LESS IS MORE: A CASE FOR BREVITY IN OUR BOOKS

by Nancy Means Wright

For those who begin writing in their sixties, seventies, even eighties, the tenet “less is more” literally applies. Less time left to complete a long work, yet more years of living to write about. Now that I’m in that season of life myself, I love to discover late blooming writers. There are many, of course. like Wallace Stegner, or Harriet Doerr who published a debut novel in her seventies. But few are as brilliant as British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, who resembled, as writer Julian Barnes whimsically described in The New Yorker, “some harmless, jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world.”

Grandmother she was, but hardly harmless–every word a polished dart. Her first novel tiptoed into the world when she was sixty; her last, The Blue Flower, about poet Novalis’s real life infatuation with a twelve-year-old girl, appeared when the author was eighty. She was, as she quipped, “an old writer who had never been a young one”– a crusty eccentric who dyed her hair with tea bags, ate blackboard chalk to counter a calcium deficiency, and wore clothes, as her biographer Hermione Lee wrote: “curiously constructed, I think, out of curtains.” Fitzgerald wasn’t wholly ignorant of the writing world; rather she grew up “dipped in ink.”

Her father was editor of the satirical Punch, her brother a Cambridge don and WW2 code breaker; her mother wrote off and on for The Manchester Guardian. She worked for the BBC and married a handsome Irish ex-soldier, Desmond Fitzgerald. Together they ran a cultural magazine that published writers like J.D. Salinger before he penned The Catcher in the Rye.

But her husband’s psyche had been damaged in the WWI fighting. He fell to pieces, the magazine failed, and his wife was left to raise their three children. Ultimately homeless, the family slept and ate on a dark, leaky barge in the Thames River. “I’m sorry I’m late,” Fitzgerald famously announced one day at the school where she taught, “but our house sank.” The barge had capsized at high tide with all their possessions, books, and family papers turned to pulp. Only the cat was saved, clinging to the mast.

That cryptic comment was typical of Fitzgerald, who came from a family of few words. When the alcoholic husband died, she at last had a room of her own, and the words poured from her pen. She drew on her own life experience for novels like The Bookshop and Offshore (that leaky barge)–the latter won the Booker Prize in 1979. She set fiction in times and places she’d never experienced: Innocence is set in Florence; The Beginning of Spring in revolutionary Russia; The Blue Flower in 18th-century Germany.  She treated the drama of personal defeats “as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

Most of the books are under 200 pages. Less is more. “I feel drawn to whatever is spare, subtle, and economical,” she declared. “I try to make everything quite clear, but then I think, this is an insult to the reader…and so I begin to cut out, whole chapters go.” She worried about endings, too, that she might wax sentimental, or that she might explain too much–and so she pared them to the bone. (I think here of some TV versions of mystery novels, in which the last several minutes attempt to explain every moment of a crime. I personally deplore this dull recapitulation.)

In the last scene of Innocence, about a girl who sets her hearts on a bullheaded doctor who resolves to be emotionally dependent on no one (the Boston Globe called it “a delectable comedy of manners”), the despondent young doctor asks “What’s to become of us? We can’t go on like this.” And the character Cesare, who tends to silence, replies: “Yes, we can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives.”

And so Fitzgerald wrote to her final breath at age eighty-three. The Blue Flower has fifty-five short chapters, some only a page or two. Each detail is momentary but vividly imagined–like the evasive blue flower, which appears to be something ineffable that we seek in our lives, but seldom find. It’s that greater truth we long for, perhaps, now captured by the writer–in a few carefully chosen words.

Consequences

When my kids were younger my wife and I tried to teach them that their actions had consequences. We hoped they would become adults who gave some thought to what they might do before they did it. As William James put it, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” Today as I read the newspaper or watch the news on TV, I think that’s a principle that people in general have lost sight of, and many of the problems we face are a result of that loss.

The radical Islamist attack on Charlie Hebdo was barbaric, savage beyond belief. Nothing—religion, politics, personal spite—could justify it. But the staff of the magazine knew that the material they were publishing was offensive to such people. They have every right to publish whatever they choose, but I wonder if they thought about the consequences. People have a right to poke a hornets’ nest with a stick, if they choose, but I would urge them to consider what might happen if they do.

I sympathize entirely with Sony over the hack which took place last fall, and I support their right to make movies on any subject they choose, but I wonder if anybody, during a pre-production meeting, raised a hand and said, “You know, the North Koreans can be pretty sensitive about their leader. Are we prepared for their reaction? Is what we’ll gain from this project worth the blowback we may experience?”

As W. Somerset Maugham said, “You can do anything in this world if you are prepared to take the consequences.” In our ever-shrinking world, we have to be aware of the hornets’ nests around us and consider the consequences if we choose to poke them with a stick. As westerners we live in what we call the 21st century. Most of us believe in an open society in which men and women of all races, nationalities and faiths should be respected and given the right to live as they see fit. We understand that, in order for us to live the way we want, we have to allow others to live as they choose.

Unfortunately, people in some other parts of the world don’t look at things that way. They see themselves as right and others, by definition, as wrong. And they believe they have the right—even the duty—to enforce their “correct” way of thinking or believing on everyone else, even to the extent of killing those who refuse to agree with them. We live in a global society and, as John B. Larson said, “Globalization is not a monolithic force but an evolving set of consequences—some good, some bad and some unintended. It is the new reality.”

In the light of this new reality I don’t suggest that we limit our own freedoms, just that we think one step further about what might happen when we do or say something. Just because we can do something, that doesn’t mean we should do it. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”

Then. Now.

Wendy Hornsby

Let’s talk about grief for just a bit. Personal grief, collective grief, fictional grief. I’m not talking about feeling grief, per se, but about conveying onto the page the way that grief feels. I struggle with this. An editor once said to me, after reading what I thought was a heart wrenching, grief-filled passage, “Haven’t you ever lost anyone dear to you? Tell me how that felt.” Therein lies the crux of the problem: how is that done without getting maudlin, boring, or profligate with clichés?

After that conversation, I took a little time off from the book in progress to write a short story, “High Heels through the Headliner,” about a writer who was stuck with that very problem. My protagonist went to deadly extremes in order to feel various emotions so she could write about them. She asks the daughter of the victim of a horrible murder how she feels: “Scorched, hollow, riven, shredded, iced in the gut? What?” But the only answer she got was, “Poor Mom.” Hardly what she hoped for.

While I struggled with the problem, looking for guidance I read a book by one of my very favorite authors because in the book the series protagonist had just suffered a terrible loss. What I found was, every time the suspense began to build our heroine went to bed and pulled the covers over her head. Immediately, all story momentum stopped dead. And my interest with it.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross defined the stages of grief, and that has helped me some: fresh loss, new reality, old pain, each gets an emotional niche, untidy as the borders between might be. It is the untidiness of emotion that is both interesting and difficult to write about.

My mysteries are less about Who Done It and more about Why Done It. I also try to show how far-ranging and long-lasting the effects of trauma are. Indeed, as I conducted research for 77th Street Requiem, which is based on a real, unsolved murder that happened forty years ago now, I saw firsthand how that one event, the murder, created a powerful black undertow that, two generations later, is still a drag on the lives of the survivors. Drugs, alcohol, prison—those are ramifications I can write about. But the underlying disruption of the soul, that’s tricky.

There can be long-term community grief, as well. Think of the effects of war, terrorism, fire, flood, earthquake. And of course, 9/11, and now Charlie Hebdo.

I lost one of my dearest friends a couple of weeks ago. I could wallow in tears and self-pity for a while longer, but I can hear Sharon scold, “Enough of that, already,” if I did. Instead, I have been thinking quite a lot about her. We were friends for twenty years, travel buddies, confidants. When I met her, Sharon worked on Wall Street, an executive VP with one of the investment giants on Wall Street, and she wrote wonderful mystery novels. She loved her life. Every morning, she ferried across the Hudson into Lower Manhattan, and the adventure of new day began. And then came 9/11.

Sharon called me from her office that morning just after the second jet plowed into the second of the World Trade Towers; she had seen it from her office. We were still on the phone when the towers began to collapse. Immediately, her world was engulfed in a gray cloud of toxic dust. We had met not long after the Northridge earthquake. When I saw her office building for the first time, I reacted like a native Californian: What’s your earthquake exit plan? She laughed. I sent her lighted spelunking headgear as a joke, so she could see her way down the stairs from the 26th floor when the quake came. On 9/11, she walked down those stairs with only the light from her cellphone to guide her. And then she walked fifty blocks uptown through that horrible dust, to get a ferry home. Her life—all of our lives—was never the same again.

After 9/11, Sharon never wrote another book. Or was as ebulliently happy or ever again as healthy as she was on the morning before the jets crashed through our lives. She certainly did not wallow in tears or indulge in self-pity. She still took great joy in life. But her life had changed.

This is what grief feels like to me: You’re walking through an ordinary day, you blink your eyes, and when you open them you’re in a strange country. You don’t want to be there. You don’t speak the language and you resist learning it. None of the floors are level. No matter what you do, you can’t get home again. Over time, you accommodate yourself to this new place. You might become comfortable even. But, oh, how you long to go back, even if just for a visit.

Life’s Phases

TWISTEDTHREADSLea Wait here, wishing you (a bit late) a Happy New Year!Lea on Wiscasset town pier

New years are the time to think back on the past …and to make plans for the future. For almost thirty years now at this time of year I’ve made a list of my goals for the coming year. Reviewing them during the year helps me stay on course; focus on the big picture, not just the day-to-day necessities. When I started making those lists   I was depressed, working in a large corporation, and single. My children were teenagers, I was caring for my mother, and the lists I made were steps to be where I hoped my future would  be: living in Maine and writing fiction.

I moved to Maine in 1998. My thirteenth book, TWISTED THREADS: A MAINELY NEEDLEPOINT mystery, was just published. I’m also married to the man I’d loved most of my life, I have eight grandchildren, and my life revolves  around my writing, my husband’s art, and my family. I’ve never been happier.

When I think about the thirty  (yes – thirty) years I spent in corporate life, they now seem only a bridge between my childhood, my college years, and my life today.

I can divide my life further: there were the years I lived in Greenwich Village, working during the day and going to grad school at night. The four years in my twenties when I was married. The years when my daughters were young and I was very involved in adoption and adoption advocacy. The years of caring for my mother full-time. The years when only a little of what I wrote was published. Some of those years were wonderful; some were not.  But all those years are a part of who I am today. I wouldn’t write what I do or live the way I do without every one of those phases.

And at this time of year, as I plan for 2015 and beyond, I know plans can and will be interrupted by life. Unanticipated events can change everything.

But, for now, life is good. I’m writing. My husband is  painting. We love living in Maine, supporting each other in our chosen work, and sharing good food, good friends, and good memories.

At this beginning of 2015, I wish you the same.

Don’t Read This

If you don’t want to read something that will make you sad or angry, don’t read this. I wish I hadn’t seen that news story on Channel 7 the other night. Whenever I think humans are taking steps toward compassion and understanding, our meanness comes roaring out of  the pit where we keep shoving it, shocking and sickening us.

About a year ago, California established a ban on selling or creating foie gras.

Everyone involved in its production, and its spoiled consumers, screamed in pain. How can you take away this delicacy? How can you attack our delusions of aristocracy? Do you like ducks better than people?

Torturing ducks to death to please human palates may or may not be the worst thing the factory farmers do. But I’m guessing it’s one of the top three. I’m also guessing that most of the foie gras sold does not come from animals who have been humanely slaughtered. The news story, based on videos—I don’t recall who took them–was graphic. The force-feeding that so distorted their bodies that they couldn’t move, the rat-infested pens where they sat helpless, easy prey to hungry rodents.

And now the ban has been overturned. How can this happen?

When I lived closer to the Petaluma River, I walked the dogs there in the morning. One day I saw a pair of river otters. All kinds of water birds swam and fed there. In the spring, the mother mallards would come out of their nests, hidden deep in the creeks, leading their broods on a daily swim. One day, as I stood above the water, a mother swimming close to the opposite shore took one look at me and swam around her babies to put her own body between them and me. I moved on. This was her home. I was just visiting. She was right to be wary of me.

 

 

Worst Thriller Clichés

We’ve all sat there watching a thriller and suddenly thought, “Are you kidding me?  That always happens. Give me a break!”  Or you shout at the screen (hopefully only at home) when a pair of sleuths splits up, “No!  Stick together!  You’re tracking a psycho–there’s safety in numbers.”  And if you’re a writer: “Seriously?  I would never have written the scene that way!”

There are a lot of clichés in thrillers, but the one that’s been working my last nerve lately is connected to lighting. I don’t mean cinematography. I meant people’s lights.

In movie after movie, TV show after TV show, miniseries after miniseries, I see a heroine or hero walk into an apartment, townhouse, home, condo, loft or whatever without turning on any lights.  None.

The protagonist may put down a purse, briefcase, or keys, but often will just walk from one room to another without flicking a wall switch or even turning on a single lamp anywhere.  Sometimes there’s a stop for a drink–in the dark, of course, with only light from outside or possibly from a nightlight or the inside of a fridge.

Sometimes, if it’s a woman, she’ll even head right straight for the bathroom.  But it’s only at that point she finally turns on a light and the shower or gets the water running for the tub. In that case, you can be sure that she’ll have kicked off her heels en route and started to strip so that we can see her body, and see it outlined against the darkness (that’s the “femjep” cliché at work).

In the darkness, of course, villains can grab our protagonists, terrorize them, strangle them, knock them out, or sneak out of the home they’ve been burglarizing or planting listening devices in while nobody spots them.

It’s a super tiresome cliché. I don’t believe all these thriller protagonists are meant to be models for us of saving electricity. Or that their vision is so good they’re not afraid of tripping or stubbing a toe in the dark.

It’s especially egregious when someone has already been threatened, stalked, mugged, assaulted, shot, kidnapped or otherwise harmed in the story–and still the protagonists don’t seem to care that their homes are dark and anything can happen to them in the shadows.

My parents would approve, though, because they were always complaining that I wasted electricity and left lights on when I wasn’t home. And that was before I was a mystery writer. Now that I’ve published seven mysteries and one suspense novel and been watching and studying screen thrillers for years, I’m extra cautious about turning lights on.

And I’m mighty glad we don’t have a basement because I would never want to go down there even if it were as well-lit as Times Square. Because you know what kinds of mayhem happens in basements….

basement

I’ve had my say.  So which thriller clichés bug you the most?

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking, and gun violence. You can read about his 24 other books at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.

My Favorite Historicals

I have always loved reading, especially historicals. Historical novels and their ability to send you whirring across the centuries have always seemed seductive to me. I’m sure that I’ve read thousands, but a few stand out.

I started out reading Kenneth Roberts’ Revolutionary War novels, broad tapestries that carried us through that often misunderstood war, but it was Herman Wouk’s World War II epics The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War that truly drew me in. Wouk’s strengths lie in his ability to create a believable world. When you read The Caine Mutiny, you find yourself on the Caine. But in a larger sense, both books are romances – I’m of the opinion that all novels have a romance at their heart. Willie Keith’s quest for Mae Wynn is, in many ways, ultimately as important as the mutiny itself.

In brief, the story follows the adventures of Willie Keith, a budding pianist and scion of a wealthy New York family. While his parents would prefer that Willie study literature, he wants only to play the piano in bars. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he meets a beautiful singer, Mae Wynn, and as their affair heats up, Willie is forced to join the Navy for officer training rather than be drafted as an enlisted man.

Willie is assigned to an antiquated minesweeper/destroyer, the USS Caine, a rust bucket of a ship and one that sees mostly menial duties in the Pacific, almost never sees combat. Until they encounter a typhoon one night, while the ship is commanded by Captain Philip Queeg, a deeply-flawed man. Fearful that the captain’s actions will cause the ship to founder and sink, the officers essentially mutiny and relieve the captain of his command, sparking a mutiny court martial.

I loved this book when I first read it, and it is one of those that I can re-read time and time again. But it was brought home to me again in the fall of 2002. I took a job through the Navy College to teach courses onboard one of our amphibious ships during its Atlantic crossing and Med cruise. But what should have been a pleasure cruise turned into a cruise into war.

Wouk’s strengths lie in creating atmosphere, the tedium of life onboard ship, the tension of those rare and fleeting moments of combat, the petty tyrannies of an overbearing captain. And while I felt all of those emotions when I first read Wouk, it was only on that cruise that I understood how truly accurate and skillful Herman Wouk really was.

There was the Atlantic crossing where rough seas sent dozens of sailors to their bunks. Standing the bridge during our Gibraltar transit when a small fishing boat came at us from the Moroccan coast, refusing to divert or even acknowledge our hails. The fear and suspense when we were ordered through the Suez Canal and into a war zone. The uncertainty when al-Qaeda was reported to be planning attacks on US ships with small aircraft. The palpable tension when we were ordered near the Yemen coast to participate in a search and rescue mission, a situation that could have been a ploy to get us close enough to launch a USS Cole type attack.

And there were the captains, neither really Queeg-like, but each with his own idiosyncracies. The captain who stormed across the bridge, cursing and demanding that a machine gun be brought to the bridge so he could fire the first shot. It was a coed ship – something that neither Willie Keith or Captain Queeg had to face – and one captain would not allow men and women to sit within three feet of each other. And when we had “steel beach picnics” – cookouts on the flight deck – he would not allow men and women to dance together.

Although I had already placed The Caine Mutiny on my favorite book list, after that cruise, it moved to that even shorter list of books of a lifetime.

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