When an author listens to the characters

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?

~*~

My novel is 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.

The paperback cover …

How a novel takes shape and grows

While she thinks she’s learning about her father in my novel What’s Left, we’re really learning about her.

Let me confess, that’s not how the story started out, back in 2013. Cassia really grew up in the meantime!

All of the changes are what really matter.

~*~

If it were only pink, like Cassia’s family headquarters in my novel!

Never mind that bit about bearing gifts

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.

~*~

I think she looks a lot like the young woman on the cover of the book, apart from Cassia’s Goth garb and makeup. Aphrodite, anyone?

Some facts related to Prairie Depot

My novel Nearly Canaan starts off in a railroad crossing called Prairie Depot. It’s imaginary, of course, a blend of several small cities I’ve encountered. But, for the record, let’s say this.

  1. It was a dozen or so miles from the nearest Interstate Highway.
  2. It sat in what had been the Great Black Swamp that covered roughly 1,500 square miles before being drained to open up some of the best farmland in the world … and some of the flattest, stretching for miles.
  3. There really were some surviving patches of original prairie nearby, as well as new reservations harboring restoration. The ecosystem had reached westward to the Rocky Mountains, especially in a broad swath through much of the Midwest.
  4. Five different railroads once interconnected in the town. It could lead to frequent delays for drivers and pedestrians alike, as well as interrupted sleep.
  5. It was also a good place for grain elevator dealers to ship from.
  6. The real center of town was a small restaurant owned and operated by two brothers and their wives.Back to the novel!
  7. The town library had a translucent marble exterior wall and a fine collection, thanks to a resourceful director who managed to deflect criticism. He could be a fictional character all in his own.
  8. The region was the scene of a big oil boom, back in the early 1900s. Petroleum was still being pumped at the time of the novel, on a smaller scale, though the grade was lower grade than the market desired.
  9. The place was best known for its collectible glass, before the company relocated to West Virginia, where the name lives on, if not the quality, at least in the estimation of some.
  10. The most celebrated resident dwelt quietly on a shaded side street, her secrecy preserved by the locals, even though she was rumored to have been gangster Al Capone’s mistress. Yes, the one.
The astringent Greek Temple Revival appearance of Omar Chapel, in Seneca County, Ohio, not far from the prompt for Prairie Depot in my novel Nearly Canaan, continues to haunt me. It says so much about the dreams of its benefactor, out on what was then still frontier.

 

Best hippie towns in Midwest

The vibe lives on. Here are some hot spots in the American heartland:

  1. Ann Arbor, Michigan
  2. Bloomington, Indiana
  3. Decorah, Iowa
  4. Duluth, Minnesota
  5. Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  6. Lawrence, Kansas
  7. Lincoln, Nebraska
  8. Madison, Wisconsin
  9. Makanda, Illinois
  10. Yellow Springs, Ohio

(Disclaimer: I’m relying largely on Thrillist and have been to slightly fewer than half of these.)

~*~

Looking across the country, we’d add Athens. Georgia; Austin, Texas; Berkeley, natch; Port Townsend, Washington; Cambridge and Northampton, Massachusetts; and Burlington, up in Vermont. Again, half of these are by reputation, not direct experience.

What other towns should be noted, anywhere in the world?

Among the fine vines … of Indiana

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?

~*~

Cassia’s family transforms an off-campus neighborhood into something like this, one they call Mount Olympus.

Characters reflect varied levels of involvement in the story

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.

If it were only pink, like the one in my novel What’s Left!

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?

~*~

Don’t forget:

You better be good to toads!

 

Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac

In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father’s parents are barely mentioned. They live miles away in Iowa, for one thing, and, for another, whatever they do is light years away from his contented life in her mother’s close-knit extended family.

As a purely literary challenge, trying to fit any more characters into a five-generation tale runs the risk of adding confusion for the reader. But then, by my eighth and ninth revisions, I stumbled upon a simple tweak that allowed me to acknowledge his parents more fully — the simple names of Grandpa and Grandma Mac would do. Just how much of a picture do you get from just that much?

For the most part, they’re a sharp contrast to Cassia’s experiences of home. She and her brothers never feel comfortable in their childhood visits to their Iowa grandparents. But somewhere in my later revisions, an episode developed that changes her understanding and then allows a relationship, however tenuous, to develop. Can I admit being rather fond of the insertion? For one thing, it allows me to quickly sketch another kind of American family little known to the general public — one that faced earlier pressures not all that different from Cassia’s Greek-American lineage much later. For another, well, it’s closer to my own roots, even when I look at hers with some envy.

~*~

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, the voice and direction of the story changed greatly. For one thing, it became much more Cassia’s own.

Continue reading “Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac”

Could genius hide out in an out-of-the-way crossroads?

When biblical translator and subversive revolutionary John Wycliffe (born 1384) meets up with the psychedelic painter Hieronymous Bosch ( born 1450) in a railroad-siding town on the Great Plains, who knows what will erupt. Especially when modern dance genius Isadora Duncan (born 1877) joins the action. Who says great genius doesn’t continue, even in the most out-of-the-way places?

That’s the premise of my novella, With a Passing Freight Train of 119 Cars and Twin Cabooses, which has become part of my new book, The Secret Side of Jaya, now that she’s entered the fray. Jaya has, after all, shown up in town as a do-gooder social activist. How else is she supposed to keep her sanity in relative isolation?

Well, there is the Laundromat plus a subversive operation from an old warehouse owned by Virgil and Homer, as in Latin and Greek classics, erupting in my wildest prose to date. The original work bitterly split one competition jury that awarded publication honors to another author. So be warned, you’ll either hate or love it.

But it’s only part of the resulting new collection.

I’m feeling a little vindication

When I recently applied subtitles to my novels, I gave Reports From Trump Country to Hometown News, even though the events in the story take place, by implication perhaps, during the Reagan years in a small industrial city out in the Rust Belt.

Now the August issue of Harper’s magazine has come out with “The Challenge of the Rust Belt: Can Biden pry it from Trump’s grip?” touted on the cover, and I’m feeling some vindication in the Trump connection in my subtitle.

Vindication? I hate to admit that the Vindicator was a big rival for me in a town that looked very much like Rehoboth, and it had entrenched strength against a small upstart like ours. We were responding quite well, until the larger economy turned against us.

The Vindicator’s home base already resembled a bombed-out German city, left with only several miles of steel mill shells, so we were well within the Rust Belt.

Many communities, especially in the Midwest, simply haven’t recovered from the sharp decline of American manufacturing in the ’70s and ’80s or from the blow to the myth that you’ll be rewarded if you just work hard enough. So much for the work ethic itself.

No wonder this is my dystopian novel.

Now, 40 or so years later, those things really haven’t improved. Let’s be honest. There really is a Groundhog Day surrealism in many locales. We really need a better end for the story – mine and Harper’s – than what I’m seeing.

Not that Cassandra had an easy time of it. either.