Saturday, September 29, 2012

Carver’s realism in fiction

I don’t often find myself holding such deep empathy for characters as I did while reading a selection of Raymond Carver’s stories in Cathedral. The man was brilliant at capturing the human condition with stripped-down language and few words. He animated the ordinary and mundane; uninteresting people suddenly become complicated and intriguing characters on the page fueled by such strong emotions as loneliness, resentment, and grief.

As suspense continued to climb through each story, I kept wondering what a particular character was going to do next. In the story “Preservation,” I was waiting for the wife to snap in response to her depressed husband who spent three months on the couch after losing his job. I really thought at one point she was contemplating violence, yet, it’s never once suggested in the words on the page. Anger and frustration are portrayed through her actions and observations of her husband’s despondency, but it’s between the lines and paragraph breaks where her violent thoughts reside.

The underlying emotions and mental states in Carver’s stories are incredibly real, yet only touched upon in the words themselves, if at all, like the clich├ęd iceberg analogy I won’t bother to recite, you’ve heard it more than once. Likewise, I found similar empathetic responses in other stories, particularly the heavy grief-weighted sadness of “A Small, Good Thing.” It would not surprise me if this story had a reputation of drawing tears from readers. The fright of two parents coping with their severely injured child in the hospital and the unknown outcome is not an easy one to portray. This story left me in a somber mood; there was a lot to rationalize and digest.

So now, my self-imposed challenge is to accomplish at least half this reaction from readers of my own stories.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Writing Craft: Fun With Problems by Robert Stone

Over the past few weeks, I have been working my way through Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories by Robert Stone. These stories exist in the darker side of humanity, revealing layers of complexities of the human psyche. Characters are dreadfully flawed, typically with an abused substance lending to their conditions. Relationships are equally complicated, usually broken, as each character works through each other’s issues, whether as casual acquaintances or lovers, showing that every action contains a consequence.

I am drawn to complex personas in any story regardless of the medium – that includes premium cable channel serial dramas – I have never liked shallow characters that can be simply labeled as good or evil, I feel ripped off. Equally, being a visual person I am attracted to vivid descriptions of environments and settings. When these two qualities of a story play off each other, they strike a visceral nerve leading to a serotonin rush like no other.

In the title story, “Fun With Problems,” we find Peter Matthews, a divorced lawyer on in years who lives a solitary life in the Massachusetts countryside, a place he hates. He lives there because of the opportunity to make a living off the criminal element in the nearby rural areas that result in kids landing in the local jail, such as his incarcerated client he’s on his way to meet.
[The Hamptom] Valley was his native place, and he had been watching it all his life; its preachifying and its secret horror. The recently arrived professionals, academics and technologists, had brought to Hampton a self-conscious blessed assurance, unaware of the beatings, arson and murder that thrived in the hills around their white-trim shutters. Matthews knew the place’s black heart. It was his living.
A drunk in recovery who has not actually recovered, he inflicts his apathetic negativity on others as it fuels his meager egotism and depression. The dreariness of falling sleet and snow on a bleak town paint a vivid portrait of Matthews’s mind during his drive to the jail.

The famous jail, the red brick rat-house minarets attached to a new wing of frosted Martian glass, stood beside the river between a pair of old paper mills…. There were also a few shabby offices, headquarters to some social-services organizations. These were relics of the age of concern, grown decadent with underfunding, long on ideology and short on practical solutions. One scarred band specialized in raiding the migrant-pickers’ cockfights. A crazy poet did children’s theater the children dreaded.
Matthews, reminiscent and longing for his happier, earlier days with his ex-wife in the 1970s, much like the jail that houses the delinquents he serves, is the relic of the age of concern who has grown decadent. The prison conference setting further paints this portrait.
Matthews and his client conferred in a chapel in the jail’s old wing, a relic of gentler days. The chapel had been temporarily divided by partitions of wallboard and Plexiglas that reaches a third of the way to the ceiling and were being slowly vandalized.
It is in this setting he finds his quick fix, a younger woman who happens to be a psychologist, who was also on the wagon, whom he can corrupt with alcohol to gratify his loneliness, and wanton needs. All of this playing a more significant role than his responsibility to his wrongly incarcerated client.

In the last story of the collection, “The Archer,” we meet Duffy, a well-established and somewhat eccentric professional artist who teaches at a New England university. He was reputed to have threatened his ex-wife and lover, a fellow professor, with a crossbow. Over-consumption of alcohol plays a central role as he copes with the heartache and daily reminders of what he once had. He travels to a college town on the Gulf of Mexico as part of his lecture circuit to escape the sorrowful New England winter and the reminders of all that he had lost – his home, his wife, and his life. The following scene captures his edgy, fragile psyche brilliantly:
The interior of the plane on landing seemed so impacted with flesh that it would have required only one neurasthenic’s psychic break to be transformed into a thrashing tube of terror, a panic-driven, southbound rat king of tourists headed for the offshore ooze.
Throughout the story Duffy make a series of observations of the town suiting of an established painter, one who sees the overall scene and zooms into the grittiest details as a sort of self-portrait. Each observation connects to a previous one, I noticed, painting a grand picture of the town. He describes the town as “layers of stuccoed box bungalows leaning on thin concrete walls lit by tiki torches, enclosing tin pastel swimming pools.” The descriptions often carry themes of religion, redemption, and morality, reflecting his thought-process and overall sadness. Note the tiki torch and plane references in the following excerpt in a later paragraph:
The doomed palms with their spiky crowns reminded Duffy of a crucifixion. Insolent posters were affixed to their suffering trunks with cruel nails the size of industrial staples, threatening passersby with the judgment of Christ. Artificial palms stood at intervals among others like Judas goats at a slaughterhouse to encourage and betray the doomed natural ones. The tiki-torch fuel, together with road stench and beach barbecue pits, gave it all the aroma of a day-old plane crash.
Throughout the stories in Fun With Problems, the scenery is lush and complex, filled with people and things representing the good and bad of society living amongst each other, its ambiguity displaying both flaws and beauty externalizing the protagonists’ personas. After finishing the book, I had read in Stone’s biography that he is known for writing about characters with complex psychologies, an attribute that I was pleased to discover during my own course as a reader.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A writer’s maturation of character

Last week I wrote about drawing influence from published writers. Over the weekend, my latest influence revealed itself. Last week through Saturday morning I had been reading Robert Stone’s Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories dealing with heavily flawed characters existing in the darker side of humanity whether or not they even realize it. In some incredible feat, I spent at least ten hours on Saturday writing, rewriting, and revising a short horror story. I don’t get to spend that much time writing in one day usually, it was a strange feeling when I had wrapped it up for the night, like I had stepped out of time and reality. I didn’t want to come back at first, but my family came home, we needed dinner and so on.

The revelation came as I was reading the story aloud. Stone’s book influenced my approach to incorporating my protagonist’s backstories; slowly revealed details layered one on another creating a complex persona in as few words as possible. Without this awareness during the process, I found myself striving for new depths in character creation. Not to say I’ve never dug deep before; this was different.

I found specific intent in what I wrote about his past actions and their effect on the current-day storyline. Writing this horror story has become a psychological study of this heavily flawed character, seemingly laced with lessons in morality, maybe even spirituality. Good versus evil in this story became a thick pool of grayness, a viscous organic byproduct of several visceral systems malfunctioning in tandem. My flawless victim of circumstance born of mediocrity in the rough draft matured into a well rounded, wonderfully dark, and flawed character with the charm of a successful door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman and the patience of a hungry cat. I leapt over a hurdle I never knew was there.

Perhaps my protagonist, as different as he is from me, is my reflection or a second personality buried in my subconscious. We shall see.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Scary Scribes Radio Interview

Scary Scribes with host Kristi Peterson Schoonover interviews four book authors – Jeff Strand, Sephera Geron, Fawn, and DT Griffith from the anthology, Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope. Originally recorded and broadcasted live on July 29, 2012.

I sat in my car with windows shut in the heat in a family member's driveway during this interview. There was no way we would make the one hour drive  home in time for the radio show. Of course that didn't stop my daughter and little cousins from approaching the car to distract me as a question was posed to me. It all worked out well.

Thanks to Fawn for putting this video together!


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sphere of fictional influence

Following my break from all things academic this past summer, I am discovering that the various authors’ I have read recently have had subtle influences over my writing style in my latest stories.

Raymond Carver’s short and to the point sentences making the mundane interesting in Cathedral. In “The Lottery” Shirley Jackson portrays a dark and twisted community tradition in matter-of-fact light-heartedness. Even though this is a nonfiction example about fiction, Stephen King’s flowing narrative of On Writing is filled with brutally honest prose of carefully selected words laced with wit and self-deprecating humor. Cormac McCarthy’s jarring sentence structures in The Road shifted point-of-views blended with internal dialogue and swift variances in psychic distance to portray a bleak world. All incredible styles, each quite different, sharing the common thread of a little says a lot.

I developed my own unique fiction voice in the early 1990s as a college student, with the influences of Salinger and Hemingway resonating in my brain since high school. Some time after my professional career became focused on commercial creative work, I spent a long time away from fiction – I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know how long that was – only picking it up again in 2010 with the dark humor horror novel John Dies at the End by David Wong. I loved that book! I was excited again about writing creatively after years of corporate writing.

Interestingly, that abstinence from published fiction allowed (or forced) me to shape my writing style in a vacuum. Now that I have returned to short story writing on a weekly basis, I find that I draw inspiration from each author’s style and repurpose it in my own voice. My sentences vary in length and rhythm considerably more than they used to, combining fragments and run-ons as they illustrate the tone and atmosphere of a scene. My former tendency was artful and fluid all of the time, now those attributes are only reserved for times most appropriate.

In my own roundabout way, I have proven to myself the value of regularly reading other published works as a writer as each contributes another layer to my foundation. In past blog entries I’ve written about breaking the rules to develop style and finding my voice. My work has matured considerably over the past twelve months and continues to mold itself when I’m not looking. It’s a transformation I had not expected; one I fully embrace.