One of the great joys of reading is being transported to faraway lands. Incidentally, that’s also one of the great joys of travel. When asked, many travelers will tell you that they prefer the “authentic” experience to packaged tours or attractions—the greatest thrill of travel is to catch a glimpse of a faraway land through a local’s eyes. Reading a book set in the place you are visiting is one of the best ways to achieve that.
In 2006 I visited an old friend in India. I’d never been. Didn’t know the first thing. I knew there would be a lot of down time, both on the plane from Sydney and on busses, traveling from town to town while I was there. I packed several books, of course. One of them was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
The story is set in India and revolves around a group of children born on the eve of the Partition. It’s a brilliant story and deservedly won a Pulitzer when it was published in 1981. Safe to say that it would have been a joy to read at any time. However, it was an altogether different experience reading it while sitting on a beach in Mahabalipuram, at a restaurant in Pondicherry, on a deck in Mysore.
There is a passage where a Christian priest is talking to a young Hindu boy and the boy asks what color Jesus was. The priest says something to the effect of, “Blue, of course. Like Krishna.” A great moment. But I was in Pondicherry at the time and had just seen some very old Christian churches with bejeweled friezes of Mary—and in one of them her skin was blue. A detail that would have been fascinating, but was also made delightful by having recently read that passage.
Now I try to read books that are set in, or by authors native to, the places I’m traveling. When I remember, at least. And it doesn’t always work out. As it happens, I don’t really care for Mario Vargas Llosa, so I didn’t pull the trick off in Peru. But reading Oscar Wao in the Dominican Republic was amazing.
For the last month, I’ve been in Buenos Aires. A week or so ago I was absentmindedly walking through Palermo Soho. I had just burned through my reading backlog and was thinking about what I should pick up next when I looked up to see that I was on Jorge Luis Borges Street.
Blaise Cendrars 1887–1961
“ARE YOU THE HERO?” I feel like every author must get this one from time to time. Some more than others, of course. The slew of novels—both good and totally fucking horrid—based on a down and out writer who happens to be kinda nebbishy, yet sexually irresistible. They are legion.
But even when you’re not writing jerk-off wish fulfillment porn, the question still pops up. The first book I wrote did, in fact, center on a guy that was probably just a bit too much like me on the surface. It was the first full-length thing I ever wrote and that conceit is certainly among its plentiful flaws. At least he wasn’t a writer.
So okay, that guy with the tattoos and the smirk was me. But you know what? So was the one-legged porn actress, and the sociopathic finance guy, and the loan shark. Everybody in that story was me. I don’t think it’s something that could be avoided. Or at least I don’t think it’s something that should be avoided, because the other option is far worse.
If I’m writing about a neurotic pre-teen, or an agoraphobic shut-in, or a bloodthirsty axe-maniac, it doesn’t matter. Those characters are still going to carry some part of me. They are going to appear as a result of me putting myself into their position as much as I possibly can.
As far as I’m concerned, writing resembles method acting quite a bit in that regard. The believability of your characters has a lot to do with how much you can empathize with them. Otherwise, you’re left with cardboard cutouts, props for the protagonist.
To heavily paraphrase a Blaise Cendrars interview that I cannot seem to find online:
“All anybody can write about is man. In fiction there is only one man and he is the author. So that’s what I write about.”
Pronouns aside (this was the 50s), it’s a valid point. Also note that Blaise Cendrars once wrote a book, Moravagine, whose title translates to “Death Vaginas” and whose protagonist is a homicidal anarchist dwarf.
The protagonist of the serial novel that I’m planning out right now is a socially awkward girl. And she’s me, too.
So yeah, the hero is me. So is the villain. Hell, the fucking ROCKS are me. It’s my story.
There’s this notion that labelling something with a genre somehow cheapens it, however so much stuff that’s “literary” is sort of fantastical (or speculative or, well, pick one). I mean, what’s 100 Years of Solitude, if not a kind of fantasy? The weirder thing, really, is that the aversion to labeling something like Vampires in the Lemon Grove as fantasy serves to keep a lot of readers away who would be otherwise be very interested in the story.
From The Guardian.
It’s always a problem when one of literature’s big beasts wanders off the reservation into the badlands of genre. The latest to blunder through the electric barriers erected around the safe zone is two-time Booker prize nominee David Mitchell, whose new book Slade House is undeniably a haunted house story. Or, as the Chicago Tribune put it, his “take on a classic ghost story”. As if the thousands of genre ghost stories written every year by horror writers weren’t also one individual’s take on that classic form.
This right here, though:
Writing a werewolf novel because you think it will sell, then patronising people who love werewolf novels, isn’t a smart marketing strategy – but it’s amazing how many smart writers are doing just this.
The kid that’s interested in fantasy or science fiction that only haunts those parts of the book store misses a lot of really great stuff. But those sections are full of hacks, right? Ugh. Genre shouldn’t be short for “this one plot and these same characters with different names”. I mean, it’s not like the literature section isn’t full of books about men’s important boners.
Genre should be a tool for discovery, not a gatekeeping device. Calling House of Leaves literature isn’t going to do me any favors if I want to browse through books that are meant to leave me unsettled. This, of course, goes back to Boing Boing’s post the other day about how genres should be more like tags and less like hierarchical categories.
From Boing Boing
Ultimately, a hardline This-or-That, pigeonholing system of defining genre and works is far more trouble than it’s worth, and can do a great disservice to works that defy easy categorization. Most traditional systems in the publishing industry fit into the pigeonholing system. BISAC Codes (basically trade publishing’s official genre system) are fairly granular, but totally fail to keep up with the proliferation of sub-genres, and the genre categorization systems of all of the major ebook retailers fall victim to the same This-or-That approach.
Oh man, so much this. That said, this approach would be fine for online markets, but how would it work in a physical bookstore? The problem would still be there.
Also, for those of you who still haven’t signed up for my mailing list, I frequently send out sneak peeks and link to awesome short stories and authors that you should be reading. So yeah, you should sign up.
During June of 2006 I was visiting an old friend of mine in India. He was a former teacher and I tracked him down online a year before. Tim had left the Anchorage school district under a cloud of controversy. Rather than push the boulder back uphill, he decided to pack everything and move to India, with a few years’ detour through southeast Asia.
A little excerpt from a bar scene in that never-ending project that I’m working on.
A girl that looked like she had been assembled in a white person factory was waving her hand at Alex. She had the nervous energy of a Yorkshire Terrier and the same dumb beady eyes.
“Okay, like, I want. Girls? What are you having? Okay. I want. Vodka soda. Wait—no. Vodka diet Sprite. Do you have Grey Goose? It’s okay. Ketel. Okay, like shit. One Ketel Diet Sprite, one but light, one—wait, Courtney, what? Ew. Sure. And one Jack and Coke. Got that?” She waved a credit card.
Alex grimaced and took the card from her. “Keep it open?”
“Close it. Hey?”
She fluttered her eyes and gave a fake baby smile. “Make it strong, kay?”
This was pretty much what it was like to be a bartender.
I am not a fast writer, but I would love to be one. Luckily it turns out that for a slow writer like myself, there are a few techniques that not only boost my word count, but help me to plot a more coherent story in general. If you happen to be a natural writing wizard who cranks out thousands of words per day, this post might not be for you. Which is fine, because fuck wizards.
A while back on Reddit a user made a post asking "How do you actually finish a story/book [or come up with plots]?"
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