A case of real life intersecting fiction

One of the many things I like about using the DuckDuckGo search engine as an alternative to Google is that its home page includes Pocket, an informative selection of intelligent, substantive articles, many drawn from magazine archives, rather than fluff about celebrities and sports.

This morning’s Pocket, for example, included a 2015 Narratively article by Lilly Dancyger, “Planning My Father-Daughter Dance Without My Dad.”

What especially caught my attention was the ways Lilly’s experience intersected with my novel, What’s Left.

Like Cassia in the book, Lilly lost her father to death when she was 11, and like Cassia, she dressed largely in black for years afterward. (Whew! Confirmation I had that part right.)

Unlike my novel’s character, though, Lilly dropped out of high school, sought relief in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and embraced a dim future. The homeless were some of her favorite companions.

In contrast, Cassia had a large extended family that stayed with her, even when she kept pushing them away. Yes, she had struggles with her mother much like Lilly’s, and she skirted some of the self-destructive behavior, but each of the three aunts on her mother’s side of the family found ways during her difficult teen years to break through to her, as did several of her first-cousins. In today’s world, few are so fortunate, not with our fractured nuclear households.

Moreover, through her aunt Nita, Cassia also had her father’s trove of his professional photography to sift through, each shot reflecting his thoughts and feelings.

What Lilly presents – and I didn’t – is the workings of guilt within a survivor. As she declares, it merely “isn’t just about feeling unjustly lucky to have lived while someone else died; it’s guilt for going on without them, guilt for changing and growing and becoming a person they never knew. Any milestone is tinged with their absence, any joy feels like a betrayal, like you’ve forgotten them, if only for long enough to laugh at a good joke or enjoy a good meal. But as long as you’re in mourning, your life is still about them, and in that way, they’re still there.”

Lilly’s experience came to a head in planning for her wedding and trying to decide who would walk her down the aisle, if anyone, and who would share that first dance with her at the reception.

That wasn’t the case with Cassia, who instead chose to remain single. But Lilly’s words burn, all the same, as they point to another dimension my novel might have developed.

A lingering insight on marital splits

The Divorce Culture, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 224 pages, $24) – reviewed by Jean E. Milofsky, The Colorado Review, fall 1997:

“Whatever else divorce is, it is fundamentally a loss. As a writer friend of mine once said, ‘It’s like death except no one says nice things about you.’ In divorce one loses not only the relationship with one’s spouse, but also one’s location in the social fabric. Friends fade away, and families are thrown into turmoil. Then there are the inevitable economic losses, which Barbara Dafoe Whitehead rightly claims fall disproportionately on women. Nowhere in her polemic against divorce, however, does Whitehead conceptualize divorce as a loss. Rather, with increasing insistence as the book goes on, she views it as an expression of individual freedom in a highly libertarian age.” …

“Whitehead’s concept of divorce as an expression of unfettered liberty ignores what every divorcing individual realizes – no choice is without consequence, no decision is without obligation or work, and adult freedom never really comes from throwing off chains.”

~*~

Counter with James Dobson’s insistence that “love at first sight” is really just infatuation and therefore selfish, while love is other-focused.

A different paradigm of family

My novel What’s Left was precipitated by the structure of a book I’d just read – four sections of four chapters each. Somehow, I just knew this was what I needed for the material already floating around in my head, even though at this point I hadn’t been thinking of writing another novel. But this triggered it.

I’d been reflecting on the ending of my newly recast Freakin’ Free Spirits narrative, where the protagonist lands in a circle of bohemian siblings who have inherited a restaurant. At the time, with only a general acquaintance of a few individuals in the tradition, I intuitively identified them as Greek-American, in part, I recall, as an attempt to suggest a bridging of two ancient wisdoms – the Buddhism from the East and ancient Greek teaching in the West – and in part as a vague awareness of the prevalence of this ethnic group’s ownership of restaurants across the country, possibly including the one that provided a foundation for the one in my story.

In revisiting that ending, though, I felt a need for an understanding of how the siblings turned to Tibetan Buddhism in the first place and why they were now actively hippie, which in turn needed a clearer presentation. Viz, as I’ve been arguing, hippies came (and still come) in many varieties, and no one probably ever fit in the mass-media stereotype.

What became clear to me as I considered the issues was that I needed a backstory, one that winds up going back two generations rather than one. This, in turn, presents another challenge: how many named characters can a reader follow? Since my new novel is told by the daughter of the earlier protagonist, this could get very messy. Remember, the restaurant was inherited by a circle of siblings.

I do employ several turns in the plot to keep maintain a focus, but in doing so, I’m reminded of an insight I had my genealogy research when I noted four Hodgin brothers marrying four Ozbun sisters (or some such, it’s the concept that counts here). What I saw here somehow goes beyond our modern isolated, small nuclear family household in which a husband is expected to fulfill all of a set of expectations and the wife, another. Instead, I’ve wondered how much of those expectations could be spread across the siblings. Not that I go quite that far in my newest novel or at least that blatantly. But the daughter is quite aware of how different her extended family is from those of her classmates.

Oh, there’s power in those dreams

The fantasy of power, of course, invokes control. The freedom to boss others, for one thing – something so alien in my own reality.

What’s the ultimate dream of power? Setting sexuality apart from everyday activity? Especially secret?

(Oh, secrecy! Now there’s a dimension of power.)

As is the appearance of knowing what to say, how to move. The willing response.

The great secret hunger you, alone, can fill. (More to the point: I alone can fill.)

In reality, I have no imagination here, and no language.

I think I’m finally getting the attraction of action-adventure movies for many males. That, along with Triple-X.

How would you define this audience?

These days, writers are advised to know their audience.

Not what they feel they need to express, mind you, but who they might connect with to sell the story.

It’s always bothered me. Sounds too much like pandering.

Still, with news stories back when I was a newspaper editor, we could begin by the places where they lived. Where they worked or sent their kids to school, too. Voted. Paid their taxes. And then work out from there. You could never go wrong with pictures of dogs or children.

Advertisers think in terms of demographics. They might want something like unmarried females age 22½ and then look for a radio station whose programming hits that market.

But books? It gets trickier.

When it comes to my novels, maybe I can define it this way:

  1. New adults trying to get their act together and want inspiration.
  2. People curious about the hippie era and want to be amused by it.
  3. People who were part of a counterculture and want perspective.

This still isn’t quite not where I’d like to be but maybe coming closer.

In fact, Cassia in my novel What’s Left seems to speak for those I hope she can reach out to.

What advice would you have?

Requiem for hippie

In revising the novel that has been recast as Daffodil Uprising, I began grieving. It wasn’t the feeling I had expected. This was supposed to be a celebration of a remarkable time in world history. Some things really did change as a result.

Not all of them for the better, alas. And many of the lessons arising from Vietnam, especially, still haven’t been learned in realms of political power. And while much of the environment has been cleaned up, the global climate is still headed for disaster.

Repeatedly, I felt this was a requiem.

Part of that must have been a consequence of my long effort of drafting and revising What’s Left, which picks up on the central character a generation later. Or, more accurately, his daughter, Cassia.

But moving on with his story, in what’s now released as Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, I’m feeling wounded. Not by the novels, mind you – I think you’ll find them entertaining, enlightening, and delightful. No, the wounds are from, well, all kinds of losses, many of them my own fault.

I have heard that in the retreat from the outburst of the Quaker movement in the radical uprisings of mid-1600s Britain, many of them had a something of a shellshock look for years after. They had come so close to truly revolutionary societal change and lost that to the Restoration. Well, some of those ideals did come to flower in the American Revolution – the Bill of Rights, especially – but even there, we’ll still falling short.

As the liturgical chanters sing out in accompaniment to prayers in Christian Orthodox worship, Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.

Yes, mercy. And hope. And grant us peace.