Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mainly these are Working Journals

Mary Morris on the journals that she keeps while travelling:

         I have kept these journals for years—as I wandered the dusty streets and marketplaces of Central America, as I travelled across Siberia. I wrote in them when I lived in Paris and when I was under house arrest in Havana. On the inside cover I always write “Reward,” but I have never lost one, though once in Spain a young man raced off a train to give a journal back to me and I kissed his hand. And on the Vltava in Prague a boat vendor accepted one as collateral so my daughter and I could rent a pedalboat.
         Mainly these are working journals, but inside of them I also keep a diary and paint. I cut and paste boarding passes, snapshots, local flora. What happens around me, what is said. The bizarre, the inane, the weather, the everyday. I write it all down here. I jot in the margins and paint the pages in the colors of my moods. I almost never keep them at home, but when I am on the road I am working in them nonstop.

From Mary Morris, The River Queen: A Memoir (2007).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Walter Mosley on the Uses of Poetry in Fiction Writing

In This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley writes of having taken several poetry workshops at the City College of New York in Harlem, and he says that though he has yet to write "even a passable poem," he is convinced that reading, studying, and attempting to write poems has served his fiction well. Here's an excerpt from what he has to say about what a fiction writer can learn from poetry:

     Of all writing, the discipline in poetry is the most demanding. You have to learn to distill what you mean into the most economic and at the same time the most elegant and accurate language. In poetry you have to see language as both music and content. A poet must be the master of simile, metaphor, and form, and of the precise use of vernacular and grammar, implication and innuendo. The poet has to be able to create symbols that are muted and yet undeniable. The poet, above all other writers, must know how to edit out the extraneous, received, repetitious, and misleading. A poet will ask herself, "Why did I use that word, and how will that usage affect meaning later in the poem when the same word is used again? A similar word?"
     The poet seeks perfection in every line and sentence; she demands flawlessness of form.
     If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, then that writer will render an exquisitely written novel.

When I began writing, I aspired to write poetry. I wrote reams of poems which ranged from mediocre to downright bad, and I didn't find my feet as a writer until I switched to fiction. But I've never felt that my attempts at poetry were a waste of time. Like Mosley, I'm convinced that writing poetry sharpened my fiction-writing skills.

Are there other fiction-writers out there who feel that reading or writing poetry has served their fiction in this way? And what about the link between reading poetry and reading fiction? Given the attentiveness to language that it requires, might regularly reading poetry also make one a more discerning and appreciative reader of fiction?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

November Fictitious Reading

The next Fictitious Reading will take place this Sunday night (November 25th) at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain't the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street, Toronto). This month's featured writers are Lynn Coady and Jeff Parker. The evening will include readings by these talented writers, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will host and I'll conduct the interview.

Lynn Coady was nominated for the 1998 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction for her first novel, Strange Heaven. She received the Canadian Authors Association/Air Canada Award for the best writer under thirty and the Dartmouth Book and Writing Award for fiction. Her second book, Play the Monster Blind, was a national bestseller and a "Best Book" of 2000 for the Globe and Mail; Saints of Big Harbour, also a bestseller, was a Globe and Mail "Best Book" in 2002. Her latest novel, Mean Boy, was a Globe and Mail "Best Book" of 2006 and won the Alberta Writers Guild's George Bugnet Award for Fiction. Most recently, she acted as editor on The Anansi Reader: 40 Years of Very Good Books. For many years a resident of Vancouver and then Edmonton, Lynn Coady now lives in Toronto.

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman (Tin House Books) and The Back of the Line (DECODE), a collection of stories and images in collaboration with artist William Powhida. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Hobart, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Walrus, and other publications. He teaches at the University of Toronto and is the program director of Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia.

If you're anywhere near Toronto, you won't want to miss this one! If you're not able to attend, I encourage you to track down the books of these writers and sample their fabulous fiction on your own.

For more information on the series, see the Fictitious web site.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Biography Challege

I have perhaps already been overly ambitious in the number and scope of reading challenges for which I've signed up of late. But I can't say that I've ever regretted embarking on a challenge even when I haven't managed to work my way to the end of my proposed reading list or to blog diligently about each book from it that I did complete. For even when I don't adhere to the letter of the challenge, I nearly always stretch my reading horizons in the attempt.

The In Their Shoes Reading Challenge won't take me into new genre territory as I'm already a devoted reader of biographies, but it will provide excellent incentive to tackle the many tantalizing biographies that are currently adding considerable heft to my TBR pile. And since one of the characters in the novel that I'm writing is a biographer, I can call the whole endeavour research. I'll be thinking, as I read my way through my list, not just about the life of the subject of each biography, but about how the author went about shaping that life into a book.

The parameters of the challenge are straightforward. It runs throughout 2008. The goal is for each participant to select a number of books of his or her own choosing that fit within the rubric of biography, autobiography, or memoir, and to read and blog about those books before the end of the year.

Here's my list:

Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (1997);

Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (2006);

James Campbell, Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank (2003);

Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work (2006);

Victoria Glendinning, Leonard Woolf (2006);

Charlotte Gray, Reluctant Genius: The Passions and Inventions of Alexander Graham Bell (2006);

Robert Lecker, Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit (2006);

Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (2007);

A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 (2007);

Ruth Panofsky, The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman (2006)

Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006); and,

Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy (2007).

A couple of these I've already begun; indeed, I read to the halfway point of Tomalin's Thomas Hardy last spring. But I've let so much time elapse since I set them down that in each case I plan to start over so as not to deprive myself of that glorious sense of the sweep of a life that one only gets from being thoroughly immersed in a good biography from beginning to end. Twelve books in twelve months, some of them very substantial tomes. I may not manage it given all the other books I expect to read alongside them, but, as ever, I will relish the attempt.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Which Betsy-Tacy Character Are You?

Now here's a quiz I couldn't resist:

Which Betsy-Tacy character are you?
Your Result: Betsy Ray

As a child, Betsy is lively and imaginative, a story-teller and a ring-leader. As she grows up, Betsy is popular with both boys and girls because of her fun spirit and love of a good time. She loves traditions, having fun, parties, and boys, but she sometimes undervalues herself and her talents. In the end she learns to love her true self and comes to realize and value her love of writing, and makes her dream a reality. Although she has had many beaus, she ends up with the one best suited to her (Joe Willard!), who understands her love of writing and encourages her to be her real self.

Emily Webster
Tacy Kelly
Tib Muller
Carney Sibley
Julia Ray
Irma Biscay
Winona Root
Which Betsy-Tacy character are you?
See All Our Quizzes

Being shy and red-haired, Tacy Kelly might seem the more obvious result, but my writing focus combined with a penchant for wandering around Europe must have tipped the scale toward Betsy Ray. However, if the quiz allowed for cross-gender character identification, the outcome would likely have been different. After years of pondering whether I'm more like Betsy or Tacy, it occurred to me recently that I actually identify most strongly with Joe Willard. What do you think, Betsy-Tacy fans? Quiz or no quiz, which character from the tomes do you identify with most strongly and why?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Milan Kundera on the History of Art

Milan Kundera on the history of art:

Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them. The novelist's ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say. Flaubert's poetics does not devalue Balzac's, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.

From Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (translated from the French by Linda Asher, 2006).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is Elizabeth Taylor's "Miss A. and Miss M." This story, first published in Taylor's 1972 collection The Devastating Boys, was pronounced "her most technically accomplished story" in a survey of her work that recently appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

The discussion begins on Tuesday, November 13th. Participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity then. If you're not yet a member of the short story discussion group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. New members are always welcome! Of course, anyone can contribute through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

I look forward to the discussion.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The People in His Novel

The wind blew through the empty streets with a kind of dispirited moan; had been blowing all night long, while Vivaldo sat at his worktable, struggling with a chapter which was not going well. He was terribly weary—he had worked in the bookstore all day and then come downtown to do a moving job—but this was not the reason for his paralysis. He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced.

From James Baldwin, Another Country (1960).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Discovering Willa Muir

I have long been familiar with the work of Scottish writer Edwin Muir, particularly with his poetry and his extraordinary travelogue Scottish Journey. I also knew a little about his wife Willa Muir, through his work and through her occasional brief appearances in biographies of other Scottish writers, for example, George McKay Brown. I was aware that she was an accomplished translator and had, together with Edwin, translated many literary works, most notably the novels and stories of Kafka. But until I followed up a mention on Sandra Alland's blog of a new study of her writing (Moving in Circles: Willa Muir's Writings by Aileen Christianson), it had somehow escaped my notice that Willa Muir had also written a couple of novels and several works of non-fiction. I assure you that it's not like me to leave an accomplished woman writer to languish in the shadow of her more famous husband, but I confess that with Willa Muir this is exactly what I had done. No longer!

I plan to order a copy of Christianson's book and, while I await its arrival, I'm going to read as much of Willa Muir's work as I can get my hands on. Yesterday, I arrived home from the library with two of her books: a novel titled Imagined Corners and a memoir about her husband titled Belonging. I've done no more than flip through them so far, but I thought I’d share with you the back cover description of the novel and the first paragraph of the memoir, to see if I can persuade some fellow bloggers to join me in my quest to discover Willa Muir.

Here's the back cover copy from Imagined Corners, a novel first published in 1935:

Willa Muir was an acute and acerbic observer with an intimate knowledge of the Scottish middle-class conventions that she describes. In Imagined Corners, her first novel, young Elizabeth Shand, newly married to the unstable but handsome Hector, finds herself in the social, intellectual, and spiritual strait-jacket of small-town life early this century. Into the growing complexity of these entangled relationships her sister-in-law and namesake returns from Italy, sophisticated and freshly widowed. Through her, Elizabeth rediscovers an intuitive desire to face life honestly and intelligently, and reassesses an enforced life of petty vanities and delusion against new possibilities of personal and sexual freedom.

And here's the first paragraph of Belonging, a memoir first published in 1968:

I first met Edwin Muir in a Glasgow flat sometime during September 1918. On the face of things our meeting was unlikely; he was a costing-clerk in a Renfrew shipbuilding firm and I was a lecturer in a London training college for teachers. It was still more unlikely that having met we should get married less than a year later and most unlikely of all that our marriage should last. Edwin's Glasgow friends, who thought they knew him, prophesied that it would not last six months; my friends in London, who thought they knew me, were of the same opinion. Yet when he died in 1959 I became aware that I had been assuming we should die together, when it came to dying, hand in hand. I could not believe it possible for me to be alive and for him to be dead. It did not make sense. We belonged together.

I promise to report in as I read my way through first these books and, later, Christianson's Moving in Circles.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Vote for this month's Story Selection at A Curious Singularity

It's time to vote on which story will be the focus of the November discussion at A Curious Singularity, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, November 13th. Three stories have been nominated:

Elizabeth Bowen, "Hand in Glove" (1952);
Elizabeth Taylor, "Miss A. and Miss M." (1972); and,
Gloria Sawai, "The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts" (2001).

Please let me know, in the comments section below this post or its duplicate at A Curious Singularity or via email, which of these stories you would prefer to discuss this month.

In the meantime, there's still a week left to contribute your thoughts on Guy de Maupassant's "La Horla," the story currently under discussion there. I expect that I will be adding my two cents just under the wire as usual. I was dubbed "Kate the Late" in kindergarten and I have to concede that decades later the tag still applies...