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 Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?

John Steinbeck Photo,A.k. Andrew,akandrew.com,A Writers Notebook

John Steinbeck 1962

 

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the the film release of Grapes of Wrath so I thought it was appropriate to re-purpose this post. If you want to start writing like Steinbeck, then take a look at some of the things he found important and include them in your writing.
 “Learn from the best”

John Steinbeck’s writing methodology was stringent and meticulous. When writer’s you love talk about how they write, it’s hard not listen.

Steinbeck really wanted Grapes of Wrath to be good  – exposing the exploitation of people in 1930’s Southern California, was a story he thought needed telling. I re-read the novel a while ago, and the style blew me away.

It’s incredibly refreshing to read a book with such valuable social commentary that’s also just a damn good story. Part of its success lies in the fact that we live, eat and sleep with the Joad family. Everything is personal, so we care about what happens to the characters, and it allows us to see the injustice very clearly, without the point being hammered home. Steinbeck simply tells a story.

Below is part of John Steinbeck’s interview in the Paris Review*

(Please note: Steinbeck died in 1968. A lot of the quotes were compiled in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters and published in October 1975 by Viking. Hence the Paris Review article was not until 1975.)

The comments in italics are mine.

 ON GETTING STARTED
Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
 1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.

Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

This is the most important one & can’t be said too often. One page at a time.

 2. Write freely

…and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

 Don’t worry about anyone looking over your shoulder. Just get the work written. Good tip for all of us procrastinators.

 3. Forget your generalized audience.

In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

I’ve heard this before, and I think it’s an excellent way to keep yourself on track. You can’t write for everyone. So write for one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you

…and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

Rewriting – its all there is. But don’t be afraid to write non-sequentially. Sometimes one just isn’t in the mood to write about a dramatic moment, so switch gears and go to a section you do want to write today.

 5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you,

…dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

Tough to give them up isn’t it?

 6. If you are using dialogue

…say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Excellent tip. If you read it out loud it will sound strained immediately if it’s not working.

On my writers resources page I refer to his book Working Days, which is the diary he kept while he was writing Grapes of Wrath. (He wrote his first draft in 6 months BTW!). It’s a great book for writers if only to show how persistent one has to be to make the end product worthwhile.

Signature of John Steinbeck,a.k. andrew,akandrew.com a writer's notebook

Signature of John Steinbeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are these methods  you can work with? Do you have different ways of attacking the same problems?

 

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*Paris Review has rich resource material in their decades of interviews of famous people, writers included.

I first saw part of this particular interview in one of my favorite blogs www.brainpickings.org

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How to Write like Chekhov

Checkhov quote,akandrew.com, A.K.ANdrew, A Writers Notebook

I recently came across this quote from Chekhov, and for me it summed up the key to writing. It’s all in the words.  This may sound like a very obvious statement, but simplicity is not necessarily something you link with literary fiction.

One Word At a Time

For anyone starting a lengthy work, it’s a marathon of words that lie ahead of you. But like Anne Lamott says in her iconic book, Bird By Bird, you are writing one word at a time. The word becomes a sentence, becomes a paragraph and pretty soon you have a chapter.

What Word do I Use Next?

This is where Chekhov comes in. The moon is shining is a perfectly fine phrase. We can see the moon, we know there will be a light cast on the ground or the field.  But you and every other writer this side of the Steppes could have written that phrase. But the glint of light on broken glass? Now there is a description that’s worth writing.

How Else Can I write It?

Chekhov is throwing down the gauntlet and making us work for our writer’s crust. So let’s see what we can do. If the glint of light is the moon, how else could we say that? The circle of light, the distant glow? No, it’s neither, because it’s just a glint. So fleeting glimpse might work – the fleeting glimpse of white, of light, or the fingernail moon, fingernail light. So we’ve given ourselves a few options.

English: A portrait of Anton Chekhov by his br...

On Broken Glass? What does that Mean?

We know the moon is not shining on a field. Unless it’s a field of snow or ice. More likely it’s a lake.

So the moon is shining on a lake.  What then is a different way to say a lake? A puddle? – not quite…

A shimmer or ripple of water. Ripple of water’s not bad. What about the color?  At night, a body of water would look black, so the moon is changing the color from black to white.

So we could have the fleeting glimpse of white danced between the light and dark of the lake….Mmm… Bit wordy.

Let’s try again. The fingernail moon pierced the darkness of the lake.  Getting better. But still not the glint of light on broken glass.

Perseverance

Very occasionally you  find a phrase that falls off the end of your pen that’s the glint of light on broken glass. But more than likely, you will have to work your muse into helping you find the solution. As I’ve said before, all writing is rewriting, so if you start with the moon shone on the lake, and it sounds flat, just play with the words. One word at a time, as we’ve been doing.

 Showing is Experiencing

Show don’t tell is the mantra of every writer, and the bane of every beginning writing. It is in essence what Chekhov is saying. Make me feel I am in the moonlight. And I do when I see the glint of light on broken glass. It’s there in front of my eyes. I’m in the scene, not outside. And that’s crucial for your readers to experience the story for themselves, not second hand. To experience  the same thing as the character who can feel the hot breath of their pursuer on their neck as they come out of the woods and see the glint of light on broken glass. It stops them short, and makes them either pause and get caught,  or find enough light to see the one path that they can escape on.  It has in one fell swoop opened up the tension to be life or death in a way that “I ran toward the moonlight” would never have done.

 Simplicity

All of this is with the use of simple words. You don’t need to be a walking thesaurus to create fantastic prose. Simple is usually better. While I like to learn new words, I hate reading a book where I need a dictionary by my bed stand.

So I’ll leave you with the hot breath of the pursuer on my neck, as icicles of light dance on ripples kissing the boat.  I snatch the rope and disappear into the black night.

How would you have reworded the quote? What tricks do you use to try and find the right words for your writing?

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Go Tell It On The Mountain – from 101BOOKS.NET

 Robert Bruce whose site 101BOOKS.NET, is consistently voted the Best Book Blog. It is definitely my favorite book blog. He has kindly allowed me to reblog one of his posts about Go Tell It on The Mountain, but be sure to check out more of his work at 101books.net

Robert is reading 100 of Time Magazine‘s greatest English-speaking novels since 1923 (plus Ulysses) and blogs daily. I have chosen Go Tell It On the Mountain, as it is a favorite novels of two of my character in my latest novel Under The Bed.

Book #19: Go Tell It On The Mountain

by Robert on June 15, 2011

Sometimes, when I read a book, I’m more taken by the writing than the story.

It’s not that the story is bad–it’s usually powerful, in fact–after all, an author who can captivate a reader with his writing usually has enough wherewithal to create a unique plot.

But, sometimes, when I close the book, when I read that last word, I stop and reflect more about the author as a writer than as a storyteller. And that was definitely the case with Go Tell It On The Mountain.

From a writing standpoint, James Baldwin is one of the best authors I’ve read. I gave you an excerpt of his writing in yesterday’s post, and that’s just a small sample. Go Tell It On The Mountain is beautifully told.

Here’s another passage that describes 14-year-old John’s spiritual tension as he struggles with believing in God and his hatred toward his father. It’s a theme that carries throughout the book.

 

“He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his death-bed. And this was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John’s heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.”

But what of the story?

Set in 1930s Harlem, Go Tell It On The Mountain centers on this 14-year-old boy, John, who is conflicted between a faith he doesn’t believe inbut still feels drawn to. His father, Gabriel–who is also a deacon and former minister at their church, “Temple of the Fire Baptized”–abuses John and his mother, Elizabeth. He’s a mean, hellfire and brimstone kind of guy, who claims to be “God’s annointed.”

While I would say John is the central character, Baldwin also tells the story of three other characters: Gabriel, Aunt Florence, and John’s mother, Elizabeth. The book is broken up into sections that focus on on each character, shifting the story between their past and their present.

Other than the writing, two other things stand out to me about this novel.

First, the dialogue. I’m no expert on African-American dialect in 1930s Harlem, but Baldwin seems to capture it well. Consider this exchange between Aunt Florence and her brother, Gabriel. Aunt Florence, my favorite character in the novel, tells it like it is. In this situation, she’s confronting her brother about his past misdeeds.

“Look like,” she said, “you think the Lord’s a man like you; you think you can fool Him like you fool men, and you think He forgets, like men. But God don’t forget nothing, Gabriel–if your name’s down there in the Book, like you say, it’s got all what you done right down there with it. And you going to answer for it, too.”

Out of context, you might not appreciate that dialogue. But it’s a strong characteristic of this book. It’s another novel where I can almost hear these characters speak as I read. Baldwin really nailed the dialogue.

Second, Baldwin draws heavily from biblical stories throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain. It’s easy to see how he was once a teenage pastor.

I noticed allegories and illusions to biblical stories in many places. For instance, Gabriel is an Abraham-like figure–his first wife was barren, and unwilling to wait on God to provide, Gabriel sought out the company of a prostitute and fathered an illegitimate child with her.

The main character, John, and his brother, Roy, are similar to Jacob and Esau in Scripture. Esau (read: Roy), the first-born, the legitimate child, who is a hellian yet remains the apple of his father’s eye.

And John, the good son, the one that, though he’s illegitimate (unlike Jacob in the Bible) is more capable of making Gabriel proud. But Gabriel mirrors the blindness of Isaac in Scripture by overlooking the flaws of his elder son.

akandrew.com.101books.net,James Baldwin

James Baldwin

James Baldwin (Photo: MDCArchives)

James Baldwin is quoted as saying, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” I’m not sure who Baldwin was talking about there, as I haven’t been able to source the quote, but it perfectly describes his characterization of Gabriel in Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Your dislike for Gabriel–his arrogance, his brutality, his hypocrisy–will carry you through this novel. Though the story somewhat revolves around John, it’s Gabriel who carries this story. You’ll feel his presence on the characters throughout the book.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, spiritual or not, this is a strong book. You’ll read a moving story about a young boy’s growth into maturity, despite the presence of an overbearing and abusive father.

More than all of that, though, you’ll hopefully appreciate James Baldwin’s talent as a writer. For me, that alone makes this book worth the read.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”

The Meaning: The story dives into the gray areas of faith. Men who profess absolute truth but live in absolute hypocrisy. In that murkiness, though, Baldwin shows redemption is still possible.

Highlights: James Baldwin has a cadence, a rythym with his writing that is simply beautiful. Amazing that Go Tell It On The Mountain was Baldwin’s first novel. Also, I think Baldwin does a excellent job of leaving the discussion open about Christianity and the church. Considering his upbringing, I think it could have been easy for him to come down hard one way or the other.

Lowlights: A lot of the story occurs in the past, explaining the history of some of the characters. I would’ve enjoyed seeing a little more in the present, and a little more focus on the main character, John.

Memorable Line: “John and his father stared at each other, struck dumb and still and with something come to life between them–while the Holy Ghost spoke. Gabriel had never seen such a look on John’s face before; Satan, at that moment, stared out of John’s eyes while the Spirit spoke.”

Final Thoughts: James Baldwin could make an infomercial poetic. The guy could flat write, and that’s what made Go Tell It On The Mountain memorable for me. I would say that anyone who is a writer or claims to be a writer should read this book. It’s beautifully told.

Robert’s Menu: Home   About Me  The List  My Rankings   Frequently Asked Questions  Friends of 101 Books  Your Blogs  Archives

  I hope you will find Robert  @robertbruce76  or at his  website: 101books.net.  There’s lots of great stuff there, not just a summary of each novel like this post. Oh, and while you’re there, tell him A.K. sent you!

What is your favorite James Baldwin book, or favorite book set in New York City?

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The Next Big Thing week 15: Interview with an Author

The Next Big Thing is an author’s Work In Progress project  from SheWrites. When I read Jeri Walker-Bickett’s  blog last week,  I immediately thought what fantastic questions for any author to ask themselves. So I was thrilled that afternoon, when Jeri emailed, and invited me to participate. A Big Thank You to Jeri.

What is the working title of your book?

Under The Bed’. It comes from the phrase ‘Red’s Under the Bed’, used in 1950’s America.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was set to write the sequel to my first book Radio Echo, catching up with the characters a few years after the end of WWII, but I decided to spread my wings as a writer, switched countries and found a completely different voice. The 50’s anti-Communist era in America struck a chord with me as part of the backdrop. In doing my research and seeing how widespread the effect of McCarthyism was, I didn’t want to focus on the more publicized Hollywood Blacklist, so decided to move cross country and settle my characters in New York.

 

Cover to the propaganda comic book "Is Th...

Cover to the propaganda comic book “Is This Tomorrow”‘ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction. Specifically mid-Century historical literary fiction. Set in both the early 50’s and late 60’s, makes it a tricky time frame, as some camps argue historical fiction has to be 50 years in the past. Other’s say it can be considered historical fiction if the time period – and its depiction – is at the core of the story. I think if the work involves major political or social events of the time and the character’s role in those events are interlinked, it’s historical.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’ll let the two main characters in the novel comment on this.

Midge: “I know Izzie said I was a pissy mess the other week, but I’m trying darling, I really am. Putting on a few pounds wasn’t a crime the last time I looked, but pudgy is such an ugly word. And these Chanel suits don’t buy themselves. I was a very successful business woman before the shit hit the fan. Life Magazine was always doing some article on Boswell Designs. Seems a lifetime ago now… like someone else’s life…. Er,… where was I?  Oh yes… The actress would  have to play a younger me as well wouldn’t she?  To do both roles justice,  I think Sharon Stone  would be marvelous. She’s got the same coloring too, don’t you think?”

Izzie: “Do you think I give a shit who plays me in the film? How hard can it be to write some crap poetry, and take a few lousy photo’s in the East Village?  [Takes a hit on a joint]. OK, fine. So I do care. I bet that skinny-assed  Girl With a Dragon Tattoo actress would could make a stab at being meYeahRooney Mara. She’d be good.”

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Two women, a generation apart, each burdened by guilt regarding the death of a sibling, find their own lives in danger during the Vietnam era, when the older woman’s brush with McCarthyism emerges during their collaboration on her autobiography.

 

"A female demonstrator offers a flower to...

“A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Arlington, Virginia, USA” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I will definitely look for an agent to represent me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

 11 months.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I obviously wouldn’t dream of comparing myself to these authors, but I have certainly been inspired by them. These came to mind, each for different aspects of their content.

Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This is one of my favorite novels and spans the narrators lifetime, who is in her 80’s as she is writing.The novel pays particular attention to the pre & post WWII years, but goes far beyond that in  encapsulating a number of different story lines as well as time lines.

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. Well know for her incredible “Regeneration Trilogy” ,  this is a sequence to Life Class,  though it’s also a stand alone novel. Set during WWI, the novel is as much about the interpersonal relationships as it is about the era. However, the two are interchangeable and it is the societal times of the era on the life of the individual that, for me is the real correlation between this and Under the Bed.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. This is mid 20th century fiction, set during WWII. But Waters deals with the time frame in a very interesting way as she goes from finish to start.

 

 

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

After a friend told me about growing up with parents who were in the Communist Party in the UK, and what it was like as a teenager in the sixties to have your phone bugged, it made me think about the invasion of people’s privacy and what effect it has on them. Since 9/11 the invasion of privacy has became almost an accepted ‘right’ by Western governments in the quest to protect our freedom. CCTV tracks us constantly and emails are tagged continuously in the fight against terrorism. I questioned the end justifying the means. Eventually I decided to follow how anti-communist fervour has moulded certain key elements of American history, and chose to juxtapose the eras of the Vietnam War and McCarthyism, with 1969 being ‘present day’.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The novel blends the struggle of the individual with that of the bigger picture of the political events of the time. Can we as both individuals or as nations, learn from our past? I believe we can, and yet, as we know, history repeats itself. ‘Under the Bed’ explores how an individual’s lack of control over their fate can be in the hands of the government, even a generation apart. But ultimately the fight for survival and coming to terms with past mistakes is up to the individual.

Washington Square arch peace sign

Washington Square arch peace sign (Photo credit: holycalamity)

 

Here are the authors I’ve tagged for the project. Check out their websites and you’ll be able see their interviews posted there next week.

Claire Cappetta

Doreen Pendgracs

Hemmie Martin

Susan Cooper

Bridget Whelan

Sally O’Reilly

 

I’d love  your feedback on the interview, so do leave a comment below. Or post this blog to your favourite social media.

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