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?
Growing up in the middle of America, I had little awareness of the extent of immigrant Greek influence in the New World, much less in my own hometown. These days, though, I see how pervasive — yet nearly invisible — it’s been, now or then.
My decision to have my first novel close with Cassia’s future father marrying into a Greek-American family was, in part, predicated on a desire to have his immersion in one ancient culture from Asia, Tibetan Buddhism, be countered by another from Western civilization, and thus Greece , blending both classical glories and some New Testament threads, which seemed appropriately symbolic.
It’s up to you to weigh in on how well it works in my novel What’s Left.
In the past decade, though, perhaps prompted by the annual community-wide festival our local Greek Orthodox church presents every Labor Day weekend, I’ve been connecting the dots and discovering how many Greek-Americans I’ve known over the years and how much the recent encounters have been enriching my own outlook.
As I wrote to one friend:
One thing that’s greatly surprised me is how little literature exists that relates the Greek-American experience. You’re too numerous to be so invisible. What’s up? Just look on your impact in Dover alone. Perhaps the best overall portrayal comes in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (a masterpiece, by the way), although the work is acclaimed mostly for its exploration of hermaphroditic genetics and identity. Along the way, he also does a knock-out job of nailing the Midwest where I grew up, another strand of literature that’s otherwise anemic. I am glad I’d finished the first draft of my new work before encountering his novel — he won the National Book Award and Oprah’s endorsement for good reasons. It could be too intimidating. Well, if he could go on to do such an insightful job with Quaker Meeting, as he does in his third novel, The Marriage Plot, maybe I’m not so out of line in venturing into yours. I hope. Oh, yes, I’m also glad I finished the draft before getting to connect the dots of your own family. You’d be ideal for the movie version.
Look around at the people you know. Tell us something (good, we hope) about someone of Greek descent.
Southern Indiana is a distinct subregion in the American Midwest, as I touch on in my novels Daffodil Uprising and What’s Left. Defined loosely as the third of the state south of Interstate 70 or the earlier National Road, U.S. 40, it’s hillier than the farmlands to the north, which had been leveled by glaciers back in the Ice Age. Besides, it was also heavily impacted by migration from the South, especially North Carolina and its Quaker stock fleeing a slaveholding culture.
Here are a few observations.
It gravitates toward the Ohio River and its border with Kentucky. Louisville is as influential as Indianapolis.
Much of it is forested and hilly, with Brown County as a kind of spiritual center. Many folks there live in log cabins. The county seat, Nashville, and the state park are tourist magnets. It was also influential in the development of bluegrass music, thanks to Bill Monroe and his festival at Bean Blossom.
The region is underlain with limestone and caves. In fact, its quarries are legendary, just look at the Empire State Building, Pentagon, and National Cathedral.
Evansville, on the Ohio River close to both Illinois and Kentucky, is the state’s third largest metropolitan area. Its impact is largely unseen.
Columbus is a showpiece for contemporary architecture, thanks to J. Irwin Miller and the Cummins company.
Terre Haute, on the Wabash River, is the birthplace of radical Eugene V. Debs. It has a liberal tradition.
Basketball great Larry Bird was born in West Baden Springs and played college in Terre Haute, after moving on from IU in Bloomington. Basketball, we should note, is a religion throughout the state.
Speaking of Bloomington. It’s the cultural and intellectual center of the state. Purdue up north prefers engineers and agricultural economists.
It has a different dialect from the rest of the state, linguistically.
Tornadoes are a distinct threat. On April 25, 2020, twisters killed 10 people in Bedford, 104 in Terre Haute, 48 in Mitchell, and 300 in Martinsville. Not your typical day.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
As Cassia examines her father’s photographs in my novel What’s Left, she sees his generation from a fresh perspective.
Here’s her impression before I greatly condensed it in the final story:
That evening, back in her apartment, we sit down with more of the photos.
What I sense now is an unfathomable well of aimless, restless energy on the verge of erupting. The tattered crowd’s seated on the ground for a rock concert. It mills about, waiting for something to happen or someone to appear. It walks en masse down a city street or country highway. It’s lovers clinging to each other in desperation and escape. It’s an angry look while puffing on a cigarette — or a pipe or roach. It’s shirtless, braless, sunburned, tangled.
There’s the happy streak too — defiantly so. And the frenetic dance that could become a tarantella. If only it had been channeled! Directed into sustainable communities, given meaningful work, paid livable wages, engaged fully in public service.
Some powerful forces have run hard against us, Nita says grimly. They set out to destroy it before it overran them.
We were scattered. Not that our causes ever ended. You know, the peace movement. Racial and sexual equality. Educational alternatives. Environment and earth-centered economics. Natural and organic foods, even glutten-free. Fitness, spirituality, music, art … it all continues. You just have to pay attention.
As the passage relates, many vital social concerns remain.
What would you like to see happen to society in the future?
Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.
He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.
As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:
I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.
The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:
For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.
But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:
More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.
As for her aunt Pia?
Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.
And then Cassia has more pressing matters:
Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.
Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.
There’s no avoiding it.
In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.
How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?
No matter how much my novel What’s Left is framed by the ending of my first published novel, most of its characters and action are entirely new.
Well, if you can call going a few more generations “new,” they’re fresh characters in my fiction, filled with color all their own.
Cassia herself and her brothers and cousins and aunts Pia and Yin are certainly original to this story. And yes, a lot has happened in the 50 years since her father joined in with the family.
As one now-deleted line admitted:
Your very presence alters the vibe. There’s the whole nonconformist groove.
This was a description of what her parents’ generation was doing to the restaurant immediately after the fatal car crash, but it could fit much more widely.
In each revision of the novel, Cassia took another step forward. She’s always started her quest at age 11, but most of it was told as a young adult recalling her string of discoveries. Now, however, much of it emerges when she’s 13 and moving up through her teens. For contrast, the final section comes a decade later, after she’s ranged the wider world.
Crucially, in the final revision, she’s speaking directly to her father throughout, rather speaking about him. And, as noted, much of the action has moved forward into her early teen years.
Somewhere along the way, her quest took a flip. It became more about her discovering just who she is and her role in the action. And that’s when she started dictating passages to me, the author.
When I selected her name, Acacia, I didn’t realize how prominent it is in the Bible. In the King James translation, it’s rendered as shittim — what an ugly word! — but Moses was very fond of the extremely hardy wood, and it’s mentioned more than 30 times, often as a required material for holy construction. Americans are most likely to encounter it as the fragrant black locust tree, thorns and all. (OK, officially that’s considered false acacia, but still … close enough for me.) Its flowers are quite fragrant.
Well, an author can’t include all the details.
What do you think Cassia’s favorite food would be? (Don’t you dare say the Streetcar!)