Recently in Writing my novels Category

Who's my daddy? The audience.

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Recently, referring to one of my manuscripts, a publisher made a comment that can be summed up in this joke:  "Knock knock."  "Who's there?"  "The audience."  "The audience who?"  

Apparently, the answer wasn't manifest on the face of my manuscript.

The question is cogent.  Stories are obviously told differently depending on the audience.  (I recall, for example, an excruciating presentation I gave at a law firm during which I wildly - and inexcusably, since I'd been working at the place for four years - misjudged my audience's ability to exercise their imaginations or laugh.  Dead silence.  Vacant stares.  Awkward shifting in chairs.)  

Equally important, stories are sold differently depending on the audience.  And if one endeavors, as I do, to be a published author, one needs to care about how a book might be marketed, even if this job isn't rightly the author's (and, indeed, excessive interference on this end of the operations might be considered to be lunatic behavior).  

Nonetheless, despite all the wisdom I recognize in the "whose the audience?" query, I can't seem to get too enthused about it during the writing process.  When I think of who might read my work, I think "everybody," and probe the answer no further.  

This approach isn't (merely) laziness on my part.  I really do see myself as writing stories for everyone - for men and women, the generalist and the specialist, for those who hail from the developed world, and for those who are slogging through the developed.  (From the sales perspective, of course, my self-image is sub-optimal because not "everybody" buys books: women buy books, and more specifically, middle- and upper-class women, mostly from developed countries.)

But my approach is also informed by a simple pragmatism: if I thought too much about what other people would think of what I was writing, I wouldn't be doing my best work - if I'd be doing any work at all.  Self-consciousness is a notorious drag on creative output.  Writing to her Aunt Bess in April 1914, Karen Blixen remarked, "I believe that it would be impossible to write if one gave consideration to who is going to read one's work . . . ."  (Letters from Africa, p. 5.)

Is it a coincidence that it took Karen Blixen twenty years from that toss-off comment to sell a book? 

Sophie needs less world and more story

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Almost two years ago, I saw Jostein Gaarder give a talk in Beijing.  His general theme was the human propensity for stories: we learn information when it is situated in the context of a story.  Gaarder plainly assimilated the principle without mastering its application.  Sophie's World, which I've just read for the first time, isn't an example of a well-crafted story: it's more of a series of lecture notes for a high school philosophy class strung together with a "frame" that falls apart into an unsatisfying heap by book's end.  

Nonetheless, Sophie's World delighted me in places.  In particular, I was amused because I recalled Gaarder saying that he started out writing Sophie's World without knowing what would happen, and that he spent a lot of time taking long walks around Oslo, trying to figure out how to end the story he'd started.  His resolution actually comes in the middle, not at the end, of the book -- SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to reveal the plot twist -- Gaarder makes Sophie and her philosophy teacher, Alberto, realize that they are nothing more than characters in a book that another man, Albert, is writing as a birthday present for his daughter, Hilde.  The book's plot, such as it is, consists of a not-at-all convincing rebellion of characters against their author.

That said, I love the construct, and I wish Gaarder would've followed it through brilliantly.  His basic insight -- that characters, no matter fictional, seem to have an existence apart from their creator -- immediately resonated with me.  When I'm writing, I often feel like an archeologist, excavating a character that exists independently of me, and that my job is to extract him or her as completely and sensistively as I can.  (In fact, Gaarder uses archeology as a metaphor to describe a process not dissimilar to novel writing -- psychotherapy, which he terms an "archeology of the soul." p. 426.) 

But from what material am I excavating my characters?  Reality?  My imagination?  Another dimension?  I don't know -- probably all three -- but I do occasionally feel that my characters "keep me honest": I can't just make them do whatever I feel like having them do; they have individual integrity, and the range of plot possibilities available to them is determined by their personalities.  I can't make Chastity in Portnoy's Daughter keep her adultery a secret; and I can't force Pip in The Swing of Beijing to call Tyler a loser when he ejaculates prematurely; and even I can't save Dean from his own rotten judgment in Waiting for Love Child (although I probably punish him too harshly).

I am startled every time I feel "push back" from my characters, but I respect "their" resistance because it's guidance on plot development.  The feedback I get from my characters, however imagined (or nonsensical or irrational) that dialectic may be, steers the story on an organic (as opposed to formulaic or externally-determined) course that's consistent with the voice and feel of the created space my characters inhabit. 

Like Gaarder, I don't know what's going to happen when I start writing.  My literary mentor, D.M. Thomas, once wrote to me, "You don't have to know what the end of the journey is.  As Pushkin writes in 'Autumn' -- 'We sail.  Where shall we sail?...'  You are Columbus."  (That's why he's my literary  mentor; the man knows what he's talking about!)  In Portnoy's Daughter, the final chapter, the apotheosis of the story, didn't exist -- even in my most transitory thinking -- until D.M. Thomas told me to write it.  In Waiting for Love Child, my notes for the plot said, "Reveal secret why Lan's parents don't talk to one another."  What that secret was I didn't know until I wrote the chapter.  In both these examples, what I eventually wrote turned out to be "clincher" passages for the plot and meaning of the book.  And those passages function the way they do because I was guided by the characters, not vice versa; or, at least, I wasn't consciously, rationally or cerebrally guiding the story development.

Ultimately, that's my guess about where Gaarder went wrong: he experienced the phenomenon I've described, but he couldn't resist getting cerebral about it, and consequently the life he'd sparked on the page withered.  (He's aware that interference by the cerebellum in reflexive, irrational, creative processes -- like dancing -- is fatal; see the tortoise and centipede story on page 437.)  I can't blame Gaarder; philosophy is cerebral, overly so.  Philosophy is no more conducive to good story telling than physics

I'm not saying that a well-told novel about the history of philosophy is splitting the atom; but it's probably close.      

Brooklyn -- and Beijing

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"Is it surprising if a seed grows where it lands, once it's been scattered? Can it be helped? In 'Brooklyn,' Colm Toibin quietly, modestly shows how place can assert itself, enfolding the visitor, staking its claim."  This passage in Liesl Schillinger's NYT review of Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn made me thoughtful because the question of how "place can assert itself" is the subject of two of my novels, The Swing of Beijing and Waiting for Love Child.

In both books, the "place" at issue is Beijing.  In The Swing of Beijing, Beijing is asserts itself in anything but a quiet, modest way.  Rather, the city is a constant challenge to its expatriate residents, an obstacle to their goals, a menace to their souls. 

In Waiting for Love Child, Beijing is more seductive and less aggressive.  The city still crushes Dean Cannon, the expatriate protagonist of Love Child, but the city isn't confrontational; rather, it lures Dean into burrowing into its trap.

In my real life, having been an expatriate in Beijing for more than four years now, the ways in which extpatriates grow in relation to, and in resistance of, Beijing has been consistently fascinating because of the unique landscape of the city.  It's generally welcoming to foreigners (as long as you're not a democracy or Tibet protestor, or Falun Gong supporter), but it's also isolating of outsiders.  You can't join Beijing society; as an expat, you'll never be Chinese.  (Even if you marry a Chinese person, you can't get citizenship).

Outsiders are allowed to form their own enclaves in Beijing, enclaves that are free from the social regulation of both Chinese society and the societies from which the expatriates hail.  Up until recently, expatriates were virtually above the law, as well.  In this context, free from constraints that keep seedlings growing ever "up" in the U.S., seeds can grow in truly warped and delightful directions in Beijing.
Liesl Schillinger's two questions, "Is it surprising?" and "Can it be helped?" are also interesting.  I haven't yet read Brooklyn, but from Schillinger's review, the circumstance that prompts her questions is that Eilis, the protagonist, falls in love with an Italian, rather than holding her life in stasis, waiting to return to Ireland.  Should it be surprising that Eilis falls in love with an "outsider" in this strange land?  Can it be helped?

Having lived in Beijing and responded to its rhythm, and watched others do the same, I'm not surprised.   When people are ready to get married, they fall in love with whoever's around them, whether at home or in a far-away place. 

But I do think it "can be helped."  Occasionally, I see an expatriate in Beijing holding themselves back from the city, refusing its provocations and temptations, treading water until they can return again to the open-seas-like-pond of the U.S.  And, although I empathisize with their fear of how Beijing will change them, and although I recognize in their self-control and defendedness a kind of strength, I'm not really interested in these people. 

Not interested enough to write two novels about them.

The evolution of "Eating Penis in Beijing"

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In the most recent version of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, Pip Alonzo begins writing a book called Eating Penis in Beijing, which is her exploration of the unique way that China is modernizing.  The title, of course, is also a joke, as well as an allusion to the many ways in which Beijing's expatriate residents are brought to their knees by the formidable city.

Reader response to Eating Penis in Beijing, and to the scene in penis restaurant that inspires that title (in The Swing of Beijing, as well as in real life), has been such that when I was brainstorming locations for a short promo for The Swing of Beijing, Beijing's actual penis restaurant, Guoli Zhuang, was the obvious choice.  We -- that is to say, me, Matt Forney, and Josh Chin -- filmed the promo yesterday.  (I'll post the link here once the promo is finished and up on the web.)

The conversation that Matt and I had about The Swing of Beijing on camera, as well as our lunch of horse, donkey, dog and ox cock (horse was the best, in case you're wondering), made me think back to the many iterations of Eating Penis in Beijing that have appeared in The Swing of Beijing over the many drafts.  Below, I reprint the penis restaurant's earliest appearance in The Swing of Beijing, in an article that Pip writes in defiance of her editor, who wants her to cover the penis restaurant with a non-analytical, "isn't this gross?" agenda.

In this early version, Pip gets to use her full name, "Lapis Patricia Alonzo," for which "Pip" is a nickname (a detail that's been axed in later versions), and her explanation includes a detailed analysis of the social meaning of status foods.  As in later drafts, however, Pip's analytic focus remains the same: why penis?  Why now?

Sure, The City's Called "BJ," but Eating Cock in Beijing Isn't Just About Sex
By Lapis Patricia Alonzo

    Guolibian, Beijing's first penis-in-every-dish restaurant, is a development of note.  Though penis is not an ingredient foreign to Chinese cuisine, and consuming it is reputed to have health benefits ranging from virility to improved skin tone, Guolibian's singularity and lack of competitors raise the questions:  Why penis?  Why now?

    Pointing to the omniverousness of "the Chinese" doesn't explain Guolibian.  Vague stereotypes about all the world's animals (and their many parts) ending their lives in a Chinese wok is a racist canard, albeit one embraced by the Chinese themselves:  Northern Chinese complain that Southern Chinese will eat anything.  "Three squeaks," a dish of live newborn rats - so named because the ratlings squeak once when they're grabbed by chopsticks, a second time when they're dipped in sauce, and a third and final time when popped in the mouth - is a common example offered by Northern Chinese to prove the uncivilized natures of their Southern countrymen.

    In fact, the food consumed by most Chinese is pretty pedantic.  Putting aside the approximately 700 million Chinese peasants who subsist on staple foods, like rice and fried bread, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million Chinese qualify as "middle class."  And, at least in Beijing, they eat jiachangcai:  literally "food often eaten in the home" (although increasingly Beijing's middle class eat jiachangcai in restaurants).  Typical of this cuisine is stir-fried tomatoes or cucumbers with eggs, braised eggplants or tofu in brown sauce, and boiled dumplings stuffed with pork and cilantro.

    That said, Chinese banquet cuisine, reserved historically for imperial personages (or, in more recent times, for Communist cadres and their relatives and business partners), has always encompassed the extremes of culinary experience:  bird spit, camel humps, frog ovaries, hairy crab roe, jelly fish, rabbit ears, scorpions, shark's fins, snakes and - yes - penises.  These ingredients became delicacies for the same reasons that transform any odd food - caviar and uni; Vieux Boulogne; haggis; sweetbreads - into a treasure in need of an acquired taste:  they're rare or expensive, require special expertise to prepare, taste good and/or impart coveted health benefits.

    Why penis?  It's a benchmark delicacy food.  It's rare - there's only one on every male, and whether because of anthropomorphism or scarcity, everyone acknowledges that it's valuable.  It requires special skills to prepare because, as the female readership already knows, every penis is different.  And, not to belabor the knowledge of our female readership, it tastes fine - particularly when doused in chili or sesame sauces.  Perhaps most endearingly, Chinese men really believe that it enhances sexual performance.  Across the world, Viagra has found grateful customers for a $9 pill that can cause debilitating headaches, priapism or - even worse - nothing at all.  Eating penis is (depending on the species) cheaper, tastier and risks fewer side effects - and if it has a placebo effect, even better.  

    Simply put, penis is a status food in China.  And this is the answer to the second question:  Why now?  Perhaps nothing is so important in China as face, but face is precisely what the Chinese, as both individuals and as a nation, feel they've been deprived of for the past century.  Pre-Communism, rampant wars and invasions, opium, political vacuums and natural disasters left the Chinese impoverished and their country an international whipping boy.  Post-Communism, ideology, bad policies, corruption and environmental degradation have left the Chinese impoverished and their country an international pariah.  

    For the first time in more than a century, the Chinese are on the brink of enjoying genuine status.  Quality of life is improving in a stable political context, and the nation is enjoying unprecedented attention on the world stage.  Hosting the 2008 Olympics is the capstone of national status, the proof positive of the nation's emergence as a power that commands face; eating penis is the personal equivalent.  Eating penis shows that you're rich, virile, and feasting on the food of kings.

    But status and the Chinese quest for it doesn't entirely explain an all-penis restaurant like Guolibian.  Acknowledging that eating penis shows wealth and virility and commands face still begs the question:  Commands face from whom?  Plainly, not from the West, where eating penis is viewed as abhorrent and uncivilized.  So why, just when China is about to win international acceptance, and the Chinese people to enjoy heretofore-unknown personal prosperity - benefits attributable to China's adoption of Western economic methods - would the Chinese embrace penis cuisine?

    This restating of the questions doesn't merely reflect Western incomprehension of a desire for difference.  The Western revulsion of penis consumption is grounded in more than narrow-mindedness.  Western respect for the individual has historically correlated to a practice of ascribing sacred or symbolic meaning to certain body parts:  Oedipus gauged out his eyes; Achilles' downfall was his tendon; and Jesus gave his blood to save humanity.  Consumption of eyes, tendons, blood, and other parts emblematic of the person, like hearts, brains and genitalia, has - precisely because of that part's close association with an individual's identity - long been linked in the West with barbarism.

    And while it's easy to critique Western sensibilities as those developed in conditions of prosperity - bones, organs, and sinew that constitute trash in the West are, elsewhere in the world, whole meals - the truth is that conservative consumption practices are safer.  Human cases of bird flu in Viet Nam have been traced to the practice of using raw poultry blood as a condiment in porridge.  SARS was unleashed when the Chinese mania for eating wild animals to demonstrate status led to increased consumption of civet cats, whose bodies harbored the virus.  HIV, originally a disease in monkeys, may have leapt the species barrier when humans hunted, prepared or ate bush-meat, while the degenerative neurological disease, kuru, afflicted New Guineans who ate brain.

    For these reasons, the Chinese enthusiasm for eating penis at this historical moment is significant.  What explains a penis emporium, like Guolibian, is the Chinese rejection of Western values in favor of establishing continuity with more traditional Chinese mores and practices.  The Chinese have little use for the Western investment in the sanctity of the individual or the West's fanatical attention to safety, and the Chinese now have the confidence and security to dismiss these Western obsessions.  When the Chinese tuck into a penis, they're not trying to keep up with the alienated, urban Joneses in New York or London.  Rather, they're aligning themselves with their ancestors, reintegrating themselves into the context of their clans, and establishing a communion with an ancient belief system that posits that eating the penis of a yak imbues a man with the animal's prowess.  

    The Chinese are unfazed by the contradiction inherent in having achieved the prosperity necessary to enjoy penis-eating as a status ritual only by embracing Western economic reforms.  What the Chinese want, and think they can have, is the benefits of modernity - wealth and conveniences, stability and respect - while maintaining the feudal, famial- and communal-orientation that sustained them through their two thousand year history as a nation under imperial rule.  

    Eating penis in Beijing, then, represents "modernization with Chinese characteristics."  As with most slogans - "democracy with Chinese characteristics," "transparency with Chinese characteristics," "Internet with Chinese characteristics" - the last three words tend to obliterate the first one.  Recognizing that incompatibility, however, isn't within the scope of "self-awareness with Chinese characteristics."  And for the time being, at least, China's massive labor resources, steaming economy, and manipulative bravado allow China to get away with telling its naysayers:  "Eat me."
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