In my novel What’s Left, Cassia ponders her father’s career. In an earlier draft, she noted:
At the least, he might take a position on a magazine or major metropolitan daily, based on the portfolio he’s amassed.
Even so, about the time he moves in with her family:
He replies honestly. He’s living hand-to-mouth as it is, thanks to his full-time professional calling.
I’ve known more than a few people with great talent and great potential. Somewhere, though, they failed to leap the gap. I could point to big changes in society that increased the distance, but even so, I mourn that we’ve lost much.
Step back and look at your situation now. In the movie version, where would you find glamour? And what would come across as funky? Give it a title, if you will, as part of your pitch. Let’s live fully, where we are!
In my novel What’s Left, her mother inherits a name whose attributes suit her well. The chaste Roman goddess Diana (or Artemis in Greek) rules the hunt, the moon, childbirth, and nature. In the story, she’s calm and faithful, with a spark of fire that infuses her music-making and likely much more. I even have her evolving into much more of a night-person than her early-rising husband, though I hadn’t thought about that connection till now.
As I wrote earlier:
The real hunt had begun. With practice, within this lifetime, however long or brief, a remarkable enlightenment might yet blossom into wisdom. From flowers and bees, the harvest comes.
“Come, Dhyana, let us sit together. Let us ride in unison. That is all.” He accepted fully, “The female energy is my Shakti power.”
Given the urgency of her father’s Buddhist practice, it’s entirely fitting that his wife — Cassia’s mother — would share in the experience. Here he also recognizes an Eastern perception of a uniquely feminine spiritual energy that would complement his own nature — in a way also honoring the goddess essence of Diana’s own name.
By the way, if you’re interested in the origin, meaning, and pronunciation of my name Jnana, visit the Bio page here at the Red Barn. Think it fits me?
Do you know anyone whose first name perfectly suits their personality? Or how about someone who’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect?
After the death of her father in my novel What’s Left, Cassia and her mother grow emotionally distant. Perhaps a rivalry for his attention had already been festering or perhaps it’s a natural development for many girls at the onset of adolescence, but Cassia, at least, senses something is missing in their relationship.
She even blames her mother for not preventing her father from departing on the trip that ends in his accidental death. In the aftermath, Cassia wonders if she can fully trust anyone to stick around or if she must guard herself on all sides.
Her mother, Diana, is outwardly reserved, unlike her innately effusive sister-in-law Pia. Much of her time is also focused on her successful career as a small-press publisher and performing in a respected string quartet.
Cassia’s aunt Nita subtly begins channeling the girl’s desire for her father’s presence into a long-term project of examining and organizing his vast photographic collection, including thousands of negatives that were never made into glossy prints. In effect, this is one place Cassia has him largely to herself. Here, as she surveys the world through his eyes and mind, she moves from grief to discovery and insight, especially as his unseen guidance leads her more and more into her own extended close family, which he had so vibrantly joined.
Somehow by the final version this line was no longer needed:
As you’ve seen, Manoula’s family is a whole other story.
Well, for one thing, he arrived as an outsider, so he did have a fresh perspective from which to view his new relations. They introduced him to a much different set of experiences and, ultimately, accomplishments.
Like him, I moved away from my native corner of the world and encountered much my parents never did. Just joining living in a yoga ashram or later joining the Society of Friends (or Quakers) altered my perceptions.
How do you see the world differently than your parents? Or, for that matter, other people who’ve been around you?
In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, her brothers stayed off in the background. But Gyatso and Billy moved far forward in the eighth and ninth revisions, especially when I discovered they didn’t require a lot of narrative development to be present. Sometimes a single short detail now pops their activity into fullness.
One thing about Cassia’s extended close-knit family is that her cousins are practically her siblings, too. Cassia’s cousin Sandra, for instance, could well be her sister, and both Gyatso and Billy line up well with some of their boy cousins.
It’s a fine line to walk, keeping the story moving without bogging down in too much detail, but it’s a rich matrix all the same.
I once had a coworker who grew up in a family where the way they showed affection for one another was by exchanging truly negative words and phrases. As far as I could tell, physical harm wasn’t part of it. Even so, maybe they understood what it meant and felt affirmed and included, but when he did the same thing with those of us in the office, many of my colleagues felt deeply insulted, even wounded. Maybe you know of writers capable of re-creating the domestic scene, but I’m not one of them. I’m still largely baffled.
The dynamics of siblings can make for endless intrigue. I’d love to know more — much more — of how they work in our lives.
Are you from a large family? Do you have brothers or sisters? Do you ever “borrow” their clothes? (Or anything else?) Does your household make you different from your friends or classmates? How would you describe your siblings — and your feelings for them — in a few words? Go ahead, vent, if you must.
In What’s Left, Cassia spends hour after hour organizing the chaotic mess of her father’s photo studio after he vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe.
He was something of a hippie, too, as she sees in some of his excesses from the period. Here’s something that popped up for her in a conversation with her aunt Nita. You won’t find it in the final version of the novel, though — some things just got toned down.
And? You ever see the movie he made about the courthouse?
The one with the dome turning into his girlfriend’s breast? Diz’s?
You remember he made that while he was still an undergraduate? Before all the really freaky stuff that followed?
Yes, and that reminds me. We need to have to get that reel converted to digital from Super 16. Before it starts disintegrating or fading.
You know what a hit that was in some circles? How he was on the verge of notoriety or celebrity?
So why didn’t he continue in that vein?
How would he have paid the bills? The big bills? Where were his introductions? Producers, distributors, even actors? Or his confidence,
I’ve been trying to think if there’s anything in my past quite that outrageous, but it all seems to be included in my Freakin’ Free Spirits series. My kids would likely be disappointed, but I’m glad my parents never knew the details. I hate to think, though, of some of the things my two girls are hiding from me. My, the times have changed!
What’s something you or your friends are hiding from your parents? What’s most shocked or surprised you about them? What other directions might their lives have taken? What might you hope your own kids never ask you about?
Some of my novel What’s Left, has her revisiting her memories of early childhood.
Later revisions made this passage redundant, and so it’s been scratched out:
By then even Papou Ilias and Yiayia Maria are long gone. Only the wisp of Yiayia Athina remained. But we still had our own little gang — Barney and Pia’s kids, and Tito and Yin’s, plus my brothers. By then we even have Rinpoche and his presence.
The final version of the novel has many sharp details, including some prompted by the photos she turns up. It is surprising, though, how powerful some of these memories can be, sometimes triggered unexpectedly from deep recesses. When I was 12, I ran into two brothers from my old neighborhood, my pals up to my fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen them in over seven years, and people do change a lot in that time. Still, I recognized them immediately at the Boy Scout event where we were.
Tell me one of your earliest memories from childhood, good or bad.
In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s brothers and cousins — the ones she calls the Squad — are essential for bringing the story fully up to right now. It’s their turn to move forward. What do they want to do with their lives? What does this family mean to them?
Cassia makes her own bold decision for her future — one I sense is enabled by their solid identity.
But there are the other cousins — the ones from the other side of the tracks, the ones who don’t fit in and never will.
So it’s not just about the family restaurant.
As she noted in an earlier draft, comparing her mother’s side of the family to her father’s:
From everything I’ve seen, his family wasn’t warm or truly close. They did what they were supposed to. Had what they were supposed to. Basically, they followed orders. So what Baba found and embraced with Manoula’s family was more disorderly and conflicting and yet also affirming when it came to his own existence. Privacy here is not taken for granted. Thea Nita, for all of her love of solitude, would spend far more of her working hours surrounded by the public, where the action and people were. Maybe that’s why the Buddhist meditation held such appeal for Nita and her siblings — it was one time they could really focus on themselves alone.
There are flip moments when I’d say my family was defined by the TV programs we watched together. Think of the TV dinners we ate on those TV trays we set up between us and the screen (black-and-white, for the most part). Even the pizza we ate on very special nights, scraping off the toppings to eat separately from the dough and its crust. Or the burnt popcorn we ate afterward.
Cassia’s close kinship was more active than that, but working with her father’s photos did give her a place of retreat.
Do you ever feel trapped in your family? Or in your social circle? At moments like that, where would you rather be?
In my novel What’s Left, what she discovers about her deceased father (her Baba) is much zestier than this passage. So I cut it. You’ll still get the drift in the final version.
As a kid, your Baba figured out he never quite fit in with his surroundings. He thought about things he couldn’t explain to others, though to be fair about it, he rarely caught their signals, either. Deep within himself, he sensed there was much more to life than what was happening around him. I think he wanted the big picture, which is what he must have felt when he was climbing mountains.
Too many things are trying to happen there, I’m afraid. We can move along better without having to trip over the added baggage. I do like the image of climbing mountains to feel the big picture, though — something I see as recharging his soul.
Where do you turn to recharge yourself? Anyplace special? Music? Dancing? A deep bubble bath? Meditation? Or is it something else altogether?
I’m also thinking about typical encounters with professional photographers. There were strange, formal portrait sessions when my sister and I were very little. Do families still do that anymore? Then there were the senior portraits in high school or yearbook group shots, which were akin to elementary class pictures earlier. But weddings are the big event for many, the mother lode of the profession.
Tell me about your parents’ wedding pictures. What do they reveal? What do they mask?
Her father’s photographic trove gives Cassia the pieces she eventually assembles into a massive picture puzzle of his world. It spans some big changes in his own life, as well – especially regarding her own family.
In my novel What’s Left, this task also means she has to master some now obsolete technological skills, including reading photographic negatives, where blacks and whites are reversed, moving around in a dusky darkroom, using a photo enlarger, and developing glossy prints in trays of chemical liquids she’s mixed on her own. (My, have those things changed thanks to digital photography!)