Barbara Kingsolver: What is the Heart of a Novel?

 

Cover of "The Poisonwood Bible"

Cover of The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist, essayist and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in the Congo in her early childhood. The novel which earned her a pulitzer prize nomination and an Oprah endorsement, was “The Poisonwood Bible”  published in 1998, and follows a missionary family in the colonial Congo.  She is now the author of 14 books and her most recent novel “Flight Behaviour “, deals with climate change.

How Does a Novel Start?

I talked a couple of weeks ago in my post on Ray Bradbury, about the short story, referencing one of his quotes. This week I’d like, through Barbara Kingsolver, to look at how a novel might come to fruition. We can look at what is the heart of a novel by looking at her inspiration for it’s beginning.

“I woke up one morning with a vision,” she says. “I don’t know whether it was a dream, but it felt very dreamlike. And I saw – I don’t want to say it because I’ve made a point of not revealing the secret – the beautiful thing that arrives, that starts this novel rolling. I just woke up and saw that, in these forested mountains where I live.”

“I didn’t even understand what I’d imagined,” Kingsolver says, recalling that vision she had, “but I spent all day thinking about it and I’m enough of a biologist to ponder what it would really mean if that did happen here. I immediately saw the whole thing. Often there is a moment when I can see the novel sort of unrolling like a carpet in front of me and that did happen with this book. I think the novel is very much about how we understand and process what we see and how very true it is how we decide first what we believe and then collect evidence to support it, rather than the reverse. When you look at the conversation about climate change it’s baffling that everyone is presented with the same facts but people come away with very different convictions about what’s going on.”

This is one person’s experience, but it struck a chord for me. A novel can start with just the tiniest of sparks, and from that it can unfold or unroll like a carpet, as Kingsolver says. Like the short story, and even more so, you need to have a feeling about the work and be totally immersed in that feeling, otherwise what the book is really about – it’s theme – will be jumbled and confused. One can have more than one theme, but there needs to be a core sentence which you can refer to that tells us what the novel is about. You could call it the elevator pitch, but it is really the heart of the novel. “Flight Behaviour”  certainly has plenty of heart, and while I loved “Poisonwood Bible”, I think “Flight Behaviour” is her best novel to date.

Flight Behaviour, A.K. Andrew, akandrew.com, A writer's Notebook

 

As a novelist, can you summarise your latest novel in one sentence? As a reader do you think it’s important to know the theme? Does the theme of the novel influence you in buying the book?

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Do You Keep A #Writer’s Notebook?

I’ve recently been taking a free online poetry class through the Iowa Writer’s workshop, and it reminded me how useful – essential even – a writer’s notebook is. After all I did name a whole website after it!

What is A Writer’s Notebook?

Any kind of notebook that you jot down ideas, words, stories, poems or drawings if that helps you. You don’t need the classic Moleskine notebook, any notebook will work. Sometimes the more ordinary it is the better. Fancy notebooks can make us feel overly precious about what we write.

 A Writer's Notebook, akandrew.com,A.K. Andrew

A.K. Andrew’s Notebooks

Who Would Benefit from Using A Writer’s Notebook?

Any kind of writer, or anyone who wants to record their thoughts. It’s not important to give yourself a label to use a useful tool.

What Are the Benefits?
1. You won’t forget your ideas

When you overhear a conversation where someone says something memorable, what are the chances of remembering it word for word ?  Nil of course. But beyond whole conversations , even small details, in fact particularly small details, are things that will be lost but have the potential to enrich our work. Red shoes on a subway station. The bird had a pinkish head with a pale underbelly. “I could ‘ave bloody well killed ‘er” I overheard on a cell call on a bus one time in England.

2. Developing Ideas without Pressure

The important thing about a writer’s notebook is that it is totally private – unless of course you want to share it. This in itself lets you write down ideas you might never consider sharing with anyone. Which is liberating, because you can jot down things you might think are stupid but once followed through lead onto to a kernel of something worth running with.

A.K. Andrew, akandrew.com
 3. Brainstorming is productive – one idea leads to another

Whenever I’m thinking of a title of a piece I start with one word, which leads to another, letting them lead on until I have a whole list of words. Inside that list I can usually find a title. The same goes for character traits, or descriptions – words to describe the wind blowing against a pane of glass for example. Lashing, hurl, pebbles, slanting rain, rain heavily, heaving against the glass, pouring, slash, ripples, windswept, sweeping torrents etc. You will likely go through a number of options before you get to something you like.

4. Writing words makes you write more words

When you start writing, something becomes released. Almost as if to put it on a page lets it go and you can move on to the next thing. Often when we have writer’s block all we need to do is write. Jotting something down on a piece of paper, is a very low threat way to get back into the flow of one word following another.

5. Writing down rather than typing makes for a strong connection

Although I don’t find it feasible to write a whole novel by hand, I’m a big believer that writing by hand taps into the subconscious more readily than if you type it. There are studies that have proved that people learn better if the exercise has been written by hand.

English: Moleskine notebook. ??????????: ?????...

English: Moleskine notebook. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6. All your Ideas in one place

I know you have “notes” and “evernote” and a myriad other ways of keeping information on a computer and obviously I do, but there’s nothing like picking up a notebook, flicking through it’s pages and having your information all in one place. If you don’t want to carry a notebook with you, carry a post-it pad or other little pad to jot things down on. You can consolidate it later. Paste it in with Scotch tape if you dont’ want to rewrite it. My particular favorite is a notebook that has a little envelope at the back where I can keep either scraps of notes, or say a ticket stub to remind me of an exhibition or a train ride.

Do you keep a notebook of any kind? How do you like to organise your thoughts, memories or experiences?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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Do You Want to Watch An Animated Ray Bradbury Interview?

Lisa Potts did an interview with Ray Bradbury  in 1972 and she by chance found it again in 2012. Since then, it’s been animated though the wonderful Blank on Blank , in part of their PBS series. Thanks so much to Maria Popova of Brainpickings.org – one of my favourite websites BTW – for introducing me to this wonderful series. Alongside writer Bradbury, Blank on Blank  have animated interviews with Maya Angelou, musicians such as Lou Reed, John Lennon and actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger among others. A real gem of a find.

Here is part of what Ray Bradbury says about writing:

“Don’t pay any attention to what anyone else says — no opinions! The important thing is to explode with the story, to emotionalize it, not to think it. If you start to think it, the story’s going to die on its feet. It’s like anything else… People who take books on sex to bed become frigid — you get self-conscious.

You can’t think a story — you can’t think, “I shall do a story to improve mankind.” It’s nonsense! All the great stories, all the really worthwhile plays, are emotional experiences. If you have to ask yourself whether you love a girl, or whether you love a boy, forget it — you don’t! A story is the same way — you either feel a story and need to write it, or you’d better not write it.

[…]

You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. And then your public reads you and it begins to gather around…

The enthusiasm, the joy itself draws me — so that means, every day of my life, I’ve written. When the joy stops, I’ll stop writing.”

You Can’t Think a Story

This to me was the best thing I’ve heard on writing for a while. So what is the difference between thinking and feeling a story? To me, “thinking ” a story is working out the plot, developing a clever idea that would make a snappy little tale. “Feeling’ the story is either having a call to write about a particular thing you feel strongly about, or starting a story with an essence and let the words flow from that emotion.

Bradbury might not have  meant this at all, but that’s how I look at the written word. It’s not that I don’t plot – of course I do at a certain level – especially with a novel. But with a short story, the mood of the piece needs to carry you forward to allow the story to unfold.

How do you like to write? Do you plot and plan? Do you pick a theme? Do you start with a freewrite,no clue as to how the story is going to unfold? 

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

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How to Express the Golden Gate Homesick Blues

We’re coming to the end of National Poetry Month and I want to share a poem I wrote a few years ago in a poetry workshop. I was living in England at the time, feeling very homesick for San Francisco, as well as nostalgic for a time when I was more mobile than I am now.

So this was the result – the first poem I’d written since I was a child, in fact. For this collection of emotions, I found the process of writing a poem very cathartic.The location is the waterfront near to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point. For those of you who remember the scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak falls in the water – that’s where I’m talking about!

A.K. Andrew,akandrew.com,a writers notebook ,Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point

Under the Golden Gate by A.K. Andrew

Fort Point

Ghosts of blue-bellies dash between chill, meagre quarters
Running up concrete steps
Running up the flag of
the Red Brick Fort
Alone facing the Pacific Ocean
Now nestled beneath rumbling red girders of the Bridge.
An Alliance of Gateway and Protector of
The City
Our City.

White foamy tentacles crash, split
Rusting chain links,
Goliath chain
Serving only to taunt, not protect
A leap to the rocks or giant watery mouth inviting in
it’s enormity, its moving depth beckoning.

Agonizing beauty surround once more
Pacific blasts tearing at hair and heart
A white rogue wave rises up
hitting crumbling brick, splashing me
drenching
Her.
Laughing still
we cycle home on the bays blue edge
warmed by love, vigour,
youth.

A.K. Andrew, Fort Point, Golden Gate Bridge, akandrew.com,a writers notebook

A.K. Andrew at Fort Point

Fort Point, Golden Gate Bridge,A.K Andrew,akandrew.com , a writers notebook

Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge by A.K Andrew

How do you feel about happy memories? Does it make you sad to think of them and wish that things were still the same, or do you feel fortunate to have had the good times to look back on? Perhaps you don’t like to dwell on the past at all, but prefer to look forward rather than back.

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

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Oscar Wilde:120th Trial Anniversary in National #Poetry Month

Oscar Wilde in New York

Oscar Wilde in New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

April 3rd 2015 marks the 120th anniversary of the start of the trial of Oscar Wilde that went to court in 1895. Ironically it was Wilde himself that pushed for the court hearing, ignoring advice of friends, after the Marquess of Queensbury left her calling card with the note: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” Wilde picked up the gauntlet and sadly paid dearly to clear his name. While imprisoned for 2yrs, his health deteriorated and he died a few years later in 1900.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish author, playwright, but also a poet. As April is national Poetry Month, I thought it appropriate to look at his work. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. Today he is remembered for his epigrams, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his plays, as well as the circumstances of his imprisonment and early death.

My favorite epigram is actually the one most quoted:

Trials of Oscar Wilde
English: Card of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of...

English: Card of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry with “For Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite”

Oscar Wilde was renowned for his quick wit, which he maintained through much of the trial proceedings. Here is a small snippet from the trial:

G–Your view, Mr. Wilde, is that the “shame” mentioned here is that shame which is a sense of modesty?
W–That was the explanation given to me by the person who wrote it.  The sonnet seemed to me obscure.
G–During 1893 and 1894 You were a good deal in the company of Lord Alfred Douglas?
W–Oh, yes.
G–Did he read that poem to you?
W–Yes.
G–You can, perhaps, understand that such verses as these would not be acceptable to the reader with an ordinarily balanced mind?
W–I am not prepared to say.  It appears to me to be a question of taste, temperament and individuality.  I should say that one man’s poetry is another man’s poison! (Laughter.)

English: The Wilde Trial as recorded in The Il...

English: The Wilde Trial as recorded in The Illustrated Police News, May 4 1895. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wilde’s Poetry

By the Arno 

The oleander on the wall
Grows crimson in the dawning light,
Though the grey shadows of the night
Lie yet on Florence like a pall.

The dew is bright upon the hill,
And bright the blossoms overhead,
But ah! The grasshoppers have fled,
The little Attic song is still.

Only the leaves are gently stirred
By the soft breathing of the gale,
And in the almond-scented vale
The lonely nightingale is hard.

The day will make thee silent soon,
O nightingale sing on for love!
While yet upon the shadowy grove
Splinter the arrows of the moon.

Before across the silent lawn
On sea-green vest the morning steals,
And to one’s frightened eyes reveals
The long white fingers of the dawn.

Fast climbing up the eastern sky
To grasp and slay the shuddering night,
All careless of my hearts delight,
Or if the nightingale should die.

 By Oscar Wilde

(First published in 1876 in the Dublin University Magazine.)

It’s interesting to me that a man with such caustic wit, known for comedic plays, could also write such sensitive verse, which such delicate phrasing.

What do you think of most when you remember Oscar Wilde? His trial, his novel “The Picture of Dorian Grey”, his plays, his  epigrams or his poetry?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

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