Recently in Writing my novels Category

Getting bugged by the writer's life

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Spider_on_my_wall.jpgIn the first chapter of Hugh Raffles' new book, Insectopedia, he recounts a 1926 experiment that measured the insect population of one square mile of air over Louisiana.  The census estimated a total of 25-36 million insects in the space, including a spider flying at 15,000 feet.  As Raffles explains, spiders

not only climb up to an exposed site (a twig or a flower, for instance), stand on tiptoe, raise their abdomen, test the atmosphere, throw out silk filaments, and launch themselves into the blue, all free legs spread eagled, but they also use their bodies and their silk to control their descent and the location of their landing.
Reading this passage in a review in the The New York Times Book Review, all I could think was: I wish someone would do a census of the insects in my cottage.  I am, for those of my readers unacquainted with my situation, currently isolated from the world.  I've engineered my own private Yaddo to allow me to finish my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, with all deliberate speed, as the Supreme Court once remarked.  This personalized writer's retreat is on the south bank of Lake Naivasha, in the Eastern Rift Valley, about an hour and a half from Nairobi, in Kenya.  My cottage is on a small dairy farm.  I live within a stone's throw from the dairy farmers, but most days I never speak with (and hardly see) another human being face-to-face.  Cows are another story.  As are insects, which is the point of this post.

Maya's_bug-filled_cottage.jpgIt's rainy season in Kenya - what counts for winter here - and bugs love the rain apparently.  The cottage (left) so overflows with them at night that the buzzing of the swarms of mosquitoes forms an audible backdrop to my bath before bed.  But mosquitoes, although the most annoying of the insects in my cottage, are merely a few of the stunning number of ants, moths, butterflies, spiders, ladybugs, crickets, praying mantises, walking stick bugs, flies, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, caterpillars, and a variety of other thingies I can't identify that crowd my cottage.

Typically, when I see an insect I can't identify, I ask it reflexively, "What are you?"  Thus far, my approach has proved unproductive.  The insects aren't talkative, but generally speaking - mosquitoes aside - I think insects are cool, so I can't seem to stop chatting with them (see "isolated" above).

Dalmation_Moth.jpgAmong the most superb of the insects I've glimpsed is a dalmation-attired moth - white with black spots (right).  Among the most sociable of the insects in my cottage is a cricket who spent the night circling the lampshade on the night table beside my bed.  When I awoke and turned on the lamp, the cricket vaulted into my room, sailing off like Pegasus springing into an unknown sky.

I think a praying mantis hatched her eggs in my cottage because after seeing an adult mantis around the house a few times, I found a couple of baby mantises.  One of them frequented the bathroom area, and I found it dead in the hall a few days later.  I felt bad.

Giant_moth.jpgA walking stick bug once occupied the exterior of a container I needed to open.  I did my best not to disturb it, but I inadvertently pinched one of its legs when I closed the container, and it hobbled away.  I felt bad.

And speaking of feeling bad, dung beetles have not had it easy in my cottage.  I admit it: I've developed a soft spot for dung beetles since I moved to Kenya.  They march around with an amusing stateliness, like a tank attempting to locomote on chopsticks.  They also fly, and when they do, they sound like someone running the vacuum cleaner in the next room.  Flying around, they tend to do two things: bump into walls and land in inopportune places.  The sink is a popular landing location from which they cannot seem to extricate themselves.  (I don't understand why they don't just fly out of the sink, but they don't.)  Once a flying dung beetle plunged into my bubble bath; it died.  Another time, one crawled into a roll of toilet paper and proceeded to deface it from the interior, leaving jagged scratch marks on the sheets I was incredulously unrolling, wondering what misfortune had befallen this roll.

Butterfly_on_a_shell_windcharm.jpgI like to think that my time with the insects is good experience for the novel I'm writing.  The Celebration Husband takes place in 1914, and my characters were plagued by bugs.  Tse-tse flies killed most pack animals in parts of Kenya, mosquitoes spread malaria, and ticks felled soldiers with tick-bite fever.

But the insects also strike me as yet another manifestation of the Writer's Trial, just another Herculean labor to endure - along with no-pay-for-work, constant rejection and languishing in unpublished-land - that make the writer's life so incredibly trying.

That said, I'm down with the bugs.  They're fascinating, gorgeous and resilient.  If I ever get a chance to give up those other examples of the Writer's Trial, I might keep the bugs.  Some of them anyway.

(All photos taken in and outside of Maya's bug-infested cottage)
Henry_VIII_and_Ann_Bolyn.jpgWhen I admitted in a prior blog post that I felt a teeny-bit let down at the end of Wolf Hall because of the novel's dialogue, I was not telling - I must confess - the whole story.  In fact, the plotting also didn't satisfy, but I wanted to address that issue in a separate post because my plot-wise complaints are not directed at Hilary Mantel.

They are directed at history.

History - like individual lives - doesn't unfold in a neat, plot-ready chunks that move from initial provocation, to thickening, to climax, to smug resolution.  While the role of the historical novelist is to shape history, so that the reader can partake in some semblance of the traditional joys of a plotted tale, history (and I feel confident that no one has made this observation before) isn't silly putty: you can't stretch it around however you like.  If the escapades of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII don't fit neatly into the traditional three act structure of Western plots, then your historical novel isn't going to have a traditional three act plot.

Hilary Mantel surely excelled herself with her plotting of material.  Stephen Greenblatt, writing in The New York Review of Books, points out that the events she covers, including her choice of ending Wolf Hall in the wake of Thomas More's execution, track Shakespeare's treatment of the same topic.  Mantel has probably received shabbier compliments.

But to my taste - and I admit, I harbor a bias in favor of strong plotting - Wolf Hall's plot didn't build enough momentum to carry me through the 650 pages.  

One problem was that it was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that will presumably be fleshed out in Mantel's upcoming sequel - chief among them being the fates of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a secret wife and daughter.  

Another drawback was that Wolf Hall was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that were resolved within the text, but didn't seem to advance the overall plot.  The in-depth treatment of the Holy Maid, for example, eats up twenty pages, but what do we get?  Additional insight into the character of Thomas Cromwell; a foretaste of the trial awaiting Thomas More; an inkling of what the Inquisition in England looked like; a sense of the insecurity Henry VIII felt about his legitimacy; but how do any of these points advance the plot?  Four hundred and eighty-four pages into the book, I was expecting the plot to be tightening, not loosening its belt and expanding.

But perhaps my expectations are unwarranted.  My guess is that Hilary Mantel covered the Holy Maid episode because it happened.  Because it's history.  And history (to say nothing of Mantel) doesn't give a damn about my plot expectations.

Reading Wolf Hall gave me a new appreciation for the challenges of writing a historical novel, as well as the realization that I am not - contrary to past (unintended) mis-statements - currently writing a historical novel.  The Celebration Husband, my soon-to-be-completed-in-draft-form fourth novel, which is set in East Africa during WWI, is a novel that takes place in the past; it's not a historical novel.  The events described didn't actually happen.  

For the record, the events described in The Celebration Husband conform to a traditional Western plot.  I (not surprisingly) do give a damn about my plot expectations, and the actual historical facts were too scattershot to stick with.  This is why I'm a fiction author: I like silly putty.

(Image of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from The Mirror)    

"Pole pole": the Tao of Mount Kilimanjaro

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At_Uhuru.jpgThe first five days of March found me on the slopes, and at the summit and peak, of Mount Kilimanjaro.  (In the picture at left, taken at Uhuru Peak, I am the person sitting center, wearing the white hat and green balaclava.) 

I climbed the mountain because the grand finale of the novel that I'm currently writing, The Celebration Husband, takes place at a WWI German military camp at the base of the mountain.  Technically, the research didn't require me to go all the way up the mountain.  But I figured, while I was there . . . .

Kibo_above_Horrombo.jpgAs it turned out, however, Kilimanjaro was an incredibly useful addition to my writing process.  In order to ascend the mountain, a climber must acclimate to the altitude.  Every step up decreases the amount of available oxygen, until by the end, the climber has to make do with something like 50% of the oxygen found at sea level.  To the unacclimated, this state of oxygen deprivation can result in sleepiness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and - in extreme cases - cerebral or pulmonary edema.

Mawenzi.jpgTherefore, in order to acclimate, a climber must go slowly.  "Pole pole" is Swahili for "slowly slowly," and it's the unofficial slogan of the mountain.  Any competition in terms of a climber's pace up the mountain can only entail being the very last to arrive at each day's camp.  Climbing Kili demands creeping one's way to success, an approach antithetical to the vroom-to-the-top methodology admired elsewhere in the world.

By temperament and aptitude, I'm a vroom-er.  Left to my own devices, I zip around at a pace that, I gather, most people find to be out of step with their own.  The speed characterizes my writing, as much as my thinking, temper and rate at which I change jobs, abodes and continents.  (The fast pace, by the way, is innate, not induced; though I've never tried cocaine, I've had enough exposure to people who have used it to conclude that it would only slow me down.)

But as my life progresses, I'm finding that I'm a born sprinter being made to run an endurance race.  The life trajectory that I'd mapped out for myself at a more youthful age didn't involve years of struggle to get published.

View_from_Horrombo.jpgAnd, although I recognize that my expectations of fast work leading to fast reward have never once been met, I still default to them.  The Celebration Husband was going to be a sprint for me.  I was going to finish the book in four months; the book would be shopped to publishers by the second half of 2010. 

Now I know that those expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled.  The reasons are best explained by saying that, while some Christians have had their lives custom crafted by an intelligent designer, my life seems to have been hewn by a notably thoughtless sculptor with a sense of humor that I've yet to appreciate. 

Nonetheless, even such maladapted creatures as sprinters in marathons can learn to endure and even thrive, and climbing Mount Kilmanjaro provided this maladapted creature with valuable lessons in success through submission to a hostile (if gorgeous) environment.  No one can fight oxygen deprivation; a climber who hopes to avoid being crushed by altitude sickness can only accept the thin air and acclimate.

Mzee_Emanueli.jpgFor those who surrender to the mountain and acclimate to its demands, the returns are immeasurable.  Of our fifteen guides, four were brothers.  Their father was also our guide.  His name was Mzee Emmanueli (pictured left), and he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro more than 3,500 times.  He is 80.  

After descending the mountain, I read this excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal in an article in The New York Review of Books:

Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare have seen mountains, if they speak of them.  The young writers seem to have seen pictures of mountains.
(John Banville, "Emerson: 'A Few Inches from Calamity'," The New York Review of Books 35 n.4 (Dec. 3-16, 2009).)

I am unlikely ever to be known as a young writer.  But I have seen mountains.

(The second picture was taken just outside Horombo, a camp at 12,000 feet.  Kibo, the crater peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, rises in the distance.  The third picture is of Mawenzi, a second peak on Mount Kilimanjaro.  The fourth picture is of a subsidiary crater below Horombo.)

An OBE for James Willson

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James_Willson.jpgOver the course of the last three novels I've written, I've found that going on-site to a location helps me write about the events that I imagine to have taken place there.  For the first and third novels, Portnoy's Daughter and Waiting for Love Child respectively, "going on-site" never got more complicated than having drinks at a particular bar that crops up in the novel, or playing laser tag at the People's Liberation Army facility.  "On-site research" was more involved, however, for my second novel, The Swing of Beijing: I traveled through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and crossed back into China through the Torugart Pass . . . all to write passages that are no longer part of the novel.  No matter: I was honing my methodology.

Therefore, for my fourth novel, which takes place during WWI in British East Africa, I knew that I'd be criss-crossing the territory covered by the British and German armies.  In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my journey to the Narosera River, where Lord Delamere had camped out to recruit Masai scouts just after the start of the war.

This week I returned from a trip to Tsavo West, where most of the troops and action during the war took place.  On this research trip, I was incredibly lucky to have James Willson (pictured above) as my guide to the numerous forts and battlefields that we toured.

The East African front during WWI is not one that is well known.  (Indeed, Ross Anderson wrote a book about it called The Forgotten Front.)  Although ruins of forts and battlefields exist, no effort is made to demarcate, preserve, develop or commemorate the sites in Kenya.  (Imagine Gettysburg as a deserted, overgrown field, without tour guides, memorials or any public awareness of its significance.)  No one - not the British military, nor the Kenyan military, nor the history curricula of either country - is interested.

Shard_of_Rose's_Lime_Juice.jpgWith the exception of James Willson, that is.  The world's expert on these sites, Willson has discovered and/or explored numerous areas of significance to WWI, including Fort Mzima, Crater Fort, Maktau and Salaita.  Having read deeply on the subject, Willson is able to identify and map the different areas in the forts (trenches, command centers, parade grounds, tent encampments, etc.), and he has encyclopedic knowledge of the debris common at these ruins (shards of glass from Rose's lime juice bottles [pictured right], South African beer bottles, crushed tins that held bully beef, etc.).

Command_Center_at_Maktau.jpgWith Willson's guidance, the experience of soldiers in WWI clarified in an extraordinary manner.  We drove the route that soldiers marched, in the heat of the day, on their way into battle at Murka.  We picked our way through overgrown brush at Fort Mashoti that the soldiers had clear cut.  From the command center at Maktau (pictured left), we surveyed the landscape on which British soldiers spied approaching German raiding parties.  

However much my on-site research had been useful writing previous books, their value is proving inordinately greater on this fourth book (my first work of historical fiction).  Thanks to Willson, my capacity to write battle scenes and other passages involving soldiers and military encampments has received a vast boost, far beyond anything I could have achieved through book research alone.

Willson's own research has been conducted entirely as a labor of love, independent of any research or academic institution and without any funding.  His knowledge is of incredible value both to our understanding of the past and to our present.  (Many of the issues that the British military faced during WWI - including troops from multiple locations speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and horrendous supply chain challenges - are currently faced by the US and British militaries in Iraq.)  What Willson knows has the potential to enrich many areas of human endeavor, including military strategy, literature and history.

We can only hope that the contents of Willson's brain will be adequately indexed in the coming years, so that his knowledge will be available to future generations.  Willson has written a book that should be forthcoming within the year or so, but his familiarity with the Tsavo landscape and the WWI sites cannot be fully conveyed in a book.  With luck, perhaps enough people will learn the lay of the sites from Willson, so that - when and if funding for preservation and memorialization becomes available - adequate knowledge underpinning those efforts will exist.

In the meantime, the cause of preservation, perpetuation of knowledge and honoring the dead will be well served by honoring the living.  In recognition of his contribution to humanity and history, James Willson deserves an expression of our gratitude.  While this blog post is certainly inadequate, an OBE seems about right. 

Off-road, unmapped and out of her mind

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Kijabe.jpgIn The Celebration Husband, my fourth novel, which I'm currently writing, the protagonist, Tanya, runs intelligence missions for the British irregular forces fighting the Germans in East Africa during World War I.  Tanya's contribution to the war effort is based on something that Karen Blixen actually did: she led a caravan of four ox wagons to supply Lord Delamere's men (with whom her husband was volunteering).

Kijabe_train_station.jpgLike Karen Blixen, Tanya begins her journey at Kijabe, a railway station on the escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley in Kenya.  From Kijabe, Tanya travels down the escarpment and across the floor of the Rift Valley to the Ewaso Nyiro River in Masailand.  Then she moves south along the river until she reaches the tributary called the Narosera River.  She follows the Narosera River until she finds
where Lord Delamere is camped.  (As a matter Rhino_swimming_pool.jpgof historical fact, Lord Delamere was recruiting Masai scouts in the area of the Narosera River after WWI broke out in August 1914.)

To write plausible descriptions of Tanya's journey, I made the trip myself, first to Kijabe (top picture) and the railway station currently there (second picture).  (The existing station was established in 1947 and is higher on the escarpment than the original station where Karen Blixen worked; all that remains of that spot is a grassed over mound of cement.) 

Then I traveled (by car, not ox wagon) across the floor of the Rift Valley until I reached the Ewaso Nyiro River, whereupon I bumped down a dirt "road" for two hours before I reachedRoad_to_Narosera.jpg Narosera Town, on the banks of the Narosera River.  Neither the "road" nor the Town were on the map, so without my Masai guide, Jonas Olsarara (bottom picture), I never would have found either.  (Jonas' critical contribution to this research, including his local and linguistic knowledge, made me wonder how Karen Blixen crossed Masailand in 1914 without a Masai-speaking guide; she makes no mention of such a person on her supply mission and claims that her crew consisted of Somalis and Kikuyus.) 

Along the road, we passed a seasonal "rhino swimming pool" (third picture), filled with water from unseasonal rains.  And, despite the inconvenience and stress of the drive (that the wheels remained unpunctured and the chassis uncracked was miraculous), the richness of the landscape (fourth picture) would have made the trip worthwhile, even if it hadn't been necessary reconnaissance for my book.   
Masai_girl.jpgHowever much I was enriched by the sensory wealth along the road, the local Masai population knew that such riches are of limited exchange value in a modern market: they were walking, not driving.  I ended up giving rides to a number of them and was shocked to learn that they'd never seen - much less been in the car with - a woman driver before.  This gorgeous young girl (left) had never had her picture taken previously, either.  (This shot was the fifth attempt; on the previous four, she'd squeezed her eyes shut when the camera shutter clicked.)

Curious, I asked Jonas if he'd ever been in a car with a woman driver before: "No," was his answer.  Jonas works in a lodge and makes a goodJonas_Olsarara.jpg enough income to pay the school fees of his four brothers and sisters; he has also been in many types of cars in many situations, including cross country trips and game drives.  Nonetheless, women drivers (though common in Nairobi) were an anomaly to him.  He graciously opined that, based on my example, he found women drivers to be excellent.

He also hazarded that I was the first mzungu (white) woman to visit Narosera and seemed tickled by the idea that he had contributed to the introduction of this rare species to the ecosystem.  Knowing that, 95 years before me, Karen Blixen had succeeded in locating Lord Delamere in this vicinity, I assured him that I couldn't be.  "Well," he compromised, "the first mzungu woman who came by herself just to see the river."

He graciously declined to express any opinion about the sanity of such a woman.
F111.jpgIn 2000, I went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and saw a show called, "Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors and the Camera."  The show charted the use of photography by fourteen artists at the turn of the twentieth century.  Looking back on descriptions of the show, I gather that the artists on exhibit made various uses of photographs; but what I remember, what particularly impressed me, was the idea that a core of two or three images or concepts could and did nourish these (or some of these) artists through their entire careers.  Degas' horses and ballerinas, Gaugin's Tahitian women and (although they weren't in the show) John Singer Sargent's society ladies, James Rosenquist's spaghetti and Philip Guston's cartoon Klansmen, light bulbs and shoe souls all seem to be examples of this phenomenon.

For the past nine years I've been thinking about that argument and wondering: are two or three concepts really enough for a lifetime? 

My musings received more fodder when I read the following passage in Colm Toíbín's The Master:

[Henry James] did not realize then and did not, in fact, grasp for many years how these few weeks in North Conway - the endlessly conversing group of them gathered under the rustling pines - would be enough for him, would be in, in effect, all he needed to know in his life.  In all his years as a writer he was to draw on the scenes he lived and witnessed at that time, the two ambitious, patrician New Englanders [Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Gray], already alert to the eminence which awaited them, and the American girls, led by Minny [Temple], fresh and open to life, so inquisitive, so imbued with a boundless curiosity and charm and intelligence.
(p. 102.) 

Of course, novelists often rework familiar territory.  Marilyn Robinson's Home is a retelling from another perspective of her novel Gilead.  Philip Roth's The Plot Against America gives us a Jewish family from Newark recognizable from his other novels.  Joyce Carol Oates fictionalizes lurid news stories.  What's Milan Kundera without Communism or Jane Austin without Britain's class system?

Still, despite the evidence, I'm not convinced.  Two or three ideas seems like fuel for a decade, not a lifetime . . . unless you're defended or restricted from, or uninterested in, the wider world. 

Granted, most adults are not continually open to world throughout their lives.  As Toíbín's Henry James explains in The Master, referring to Isabel Archer,

decisions [about] matters of duty and resignation were often more easily made than . . . . "leaps in the dark.  Making such leaps requires us to be brave and determined, but doing so also may freeze any other possibilities.  It is easier to renounce bravery rather than to be brave over and over. . . . The will and never needed for such actions do not come to us often." 
(p. 324-325.)

The "two or three concepts for a lifetime" theory strikes me as a byproduct of stasis, laziness, oppression or other barriers to making "leaps in the dark," those terrifying risks that reinvigorate one's supply of motivating ideas. 

On the other hand, maybe "two or three concepts" represents an intrinsic limit in human capacities, a reflection of the human penchant for imposing familiar, convenient and appealing constructs on the external world - the likelihood that, having leaped into the dark, you'll find there a variation of what you thought you were leaving behind.

For myself, if two or three concepts are animating my work, I'm not seeing them yet.  Certainly, I could identify common themes for my novels, but I think doing so would be a process of post-hoc rationalization.  If I've had my North Conway experience - if I've stumbled upon the well to which I will return year after year, novel after novel - I don't know it. 

Perhaps I haven't found or can't recognize my life-long subjects yet.  Or potentially I'm outside the "two or three concepts" paradigm.  Or, maybe, rather than leaping in the dark, I'm free-falling.

(James Rosenquist's F111 from Aasavina)
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