CHARACTER OR ACTION DRIVEN?

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

A common question for novelists asks whether their book is driven primarily by the development of its characters or by the actions of its plot. It’s not one that had been front-and-center for me until my newest work began taking shape. For one thing, my previous fiction all falls under the category of Experimental, and, for another, I’ve usually been of a contrarian nature. Maybe the earlier stories were more event or episode driven than action propelled, and characters added whatever they had. As I’ll say, up till now. Or, as I might add, a journalist is more concerned about what’s happened than the motivations of the individuals involved.

My new novel, What’s Left, was initially envisioned as a kind of post-hippie history – an update flowing from the ending of my first published novel, in fact. But then it began turning into a different kind of history, going back further to her immigrant great-grandparents. Well, at that point the story could develop either way, based on the characters or their encounters. What clarified the direction for me was my decision to have her father vanish in an avalanche halfway around the globe, which precipitates her obsession to know just who he really was. And that made it character-driven.

As she discovered more about her father – and her colorful, extended family – I realized I wanted to know more about Cassia herself, starting with her reactions to the clues she was uncovering.  In the end, What’s Left is about her, told in her voice from age 11 into her early 30s. As for the history? It’s bound to be in her blood.

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WHEN THE STORY GOES WHERE IT WANTS

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others.

Over recent years, I’ve been especially fascinated by the hippie outbreak and its legacy. We had a taste of what society could be and let it slip away, or so the story goes. In reality, nobody ever fit the hippie stereotype, and while the impression is that the movement died out, so many of its concerns continue – from environmental awareness and sustainable economics to racial and sexual equality to social justice activism to Asian and Native spiritual traditions to back-to-the-earth and natural living and so on. It’s a long list, actually.

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PLAYING WITH FIRST NAMES

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others.

Long before I ever anticipated what’s evolved into my newest novel, What’s Left, I ended my first published novel with a young woman named Diana, in part because I liked the two puns it allowed. Her husband-to-be, a student of Tibetan Buddhism, had returned to Indiana – and now he could boast of a love that allowed him to be in Diana as well as in Dhyana, or deep meditation.

Not that you have to understand Sanskrit to read it. Shouldn’t the mere hint of something exotic should suffice?

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MY LIFE AS A ROGUE, AS IT WERE

Being born in Aquarius, maybe it’s all too natural:

  1. Rogue scout troop (with all of our hiking, backpacking, and primitive camping – plus all the scoutmaster’s strictness).
  2. Rogue education, a patchwork of political science, literature, economics, sides of philosophy while aiming for the field of daily journalism.
  3. Rogue hippie.
  4. Rogue lover.
  5. Rogue ashram, with its decision to quit the world I’d known up till then.
  6. Rogue worship (this alternative Christianity).
  7. Rogue Quaker, too?
  8. Rogue career, mostly in out-of-the-way settings before abandoning the executive ladder to return to the ranks and a real life.
  9. Rogue poet, rogue novelist.
  10. Rogue blogger.

Maybe it makes sense.

~*~

Just how don’t you fit into expectations?

In open water on the Piscataqua River, Newington, New Hampshire.

Not that this fits into the theme, it’s just one more thing on my mind.

WE HAVE TO BEGIN SOMEWHERE

In picking up on the ending of my first published novel as the starting point for my most recent work, 50 years later, I’m given a foundation to build on. There’s a set of central characters (five siblings plus our hippie-boy) within existing situations (the tragic car crash, the restaurant, the campus). Can you also see this as presenting a larger puzzle to work out? How many more pieces will be required? Just how big will it be? Will it really fit on our table?

There’s also a backstory, one that can’t be ignored even when the new book is expected to stand on its own rather than as a sequel. In this case, a backstory with parts I feel need to be downplayed or softened. After all, some of it’s downright embarrassing! Go take a trip with Subway Hitchhikers if you want to know why.

Still, one thing that pleases me with my new novel is how much of that past recedes into the background. This is the daughter’s struggle, after all, years later. What’s Left is ultimately about what’s happening with her as she relates it, even when she’s looking at old photographs or asking questions. Here she makes her debut as an 11-year-old when her father vanishes and moves forward.

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SHIFTING GEARS ON HIGHWAY ‘18

You no doubt noticed a new look at my suite of blogs here at WordPress during the past year. In midsummer I converted to four quite different templates – or what WordPress calls themes – each one a sharp new presentation for the unique material of the blogs. The process also prompted a redefinition of their separate identities.

Much of my literary attention last year focused on my newest novel, which underwent two major revisions and a cleanup reading – along with a new title. You’ll hear a lot more about it through the coming year. In fact, the Red Barn will be engaged in conversations about the many themes running through the big book. Look for the new Cassia’s World category.

Doing that has me anticipating fewer postings here – typically three a week, rather than seven to 10. To be frank, there were weeks when I felt things were getting way too hectic. Sometimes less really is more.

One other refinement: My Tendrils category will be getting more playful. I hope you like it – more way than one.

On the other sites, Chicken Farmer, I Still Love You is settling more fully into its inland New England character. More photos, mostly of historic brick mills, will accompany the serialization of my Big Inca novel, before giving way later in the year to poetry that fits the region.

As Light Is Sown steps up its pace to two postings a week, mostly short entries drawn from my books Religion Turned Upside Down and Stillwater. Consider it provocative inspiration. I hope.

While I’m not anticipating any further big genealogical reports at Orphan George, I am looking forward to excerpting from helpful correspondents over the years as one way of acknowledging their generous assistance. Maybe I’ll throw in some more family photos, too. We’ll see.

Finally, my Thistle/Flinch imprint will explore fresh typographical concepts in six of the new releases – venturing somewhere between broadsides and chapbooks, I expect. This new lineup of free offerings is all poetry.

~*~

What are you looking forward to in the new year?

 

Here’s the latest at THISTLE/FLINCH.