Friday, July 26, 2013

The Thinker

26th July 2013

Last week I sent the final copy-edit for my book Veil of Time back to my editor at S&S, and this week I got to review what will go in a section at the back of the book created for book clubs. It includes a summary of the book followed by questions to think about, like Do you believe Maggie is just having vivid dreams of the 8th century or is there more to this?  Discuss Maggie's role as a mother. Discuss Maggie's relationship with her neighbour Jim Galvin. Do you think Maggie herself might be a witch? It was odd picturing people discussing my book at all. For so long it has been something with a life only in my computer or my agent's or editor's.
The funnest part of this task was answering a Q&A, in which I was able to lay out my agenda for the book,  its background, my hopes and fears. I hear authors say time and again how it is all up to the reader what he or she makes of their book. Well, I don't agree. If you look at Rodin's Thinker, it is not possible that he is pondering a good pick-up line for the Venus De Milo ("Have no fear, I am perfectly 'armless.") No. Rodin made him that way to show that he is thinking about the deep dark questions. He is probably musing on the vastness of the universe or how to construe time to encorporate all of experience not just the linear logical aspect. He's probably wondering about man's inhumanity to man, and how the evolution of man fits into any scheme at all. The Thinker is not open to much latitude in terms of interpretation. Likewise, the Mona Lisa is not supposed in a moment of prescience, to be thinking, "One day Dan Brown will reveal all." Moby Dick, no matter how you turn it,  is not about the divine secrets of the ya-ya sisterhood.
My book is written with certain values behind it, with a schemata that has to do with my place in the world as an author. If someone says to me, "Well, the way I read it your book is an allegory for the rise and fall of white supremacy," (actually, come to think of it....), or, say, "The Veil of Time is a book about the evils of the Dark Ages," I am going to say, "You've missed the point, my dear," because there is a point, and in my Q&A at the back of the book I take pains to make sure that is clear. "You vill read zis book as I intended or you vill answer to me!"
One of the questions I had to answer was on the nature of time, and so I was able to say that this isn't really a book about time travel in the sense that HG Wells' "The Time Machine," was. No one is climbing into a contraption with bells and whistles and a whirly thing overhead. Maggie is simply making a time shift. According to quantum mechanics, the possibility of moving around in time cannot be ruled out. Stephen Hawking tried and couldn't. The linear model of time doesn't work anymore, and no physicist thinks it does. So, as far as time travel books go, we are in a different era.
In another question, they asked me where history ends in my creation of this story and imagination begins. I was able to say that the distinction is not so clear. As my protagonist says in the book, "History is a selective bastard." They don't call it his-story for no reason.
"Are you working on any new novels, a sequel perhaps?" was the final question. This was a good opportunity to put the word out that there will be a sequel (unless my publisher hates it.) I even gave the title. Druid Hill. I am close to finishing it, and will do so once I get the screenplay of "Veil of Time" up to scratch. I was watching the movie of The DaVinci Code this week, and it made me realise how much I don't want someone else turning my book into a film. So I am imagining actors for the roles and re-writing the script. Just in case. I wouldn't hand it over to just anyone, even for good money. But there are a few directors out there who understand the value of the writer.
I have to get the summer out of the way, too. Summer is very distracting, too hazy for proper thinking, too sleepless, too full of plans and gardens and dogs that pay no heed to this human occupation of pen pushing. They have it right.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Best Butter

19th July 2013

Time passes.
This week I received the final copy edit from my publisher and some instructions in computer-ese about how to work the programme I would have to use to leave my own comments. The first thing I do when  I encounter phrases such as, "make sure your tracking function is on," "create a comment balloon," or push the  "stet" button for anything you want to keep, is I panic. It's the same kind of panic that used to happen in high school maths class when Mr. Logie was striding up and down the aisles telling us if we messed our graph paper up we would be in big trouble because graph paper is expensive. This was the same maths teacher I handed over my hard-earned money to for a non-slip compass, because he was selling them and I badly needed to butter him up. My efforts to win him over couldn't work, however, because my brain froze whenever I came within ten feet of a maths problem. Likewise any computer speak. But I did finally figure out the instructions and did make the necessary changes to the copy-edit. These people (copy-editors) have an eagle eye and catch all kinds of spelling inconsistencies, and actually go to the trouble of looking up dates I refer to in the text (and I did get one wrong.) There were a couple of minor things they didn't catch, and that would be the kind of thing that makes it into print and has readers shaking their heads and saying, "How is it possible for a book from a reputable publisher to have typos?" This is why - two people have gone through this final cut, and then so have I, but I can imagine there lurks somewhere among the pages one of my spectacular spelling mistakes (like "finally wrought," instead of "finely wrought" - caught that one!) I realised I had a spelling problem when I wrote a paper once at university on "The Critique of Pure Reason," by Immanuel Can't. It must have something to do with being bad at maths, a lack of being able to see things precisely.
Along with a famous writer's festival each summer in Aspen, there is also a two-month long music festival. This morning I was listening to "Bruch's Violin Concerto," and thinking (afterwards) about the difference between being moved by music as opposed to a piece of literature. My conclusion is that it is a question of the degree to which the brain engages. The spectrum of human creativity, with science and maths at one end and music at the other, stretches along the line of intellect. I think it was Wallace Stevens who said, "A poem should almost successfully escape the intellect."  In that regard, music should entirely miss it. Not that it has no inherent order, it's just that it makes no appeal to the intellect (except for modern music which has lost this vision and asks to ponder itself.)
I am currently reading Marilynn Robinson's 1980 book, "Housekeeping." It's an odd book, because the narrator is barely fleshed-out at all, and consequently it is a strangely disembodied experience moving through Robinson's story. That said, there are some astounding sentences and series of sentences in this book. I'd argue, though, that too often, you feel as though you are grappling with Marilynn Robinson's brain rather than the heft of the images themselves. She's a good writer, though not as good as her famous pupil, Paul Harding (whom I promised I wasn't going to mention again - perhaps he has to fade gradually from the picture like a water colour kept too long in the sun.)
Back to this idea of music as the apotheosis of human creativity - perhaps this is why I envy musicians and if I could have a parallel career it would be as the conductor of a Philharmonic Something-or-other. Of course, then I'd be obliged on occasion to conduct the music of some composer I hate, like Benjamin Britten (the celebrated composer of this year's Aspen Music Festival!) I once had to sit through Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and it was an experience akin to William Wallace's being strapped down and having his intestines ripped out by a larger-than-life hook (at least, in the movie.)
So, perhaps I should stick to words, my own words, and leave conducting music to those with more eclectic tastes.
My book "Veil of Time," is now available for pre-order at Amazon US or UK. A published writer friend of mine claims that this is the nice quiet before the storm of reviewers hits. But let them at me! I have endured worse, not William Wallace's fate, but Mr. Logie's maths class!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Easy Date

12th July 2013

Here it is!  This week I received my choice of one book cover from the art department of my publisher. My first reaction was, "Here we go, another half-clad girl selling something." But the more I looked, the more I was drawn in. As you can see, a sort of "Wuthering Heights" scene is drawn across the girl's back. It's a generic landscape - I'm not sure if it is Scotland, though the cottage certainly suggests it. But it is meant to evoke a contrast  - it suggests there is more to the young woman, a underlying longing for the real wild and not the kitsch wild portrayed in the rest of the picture.
One choice. They took a gamble, and it paid off. It didn't take me long to come round to this cover. My friend said, "Oh, you're such an easy date!" I guess I am, and I never thought this part of the process would be so easy.  I certainly never thought I would accept a cover with a half-dressed woman on it. I sent it out to all and sundry, and the overwhelming response was that it was both beautiful and intriguing. My editor, Abby, tells me she can't say how many people in her office have stopped by her desk to take a closer look. My agent "really, really," likes it (and he was the one ready to draw swords unless the publisher came up with something spectacular!)
After living with it for a few days, I feel oddly attached to it  and have been savagely defending it against the few who think it is just downright creepy, or a little too salacious. Let it be known that an edition of "Lady Chatterly's Lover," bore a woman in a similar position, so I am in good company!
On another note, the girl in the picture looks so like my daughter, people have been asking if it is her. It isn't, but isn't it neat how the universe works in these kind of circles?
We're still months away from publication, but my editor tells me that I will receive a final copy edit next week, and then in the middle of August I should see some gallies.
By googling "Claire McDougall author," I was transported to the Simon and Schuster author page (I couldn't find myself by actually gong to their site and sorting through their hundreds of authors.) I found out that the actual publication date is March 11th 2014, that there are 416 pages in the edition, and that it will sell for $18.99 a copy (or $13.99 for an e-copy.) There is also an interview on that page, some of the answers of which I wish I could go back and change, but it is probably too late.
A person can find out all sorts of things about themselves on line. Paul Harding found out he had won the Pulitzer Prize there. John Steinbeck found out he had won the Nobel Prize by catching it on the morning news.
Well, this is neither the Pulitzer nor the Nobel prize, but it's a start!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Now you see me...

5th July 2013

One last harp on my class with Paul Harding a couple of weeks ago and then I'll let him go: I had a question I was bursting to ask him or any other significant writer which had to do with how much the author inhabits his or her characters.  See, when I started my book (the one that's about to come out any minute now in nine months) my intention was to have a protagonist who wasn't sort of a mirror doppleganger of myself. It's not that I'm an especial egoist or overly vain (though I might also be both of those things), but just that somehow my protagonists mostly are me with my set of values and ideas, my cosmology. I decided to call this new  character Maggie Livingstone, who was a childhood friend of mine (still is, in fact, and lives now in the exact location of my book.)
I wasn't going to make my protagonist a copy of the real Maggie Livingstone who is a veterinarian and sort of a no-nonsense type of person, but I thought if I gave her that name, she wouldn't end up spouting my religious beliefs and my longings and my moral values. In the event, I managed to keep that up only for a short while, and the more my character moved through the scenes and the book came to take shape, there I was again in the middle of the action, merely masquerading as my friend.
So, my question to Paul Harding was just this: how can you keep yourself out of your writing and create rounded characters who aren't you? (I put this to him when the rest of the class had gone on coffee break and I had him to myself.) I was a little bit surprised by his answer, because I (being an egoist and thoroughly vain) had thought this was a problem unique to myself. But no, he said he had struggled with the same thing and that every author did. He said from time to time he wondered that if he were a better writer, he might be able to write protagonists that weren't himself, but ultimately the author is putting his or her self on the page and that's the way it should be. (I'm not talking about genre writing here. Formula novels don't run into this problem so much because the characters are more cookie cut out of material that is already made to a certain recipe.)
I was looking this week at Elizabeth Strout's new book "The Burgess Boys," her follow-up to Pulitzer prize winning "Olive Kitteridge." I wasn't surprised to find another Olive Kitteridge between the pages doing business under another name. Location was the same, character almost the same. It's just that our psyches are populated by certain characters or archetypes and the author would have to twist him or herself into all kinds of contortions to make this inner world come out on the page as something else.
So Herman Hesse wrote a large number of books and basically they all come with the same message, the same set of values and the same array of characters. (I read them all nevertheless.) DH Lawrence, the favourite of my youth, wrote the same book over and over. The point is, in the words of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, "Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir." (the famous, "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.")
So I got my question answered, and I feel better about Maggie Livingstone turned Claire McDougall (though Maggie may not!) Paul Harding said that the opening of "Tinkers," where his protagonist hallucinates that the ceiling is cracking and falling in on him springs right out of his own history with  his grandfather.
He also said this (and then I am done), which is on a different track but something that has stuck with me: the best part of the process of writing is after the author has lain down the first draft and then is going back over it and by dint of a very small adjustment here or there in a sentence or paragraph, a whole new level of meaning unfolds itself. He said that you can almost hear the tumblers of the lock all aligning and the door swinging open. So true, so true, and what the author lives for, these moments of epiphany that come at him from somewhere else. Let's say, beyond the door.
Or you could think of it as carving marble. In the first draft a form takes shape, and then as you go back to it, the shape refines. A face emerges and it is the figure of a man. A small movement of the chisel here or there, and then it all falls into place - all along what you were carving was not a bust of John Calvin after all but of Nietzsche. Pace Paul Harding.