f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 05/01/2005 - 06/01/2005

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Day 1 of Free Bird – Hero or Protagonist?

I’d like to spend a moment introducing Greg Garrett and his novel Free Bird to you since we’ll be spending the better part of two weeks with him.

Greg Garrett is the published author of two novels (Free Bird and Cycling), two non-fiction books (Holy Superheroes and The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix with Chris Seay), and a variety of short stories and other works. He is a professor of English at Baylor University where he teaches creative writing and a number of other classes. And he was one of the driving forces behind creating the Art and Soul festival…which is where I first came across him and his work.

Free Bird accepts a number of qualifiers. It can be called a “road-trip” novel. A “Christian” novel. A “Southern” novel. You’d most likely call it “literary fiction.” Lining them up into one description becomes unwieldy however so we’ll just call it contemporary fiction—a story of a man searching for redemption on the road because home seems offer no space for it.

We’ll get into the sub-genre of “journey” fiction or (the American variant) “road-trip fiction” tomorrow. Today I want to spend some time thinking through the notion of our lead character.

I have heard, too often, writers or readers describe the main character in a book as the “hero.” Now there’s going to be times where such a description is accurate, particularly in genre fiction. And I don’t want to insinuate that heroes can’t be three-dimensional. But the word “hero” for most of us conjures up a specific notion of behavior and actions—criteria not every lead character will or should live up to.

Protagonist is the common term for the central character in a story. It’s not new to you. It’s useful however when you run into a character like Greg Garrett’s Clay Forester. Clay is not a hero. Clay Forester is a man.

Another thing I’ve heard a lot is that: “Readers have to like your main character.”

Garrett’s book (and books like Nobody’s Fool and Wonder Boys and others) turns that on its side a bit. Readers don’t have to like your main character…but they do have to care. Liking, to me, seems to be about surface. Caring goes deeper.

The line is hard to peg. In much of the fiction I’ve read there are three things that seem to mark a character who we may not always like, but whom we care about.

1. Self-awareness – Someone who knows they’re going bad, but can’t help themselves—well, that’s most of us if we’re honest.

2. Charm – We’re always suckers for a laugh, so a rascal with a quick quip (™ Richard Russo) gets many of his sins overlooked. To a point.

3. Reason – Is there an understandable excuse (often emotional pain) that makes us understand the character’s behavior.

Those three things pretty well describe Clay Forester. It’s the last one on which Garrett really hangs his hat. But to find out what causes a formerly successful lawyer to become a cover band rock star singing Lynyrd Skynrd to drunk rednecks…that’s the heart of the novel.
Go to Day 2 of our discussion of Free Bird.

Monday, May 30, 2005

This Week

Hope all your Memorial Days were fine. I spent mine surrounded by monkey bars, wildflowers, and children covered in cottonwood from practicing their various somersaults and cartwheels. Lovely, all said.

Anyway, this week we're going to be looking at the book Free Bird by Greg Garrett. I had the opportunity to meet him at Art and Soul. He's a professor at Baylor. We'll spend three or four days on his novel and then next week I'll post an interview with Greg. He's been quite kind with his time. If, during this week, you have a question you'd like to put to him, email me. He may have the time to field a few more.

And, if you tire of me, Carra will be back on Friday.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Read Fast, Edit Hard, Blog Young: Thoughts of a Summer Intern

Hello. I am guessing that most of you (okay, all of you) are wondering who I am. Well, my name is Carra, and I am The Intern. Yup, that’s right: Dave is my boss (I appreciate your sympathies). Seriously though, he is a great boss, and he has extended an invitation to me to be a weekly guest writer on his infamous blog. I am honored.

So getting down to business. I am not sure what exactly what to write, and seeing as how Dave wasn't especially helpful, I thought it would just be best to write about things that have really resonated with me in both the faith and writing realms and where the two intersect (or don’t).

One idea that I have been continually struck with is the notion of story. Story is such a vital part of the human existence. It is how we relate and communicate. Story is how we connect with one another. In the end, all we have left is our own personal story. I think deep down we writers know this, and we feel an urgency to share this story with a sympathetic ear.

This sharing can happen in a number of ways, the two most popular being memoir and fiction. Wait—fiction?

Of course!!! Granted, it is made-up—that’s why we call it fiction—but all good fiction comes from and is based in life. "Write what you know" has become the undergrad writing slogan. And it works.

I think that this "writing what you know" goes hand in hand with the writing cliché: "you don’t pick your topics; your topics pick you." As for my own experiences, this has been true—too true at times. But as a Christian writer, or I should say, as writer with/of faith, what do you do when the story kidnaps you and takes you to a place that is dark and scary and bleak and seemingly Godless? How do you deal with that? How does your audience deal with that (if the story actually sees the light of day)? As a Christian, where are our boundaries?

If you are expecting me to answer my own questions, I’m not. I can’t. At least not fully. As a writing major at a Christian college, I am continually challenged to write outside the box of Christianese. Challenged to write for those who are "blinded by the light of this world." I can’t personally do that by writing about only the puppies and dolphins and daisies of life. They (and I) just wouldn’t get it. So what is the bigger picture and how do our stories (begging like little children to finally be put onto paper) fit into it?

I am not fully sure of the answer, but I don’t think we have to be fully sure. Part of the adventure and fun of writing is not knowing what exactly will happen next. So jump a fence or two, avoid the cliché potholes, and discover what lies beyond your own boundaries. Only than can you truly find them.


A few links that further expand this discussion:

Writer James C. Schaap writes about mixing faith and writing in "Faith and the Writer: Mix or Mistake?"

"Four Catholic writers who read their way to faith" A book review and article about four prominent Catholice writers and how their faith influenced their lives and their writing.

New Imprint...Coming Soon!

Strang Communication (umbrella for Charisma House, Siloam, and a number of magazines) is launching a new imprint. I'm usually hypercritical of moves by competitors but so far I haven't had a complaint about anything I'm seeing from them.

The imprint is called Realms. Great name for a visionary/fantasy/ sci-fi publisher. Plus, slick logo. If you've a taste or heart for this genre, this is great news.

In fact, I think it's good news for the industry in general. We publish some excellent "visionary" novels here at BHP (Kathy Tyers, Randy Ingermanson, and the acclaimed Karen Hancock). But it's a genre that needs a self-sustaining number of good books to keep readers happy. Hopefully the fiction is strong, too. (I think the books are available this fall...)

(Okay, I have one small complaint. You have to go through the intro. page each time at the entry URL. Jeff, put a skip intro button up!) (Edited to add: Jeff has pointed out that this link will take you directly to the main page. He also mentioned that a new and improved Realms site will be coming next month some time.)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Starting Tomorrow

We have a summer intern with us here at BHP. Smart woman; good writer. Me, being either generous or lazy, I'll be abdicating a corner of the blog this summer. Fridays she’ll get the opportunity to post a thought …and will also provide a link or two or three for our reading edification.

Perspectives other than my own are a good thing for this site. I know she’ll bring a fresh perspective that I can slowly warp through relentless brainwashing until she has the energy to do nothing but parrot my own private peeves.

Pray for her.

Actually, please just extend her the same grace and kindness you do to me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Going Back a Day

I’m all over the place this week. It’s much easier to write when I have a theme for a week, but that’s not always going to happen, so this week it’s divine randomness.

So we’re headed back to The Gospel According to America and Herman Melville. I know you’re thrilled. This is a quote that I’m sure Mick Silva could spend a month on.

Dark in this section is talking about the dangers of simplification, especially in rhetoric. How “tidying up reality” is actually a practice of self-deception. Here’s Dark:
“When Melville, the narrator, steps out from behind the curtain in The Confidence Man, he reminds us that reality is hardly done justice by tidying efforts and that a story too tidy is probably, if we haven’t already guessed, good news for Satan’s kingdom: ‘That fiction, where every character can, by reason of its consistency, be comprehended at a glance, either exhibits but sections of character, making them appear for wholes, or else is very untrue to reality.’ Just in case we need reminding, being untrue to reality, to the complexity of actual life, is what propaganda is for….”

There are a couple of pretty bold claims in that statement. There are some claims, that if paired with current criticism of CBA fiction, should raise some eyebrows and/or hackles.

The question before us is simply this: If a work of Christian fiction (CBA or otherwise) fails to be “true to reality,” is it in danger of being merely a piece of propaganda?

And, the more difficult follow-up question: What does it mean to be “true to reality” in a work of fiction?

I’m not asking you this question—I’m asking myself this question. I’m trying with chainsaw and logging flannel to get the plank out of my own eye in this instance.

Has my writing failed to present life and faith in their full complexity? Or have I been complicit, because of narrative need or my own spiritual shallowness or editorial contrivance, in making things “untrue”?

Because I’ve been feeling the implications of that might be greater than I’d first guessed.

Impressive and Frightening

Ever watched the geography bee? A Minnesota boy won it this year. To show you how far I am from winning this contest, I live in Minnesota and have never even heard of this kid's town.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Writing Metaphors

No. Not in that way.

I’m not talking about the actually writing of metaphors, but rather metaphors you hear in relation to writing. Novels are such large, complicated beasts that we’re often left relying on more tangible images to help each other find our way through.

My guess is that we’re particularly drawn to one metaphor or another. I’m wondering which ones you like best. And I’m wondering if you come to them on a book-by-book basis, or if the same comparison has worked for all of your writing.

Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about:

A novel is like a roller coaster. You need building action and emotion, but for every high, there needs to be a corresponding low that lets us climb back up until, finally, there’s one final drop and the reader is left spent but happy.

Writing a novel is like a symphony. You have multiple voices and moods and sounds at your disposal and you need to figure out how to blend them, let parts take the lead, and finally build to a moment and mood that, either in its quietness or loudness, fully captures the power of your piece.

This guy says writing is like preparing and running a long race.

Here, a class created a entire list of metaphors: eating out, practicing football, etc.

I, apparently, think of creating books in cooking terms.

E.L. Doctorow supposedly said, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way."

Elizabeth Innes-Brown says, “Writing a novel is like solving a puzzle: you just have to keep at it till it’s done, but it feels so good when you get there."

Adam Cadre says, “"Writing a novel is like walking across the country: I've got my map in front of me, know where to change freeways... I don't necessarily know exactly how the road will twist and turn along the way, but at least I know which cities I'll be passing through next.”

Disturbing famous writer Dean Koontz says, "Writing a novel is like making love, but it's also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it's like making love while having a tooth pulled."

Prayers please for Mr. Koontz's wife. And dentist.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Quick Book Review

I don't have tons of time to post today but I thought I'd mention a book I'm currently enjoying. It's David Dark's The Gospel According to America.

It's a fairly even-keeled approach to the topic of faith in the American discourse, Christianity when it becomes an "American" construct, and a number of other ideas. Part of the fun of reading Dark is playing "Catch That Song Reference." He quotes/cribs/alludes to song lyrics as though he's come down with Musical Tourette's.

It's worth noting at this site because many of Dark's references are from our great heritage of American literature--Faulkner, Hawthorne, etc. There's not much better than dropping a Melville reference to critique our current administration's verbiage in its war on terror. I mean, that's good stuff.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Write What You...No!

Getting away from trauma and pain…

What is the difference between “writing what you know” and merely inserting moments of your life into your fiction?

The problem seems to be that “what happens to you” is generally most interesting to only you. (Unless you’re a great memoirist.) So you perhaps overestimate the “impressiveness” of your own experiences and feelings. Or you don’t fit those experiences to fiction. The “lesson” you learned through a moment in your life—are you sure it fits 100% thematically with what your character is going through. These bits and fragments can simply feel just like that.

Finally, are we short-circuiting the somewhat inexplicable magic that occurs in the creative process by cutting out portions of our life and pasting them, whole cloth, into stories. The best scenes in my books surprised me.

I’m certainly not saying “don’t write from experience” but I think we should re-evaluate the issue a little.

Next week. I need to go home now.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Hardest Part

Acquisitions is a great job. I love it. That said, there’s obviously some portions of work that are more challenging than others.

Working through frustrations with authors is difficult. Thankfully, I have great authors so far, and that’s been hard but not terrifying. In fact, I think it has mostly strengthened our trust in each other.

Rejecting writers is hard. I understand how much of yourself you put into your work. I come along read a portion of it and say, “Thank you, but no.” It’s certainly awful to hear and it’s not fun to say. But this is a business and these things must go on.

The most challenging part though has been at writer’s conferences I’ve attended.

A potential author will approach me, introduce their book as a story about an incredibly devastating and difficult theme—abuse, recovery from abortion, depression, a child’s suicide—and then confess that the story is based on their own life experiences.

My reaction is irrelevant here.

The question I want to dwell on for a moment is the powerful role of writing as catharsis, the distinction between this writing and novels, and the imaginary line that exists in allowing life to fuel fiction without taking it over.

Also: I want sensitive to writers out there who are working through these issues. These are just my ideas at the moment. If I’m wrong, please, please challenge me on these things.

People endure pain of such a variety and intensity that I can barely understand it. The problem of pain still leaves me dumb and gazing heavenward. I’m not psychiatrist, but I know that moving through and conquering pain involves a number of steps and that having some kind of emotional outlet—be it talking in therapy, blogging, or writing a novel—can be an important portion of that movement.

The question though is whether the words written as catharsis can work as a novel.

To me, one of the fundamental elements of the novel is that it isn’t about you. It’s about characters. At its core it requires an empathy and a willingness to take on another’s perspective—even if that “other” is a fictional being whose perspective you’re helping to build.

To me, the process of catharsis and the ability to enter another’s perspective are at odds with each other. Catharsis is necessarily focused on the health and needs of you. Perspective, obviously, is getting outside of those needs and thoughts to try on others’ shoes.

Life as Fuel
It’s insane to say that we can’t use our life experiences to fuel our fiction. Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch didn’t emerge out of the ether.

So where’s the line? Can any cathartic writing be accessible to the masses? What about things like On the Road, which was essentially vomited onto the page over a weekend in a Benzedrine fueled haze.

I have no answers tonight. I don’t think I’m bold enough to offer any yet. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. Have you written from a particularly difficult time in your life? What perspective did you need to gain on it to be able to approach it from a novelic POV?

Under Attack

Pray for Mark Bertrand and Dee Gist and Chris Fisher and others of your faith*in*fiction friends down in Houston as there are ornery birds who may cause them harm.

Seriously, there’s genocide going on in Sudan, and yet Yahoo finds space to make this story front-page news. And idiots like me pass it on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Interesting Christian Book Store

Got an email from an owner of an independent Christian bookstore in Bel Air, MD. He read the blog and decided to stock Gilead. One store down, 4500 to go.

The bookstore is called Christopher Matthew's. And if you happen to live close by, you can go meet Christy Winner and Nominee Lisa Samson, who will be reading and signing her newest book--Club Sandwich--on Saturday.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Situational Reading

Here’s a frustrating fact of life for authors: we can’t control the environment in which our novels are read. This is particularly problematic for aspiring writers. I try to read proposals here with as little bias as I can, but it’s impossible to be uninfluenced by my world, the world around me, and the vagaries of everyday life.

So, it could be that your story featuring a subplot involving mentoring a talented but troubled teen comes after reading two novels and a separate proposal with similar threads. Not your fault, but the whole thing is going to come off as a little stale.

I mention this because I find it interesting when a novel really suits where you’re at— emotionally, physically, whatever.

For instance, I read Moby Dick while traveling through New Zealand and the greatest chunk along the eastern shore of the southern island. This place is a notable feeding ground for whales and the town of Kaikoura has a whaling heritage. In fact, on one of my walks on the beach I cam across the bleaching bones of a beached whale. The ambiance and aura of the whole thing kept me riveted to the pages while on the bus or in my hostel at night. I truly loved that book.

Gilead on the other hand faced monumental family distractions. I wasn’t even sure if I’d have enough time to concentrate on the book to be able to discuss. As it turns out, one particular thread in the story mirrored lots of what I was feeling and gave the attention and space needed to follow the book through.

My next reading, however, away from those circumstances is almost guaranteed to be completely different.

People often talk about the Bible really reaching them during particular times, but I’m interested if you’ve had a novel that really fit into whatever (good/bad/other) was going on in your life at a particular moment?

Monday, May 16, 2005

And the Winner Is...John Grisham, Dan Brown, and Danielle Steele!

There's going to be a new "literary" award on the block. And it's going to reflect the tastes of readers! Because, apparently, selling a bajillion copies isn't reward enough. One isn't complete without a little chunk of engraved wood or crystal.

Read more about "The Quills".

Friday, May 13, 2005

Day 7 of Gilead - Beautiful. And a Call to CBA Retailing

Why did Gilead win the Pulitzer?

The writing was superior. The voice, controlled and expert. Its author has properly high-brow credentials.

There's a dozen books a year like that, however. And yet each year the good folks at the various book awards choose a title that meets whatever standards the award is supposed to represent.

My goal here isn't to linger on the Pulitzer. Awards are great but, in and of themselves, meaningless. Still a perusal of past Pulitzer winners makes a fairly impressive reading list for what I would consider mainstream, literary fiction. These are typically books by authors with an impressive body of work behind them; they're often pretty accessible; and they're often the books that make-up the growing canon of American literature. You recognize the books on this list in other words.

As such, Gilead seems a pretty understandable choice. To me, it tackles similar ground as, say, that archetypical bit of Americana Our Town. Emily says, "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another....Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute."

The Stage Manager answers her: "No. The saints and poets, maybe--they do some."

I think Americans have always treasured those moments when saints and poets remind us of life's shattering, and ephemeral, beauty. For Christians it's that weird holy tension. For non-believers, well, it's something completely different.

This is a beautiful book. Written by a poet. Written by, as much as one believes in such things, a saint.
Which brings me hard into my next point.

I think this book needs to be on CBA bookshelves.

We've barked about how difficult it is to get ABA stores to treat CBA books with respect.
Part of the issue is that CBA sets itself so apart as an industry that there's little cross-over the other way either.

In Gilead, you have a book that contains NOTHING objectionable to that theoretically tetchy reader. It is a "CBA" novel without meaning to be.

And yet, I guarantee that it will be ignored by our industry. Sure Books and Culture reviewed it. And First Things. That's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about Christians supporting this book they way we supported The Passion of the Christ. Wasn't everybody all jazzed up because a "Christian" had made an impact in the world? Didn't we all flock like lemmings to "show Hollywood a lesson"? Well, I'd like a little herd behavior on Gilead, too.

This world, for better and mostly worse, is run by pocket books. The industry needs to flex some dollar muscle in this instance so the market understands Christians will support writing like this.

Next week, I'd like to pursue this further.

2005 Christy Award Finalists Announced

First Novel
The Dead Don’t Dance by Charles Martin (WestBow Press)
The Mending String by Cliff Coon (Moody Publishers)
There is a Wideness by Mark McAllister (RiverOak)

Bad Ground by W. Dale Cramer (Bethany House Publishers)
No Dark Valley by Jamie Langston Turner (Bethany House Publishers)
Tiger Lillie by Lisa Samson (WaterBrook Press)

King’s Ransom by Jan Beazely/Thom Lemmons (WaterBrook Press)
Retribution by Randall Ingermanson (Zondervan)
Third Watch by Bodie & Brock Thoene (Tyndale)

Secrets by Kristen Heitzmann (Bethany House Publishers)
Wild Heather by Catherine Palmer (Tyndale)
Winter Winds by Gayle Roper (Multnomah)

The Assignment by Mark Andrew Olsen (Bethany House Publishers)
River’s Edge by Terri Blackstock (Zondervan)
Tiger in the Shadows by Debbie Wilson (Kregel)

Beyond the Summerland by L.B. Graham (P&R Publishing)
Dragonspell by Donita K. Paul (WaterBrook Press)
The Shadow Within by Karen Hancock (Bethany House Publishers)


Congrats to all the authors and all my editorial colleagues in-house and at other houses. These award nominations often mean as much to the folks behind the scenes as they do to the authors themselves.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Day 6 of Gilead - Turning the Screws

A long time ago we talked about a scale rating books in terms of how writing and character-driven they are versus plot-driven. I think fully character-driven books were given a 10 and plot-driven books were given a 1. Most of us would probably rank Gilead at about a 8 or a 9 on that scale.

The hardest thing with these kinds of books is having identifiable “stakes” that draw the reader through the story. Some readers may bog down in Robinson’s narrative, in John Ames’ preacherly pontification. Some readers may be 85 pages in and thinking, “Where is this story going?”

It goes some where.

In fact, Robinson has heightened the stakes as much as she can within her small “normal” world to force our interest and compel us forward. Let’s look at a few ways.

John Ames is old. John Ames is dying.

John Ames is leaving behind a wife and child.

The wife John Ames is leaving behind is a stunning woman who entered his life late as the unexpected love of his life. He feels a bit like he didn’t get to spend as much time with her as he could have.

The son John Ames is leaving behind is too young to know what’s happening. Ames lost a child from his first marriage, a wound that stayed with him for a long time. The simultaneous joy and pain of having this boy now force the writing of the book.

Because he was a bachelor pastor for so long in a small town, John Ames has virtually nothing to leave his wife and son. No way to leave them in anything but in need.

A younger man, an untrustworthy man, is befriending the boy…and the wife.

The younger man is the son of a dear friend—and kind of a surrogate son to John himself.

Do you see how each little bit of the story raises the stakes a little further? This is never going to be a race against an evil villain to rescue a damsel before her horrendous death. But the emotional tension Robinson draws here is as taut as a cello string. And when she plucks at it, the notes that are sounded really sing.

All of which is to say, don’t be content with slack emotional tension in your story. Look for ways to ratchet up the stakes and make the heart of your story beat even faster.
Continue to Day 7 of our discussion of Gilead.

Marilynne Robinson Interview

This was passed on by a friend.

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly interviewed Marilynne Robinson. You can read a transcript and even watch parts of it.

I recommend this mostly to those who've read the book or are well on their way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Day 5 of Gilead – Building a Voice

Since Gilead relies so much on voice, I thought we’d spend a quick day talking a little about what it means to build a voice. Here are some building blocks which will help shape the voice of the narrator. (There’s also the voice of non-narrator characters, too, but they come out only through dialogue.)

POV: We need a separate and distinctive voice for each narrator in a novel.

In Gilead, it’s a first-person POV—John Ames.

Perspective: What is special about where the narrator is focusing his attention?

At first, the perspective is focused mostly back through time and flashbacks. However, soon current happenings force the action into the present and the perspective is on the hear-and-now.

Form: Is there anything special in the method of narrative?

Gilead, as I’ve mentioned, is an epistolary novel. It’s “written” not oral.

Narrative Character: What are some major outer traits of the narrator that will define voice?

John Ames is seventy-five. He is a pastor. He is dying and writing his memoirs for a young son who, assumably, will not remember his father.

Setting: What in the setting will influence voice?

It is 1950s Iowa. Small town.

These are the most major building blocks of voice. If I gave you what is above and told you to write a novel, you would have a running start. If you didn’t know, you’d have to figure out how the 1950s might influence voice, or being 75 years old, or being from the Midwest. But otherwise, you could get a pretty good leap.

The magic of writing comes as we begin exploring the details a little more closely.

What kind of pastor is he? Fire and brimstone? Liberal? Compassionate?

How does his impending death affect him? Is he frightened? Contented? Sad?

These questions may not have definitive answers. He could be frightened at one point in the novel and grow to contentment. Voice is not necessarily static. It needs to be steady and trackable—but never static.

Finally, what idiosyncratic flourishes can an author dream up to add personality to a voice. These are things, in particular, that help differentiate narrators in multiple-narrator novels.

Word use is one. Cultural references are another. The books and theologians John Ames quotes, for instance, should reflect his character. Another pastor wouldn’t necessarily look to the same sources.

Finally, I want to point out one little “literary” peculiarity that Marilynne Robinson gives John Ames.

Ames has a habit of concluding thoughts with what seem to be non-sequitors. He’ll speak for a length on one topic and then conclude with a quick remembrance or allusion to something else. It’s a habit he repeats enough that it is evident, but not terrible annoying. It gives you a picture of a mind awake, a mind constantly searching for links and connections between things. Meaning that emerges from juxtaposition.

This is just one example. Read any good novel and characters often emerge with a few of these little traits. Just something to help make them more real, more alive in our minds as we “hear” them.
Go to Day 6 of our discussion of Gilead.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Day 4 of Gilead - All Things Bow Down to…?

Yesterday I intimated that portions of Gilead’s narrative struck me, in a way, like a sermon. And that sounds bad for a novel. It sounds boring. It sounds, well, preachy.

But Gilead is not either of these. Or was not to me.

The reason is that I never felt this was an “authorial” presence slipping in to deliver the message that we readers needed to hear. Instead, you look at the book and you look at the main character, John Ames, third-generation pastor, and you understand that this IS his voice.

Ames is a pastor. Facing death because of some health issues, he is writing his begats (memoir/confessional) for a very young son who will never know his father. But in the course of his writings, he can’t quite help himself. Every Sunday for decades he has written a sermon (in fact they loom over his head, literally, in the attic, collected en masse) and so when he sits down to write these thoughts it’s natural as rain for him to slip into “pastor” mode.

This is a chicken-egg scenario. Did Marilynne Robinson create the character of John Ames and then allow his voice to develop as he meditated on a few themes in his life? Or did she think of the themes she wanted to tackle and then fashion a character best suited to think through such things? It can happen both ways. My guess—and I’ve been wrong before—is that John Ames emerged first, his voice (digressive, authoritative, ecclesiastical) second, and the “themes” shortly after.

The point is that all things need to bow down to voice and character. Who John Ames is allows for this book to emerge. That’s why an epistolary novel works. This is a man who writes all week long—only speaking his words on Sunday. The pen and the blank page is natural for him to explore thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t have a coal miner “write” this book. You couldn’t, unless you explained why the coal miner had such a voice to write it. Because an eloquent coal miner isn’t an impossibility—just an improbability.

Breaking Gilead apart into pieces is really fascinating to see how who John Ames is influences/interacts with the rest of the book. What does it mean for him to be a widower, for instance? Or an older father? With great books, all these pieces build and heighten each other to a cohesive whole. In mediocre books, often there’s no rationale for choices or certain character traits are ignored or imposed upon a character.
Go to Day 5 of our discussion of Gilead.

Writing and Faith

This just came across my desk. I've not yet read it, but I've heard Vinita speak and have read Velma Still Cooks in Leeway. She's someone worth listening to. I'll try to take a look at it over the next couple of weeks and let you know.

The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life by Vinita Hampton Wright

Monday, May 09, 2005

Day 3 of Gilead - Dense

I read fast. Gilead is not a long book—less than 250 pages, in fact. Most books, that’s a three-hour read for me. I did not read this book in three hours.

In part, I couldn’t read it that fast because the pages were simply packed. Remember a year ago when we started talking about dialogue and its role in novels? And that led us to a discussion of Average Words per Sentence and crazy amounts of math? Simply put, a book with substantial portions of dialogue is easier and quicker to read. But it’s only partly because of word count.

The other reason is that long portions of narrative place comprehension demands on readers. We all learn little tricks to facilitate our understanding of books. One of those tricks is that, typically, what’s in dialogue is of primary importance. Thus you can typically skip portions of narrative, read the dialogue, and stay on-top of what’s going on.

When you remove dialogue almost completely—and skim Gilead to see how little dialogue there is—you remove one of those tricks. Now a reader has to pay attention through long sections of narrative. You need to track thoughts often through multiple paragraphs, sometimes even through multiple sections. A few thoughts need to be tracked through the entire book. This absolutely slows a reader down. And it earns a book like Gilead the somewhat pejorative descriptor of a “meditative” read.

I think this kind of narrative control requires a slightly different skill set than plot-driven narrative of other stories. Instead of the point-to-point thread a plot demands to move forward, this interior narrative comes off much more like, unsurprisingly, a sermon.

Have you ever heard a bad sermon? Not one where the content is bad or boring, but one that simply rambles. In its individual pieces, it sounds fine, but when they’re linked together there’s no cohesive thread that impels you forward. Great orators create an invisible logic (there’s most likely a rhetorical term for this; I don’t know it) that makes it easy and compelling to follow their narrative. The resolution of a great argument or sermon is in some ways as satisfying as the resolution of a plot.

Not to say Gilead doesn’t have a plot, but much of what you linger over longest is her character’s varied ruminations.

So it can be rightly (and fairly) asked: How much of Gilead is sermon and how much is novel? We’ll get to that tomorrow.
Go to Day 4 of our discussion of Gilead.

One More Book Cover

Sorry, I'd tried very hard to remember this title and failed during our discussion. Of course, it came to me a week later. This is a book that stopped me cold when I first saw it.

Rupert Thomson's The Book of Revelation. The hardcover jacket itself is a thick, textured stock and it makes the image rise almost 3-D off the page.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Day 2 of Gilead

There are few actually useful deliniations between "literature" and plain "novels". Most of the definitions we try break down at some point, or are merely arbitrary. One that I'll throw out as being more useful than others is that literature is a book you can read multiple times and always take away something different.

See, I'll reread Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ten times (Is the movie any good?) but mostly I'm repeating myself for the pleasure of the experience. For the jokes I liked so much the first time. I have no doubt that I could reread Gilead in five months and discover much that I missed the first time, or new ways of looking at what I thought the first time through.

Right now we're stuck with just my first impressions though so the first thing I want to point out is that the ground Marilynne Robinson treads in her novel is the rich soil of paradox. Grace and predestination. Love of this life and the desire for heaven. Causing pain to fight injustice. Beauty that brings pain. And some others.

These things work well for the soil of novels, I guess, because exploring them is like walking on a knife's blade. How two simultaneously contradictory things can exist in the same moment...that's one of the great mysteries of our life and one of the things I think writers and artists and philosophers have been struggling with for decades.

So it isn't suprising that she's taken on these themes. Or that she's taken on the theme of "mortality" either. It's the particular voice and circumstances that she brings to these things that make her exploration work so well.

A. These grand themes are played out against the smallest backdrop. A single, fairly unimportant man's life.

B. His is not the voice of the expert. Though a pastor, the "letters" that old John Ames writes during the course of the book are filled with conjecture and questioning and wrong ideas. This is not the hagiography of a man we're supposed to esteem, but the example of a man we'd be wise to follow.

C. She does not make her paradoxical themes theoretical. Instead, she simply allows characters to embody both sides of the debate. Characters who, then, aren't allowed to even be defined by those "sides."

I think all of these things add to the fact that this is a book that you can--nay, should--return to again. And probably at different stages in your life. My life right now is forcing one particular reading that may not be quite as important down the line five years. And should I pick it up then, the words will be the same, but the "words" will be something new and, probably, quite unexpected.
Go to Day 3 of our discussion of Gilead.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Day 1 of Gilead

I bought the new Bruce Springsteen Devil's and Dust CD today. Too new to comment on it, but can I just say it took a literal six minutes--360 stinking seconds--to get through all the packaging. Shrink-wrapping, a hard plastic sleeve, those impenetrable labels, and finally a little latch on the cover itself. May our radioactive waste be so well-protected.

Oh, Gilead? Yeah, I guess we'll spend some time on that, too. In fact, I think we'll spend a good amount of time--maybe two full weeks--partly because of some personal reasons but also because in reading it, I think we can see a kind of apotheosis to some of the things that those of us writing "Christian" fiction talk about and look toward.

So, if you've not read it, I think now's the time. Or the next two weeks are going to be boring.


There's a reason I rarely like to give writers advice on a book idea, rather than on actual sample pages. The reason is that a great, or even good, writer can turn nearly any idea into something workable. The cliche, in outline form, becomes filled out and three-dimensional when given pages to blossom.

If Marilynne Robinson had turned in Gilead to me, for example, as a three-page synopsis I probably would have been mildly grumpy.

First, it's an epistolary novel. This form often turns out badly. Letters are not the same thing as a novel. How often do we put dialogue in our letters?

Second, it's an epistolary novel written from the POV of a guy waiting to die for his young son who will grow up without a father. Very Lifetime channel.

Third, the guy waiting to die is a pastor. I see a lot of pastor stories and often they're simply an excuse to preach. So that's a red-flag.

Fourth, the pastor is a widower. And there's an entire graduate thesis waiting to be written about the number of widows and widowers in Christian fiction.

Fifth, there are deep, dark family secrets.

And sixth, it's set in Iowa. And Kansas. In a small town. Because apparently that's the only place people can have faith in our country anymore. Oh, and the town is called "Gilead" which is weighty and biblical. And also, the Civil War figures in, because that is one of only two historical events in US History worth writing about. (The other is WWII.)


And yet.

And yet.

And that "yet" is what we'll spend the next nine days exploring. How did something that looks, well, so ordinary and overused become original and wonderful and moving? How can we learn, if not from Gilead itself, then at least from Marilynne Robinson's example in turning sow's ear into a purse.

Go to Day 2 of our discussion of Gilead.