Friday, September 27, 2013

Attention Fixation Disorder

27th Friday 2013

I went to a book launch recently where the writer disclosed that the only place she could write was in bed. I used to write in a closet (a useful Freudian metaphor) because there was no other space for my computer. I wrote a few novels in that closet. DH Lawrence liked putting his desk under a tree, some writers prefer hotel rooms, and others trains. I am so attached to my brown leather office chair, that I couldn't imagine being able to write at some writers' retreat or anywhere else. My desk is up against a wall, but I do have a view of trees from the sliding glass doors if I turn my head. Mostly, however, I am staring into a hovering middle distance which is where novels and poems and things artistic hang waiting to be picked. It's the kind of space in which alarms can go off, people can talk and babies can cry, but you hear none of it. You have stepped out of your framework of time and space and you are wandering, listening in on conversations that may never have been spoken, but probably have in one go-round or another. It's a sort of meditative trance and writers, for one, spend much of their time there. Between trance and tapping away on a keyboard, hours go by unobserved.
This might be a mental illness for which the experts currently have no name or way of diagnosing. It is sort of the opposite of Attention Deficit Disorder, but ought to have a similar kind of name: Attention Fixation Disorder. AFD.  I have AFD. I have episodes daily, and not only while sitting in my chair at my desk. If someone were to make a film of one of my days, there would be multiple times when the picture would dissolve to squiggly lines and I would be off catching letters and words and making them into sentences like the little boy Michael after a spoon full of sugar in Mary Poppins.
I was watching a documentary about Bipolar disorder. It is apparently quite hard to diagnose this disorder, except that it seems to have an underlying connection to creativity. They listed just about every artist that ever lived as a sufferer, and why am I not surprised? "Intense feelings" seem to be one of the criteria for diagnosis. Moodiness. Swings between happiness and sadness. Do I sound like I am describing a writer yet? Ask my husband.
Well, Beethoven might have been bipolar, but thank God on high he was. It all comes down to the question posed by Peter Shaffer in his brilliant play "Equus." Should you normalize someone who is sometimes in pain but at other times in ecstasy? Do you take away the pain and lose the passion? Does it just make us more comfortable to homogenize human feelings as though a person were a vat of milk? I don't know what the answer to this is. It might just be some people's lot in life to be wringing genius out of their torture. It's just hard to be a spectator on it, that's all.
So galleys went back to the publisher and I was assured that I was not the only one proof-reading the thing. At least two others ("cold readers" I am informed, meaning, I assume, that they have not set eyes on the manuscript before) have been rifling through my words and sentences looking for errors. But I think it might get passed back to me one more time - it seems that what I corrected was the "first pass" and the "second pass" should be coming my way in a few weeks. But I don't want to clap eyes on the thing again. I am so close to finishing the sequel and want to keep going. Get someone else to read the damn thing. I'm going into my closet to catch fairies.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Literary Bleeding Hearts

20th September 2013

I'm sending my galley proofs back to the publisher today. I do hope others are proof reading it, because I caught quite a lot of errors and there must be more that I didn't see.
Now I can devote my day to reading Pulitzer prize winner Paul Harding's new book "Enon." Like Steinbeck and Hemmingway, he might one day be  discussed as one of the big names in American literature, and so it is exciting to watch his career unfold. He got a three-book deal (everyone seems to, except me!) from Random House and so he is under obligation to churn a couple more out. A lot of pressure, which is not conducive to the production of any good art. Art demands space, and that's why I decided to write a canon of five books before sending the first out. Writing is a gossamer art - reach for it too hard and it slips between your fingers.
After much resistance, I am now tweeting once a day. (@kilmartin1978) Twitter's strength and its weakness is its word limit. Half the time you're referencing other people. No room for theses or even half-formed ideas. The good thing is, no one is going to waste your time for long. It's a funny little virtual world,  opening up a space for people to matter, if only for just a sentence or two, as they always did in our pre-industrial revolution communities. Once money became the benchmark for the value of people, a person was only as good as their labour. We have been on a de-humanising track for many centuries, but the pendulum is swinging, as it always does, and we have created this cloud-space for the significance of individuals. I believe in the Gaia principle which holds that the universe is intelligent and will redress imbalance within itself. Humanity has become a limping wounded spectacle, and perhaps our race-course to the end of the technological venture is simply all about this: finding out again who we are. In the immortal words of a bard named Eliot, "The end of all our searching will be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time."
So, if we get to that place, presumably a place without pain, will there be room for art? Or does art necessarily spring from bleeding hearts?  If Hermann Hesse is right that art is the great universalizing mirror, then surely not.  Ode to Joy is as much art as Sartre's Nausea. It is just that for a long time we have approached reality with a gnawing sense of dyspepsia, with the existential angst that has perpetrated much of writing and the other arts for a long time now. But perhaps as the pendulum swings and we find ourselves back at the beginning seeing ourselves again for the first time, literature and music and the visual arts will evolve back into vessels of celebration. What has been subverted into sentimentalism will break out into a grand Hallelujah. And now I am sounding like Martin Luther King. I have a dream....
The rain that has been pouring on Colorado and breaking records and washing away houses has settled into a cold drizzle that last night left its first covering of snow in the high country. I can see snow-capped mountains from my office window, and I am fine with it, just as long as it stays up there for now. I don't mind if the water-logged leaves stay green and the fields refuse to give up hay. I don't mind the mushrooms and moss and the days spent beneath low cloud. I am not a child of the high country nor even of this continent. My ancestors lived in the mulching ground and slept on beds of damp moss. My ancestors never breathed in a gulp of dry air in their short lives. And so it comes down through the DNA, this ease with rain. Leave me out in it. I might even grow roots.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Neanderthal Fiction

13th September 2013

I am up to my ears in galleys - two, to be precise, because the first they sent (second-day air UPS) didn't have my Gaelic words and phrases italicised. The new copy was sent overnight UPS, and they both arrived on my doorstep at the same time. The publisher caught the error, not me. I have to read through the galley and send it back by 25th September. They sent me a special green erasable pencil to mark any errors, and they sent me a key so I would know which sign to put for which errors. For instance, if I need to insert a space between two words, I put a line between the words and in the margin put a hashtag #. I'm a bit nervous about doing the wrong thing, and I don't know if my editorial skills are suddenly sharpened but I am finding lots of things I need to change. For example, although I have read this text over many times before, I caught the fact this time that I called the drystone bridge at the location of my story Gothic. Well, it isn't really Gothic, which would be more of a vaulted apex. So I took a minute to google different types of arches and found the one I had in mind most closely resembled a Roman arch. So, I took my green pencil and put a line through Gothic, stuck a little arrow at the end of the space, and in the margin I wrote "Roman." Then, it suddenly dawned on me that I had throughout the text mis-spelled "Sassanach," all with a's as it turns out and not with any e's.  If any of the Gaelic is mis-spelled, I'm not going to catch it, because my  knowledge of Gaelic is only elementary, my Dear Watson.
My editor and I are trying to put together a plot synopsis for the back cover, but so far haven't agreed on what should go there. I say, please no handsome highlanders or Celtic warriors or noble Scots. She says, yes, but we're trying to sell this to readers of commercial fiction. Yes, I think, but there's my integrity to think of. I keep imagining published writer friends of mine reading the back cover and rolling their eyes. I keep thinking of the sister who hates me hating me even more for writing drivel. It's not drivel, of course; that's not what it is at all. But I don't want to give anyone an excuse for rolling their eyes at me. I was once describing the storyline of my book to a poet with a shock of white hair and noble features.
He said, "What, you mean a children's book?"
No, it is not a children's book, and I have a  chip on my shoulder about being a writer of literary fiction.  Well, I am, but that's not to say that I must be excluded from writing a book about a woman travelling back to ancient Scotland. Can it not be imaginative and literary, too? Must literary fiction be populated only by the kinds of characters that fill their pockets with stones and walk into ponds, for the dreadful weight of existence? My protagonist, Maggie, is a weighty character: she is just coming out of a divorce, her daughter has just died, and she is trying to finish a post-graduate thesis on the medieval witch burnings. How heavy can you get? It's just that she falls in love with a figment of her imagination called Fergus McBridghe, who just also happens to be a handsome Celtic warrior from the Dark Ages, and he might not be a figment, after all. He might just belong to another reality, as if we ever know what reality is to start with.
As if we ever know what history is to start with.  I was just watching a NOVA programme on my new IPad (from that splendid PBS App) about ground-breaking research on Neanderthals. Didn't history portray Neanderthals as dim-witted hairy cavemen, and isn't that still the popular conception? New research says, No, these hairy folks, if they were hairy, and how the hell do we know, had language, made art and buried their dead with religious objects. More than that, it turns out that Neanderthals weren't outmatched by brainy little Homo Sapiens and driven into extinction, but actually brainy little Homo Sapiens couldn't keep his hands off hairy Neanderthal woman (take that, all ye leg-dilapitating, armpit shaving moderners!) Neanderthals weren't driven to extinction but were outbred. African people have little to no Neanderthal DNA, Asians have very little. Neanderthals encountered humans in Europe and that's where they left their trace.  It's the Europeans writing literary fiction that have significant amounts of the stuff.
Just saying....

Friday, September 6, 2013

Social Insecurity

6th September 2013

When I started out this blog many moons ago, it was to provide a weekly commentary on the publishing process for those who might be contemplating submitting a book or even writing one.  Lord knows, I didn't think I would ever get to entry number 83 with my publication date still six months off. But then that is part of the tale. I just had a look at my blog from this same date a year ago, and I was fretting then about the possibility of my publication date being set back. Talk of the devil - that's just exactly what happened. People look at me and say, "Why is your book taking so long to come out?" They might as well be saying, "Well, it's not exactly hot news, is it? The publishing world isn't exactly staying up nights to make sure it is out on the shelves next week, eh?"
I must have a serious inferiority complex, because I feel myself slipping into the place they are putting me, down there, where the insignificant things of this world end up. It goes back to growing up in Scotland with a Scottish accent, being made to feel that the children who went off to boarding school and had the posh accents were inherently more valuable. And then later at university when you were trying to get noticed by boys with plummy accents, you didn't stand a chance, and so the Scottish accent started to fade by necessity. You could never work your way into those circles, because you didn't have the pedigree, but you could become an American, which is a class-free shift, and that's what I did.  So Social Insecurity are my middle names, and I should have grown out of it after all these years, but I only have to get in the presence of the plummy ones, and I am all fingers and toes again.
I was just at a book launch of another local writer called Linda Lafferty. She got a 3-book deal with Amazon publishing, and is now launching her second of those books. The first has just passed the one hundred thousand mark in sales, and all power to her. But I sat at that book launch by myself, a seat away on both sides from anyone else - why is it no one ever wants to go to these events? I hope they come to mine! - and I was jealous. I admit it. I might harbour more jealousy in my black soul than most, but it was hard to watch this success story, with the promotional cards for my own book deep in my bag, with everything ahead of me part of the big unknown, and not feel just a little like grabbing the mic and doing something crass like a belly dance. "No, look at ME, everyone!"
Lafferty celebrated her good sales record by buying a horse. I think I might buy passage on another cruise. I'm so cheesy, so working class and lacking finer refinements, I would choose sitting next to thousands of fat people stuffing their faces on an oversized cruise-liner than trotting aristocratically through fields of grass.  Did I mention I come down from a long line of Scottish and Yorkshire weavers, not a streak of blue blood to be found? I got hold of my great-grandfather William McDougall's recruitment papers from the first world war. Under marital status, he had written "Widower," in a nice hand. Under occupation, "Weaver." He died out there in Belgium. Across his recruitment papers, some insensitive cur scrawled the word, "DEAD." I would pay a king's ransom to find out what happened. He was over forty. He couldn't have been on the front line. I come down from a long line of DEAD Scottish weavers. Perhaps even suicidal dead Scottish weavers.
My editor at Simon and Schuster and I are trying to come up with a list of authors to write glowing blurbs for the back of my book, the kind of thing you flip over to when you don't know the author but are contemplating buying a book:
 Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code writes, "I only wrote about the loss of the sacred feminine. Claire McDougall makes you live it."
Paul Harding writes, "Despite her Nietzschean leanings, Claire McDougall has written a book of immense cultural significance."
 Diana Gabaldon writes, "If only I had been born a Scot! With her book, 'Veil of Time,' Claire McDougall is set to take a few million readers right out of my court."
But only in my dreams.