A multi-generational family tale like the one in my novel What’s Left can lead to a lot of characters, and keeping them all straight can be a problem.
My plot line takes a few twists that minimize their numbers, but when you get four generations over time, it’s bound to create a challenge, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it helps to stick with somebody who knows everybody, when you’re circulating through the crowd.
When reading a big book, do you have tricks for keeping track of the individuals? Anything you’d like to share?
In early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered going into detail on her uncle Dimitri’s practice of micro-lending and startup investing. Here at home we discussed including a whole list of failures and successes — or reasons applications were approved or rejected. Just think of all the once bright options that soon failed, as well as the ones that have since gone mainstream.
One proposal that didn’t survive my second-thoughts was this:
Thus, when friends decide to launch a local winery, we support them.
At the time I first noted this, 45 or so years ago, a local winery would have been cutting edge. Now there seem to be wineries everywhere, and their output can be widely uneven and often overpriced.
My experience as a home brewer, making more than 2,500 bottles of beer, was fascinating. We relied on kits from a local aficionado and never had a bum batch. But we still haven’t tried making our own wine.
Gardening, of course, is another matter. As is composting.
Do you raise any of your own food? Make your own bread or yogurt? How about jams or jellies or artisanal vinegars? Any other hands-on touches?
While walking down the street after finishing a revision of my novel What’s Left, I noticed a vanity license plate with five letters, PAPOU. I smiled, recognizing the Greek for “grandpa.” The car was parked in front of the Orthodox church. Wonder if I know him.
Do you have a similar affectionate term for your grandparents?
While my novel What’s Left picks up a generation after the final events in my Subway Visions tale, I found myself needing a better understanding of the five siblings’ roots. That meant going back not just one generation but two in this case.
Have you ever done genealogy or looked into your family’s history? Are there stories you feel would make for good fiction? How about the characters, too?
Growing up in a financially secure family like the one in my novel What’s Left could open your educational and career options, I suppose. For Cassia’s mother, I saw events unfolding along these lines — which I then cut from later revisions of the story:
Manoula, on the other hand, possessed some of her sister’s ability to ask those questions, however gently. And she had some of her brother Dimitri’s practical streak. But she also had an underlying spiritual awareness and a sharp intelligence to match. It’s a potent combination — even intimidating to many potential suitors.
Crucially, both Manoula and Baba knew the vitality of artistic practice and expression. Remember, he was more than a photographer — he may have worked on a daily newspaper, but he profoundly appreciated all the fine arts. On top of that, he had a natural ability in writing that had yet to be encouraged and released.
On her part, Manoula loved literature, in particular, and practiced hours a day on her violin. Realizing early on how difficult it is to earn a living in either endeavor, she followed Dimitri’s advice to pursue a double major — English and music — with a minor in business to fall back on. As she told people, she was open to a career in arts management, and in a way, with the publishing, she’s held to it. She spent five years on her bachelor’s degree — including summer courses — but she was in no race to get out into the world, not once my Baba crossed her path. They were both taking a long-range view ahead.
In a way, you could say she was a Yiayia Dida while Nita was a Yiayia Athina in new guise. Oh, I don’t know — maybe it was the other way around. They were all strong, emancipated women with a bohemian streak. Not all bohemians, I should add, are strong — not by a long shot.
In early versions of the novel, when Cassia was piecing together her family history from the perch of a teen or 20-something, she might have seen events something along these lines. But in the later revisions, told as she’s seeing them as a teen, this passage was just too much. Way too much. Besides, through much of high school time, she was a lackadaisical student more interested in managing a live music scene.
Looking at her ancestors, though, I doubt that her great-grandmothers had more than a rudimentary education. Her grandmother, Bella, came to town for a college degree but was thwarted in her plans. Cassia’s mother, her Manoula, raised the educational bar.
Fortunately, Cassia’s aunt Nita provides crucial encouragement that leads to college in time.
So what is essential in releasing talent or dreams you have? What kind of advice have you received regarding continuing education and career? How have your plans taken shape? What’s been especially helpful?
One of the dilemmas in shaping my novel What’s Left, involves the naming of children. I felt a repetition of first names in successive generations, such a common Greek custom, would have simply become too confusing for readers to follow. Am I right?
In a passage I cut from the final edition, the unifying influence of tradition or spiritual practice is considered:
Let’s face it, our worst disagreements are insignificant compared to the conflicts that could be erupting within our circle.
Not all families get along, after all. Even Cassia’s will face some difficult trials.
For the moment, let’s look at names. Cassia, in the novel, is short for Acacia, a tough wood mentioned in the Bible. (In the King James version, though, it’s called shittam. Ugh.)
Do you know what your name means? Were you named in honor of anyone? Do you like them? Would you prefer something else?