This will be a short post because I’m at ThrillerFest this weekend. I’ve gone to the conference every year since 2008, and I always have a great time there. Because I live in New York City, I have no excuse for not going. The conference center at the Grand Hyatt is only a ten-minute subway ride from my apartment.
My favorite part of ThrillerFest is sharing stories with other writers. Making novels is an inherently solitary activity; although I get feedback from my agent and editor and the handful of people in my writing group, it’s nothing like the team effort of putting out a newspaper or magazine. When I edited feature stories every month for Scientific American I was constantly interacting with art directors, copyeditors, fact-checkers and freelancers. It wasn’t always peaceful -- I have a bad habit of getting too emotional over stupid things -- but every afternoon at three we stopped butting heads and went to a café on 49th street for our coffee break. I miss the place, I really do. Life is full of trade-offs: I love having the time to work on my thrillers, but I miss the camaraderie of journalism.
At ThrillerFest, though, you’re completely surrounded by other novelists. You can’t walk five feet in any direction without spilling your drink on some award-winning writer. And you can learn some valuable lessons while comparing notes. For instance, everyone gets at least a few bad Amazon reviews. (You can’t please all the readers all the time.) Everyone bemoans the current state of the publishing industry. Yet, despite all the tribulations of the business, everyone seems to be having a good time. Go figure.
Now I have to get some sleep so I can do it all again tomorrow.
Posted on Saturday, July 13, 2013
In my last post I wrote about a novel I really admired, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. And now, to be fair, I want to talk about literary disappointment.
I love buying books -- it’s my only discretionary expense these days -- but I’m picky about it. Before I purchase anything, I read the reviews in the Times and the New Yorker. I ask friends and fellow writers what they’re reading. And even when a new novel gets raves from everyone, I don’t go running to the bookstore. Sometimes I’ll wait a whole year, till the paperback comes out. This kind of buyer behavior drives me crazy when I’m trying to promote my own novels. Why are you so reluctant, people? Come on, give my books a try! But that’s the crimped, cautious world we live in. We work hard for our money and we don’t want to waste it.
After conducting my usual due diligence, I was fairly certain I’d enjoy Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It’s a work of historical fiction, focused on the 16th-century machinations of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and I love reading about that period. The novel won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it got a great review in the Times. And the book’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was also widely praised. I was looking forward to reading both novels. As I turned to the first page of Wolf Hall I felt like a hungry diner at a five-star restaurant, about to tuck into a delicious gourmet meal.
Now I’m at page 200, about a third of the way through the book, and I’m feeling a lot less hungry. I don’t hate the book. I just don’t like it as much as I thought I would. The novel’s hero is Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who becomes an adviser to Henry VIII, and the fellow seems likable enough, full of interesting observations and unafraid to speak his mind. But I’m not really bonding with the guy. I feel like the author is hiding him somewhat, keeping him at a distance from me. Worse, I’m not seeing 16th-century England from his point of view. The place and time haven’t come alive. I’m getting the facts, but not the feeling of being there.
When something like this happens, when a much-praised book leaves me cold, I usually worry that it’s my fault somehow. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’d really enjoy Wolf Hall if I knew more about Tudor England. Or if I had more of an English sensibility. But the novel’s flaws seem self-evident. It’s too damn slow. Characters are coming and going, but nothing is happening. And much of the narration is sketchy. Cromwell’s wife died long before I could get a good sense of who she was.
I’m going to keep reading the book. Maybe it’ll get better. I live in hope, that’s my motto. But I can’t get rid of the bitter taste of disappointment. Has anyone else out there felt this way? Not necessarily about Wolf Hall, but about any much-anticipated novel that fell far short of expectations?
Posted on Saturday, June 29, 2013
It’s simple. If you want to improve your writing, you should read great books. And study them.
I just finished an amazing novel that was published last year, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It’s set in the not-too-distant past of the Bush era, when the war in Iraq was raging and the airwaves in America were full of over-the-top patriotic extravaganzas. The U.S. Army has organized a Victory Tour for a squad of infantrymen whose combat heroics were caught on video and broadcast on the evening news, making instant celebrities out of the young, rowdy soldiers. Billy Lynn is the baby of the squad, a 19-year-old who won the Silver Star for his valor during the firefight but can barely remember what happened. He’s overwhelmed and exhausted by all the fawning attention he gets from armchair warriors during the Victory Tour, which culminates in a farcical halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on Thanksgiving Day. And he even toys with the idea of deserting, because the Army is planning to send him and his fellow grunts right back to Iraq as soon as the football game is over.
Reading the book is pure pleasure. Fountain is such a good writer, his sentences make you shake your head in wonder. Here’s the opening of the scene describing Billy’s brief visit to his family home in Texas:
Billy went to Stovall, to the three-bedroom, two-bath brick ranch house on Cisco Street with sturdy access ramps front and back for his father’s wheelchair, a dark purple motorized job with fat whitewalls and an American flag decal stuck to the back. “The Beast,” Billy’s sister Kathryn called it, a flanged and humpbacked ride with all the grace of a tar cooker or giant dung beetle. “Damn thing gives me the willies,” she confessed to Billy, and Ray’s aggressive style of driving did in fact seem to strive for maximum creep effect. Whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr, he buzzed to the kitchen for his morning coffee, then whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr into the den for the day’s first hit of nicotine and Fox News, then whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr back to the kitchen for his breakfast, whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr to the bathroom, whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr to the den and the blathering TV, whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr, whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr, whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr, he jammed the joystick so hard around its vulcanized socket that the motor keened like a tattoo drill, the piercing eeeeeeennnnnhhhhhh contrapuntaling off the baseline whhhhhhhiiiiirrrrrrr to capture in sound, in stereophonic chorus no less, the very essence of the man’s personality. “He’s an asshole,” Kathryn said.
I love that long sentence with the sound effects. When I encounter a sentence this good I like to read it over and over, sometimes even try to memorize it. Or simply copy it word for word, as I’ve done here. It’s an attempt at sympathetic magic. I’m hoping that some of the author’s skill will rub off on me.
The novel is also brilliantly structured. It starts with the limo ride to the Cowboys stadium a couple of hours before kickoff and ends with the same limo picking up the soldiers after the game. In between we get to see the football players suiting up in the locker room, the team owner’s luxurious suite, the equipment room, the drunken fans, and of course the fabulous Cowboys cheerleaders. There are some flashbacks, but not too many. The only really extended one is the description of Billy’s depressing homecoming. I was expecting the author to eventually describe the heroic deeds of the infantrymen in the firefight in Iraq, but that expected flashback never arrives. We just get a few bits and pieces of it: Billy’s despair as one of his comrades dies in his lap, his sergeant’s pride in Billy’s heroism (expressed, jarringly, as a painful kiss after the battle). The omission is disappointing in a way -- we want to know what happened there! -- but it fits with the theme of the novel. The soldiers themselves don’t want to think about what happened. And when the fawning armchair warriors bombard them with thoughtless questions, asking them what they felt during the firefight, the grunts can’t respond. If you weren’t there, you can never really understand.
Best of all, the book is funny. The soldiers defy their hopeless fate by constantly goofing around. When one of them passes out drunk in the stands and a woman in the next row offers to spread a blanket over him (it’s a cold November day), his buddies protest:
“Oh, ma’am, don’t worry about him,” Crack assures her. “We’re infantry, that’s kind of like being a dog or a mule, we’re too dumb to mind the weather. He’s fine, believe me, he don’t feel a thing.”
“But he could freeze!”
“No ma’am,” Mango chimes in. “We punch him every once in a while to keep his blood moving. See, like this.” He delivers a sharp whack to Lodis’s bicep. Lodis snarls and throws out his arms, but his eyes never open.
“See?” Mango beams. “He’s fine. He’s happy. He’s like a cockroach, you can’t kill him!”
In short, I urge you to read this novel. There’s no better way to learn how to write fiction.
Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013
Last night my wife and I went to a show called “Here Lies Love.” The musical was written by David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and it got a good review in the Times, but it turned out to be even better than I expected. And the reason has everything to do with the staging. If the show had been produced in a more conventional way, I probably would’ve hated it.
It’s a musical about Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. The story is similar to that of “Evita” – a beautiful young woman marries a dashing politician who turns into a heartless dictator. Imelda became a figure of fun in 1986 after her husband Ferdinand was deposed and her cache of 2,700 pairs of shoes was discovered, but the show treats her story seriously. The actress who plays Imelda is a wonderful singer, and she does an excellent job of showing the character’s transformation from naïve beauty queen to imperious dragon lady. Still, the treatment is kind of simplistic, cramming forty years of Philippine history into ninety minutes and a dozen songs. If I were watching it in a typical Broadway theater, I’m sure I would’ve been underwhelmed. My inner critic would’ve huffed, “I already know this story! Can’t you tell me something new?”
But I wasn’t sitting in a typical Broadway house. “Here Lies Love” is staged in a smallish room in The Public Theater that’s decked out like a disco, complete with mirror balls and artificial fog. The audience stands around an oddly shaped platform on which the actors sing and dance, and you don’t stand in one place for very long either, because after every scene the stagehands shift the platform to a new position and shepherd the crowd to another part of the room. And on every wall are video screens that display historical footage of Imelda and Ferdinand. When the actor playing Ferdinand Marcos makes his entrance, he’s accompanied by a cameraman who shoots video of Marcos mingling with the audience, shaking hands and slapping backs. At one point, Marcos put his arm around me and together we smiled for the camera, and when I saw my complicit face on the video screens I felt a weird sense of guilt. Through the magic of theater, I got a brief glimpse of what it’s like to support a dictator.
In other words, the story came alive. The historical figures became three-dimensional, full of energy and sex appeal, their skin glistening with sweat.
I want to do the same thing with the characters in my novels. I need to think of new ways to make them come alive.
Posted on Saturday, June 1, 2013
I know I’m coming late to this party, but I love The Walking Dead. A few weeks ago my teenage son and I started watching the show on Netflix as a sort of after-school treat. After a long hard day of Latin and algebra (for him) and manuscript revisions (for me) we sit down together on the couch to enjoy an hour of zombie mayhem. Of course, if you’re a fan of the program you know that the title characters are never called zombies; when the dead come on the scene, the living alert one another with the cry, “Walkers!” And that’s how I greet my son when he comes home from school and drops his incredibly heavy backpack on the floor. I yell, “Walkers! It’s time for Walkers!” and we race toward the living-room couch.
Why do we like it so much? Well, we’ve always had a thing for zombies. I still read to my son before he goes to bed (awww, isn’t that cute, I hear you say) but now I read World War Z instead of Doctor Seuss (yikes, what kind of father are you?) And we both loved 28 Days Later, the movie that originated the man-wakes-up-from-coma-to-find-world-overrun-by-zombies trope that was so shamelessly stolen by The Walking Dead. But there’s something special about the TV show. First, there’s the soap-opera appeal, the affection you develop for characters simply because you see them every day. Second, there’s the sheer bleakness of the characters’ situation, and the blind relentlessness of the enemy they face. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. You can’t turn away.
But the most interesting aspect of the show, at least from a novelist’s point of view, is its narrative format. A television series like The Walking Dead doesn’t have the conventional beginning-middle-end structure of most novels and movies. It’s episodic (naturally), and that makes the story feel more like early works of fiction such as Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters travel from one adventure to the next, and though the details are a little different each time -- in one episode, Don Quixote tilts at windmills, in the next he mistakes a pair of monks for enchanters -- the basic setup of each scene is the same. (Or, to use another example, Gulliver has unusual adventures in a kingdom of tiny people, then in a kingdom of giants, then in a kingdom that floats among the clouds, and so on.) The danger with this kind of format is that it can get repetitious. And in fact, that’s a problem some viewers have with The Walking Dead. Many of the episodes seem to follow a standard, timeworn formula: start with a flashback from the good ol’ pre-zombie days, followed by thirty minutes of dread and sniping among the characters, then someone does something phenomenally stupid or brave and the dead arrive en masse. And every episode ends with a cliffhanger, of course.
On the other hand, the strength of this format is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As you watch episode after episode (my son and I have set a strict limit of no more than one per day) you get the feeling that you’re watching more than the struggles of a small band of survivors. You start to think, “If these people can’t make it, then no one can. If they die, the whole human race is doomed.” The perils and travails come so fast and furious that you can’t help but think of Job and how God killed his family and took away all his possessions just to make a point. The religious theme is made explicit in the first episode of Season 2 when Rick the sheriff’s deputy prays aloud in the country church (after killing the zombies who were sitting in the pews).
Although the show’s format may not resemble a novel’s, The Walking Dead offers lots of good lessons for thriller writers. In too many thrillers (including my own), the heroes are unrealistically resilient; in The Walking Dead, the constant fear and tension chew up the living characters almost as relentlessly as the zombies do. And nearly every character on the show has a mix of good and bad in his or her soul. Many of their actions are heroic and heinous at the same time. I don’t plan to write about zombies anytime soon (I’m too damn scientific -- I just don’t understand how the dead can walk without a working circulatory system) but I’d like to write about the same kind of desperation, the furious battle between hope and despair. Something to think about for the next book!
Posted on Saturday, May 18, 2013