Graham Greene said all good writers have bad memories. I tell you this as an excuse for why I cannot remember whether it was Annie Proulx or Margaret Atwood who told Terri Gross, “In storytelling, there must be wolves.” As in, danger. To illustrate, she offered the example of someone who comes back from vacation and cannot stop saying how fabulous it was. Counter that with a story of my friend. Her family got held up at gunpoint on their first day in Aix En Provence, and then, in an unrelated catastrophe, were robbed of everyone’s computers, gameboys, phones, and Ipods on the second afternoon of their glorious summer in a small French village.
Is it Shadenfruede that makes us gravitate to what went wrong, rather than the Kodak moments of our friend’s vacations? Or is it just more the element of surprise? Whatever, Ms. Proulx-Wood was right: there must be wolves.
Which leads me to my worst writing habit, my profound unwillingness to put my beloved imaginary playmates (aka characters) into situations where they might possibly suffer. Which leads me to pronounce that in the Decade of Dystopia, I have a sinking feeling I’ve written a Utopian novel.
It started with my sister’s family moving to a neighborhood in Atlanta, a hidden gem of urban beauty, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead’s sons to extend the meandering beauty of their father’s Piedmont Park past its gated borders Built at the turn of the nineteenth century, the treelined streets and elegant brick houses make you feel like you’ve landed on a perfect planet. A walkable, bikable community close to chic restaurants, bars, museums, cafes.
So that’s pleasant scenery (ie Kodak moment) number one. Oh my.
Fantasy number two is standard issue with me, a group of close friends who live in walking distance of each other. They’re funny, smart, forgiving and just a bit eccentric. There is one bad apple, maybe two, in their midst, but for the most part, my Ansley Park neighbors are dolphins, not sharks. They are puppies not wolves.
To make all of this worse, one day, in this novel’s infancy, an imaginary Catholic convent and church sprang into being.
Here, you would think I could find some problems. Nurse Ratchets of the nun variety. Maybe an abusive priest to go with the headlines. But no.
This is the grooviest convent in the world. More like an English country inn or yoga retreat, full of enlightened older women serving the poor. They, too, are funny, smart, irreverent and just exactly how I wish the real Church could operate in my oh-so-lapsed Catholic mind.
In my book of the same name, Our Lady of the Snows was spared during the civil war, when Sherman was burning Atlanta. A very small but effective rectangle of snow hovered above the church and motherhouse, keeping the buildings (and the slaves hidden inside) from incineration. It is a charmed place, full of charming sisters. They are are organic gardeners, great cooks, prolific vintners and die-hard football fans.
To say I’ve been searching for something like this since I let go of my regular attendance at Mass, well, it goes without saying. Call me crazy but if I’m making things up, why the hell can’t I make a place that is exactly like where I’d want to go?
Into this perfect vacation of the mind, thank God or Ms. Proulxwood, other things have crept. Things like greed, envy, piety and hubris. They are my wolves, both real and fictional, driving my antagonists to topple the kingdom of Heaven, so to speak, with strategies fueled by fear, insecurity and a midlife crisis or two. (Maybe Lucifer thought it was just too dull to have everything go so perfectly all the time? Perhaps he wasn’t so much evil as felled by profound boredom.)
Bringing out the wolves, as figurative as they might be, has taken a very long time. Like, oh, five years now. While the cancer thing might account for some of that, I think the rest has been my disinclination to put on my big-girl-pants and just let my people go!
If yoga is the path of love over fear (my new mantra) then this process has been a similar journey except inside out. Starting with the love and equanimity, what happens when fear -- whether of bankruptcy, betrayal or bullets – begins to chip away at the better angels of our nature?
When I think of my novel’s conflict this way, I find some comfort. This is certainly a question that drives much of what I’ve been most entertained by this year. In HBO’s Game of Thrones or SHOWTIME’s Homeland, the main characters might be warriors, but they’re undone less by weapons and more by avarice, deception and/or their own compulsions, the inner wolves that drive us all. In City of Thieves, a gorgeous novel by David Benioff set in Nazi-invaded Leningrad, the heroes’ fates are still cast in the character flaws of their enemies, as well as in certain quirks and foibles of their own.
Similarly, in Pure, by Julianna Baggott, set for release on February 8th, the riveting plot may take place against an epic backdrop of monstrous beauty and perfect horror, (every bit as fantastic as Game of Thrones, every bit as apocalyptic as World War II). Still, the real action pivots on the internal struggles of our protagonists. Pressia and Partridge are dogged as much by the demons of memory and loss as the harrowing creatures that pursue them.
“A great gorgeous whirlwind of a novel, boundless in its imagination. You will be swept away.”
—Justin Cronin, New York Times bestselling author of The Passage
“PURE is not just the most extraordinary coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read, it is also a beautiful and savage metaphorical assessment of how all of us live in this present age. This is an important book by one of our finest writers.”
—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner.
Getting back to that perfect vacation, the one your friend bored you to death telling you about, perhaps what’s deadly dull isn’t the beauty of those sunsets but the glossing over of the negative in pursuit of what I see as false cheer. I mean, really, who has had a perfect vacation? Ten to one, they’re victims of their own internal PR campaign or they’ve found a drug I’d very much like to try.
Even the best of trips are replete with small problems, those lizards on the ceiling of your picturesque Mexican resort, the squatting toilet in that amazing Venetian restaurant, or just the itchy first day of getting accustomed to sudden leisure. Maybe what’s compelling – whether in dystopia or utopia – is honesty, the acknowledgement that perfection exists only in magazines and Mommy Dearest’s wardrobe. We may inhale those stylist’s dreams of the day no one mussed up the couch by sitting on it, but the real payoff comes when we strive towards the immaculate, only to find the devil (and the drama) lies in the details (and those dratted wire hangers.)
Speaking of drama, I am also looking forward to reading Joshilyn Jackson’s newest, due out next week. A Grown Up Kind of Pretty, like Gods in Alabama, Backseat Saints and Between, Georgia, will, I can lay a bet on it, take ‘pretty’ out for a ride in a fast car on a back road till the word takes on a Flannery O’Connoresque meaning. Starred review, everyone. You go, Joshilyn!
"A mesmerizing tale of a family coping with the revelation of a secret that will change their lives. . . Jackson's most absorbing book yet, a lush, rich read with three very different but equally compelling characters at its core." - Kristine Huntley, Booklist (Starred Review)
"Highly immersive... a compelling page turner." - Publishers Weekly
"Liza, as the unreliable narrator, is used to perfection in this warm family story that teeters between emotional highs and lows, laughter and tears. Book groups will eat this up."
- Library Journal
Reading A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty feels a lot like falling in love: giddy and enthralling and a little bit dangerous... Book clubs take note, here's your next pick!"
- Sara Gruen, NYT Bestselling author of Ape House and Water for Elephants
Lastly, I'm way overdue to read Jefferson Bass' latest novel, The Bone Yard, which is set in a gorgeous prep school-type location not too far from my native town. Talk about wolves. The guards abused the tenants of The Dozier School for Boys, both physically and sexually, and in a twist that links to Ms. Joshilyn's novel, a secret graveyard (true story) concealed the victims who died. After the book came out and Jon Jefferson, the writer behind Jefferson Bass' fabulously successful BONES series, championed the cause of a group of grown ups still dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the state of Florida chose to close the campus and finally look at reforming the ways in which troubled teens are incarcerated.
"A superb mystery novel-well-plotted, filled with memorable characters, based on accurate forensic science and written with more flair and literary sensibility than anything by John Grisham."
—Charlotte Observer on The Devil's Bones
"If you want to know what an autopsy theater really looks like, if you want to learn how to tell a skull's ethnic background by studying its teeth or how embalming works, Jefferson and Bass can tell you... Their books are well worth digging up."
—Wilmington Star-News on The Bone Thief
"This series, written by forensic anthropologist Bass (the creator of the real Body Farm in Tennessee) and Jefferson, just keeps getting better."
—Booklist on Bones of Betrayal
So: happy reading everbody! Who says January is the cruelest month? (Mr. Elliot is spinning in his grave. Mr. Greene, not so much.)
A nearly identical post will be published tomorrow @ the Girlfriend's Cyber Circuit Group Blog, otherwise known as a GROG, or http://www.girlfriendbookclub.blogspot.com