Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Different Country

29th March 2013

Attentive members of my reading audience will notice that this blog is actually being written in the future, and with the theme of my writing these days being the wobbly nature of time, this is entirely apt. I don't know how I ever got onto this theme of time, but here I am in the middle of writing a series on it. All my other books (and there have been many - check out my website: have been quite normal with no mind-bending whatsoever. I won't count the explosion of mental patients into the streets of a small west-coast Scotland town as anything but par for the course. This is west coast Scotland, after all. This is the place where all manner of strange readings on reality are commonplace and expected. Between the minds of the inhabitants and the course of the stars reality is made and cemented and never forgotten. That's where I come from, and no wonder I ended up writing fairy stories. It worked for Kenneth Graham (one town over) and his tales of the riverbank.
The reason I am writing in the present under the guise of a future date is that I won't be here in The Rocky Mountains at the projected date being weakly grateful for another snowfall to boost our waning water supply. I will be in New York City being weakly grateful for the kindness of strangers.
All sorts of authors have made their home in New York City, from Arthur Miller to Salinger to Steinbeck (hard to figure, that one) to Edgar Allen Poe. Apparently Poe wrote The Raven on 85th West 3rd Street. I don't suppose there were police cars wailing outside his window, or the rapid fire of automatic weapons in the back alley in those times, but it's hard to look at the apartment block where he lived and think of anything less edgy than Allen Ginsberg or Truman Capote.
When I was a teenager, Kahil Gibran's "The Prophet," was a book I would foist upon people for their birthday or just for the mission of enlightening my friends and relations. I once gave it to the wife of an evangelical minister and long-time acquaintance only to be guilessly surprised that they promptly removed themselves from me - forever. And all because this author thought to think grand thoughts in the deserts of Arabia and enscribed them word by word in the sand. Or did he? No, Kahil Gibran wrote "The Prophet," on West 10th St. in NYC. 
Steinbeck wrote The Winter of Our Discontent, on East 72nd Street, and I can see that. Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye on 57th St. Makes sense. But Dylan Thomas, he of Milkwood and A Child's Christmas in Wales liked to stay on West 23rd St. and died (after one too many whiskies - 18 to be precise) on West 12th St.
I suppose the streets and avenues of New York have a poetry of their own. I suppose plopping oneself down in the midst of the heaving masses inspires a certain poetic je ne sais quoi. Or in German, Ich weiss nicht was (doesn't quite have the same ring.)
It's just that I don't know what that might be, because three days in New York is quite enough for me. As writers and composers, I suppose we all have to find our point of stillness, that Amadeus moment of rolling the billiard balls. For some it must happen in the middle of city chaos. For me, it happens best under low fast-moving skies, on a barnacled boulder buffeted by the sea, on the hill with nothing but nothing rolling back as far as you can see. For me it is the absence of humankind, or what Mark Twain referred to as that "noisome bacillus." I believe he penned that in Greenwich Village on West 10th Street. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Round and Round the Mulberry Bush

22nd March 2013

The CEO at Simon&Shuster sent me a letter this week. Well, not just to me but to all of their authors. For a fast-heartbeat moment, I thought this was the declaration of their bankrupcy or their decision to cut themselves free fom all upcoming (and patiently waiting) authors.
But no, the letter was about piracy, and not the high seas type. They say not to worry; they say they are on top of the problem (truth be told, I didn't know there was one) and they have hired a Digimarc company (as though I know what that is!) to filter through untold numbers of sites looking for illegal copies of our books.  Right now, at my stage in the publication process, anyone wanting to read my book, be they illegal or otherwise, would seem like an attractive prospect. Thank goodness there's enough interest in stories for people to want to steal them. This was going to be the topic of this week's blog, but it ranks up there with drafts of other people's poetry in terms of holding one's interest. (I didn't read the whole letter, just skimmed.)

People with blogs are able to spot where their hits are coming from, and this week in an unprecedented turn of events, I received thirty hits from Latvia! Last week's blog was about Irish poet WB Yeats, so maybe they have the good sense to appreciate good poetry over there in Latvia. Petition your booksellers to buy my book, Latvians, and I might be coming to a book shop near you!

For those of you following my work on the sequel to the novel that has yet to be published (March 1st - put it on your calendar) I am on page 155.  I am taking a long time over this one, just because March 1st is an eon away and I have a long time. What I am doing with this book much more than I usually do is keep going over what I have written and filling in the cracks. My normal method is to churn out a book fast in one sweep and then go back over the whole thing. I hope this story has all the required phases of build up, climax and denoument (funny how this sexual metaphor permeates much of art) - if it does, then it will be a miracle because I am just trundling along like a person in a wood with a flashlight (not sexy at all), seeing what takes my fancy.

I have been reading books on time, and there is a lot out there about time as illusion, which all works in my favour, because only if time is rigidly linear do I have a hard sell with my time travel book. However, I am making the decision right now not to refer to it as time travel, as this evokes the idea of someone climbing into a time machine with whirring wings and dings and shooting off through some vortice or other in fin de siecle clothing. I want to refer to what happens to the protagonist in my book, Maggie, as "Time shift." It's not like she is going anywhere; she is just slipping into another reality. If the thinkers thinking great thoughts on this subject these days are right, then all possible realities are present in every Now in a dimension that sort of runs perpendicular to this series of nows. Enough on that. But let it be noted now that I only started reading this stuff half-way into my second book in the series. I think there might be three in the series, because I have some pretty wild ideas for a third book.
But it's all just a juggling act, keeping the reader interested, going back and making sure the saucers are still spinning on the tops of the sticks. 

Sunny skies over The Rocky Mountains and their foot of new snow, while I sit and muse on the threat of piracy, while Latvians are watching the sun go down, and many a book is secreted off the internet into dark closets and read by candlelight.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saint William Butler

16th March 2013

My agent got a thumbs up this week (well, maybe not that enthusiastic - he got a green light) for a little compensation to me from the publisher for my publishing date being set back. He asked them to provide me with postcards to promote the book, presumably sporting the book cover (which hasn't been chosen yet) and the date of publication, which as we all know is now March 1st. Curses.  The good thing about this is that, once they put the date on the postcards, they won't be able to move it around any more.
The other good thing is I get to choose the book cover before too long. I used to think an author got to come up with a book cover, but I have been told by the powers on high that it is the art department, which would take offense at my suggestions, as though it were a vote of no confidence. I hope they give me some good options - no studs in kilts and women in high heels. This is a particular bugbear for my agent, so I am hoping he exerts a little pressure here. He's quite good at that.
Tomorrow is Saint Patrick's Day, a holiday I didn't even know existed utill I moved to the US. How many people in Scotland are going to celebrate Saint Patrick? But there is a lot to be said for the Emerald Isle. Its history is similar to Scotland's, in that it was (and in Scotland's case, still is) a victim of English imperialism. Ireland, however, managed to preserve more of its mythology and its connection with its ancient past than did Scotland. Ireland also managed to slough off English propoganda earlier, and have a populace that actually believed in its ability to be its own soverign self. In Scotland, the brainwashing has had a more lasting effect, perhaps because the hammering has been more persistent.
Anyway, not to wax lyrical on the subject of Scottish Independence (though I would be happy to) let's remind ourselves that Ireland has produced an uncanny number of great writers. I am currently reading a very nicely written book about Ireland, its geography and mythology called "The Red Haired Girl From The Bog," which reminds us how far removed we are from the mythos, how great the migration that has taken place in our sensibilities from our hearts to our heads in this post-enlightenment age.
There is James Joyce, for one. Seamus Heaney, for another. Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw. Edna O'Brien. Frank McCourt. And then there is William Butler Yeats, whose poetry is more than an arrangement of mere words. It is an ocean into which you fall and are subsumed again into the mythic consciousness of the race.
Try this: And aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress.
And this (and then I'll stop) - my most favouritist poem, not just of his but in all of the English language:

I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head
Cut and peeled a hazel wand
And hooked a berry to a thread
And when white moths were on the wing
And moth-like stars were flickering out
I hooked a berry to a string
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
And gone to blow the fire aflame
Something rustled on the floor
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And vanished in the brightening air.

Though  I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
I will find out where she has gone
And taste her lips
And take her hands
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck 'till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon
The golden apples of the sun.

I have that off by heart, because that's where it belongs - in the heart. It's called, "The Song Of Wandering Aengus." Thank you, William Butler. The poor man spent most of his adult life in pursuit of Maude Gonne, a handsome tall woman who has a history in her own right, being a leader in the Irish movement. She never gave in to him, though. Was she crazy?
Anyway, a great tradition in Irish literature, because they never lost their story-telling. Somehow the church didn't manage (though it tried) to stem a great literary imagination.
In Scotland, we had John Knox who, heir to John Calvin, was good at stamping things out (except his desire for young girls - he married one at the age of 58. Ah, the sexual intrigue of the church!) We had the witch burnings, and we had a lot of cowering, especially on the part of Scottish women. Creativity is the first thing to go when you put a people in a box, when you tell them to be something they are not.
Still, Scotland has had its share of writers. Robert Burns, for one (a man who resisted all boxes.) We have a great writer in Lewis Grassic Gibbon - Sunset Song, one of my favourite books. We have Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. We have JK Rowling, who isn't really Scottish, though she penned her first Harry Potter words in a small cafe on George the Fourth Bridge in Edinburgh (a fact advertised these days in the cafe window!)
Outside my window the clouds are uncharacteristically low over Colorado, the wind unusually swift and moiling. It reminds me of a morning in Scotland.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Best Sellers

9th March, 2013

"A Best Seller was a book which somehow sold well simply because it was selling well." S. Boorstein.

This quote resonates enough that it must tell at least part of the story. Consider the books that have made this list during their day and then fallen quickly into obscurity (I happen to like John Fowles, "The French Lieutenant's Woman," on the list in 1970, but you never hear anything of it these days.) You have to hope that there's more to it than that. Something in us wants to believe that the cream rises to the top.

So, let's look at the ten best selling works of fiction of all time:

(1) A Tale of Two Cities," by Charles Dickens.  That's not too surprising, but I'd have guessed A Christmas Carol would have outsold it.
(2) The Little Prince.   Big surprise. It's a nice story and everything, but who would have thought it would have that wide world and enduring appeal?
(3) The Lord of The Rings.  I would have expected to find Tolkein here, though I could never get into those books myself.
(4) The Hobbit.  Ditto.
(5) The Dream of the Red Chamber.   It was written in the 18thC, and I really ought to read it, now that  have heard of it.
(6) And Then There Were None." Agatha Christie. I have never read anything by Christie, but they must be good!
(7) The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  CS Lewis.  I loved this as a child, but it's a children's book, isn't it?
(8) She by Henry Rider Haggard.   Another book I haven't heard of.
(9) The DaVinci Code.  I read this one, but as literature it barely squeaks by.
(10) The Catcher in The Rye." Well, it's somethingof a classic and perhaps the reason John Lennon is dead. It was given to us to read in High School in rural Scotland, and my guess is I wasn't the only one who couldn't make heads or tails of it.

It is widely accepted that the best seller list connotes neither academic value nor literary worth, so what's it there for? What does it mean in the long run that a certain book, say any of the three romance books that are currently on the best seller list, sold this or that number wihtin this certain period? Perhaps S. Boorstein is right after all. 
A sobering thought is that 500,000 books are published a year and over 98% of those will sell under 500 copies. The Harry Potter series has sold 450 million copies, and The Berenstain Bears 260 million. The figures dance and swirl in a kind of nightmarish field of possibility. The Bridges of Madison County, a phenomenally badly written book, sold twelve million, and Goodnight Moon 16 million. The Malleus Maleficarum, a manual for hunting and executing witches, was a best seller in its seventeenth century day, even outselling the Bible. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows sold 44 million, just above "Jonathon Livingston Seagull."
The more I go on, the more I suspect Boorstein is right and being on the Best Seller List doesn't mean much except for the ch-ching of pennies dropping into your bank account. But, come to think of it, a person could fall asleep listening to the sound. The New York Times Best Seller List is like the Oscars - you really don't want to watch it, but you end up in front of the TV from  the moment the stars hit the runway. Flim flam, all. Yet something there is in us that loves it.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

They Bleed

2nd March 2013

I ran into a writer friend of mine in the grocery store shortly after he had published his fourth novel with a major publisher - he was congratulating me on my upcoming book (at the time it was more upcoming than it currently is...) and he commented, "Now you'll have to face the reviewers."
Issac Asimov once said, "From my close observation of writers...they fall into two groups: those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly." 
Unless you fall into the artisitic calibre of Mozart ("I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my feelings,") you are going to bleed. I have been doing my homework, so here's another quote I like about reviews: "Bad reviews are the tools of the dark side." (Eric Benoit)
When I am going to buy a book from Amazon, I invariably look at the graph they provide which shows how many five star reviews, how many four, three, two and one star reviews a book has garnered. I looked up my four published writer friends, and their graphs all look about the same: mostly you get five star, then the numbers decrease with each rating. (I like to read the one star reviews because they can get quite nasty.) But this pattern goes for almost any book you can think of.
I looked up the following cross-section of titles: Little Women, Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, All the Pretty Horses, Uncle Tom's Cabin. To the great credit of American readers, only 50 Shades of Grey gained more one star than five star reviews. Otherwise, the story was the same.
For authors who have almost only five star reviews, you have to turn to Dickens and Shakespeare (though I was curious at the two "one star" entries against Romeo and Juliet and found what were probably the words of exasperated high schoolers - one said the play "sucks," the other merely penned, "I hate it.")
Amazon recently cleared its books of all five star ratings that had come from an automated source, but that can't stop every author's friend and relation swelling the figures a little. I know I'll get every friend of mine to endorse my book. Even some that don't know they're my friends yet.
But I figure there's a limit to how many people an author knows, and the book won't sink or swim because of these kind of reviews. If you have ten reviews and they all say the book is a smashing read and they couldn't put it down, it's a fair bet the author knows the reviewers. I have yet to read a book I couldn't put down, and I have read some books that, as Emily Dickinson said, lifted the top of my head off. If it's that good, I want to savour it, and I put it down a lot. I just don't lose sight of it.
So, blood or no blood, there is still a lot riding on a first novel. As my agent says, it's better to have no novel published than one that sank like the Titanic.
I think I had better get out the bandages...