My novel What’s Left, was in no rush for completion, contrary to my own desires. Still, I wasn’t going to artificially pressure this one.
As for my personal surprises this time? Some of my favorite lines popped up while swimming my daily laps in the city’s indoor pool.
Here’s one of Cassia’s outbursts that almost prompted me to change the name of the novel itself:
Oh, my, am I torn! I’ll tell you this, though. Buddhism comes in very handy when other kids are giving you so much grief you threaten to cast a spell on them and break out chanting Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa repeatedly and then just watch them back away. Oh, I tell you, it’s so satisfying!
What’s that do?
You’ll find out. You better be good to toads.
You get lots of respect for doing that.
Which title Do you think’s better — “What’s Left” or “You Better Be Good to Toads”? Or have I overlooked something even better?
Think of it as a cool Christmas present for somebody really special. Available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.
Much of my literary writing has attempted to capture the unique sense of particular landscapes, sometimes to the extent that the locale becomes a character of its own. Serious wine drinkers might see this as a matter of terroir, meaning distinctive local flavor.
In my novel What’s Left, I tried to avoid this touchstone but wound up developing the neighborhood around the family restaurant anyway.
In placing it in a college town in southern Indiana, I created an inside joke all the same. If you’re familiar with the region, you’ll know the Ohio River is much more than an hour from Indianapolis. The college town where she lives is defined by both, and thus in a site uniquely its own. If only it actually existed!
Still, I think the flavor is right.
I know I’m not alone here.
Tell me of a favorite book or movie where you think the location becomes a character in its own right. Let’s make this a long list!
It’s is not my debut novel. Rather, I have the feeling it’s the opposite — the final one. I could never do this again. What’s Left is a big novel chock full of surprising turns, deep thoughts, and lively details. Unless Cassia starts speaking to me again, there will be no sequels. For me, at least, the story condenses so much into its pages I’m feeling completed.
Unlike my earlier novels, this one was not written on the fly while working full-time as a journalist. Like them, though, it’s undergone extensive revision.
Woven through the book are themes I’d explored in my earlier stories, now seen in a new light, while investigating others I’m tackling for the first time. Family and family enterprise, adolescence and childhood, death and divorce, and Greek-American culture, especially, are new while counterculture, romance, spirituality, community, nature and specific place, livelihood, journalism itself all run through my previous work.
Think of this bit as going into the compost rather than being served on the plate:
All I’m doing is asking you to apply your new comprehension to the rest of your life.
Of course, you’ve heard somebody blurt out, “I’m never going to forget this as long as I live!” Or some such. And sometimes it’s true.
Me? I have trouble remembering nearly everything. Could it be one reason I read so widely is to help me remember? Of course, writing gets it down on paper, once again so I don’t forget.
So while I read to help me remember and to gain insight on the world around me, it’s not the only reason by any stretch.
The ending of my novel What’s Left, is not the one I anticipated. Rather, it’s the one Cassia dictated to me as I was drafting. Believe me, it came as a surprise, but I trust her. It really feels fitting, from my perspective.
Up to that point I’d been thinking of swapping the placement of the last two chapters, ending with Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher, telling Cassia of her father’s last moments and maybe setting her on a new lifetime pathway. Instead, her story concludes on a rainy Saturday morning as she converses with her best friend forever, her cousin Sandra.
Not that this should be a spoiler for you.
If you’ve ever lived in Indiana, you know how commonplace the rain is, especially on Saturdays, or so I remember. But this one is truly special.
It’s one thing to be writing and other to be reading or watching.
In reading a novel or watching a movie, have you ever felt a character wanted to go in an independent direction from the one the plot follows? Can you say why or which way you’d go?
Maybe it’s a fair question, asking where an author stands in the story. Sometimes it’s pretty autobiographical. With my novel What’s Left, I can safely say I’m nothing like the narrator, Cassia. We don’t even like the same music.
And let’s say her father’s been a much better parent than me. Add to that the fact he’s traveled widely, has mountaineering skills, can translate Tibetan, finds true love not long after college, is able to call one place home the rest of his life. Well, let me add he shares a lot good traits with one very talented photojournalist I worked alongside all too many years ago now.
I will admit a flash of envy seeing the warm guidance he receives in the development of his talent and the freedom he has in pursuing it.
So there’s my disclaimer.
As for Cassia? I’m beginning to think of her as a daughter. She might even fit in with one of my own, though I think there’d be friction with at least one of the others.
Well, thinking of where we stand in a story, how about this?
Cassia’s conversations with Rinpoche lead her to crucial new understandings of her father.
In earlier drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered these possibilities, but rejected them as, well, too wordy, esoteric, or preachy:
Your Baba was on the cusp of some original thinking about Christ as Light, Rinpoche tells me. He was connecting that with an ancient line of Greek philosophy about a term known as Logos. It was all very, very exciting. He was seeing Christ as much more than the historic person of Jesus, much as we see Buddha as something much more than a historic person — you know, Gautama — too.
Well, that happens to be a hobbyhorse I ride. Let’s give her father a break!
Rimpoche continues. Your Baba had scorn for those who claim a personal spirituality without any disciplined tradition. He wanted to encourage people to delve into a practice — not that they’re all equal, but they have their own unique wisdom to impart — and that led to his organizing some fascinating ecumenical dialogues, ones that included your Orthodox priest, plus a rabbi, a Sufi or yogi, an evangelical, and so on.
Maybe we’d better leave all that for a later discussion? Cassia has more pressing questions, many of them regarding his photographs and family.
Throughout his monastic studies and labors, he’s pressed to concentrate totally on what’s happening in the moment. Even while sleeping. Looking through a lens would, according to Manoula, place a filter between full experience of that timeless breath and himself. It would place a mask across his face when he most needs to be fully naked, as it were. Who knows what he wears in the monastery, for that matter. We can guess from the photos he took later, on his return visits — and his portraits of his teacher and fellow practitioners. For now, he needs to see not just with his eyes — and his Third Eye — but also with his nose, tongue, lips, ears, and especially his fingers and extended skin. And from there, to embrace the eternal realities rather than the ephemeral illusions flickering and dashing around him. Through this stretch, he heeds fellow monks who create beautiful colored-sand mandalas and then scatter them to the wind rather than preserve their work. This emphasis on the present while pursuing eternal truth may seem to be a paradox, but he submits to the instruction and its flowing current.
So that, too, was filtered out of the final revisions. As was this:
Baba and Rinpoche had grown close when they were both residents in the monastery. Rinpoche was then just another of the aspirants, albeit a Tibetan refuge with a lineage. Their teacher blessed their venturing into the Heartland to establish the institute here, and Rinpoche, with his mastery of Himalayan languages, took up an offer to teach academic courses at the university while leading a spiritual community from the house.
Like Rinpoche, Cassia’s father was in many ways a teacher. In their case, they were dealing with ancient Buddhist lore. Good teachers, as you know, are rare.
Many days when I enter the Red Barn, I find myself amazed at the amount of work I’ve created. I can get dizzy just touching on the places I’ve lived and loved, or the friendships that have blessed me in those many moves. Or all of the painful losses as well.
Even though I was employed full-time in other pursuits, I set aside time for writing, revising, and submission to literary journals and publishers. These days I keep asking, How did I do it? Or more accurately, just what else did I fail to do?
Still, for perspective, a new poem a week for 50 years comes out to 2,500 pieces. And some poets consider themselves satisfied with a lifetime collection of 400 to 500 poems. Perhaps they’ve lived a more fruitful and balanced life than I have. You’d have to ask the people around them, though, for their perspective.
On a related note, I’m wondering if those who invaded my journals and expressed disappointment were expecting juicy gossip. In all of the upheaval and daily scheduling, I was usually pressed simply trying to record a trail of where I’d been and what had been happening. Without that, forget the emotions or gossip. Those just might fall into place later, perhaps prompted by the notation that the event had even happened.
My, it’s been a long trail!
So here we are. My novels are available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. Let me suggest starting with Cassia.