Writer’s Desk: Pull a Gatsby

Megan Abbott, whose newest novel The Turnout is out this month, had some good advice for how to find the right narrative perspective for your book:

I’ve always been interested in the “Gatsby structure,” which is when you don’t tell the story from the point of view of the most interesting character, though they can become the most interesting character, of course. You let Nick Carraway tell it…

You want a watcher to tell your story. Somebody with an exciting life may not have the time or focus to notice what’s happening around them.

Literary Birthday: Chester Himes

Raised in Missouri, Chester Himes (born today in 1909) began his writing career in an unlikely place. While attending Ohio State University, he started walking on the wild side. He was sent to prison for robbery at the age of 19. Buying a typewriter in part with his gambling winnings, he began writing stories from his jail cell that were published in the black press and Esquire, under the pen name 59623 (his prisoner number).

After moving to France, Himes began publishing the raucous Harlem-set noir novels that made him famous, particularly Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965). One day in Paris in 1953, Himes was at a café with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. The two rivals were sparring over petty literary slights, real and imagined. “I confess,” the street-wise Himes wrote in his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972), “at this point they lost me.”

Writer’s Desk: Put in the Effort

In this interview, Minnesota author Charles Baxter explains how he knows he is on a good streak:

I work during the morning. I pace; I stare out the window. I sit with my head in my hands. If I can feel myself breaking out into a sweat, particularly from my underarms, and if I give off a noticeable body odor that even I can smell, I know the writing is going well…

If it feels too easy, maybe give your last few pages another look.

Literary Birthday: Ernest Hemingway

Like many eager young men at the time, Ernest Hemingway (born today in 1899)  tried to enlist to fight in World War I. “I can’t let a show like this go on without getting in on it,” he wrote to his older sister Marcelline. “There hasn’t been a real war to go to since Grandfather Hemingway’s shooting at the battle of Bull Run.” Rejected by the Army, Navy, and Marines for bad eyesight, he was thrilled to go to war in 1918 as a Red Cross ambulance driver.

After being wounded, and winning a medal for trying to rescue a soldier, he spent six months recuperating. Marcelline was seeing a movie back home when she was thrilled to see Ernest in the newsreel. “He was in uniform, sitting in a wheelchair on the hospital porch, being pushed by a pretty nurse,” she wrote. “He smiled at the camera and waved a crutch.” The Hemingway family went to theaters all over Chicago to catch the newsreel as many times as possible.

Literary Birthday: Frantz Fanon

“Decolonization,” wrote Frantz Fanon (born today in 1925) at the beginning of his revolutionary-philosophical text The Wretched of the Earth (1961), “is always a violent event.” He knew what he was talking about. Born in the West Indian French colony of Martinique, Fanon studied in France to be a psychiatrist and published the pioneering work of racial consciousness, Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

Stationed at a hospital in Algeria during the civil war, he witnessed up close the effects of torture. Fanon joined the Algerian liberation movement the FLN and began writing of the need for violent overthrow of the French colonial system. Published the year he died of leukemia, The Wretched of the Earth called in stark terms for colonized peoples to not replicate Europe but instead to “turn over a new leaf … and try to set afoot a new man.”

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Learn

Say you have written a book. You have been lucky enough to have your book published by a major house. Maybe you have even gotten some good press. But nevertheless, the income stream is negligible. What do you do to keep writing and not have to hold down a separate job?

Maybe write a book that has a better chance of being optioned for a streaming or television adaptation. In “The Rise of Must-Read TV,” Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter note how streaming services like Netflix (which has had great success with book-sourced series like The Queen’s Gambit [pictured above]) have been on a “buying spree” of book properties.

The writers studied what makes a book more appealing to the interests of TV producers looking to populate a big, broad-appeal series. They identified a few common characteristics:

Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

These are just dramatic choices you can make. If (and only if) they work well for the story you have in mind, then run with it. Remember: Jennifer Egan modeled A Visit from the Goon Squad on The Sopranos.

Literary Birthday: Wole Soyinka

Like his cousin, world-renowned musician and activist Fela Kuti, Nigerian poet and dramatist Wole Soyinka (born today in 1934) is almost as well known for political agitation as his art, the latter of which made him the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He made numerous enemies with his outspoken critiques of authoritarian African regimes and post-colonial powers, lampooning “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.”

For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Nigerian government in 1967 for over two years. During that time, he wrote verse that was smuggled out on toilet paper and published as Poems from Prison (1969). His poem “When Seasons Change” reflects a perspective shaped in solitary confinement: “Shrouds of seasons gone, peeled / From time’s corpses, mouse-eaten thoughts / You flutter upon solitude in winds.”

Writer’s Desk: Write As Though You Are Already Gone

Sometimes the best advice can come from writers reminding you of what other writers have said. For instance, there is the 2012 speech that Jeffrey Eugenides gave in which he gave some advice via what one writer related about another writer’s advice:

In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously.”

Eugenides goes on to interpret what Hitchens/Gordimer meant, which to him boils down to writing in some sense as though one is already dead and gone:

It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system.

Which is all likely true. Better to accomplish, of course, without trying to finish one’s memoir or mystery while viewing it through the veil of the after life.

(h/t: The Millions)

Reader’s Corner: ‘Seek You’

My review of the new graphic novel from Kristen Radtke (Imagine Wanting Only This) ran in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

In Jim Shepard’s recent bio-noir “Phase Six,” a character mockingly defines loneliness as “solitude with self-pity thrown in.” That line’s chilly dismissiveness would not play well in Kristen Radtke’s immersive, novelistic and intensely humanistic book-length graphic essay on the subject…

Literary Birthday: Ann Radcliffe

Given that she was later referred to by Sir Walter Scott as “the first poetess of romantic fiction,” it is fitting that many dramatic rumors about Ann Radcliffe (born today in 1764) swirled around her. There were stories that she had died young, gone mad (potentially being locked up in an asylum), or even arrested as a spy.

But whatever the truth of her biography, the impact that Radcliffe’s picaresque Gothic novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had on the literary world is undeniable, influencing everyone from Coleridge to Wordsworth and Scott. She was the highest-paid writer of the 1790s and one of the most imitated. Jane Austen paid tribute to Radcliffe in her semi-comic Gothic Northanger Abbey, in which a character raves about Udolpho: “I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.” 

Writer’s Desk: Try Again, Try Harder

Writers love little more than those days when the words just arrive, streaming from your mind to the page with seemingly little to no effort on their part. It can, of course, be glorious to go from eking out a few lines to finishing five pages in a morning.

But Samuel Johnson has a warning:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

It’s good to feel the pleasure of your writing. But stay frosty.

Literary Birthday: Mark Helprin

After a peripatetic youth that included stints in Paris and Jamaica, Mark Helprin (born today in 1947) was inspired to write his first short story while at the graves of William and Henry James. Learning that a nearby funeral was for a young man killed in Vietnam he was also inspired to join the military. Opposed to the Vietnam War but determined as a Jew to support the nascent state of Israel, he instead joined the Israeli military.

That experience formed the nucleus of his first novel, Refiner’s Fire (1977). A globe-hopping spectacle that mixed breath-taking action with transcendent prose, it contains one of modern fiction’s great opening lines: “It was one of those perfectly blue, wild days in Haifa when the winds from Central Asia and the eastern deserts come roaring into the city like a flight of old propeller planes.”

Writer’s Desk: What Obama Read and Why

This should be obvious: Read more to write better. But what to read? Everyone has ideas, ranging from books on writing to books whose style and insights can teach you something.

In this LitHub piece, Craig Fehrman talks about Barack Obama’s relationship to literature specifically as a writer. In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote about being castigated by Marcus, a college classmate for reading a “racist” novel like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When Marcus walked angrily away, another classmate, Regina, commented that Marcus was in a “preaching mood.” Obama replied:

“Actually, he’s right,” I said. “It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

When Regina then asks him why he’s reading it, Obama’s reasoning is instructive:

…because the book teaches me things … About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.

Seen this way, almost any book you pick up has a lesson to teach.

Literary Birthday: Octavia Butler

As a black woman who grew up poor in Pasadena, Octavia Butler (born today in 1947) faced a host of obstacles in her quest to become a bestselling author. Reportedly inspired in her childhood by seeing the B-movie Devil Girl from Mars and thinking she could write better than that, Butler started publishing short fiction in 1971. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976)—kicking off her series of linked dystopic stories featuring telepathy, African mythology, and eugenics—received strong notices.

While revered by other writers, fame and fortune were still far off. To keep herself going, Butler used affirmations. A 2018 Huntington Library exhibition about her work displayed a notebook on which she had written plans for success (“This is my life. I write bestselling novels”) and what she could do with that success (“I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops”).

Writer’s Desk: Lie to Tell the Truth

The passing of the great Janet Malcolm this week at the age of eighty-six is not a thing that the world of writing will bounce back from. One of the great profile writers the New Yorker ever had, Malcolm had a spare and wry yet richly illustrative style that compressed whole volumes of insight into a few lines.

But the work that everyone will continue going back to is The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), ostensibly the story of how the relationship between writer Joe McGuiness and murder suspect Jeffrey R. MacDonald unraveled in spectacular fashion, but really an X-ray of why and how journalists do what they do.

In this slim and cutting book, Malcolm characterizes her profession as a confidence game of sorts:

Fortunately for readers and writers alike, human nature guarantees that willing subjects will never be in short supply. Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of the interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife…

Malcolm knows that for a writer to tell the truth about something or someone, they must often first strew the path before them with lies.