Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James M. Cain

The stuff of thought

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On December 4, 1972, the ocean liner SS Statendam sailed from New York to Florida, where its passengers would witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon. The guests on the cruise included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the newscaster Hugh Downs. It’s quite a story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere at length. What I’d like to highlight today, though, is what was happening a few miles away on shore, as Tom Wolfe recounts in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Right Stuff:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity” led him to tackle a project that would consume him for the better part of a decade, driven by his discovery of “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.”

And my mind sometimes turns to the contrast between Wolfe, trying to get the astronauts to open up about their experiences, and the writers aboard the Statendam. You had Mailer, of course, who had written his own book on the moon, and the result was often extraordinary. It was more about Mailer himself than anything else, though, and during the cruise, he seemed more interested in laying out his theory of the thanatosphere, an invisible region around the moon populated by the spirits of the dead. Then you had such science fiction writers as Heinlein and Asimov, who would occasionally cross paths with real astronauts, but whose fiction was shaped by assumptions about the competent man that had been formed decades earlier. Wolfe decided to go to the source, but even he kept the pulps at the back of his mind. In his introduction, speaking of the trend in military fiction after World War I, he observes:

The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghostwritten autobiographies, and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Wolfe adds: “Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots.” And it was to pursue “the drama and psychology” of this mysterious courage in the real world that he wrote The Right Stuff.

The result is a lasting work of literary journalism, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever written, and we owe it to the combination of Wolfe’s instinctive nose for a story and his obsessiveness in following it diligently for years. Last year, in a review of John McPhee’s new collection of essays, Malcolm Harris said dryly: “I would recommend Draft No. 4 to writers and anyone interested in writing, but no one should use it as a professional guide uncritically or they’re liable to starve.” You could say much the same about Wolfe, who looks a lot like the kind of journalist we aren’t likely to see again, in part because the market has changed, but also because this kind of luck can be hard for anyone to sustain over the course of a career. Wolfe hit the jackpot on multiple occasions, but he also spent years on books that nobody read—Back to Blood, his last novel, cost its publisher a hundred dollars for every copy that it sold. (Toward the end, he could even seem out of his depth. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I never read I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one” that was published a few years after I graduated from college. Wolfe’s insights into undergraduate life, delivered with his customary breathlessness, didn’t seem useful for understanding an experience that I had just undergone, and I’ve never forgotten the critic who suggested that the novel should have been titled I Am Easily Impressed.)

But that’s also the kind of risk required to produce major work. Wolfe’s movement from nonfiction to novels still feels like a loss, and I think that it deprived us of two or three big books of the kind that he could write better than anyone else. (It’s too bad that he never wrote anything about science fiction, which is a subject that could only be grasped by the kind of writer who could produce both The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Yet it isn’t always the monumental achievements that matter. In fact, when I think of what Wolfe has meant to me, it’s his offhand critical comments that have stuck in my head. The short introduction that he wrote to a collection of James M. Cain’s novels, in which he justifiably praised Cain’s “momentum,” has probably had a greater influence on my own style—or at least my aspirations for it—than any other single piece of criticism. His description of Umberto Eco as “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac” is one that I’ll always remember, mostly because he might have been speaking of me. In college, I saw him give a reading once, shortly before the release of the collection Hooking Up. I was struck by his famous white suit, of course, but what I’ll never forget is the moment, just before he began to read, when he reached into his inside pocket and produced a pair of reading glasses—also spotlessly white. It was a perfect punchline, with the touch of the practiced showman, and it endeared Wolfe to me at times when I grew tired of his style and opinions. His voice and his ambition inspired many imitators, but at his best, it was the small stuff that set him apart.

American Stories #1: The Postman Always Rings Twice

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today.

The opening sentence of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”—is my favorite first line of any novel, and I’ve written about it here before. Yet when you look more closely at the paragraph in which it appears, you find that what Tom Wolfe praised as the “momentum” of Cain’s style is carrying you past some significant material. Here’s how it reads in full:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Cain described his narrator, Frank, as “a hobo with good grammar,” but he’s also a white man who passes easily back and forth across the border between Mexico and southern California. When he meets Cora, the wife of the doomed gas station owner Nick Papadakis, he drops a casual reference to “you people,” prompting her to shoot back: “You think I’m Mex…Well, get this. I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are.” But Frank sees to the bottom of her indignation at once: “It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.”

Yet it’s Nick Papadakis, whom Frank always calls “the Greek,” who somehow emerges as the book’s most memorable creation—he may be the most vivid murder victim in all of crime fiction—and Cain’s ability to make him real while channeling everything that we know about him through the narrator’s contempt is an act of immense technical skill. Nick is also the figure in whom the story’s secret theme comes most clearly into view. In order to be alone with Cora, Frank tricks Nick into going into town to buy a new neon sign, and he comes back with a resplendent declaration of love for his adoptive land: “It had a Greek flag and an American flag, and a hand shaking hands…It was all in red, white and blue.” Later, after Nick has unknowingly survived a botched attempt on his life, he proudly shows Frank his scrapbook: “He had inked in the curlicues, and then colored it with red, white and blue. Over the naturalization certificate, he had a couple of American flags, and an eagle.” It isn’t the murderous couple’s shared lust, but Cora’s resentment toward her immigrant husband, that really drives the story, and it spills out in her bitter words to Frank: “Do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parts printed on the back…while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts?” It still rings uncomfortably true today, and it echoed in the imagination of Cain’s most unlikely imitator. As Alice Kaplan writes in Looking for The Stranger:

When [Albert] Camus said The Postman Always Rings Twice inspired The Stranger, he didn’t go into detail. It is easy to imagine that when he observed the effect Cain got by using “the Greek” in place of a proper name, he realized he could create a similar effect by calling the murder victim in his own novel “the Arab.”

The poetry of insurance

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Wallace Stevens

If you know only one fact about the poet Wallace Stevens, it’s that he spent most of his career working as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s arguably the most famous literary day job of the twentieth century, and the contrast between what the critic Peter Schjeldahl recently called “Stevens’s seraphic art and his plodding life” tends to stick in our minds more than, say, T.S. Eliot’s stint at Lloyd’s Bank or Henry Miller’s years as a personnel manager at Western Union. In part, this is because Stevens simply stayed at his job for longer and rose higher in its ranks even after he had become the most acclaimed poet of his generation. (The story goes that he was offered a faculty position at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, but he turned it down because it would have meant giving up his position at the firm.) It’s also a reflection of how we see the insurance business, which seems like an industry suited more for painstaking drudges than for the kind of visionary personalities that we associate with poetry—although every good poet also has to be a great bookkeeper. If we want to drill down even further, we could say that there’s something inherently unpoetic about the methods of insurance itself: it deals with human beings in the aggregate, as a statistical abstraction without a face, while poetry is naturally concerned with the individual, the unquantifiable, and the unexpected.

But we can also draw a clear line between Stevens’s life at the office and the development of his poetry. In his review in The New Yorker of Paul Mariani’s new biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, Schjeldahl notes that the book “ignores the details of Stevens’s day job, probably as being too mundane to merit attention.” Yet Schjeldahl does his best to invest them with meaning, in an eloquent paragraph that has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it:

Stevens’s specialties, surety and fidelity, turn profits from cautiously optimistic bets on human nature. (Surety covers defaulted loans and fidelity employee malfeasance.) Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful. The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity.

I like this insight a lot, because there’s something to be said for a conception of poetry as an ongoing act of risk management. A rational artist wants to take on as much risk as he or she possibly can, because high risk goes with high return in art as much as it does in other kinds of investment—but only if you can live with it. If you’ve miscalculated your tolerance for volatility, as many aspiring artists do, you’re more likely to go out of business.

James M. Cain

The insurance industry also seems like a good place for a writer to learn something about the complex ways in which institutions and impersonal systems interact with human nature. Kafka’s job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institution, for instance, clearly played a crucial role in the development of his vision, and far more explicitly than it did with Stevens. But my favorite example comes from another singular voice in American letters: the novelist James M. Cain, who sold insurance for the General Accident Company in Washington D.C. He seems to have only worked there for a short time, but that’s interesting in itself—he repeatedly returned to the subject in his fiction, which implies that he regarded it as a great source of material. It provides a central part of the plot of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which are fables, in essence, about the collision of messy emotions with the clinical, depersonalized logic of the insurance business. In the former, it leads to a surprise twist that makes nonsense of the violence that came before it; in the latter, it’s a plan for the perfect crime, conceived by a crooked insurance agent, that is quickly undermined by such basic, uncontrollable emotions as greed and lust. And Cain correctly realized that the intersection between insurance and human desire was the perfect territory for noir, which is often about the contrast between what we think we can plan and what the unfair universe really has in store for us.

That’s true of poetry, too. It’s traditionally the most exacting and precise of literary forms, but it puts itself in service of emotions and ideas that resist understanding and explanation, which is another form of calculated risk. The works of a poet like Shakespeare, who was a shrewd businessman in his own right, are notable for the way in which they seem to combine total specificity of detail with oracular opacity, a combination that can only arise from an artist who knows how to surrender control while retaining enough of it to bring the work to a conclusion. A career in insurance provides one way of thinking about such problems, as long as the poet can keep the core of his spirit intact. As the poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote:

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away. So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

A poet, in short, succeeds by learning how to manage many small instances of failure, which is the definition of insurance. And Kooser would know—because he worked in insurance, too.

“Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg…”

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"Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg..."

Note: This post is the eleventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 12. You can read the previous installments here.

“Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy,” James M. Cain once said to The Paris Review. “There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” That’s true. Yet solving those problems—small or large, trivial or crucial, easy or impossible—can be a source of enormous pleasure in itself. If I was initially drawn to writing as an excuse to explore the world around me, I’ve kept at it largely because of the puzzles it tosses up along the way, which make for some of the most absorbing work imaginable. It reminds me of what Janet Malcolm says about psychoanalysis, a discipline that has a lot in common with the art of fiction. On the one hand, you have a road that leads ever further outward across the entire culture, influencing fields as different as history, criticism, law, and education; on the other, you have the road that leads inward into therapy itself, within the mysterious confines of the consulting room, “a hidden, almost secret byway traveled by few.” Malcolm notes that Freud traveled both paths. And writers find themselves doing much the same, wandering far into the wild world while also posing and solving their tiny problems like obsessives in an attic.

And writing, like analysis, is most interesting when those two halves of the process collide. A writer’s reading or direct experience might suggest an idea for a scene, but he’s also forced to reconcile it with the demands of the plot and his own structural assumptions. Anyone who enjoys puzzles can tell you that they’re more challenging in direct proportion to the number of constraints they impose. Reality, of course, yields the most productive restrictions of all. And the more carefully a particular narrative thread has to weave its way through constraints provided by the real world, the more inevitable it seems. It feels less like a solution to a problem, and more like the solution, as if the story had no choice but to move in a particular direction. In Eternal Empire, for instance, there’s a detailed subplot involving a Fabergé egg. It’s the kind of thing that feels like it would have been part of the novel’s conception from the beginning: if I were talking to another author who was writing a trilogy about Russian oligarchs and art, I’d tell him to work Fabergé in there somewhere. But it really fell somewhere in the middle of a long chain of reasoning.

"None of this is under dispute..."

As far as I can recall, my thought process went something like this: “Well, let’s see. I want Maddy, my main character, to go to work for a Russian oligarch—that’s an essential part of the plot. I’ve already established that her background is in the art world, so it makes sense that she’d be working for him in that capacity. He’s a nationalist and deeply involved in politics, so maybe he’s trying to repatriate cultural artifacts back to Russia. Okay, that works. So I need to build the subplot around a particular art object. I’ve already done icons in the previous novel, so what else is there? A Fabergé egg? That feels right. It’s certainly fits into the larger themes of the series. So I should see if there’s one that I can use. [Gets a book from the library on Fabergé eggs, spends hours looking at pictures online.] All right. Here’s the Peter the Great egg. Inside, there’s a tiny figurine of a rider on horseback. And I’ve already used that image elsewhere in the novel. That isn’t so surprising, since it’s a common symbol in Russian iconography. So it sounds promising. Let’s see, then. It says that the Peter the Great egg is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. So I need Maddy to work on repatriating it. But how?”

And that’s how Chapter 12 of the novel ended up taking place in Virginia. Maddy meets with the director of the museum and lays out a complicated case for repatriation, based on the egg’s provenance, the museum’s financial troubles, and the rules governing the sale of artwork to cover operating expenses. The information here is all accurate, at least as far as I could make it, and working through the tangle of available facts felt a lot, as Cain says, like working on foreign policy. (Katherine Neville, author of The Eight, who was kind enough to blurb the book, happened to be familiar with the museum and its board of directors, and she seemed to think that my description here was believable.) More to the point, it all serves a purpose within the narrative. For Maddy to prove her usefulness to Tarkovsky, she has to come up with something ingenious, so I had no choice but to do the same. If it hadn’t worked—if there hadn’t been a suitable egg, say, or if the case for repatriation went nowhere—I probably would have come up with something else. Looking back, though, it seems like it was all meant to be, partially because you remember the ideas that work and forget the ones that don’t. But in this case, lucky for me, it turned out to be a good egg…

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2015 at 9:42 am

Quote of the Day

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

When it’s too good, you do it over again. Too good is too easy. If it’s too easy you have to worry. If you’re not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn’t going to, either. I always know that when I get a good night’s sleep, the next day I’m not going to get any work done.

James M. Cain, to The Paris Review

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February 18, 2015 at 7:30 am

“It was over in less than a second…”

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"It was over in less than a second..."

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 14. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Violent scenes in a suspense novel are like the big numbers in a Hollywood musical: if they aren’t something that you feel you can write, you might just need to switch genres. I’ve had an ambivalent relationship toward the violence in my own novels for a long time, and I’ve found that I can approach them best as a technical and stylistic challenge that comes with its own set of rules. Writers are often advised, for instance, to keep detailed descriptions of violence to a minimum, which makes intuitive sense. We’re told that suspense and the slow buildup of dread are more effective as narrative tools than a blow-by-blow account of the action, and that any violent moments that we describe can’t compare to the version in the reader’s imagination. This is true enough in itself, but it also raises a few questions of its own. We aren’t advised to avoid describing a beautiful landscape because it won’t be as good as what the reader can imagine; if that were the case, novels would read more like screenplays, with the bare amount of description necessary to get from one plot point to the next. So why is violence any different?

For a clue, we can turn to the work of James M. Cain, arguably the greatest pure stylist that the suspense genre ever produced. I’ve always liked Tom Wolfe’s take on the subject in his introduction to the excellent Cain x 3 anthology, which I recommend to anyone interested in an overview of such essential elements as violence, momentum, and telling detail. Wolfe writes:

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are about murders, but Cain takes no relish in the brutality. In Double Indemnity he passes up the blow-by-blow description almost completely, telling the reader, in effect, “The guy breaks the man’s neck—O.K.? Fill in the gasps, gurgles, hyoid snaps, and blue bloat any way you like…” Yet you come away feeling like you have been through a long and extremely violent experience.

For purposes of illustration, here’s the passage that Wolfe is referencing:

I raised up, put my hand over his mouth, and pulled his head back. He grabbed my hand in both of his. The cigar was still in his fingers. I took it with my free hand and handed it to her. She took it. I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin. I won’t tell you what I did then. But in two seconds he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, from the crosspiece of the crutch.

"On the top shelf of the closet..."

This is clearly an effective passage, and it exemplifies Cain’s brilliant use of selected details: the cigar in the victim’s hand, the oddly gentle way in which the killer takes the cigar and hands it to his adulterous accomplice, and the final image of the crease over the dead man’s nose, which feels—as Ruskin says of Dante’s description of the centaurs in the Inferno—like the sort of thing that no writer could have thought of unless he’d seen it for himself. But the crucial point here is that Cain’s reticence is less about trusting to the reader’s imagination than a question of pacing and narrative context. The murder isn’t the key element of interest; we’re more curious about the aftermath, as the narrator tries to make it look as if the dead man—who was killed in the driver’s seat of his own car—later went on to board and fall from a moving train. Cain is a master of structure, and he knew that a full description of the murder would only distract the reader’s attention from what really mattered. Violence, in other words, can be as fully described as anything else, but only at points in the narrative that can sustain the full burden of that emotional assault.

Once we start to think of violence as a category in itself, which is likely to overwhelm the rest of the story if it isn’t kept in control, the rationale behind minimizing its description starts to make more sense: it isn’t about squeamishness, or even about allowing the reader’s imagination to do the work, but a matter of emphasis, or of managing a specific kind of scene that would otherwise throw the rest of the work out of balance. Chapter 14 of City of Exiles, for example, contains perhaps the coldest murder in any of my work, in which Renata Russell, who for all her flaws is fundamentally an innocent bystander, is killed by Karvonen solely because she stumbled across something she shouldn’t have seen. The murder itself is over in a few lines, and I described it as obliquely as I could. And although I’m not sure if I was thinking in those terms at the time, looking back, I suspect that I deemphasized it both to highlight the inherent cold-bloodedness of the act—Karvonen himself doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it—and to concentrate on what I found more interesting: the aftermath, the cleanup, and the consequences. Violence draws so much attention to itself that it needs to be reined in, just as a matter of sensible authorial practice, except when it serves as a climax. And we’ve got a real violent climax just around the corner…

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2014 at 10:02 am

What is writing like?

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Irwin Shaw

Writing is like a contact sport, like football. Why do kids play football? They can get hurt on any play, can’t they? Yet they can’t wait until Saturday comes around so they can play on the high-school team, or the college team, and get smashed around. Writing is like that. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it.

Irwin Shaw

Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.

James M. Cain

Writing a novel is like living next door to a family that has just moved in. At first you just see the people coming and going, in and out of their house. After a while their habits become more familiar, and then one day you go in for coffee.

Rosemary Wells

William Styron

Writing a novel is like walking from Vladivostok to Madrid on your knees.

—Attributed to William Styron

Writing a novel is like living in a house. You rummage around in the cellar and the attic, and you can afford to screw up a couple of rooms because there are always others that will be better.

Irvin Faust

Writing a novel is like taking an examination on which your whole future depends.

May Sarton

C.S. Lewis

Writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.

C.S. Lewis

Writing is like wrestling crocodiles. The better you do it, the easier it looks.

Harvey Bullock

Writing is like being a boxer. If you don’t want to get knocked down, you shouldn’t be in the game.

James Purdy

John Gregory Dunne

Writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.

John Gregory Dunne

Writing is like diarrhea: it pipes off the things that are in a ferment.

Henry Green

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.


What I need to do better

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

I’m a pretty good writer. At least, I’d like to think so. There are certainly things I’d change about my career if I could, and I’ve taken plenty of wrong turns, but I’ve still managed to sell a couple of novels, a fair amount of short fiction, and occasional freelance work, not to mention my daily grind on this blog. I’ve also thought a great deal about the process of writing itself, and I’d like to believe that I know a good piece of work when I see one, even if I don’t always live up to my own standards. Yet there are always ways in which I could do better. Writers are inevitably plagued by doubt—to the point where the phrase “frustrated novelist” strikes me as redundant—and we tend to question ourselves, and our choice of vocation, on a daily basis. But it’s also important to stand back every now and then and ask ourselves how we could take our fiction to the next level, even as we’re tempted to stick with what works. My own list of resolutions is lengthy and constantly evolving, but as of today, at a time when I’m taking a break between projects, these are my top three goals for my own writing:

1. Learn to be simple. This is the big one. As I’ve said many times before, I love complexity, and part of the fun of writing a novel is seeing how far I can push the envelope in terms of density and intricacy of plot. All the same, I also see this as a limitation, which is one point on which my occasional critics and I can agree. There’s a sense in which complexity can be a form of timidity, a flight from the sort of exposure that simplicity brings, when there aren’t any tricks or gimmicks to cover up a writer’s real shortcomings. As much as I’m drawn to complicated plots and structures in the books I read, many of my favorite novels—the works of James M. Cain, for instance—are marked by rigorous focus and economy, even as they open into ever greater depths. That’s the mark of a truly gifted writer, and it often takes far more effort to achieve than a plot in which the wheels are constantly turning. A few of my short stories, like “Ernesto,” have something of this straightforward quality, but it’s something I haven’t yet had the courage to explore at greater length. And I’m not sure when I will.

Cloud Atlas

2. Get more quickly out of the gate. Here, again, Cain is my great example: Tom Wolfe has justly praised his famous momentum, the sense that the action begins at the first line and never relents, which is something I don’t always see in my own stories. I do my best to hook the reader, of course, and each of my published novels opens with a pretty good opening scene, but I still can’t shake the sense that they take longer to ramp up than they should. To my eyes, both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles are at least interesting from the start, and I hope that their opening chapters at least encourage the reader to keep going, but in both books, things don’t really get cooking until after the first hundred pages. Part of this is due to the structural complexity I mentioned above: both novels have a lot of moving parts and parallel plot threads that need to be set in motion before they can interlock in a satisfying way, and if nothing else, I’d like to believe that they ultimately reward a reader’s patience. But I’d love to write a book that moved so quickly that this wasn’t an issue at all.

3. Focus more on voice. I’ve spoken a lot about how I value clean, transparent prose, which I still think is the right call. If nothing else, it means that I can read the stories I wrote in my late twenties without wanting to go back in time and intercept them on the way to the post office. Yet voice is one of the most powerful tools available to a writer, even if it’s been abused and made suspect by authors who don’t seem to care about anything else. In some ways, this is the trickiest resolution of all: I still believe that clarity and lucidity are the obvious choice for the kinds of stories I write, and any attempt to experiment with voice could easily backfire. Still, I envy writers, like David Mitchell, who take clear pleasure in their acts of narrative ventriloquism, and it would be interesting, if nothing else, to try to write an extended narrative in a voice that wasn’t my own. This sort of experimentation is best done in private, and it’s likely, even probable, that the results would never see the light of day. I wouldn’t do it without a good narrative reason. But it’s still something to keep in mind.

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Writing

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Quote of the Day

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A novel is something that has to be endured by the writer. Anybody who can’t go back for the fourteenth and fifteenth revision with freshness and enthusiasm ought to get out of the business.

James M. Cain

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2011 at 8:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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The unfair universe, or the limits of character

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Most of us, from the moment we start writing seriously, are told that all good writing comes from character. Whether we’re writing a literary novel or a hard-boiled mystery, it seems obvious that the protagonist should drive the story through his own objectives and behavior, that he should succeed or fail based on the choices he makes, and that the resolution of the plot should come about as a direct consequence of his own actions. This is good, sound advice. I’ve given it here before. And yet as we continue to write and experience other works of art, it becomes increasingly clear that character isn’t the whole answer. Because when we consider the absolute heights of literature, from Oedipus Rex to King Lear, or even the best of genre fiction, like the novels of James M. Cain, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what we’re being shown is somehow more than character, while also derived from it, and closer to a true representation of how the world really works.

Years ago, after seeing Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, I reflected that one reason I admire but don’t love Leigh’s movies is that they’re character-driven in the purest way: the stories are derived from a long process of improvisation with a team of actors, and as a result, there’s nearly nothing in his films that doesn’t emerge from character. This is obviously admirable—and Leigh is one of the most consistently engaging directors around—but it also means that his movies are curiously limited. Events in real life, after all, doesn’t always come directly from character: we’re often asked to deal with things that are out of our control, or the control of those around us. Life can be uncanny, shocking, or arbitrary—but often in ways that seem strangely appropriate. And that’s why works of fiction that resolve their themes on an allegorical level, rather than a purely rational one, tend to shake us far more deeply than works that scrupulously follow through on the implications of character alone.

As a result, many of my favorite works of art, ranging from Vertigo and The Red Shoes to The Magus and Disgrace, are almost cosmically unfair. What happens to the the characters in these stories, while superficially the consequence of their own actions, is also the result of a playful, dangerous, or unfathomable universe, which takes their actions and magnifies them to the scale of tragedy. And sometimes genre fiction—horror, in particular—understands this better than anything else. I respond to the terribly unfair fates of characters in Stephen King, for instance, because they justify my suspicion that in real life, what happens to us is not always the result of our own character, but of some higher capriciousness or malevolence. And this sort of narrative perversion is inherently factored out of works of pure character, like Leigh’s films, while remaining accessible to artists like Brian De Palma, the master of the unfair conclusion.

In all honesty, though, I’m not sure what my advice is here. Character is still hugely important. And the strategy of cosmic unfairness, if pursued too closely, can only result in a victim story. (One unfair act of fate is generally enough.) As a general rule, the protagonist’s actions and objectives are what drive the plot moment by moment—this is one of the first things that any good novelist needs to internalize. But it’s more a question of craft than of philosophy. And once this rule has been fully absorbed, the novelist can move past it, or undermine it, just as life itself often undermines our best intentions. Best of all, as in Vertigo, an artist can begin with pure character, then fulfill it with a twist of fate that seems inevitable, but in ways that can’t be rationally explained. But such stories are only possible when the writer already knows the importance of character itself—and when to move beyond it.

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

A few words on dialogue

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While every novelist should strive to be a perfect writing machine, equally at home in all aspects of the craft, there’s no doubt that every writer has particular weaknesses. For me, at least to my own ears, it’s dialogue. Dialogue in my novels and short stories tends to be purely functional, and while I do my best to make it natural, clear, and concise, I doubt I’ll ever be able to write dialogue like James M. Cain. Yet I find myself writing dialogue all the time: it’s still the most economical way of advancing a story, and since it’s so central to the suspense genre, I’m constantly striving to make my own efforts more readable and appealing. And while the best way to write good dialogue is to study the novelists or dramatists whose work you admire (my own favorites include Cain, Updike, and, in small doses, Mamet), I can still suggest a few general guidelines.

The first point to remember is that dialogue is like any other aspect of fiction: it’s only meaningful as a part of the whole. If a clever line draws attention to itself at the expense of the fictional dream, it probably needs to be cut. Samuel Johnson’s famous advice—”Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”—applies doubly so to dialogue, where an awkward or precious exchange can pull the reader out of the story immediately. This is true of even very good novels, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the dialogue, especially between male characters, occasionally strays into preciousness, and it can particularly be a problem in genre fiction, where writers sometimes feel the need to fill the entire page with banter. A page of nondescript but serviceable dialogue is always better than a page of clanging repartee.

Another point is that dialogue doesn’t need to be realistic in order to read well, or to serve its purpose within the story. On the most basic level, nearly all fictional conversations need to be more direct and concise than the way we talk in real life: characters in a novel tend to be very good at getting directly to the point. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a book like Foucault’s Pendulum is full of conversations and dialogue that, with their density of allusion and information, could never occur in real life, which strikes me as perfectly fine (though Salman Rushdie would disagree). Still, this is a slippery slope: I find the endless expository passages in Dan Brown’s novels unbearable, for instance, and since thrillers are especially prone to this sort of thing, I’m constantly working to make sure that my own fiction doesn’t suffer from the same problem.

In the end, every writer finds rhythms of dialogue that work within the context of the story, which is the only context that matters. And a writer shouldn’t hesitate to violate conventions of accuracy or realism in the pursuit of greater clarity. Writing dialogue for characters speaking in a foreign language, for instance, often requires navigating the requirements of clarity and plausibility at the cost of technical accuracy. I’ve always loved Eco’s description of how he approached this problem in The Name of the Rose, much of which is in Latin:

I have eliminated excesses, but I have retained a certain amount. And I fear that I have imitated those bad novelists who, introducing a French character, make him exclaim “Parbleu!” and “La femme, ah! la femme!”

All the same, a certain amount of artificiality is sometimes necessary. Critics have pointed out that much of the dialogue in For Whom The Bell Tolls, which purports to render Spanish conversations in English, actually results in nonsense when translated back into Spanish: Hemingway wasn’t going for literal fidelity, but a formal, archaic tone appropriate to the mood he’s trying to create. The needs of the story, in other words, trump everything else. Which is exactly how it should be.

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2011 at 10:10 am

My own opening lines

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For a writer, there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page—especially when you know that this page is only the first of three hundred or so that need to be filled. This gives a novel’s first sentence, whatever form it takes, a particularly talismanic quality. As Joan Didion points out, once you write that opening line, doors are already closing. Where once the possibilities seemed limitless, now you’re locking yourself down. So that first sentence had better be damned good.

Or so you tell yourself. In reality, it’s unlikely that the first version of a novel’s opening lines will bear any resemblance to their appearance in the final draft. Like all sentences, they will be polished, edited, even cut altogether. With Kamera, which was far from my first novel—though it will be the first to be published—it took me months of fiddling before I came up with an opening that I liked, and even then, I had my doubts. Here’s what it looked like in the end:

Andrey was nearly at the border when he ran into the thieves. By then, he had been on the road for three days. As a rule, he was a careful driver, but at some point in the past hour, his mind had wandered, and as he was coming over a low rise, he almost collided with two cars that were parked in the road ahead.

Now, this opening may never top the American Book Review list, but for what it is, I think it works. When I wrote it, as usual, James M. Cain was at the back of my mind: I wanted to get the reader into the story quickly, cleanly, and without a lot of fuss. And I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with information. Note, for instance, that I don’t say where the border is. In my first draft, I mentioned that Andrey was “ten kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, just outside Shebekino,” but I eventually decided that too many specifics would only slow the opening of the story down. I hoped that the name “Andrey” by itself would evoke a location, and that the word “thieves” would have resonances of its own. And above all, I hoped that the initial situation was interesting enough that the reader would go on to the next paragraph.

For a short story, the challenges are slightly different. Just as the opening moments of a television show need to grab the viewer’s attention in a way that those of a movie do not, a short story generally needs to begin with more of a narrative hook. Usually, this hook can take the form of implied—which is more interesting than overt—action or violence; an unusual detail; or a striking line of dialogue. And it’s best not to appear to try too hard. An author who plants his narrative hooks too blatantly can seem like a college freshman pawing artlessly at a gidle, when, as John Gardner says, he should be more like a magician effortlessly forcing cards into his victim’s hand. Here’s how I opened “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the September 2009 issue of Analog:

The shotgun was not aimed directly at Helki, but its barrel was pointed in her direction, which was more than enough for her to take it personally.

Reading this sentence again now, it strikes me that maybe I was, in fact, trying a little too hard. In any case, though, the story sold, which is more than I can say for many others, and readers seemed to like it well enough. Here, the narrative hook is the threat of implied violence, or at least aggression, and perhaps—or so I’d like to think—a hint of the main character’s personality. Given the choice, though, I prefer to open with something incrementally more subtle. Here’s what I wrote for “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to appear in Analog in June:

The kawataro stood at the side of the road. Hakaru saw it for the first time as he was trudging along the highway, suitcase rolling behind him in the rain. It had been half a mile by foot from the train station, and although he had been looking for the turnoff to the village, it was so narrow, less than six paces wide, that he was on the point of walking past it entirely when the statue caught his eye.

Here, the narrative hook rests solely on the word “kawataro,” which I assume is unfamiliar to most readers, who would hopefully read onward to discover what a kawataro was. (Note that it’s important not to be too coy about this. I explain what a kawataro is, sort of, in the following paragraph. A writer who refuses to explain important details for an extended run of pages, solely for the purpose of prolonging the suspense, is only going to annoy the reader.) Ideally, the hint of an unusual setting, which turns out to be a small fishing village in Japan, works as a hook as well.

As for the last kind of narrative hook, dialogue, it’s what I use at the opening of “The Boneless One,” which I expect will appear in Analog by the end of the year:

“Before we go on deck, I should make one thing clear,” Ray Wiley said. “We’re nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle.”

A little cute, maybe, but I think it works. As with everything else in writing, such things are a matter of taste, and every writer ends up developing his or her own personal approach to the problem. In the end, with practice, there’s something a little mechanical about writing good first sentences—which is why even the best opening lines, if too carefully calibrated to arouse the reader’s interest, can seem like something of an exercise. Much less mechanical is the question of where to begin the story itself, which I’ll be discussing in more detail tomorrow.

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon…”

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Now that I’ve already looked at the problem of endings in possibly excessive detail, it’s time to turn to the even greater challenge of beginnings. The first sentence of a novel is, obviously, the most visible; it’s under the maximum amount of pressure to be interesting and graceful; and it can be fetishized and scrutinized out of all proportion to its actual importance. As a result, many first sentences have an air of desperation. (American Book Review’s list of the hundred “best” first sentences, read consecutively, makes for oddly depressing reading.) That said, I can only begin by quoting my own favorite opening, from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

No desperation there—just a clean headlong plunge into story. I don’t want to analyze this opening too much, except to say that it beautifully exemplifies the quality of momentum that Tom Wolfe, among others, has praised in Cain’s work: no other novelist has ever been faster at coming out of his corner. Cain was the most impressive stylist in the history of the suspense form—even Edmund Wilson, no fan of the genre, was an admirer of Cain—and he did it with language that was clean, direct, and surprisingly subtle. (And the wording is more nuanced than it looks. Changing “hay truck” to “fruit truck,” for instance, would alter the entire mood of the opening.)

The crucial quality of an opening sentence or paragraph, of course, is that it keeps the reader going. Most writers try to do this with action, often violent or melodramatic, but it can also be done with character, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does in The Sign of the Four:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Any story that begins with the words “Sherlock Holmes…” is interesting in itself, so it’s useful to note that this is only the second Holmes novel ever published, written when Conan Doyle was barely thirty, but already a master at seizing the reader’s attention. (Perhaps too much of a master: his depiction of Holmes using cocaine was still controversial enough, nearly a century later, that the above paragraph was cut entirely from The Boy’s Sherlock Holmes, which was the edition I read growing up.)

The examples I’ve mentioned so far come from genre novels, but even a literary novel with a more leisurely pace benefits from a good, clean opening. For sheer magic and confidence, it’s hard to top the first sentence of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale:

There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.

But not every great novel has a great opening sentence. It’s difficult to imagine a more snooze-inducing opening line than this one:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.

This is from The Once and Future King, and I can only assure you that it gets a lot better from there. (It’s likely that T.H. White was deliberately trying to convey an air of boredom in the first sentence, in order to contrast the young Arthur’s conventional schooling with his much more exciting educational experiences to come. This, needless to say, is a strategy that most novelists would be advised to avoid, at least at first.)

What I’ve said before about closing sentences applies equally well to their opening counterparts: there are as many different kinds as there are novels. If there’s one rule that I’d encourage writers to follow, though, it’s not to try too hard. A novel isn’t a newspaper article; not every relevant detail of time, place, and circumstance needs to be crammed into the first sentence. Many suspense novelists, in particular, seem so terrified that the reader will read the first sentence and nothing else that they overload their openings like a fishing line strung with multiple flies. The result is often a sentence like this:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

This particular opening, with its infamous “renowned curator,” has been so thoroughly eviscerated elsewhere (notably here and here) that no further commentary would seem necessary. And yet the sentence does work: millions of people, for better or worse, kept reading. Which suggests, as I’ve already said, that it’s hard to lay down any definitive rules, only examples. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be looking at the openings of some of my own stories, and talking about what at least one writer is thinking when he stares at that first, terrifyingly blank page.

The sad case of Hannibal Lecter

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Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.

—Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs

Yesterday I mentioned The Silence of the Lambs as a book that any aspiring writer might want to study to see how, exactly, it works, and with good reason: it’s possibly the most perfect thriller ever written. One could also read, with profit, the two earliest novels by Thomas Harris: Black Sunday is a fine, underrated book, and Red Dragon, though it has some structural problems, is still astonishing. Yet Hannibal, his fourth novel, should be approached with caution, and Hannibal Rising should best be avoided altogether. And the story of how Harris went from being the finest suspense novelist in the world to a shadow of his former self is an instructive cautionary tale.

Harris began his career as a crime writer for the Associated Press, and his background in journalism—like that of Frederick Forsyth, my other favorite suspense novelist—is evident in his earliest novels. Black Sunday is full of fascinating reportage, while Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are virtual textbooks on forensic profiling and criminal investigation. (While I was writing The Icon Thief, I was almost always rereading one of those three books, along with the best of Forsyth and James M. Cain.) Harris’s writing could be baroque, but he also had a nice ear for technical jargon, and a sense of how smart cops and FBI agents might talk among themselves.

None of these things would have made so great an impact, however, if Harris hadn’t also created Hannibal Lecter, the most vivid and enduring fictional character of the past thirty years. And the really impressive thing is that Lecter originally appeared in only a handful of chapters in Red Dragon and perhaps a quarter of the pages in The Silence of the Lambs. (Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the movie version of the latter consists of only eighteen minutes of screen time.) We don’t learn much about Lecter, we see him only briefly, but we—and the other characters—spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him when he isn’t onstage. And this is crucial to his character’s appeal.

Why? Here’s the big secret: when you shine a spotlight on Hannibal Lecter, he disappears. He’s unbelievable. He’s omniscient, infallible, unfailingly one step ahead of his adversaries. Aside from being utterly insane, he’s perfect. The fact that he’s embedded within a novel that is otherwise incredibly convincing and plausible, down to the smallest details of police procedure, blinds us to the fact that Lecter is a fantasy. And that’s fine. Nearly all the great heroes of popular fiction—and Lecter is a hero, cannibal or not—are fantasies as well, and they don’t hold up to scrutiny. WIlliam Goldman, in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, does a nice job of explaining why, in reference to a very different character:

The character of Rick [in Casablanca], of course, is very old—he’s the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past.

Most movie stars—actors, not comedians—have essentially all played that same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways—

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.

…Hollywood heroes must have mystery.

Which applies just as much to Lecter, if not more so. It also applies to many of the most popular characters in fiction, who exist entirely in the moment. For all the valiant efforts of Sherlockians, we know almost nothing about the past of Sherlock Holmes. Forsyth’s Jackal doesn’t even have a name. And while it isn’t necessary for every novelist to go so far, remember this: backstory can be deadly. The primary interest of a fictional character comes from what he does, or doesn’t do, in the story itself, not from what happened to him before the story began. Character comes from action. If you’ve written a compelling character, of course, readers are naturally going to want more backstory, which is great—but that doesn’t mean you should give it to them.

Which is precisely where Harris went wrong. In Hannibal, and even more so with Hannibal Rising, Harris forgot that his most famous character absolutely needed to remain a mystery. Lecter was the breakout star of the series, after all, and readers clearly wanted to see more of him. So Harris turned Lecter into the lead, rather than a key supporting character, gave him a massive backstory involving Nazis, cannibalism, and a castle in Lithuania, and finally made him, in Hannibal Rising, almost entirely admirable and heroic. To use Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, Harris had “gone gay” for Lecter. And the series never recovered.

I still hope that Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments (although Hannibal Rising is almost entirely worthless). All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade. While another Lecter novel would be thin gruel indeed.

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