to let me know I was not so alone. A cartoon ran in The New Yorker, and shortly thereafter several dozen people sent me the cartoon. Who were these people? Friends, friends of friends, former friends, and friends of my parents.

In the cartoon, a well-dressed man is showing another man his opulent estate, They are drinking champagne served by a butler. A massive Rolls Royce is parked in front of a baronial mansion. A gorgeous woman in a bikini is sunbathing on a chaise longue by a large swimming pool next to a tennis court. The man is saying to his guest, “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the great American novel when it suddenly occurred to me, why not write the great American extortion letter?”

Were all those people who sent me that cartoon trying to tell me something? I think so. But I’d rather write novels. Speaking of which, Ida’s Place Book Four—Renegade is underway.

Signed and numbered copies of Ida’s Place Books One, Two, and Three are available from Todd via his web site UnderTheTableBooks.com

Unpublished Work

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Multiple Moons painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

They haunt me, the dozens of novels and novellas and stories I’ve written that have never been published—those relatively few survivors of my periodic assaults on bookshelves freighted with my collected unpublished fiction, each manuscript a Sleeping Beauty, alive yet so deeply asleep she might as well be dead; her only hope the kiss of some fairy tale publisher prince or princess who discovers the comatose fable despite the impenetrable forest surrounding her and despite the curses of the wicked witches and sorcerers and evil schmucks who rendered her, for all intents and purposes, lifeless.

“Why do you think we chose to speak ourselves through you, Todd?” ask the stories and novellas and novels and plays and screenplays. “So you would give birth to us and spend years shaping us and then pile us on your shelves to collect dust until you murder us? No! We chose you to bring us into the world so we can do our work—the work of inspiration and healing and love. How can you leave us here, moldering in our living graves?”

“Well,” I retort, “you cannot say I haven’t tried with all my might and guile (such as they are) for the better part of my sixty-three years to bring you to a larger audience, larger, that is, than the few friends I’ve shared you with. I’ve spent whatever money I managed to accrue to make copies of you and mail you to myriad publishers and magazines of every size and shape, and I have kissed the asses of far too many so-called literary agents who wouldn’t know a work of literature if it bit them on their much-kissed butts. And I have managed to publish several books and stories, however brief their appearances in bookstores and on the literary stage. I’ve even self-published two of my most vociferous volumes—Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books—and gone bankrupt in the process. So you cannot say I haven’t tried.”

Still, they haunt me, my unpublished works, especially the ones most recently born. The older manuscripts rarely shout at me these days, but the books I’ve written in the last decade, they squawk and yell as I walk by them or when I see their titles in the Writing folder on the screen of my computer. “Todd! What have you done today to find my publisher, to share me with your society, to bring my boon to the world? I’ve got work to do, people to touch, minds and hearts to open. What’s holding up the show? I’m ready!”

“Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” Jessamyn West

My most recent work of fiction (longer than a short story) is a novella entitled Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, a book I feel certain would be a big help in the crusade to save our planet while providing exciting and gratifying entertainment for millions of readers. Here is the brief synopsis that has accompanied my submissions of the manuscript to publishers hither and yon.

Oasis Tales of the Conjuror tells the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in exciting and creative and harmonious ways. The tales are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival.

I have now sent the manuscript to twenty publishers—small, medium, and large—as well as to three so-called literary agents, and the swift and universal response has been, “Never!” However, the thirty copies I gave to friends and my most clamorous readers elicited quite the opposite response. “Yes! You must publish this book! Couldn’t put it down! Riveting, gorgeous, powerful, important! Quick! There’s not a moment to lose!”

Ah, but that is the great divide I have encountered all my life—the responses of far-thinking and creative people as opposed to the responses of publishers. “So, Todd,” say more and more of my correspondents of late, “if the old ways won’t serve you, why don’t you publish Oasis Tales of the Conjuror as an e-book available online, and help save the world that way?” To which I reply, “I am such a colossal techno doofus, I not only don’t know how to do such a thing, I would be incapable of doing so even if I theoretically knew how. Besides, how would anyone know the book exists simply because I’ve added it to the billions of other e-things collecting digital dust in the ethers?”

That said, I do resonate with the idea of posting Oasis Tales of the Conjuror on my web site so people can read the story and send a link to their friends, though I still think an actual three-dimensional version of the book would be the best way for the tale to live in the world. To that end, I suppose I could make photocopies for those who wish to read hard copy (and pay for such) and post the manuscript online for people to read. That would eliminate the possibility of earning any money for my work, but given the urgency of the ecological and economic crises confronting us, perhaps aspiring to earn money while trying to help save the world is counter-productive if not downright silly.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling

Though I began to sell my short stories to men’s and women’s magazines in the 1970’s through the tireless efforts of the late great Dorothy Pittman, a saint disguised as a literary agent, and I eventually published several novels with big New York publishers and made my living as a novelist and screenwriter for some years, I continued to submit my short stories to literary magazines. Through thick and thin, success and failure, minor renown and major anonymity, I have never ceased to send my stories to itsy bitsy magazines and great big famous magazines and every size of magazine in between—for nearly fifty years. I would guesstimate I have now mailed (snail mail) over three thousand packets of stories to editors at hundreds of magazines and have made another three hundred electronic submissions since the advent of the interweb, yet I have never had a single one of those stories accepted for publication. True, I have published stories in a few little literary magazines, but those were stories solicited by editors who were fans of my writing or were introduced to my work by mutual acquaintances.

Just today, for instance, I received three rejections of stories I submitted electronically to so-called literary magazines, and I received a rare snail mail rejection (a form letter in the self-addressed stamped envelope I included with my submission) of a story I was sure would be taken by a miniscule quarterly with a circulation of seventy-five—photocopied, folded, and stapled in the editor’s garage. The form rejections from all these magazines said the same thing: Due to the thousands of stories and poems we receive each week, we regret that we cannot respond personally to your submission. Even so, how could they not want my stories? Such funny and piquant and timely tales, and I was absolutely certain that…

But then I have always been absolutely certain that every story and novel and novella and play and screenplay I have ever sent out is going to be published or produced or filmed. Indeed, over the decades, through agents and on my own, I have submitted more than a hundred short stories and humorous essays to the New Yorker, and with each and every submission I have been absolutely certain that my phone will ring (any minute now) and some wonderful guy or gal New Yorker editor (smart and funny and good) will say, “Todd, Todd, Todd. This is such a great story. Gads! (I just know they’ll use the word gads.) Where have you been all our lives?” Which is a question I will take great delight in answering.

And over the course of those same decades, I have had my astrological chart interpreted by four different astrologers, and each of those seers noted something in my chart indicating that the sun and the moon and the planets have collaborated with the earth to predispose me to be preternaturally optimistic, no matter what befalls me. This astrological indicator is, so far, one of only two plausible explanations for why, despite the formidable and ever-growing odds against me, I continue to campaign on behalf of my unpublished works. The other explanation is that several times in my life, and always just as I am about to give up the fight, someone writes or calls to let me know that my words got through to them and they were moved to reach out to me.