Just what was I thinking? Was this supposed to be a philosophy class moment? A reflection on time versus space? Or fate versus free will? No wonder the paragraph failed to take root in my novel What’s Left.
History is filled with unique moments when something flashes up and takes hold. Or a singular intersection of trajectories appears in the universe of motion.
The novel, by the way, has many of these situations, just as life itself does. We just didn’t need to get preachy.
I suppose this just might fit a story about baseball. Or think of football. The great play no fan will ever forget.
There are also those accidents, seemingly chance encounters, like the late-night crash that kills Cassia’s grandparents or the avalanche that claims her father. A few moments one way or the other, and her story would be much, much different.
I was more likely reflecting on those seconds where you have to make a decision one way or another. Say something. Do something. Yes or no. The beginning of a romance, for instance, once you’ve introduced yourself. Uttered the joke that could have as easily fallen flat.
Can you recall a significant moment in your life when something had to happen right then — or never at all? One with no second chances? Please share it! Be bold!
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?
Think of the names of bands and singers having a food tag. (Will Red Hot Chili Peppers or Smashing Pumpkins get your thoughts bubbling?)
Throughout my novel What’s Left, her uncle Barney has rock playing prominently in the restaurant kitchen. Does this provide a good counterpoint to his thoughts and actions? Do you find it amusing? Annoying? Confusing?
Who would you like to add to the food-themed playlist?
Growing up in a financially secure family like the one in my novel What’s Left could open your educational and career options, I suppose. For Cassia’s mother, I saw events unfolding along these lines — which I then cut from later revisions of the story:
Manoula, on the other hand, possessed some of her sister’s ability to ask those questions, however gently. And she had some of her brother Dimitri’s practical streak. But she also had an underlying spiritual awareness and a sharp intelligence to match. It’s a potent combination — even intimidating to many potential suitors.
Crucially, both Manoula and Baba knew the vitality of artistic practice and expression. Remember, he was more than a photographer — he may have worked on a daily newspaper, but he profoundly appreciated all the fine arts. On top of that, he had a natural ability in writing that had yet to be encouraged and released.
On her part, Manoula loved literature, in particular, and practiced hours a day on her violin. Realizing early on how difficult it is to earn a living in either endeavor, she followed Dimitri’s advice to pursue a double major — English and music — with a minor in business to fall back on. As she told people, she was open to a career in arts management, and in a way, with the publishing, she’s held to it. She spent five years on her bachelor’s degree — including summer courses — but she was in no race to get out into the world, not once my Baba crossed her path. They were both taking a long-range view ahead.
In a way, you could say she was a Yiayia Dida while Nita was a Yiayia Athina in new guise. Oh, I don’t know — maybe it was the other way around. They were all strong, emancipated women with a bohemian streak. Not all bohemians, I should add, are strong — not by a long shot.
In early versions of the novel, when Cassia was piecing together her family history from the perch of a teen or 20-something, she might have seen events something along these lines. But in the later revisions, told as she’s seeing them as a teen, this passage was just too much. Way too much. Besides, through much of high school time, she was a lackadaisical student more interested in managing a live music scene.
Looking at her ancestors, though, I doubt that her great-grandmothers had more than a rudimentary education. Her grandmother, Bella, came to town for a college degree but was thwarted in her plans. Cassia’s mother, her Manoula, raised the educational bar.
Fortunately, Cassia’s aunt Nita provides crucial encouragement that leads to college in time.
So what is essential in releasing talent or dreams you have? What kind of advice have you received regarding continuing education and career? How have your plans taken shape? What’s been especially helpful?
One of the dilemmas in shaping my novel What’s Left, involves the naming of children. I felt a repetition of first names in successive generations, such a common Greek custom, would have simply become too confusing for readers to follow. Am I right?
In a passage I cut from the final edition, the unifying influence of tradition or spiritual practice is considered:
Let’s face it, our worst disagreements are insignificant compared to the conflicts that could be erupting within our circle.
Not all families get along, after all. Even Cassia’s will face some difficult trials.
For the moment, let’s look at names. Cassia, in the novel, is short for Acacia, a tough wood mentioned in the Bible. (In the King James version, though, it’s called shittam. Ugh.)
Do you know what your name means? Were you named in honor of anyone? Do you like them? Would you prefer something else?
When it comes to her cohort of close cousins in my novel What’s Left, I don’t want to give away too much. Let’s just say there are a lot of them, and they come to prominence in the last half of the story. You just might have reason to be envious.
As an author, this presents a challenge. How can I narrow the focus for the reader yet maintain an awareness of the scope involved by the time we get to a fourth generation of this family in the New World?
In this case, I chose to concentrate on a handful of Cassia’s cousins, at most, and deal with the rest of them in quick glances, often as part of the pack, sometimes simply a cluster of names in a single brushstroke. I hope it’s sufficient.
Perhaps it also helps that apart from Cassia’s best friend forever, Sandra, the cousins don’t step into the spotlight until we’re well into the story and some of the other earlier characters have already stepped offstage.
As a passage I deleted from the final version suggests, her upbringing was quite different from her father’s.
He must have been very lonely, always on best behavior, without any of the competitive mischief that runs through my family.
One of the things that amazed me about my college girlfriend’s family was the number of cousins she had and how often they visited each other — second- and third-cousins included. They seemed to know where everyone lived and what they were up to. Mine was nothing like that.
Do you have any close cousins? Do you find any of them to be special? Annoying?
Or if you’re from a big family, how close are you to your brothers and sisters? Which ones more than others?
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?
If you’re a writer, you no doubt know the dictum, “Write about what you know.” It remains sound advice. Another side, though, is equally valid — write about what you don’t know. It’s a means of exploration and discovery.
What’s Left takes that approach more than any of my earlier works. As an 11-year old, Cassia’s living in a financially secure extended family quite unlike any I’ve known intimately. She suffers a tragedy that prompts the action of the novel, again quite different from my own experience. Cassia tells most of the story in her teen years as she investigates the central questions in her life.
For me, this also required constructing a back story beginning with her great-grandparents and moving to the present. What do I know about running a restaurant, managing a family business, being Greek-American or Greek Orthodox, for that matter?
Well, as she advised me (and you readers) at one point, “You better be good to toads.”
I simply recorded what she dictated to me.
Read the book and you’ll see why.
I thought about “correcting” that to “You better be kind to toads,” but my sense is that it’s closer to what an 11- or 12-year-old may say under the circumstances.
To be honest, I don’t remember much from when I was that age. There may be good reasons I keep blotting it out.