Let me repeat, What’s Left is my final novel, even though it’s appeared before several earlier ones — or their later revisions. That doesn’t mean I might not rework some more of my earlier books, but I have no intention (at this point, ahem) of undertaking such an ambitious project.
Still, if it’s ever successful, there can be a demand for a sequel. There are many possibilities that point to further development.
One plot twist I considered was this:
A handful of the Erinyes’ grandchildren rebel by returning to attend college across the street from Carmichael’s. Perhaps it’s inevitable that they apply for jobs in the restaurant.
Can they work? We’ll let them decide about becoming cousins.
This could have opened considerations about rebalancing the ownership, for one thing. Or more dimensions to our understanding of what it means to be a family. Or even their own reasons that parallel those of Cassia’s father in moving way back in the early ’70s.
It’s a big book, admittedly. But it could be a lot bigger.
Where would you take the story of What’s Left from what’s already there? What would you like to have answered?
It’s is not my debut novel. Rather, I have the feeling it’s the opposite — the final one. I could never do this again. What’s Left is a big novel chock full of surprising turns, deep thoughts, and lively details. Unless Cassia starts speaking to me again, there will be no sequels. For me, at least, the story condenses so much into its pages I’m feeling completed.
Unlike my earlier novels, this one was not written on the fly while working full-time as a journalist. Like them, though, it’s undergone extensive revision.
Woven through the book are themes I’d explored in my earlier stories, now seen in a new light, while investigating others I’m tackling for the first time. Family and family enterprise, adolescence and childhood, death and divorce, and Greek-American culture, especially, are new while counterculture, romance, spirituality, community, nature and specific place, livelihood, journalism itself all run through my previous work.
Think of this bit as going into the compost rather than being served on the plate:
All I’m doing is asking you to apply your new comprehension to the rest of your life.
Of course, you’ve heard somebody blurt out, “I’m never going to forget this as long as I live!” Or some such. And sometimes it’s true.
Me? I have trouble remembering nearly everything. Could it be one reason I read so widely is to help me remember? Of course, writing gets it down on paper, once again so I don’t forget.
So while I read to help me remember and to gain insight on the world around me, it’s not the only reason by any stretch.
These days some of my favorite daily encounters come at our city’s indoor pool, where I swim laps. In addition to the familiar faces of fellow swimmers, there are the interactions with the lifeguards, many of them still in high school. When they’re not actively watching us in the water, they have rounds manning the front desk, where they might also be doing their physics homework or working on a paper. In other words, they were the right age to help me with my novel What’s Left, not that I’m ever that direct. No, just a wild question or subtle ear’s enough to keep me grounded in their direction.
In revising a manuscript, I sometimes chance upon a “zipper” that seems to run along the entire piece and releases something trapped within it. Tugging along page after page is an amazing experience, when it happens, which is not nearly as often as I’d hope. Mercifully, that’s what’s happened in the ninth revision of What’s Left, my novel thanks to comments from some of the early readers. The key this round came in having her talking to her father throughout, at least in her head and often in the midst of other people, rather than simply about him. It gives the work a whole new dimension and makes the story far more intimate, especially when she makes irrational leaps that match her emotions.
This, in turn, allowed her to relate much of her investigation as it happened as a young teen, rather than looking back on it from her early twenties, and had her aunt Nita and her best friend, cousin Sandra, present as co-conspirators.
Note that none of these revisions changed the way I saw the novel as an author — I knew how it begins, develops, and ends — but they change it entirely for the reader.
Yes, the changes were extensive. When one of the lifeguards remarked, “What? You’re not done yet?” I came back the next week with two pages from the hardcopy I was working from — half of the sentences containing crossed-out words and phrases, several moved to new locations, and a taped-on flap of new notes to add in, all needing to be keyboarded. It’s typical professional work, as you’ll discover reading the Paris Review or any number of writer-oriented magazines.
Still, they were astonished. I doubt they’ll look at a 500-word assignment quite the same again.
The point is that all of these changes are for the reader. Curiously, the very shift of having Cassia speak directly to her father throughout soon has the reader stepping into his shoes, hearing through his ears in a new intimacy.
And now I trust the story’s ready for you, as its reader.
It’s not always simply a coincidence, is it?
Have you ever started out on your way to one place and wound up somewhere quite different? Somewhere that turned out to be right? Tell us about what happened.
In my novel What’s Left, there’s one big subject Cassia couldn’t ignore — not if she truly wanted to understand her father. It’s the whole hippie thing.
As he noted, in a sentence no longer in the text:
Will any of our inner music — our desires and activity — ever come into a reliably ongoing harmony?
As was this tidbit:
This is all new to him. The language, unfamiliar, even after the sporadic trips of his youth. The music, profoundly moving.
Take his hitchhiking. As her aunt Nita explained in yet another deleted text:
As for your body, well, you could go about anywhere on your thumb. Maybe not the Deep South or some of the big cities. But adventure called. Out in the countryside. And in the heart of the metropolis. There were moments when everything turned utterly surreal. It was a wild time, wasn’t it? You’re forgetting Nixon got reelected to the White House? If you were a freak — a hippie — you were part of a stream of kindred souls. You saw the world askew. You wanted to explore and discover new vistas, many of them psychedelic. You knew there was more — much more — than what your parents had ever imagined. The entire world was spiraling, about to go out of control, or so it seemed. And what difference does any veracity of hitchhiking in the subways make? Aren’t those some wild stories? Where does the line fall between what’s real and what’s imaginary? Didn’t your Baba land here after all? Return to build on earlier connections? Who cares how he got here as long as he did? You believe this is where he was destined, don’t you?
Admittedly, it’s a lot to take in. More than we needed, in fact. Even this flash:
Angels as hitchhikers! As subway riders! As candy store clerks!
These days, I’m left with mixed feelings.
Where do you think the hippie movement missed the boat? And what do you think it got right?
Some artists begin with an outline of the work they’re doing and stick with it, starting in one corner and continuing to the opposite end. And, for many of them, once it’s filled in, that’s it, the piece is finished. Voila!
Others, like me, set forth in a particular direction with an expectation of what’s ahead but find ourselves often changing course as we go. And once the first draft is finished, we know it’s only a start, far from finished.
There’s a saying in writing that talent goes into that first draft, but genius comes in the revisions — if at all. That first draft can be exciting, even intoxicating, as the piece takes shape — in the case of writing, sometimes out of thin air.
Or, in the visual arts, there’s a description of someone who’s painterly — that is, scraping away earlier layers and painting over and over until something comes into focus. Oh, yes!
The truth is that first draft can be satisfying for its creator. You know where the story wants to go, who the characters are, how the pieces fit together. Your spelling can be irregular; the sentences, unfinished; the events as arbitrary as you wish. You could leave it there and turn elsewhere, should you decide. You don’t have to defend or explain anything.
On the other hand, if you wish to share your work with others, you’ll need to clean it up. Those who think otherwise are at least worthy of suspicion.
Which leads to the next step, one I think demands far more labor than the drafting stage and far more dedication. Revision.
For one thing, it means questioning everything that’s gone into that beloved first draft. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. Ouch! For another, it means asking yourself just what you meant in that brilliant phrase before you. And for me, at least, there’s a stage where I start trying to liberate whatever it is that’s lurking beneath the prose on the page. (Well, these days, the computer screen.) It means tearing apart what you’ve done, discarding large chunks of material, and inserting fresh insights. And it’s much messier than what you’ve done previously. Is there a special maid service for writers?
One item on my mental checklist regarding the revision process has to do with identifying certain words that keeping repeating through a long work like a novel. I then go back through the story, looking for synonyms that will give me another angle on the concept or thought being repeated. In What’s Left, for instance, I had family, restaurant, hippie, and Buddhism high on that list. What could I do to lessen the deadening recurrence of those terms? Slang, I might confess, can work wonders.
From my poetry, I’d long ago learned that this is where the work itself opens into something totally new. What do I really mean here? What is the text trying to say to me? How can I liberate it? Or make it burst into flames?
OK, this sound pretty haughty, but it’s all part of the obsession.
As a parallel, let me suggest cooking, since it’s an element in the background of my new novel. Just look at how the ingredients cook down into something quite different. There’s much more than just throwing a steak on the grill or opening a bag of shredded lettuce. (Especially if you’re going to join me at Carmichael’s in the novel.)
To return to the question of just when is it finished for me, I’d like to say once the work’s been published. But that may be rushing reality.
A thorough revision can leave me exhausted, feeling I have nothing more of value to add. (At least for now.) Or maybe I’m finally released from the subject — it can move into the public arena now.
Thinking of What’s Left, I might mention a parallel in the visual arts where I originally saw the earlier chapters as pop art masters Roy Lichtenstein and then Robert Rauschenberg but narrowing into the black-and-white lithographs of Peter Milton. But then my perspective reversed!
Do you ever look at events around you like an ongoing movie? (Sometimes even as a cartoon, as I do?)
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?
Maybe it’s a fair question, asking where an author stands in the story. Sometimes it’s pretty autobiographical. With my novel What’s Left, I can safely say I’m nothing like the narrator, Cassia. We don’t even like the same music.
And let’s say her father’s been a much better parent than me. Add to that the fact he’s traveled widely, has mountaineering skills, can translate Tibetan, finds true love not long after college, is able to call one place home the rest of his life. Well, let me add he shares a lot good traits with one very talented photojournalist I worked alongside all too many years ago now.
I will admit a flash of envy seeing the warm guidance he receives in the development of his talent and the freedom he has in pursuing it.
So there’s my disclaimer.
As for Cassia? I’m beginning to think of her as a daughter. She might even fit in with one of my own, though I think there’d be friction with at least one of the others.
Well, thinking of where we stand in a story, how about this?
Cassia’s conversations with Rinpoche lead her to crucial new understandings of her father.
In earlier drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered these possibilities, but rejected them as, well, too wordy, esoteric, or preachy:
Your Baba was on the cusp of some original thinking about Christ as Light, Rinpoche tells me. He was connecting that with an ancient line of Greek philosophy about a term known as Logos. It was all very, very exciting. He was seeing Christ as much more than the historic person of Jesus, much as we see Buddha as something much more than a historic person — you know, Gautama — too.
Well, that happens to be a hobbyhorse I ride. Let’s give her father a break!
Rimpoche continues. Your Baba had scorn for those who claim a personal spirituality without any disciplined tradition. He wanted to encourage people to delve into a practice — not that they’re all equal, but they have their own unique wisdom to impart — and that led to his organizing some fascinating ecumenical dialogues, ones that included your Orthodox priest, plus a rabbi, a Sufi or yogi, an evangelical, and so on.
Maybe we’d better leave all that for a later discussion? Cassia has more pressing questions, many of them regarding his photographs and family.
Throughout his monastic studies and labors, he’s pressed to concentrate totally on what’s happening in the moment. Even while sleeping. Looking through a lens would, according to Manoula, place a filter between full experience of that timeless breath and himself. It would place a mask across his face when he most needs to be fully naked, as it were. Who knows what he wears in the monastery, for that matter. We can guess from the photos he took later, on his return visits — and his portraits of his teacher and fellow practitioners. For now, he needs to see not just with his eyes — and his Third Eye — but also with his nose, tongue, lips, ears, and especially his fingers and extended skin. And from there, to embrace the eternal realities rather than the ephemeral illusions flickering and dashing around him. Through this stretch, he heeds fellow monks who create beautiful colored-sand mandalas and then scatter them to the wind rather than preserve their work. This emphasis on the present while pursuing eternal truth may seem to be a paradox, but he submits to the instruction and its flowing current.
So that, too, was filtered out of the final revisions. As was this:
Baba and Rinpoche had grown close when they were both residents in the monastery. Rinpoche was then just another of the aspirants, albeit a Tibetan refuge with a lineage. Their teacher blessed their venturing into the Heartland to establish the institute here, and Rinpoche, with his mastery of Himalayan languages, took up an offer to teach academic courses at the university while leading a spiritual community from the house.
Like Rinpoche, Cassia’s father was in many ways a teacher. In their case, they were dealing with ancient Buddhist lore. Good teachers, as you know, are rare.
Many days when I enter the Red Barn, I find myself amazed at the amount of work I’ve created. I can get dizzy just touching on the places I’ve lived and loved, or the friendships that have blessed me in those many moves. Or all of the painful losses as well.
Even though I was employed full-time in other pursuits, I set aside time for writing, revising, and submission to literary journals and publishers. These days I keep asking, How did I do it? Or more accurately, just what else did I fail to do?
Still, for perspective, a new poem a week for 50 years comes out to 2,500 pieces. And some poets consider themselves satisfied with a lifetime collection of 400 to 500 poems. Perhaps they’ve lived a more fruitful and balanced life than I have. You’d have to ask the people around them, though, for their perspective.
On a related note, I’m wondering if those who invaded my journals and expressed disappointment were expecting juicy gossip. In all of the upheaval and daily scheduling, I was usually pressed simply trying to record a trail of where I’d been and what had been happening. Without that, forget the emotions or gossip. Those just might fall into place later, perhaps prompted by the notation that the event had even happened.
My, it’s been a long trail!
So here we are. My novels are 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. Let me suggest starting with Cassia.