A great animator-cartoonist once asked: “Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy? Chaplin? Woody Allen? The Marx Brothers? It’s all about character. Personality is everything.”
Mark Twain wrote: “The writer merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows the selected locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”
For me, and I suspect for all writers who’ve come into their own (although not necessarily into money or critical acclaim), this is exactly how it is. Someone, a character, a personality, enters my head and starts talking. Sometimes a place comes first, or a time in history. What does NOT come first is story, a plot, a structure. I’m suddenly filled with a personality seemingly not my own who wants to act out her or his own story. And I follow, often blindly, but I follow, always in the dark.
I’ve read writers who tell you that you can’t know your tale unless you know your ending. They mean a goal. Writing means reaching that goal. I’ve read writers who tell you before you write a word you must write a detailed outline of all that will happen. When I was young and had not come into my own, this kind of thing seemed true. And I despaired. I never know my ending. As for an outline, well, one always dislikes a thing one cannot do. I cannot write an outline because for me story is not a mechanism, a Lego structure, a feat of engineering. A story is organic and it flows from the personality of my main character. He or she knows what she wants. I write as I’m told by some inner voice whispering as I go, trying to keep up. I make wrong turns when I don’t listen, when I impose “me” on my character. Hypatia of Alexandria fought back. I knew I’d lost the story when I felt her struggle with me. But when I stopped messing with Hypatia’s one true voice, the story once more wrote itself.
I have no idea if the advice I heard when I was young works for anyone. All I know is that it doesn’t work for me and it’s lovely to know it didn’t work for Twain or for the man who created some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters.
If it doesn’t work for you, stop doing it. Sit in front your computer, your typewriter, your pad of real paper, and just listen. Someone will begin speaking to you. Write down what they say. And word by word, day by day, they will tell you a tale no one else has ever told before.
I once knew Henry Miller. I stayed for a time in his house in Pacific Palisades. Aside from his telling me that with a name like Longfellow I was born to be a writer, I remember two things very clearly. One was that the rich suburban tract house on Ocampo Drive was nothing like you’d expect the likes of the infamous Henry Miller to hang out in. The second was his special bookshelf. It stood against a wall no one could miss packed from top shelf to bottom with only his books: every book he’d ever penned in every language and every special edition ever printed. I was enthralled by it. I was secretly puce with envy. I hadn’t begun writing yet. I was still pretending I’d be a writer one day. (Not to myself though, I never lied to myself. How could I be a writer? I had nothing to say.)
Running my envious fingertips over all those hardback books, all I wanted was a bookshelf of my own like Henry’s.
All these years later I have one. I wish Henry could see it. He’d say: “Whatcha expect, kid? You got the name, doncha know.” There it is now, a few feet to the right of me. It’s much smaller than his was, but it’s mine. One whole shelf holds foreign editions.
I don’t sell like Henry. I’m not a name like he still is. I don’t expect I ever will be. But there’s one thing we have in common. We write Holy Crap books. (Note to me: this does not include my latest foodlings, the Sam Russo noir mysteries… but a few genre books never hurt any of us Holy Crap writers.)
What’s Holy Crap Fiction? I just found out today by reading a piece in the New York Times Book Review.
Holy Crap Fiction is not genre writing. It’s not necessarily an easy read. Airplanes and sand are not its natural habitat. It’s seldom, if ever, found on a bestseller list. And it polarizes people. They love a Holy Crap book or they hate it.
The writer of this piece makes pretty much the same case for the New York Times Book Review that William Randolph Hearst’s daddy made for his newspapers. He told his reporters that if what they wrote didn’t make a reader sit up and say: Good God! they wouldn’t be Hearst reporters for long. This chap says why review genre fiction? All you can say about historical fiction/murder mysteries/thrillers/chic lit/etc is that it worked within its genre or it didn’t. How interesting is that? Interesting is reviewing books that make the reader say: Holy Crap! What the hell was that? Is it good? Is it bad? Why? What? Who? Huh? Now that’s interesting.
Houdini Heart (one of my efforts) is Holy Crap Fiction. It’s not horror even though it was selected as a candidate for a Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel of the Year. It’s not fantasy although it has fantastical elements. It’s not romantic or a mystery even though… hells bells. It’s all of the above and none of the above. it doesn’t have a pat ending. Anyone who manages to get to the end is stuck deciding for themselves what it is they’ve just read.
Houdini Heart’s reviews range from raves to outright loathing. One fellow wanted it pulped. One girl said it proved anyone could get published considering what total dreck it was. Someone wanted their money back. (Sorry. I spent my cut on a stamp.)
Now all I have to do is get Houdini Heart into the hands of the fellow who wrote this piece, a certain Christopher Beha. Anyone have any ideas?
For more than three months this year I wrote nothing. In the middle of a film script and a new book, I just stopped. It wasn’t writer’s block… not that I’d recognize writer’s block. I’ve never sat down to write and had nothing spill onto the page or the screen. It was health. And on and on it went until one day I awoke without fretting that I would not write that day. I awoke to find myself thinking of other things I might do. I woke without obsession or guilt. And from this, I realized I am NOT what I do. It was a wonderful thought. I am what I am whatever I’m doing and I don’t need to DO something or BE something to be me. I have value solely in my being.
Having spent so many years not knowing that, I suffered. If no one read my books, who was I? If I didn’t write my books, who was I? My answer—until I stopped writing—was no one.
As I’ve already written somewhere, the writer Philip Roth said “real” writers don’t get read. He said entertainers get read. What he meant by “real” was the artist. What he meant by entertainers wasn’t a criticism, simply a fact. He had no problem with those who sold books by the train load. He understood the human desire to be entertained. He understood that entertainers are more than useful, they’re vital. And they like getting paid for it. Who doesn’t? He also meant that the artist is not always an entertainer. (Although some are. There are artists who sell. A wondrous feat.) Artists of all stripes make things that might be difficult. They make things that often cause unease. Artists are truth tellers. Artists open doors. Many people who love to read entertainers don’t like being shown open doors. Fine with me.
I don’t know if I’m an artist. I don’t know if what I write entertains. From certain reviews I’m neither. From other reviews I’m both. But I no longer care. I’m back writing again. But I’m free from the nagging thought that it matters if I do or I don’t. Now I’m just a kid playing with my favorite toy.
I’m not a writer or an artist. I’m Ki. And I make things. That’s all.
I can’t fool myself. Like any writer, I’d like to think at least a few people are reading what I write.
But as a novelist I struggle with a huge disadvantage, one that few writers overcome. I can’t write the same book over and over. I can’t even work in the same genre.
Someone who can write the same book over and over is someone who gets read. Someone who writes in at least the same genre over and over gets read.
But someone who writes what I think is mainstream fiction one day (CHINA BLUES & CHASING WOMEN) , then historical fiction the next (that was one long day: it took seven years to research and compose THE SECRET MAGDALENE and three years to create FLOW DOWN LIKE SILVER, HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA) can’t build a readership.
So then what do I do? Instead of building on the interest of a major publisher when Random House bought my Magdalene and encouraged my Hypatia, I have to go off and write HOUDINI HEART. I didn’t know it was horror as it appeared on my screen each day, fully formed in the mind of its nameless lead character. But apparently it is. The Horror Writers of America certainly saw it that way else why ask me to submit it for a Bram Stoker Award for the Best Horror Novel of 2011? It didn’t win but it came horrifyingly close.
And now what do I do? I’ve been taken over by a would-be noir private detective. He’s named himself Sam Russo. He was dragged up in a Home for Kids Nobody Wants. He lives in Stapleton, a town nobody knows, on Staten Island, a place nobody takes seriously. I was born on Staten Island. I haven’t seen it since. But Sam has.
For Sam, it’s the late 1940s, he’s survived the Second World War fighting on the Pacific Front in the last cavalry unit of the US military. Sam loves horses and horse-racing. He likes reading dime crime paperbacks in his one room four story walk-up. He’s crazy for the movies. Jimmy Cagney. Edward G. Robinson. Bogart! He wants to be Bogie. He wants to solve crimes. He wants to be hard-boiled. He wants to swap wisecracks with great lookin’ dames. He doesn’t want a dog.
I’ve written three Sam Russo cases, now available in all the latest formats books appear in these days. SHADOW ROLL is set at the Saratoga racetrack in Saratoga Springs, New York. Three young jockeys are dead. The town would like ’em to stay that way and get on with their lucrative racing season. Sam wants to solve all three cases like Bogie would. GOOD DOG, BAD DOG takes him and his new-found friend, the one he’s brought back from Saratoga, up and down Broadway: “The Great White Way.” They’re in and out of one hit show after another looking for a giant killer. THE GIRL IN THE NEXT ROOM is all about his neighbor Holly. She has the single room next to his. Holly is a girl. Or maybe he isn’t. Whatever Holly is, Sam and his new friend like her. They like her a lot. So when she disappears off her street corner, they take it seriously, very seriously.
Now I’m writing DEAD ON THE ROCKS. Sam is on a huge first class yacht headed for Florida. And so is his friend. Sam hates water.
You see? As a writer, I’m all over the place. What next? A surreal musical film called THE LAST SHOWBOAT?
I’d ask for professional help, but I love writing. Apparently, I’ll write pretty much anything. Well, maybe not a western. But then, but then… there’s all those pretty horses.
On my facebook fan page, I posted this.
And then I said this: Dear readers, do any of you have an opinion on this? Love to hear it if’n you. I certainly have one. Or three.
My wondering got me this from a good friend, a terrific writer, and a great editor.
“If literary critics had solid standards for a critic’s education, perhaps even certification, he might have a point. But what is “traditional lit crit” except self-appointed experts who found someone to publish their opinion? Now anyone can publish their opinion. He says all opinions are not equally valid, and I agree. Amazingly, most people can manage to distinguish between those that are and those that aren’t, given what they like to read. For instance, I expect that Sir Stothard’s opinion of any particular book of fantasy fiction, were he to even bother to review one, would differ widely from mine. Now I can go online and find lots of opinions on a fantasy book, some of which I will learn to trust as being similar to my own. And this is a problem because…? Silly man.”
To which I could not help but respond:
“Oh, good point! We require certification for almost everything now, things that were once the province of wildcats. Like making movies. Used to be you grabbed a camera, some real cowboys, a pretty girl to tie to some railroad tracks, and you had a movie. The internet has given us wildcats back and in, of all places, the world of books. If you’re good enough, and work hard enough, you can get a successful blog going. Of course, if I know human nature, successful bloggers will find a way to control their new “industry” just as this poor man fights to save his old industry. But for now it’s a free-for-all.
Then there’s your terrific point about what REAL literary critics actually read and write about. Certainly not fantasy or sci fi or horror. Genre fiction has been ignored forever. Actually, they’ve been scorned. I will admit I do try and read what wins the Booker Prize or the National Book Award each year, but almost always set it aside for something much more interesting. Like a good book.”
And now here, I ask: any thoughts?
A writer, if they’re lucky, doesn’t know what time it is. A writer, if they’re lucky, doesn’t know which day of the week it is. Hours, days, weeks, months, are nothing more than Now… and Now is anytime. It’s any place the work is.
As Mary Magdalene, I studied in the Great Library of Alexandria. And when I was done filling my head with the knowledge of the world, I walked the land of what Rome called Palestine with Jesus. I was his teacher. I was his Beloved Companion. And we talked to all who would listen as I worked for seven years on The Secret Magdalene.
I was born during the last part of the fourth century to Alexandria’s leading mathematician breathing the air of of Rome’s Egypt as Hypatia . In my time, I was exalted beyond all women and most men, and then, still young, still fair, still revered by thousands, I was cruelly brought down by a few in a way hard to comprehend. And when that was done, the world tried to forget me.
I was pampered and rich, white and foolish in the city of San Francisco. It was the Roaring Twenties and I fell in love with a man forbidden to me, a man I destroyed in China Blues.
I was a writer, a woman who destroyed herself in a small town in a sweet slice of green called Vermont… or perhaps I recreated myself? Running from what I had done, I found a haunted hotel to die in. Or to live in forever. As I wrote Houdini Heart, I did not plan or plot or scheme. The work simply came with barely a change of word when it was finished. I don’t know if my hotel was haunted. I don’t know if everything is haunted, but I suspect it is.
Over my own years, the years I live as Ki, these things come to me. They are almost easy now. But only because I prepared for their coming. I learned how to write by reading. I learned how to write by writing. I took no course. I followed no rules but those that seemed mine. They were never mine. Story telling is ancient and all who listen know when a story is right and when it is wrong. They did not get taught this. Humans are born to tell stories or to hear them.
If the life you live seems pale to you, uneventful, unimportant, all that can change with a word. Even better, with thousands of words. Read them or write them. Better, do both. And you too will forget what time it is and your life will seemingly last forever.
All my life, like so many of you, I wanted to be a writer. A writer of novels, those loose jointed free wheeling tales of… ah, there was my problem. I believed I had no tales to tell. I was under no illusion that the story of my life would interest anyone. (How wrong I turned out to be… and one day I will write, not all, but choice selections from it, and I will call the book The Last Showboat. At this very moment, this story becomes a film, but I digress. I am a first rate digresser.) I also suffered the idea that I lacked imagination. I did not have stories telling themselves in my head. I did not sit in open air cafes with a leather-bound notebook and look arty as I scribbled away with an unusual pen. In fact, an idea never entered my head until I faced the empty page on a typewriter and then I began to type. I forced myself to type. Anything. Everything. And out came stories. Stories I had no idea were there.
So to publish my first novel, to have it accepted by a real publisher, was astounding.
My first book was called China Blues. A confession. At the time, I was thrilled to be in print but rather hesitant about the book’s merit. Besides English via Harper Collins in England and Doubleday in the U.S., it went into eight other languages and I still felt slightly uncomfortable about it.
Years passed, a whole slew of them, and my little publishing house Eio Books insisted on reissuing it. To reissue meant I had to read it again. I went unwilling into those pages. What a complete turnaround. All these years and all these varied books later, I’ve reread it as if I had never read it before. And my hesitancy vanished. So much so, I felt I would write about it here since it’s so much as if I were reading the work of someone else. We forget what we’ve said and how we’ve said it. Our perceptions change. Our tastes. Our experiences. And with all that, I found it a wonderful read, full of color and pace and character. I wrote it, and yet I wanted to know what happened. It made me laugh again. It worried me. I cared about the people trapped on those pages, people who could only live again if someone read the words written about them. And the story made me cry. Eventually, as it did the first time round, it broke my heart.
Turns out it’s also topical. The dangerous (even now) mingling of races, in this case a lily white woman of privilege and a Chinese man of true grit, all set against the background of San Francisco in the 1920s.
It was optioned in Hollywood by the famous production team of Zanuck and Brown. It was expected to go places. But like all stories, it suffered a twist in its own tail that shunted it off its high rolling track onto a spur. It’s waited all these years to be read again. The people at Eio Books believe that. Now I believe it too.
When it was first offered by my agents for sale, it went into auction… meaning more than one publisher wanted it. I’ll never forget what one editor said. She said it was a modern day EMMA. And it is. I find myself quite proud of it, so proud I hope it finds a new audience in this new world.
Here’s another chance for Lizzie and Li and Kit and Fearless O’Flooty. Show ’em what you’re made of, my lovelies.
Publisher’s weekly said: “”Offbeat, unruly characters and vibrant atmosphere spill over the pages of this promising first novel set in San Francisco during Prohibition… Bootlegging, the Tong Wars, smoky speakeasies, inept mobsters, and the Teapot Dome scandal zigzag through these pages like streaks of lightning. The Jazz Era leaps to life.”
I didn’t believe it then, but I believe it now.
Writers and artists have often stood up for social and political beliefs. They’ve been silenced for it, sent to Stalin’s Siberia or Hitler’s concentration camps for it, stood up against walls. Hell only knows exactly what the Chinese or Koreans or Muslim terrorists do. But it’s bad. I’m not that kind of writer. I love what artists make, I care deeply about our planet and all lifeforms on it that are essentially innocent of its destruction, namely very young children, all animals, most women. In the historical novel form I write about what I know is the answer to human fear and greed and the insanity that grows from these like tumors. In The Secret Magdalene and in Flow Down like Silver I write in the hope I am able to give people that answer: awakening. Not to set aside the ego. The ego is a necessary tool to live in the world. But we have exalted the ego high above the spirit. And the ego is afraid and it works not for the good of all, but for its own perceived safety and gain.
I become more and more political now. As a species we have been destructive in so many ways for so long. The Earth could, until recently, accommodate our selfish wasteful violence. But we are fast reaching a time when it can’t accommodate us. The Earth has known almost the complete eradication of life at least 6 times. Over billions of years, it blooms again. This time, the eradication of life will take us with it: the pollution of the environment, the death of the sea, the extinction of every sort of other living form but ours, Monsanto’s evil design on owning genetically altered seeds, outlawing the use of natural seeds, and poisoning the land with pesticides, Big Oil’s hideously irresponsible dirty oil pipeline across Canada and the US. These terrible things will not take the Earth. As ever, the Earth will survive. But we won’t. Short term greed and fear and the insane need for power will take us down as a species. So I become political… something I thought I would never again do after watching the calculating media’s (spurred on behind the scenes) destruction of the brilliant and caring Howard Dean as a presidential candidate. I sign almost every petition sent me by Moveon.org or Dean’s “Democracy for America.” Does it do any good? Yes, it does. Loss of votes means loss of power. Those who have or seek power care about this.
But there is really only one true answer to all this madness. For every soul on Earth to know its source, to KNOW it is divine. Well, perhaps not all, but for enough to wake up in love and grace and understanding that ALL is One. “Enough” means millions.
What we do to what we see as “others,” we do to ourselves. And others do not include only what we call human, it means ALL others: plants, other species, the Earth itself.
If only millions could awake NOW to what we truly are and to what those still asleep are doing. Pipe dream? Perhaps.
But then I am an artist, and artists are prone to Pipe Dreams.
Is there a high school, a college, an online “university” that does not offer a course in creative writing? Perhaps, but if you want to be a writer, you’re not going there. Courses in “creative” writing light a candle in your mind. You believe, you hope, someone can teach you to write. In some ways, they can. Sort of. They offer the tools of grammar. They speak of style and “voice” and symbols. They introduce you to those who’ve written and gotten noticed for their efforts. They evaluate and compare them. (A hopeless task to me, a disservice to the work, but that’s me. As all people are different in their similarities, so too are all writers. As an example taken only from myself… how do I compare Flow Down Like Silver, an historical novel about Hypatia of Alexandria, with Houdini Heart. Houdini Heart is magical realism, it’s horror. How do these compare?) They provide you with a platform to share your work. You listen to the work of others.
When you accept your degree, are you now a writer?
I’ve often been asked how to write. I have no answer but this: “Sit down and write.” Oh, I almost forgot. “Read what you consider the best. Emulate them. Do this long enough and there will come a day when you’ll find yourself writing in words coming from somewhere inside YOU.”
Albert Huffstickler, a Texan and a poet, once said, “My identity comes and goes. That part of me that doesn’t know who it is is where the writing comes from. Over that part of me, I have pasted a thin veneer called, The Poet. It is not what I am. It is what I do. I use words to describe what is going on in that part of me that doesn’t know who it is. That part is sometimes a cauldron and sometimes a very still place, like a deep lake and sometimes it is more like a wind. It is what I am before I was and what I will be when I am no longer. Left alone, I live with the truth that I don’t know who I am or what I am until the next thing appears to be written. I don’t know how to change this. If I could make that part of me that is constantly in flux into something measured and identifiable, then I would no longer write. I write out of the not-knowing-who-I-am. This is what I am. I am that-which-does-not-know-what-it-is. I am process. I am poetry.”
And that, profoundly and beautifully expressed, is the essence of writing. Or painting. Or music. Or or or. It’s what an artist IS. Their work. And it can’t be taught.
Sit down and write. It’s as simple as that. You don’t know who you are any more than Albert did. Or I do. No one does. Be process. Explore yourself.
Houdini Heart as a title came to me long before I knew what I would do with it. But when I knew, I knew. Unlike anything I’ve ever written, Houdini Heart poured out as hot water from a secret faucet. It ran with heat. I did not know I was writing horror. I was only slightly aware I might be writing magical realism. I damn well knew I was writing to cleanse my blood.
It worked. None of us will ever be done suffering. Suffering is a keystone of life. But some of us one day look our suffering square in the eye. Perhaps not for long, and perhaps not deeply enough to set it aside (do we ever set it aside?), but in my case long enough and deep enough to write Houdini Heart. I am that unnamed woman, or I could be. I suffer because I believe I am not good enough, not wise enough, not clever enough, not even lucky enough, to be a true artist, a real artist. Few artists escape this nonsense. It feeds us. We thrive on it. Sometimes it kills us. Literally. But it keeps us writing. It’s the spine of Houdini Heart. As for its heart, ah, that’s another tale.
Yesterday I learned that Houdini Heart had made the preliminary ballot in the Novel Category for the Horror Association’s Bram Stoker Award. I take this seriously. I take it open-heartedly. This is an honor I’ve now spent over 24 hours absorbing. It still runs along my nerves like the jolt of touching a live wire.
To be read by anyone is honor enough, but to recognized by one’s profession…I still reel.