Field Guide


April 23, 2010
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In an extended email exchange with my editor, she wrote, “We can discuss Giraffe People in NOLA.”

(Giraffe People is my third manuscript.  NOLA is New Orleans, where we will be attending Saints & Sinners Literary Festival together.  Now you know as much as I did.)

“Does that mean you’ve finished it?” I wrote.

“Almost.  Why?  Do you have another draft I should be reading instead?”

Now, at this point, the writer has to laugh.  This exchange contains no exclamation points.  No gush.  No ego petting.  She’s almost done.  We’ll discuss it in New Orleans.

It takes a great deal of practice to hear criticism about your work and filter out the good advice from the personal preference.  I trust my editor implicitly.  But she is not a punch puller.  If she hates something, she will tell me she hates it.  As in, “I hate the first 50 pages of Field Guide.  They’re boring.”  She might not actually have said hate.  But it felt like she said hate.

Or, my personal favorite, “This is not up to your usual standard.”

I haven’t been writing since the fall.  Blogging, yes, fiction, not so much.  And now I’m glad, because I don’t have to empty a story from my head to re-approach Giraffe People.  I can return to it with months of perspective, and the sanguine determination to butcher my darlings.

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April 18, 2010
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I used to feel that I spent an inordinate amount of time writing about grief.  Particularly during the writing of Field Guide, I resisted giving the proper weight to the aunt’s death, because I didn’t want to.  I kept thinking about my mother’s comment, “Why do the mother figures in your stories always die?”

But, the truth is, I also spend a lot of time writing about joy.  About love.  About desire.

Yesterday was hard.  It was hard enough that I called my father, and poured my grief into him.  And he talked with me, and told me a poem, and said, “The simple things always before the complex.  A walk outside.  A psalm.”  And then he asked if he could do anything for me.  And minutes later he arrived to take us for dinner and a walk and ice cream and the park and basketball and he was right.  The simple things before the complex.  Family.  This is all I have ever wanted, and what I struggle with most.  Family.  A partnership without abandonment.

You see how the grief sneaks in.  Abandonment.

And so I will tell you about my love.  About the fidelity of it.  Last night, Gavin and I were shooting baskets. “You have H,” I told him, when he missed a shot.

“No, we’re playing animal basketball.”

“What kind is that?”  I asked.

“It’s like this,” he said.  “When you miss a shot, you get an animal.  I have iguana.”

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The evolving idea

January 9, 2010
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Spoiler alert:  in the following, I will divulge certain aspects relating to the climax of A FIELD GUIDE TO DECEPTION.

It began with an idea for a boy in a trunk.  The boy would be dead.  And, over time, the story of his death would unfold.  And then I got bored.  I never actually  wrote anything for that one.  Well, maybe a paragraph.  It would have been set in Seattle.

And then I saw a girl on the run.  A thief.  She’d stolen a tremendous amount of money, and bolted.  The thieving was particularly fascinating for me.  I explored any number of scenarios wherein rough men would come looking for her.  Bored again.  Not with the thieving — the thieving got inside me — but with the inevitable hunt.

And then, I saw a woman, years later, a woman with a child, and a fairly strange, mundane task, and a cloistered, gifted life, and suddenly the whole thing sparked.  So I had Claire.  And she was meant to be the villain.  A sympathetic villain.  But a villain nonetheless.

And from those first moments, from the moments when I saw Claire, her life, and her past, and her child, I saw an accident.  A horrible, tragic accident, which resulted in a girl’s death (the boy in the trunk may have influenced this line of thinking).  And I saw another woman step in, take the blame, martyr herself.  Of course they would have to be similar looking, a fun play on the cliche of twinkie lesbians.

I loved this notion of martyrdom.  The selfless hero throwing it all away for the beautiful villain.  Then I began to write.  And the tone, from the first pages, didn’t work.  I would make Liv heroic.  I would make Claire villainous.  Yet they weren’t, either of them, simply these things.  They were both heroic and both villainous.  They were trying.  They were trying and failing and trying again.  I admired them.  And it occurred to me, as I wrote into Part Two, that it’s most interesting to get away with something horrible, to have to live with the consequences of your actions without any judicial punishment.  To have only your conscience trouble you.

Also, it turned out, I don’t like martyrdom.  I found it beside the point. Love isn’t martyrdom.  I had to write that to understand it.  Maybe my Judeo-Christian upbringing makes it impossible for me to leave people without the possibility of redemption, or maybe I believe that time allows expansive forgiveness.  Perhaps, in my cruelty, I punished both of them for their failures in understanding.  And then, rewarded them, for their love.  Or maybe I just wanted a chance for Simon to explain perspective:  the story we tell ourselves.

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Comfort smells

December 24, 2009
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Over time (too much, arguably) I have learned that her smell comforts me.  It works best if it’s a shirt, one she has worn enough to sweat in.  And then, while she’s away, I wear the shirt, and am fine.  And the missing can feel good, instead of panicky.  Missing puts love into relief, doesn’t it?  You can see the landscape.

I’ve remembered another line from that poem.  In evening, this late inevitable chant.  I am going to love myself.  I have gone off to love myself.

This late, inevitable chant.

Our frailties have to be OK.  With ourselves.  They have to be OK, or they have to change.

About A FIELD GUIDE TO DECEPTION, here is some lovely news, just in time for Christmas:

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We must live with our stories

August 9, 2008
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I’m at the point in the writing where the end of the novel is in every sentence–its inevitability, its weight and tragedy. It’s so blissful when you’re puzzling through this stuff, when you untangle the major threads, and the twists, and the climax, and have sorted the beast out. But then, when you must write their happiness, when you must make it honest and vulnerable and give it depth and humanity, knowing all along that you will tear it from them, well, then it gets tough.

If it didn’t feel real, it wouldn’t move you. It wouldn’t feel real, if it weren’t. I love and grieve for them. Like any mother, I want to spare them their suffering, but the writer, that nefarious creature, will have her spoils.

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August 9, 2008
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The narrative perspective for the new novel I’m writing is third person limited, which means I’m writing from the perspective of (in this particular case) three different characters. The narration is filtered through one of their perspectives at any given time. At present, I don’t go into anyone else’s perspective.

I am beginning to feel though, that the book might really be third person omniscient. In which case, the narration can move into any character’s perspective, and can even narrate things that the characters can’t possibly know (e.g. Thomas and Jordan pulled into traffic while three streets away a drunk driver ran a red light and floored the accelerator).

Perspective is a fascinating topic for writers. We love to tell you who cheats (Jane Austen) and whose dynamic narrational choices create unique opportunities previously unexplored (Ian McEwan). “The Jane Austen Book Club” would not have been the clever, layered story it became if it had been told in third person omniscient, or even first person singular. Why are the Sherlock Holmes stories narrated from Watson’s viewpoint? Because he’s an idiot who has to have everything explained to him, so the reader gets to be smarter than Watson, but surprised by Holmes.

Perspective. I might need to broaden mine.

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