Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Raven

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 1

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My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview. Please note that this post reveals details about the ending. 

Readers of the story “Ernesto” might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character, after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a dash of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what initially appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it might even seem like a work of Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device,” or Joe Haldeman’s far darker and more sophisticated “The Hemingway Hoax.” (Science fiction writers have always been drawn to Hemingway, who certainly had a lot to say about the figure of the competent man.) In fact, although I live in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, and my daughter has learned to recognize his face on the omnipresent signs that have been posted near the library, he’s a writer I’ve always found hard to like, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from mine. And the chain of events that led me to write about him is my favorite example from my own career of what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, or how a story is never really about what it seems.

“Ernesto” emerged, like many of my stories, from an idea sparked by a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer about the work of Dr. William Coley, the nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a treatment for cancer. Around the same time, another article in the same magazine had started me thinking about a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular notion didn’t go anywhere, I ended up settling on a related premise: a mystery about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The crucial step, it seemed, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build the story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story, which could be described in a single sentence: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of cancer, in what seems like a miracle, but is really due to the side effects of an erysipelas infection. (I knew that there were a few holes in the science here, but I was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, I became conscious of a problem. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery along the lines of The X-Files, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning, and I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly that a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. This meant that I was suddenly looking at a period piece that was set in Spain, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which led me, by a logical process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway entered the story—in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or a time period. The search for the right saint carried me to Spain, and the specifics of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War, which would allow me to confuse the issue long enough to delay the solution. At the time, it felt almost random, but when I look back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed was behind the composition of “The Raven.” Once the essential foundations have been set, the writer’s imagination can begin to play, and it seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about the Spanish Civil War, it pretty much had to include Hemingway. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes. If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Within a few days of starting my research, then, I found myself facing the prospect of writing a story about Hemingway investigating a paranormal mystery in wartime Spain. I really wanted to do it. But I wasn’t sure that I could.

The Passion of St. Edgar

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It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, the patron saint of all those who write for a living. More than two centuries after his birth, Poe remains a fascinating figure, largely because few authors have presented us with so stark a contrast between the rational and irrational sides of a writer’s personality. When we think of Poe, we tend to think of the obsessive, alcoholic, manic-depressive eccentric, but he was also deeply learned, an ingenious plotmaker, and a talented cryptologist who challenged readers to submit ciphers for him to solve. Poe was arguably the first professional American writer of lasting interest, at a time when he had few, if any, models for such a career. As such, he could hardly have been anything less than prodigiously hardworking and talented. He remains the epitome of the popular writer, and the model for all those who followed: clever, opportunistic, but with more than a touch of madness to be writing for a living at all.

Every critic knows that Poe was a prolific inventor of genres, above all that of the detective story, but not everyone understands why. Genre, as I’ve said before, is the result of a sort of dialogue between an author and his audience, a process of trial and error as writers figure out what elements get the best response. Because Poe was among the first writers whose survival depended entirely on a popular readership, he embodied that process singlehandedly: while he was undoubtedly driven by his own obsessions, he was also willing to try anything once. Browsing in Poe’s collected stories is like watching natural selection at work, with successful innovations alternating with wild shots in the dark. It’s no accident that of the three short stories featuring the detective Dupin, the first and last, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” have become classics, while the second, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” survives, if at all, as a weird, basically unreadable experiment. Here as elsewhere, Poe tried something new, checked to see if it worked, and if it didn’t, he moved on. And that’s how genres are made.

Earlier this week, I mentioned Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which nicely sums up the two halves of his, or any writer’s, creative personality. In it, he makes a show of breaking down “The Raven” into its constituent parts, claiming that every choice he made was the result of a rational process—that he chose to write about the death of a beautiful woman, for instance, because it is unquestionably “the most poetical topic in the world,” and selected the refrain “Nevermore” because of “the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.” Critics tend to believe that the essay is a parody of close literary analysis, and indeed, Poe often seems to be winking slyly at the reader. Yet I have the feeling that what Poe describes is not entirely removed from his real creative process. It seems quite likely that Poe initially conceived of a poem with the refrain “Nevermore,” then worked it out forward and backward, proceeding with the intuition of the craftsman, not the mystic. And the result is a poem that produces its uncanny effects in unexpectedly rational ways.

Poe’s influence is incalculable—”He is never wrong,” as Paul Valéry said—but these days, it’s easier to admire him for his plots and originality than for the actual experience of reading his fiction. The core of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is an astonishingly modern detective story, at least in terms of its red herrings and high-concept solution, but it takes a long time to get there, opening with an interminable two-page essay on the nature of analysis before introducing the characters themselves. A few decades later, Arthur Conan Doyle would refine and perfect this model to the point where we can still read his stories with undiminished delight, but even he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be anywhere without Poe. Nor would any of us. In mystery, in horror, in science fiction, in suspense: in the end, we’re all working from the example left for us by Poe, the great original, who knew what it meant to write like your life depended on it.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2012 at 10:12 am

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