My thanks to Cathryn Hankla who tagged me in The Next Big Thing Chain! See her posting on her facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/#!/hankla1?fref=ts
I’m working on a few short stories, all of which investigate parallels between humans and animals. I’ve also started a new novel that takes place in a rural setting and includes gardening, climate change, and marriage. It’s too early to say much more than that. Novels grow slowly for me. While I have a sense of the whole picture and usually of the ending, the characters take time to solidify, and so much of the novel always depends on the relationships between them. I have to remind myself to be patient and let that happen, as well as the turns down wrong alleys.
I also have a group of poems, many which originated from dream fragments. I keep reworking them, and looking for ways to expand the group. Two of them, “Piecing Things Together” and “Cottage” appeared in the recent issue of the The Hollins Critic.
In all my writing I’m trying to bore deeper into the emotions and experiences of my characters. In my fiction, I’m using a close third person narrator to attempt this, versus a first person narrator, which I used in some of my earlier novels. I’m interested in the potential sharpness of that third person vision and also in its ability to approach and touch the character’s inner life. I’ve been re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse again, slowly, a few pages a day, feeling for her rhythms, which work so beautifully to penetrate her characters and their world.
Who would I cast in a book of mine? I can’t answer that question regarding anything new, but I would love to see the following in a filming of my recent book, Centerville, a novel.
As Elizabeth, the woman who builds a mosaic on her kitchen wall in response to the sudden death of her husband in the bombing:
Also, Ashley Judd or Kate Winslet.
As Jack, the police officer who is one of the first responders to the bombing and large fire:
As the minister, who has to face the reality of those who make up his congregation:
Also, Russell Crowe.
And as Sandi, the fourteen year old who unexplainably turns away from the drugstore instead of entering it just before the explosion occurs:
A newcomer with an expressive but innocent face.
I know I missed some possibilities, so please list them in the comments.
Inside my cottage, I feel a little like a monk. Once I’m used to the knocking pipes and the sounds of squirrels skidding across the rafters, they turn to background noises and silence descends. It fills the rooms, the same way light does when the shades are pulled up, pouring in through the tall windows. Silence in the ticking of the kitchen clock, in the whistle of the kettle, in the wind’s blustering at night. The cottage is well built, designed to maximize the light and provide ample and usable space for one person. The rooms are open and still, filled only with my books and papers, which are already piled on chairs and spread across the dining room table. In a few more days, they will cover most of the usable surfaces—the coffee table, the chairs, the bedside tables, and floor space. I have never been a tidy person.
This space informs me of what is needed by a novel—a clear architecture with which to build the scaffolding to contain the story’s light. It’s the second demand of the novel that causes its difficulties. Inside the deliberate design, inside the created space and stillness, must reside a mess—characters running every which way, knocking about, events charging through the hallways and rooms, wrong turns and sudden stops, and details that pile up and confuse. It’s human existence inside that spacious, well designed building, and suddenly, the rooms are filled with sounds not imagined and the walls are trembling.
I often think of plot as an unwinding—set the characters and a situation in motion and follow the results. Like a good researcher, take notes, and resist the urge to alter results. You might wish for proposals and weddings—that man who’s lived alone all his life and the woman with the beautiful, if chaotic, garden. But violations of this sort, the author’s desires, become intrusions. The mess you’ve allowed into your house has its own volition.
But of course, this plot you’ve established is one of your choosing. If I follow my invented plot’s unwinding, mysteriously it leads me into the center of myself. It takes all the noise and the stillness to get there. It takes that clamor, that ugliness and beauty. And the outcome is an unexpected surprise, as if I had no knowledge of my own heart.
Later one has to hope that the architecture sustains, that the structure of the building is strong enough to hold a climax and resolution. A good plot is both that clarity of purpose and the life within that threatens to bring the walls down.
When I was writing Centerville, I struggled with the characterization of George Fowler, my fictional character who carries the bomb into Centerville’s drugstore. In some ways, my questions about the man who had done this in the town where I was growing up a number of years ago were the ones that had been the most persistent, the ones that had forced me to re-imagine the events I’d witnessed as a child and to keep the killer alive after the bombing. I wanted to know how someone would be brought to the place and time where he would do something so deliberately—collecting the parts he needed for the bomb’s construction, studying how to make it, and then placing it in a bag and carrying it into a populated store. I wanted to be able, as writer, to follow this man and get inside him so that I could figure him out.
But George Fowler as a character eluded me, and the chapters I attempted from his viewpoint came off sounding stiff. While I received advice from some very good readers to illustrate his motives, any time I attempted to show them, the realism of the novel was challenged. The more I wrote about the man, the less I felt I knew him.
The realization about George Fowler that I needed as writer in order to finish the book came late in the process, after I had put away the manuscript for more than a year and just before it was accepted for publication. That realization was simple: I couldn’t understand George Fowler, because he was not understandable. He had evaded my attempts to develop him as a character because he was an enigma, and I knew at that moment that I needed to present him as such. Any details that I used, such as his statements about his wife’s deserting him, needed to be matched by details that would show contrasting elements, such as his desire for her. A character like George Fowler, who is capable of a deliberate, planned mass killing, has so many contradicting sides that he can’t be grasped, at least not fully. These contrasting sides are part of what make it possible later for someone like the minister of his church to question how the man could have seemed so much like any other parishioner.
This is the uncomfortable truth we grapple with after any horrible incident like the one in the Connecticut elementary school—we can’t understand what made the killer do it, and we can’t find a formula or a diagnosis that would allow authorities to predict mass violence in advance. While a mass killer might seem strange or different from most people in retrospect, before the act of violence, he will usually elude recognition. The only answer, then, becomes tighter weapon control. While it may not prevent every act of violence (you could argue that a person who wants to plan a mass killing will find another way if he can’t acquire an assault rifle), we can certainly make these tragedies less easy to accomplish. While the moment of national mourning might not be the best moment to bring up a controversial issue like gun control, I hope our elected lawmakers will hear the nation’s need for change. If we don’t wake up after an event like the one in Connecticut where so many young children were slaughtered, when will we?
I lived once on a road called Star Route. It wound its way up and down the gentle hills of the Piedmont area of South Carolina. I lived in a rented house that was in bad shape with cockroach infestations, water damage, and cheap wooden paneling that had come loose from the walls of the living room.
I wanted to live in the house because of those hills and the name of the street which promised dreamy nights—the naive romantic impulses of young woman. I had a baby in that house, and my husband and I found our way through the messiness of early marriage. My books grew moldy in the back bedroom and the cockroaches always returned within a couple of months after the exterminator came—running across the counters at night, baby roaches (smaller than flees) caught under glass, chasing the hands of the little clock on the stove. But the baby thrived in the small town where mostly retired mill workers and a few odd faculty members lived, who like us had elected to do things like grow corn or raise a goat instead of living in the developments near the college.
The baby talked early, she sat on the lap of the man who lived across the street and called him “Papa.” The neighbors who called me into their kitchens if they saw me on my daily walks up and down the long Star Route insisted I drink glasses of iced tea or water. They told my daughter stories I’d never heard about fairies and witches, the ones that lived out in the country. They knew the secrets of good tomatoes. Before my daughter turned nine months, she could recite the sounds of animals they’d taught her. It was worth the roaches and the mold—the comfort of a place like that.
What happens to a small town after a sudden, unexpected act of violence? Learn how one man’s act can explode the center of small town and enter the hearts of those who knew him. Centerville: available now from West Virginia University Press, Amazon, and bookstores nationwide. http://wvupressonline.com/osborn_centerville_9781935978640
- Picture the buildings that typify small towns—the post office, the town hall, the library, a church, a store (perhaps a Five and Dime or a drugstore if the time period is more historical), the town green that lies between buildings.
- Picture the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown buildings. Draw a map. Imagine the connections between the streets.
- See the groupings of houses. Picture the connections between neighbors, the small errands and offerings of the needed cup of flour or eggs.
- See the flowers and trees that bloom in the summer, the color of the leaves in the fall.
- Hear the conversations between a cashier and a customer. They’ve seen each other weekly over the years. The cashier recognizes the children that stand in line with a mother. She knows the man who stops at the store each evening to buy a paper.
- Remember barbeques and parades. Remember festivals and church picnics.
- Write a list of invented names—the people who live in this town. Keep this list where you can refer to it. Use the names to help weave the reality of the larger group of characters that surround the story you’re telling. They are the witnesses, ultimately, to any story about their town. They hold the story.
- Visit small towns. Notice the way they are laid out. Notice their buildings and the people walking their streets.
- Slow down. Walk the streets of a small town. Feel the rhythms of the slowed life in your body.
- Let the invented streets and characters of your imagined town spin from these rhythms. Let their conversations hold the movement of a small town day.
Today in my History of the Essay course we read Francis Bacon’s “On Studies.” As we were looking at his use of parallel structure and the balanced sentence, someone commented that John Milton’s sentences are similar—they often use coordination to create balance and symmetry. The student quickly made the connection that Bacon and Milton were writing in the same century.
Thinking about those neatly balanced sentences (“Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them, for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them and above them, won by observation.”), can you imagine how Bacon and those around him saw the world? Symmetry, balance, a world that was well ordered. A world where there was little use, even, for the dependent clause, where everything was of equal importance and proportion. Now think about the use of the sentence today—the huge variety, the common use of the fragment and the dash.
The sentence: a window into another time period and a mirror of our own.
A Novel Grows from a Young Girl’s Small-town Diary
Eight years ago when I was helping my parents clean out their attic, I came upon my childhood diary. It was in a musty, damp box, filled with scraps of paper once carefully cut from magazines showing spreads of photos of the Beatles, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Vietnam War, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King. The diary was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand and the little key that had opened it was missing, so I ended up cutting the strap that bound it shut. Each page was divided into a week’s worth of small entries. My child-scrawl had recorded the details of my days—a trip to the town pool, the visit of a neighbor, a day spent building a tree fort, an afternoon with my mother choosing fabric at the Five and Dime, the acquisition of a puppy. All the events of a small-town childhood.
Half way through the diary was an entry from a single day that took up four pages, nearly three weeks of entry space. While the page above is common of my earlier entries, this one began with the words, “Boom! and then it was over.” As I read the entry, I could see the event I’d written about—the bombing of our small town’s drug store. I’d been downtown with a friend when it had happened, and we had just missed being in the store. I’d turned away as we were about to go inside to sit at the soda fountain, and instead insisted on going into a building down the street. We’d come back outside onto the sidewalk a few minutes later to see the drugstore in flames.
Unlike the earlier pages, these pages were filled with details—the names of those who were in the store, the site of the flames, the conversations of those on the streets. Reading the entry years later, I could feel the young girl’s terror and sense how this moment was a turning point in her life. The diary ended abruptly after this entry, and the remaining pages were blank. I remembered that I had bought a larger notebook after that day, knowing that the few lines provided for each day’s entry were no longer enough.
Stumbling on the diary brought back everything back. That entry, in the rough writing of a child, had the power to recreate the wall of flames and my turning away from the store just minutes before the explosion. It stands as a testament to the power of language, which holds emotions, memory, and sensual experience, all that’s both intangible and vital to what it means to be human.