Little room to be fully alone where she is

When it comes to her cohort of close cousins in my novel What’s Left, I don’t want to give away too much. Let’s just say there are a lot of them, and they come to prominence in the last half of the story. You just might have reason to be envious.

As an author, this presents a challenge. How can I narrow the focus for the reader yet maintain an awareness of the scope involved by the time we get to a fourth generation of this family in the New World?

In this case, I chose to concentrate on a handful of Cassia’s cousins, at most, and deal with the rest of them in quick glances, often as part of the pack, sometimes simply a cluster of names in a single brushstroke. I hope it’s sufficient.

Perhaps it also helps that apart from Cassia’s best friend forever, Sandra, the cousins don’t step into the spotlight until we’re well into the story and some of the other earlier characters have already stepped offstage.

~*~

As a passage I deleted from the final version suggests, her upbringing was quite different from her father’s.

He must have been very lonely, always on best behavior, without any of the competitive mischief that runs through my family.

~*~

One of the things that amazed me about my college girlfriend’s family was the number of cousins she had and how often they visited each other — second- and third-cousins included. They seemed to know where everyone lived and what they were up to. Mine was nothing like that.

Do you have any close cousins? Do you find any of them to be special? Annoying?

Or if you’re from a big family, how close are you to your brothers and sisters? Which ones more than others?

Who would you turn to if you were in trouble?

~*~

Coming across a family photo like this one online fills me with admiration. They seem so close and happy together. The one I found is captioned Three Greek Sisters. I’m assuming they’re Greek-American, but who cares? By the way, those look like some lucky guys, too.

Conformity isn’t necessarily comfortable, is it?

My novel What’s Left deals largely with a new generation as it attempts to make sense of its legacy. Yes, the story centers on Cassia, the daughter of a professional photographer and practicing Tibetan Buddhist in Indiana. She’s trying to make sense of how they got where they are now – and what’s always made her extended family unique.

Do you feel you fit in easily with the world around you? Or is there usually some sense of alienation?

 

Characters reflect varied levels of involvement in the story

Unless you’re a hermit or a successful recluse, you’re bound to come across a host of humanity in your daily life. Just think of the spaces you inhabit — home, neighborhood, buses or subway cars, classroom, workplace and markets, church, a gym or swimming pool, dances, sports teams or choirs, coffee stop, and on and on — all filled with other people who cross your path.

Just mapping all the places you touch in a week can be a big challenge.

If it were only pink, like the one in my novel What’s Left!

So faithfully following a character in a story presents an impossible task: how many of these intersecting individuals can an author include? Think, too, of the level of importance — whether you’re presenting a central figure whose influence runs through many of the pages; a major character who may be important at some point, even a single chapter; someone who provides peripheral color; an episodic figure, who flits in and out. And how many of these require names versus those who can be quickly sketched by a simple title or description?

I’d still love to do a tale having only two characters. Even holding it to six would be fun. But obviously, that wouldn’t do when the story touches up to five generations, as my novel What’s Left, does. Now you can share my perspective.

Consider, too, that we typically know others in one circle of activity or another. Sometimes they fit in several, but encountering a person out of context can be confusing. There are people I know at the indoor swimming pool, for instance, but we’re always startled when we run into each other on the street or at the supermarket, where our joke usually goes, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” (Yes, we do wear swimsuits — and often swim caps.)

How many people do you know by name? What’s your most important social space when it comes to being with your cohorts?

~*~

Don’t forget:

You better be good to toads!

 

You better be good to toads

If you’re a writer, you no doubt know the dictum, “Write about what you know.” It remains sound advice. Another side, though, is equally valid — write about what you don’t know. It’s a means of exploration and discovery.

What’s Left takes that approach more than any of my earlier works. As an 11-year old, Cassia’s living in a financially secure extended family quite unlike any I’ve known intimately. She suffers a tragedy that prompts the action of the novel, again quite different from my own experience. Cassia tells most of the story in her teen years as she investigates the central questions in her life.

For me, this also required constructing a back story beginning with her great-grandparents and moving to the present. What do I know about running a restaurant, managing a family business, being Greek-American or Greek Orthodox, for that matter?

Well, as she advised me (and you readers) at one point, “You better be good to toads.”

I simply recorded what she dictated to me.

Read the book and you’ll see why.

~*~

I thought about “correcting” that to “You better be kind to toads,” but my sense is that it’s closer to what an 11- or 12-year-old may say under the circumstances.

To be honest, I don’t remember much from when I was that age. There may be good reasons I keep blotting it out.

Give me some help!

What do you remember of being age 11?

~*~

Ribbit!

~*~

 

Finding the right tone for the story

Working on my novel What’s Left, had me exploring unfamiliar terrain when it comes to writing itself. Here I was, after a lifetime in newspaper journalism and a shelf of experimental novels and volumes of poetry, now drafting and revising a new work that was unlike anything I’d done before.

The details, for the most part, felt right, as did the structure. I’d eased into a voice in which Cassia could relate her progress, with the verb tenses of past events repeatedly changing back to the present, the way people do in speaking. The opening pages and final chapters actually excited me. But something bogged down along the way in-between. Not that it wasn’t good; it just wasn’t … well, something.

Much of my awareness as a writer has regarded the matter of style. How crisp, sharp, polished, muscular or sensual, even musical are the pages? In literary circles, that would ask just what in particular gives a specific writer a unique signature or sound, but my background originated in my high school years when I discovered the dictates of newspaper style — the strict rules given journalists for uniform spelling, story structure, word choices, and so on, matters that essentially create a uniformity or even anonymity in voices. Anyone want to mention Hemingway at this point?

With What’s Left, though, the word that kept popping up for me was tone. It was somehow just a little off.

Thinking of it in musical terms, I’m always surprised at what happens when our choir changes the tone of a piece by moving it up or down a half-step or so. It becomes brighter or more melancholy, for instance, as well as easier or harder for us to sing, depending on how it presses our vocal ranges. Well, this is also looked at as a matter of pitch. And it can make a world of difference.

With my novel, I slowly realized I didn’t want it to sound too much like a novel — I wanted it to be more an overheard conversation. As I also found, that can be tricky when we’re looking at a stack of old photos or family history.

~*~

In the family, Cassia’s great-grandfather Ilias would have known food like this. A plate of cooked snails with tomato in Crete, Greece. Served in the town Agia Galini. Photo by Helentr via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

Now that the novel’s finished, I’m reflecting once more on the basic of tone. One definition calls it the attitude of a writer toward a subject or audience, and I’m seeing how it’s been both in my case. Over the course of the revisions, the subject mutated from her father to his photographs and, finally, to the experiences of Cassia herself. In addition, her position shifted from her telling of looking back on her discoveries to having her tell of them as they occurred — in effect moving the center of gravity of the story well into her early teens. That, in turn, changed my attitude toward the audience.

Tone, as the definition continues, can be formal, informal, serious, comic, sarcastic, sad, and cheerful, among many other outlooks. Well, where her voice got younger, I did find her bursting into outrageous, delightfully irrational lines that have become some of my favorites.

My thinking about tone was also stimulated by things my ex-wife, a painter, had repeated about the necessity of tone in visual art — something many artists seem to lose sight of (sorry about the pun) as they work. Here it’s the contrast of lightness and darkness, in color as well as black and white — highlights and shadows. Squint your eyes and see if everything blurs into one. It’s still an important parallel to the written word.

So in my novel the tone would need to be colloquial. In the draft and early revisions, Cassia’s mostly the reader. But in the final draft, it’s largely her father. My attitude toward the subject has definitely changed, as has hers.

There’s also the attitude toward details. In fiction, to establish the contrast of lightness and darkness, it helps to keep many of these suggestive, open to the reader’s imagination — unlike the specifics demanded in journalism. Think of having shadowy areas where things can move about in the background without interrupting the action at hand.

In another shift, as she began voicing questions in place of flat-out statements, the reader just might start arguing with Cassia (not me!) — or even to say to herself, “I remember something similar” or “I’m glad that’s not how it happened with us.”

~*~

Since her family’s involved in the restaurant business, we can change our perspective slightly. Finding the right tone is something like deciding what kind of meal you’ll sit down to. A picnic, for example, is quite different from one with white linen on the table or from a quick lunch of burgers and fries.

As for something at home? It helps to know who’s coming.

What would you serve Cassia for a meal?

~*~

Could it be a mutually transitional relationship?

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, the voice and direction of the story changed greatly. For one thing, it became much more Cassia’s own.

To my surprise, some of the material about her father lost its urgency or importance. Here was one passage that would be refocused and condensed:

The crucial turning point comes, she says, just before Baba arrives here. Tara’s always defended her own space — what she perceives as her essential freedom — and as long as he could accept that, they could spend time together. At heart, though, he’d require more commitment than she would offer, but this once, knowing he’d be headed to the monastery, the situation forced him to take that out of the equation. He had to admit he had no idea what would follow his cloistered withdrawal from the world, and demanding a commitment he couldn’t return at this time would be unrealistic and unfair. That insight, in turn, gave both of them a rare freedom space to concentrate on the present rather than planning an ironclad future together. We can enjoy the next few months together, at best, and they could take everything at that. It was the healthiest — and most rewarding — relationship he’d had. Neither was clinging to the other.

~*~

When it comes to relationships, individuals can vary greatly in their needs and expectations and what they can provide for their partner.

Would you feel comfortable in a relationship like this? For how long?

~*~

In the family, Cassia may have had food like this. Halvah and nut-cake at Mario restaurant, Monolithos, Santorini. (Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Tara, the lover who wasn’t ready to settle down

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s aunt Nita personally knew three important non-family members in Cassia’s father’s past.

Tara is one she viewed mostly from a distance, the lover who matched him best before meeting Nita’s sister.

~*~

Here’s a longer look, one I condensed in the final revision:

If anything, Tara was a lioness. It’s not just her sunburst of hair. It’s the way she moves and regards the universe. The way she even purrs, when pleased, or growls when vexed. It manifests in an insistence on social justice and rails at power-seeking machinations of any kind, public or private. No, she shares our aversion to anything underhanded or sneaky. But the whole time she and Baba are lovers, she’s far from ready to settle down. She’s searching, even probing, for the direction she wants to follow. What Baba never sees is her underlying anxiety or the ways it’s on the verge of explosion. Still, she opens his eyes and heart to so much.

~*~

There have been moments in my life when I ponder how things would have gone when someone like Tara was finally ready to settle down but I was otherwise engaged.

Personally, what do you think of Tara?

~*~

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like Fira, Santorini. (Photo by Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Manic Mitch is also lurking from the past

In my novel What’s Left, a seminal figure in her father’s past is Mitch, who introduced him to her aunt Nita as well as Nita’s roommate Diz and then, let’s just say hippie highs.

It’s possible Nita and Cassia’s father never would have met on such a large campus without having manic Mitch in the story. It would be a tighter plot, but how much vibrancy would we lose? I’ve seen him pretty much as a catalyst, modeled loosely on a real-life figure from my past.

Well, he’s more of a key actor in in Daffodil Uprising, where Nita’s also important.

~*~

Just how do friendships begin? Not all of them originate through introductions by mutual acquaintances. Sometimes you just bump into someone and sense a connection.

Was there an accidental way you met someone you now consider a great friend?

~*~

In the family, Cassia may have had food like this. Nut pie and fried apple with ice cream at the Ammos restaurant, Perivolos beach. (Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Among the non-family members in his past, the one now called Liz

As Cassia delves into her father’s photo negatives in my novel What’s Left, she’s bound to come up with a slew of Liz, who became his first lover.

Somewhere there’s also the experimental short movie he made, the one that made the rounds of avant-garde showings. The one featuring Liz’s shimmering breast.

Cassia’s aunt Nita had been Liz’ dorm roommate when the whole thing began. She’d tell her niece plenty, should the kid ask. She’s also a central figure in Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.

~*~

Romantic love is only one of the options when it comes to emotional spiraling.

Could you tell about telling me of some event that knocked the floor out from under your feet?

~*~

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this Orthodox icon of Saint Agatha. Via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac

In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father’s parents are barely mentioned. They live miles away in Iowa, for one thing, and, for another, whatever they do is light years away from his contented life in her mother’s close-knit extended family.

As a purely literary challenge, trying to fit any more characters into a five-generation tale runs the risk of adding confusion for the reader. But then, by my eighth and ninth revisions, I stumbled upon a simple tweak that allowed me to acknowledge his parents more fully — the simple names of Grandpa and Grandma Mac would do. Just how much of a picture do you get from just that much?

For the most part, they’re a sharp contrast to Cassia’s experiences of home. She and her brothers never feel comfortable in their childhood visits to their Iowa grandparents. But somewhere in my later revisions, an episode developed that changes her understanding and then allows a relationship, however tenuous, to develop. Can I admit being rather fond of the insertion? For one thing, it allows me to quickly sketch another kind of American family little known to the general public — one that faced earlier pressures not all that different from Cassia’s Greek-American lineage much later. For another, well, it’s closer to my own roots, even when I look at hers with some envy.

~*~

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, the voice and direction of the story changed greatly. For one thing, it became much more Cassia’s own.

Continue reading “Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac”