Friday, August 30, 2013

Requiem for Seamus Heaney

30th August, 2013

Sheamus Heaney died today.  He has been variously called "the most important Irish poet since Yeats," and the "greatest poet of our age." He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, an unusual honour for a poet. Not long before that I won a half-scholarship to study with him for a summer in Northern Ireland, but I was young and couldn't muster the other half, and so the opportunity fell away "like a tinsmith's scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal bin."
Heaney talked about "the physicality of words," and like any good poet, his poetry was more than a vehicle for ideas. The images are graphic and dig hard to get under your skin. "All poems," he said, "are born out of infancy." The Latin root infans means unspeaking. "All good poems have been gathered in silence," he said. He is a writer of the land because he is carved and sliced by it - there is no getting away. He wrote about the bog man, and he was the bog man, setting himself layer by layer into a tradition of which perhaps Yeats is the best example, where the imagery is visceral and there is no escaping its traction. It's a dying breed and it died a little more today.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain, says William Carlos Williams. But I say, so much depends upon "the scone rising to the tick of two clocks."
I love that when Heaney read his poetry it was as one who simply speaks, and there were no airs, no pretentious cadences to his speech. I appreciate that Seamus Heaney spoke out for his country, as I do for mine. He wrote about the Irish Catholic soldiers who were shot down on Vinegar Hill fighting for their land against the English, and his words became a kind of fight and a judgement more searing than was ever handed down by a jury: "The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave/ They buried us without shroud or coffin/ And in August...the barley grew up out of our grave."
It is August again and an unlikely poet, the oldest of nine children raised in poor kitchens by a mother dusted in flour, will be returned to the land his rhythms and rhymes taught us to love.  May the soil of Ireland claim him and dissolve him and grind him into dust for another generation of poets. May the barley grow tall above his head. May he forever walk in fields of gold.

Seamus Heaney -- 1939-2013

Friday, August 23, 2013


23rd August 2013

I don't know what it is about dreams that draws you back in. Just when you are in that twilight zone between dreaming and waking, especially if you have dozed back off to sleep in the early morning, it seems that the dream world is where you belong and waking isn't really desirable at all.  You can be dreaming of the most mundane things, of walking down a street or folding clothes, but it seems of the utmost importance that you get back there. I have read quite a few accounts of near death experiences, and the same thing is usually told of those -- the overwhelming sense that the person is where they should be and can't stand the thought that they will have to get back into their body.  If dreams are really access to parallel lives, could it be that those lives are more crucial to who we really are? I suppose I don't have many nightmares, and I might not feel this way if I did, but it makes me wonder what is happening in dreams when they seem more real than reality. From what theoretical physicists are saying these days, "real life" as we have seen it might be in essence just a form of dream anyway, a blip of energy in a vast field of energy. Hindus have always asserted that reality is just a dream in the mind of Brahma, the creator. He opens his eyes and a world comes into existence, he closes them and it goes out like a moth drawn too close to a candle. But it might not just be Brahma who is dreaming worlds into existence. Perhaps it is us every time we awake.
I have been thinking about this, because there is another place that draws like the dreamworld, and that is what I experience when I sit down at my desk to write. Maybe in the dreams we dream in sleep, the internal chatter-dial is turned way down, and the same goes for getting into the creative zone. It has to go quiet or you can't get there. It's like drawing close to a radio whose signal is only faint. You have to turn up your hearing acuity and get really close so you can find out what is being said. You have to not be thinking about anything else.
I gave up my daily routine of writing during the summer because there were too many distractions, too much going on in the outer field. The summer started with a wedding and ended with a cruise, and now I am getting back in gear to write the conclusion to that sequel that has been languishing too long with its back end hanging off. I am a great believer in gestation, though -- something has been going on during this time. I just have to give it space to emerge. It isn't going to take long, perhaps two weeks to "get her done," as the cowboys say. She is female, no doubt, as all things at the creative nexus are.
One good thing that came out of the study guide that is going to be inserted at the back of my book is that it suggested a comparison to a book called "Witchcraze," by Anne Barstow.  I hadn't heard of it, so I looked up the reviews, and almost didn't buy it because it was written off as feminist propaganda. But I thought I ought to take a look, just in case any of my readers follows up on the book guide. I am happy to report that it is written by a bona fide historian, who teaches history in New York, and is in fact a serious attempt to look at the holocaust of witches in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries from the point of view of their being women, not just a factor of economic or religious history. Barstow is actually balanced in her approach and won't, for instance, consider numbers of witches burned beyond the records even though we know there must have been far more than ever made it into any list.  And in any case, why is a feminist perspective less legitimate an historical approach than the imperialist one most of our "history" has been filtered through? I wish I had known about Barstow's book earlier, though my story of Maggie and the witches doesn't come out of any specific interest in history, but out of that dream time I was talking about earlier. If I have any axes to grind it is with the church and its scrupulous method of cover-up, but that will come out of its own accord. That all belongs to my internal chatter and has no place in the quiet zone that has its own voice and its own way of being heard.

Monday, August 19, 2013

At Sea

16th August 2013

A short blog today because I am anchored off the shores of Belize on a cruise ship.
It feels as though every Texan that ever lived is here with me, asking if "Ya' all," have had enough soda to last a lifetime. There's even a payment plan on board by which you can have access to unlimited soda. There are people whose body fat index must be off the charts waddling towards soda machines from break of day. You couldn't pay me to drink a glass of soda, but my scorn for the overeaters fell aside when I started compulsive eating myself, pretty much the minute I climbed on board. It is a sorry sight, we citizens of the free world face down in a tray of cakes, and I can feel the slim waiters from Buenos Aires and El Salvador rolling their eyes when no one is looking.  I usually eat next to nothing for breakfast, but aboard a cruise ship you have to dig me out from beneath piles of pancakes and muffins.
All of this has nothing to do with writing or publishing. In fact, it is probably about as diametrically opposed as it gets. Writer Sherwood Anderson found that out the hard way when he boarded a cruise headed through the Panama Canal. The author was a hardened Martini drinker, and following cruise ethic that more is decidedly better, he had downed a few drinks before he swallowed the olive in his Martini whole. This would not normally have caused any upset, but this olive was attached to a cocktail stick. How many Martinis you would have to down before a cocktail stick slipped down your gullet unnoticed is anybody's guess. So the cruise proceeded with its limitless supply of fodder (and soda, no doubt) when Sherwood began to experience bad stomach pains. By the time the ship docked, the poor man was dead from peritonitis. It appears the cocktail stick had punctured his bowel. The inscription on his tomb reads, "Life not death is the great adventure." He got that much right. Sailing on the blue Caribbean has far more appeal than waving through the mists over the River Styx. LIfe is much more than books, to - - against the prospect of swimming with dolphins, the entire canon of literature falls on its face. Stories are never any substitute for living.
The second installment of my book advance should have gone to pay the taxman, but we are human after all and could be dead tomorrow with a cocktail stick lodged in our lower intestine. So, better to be a fat waddling piece of humanity, looking up long enough from a glass of soda to gaze on the blue horizon.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Balls of Dung

August 9th 2013

Writing this blog sometimes feels like scratching my marks on the cell wall to mark time. I think it's been 76 posts, which amounts to as many weeks, so getting on for a year and a half since I started keeping public track of my publishing process with Simon & Schuster.  Someone asked me the other day how long it had been from when I conceived the idea of the book to the point of publication. So, I think I wrote a first draft in late summer of 2009. It was after a lengthy summer stay at the hill fort of Dunadd in the holiday cottage where I set the book. I had for a while wanted to write a story about Dunadd, so pregnant anyway with history, but I hadn't been able to find a way of approaching it until Audrey Niffenegger came out with "The Time Traveller's Wife," and it seemed as though time travel could be taken seriously by mainstream fiction readers. I came home from Scotland and wrote the first draft and then hid it from my agent, because he was supposed to be selling another of my novels, and I didn't want him to get distracted. When I eventually did show it to him, he of course lost interest in the first novel, which was more interior and didn't have any car chases (neither does "Veil of Time," but it has a woman walking into a different dimension!) Speaking of car chases, I had a lot of resepect for Jeffrey Eugenides' novel "Middlesex," until the end and the car chase. It's like some blockhead of an editor said, "Great book, Jeffrey, if you could just insert a car chase..." It is so out of tenor with the rest of the book, that you wonder what lapse in taste could have produced it.  I suppose I am just lucky that they had no cars at eighth century Dunadd, or I, too, might have succumbed. I suppose I could put in a gratuitous horse and cart chase.
Anyway, I digress. I signed a contract with Simon and Schuster in March of 2012, and the book is coming out in March of 2014. So, that's the time frame. The time frame is ages and ages and eons. Five years. If that first novel ever sees print, it will be more on the order of twenty years. What other profession has such a slow turn around? I suppose the answer to that is, any of the arts. But we're on the last stretch now. I am told galleys will be sent out to me on 4th September and then I will hold in my hands the fruits of my labour. I am expecting that to feel very very good.
So why do we keep on at this madcap business?
Steinbeck says, "There is one purpose in writing that I can see, beyond simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage." He directs this comment to the "neurosis belt of the south..the hard boiled writers," who take themselves too seriously. We write to save ourselves, I suppose, and in doing so, help others. "It is too bad," he goes on, "we have not more humor about this. After all, it is only a book and no worlds are made or destroyed by it. But it becomes important out of all proportion to its importance. And I suppose that is essential. The dunghill beetle must be convinced of the essential quality in rolling his ball of dung."
So the dung ball takes five or twenty years to come of age. The people hold it in their hands and declare it a truly worthy ball of dung.  And if they don't, they will cast it aside, and who cares? It is is only dung, after all.

Friday, August 2, 2013

My Rod and My Staff

2nd August 2013

The internet is an amazing thing - if blog-hits are anything to go by, my book should sell really well in Latvia, pretty well in the United States, but it won't be flying off the shelves in the United Kingdom. Of course, it won't be on any shelves in the United Kingdom until possibly and hopefully the United Kingdom is no longer the United Kingdom, but Scotland and England side by equal side. The book  will be available on Amazon UK until then, and is already there for pre-order.
There has been a lot of activity between me and the publishing house in the last weeks, almost as though it weren't seven months before publication. I have been promised galleys this month, so perhaps that is why they are busily trying to assemble the book as it will appear next March. Galleys (I had to look this up myself) are bound copies of the book, as close to the final copy as they can get. It will look like the final copy, but still might end up having things changed. I am not yet sure if it comes with the cover on it. But it will probably have "For Preview Only" stamped across the front, just so no one can sneak it off and sell it. Apparently the galley copy of "To Kill A Mocking bird" eventually sold for much more than the first edition of the original book. It's excruciating in a way being at this stage, because if I had the time over, I would probably change quite a bit in the book, explain some things, expand some parts. I just feel that I am much looser with the material now and the beginning of the book in particular would be less stilted if I could redo it. But it is too late for that, and I just have to let it go. I read that Emily Bronte was never satisfied with "Wuthering Heights," and would have altered things after it was published. Anyway, I am in good company.
Galleys are also put together for reviewers, which makes me more than a little nervous.

 Last week I filled out my part for the book-club section at the back of the book. This week I got samples of actual pages, any page that might look different from its neighbours, like the chapter headings (complete with a sketch of an antique-looking clock - not sure about the clock, but at this point I am not fighting. If they spell Scottish "whisky" right (the proof reader was trying to redo it as Irish "whiskey," heaven forbid) and allow me the odd Scottish coloquialism - they fear for the brains of the American reader, but there are hardly any Scottish words in the text, and where they appear they do so in context, so perhaps they underestimate the great American reader.)
My agent's prononouncement on the page samples is that they are "gorgeous," so I am not arguing. I got to see the acknowledgment and dedication pages and the title page, also a page with a break in the text that required a little Celtic squiggle. I dedicated the book to my father, who is no longer with us but for whom this publication might have been a crowning moment. He took out an ad in the local paper of his home town when I got into Oxford, for goodness sake! Let's hope the veil of time doesn't ultimately separate us from the dead and that on some plane they participate in these peak moments. I am currently reading a book by Anthony Peake which suggests that death, as in the complete dying of the light, is a logical implausibility, but that is a whole different story for a whole different blog. His, for example. I just hope my dad is around in some form or other to see that something came of the neurotic teenage years and the flustered early twenties. He didn't live much past that, and that was oh so long ago. I hope people who knew him will smile when they see the dedication and know that the apple doesn't ever fall too far from the tree.