I poured my soul into the city’s streets, and there it still resides.

– Orhan Pamuk, “The Ship on the Golden Horn”

The reader is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn’t realize that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.

– Dr. Greenslade in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages

The things they carried the things they carried in

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I made a promise to myself to try something new: getting out of the office more when I’m writing. If the past month is anything to go by, I’m not very good at keeping my promises. Choosing a third place wasn’t difficult, but remembering to go there was — and when I did go, I didn’t work on my novel. (I should say, my novels, because while working on one, another suddenly sprang into existence.)

To work away from my desk, I have to take things with me — pens (you can never have too many), paper, a laptop, manuscript pages, a couple of books. I have plenty of briefcases or bags to choose from, because I’ve been accumulating the things for years. The one I’ve settled on for “writing out there” is the red Filson 257 briefcase pictured above, which has lots of pockets, is wide enough to stand on its own, and isn’t likely to be left behind on account of its flaming color.

Here’s hoping it will see more use in the month to come than it has so far. As long as the books get written, though, I suppose it doesn’t matter where.

The Bruegel of the Ozarks paints an American danse macabre

In my review at Books & Culture, I join the chorus of praise for Daniel Woodrell’s latest novel The Maid’s Version:

 The story flows like a jigsaw of recollection, zooming forward and back in time, recalling both victims and survivors, chronicling the accidents of chance that determined who would live and who would die. In the hands of another writer, this multi-generational saga might run to a thousand pages, but Woodrell fits it into nearly a tenth of that space, compressing the action into sinuous, winding sentences, packing chapters of observation into the course of a few lines.

I’ve always been impressed with how much Woodrell accomplishes with each of his sentences. This drum-tight little novel is impressively full. If you haven’t started reading Woodrell, it’s not a bad place to start — and you should be reading him. You really should.

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Past Lives in Present Tense

The paintings of Paolo Uccello, who is best known for his depiction of the battle of San Romano (shown here), depict life in the mid-fifteenth century with a panache that is anything but medieval. These vivid, rounded, luxurious images are part of the reason the fifteenth century has always fascinated me. They are mysterious and stylized, crowded with the violent ballet of battle yet strangely beautiful, and a reminder that in Italy the Renaissance was a long-established trend before anyone in frigid northern Europe jumped aboard.

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 The novel I am working on now is a departure in some ways from my previous books. For one thing, part of the story takes place in the 1450s, whereas my Roland March novels are set in contemporary Houston, Texas. Like the fantasy novelist, the author of historical fiction needs to invest a certain effort in building the fictional world. A modern setting can be easily embellished by the reader’s imagination. You can leave blanks knowing they will be handily filled. When you write about the past––especially the medieval past we know primarily through cliches and loose film representations––there’s no guarantee that the reader will be able to paint the world on her own. It’s hard enough as an author to stay immersed in your own version of the past.

While I love the old adventure novels of Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, and Stanley Weyman, the sketchy approach to the details of the past these authors sometimes took makes it hard not to picture the action transpiring not in a realized world but in a Victorian stage version of the swashbuckling past. Dumas especially can get quite breezy, relying on dialogue to an extent that is quite current … but not especially convincing. Another way of putting it is this: the characters always seem like actors in costume.

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On the other hand, there’s a danger in providing too much information, forcibly educating the reader at the expense of the story. The days of wanting historical fiction sprinkled with guidebook descriptions of, say, Venetian palazzo architecture are over. For me the answer is to write about people of the past primarily as people. In that sense, I don’t think of what I’m doing as historical fiction at all. It’s just fiction.

Uccello might seem regally quaint to modern eyes, but his work was contemporary art when he made it. He was no more trying to be medieval than the monks who invented Gregorian chant were trying to sound “more dark ages.” For a writer like me, the value of being immersed in a culture of  bygone ages is the access it gives to past lives lived in present tense, lived with immediacy and not a trace of stilted speech or silly costume.

To Theology Nerds: Read More Fiction

Yesterday the Gospel Coalition was gracious enough to publish an interview with me, and I was ungracious enough to suggest to an audience of theology wonks that they ought to read more fiction. Philip Wade and Lars Walker pitched the questions, and I answered as best I could, addressing themes in my Roland March novels and some of my thoughts on what it means to be a novelist influenced by theological commitments.

Cover of "On Moral Fiction (A Harper Torc...

Cover via Amazon

Back to theologians. The problem is that, like scientists, they sometimes assume that because fiction is made up, it must also be untrue. “Why would I read something that isn’t even true?” To dispel this myth, I always invoke John Gardner’s explanation of fiction’s method from On Moral Fiction:

Fiction cares as much about the truth as science does, only their methods differ. As John Gardner wrote, fiction goes after understanding by creating characters who subtly embody values, then testing the truth of those values through drama. Once you understand that point, it opens up a world of hermeneutic possibilities.

To be honest, though, my responses aren’t my favorite part of the interview. I like  the introduction. As humbling as it is to see your life’s work ably summarized in three paragraphs, it’s pretty helpful, too! My thanks to Philip and Lars and to the Gospel Coalition for helping to share my work with a new audience.

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Reading with Friends

Reading a book is the universal symbol that you want to be left alone. A book in hand wards off unwanted attempts at conversation on plane or train, essentially transforming public space into private. Even listening to music via headphones is more communal, since your tunes can be faintly overheard. Reading is deadly silent apart from the turning of pages or the tapping and scrolling of screens. Because we perceive reading as a form of solitude, whenever we encounter readers in the wild, we tend to leave them be.

Reading a book in public is also an invitation. If you were reading a private letter, I wouldn’t intrude. The same goes for your smartphone screen. But read a book and I will do my best to get a look at the page, to figure out what you’re reading so I can know more about you. I don’t feel bad about this snooping, because reading a book in public is also a secret handshake, and I’m an initiate. As a fellow traveler I know that your gesture isn’t meant to exclude me.

The invitation and the secret handshake are more important to me than the isolation, which is why I keep committing to read with friends. To begin with, I only did this in the context of book clubs, but now the practice had branched out. Last year my friend Jeff discovered Patricia Highsmith and decided to read her Ripliad, five novels that feature  high brow sociopath Tom Ripley. Was I interested in reading along with him? The books were enjoyable, but being able to talk about them was better still. All too often we have to keep the private world of fiction to ourselves.

Earlier this summer, my friend Anthony started a Facebook group called “Swann’s Way Summer,” devoted to reading the first installment in Marcel Proust’s epic In Search of Lost Time. I signed on, having always wanted to get past page ten of Swann’s Way. (I succeeded, but it’s no longer summer and I’m still far from finished.) Writing a novel makes reading them harder. Supplement your daily output with a dose of Proust and you’ll throw out most of what you write out of envy and shame. You would think that under the circumstances, I would decline any additional group reading projects.

You would be wrong.

Today Jeff got in touch with an idea to re-live our Ripliad glory. This time the five novels would be John Buchan’s Richard Hannay books, which we have now dubbed the Hannaiad. Fortunately I’ve already read The 39 Steps (and seen every film adaptation, of which there are many). I’m even two pages into Greenmantle. Jeff’s suggestion corresponded to a desire I already had, which is why the Penguin edition of the complete Hannay novels has been on my shelf for the past few months. My only regret is that I didn’t buy the Folio Society set of the five novels I came across in San Diego back in June. That would have been perfect.

There’s a lot to be said for solitude. We don’t get enough of it these days. Strange as it sounds, reading with friends doesn’t deprive you of solitude. It lets you share the solitude with someone else.

 

Going Negative

For many of the best, most adventurous novelists, in fact, negative criticism is an essential part of defining their own artistic identity.

That’s Adam Kirsch writing in The New York Times about novelists reviewing other writers’ books. Life is too short to waste time on bad books, and no one who has managed to write a novel (even a bad one) wants to wound a fellow traveler by administering harsh public criticism. You make an enemy of the writer and gain a reputation for cruelty in a literary culture in which people are mainly just trying to get along.

Part of a writer’s artistic formation, however, involves self-definition, which is achieved often enough by reacting against some norm. In this act of very personal comparing and contrasting, you can’t define yourself without standing up against what you are not, what you will not accept, what is beneath you, and so on. For writers who take the process public, criticism becomes not just a way of discovering one’s artistic self but also “a means of educating the public, preparing readers for the revolution in taste they [want] to sponsor.”

I haven’t done a great deal of reviewing, and when I have, I have tended to gravitate toward books and authors I admire (which is part of the process of creative formation, too). Nevertheless, there was a period in my own development as a writer in which it was important to be defined over against the “other.” It hasn’t ended, really. The only shift, I suppose, is that these days I would rather hear these assertions of difference from readers and other reviewers rather than declaring them myself.

Streaming movies isn’t as great as I thought it would be

We made a momentous decision last night, my wife and I. After several years doing without, we added DVDs back to our Netflix plan. Some of the good stuff isn’t available for streaming, and the pathetic interface makes what is available difficult to access. Here are some of the shortcomings:

  1. The interface offers a finite number of slots, each represented by cover art.
  2. Each category seems to be limited to between ten to twenty titles.
  3. Many titles are repeated in multiple categories, eating up valuable real estate.
  4. Films you’ve watched don’t disappear from the interface to be replaced by new ones, again wasting valuable space. (This is a major disappointment.)
  5. The categorization features are limited and superficial. Fewer than a dozen top level genre options, each with five or six sub-lists, and then you’re done. After that you have to rely on the search feature.
  6. The search feature is the worst available compared to iTunes, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime.

The limitations of Netflix led me to add Hulu Plus to the mix (mainly for the Criterion Collection, which sadly is only available in part). Since we already paid for Amazon Prime, we have that option for streaming video, too. Then there’s YouTube, which comes through in a pinch.

Cover of "1001 Movies You Must See Before...

I’ve seen them, but I’m still not ready to die.

Despite the convenience of instant streaming on whichever device happens to be handy, all these  services combined still don’t seem to offer what Netflix did originally, when the service was limited to renting DVDs: namely, breadth. In the early days of Netflix, I bought a copy of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die, added the ones I hadn’t seen already to my queue, and enjoyed a year’s worth of remedial film education. I don’t think I could manage the same thing today even with so many streaming options. There are lots of services, but their offerings are stacked toward recent pop culture. The farther back in time you go, the spottier the coverage.

Surely there’s a good streaming service out there for budding cinephiles. Until I discover it, I am going back to my DVD queue.

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Clearing the deck

Before heading into battle, the wooden warships of old passed the command to clear the decks. Hammocks would be cleared from the gun decks, cabin walls temporarily struck, putting the whole vessel on a footing for war. I do the same thing when I start a new novel. I must clear the decks and put my life on a footing for writing.

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A clean sweep, more or less.

As I’ve said before, the writer’s space reflects the writer’s mind. One way to gauge mental transformations is to look at physical ones. In other words, you can tell I’m getting ready, because I’ve straightened up my desk.

This isn’t cleaning, it’s clearing. The space isn’t spick and span, or even tidy. But it is arranged. This ritual ordering has more to do with settling into the space, reconciling myself to a prolonged creative residency, than dusting surfaces and putting scraps of paper in the bin.

In this case, I’m not beginning a novel but resuming work on one I had to put aside earlier in the year. I might as well be starting over, though, which is the only way I know how to start again. My notes are typed up. My desk is comparatively bare. My mind is reconciled. It is time to go to work.

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