Thursday, March 25, 2010

Once Upon A Place

Update: Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble have, fortuitously, discounted the book. 28% off...

I have something a little different today: an interview! I like interviews. You never know what sort of interesting nugget might pop up in an interview. And if you haven't read them, I'd fully recommend taking a peek at the four volumes of collected Paris Review Interviews. A gold mine for any writer.

But today! An interview with a friend of mine, Renee Goudeau. She has a book just out, Once Upon a Place, and I had the pleasure of being a part of the revision process. It's a historical novel set in Louisiana in 1922. In the story, Giselle, a young WWI widow, writes a weekly column for her local paper in which she skewers all the things she sees as unjust (or simply inane) within the town of Lake Badin, and chief among these is Rabbit Cotton, the Captain of the Krewe of the Corsairs. Rabbit will take on anything that smells of money... including blackmail, as Giselle discovers when her aunt, in desperation, heads off to murder Rabbit. To protect her family, Giselle decides to fight fire with fire, never dreaming she'll be caught in the firestorm herself.

Ink: First off, could you tell us a little about yourself, Renee?

Renee: Well, I’m 82 years old, born and bred in south-western Louisiana, and of strong French heritage. My maternal grandfather was so French that my mother and her siblings were not allowed to speak English at the dinner table. This was long before I was born, but I heard about it enough! So when some people have said OUAP has a lot of French in it (even though it’s easy to figure out) I’ve been astounded because to me it has very little. I don’t even speak but a few words of French myself.

Ink: Where did the idea for this book first come from? Is there a point of genesis?

Renee: Actually, no, not a conscious one. As they say, it stands on the shoulders of several unfinished books before it.

Ink: This isn’t an “easy” book. It can be funny, but it’s not light. You don’t pull any punches. Is that an important part of this book’s identity?

Renee: Being outspoken is a part of me [some would argue a not-so-good part], so I guess it’s a part of OUAP as well.

Ink: One of the things that struck me about the novel is a sense of historical integrity. It’s an honest portrayal, an attempt to recapture a time and a place. I love that your heroine is progressive, but progressive in 1922 terms and not in 2010 terms. I find it frustrating, sometimes, when basically modern characters are thrown into historical novels just to make things politically correct, to make them more relatable and easier to understand. This, I think, does a disservice to history. Your heroine, Giselle, is alive within her own period, struggling within and against the mores and strictures of the little world of Lake Badin in 1922. Was this a conscious choice, or more of an unconscious process rooted in trying to discover the character and place? And how important is that sense of historical integrity to you?

Renee: I’ll answer the last question first. Historical integrity means a tremendous amount to me, because I love nothing better than tweaking “beliefs” of any kind with true –as far as it’s possible to find—facts. Debunking, I guess. Most of my writing has started from that. OUAP is no exception, except that it only springs from the book that it originally was.

I stumble upon some historical situation then kill myself to run it down. And character and place are simply an off-spring of that. I do, however, try to be accurate, as in the case of the dialogue. It drove me nuts! Giselle’s slang especially. To make it sound normal and not “cutesy” and a part of her feisty character.

Ink: One of the things you don’t shy away from is race. You handle characters from many backgrounds, and show how they live and operate within this world. What was your approach to this? Were you worried about a backlash as you tried to portray these characters in a way honest to your vision?

Renee: Again, I’ll answer last, first. Yes, absolutely—I still am worried. In this time of political correctness that you mentioned above. And with the Rev. Sharpton ready to jump on Louisiana at any time. One character (as you know its set in 1922) uses “nigger.” I did my best to keep it to a minimum, but it’s true to his character so I used it.

If I again may tell a little story: my mother had a maid, Pearl Carter (Mrs. R. E. Carter—I stress that because she did so at a time when Black women were never called “Mrs.”) for about 30 years and one time when I was grown I asked her—she being almost a charter member of the NAACP—how she could stand working for my Daddy who said “nigger” all the time and was hardly a liberal, and she took out on me!! “Don’t you dare let me hear you say nothing bad about your daddy to me!” My mouth must’ve fallen open, because she went on to add: “When my husband died, your Daddy was the first one at my front door and he said, ‘Pearl, here’s $300. And if you need more, you just let me know.’”

That must’ve been in the late 1940s or so. (Remember I go back a looong way!) It was that strong memory that helped me shape my characters and their situations with what I hope is truth. But yes, again, of course I worry. I’m white. So I can hear it: what do you know about the Black experience? So that, and instances like it, are all I know. It’s something I never hesitated to explore when I could. And I don’t want to hurt anyone even unintentionally. Including my book, I have to add.

Ink: The book’s title is Once Upon a Place… so how important is that place in regards to the artistic goals of the novel? How important was the setting and location to your vision of the story?

Renee: Again, because of the story and its mélange of skin colors and characters, there was nowhere else I could set it. Making it vital to the story. It’s an area I know. I guess also because it’s unique, I couldn’t visualize it anywhere else. Although I hope its theme is universal. It’s not a local color story, as I think you’ll agree.

Ink: The marshes play a role in the story. What are your feelings about the marshes? Are there important reasons for including them?

Renee: Definitely. The chenier [French for “oak”] marshes are an unknown—mostly—part of the U.S. There are only two other areas like it in the entire world. Of course that was before Hurricane Rita, and a whole lot of oil drilling, got to it! But it recovered from Audrey back in 1957, and slowly it’s recovering now—although Hurricane Ike did damage as well. There are several relatively new books now on the marsh and its importance. And let me add, New Orleans doesn’t have any connection with the SW Louisiana marshes! Texas does, some, but the chenier marshes don’t go but about half way across Louisiana from west to east. I guess it’s territorial—my feeling for it. It’s ours!

Ink: Talk a bit about your writing process. How do you do work? Research? How do you go about blending fact and fiction, history and the imagination?

Renee: Haphazardly, without an editor to keep my feet to the fire!  I love research and often I truly think that’s why I write—to have an excuse to dig around in things. I can’t truthfully answer the second part of your question. I don’t honestly know. It just happens, I guess.

Ink: A book’s journey, from conception to completion, is usually a long one. What sort of journey has Once Upon a Place been on?

Renee: A very long one. Some parts of it were written 30 years ago. And there’ve been fits and starts and a complete turnaround in some [most?] parts of it. Such as when I had one ending in mind, and it simply refused to move until I changed direction.

Ink: You chose to take a self-publishing route for your novel. Could you talk a bit about your choice and your reasons for it?

Renee: My age. I’d never fully completed a book before—almost didn’t finish OUAP! Life and its troubles kept getting in the way. Things that all people face, I guess, but anyway…
I knew it was now or never. What I didn’t know was how very difficult it would turn out to be!

Ink: Talk a little about the process. What are the steps to publication, to finally having that printed book in hand?

Renee: You don’t have the space for it! For some it’s no problem. For finicky me it was really tough. So much that I didn’t know—had never heard—that a book had to be designed inside and out. I had to try to learn printing terms and all kinds of things. I kid when I say I mostly learned not to do it again! What I really learned is that people are great about helping. Most of them, anyway. There’re always a few bad apples.

Ink: What are some of the satisfactions and frustrations on this path? Was it satisfying to have control of the artistic process? The design, the cover, the font? And the frustrations? The risk and the reward?

Renee: Again it’s really too long to go into. And sometimes too unpleasant, because for a time I lost control to someone who had started out trying to help me. Someone else probably wouldn’t have gotten caught in that trap. The risk: failure. The rewards: to have your characters live and to give a reader enjoyment and maybe a little extra knowledge along the way. And it’s really nice when someone says “I really liked your book!” Kind of a “Sally Fields” moment.

Ink: How does the reality of a book compare to the dream, the image we have in our heads when we first begin to write?

Renee: Well, I’m not like that—having an image of a dream. It would take a movie to do that. To really see it. I hope that I’ve done a good enough job that my reader can see it in their imagination. That would be great. And having to wear so many hats to get it out there has dimmed any unbridled delight. Although my first sale was a real rush! Too bad many more haven’t followed. YET…

Ink: And now your book is heading out into the world on its own… any thoughts?

Renee: Unfortunately, it’s not ever on its own. What we as writers don’t understand or think about is that the actual writing pales in comparison to getting it to a publishing standard we can be proud of, in self-publishing at least. In major houses I’ve heard that’s out of your hands. But one thing that’s a constant to all published writers except those on Olympia is promotion and marketing. Now that is tough!! Especially for someone as old as I. Younger folks, such as you, know blogs and FB and My Space and Twitter and You Tube and trailers and websites and all the rest of it, but for me it’s just a jungle and I don’t have a machete.

And that’s one reason I can say Thank You, Bryan, for giving me this boost. God bless you and us all. To paraphrase Dickens. And you can look for it on ONCE UPON A PLACE. Stop by even if you don’t want to buy. In about six weeks it’ll be available for your local library to order if you request it, if you’d prefer that route.

Okay, I stole a little promo here. (you can always edit it out!)

Editor's Note: Ink actually knows diddly about FB (Facebook?), My Space and Twitter. This is probably a good thing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ludicrosity of Words

Ah, winter. How we love you. And your plagues.

So, here on the outskirts of The City of Windsor, the Zombie Plague has become the Zombie Throat Infection Immune to Antibiotics, which has in turn bred the Zombie Ulcers of the Throat and Mouth. It's like Shaun of the Dead around here. Only without the laughter.

Luckily, this means I get to partake of a bucketful of medication. But the medication amused me, and got me thinking about the above ludicrosity of words. I think these pharmaceutical companies really have to hire me. They need an image boost, and their current copy writers just aren't getting the job done.

Example of note: one of my medications is contained in "a pleasantly flavoured aqueous vehicle". Mmmmmmmm. Yum. I mean, man, I'm thirsty. I could really use a pleasantly flavoured aqueous vehicle right now.

Yes, Apo-Benzydamine, I'm looking at you. And you call yourself pleasant. Where you from? Apotex Inc.? Geez, I'm salivating already. Line that stuff up. Time to party.

I mean... aqueous vehicle? Is it just me or does that sound like some sort of new underwater tank designed for amphibious landings?

So, fellow sophisticates, have you stumbled on any ludicrous uses of words recently?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The End. What? It's Not The End?

Gotta love Calvin and Hobbes. But this is not only funny! I have a point to make! I think. Maybe.

I was thinking this cartoon can serve as an apt description for certain stories I've read, and certain struggles I think a lot of us writers have during the drafting process. Conflict and tension... and resolution. It's nice to resolve things, to have that moment where the character overcomes the obstacle and succeeds. But sometimes success is dangerous. We resolve something... and the story stops. And then has to jerk forward into movement again.

It's like a car that always stalls. Vroom vroom vroom... phut. Chugga chugga vroom vroom vroom... phut. It's one of the challenges of writing, I think, particularly for a novel or a longer work. It's easy to fall into a periodic trap of conflict, resolution... conflict, resolution... conflict, resolution. It's easy to get caught up writing specific incidents rather than writing a specific story.

I have a feeling this is what creates the sense of anti-climactic moments in a novel. Yay! We conquered! Okay. Um, what now? Calvin and Hobbes have shot each other... and, well, the game's sort of over. But in a novel it's all about reaching the end. It's about the pull, how one element drags the reader to the next. It's not about incidents, but about their interconnectedness.

So how do you avoid making your story too episodic? Anyone have any tricks, techniques or philosophies?

Part of what made me think of this is a book I read recently, a novel by a Czech writer, Radka Denemarkova, called Money from Hitler. This was an intense novel, a novel that was, in many senses, quite brutal. Partly for the content, the events, but partly just for that unrelenting intensity, the fevered pitch of it. Have you ever heard that old writing maxim "You have to be cruel to your characters"? Denemarkova, I think, has truly mastered this idea. And part of it has to do with how she handles conflicts and resolutions. There are resolutions (of a small scale) throughout the story, but almost never without an equal or greater conflict overwhelming it. There's satisfaction, but satisfaction always within a greater tension. The pull of this novel, from scene to scene, is unrelenting.

I'm not sure every novel could bear quite this level of intensity, like a tuning fork that never stops humming. But there's something in that idea of settling resolutions within greater moments of tension.

The problem, funnily enough, is that sometimes the resolutions are too resolute, too satisfying, too finished. Have you ever read a book where you reached a satisfying resolution at the end of a chapter and snapped the book shut... only to leave it sitting on the table for a few days? I've done that. The resolution was fine, quite satisfying. Too satisfying. I was happy. Tension resolved, nothing left hanging... now why was it that I have to go back and keep reading, again?

Sometimes the real resolution has to be kept just around the corner, almost unattainable. Close, but just out of reach. Gotta keep them grasping, turning those pages...

So, what do you think? What creates that pull for you in books? What drags you on to the very end? How do you approach pacing and flow in your own stuff? Hooking the reader is great... reeling them in can be even harder.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Joy of Dictatorship

If I ever want to write an excruciatingly awkward conversation, I'm just going to get a copy of the Academy Awards presentation. Is it just me, or is that thing almost painful to watch? Fluttery interviewers, small-talking stars, fumbling handshakes and well-wishes... ouch. Just ouch.

And then awkward repartee from speakers, cameras zooming in for a combination of dull or nervous close-ups, everyone uber-stiff because they don't know when the camera is going to be on them...

It's funny, because if this were a book or a movie the script would be awful. Is it just me? Am I the only one who wanted to get out a red pen and start editing?

I did think it was very interesting, though, how they revealed the nominees for the best original and adapted screenplay categories, offering up a bit of the actual script dialogue and direction while the movie scenes played in the background. Any of you other fiction writers out there get struck by the disparity between a script and a book (or finished film, for that matter)? So stark. And some of the writing seemed kind of lame on the page. Empty. Maybe it's good I'm a prose guy. What would I do with all those metaphors bouncing around my brain?

Anyone here write screenplays at all? What's the approach? How's it different from writing fiction?

It's odd, really, being the huge movie buff that I am, I've never really felt a desire to write a screenplay. Just... no. Maybe it's the sense of control in writing fiction. A story is mine. I own it, I control it. I shape everything about it. I have divinity at my fingertips.

But, in some senses, a screenplay is just a guideline. It's the director who ends up shaping the story, and even that is a hugely collaborative process. Cameramen, actors, editors, designers... film is about group. When it comes to the creative process, it seems that I, sadly, am not.

Anyone else like me? Horribly selfish and grasping? Revelling in the joys of dictatorship?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Courtesy and Critique: A Plea

I think we all know that offering a critique on another writer's work is a sensitive business. I mean, these are our wee cuddly babies up on the chopping block. Which is why it always surprises me how harsh some people can be. A bit of a throat-cutter, the ol' critique business.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me. I know a lot of the harshest critiques are more about ego than anything else. There's a faction of critters where the harshness is the entire point, harshness and devaluation being part of a process of power acquisition. It's a dynamic, the critter placing themself above the story being critiqued, and thus above the other writer. It's a bit of a show, usually, with these people. A rhetorical display, a chance to show their knowledge and their wit. It's a bit like animals in a pack, jockeying for position and mating rights. Grrrrr. It's about the power. But we're not a feral pack here, and any such power gained comes needlessly at the expense of another writer.

Harsh. But I understand it, and understand that it has less to do with the critique process than it does the psychological need of the critter, the need to assert themselves.

Yet what puzzles me even more, at times, is another sort of harsh critique. This kind will often have a fair bit of constructive criticism... but offered harshly, with snark and bluntness and very little kindness. And the reasoning for this, as is so often given, is that the publishing world is tough and harsh. Get used to it. They're doing you a favour.

This logic seems bankrupt to me. There's an element of social irresponsibility to this sort of reasoning. I mean, you don't hear people say "Hey, I stole your wallet. Really it's for your own good. It's tough out there. This'll prepare you for all the petty crime in the world. Buck up, you can take it."

It's a reasoning that is essentially irrational and selfish. There's lots of pollution in the world, so it doesn't matter if I pollute a little myself. Lots of people steal, so it's no big deal if I steal myself. It's essentially self-justification. I can't really be bothered to be kind or considerate... the minimal (if any) effort required is simply too much. And yet I'm not selfish, oh no... it's for your own good. It's a tough world out there and you have to be tough...

And they can take it themselves! So they say. And so it must be okay. They're tough... why not you? But just because I like to hold my hand in an open flame to prove my toughness and to convince myself there's purity in pain, well, this doesn't mean it's okay for me to force other peoples' hands into the fire.

The basic fact is this: a critique is supposed to help someone. And if you're hurting them you're not helping them. Yes, even if you have a lot of sharp, constructive criticism to offer. Presentation is often as important as content. And if your presentation is hurtful it often obscures the helpful. The positive elements are lost behind the harsh facade, lost behind the hurtful words. And, to me, that is simply a bad critique. That is simply bad writing. Remember, these are wee cuddly babies we're talking about.

Case in point:

"I know a great music class your ugly toddler would love."

So... who'd be signing up for that class?