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!)
As Cassia discovers in my novel What’s Left, her father’s photographic record includes some serious gaps.
One involves a side of the hippie era, especially his experiences going underground in New York City.
As Cassia comments in an earlier draft of the story:
From his photos, I have little to go on regarding the hitchhiking, much less the subways. Not that there aren’t images — they just don’t reveal anything. Maybe it was largely in his mind. Maybe mostly a pipe dream. Entertaining, all the same. And one or the other landed him here.
Looking back on the era, I wonder how I’d react seeing photos of the people I was with or the experiences we shared. The nude group swimming at the remote lake in the summer? Not nearly as sensuous as I remember? Former lovers? Half of the places I lived have been torn down, as I see from satellite maps. You get the idea.
The time seemed so full of promise.
Tell me about the biggest disappointment you’ve ever had.
In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, I’d take a passage like this and have her speak directly to him, rather than about him. It makes a world of difference. Think it would work here?
I could say it was always gentle and kind, rather than laced with frustrations and sharp clashes. I wish, well, who is any of us, in the end? Maybe I need to ask our Orthodox priest more about the Book of Life or the Book of Judgment and all that?
Do you hear her asking her father if he was always gentle and kind? Or if she should ask the priest about the rest? Do you, too, feel that line needs to be inserted?
We can easily create a shopping list of what we desire in those dearest to us — or, if we’re more ambitious, what we can offer to others. So let’s fire.
What quality would you most want in the person who’s closest to you?
As I revised my novel What’s Left, I compressed the details regarding her mother’s book-publishing venture. Here’s how it stood in an early draft:
As her dream of establishing a small-press also takes shape, the family council decides not to include it outright among our Five-Spokes enterprises but rather to extend a ten-year microloan to allow her to retain full control of its success or failure. Her game plan anticipates a modest start, essentially continuing the annual calendar and the greeting cards featuring local photographs by Baba, as well as the release of the first volume of Nita’s collected columns. These are things Baba can shepherd along while Manoula finishes her degree. From there, a cookbook would be a no-brainer in the lineup, something Barney can begin putting together immediately. We know he’ll be fussy and irritable, miss deadlines, do the whole prima donna bit. Besides, he’s not a writer, so there will be extensive editing and revision. After that, Baba can worry about the photos. He says shooting food’s a specialty all to itself. You can bet, though, the results will be worth it. And all that’s before Manoula gets to anything like poetry or fiction.
This is so far from the snippy colloquial vibe the novel has since taken. Think of it more as a memo to the author in conceiving a plausible pathway to independent business success for Cassia’s mother. Or possibly just an old dream of my own, way back when, along with memories of a few difficult collaborators.
One struggle in shaping What’s Left was the matter of determining just how much of her family’s business side to include. Passages like this one ran the danger of turning the story into a case study for marketing or investment classes, rather than focusing on Cassia’s yearning for emotional healing.
Was I right in deleting the passage as too much “insider” insight for the novel? Or does it add to your understanding of Cassia, her mother, and her family? Do you ever dream of doing something the way her mother does?
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!