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 …

She’s so unlike the author

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?

What do you see in your baby pictures?

~*~

Who on earth can eat just one “stick” of souvlaki? Besides, where’s the salad or Greek potatoes? Besides, kabobs remind me of winter camp outs as a Boy Scout, cooking in the snow and using green twigs for skewers, long before I’d ever tasted lamb. Oh, my!

 

Like brother monks on the road to nirvana

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.

Tell us about your favorite teacher.

~*~

Orthodox Christian iconography can be out of this world. Just look at this church ceiling!

A prolific writing life

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.

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?

One side of a family as friends

Having a circle of close cousins in my novel What’s Left, freed me from having to create additional friends for Cassia. She had more than enough in her own extended family, close at hand.

I hadn’t thought about that before now, but as an author, it’s a big relief. Cassia’s busy enough as it is, and we have plenty of named characters.

~*~

Well, while thinking of fondness and monikers:

Do you have a nickname? How did it come about? Does it fit? Are you fond of it? Or does it annoy you? Have you ever tagged one on someone else?

~*~

Anyone else fond of Greek yogurt? Especially with honey?

An aside for karma yoga

In one of the early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I tried this perspective — which I removed from the final version of the book, feeling it was too preachy:

If our workroom was where we could act honorably under the eye of God, it was still no substitute for times of celebration and worship! No, we need to take time every day for prayer and the study of scripture. Just remember: work spent in activities that help our neighbors and enable us to come together for periods of common delight is quite different from anything I see in the realm of time cards or the Harvard Business School.

~*~

Whew! Let’s try to bring this back to everyday experience.

Is there somebody you encounter someplace during the day who makes you feel special? A coworker, cafe wait person, bus driver, teacher, friend? Do tell us!

Karma yoga, by the way, is explained in my novel Yoga Bootcamp. Work itself gets complicated, no?

~*~

The old church Cassia’s family buys in my novel might have looked like this … before the wild rock concerts begin.

A family obligation to pitch in

Maybe the family restaurant was oppressive? In my novel What’s Left, there’s no question the kids won’t be working shifts in Carmichael’s as they grow up. Do they ever want to rebel? Or does peer pressure and pride keep them in line?

As one of them said in an earlier draft:

So it was off to serve more Streetcars and slaw.

~*~

Well, they knew what was expected. And they knew how to pitch in and be effective.

What were you expected to do in your family? How did you help? Were you compensated in return? Should you have been?

Now, make all that present tense!

~*~

Finikia. A whole tray!

More than the bottom line

Even though I cut this from the final version of my novel What’s Left, it’s still true:

What people need, and this is essential to a proper approach to labor, is balance.

~*~

Two things are going on here, one inside the other, but I’d like to be less confusing.

The first, quite simply, is my belief in what we Quakers call centering. We find our stopping all outwork activity for a time of deep meditation and reflection helps bring us perspective on the other parts of our lives. Add to that moderation and simplicity or focus all leading to a healthy balance of individuality, home, career, community, faith, and so on.

The second touches on attitudes toward labor itself, which quite frankly has been demeaned in modern society. What makes the concept of leisure so exalted? The danger, I suspect, is in overworking — often sucking any joy out of the project at hand.

Think of your job. What could management do to make it more human?

~*~

Classic. Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside Boston.