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Friday, March 31, 2017

The need to create an alternative world

“There are many reasons why novelists write, but they all have one thing in common - a need to create an alternative world.” – John Fowles

When I give talks on writing and the process writers follow, I often quote British author John Fowles, who was born on this date in 1926 and wrote as many thoughtful and thought-provoking things about writing as anyone I’ve read.    And writing wasn’t even his first career choice.  Fowles set out to be a literary teacher, taking a job at a small school in Greece that later became the setting for his book The Magus.    Even though he had that novel ready to go in 1960, he held off after coming up with the idea for The Collector, his ultimate first novel that would establish his reputation. 

Published in 1963, The Collector went on to a massive paperback release, noted by the publisher as "probably the highest price that had hitherto been paid for a first novel.”  By 1965 it also had been made into a nailbiting movie  (if you’ve never seen it, find it, and settle back to be thoroughly entertained). 
His next major work, published after he             released The Magus (a moderate hit), was 1969’s international blockbuster The French Lieutenant's Woman.  Released to critical and popular success, it was eventually translated into a dozen languages, adapted as a feature film starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, and cemented Fowles' international literary reputation.

While fiction was his forte’, Fowles also was a noted essayist, taught English as a foreign language to immigrant children, and earned minor acclaim as a poet – something he said should not be considered unusual.    “We all write poems,” he noted.  “It is simply that real poets are the ones who write in words.”

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Helping 'right' wrongs with 'power of the pen'

“My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.” –Anna Sewell

Born on this date in 1820 in Norfolk, England, Anna Sewell wrote one of the all-time Classic young adult novels, Black Beauty.      And yet,  she intended to write a missive directed at those who worked with horses to shame them into providing better treatment.   Written over a 6-year period (between 1871 and 1877) and published just shortly before her death in 1878 from tuberculosis, Sewell was shocked and angered by what she termed “cruel treatment of some of our best friends.”

Mostly too weak to write because of her debilitating illness, she would sometime scribble notes on small pieces of paper and other times dictate what she wanted said to her mother, who then transcribed the notes and read them back to her for final editing.  

Sewell sold the novel to local publisher Jarrolds in November 1877, when she was 57 years old.   She said "a special aim [was] to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.”  She died five months after her book was               published, but lived long enough to see its initial success and realize that it would, indeed, have a major impact.  Laws were passed for more humane treatment, many sparked by the outrage of her book.

“Now I say that with cruelty and oppression it is everybody's business to interfere when they see it.”

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A unique and impactful storyteller

“I love artists. I find them fascinating. To me, there really is a genuine magic in what they do.” – Elizabeth Hand

Hand, who was born on this date in 1957 in Yonkers, New York, studied drama and anthropology in college and thought of a career on stage before getting into writing. Since 1988, she has lived in coastal Maine, the setting for many of her stories, and she also lives part-time in Camden Town, London, the setting for her historical fantasy novel Mortal Love and short story "Cleopatra Brimstone.” 

While Science Fiction and Fantasy have been focal points for many of her works, she said she didn’t read much Science Fiction as a kid.  “I was a total Tolkien geek - but I started reading Samuel Delany and Angela Carter and Ursula LeGuin in high school, and I was definitely taken with the notion that here was a literature that could explore various notions of gender identity and how it affects the culture at large.”

Also a writer of television and sci-fi movie spin-offs, Hand is co-author of the DC Comics’ cult favorite Anima.  Her most recent book, 2016’s Hard Light, continues a series of genré-blending novels that combine psychodrama, suspense, mystery and art. Hard Light was a sequel to 2012’s Available Dark, which was a sequel to 2008’s Generation Loss, winner of the first Shirley Jackson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Psychological Suspense. The trio of books have cemented Hand’s place                as a unique and impactful storyteller. 

“I never think about genre when I work,” she said.   “I've written fantasy, science fiction, supernatural fiction . . . suspense.   Genrés are mostly useful as a marketing tool, and to help booksellers know where to shelve a book.”

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Writing his way to an impactful life

“You cannot teach creativity - how to become a good writer. But you can help a young writer discover within himself what kind of writer he would like to be.” – Mario Vargas Llosa
Born on this date in 1936, Peruvian writer, politician, journalist, essayist, and college professor Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature and is one of Latin America's most significant novelists and essayists.    Some critics have said he’s had a larger international impact and gained a greater worldwide audience than any other writer of his generation.

Vargas Llosa’s novels include comedies, murder mysteries, historical novels, and political thrillers and several have been adapted as feature films.   Most of his works have been translated into multiple languages, expanding his reach as a writer.  Literary critic Harold Bloom included his novel The War of the End of the World (also a movie) in his list of essential literary works in the Western Canon. 
A  staunch liberal and a leading voice for liberal causes throughout Latin America,  he used his celebrity as a well-known          writer and essayist to launch a 1990 bid for the Peruvian presidency, a race he lost to Alberto Fujimori. Since then he's continued his prolific writing career but sometimes decries the isolation writing can bring.

“Writing a book is a very lonely business,” he once said.   “You are totally cut off from the rest of the world, submerged in your obsessions and memories.”

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Everything 'requires' a writer's attention

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” – Flannery O'Connor

Born in Georgia in March, 1925, O’Connor was one of America’s most important literary voices – writing 2 novels and 32 short stories, as well as a large number of reviews and commentaries in her relatively short lifetime (she died at age 39 from cancer).

Her writing often reflected both her regional roots and her Roman Catholic faith and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics. “Faith,” she said, “is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”
Much of O'Connor's best-known writing on religion, writing, and the South also was contained in her voluminous correspondence with other writers and educators, and after her death her longtime friend Sally Fitzgerald collected and published a book of them under the title The Habit of Being.   That book and other letters maintained by Emory University remain a key part of O’Connor’s legacy.

In 1972, O’Connor’s posthumously published Complete Stories won the National Book Award for Fiction and has been the subject of enduring praise.  In a 2009 online poll, it was named the best book ever to have won the prestigious award.                                   
                                  O’Connor said as a writer she enjoyed “studying people” and advised young writers to always be aware of their surroundings and the people they encountered.   “The writer should never be ashamed of staring,” she said.  “There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

When thoughts find the right words

“Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” – Robert Frost
Born on this date in 1874, Frost started his writing career in England before catching on in America.   His realistic depictions of rural life, usually set in New England, coupled with his command of American colloquial speech and language easily understood by the average reader, made him one of our all-time most popular writers. 

But it wasn’t just his ability to write in the language of the common man, it was also his ability to use that language to examine complex social and philosophical themes that made him a writing phenomenon.   Frequently honored during his long lifetime (he died in 1963 at age 88), Frost won 4 Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his life’s work, and was named Poet Laureate of Vermont for his final two years of life.  During that time he also was asked by President John F. Kennedy to create and read a poem for his 1961 inauguration. 
Born and raised in San Francisco,        Frost moved East to attend Dartmouth, later attended Harvard, and became a farmer in New Hampshire while honing and expanding his storied writing career.  There are too many of Frost’s poems to cite here, but his “Road Less Traveled By” and “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” are two of the most beautiful and poignant you ever might read. 

Frost once noted that “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.” I can only say:  Find a book of words by Frost and sit down in a quiet corner somewhere to read them.  You will be transported to his world in an instant and love each and every moment. 

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Powerful and timeless language

“The kinds of things that poetry can offer are timeless - mainly the kind of compression it offers of powerful language, powerful feelings and images, and, you know, the inner experience becoming outer.” – Brenda Hillman

Hillman has authored 9 poetry collections including Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, for which she received the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Northern California Book Award for Poetry.   Her 2009 book Practical Water won the LA Times Book Award for Poetry, and Bright Existence was a finalist for the Pulitzer.   

                     A native of Arizona who now makes her home in California, Hillman is known for poems that draw on elements of found texts and document, personal meditation, observation, and literary theory.   For Saturday’s Poem (from the April 2016 Bookish article “15 Poems That Could Change Your Life”) here is Hillman’s,

In The Trance
A pretty anarchist said to me
It’s not that a great love happens
What happened became your great love

Her echo had an ancient glo & so
Proved buoyant for my little craft

I left the world & felt a world

The bee loading its gloves with powder
The albatross wanting one thing from the sea

Nothing can wreck our boat said she

& when the water felt the glacier
The future held a present tense
The present held a future without cease

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Writing 'to speak' for your time

“A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.” – Dario Fo

On the same day last October that Bob Dylan was named for the Nobel Prize in Literature, one of the most acclaimed and previously controversial winners, Dario Fo, died at the age of 90.  Fo often said he was “an idiot” who just happened to win the Nobel Prize.  But “brilliant” would be a more fitting description.   An Italian actor, playwright, director, songwriter, and political campaigner he was “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre” during his lifetime.

A master of satire and irony, he grew up the son of a self-educated writing mother and day-laborer father who also was a traveling actor in the ancient Italian tradition of regional performance that lampooned local politicos and religious figures. “When I was a boy, unconsciously, spontaneously I learned the art of telling ironic stories,” he said.

Whether as an actor, writer or director, Fo, who was born on this date in 1926,  found religion and politics to be “fertile ground” for his works.   “Every artistic expression is either influenced          
 by or adds something to politics,” he once wrote. 

Fo’s writings – translated into 30 languages and performed worldwide – address issues ranging from dictatorial brutality to AIDS, religion, organized crime, and “military actions.”    His satire, he said, can easily be adapted to unjust situations anywhere in the world.    “Satire can always be found everywhere.  A people without love for satire is a dead people.”

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Those acts of self-exploration

“All writing is an act of self-exploration. Even a grocery list says something about you; how much more does a novel say?” – Steven Saylor

My move into historical fiction led me to explore other writers in the genre, and one of the more interesting is Steven Saylor, the native Texan who has mostly made his writing name by delving into Ancient Rome.  And, in a unique twist, he has created a very memorable early historical detective, Gordianus the Finder, who solves crimes while giving us a very palatable taste of Roman history and culture on the side. 
Born in Port Lavaca, Texas on this day in 1956, Saylor studied both history and the Classics at the University of Texas before deciding to combine the two with a love of writing and mysteries.   Among Saylor's best-known works is his Roma Sub Rosa historical mystery series set the time of Sulla, Cicero, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra.  He also has also authored two epic-length historical novels about the city of Rome, Roma and Empire.   His work has been published in 21 languages.

Saylor has also written several novels set in Texas including the 1880s[ A Twist at the End, featuring the great short story writer O. Henry, and the contemporary thriller Have You Seen Dawn?   

Honored with the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Robert L. Fish Award, Saylor is noted for his attention to even the smallest details             which, in turn, create delightful “discoveries” for readers to enjoy. 

“I'm like the painter with his nose to the canvas, fussing over details,” Saylor said.   “Gazing from a distance, the reader gets to see the big picture.”

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

No limit to lives you can live

“For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.” – Louis L'Amour

Born in North Dakota on this date in 1908, L’Amour became one of the great writers of Westerns and Historical Fiction, penning well over 100 books, achieving worldwide popularity, and once called “the most interesting man in the world” by actor John Wayne, who often portrayed characters L’Amour had created. 

L’Amour died in 1988 but lives on through his books, most of which have achieved multiple printings.  He said he became a writer by first becoming a reader early in life, something he cherished as he grew up moving around the country with his family.  During his teenage and young adult years, he lived throughout the West and Southwest, trying many different jobs and meeting hundreds of people who would become “character studies” for his books.

While he “dabbled” in writing early, he didn’t approach it seriously until the 1950s, but then he became widely and wildly successful.  He also was one of the pioneers in audio books, noting that he cherished the oral tradition of storytelling and wrote his books “to be read aloud.”  And, he always found time to read.          
“Often I hear people say they do not have time to read,” he once noted.  “That's absolute nonsense. In the one year during which I kept that kind of record, I read twenty-five books while waiting for people. In offices, applying for jobs, waiting to see a dentist, waiting in a restaurant for friends, many such places.  You always have time to read.”

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Creating that 'network' in the mind

“I think books create a sort of network in the reader's mind, with one book reinforcing another. Some books form relationships. Other books stand in opposition. No two writers or readers have the same pattern of interaction.” – Margaret Mahy
I’ve written about Mahy before but on the occasion of what would have been her 81st birthday I thought it appropriate to say just a few more words about this path-setting writer from New Zealand.  Mahy started her professional life as a librarian and it was this association with books and the words of writers, coupled with “the light in children’s eyes when they discovered new worlds through books” that led her to become a writer herself.

Twice awarded the Carnegie Medal – for The Haunting and The Changeover – she also won the world’s top international prize for children’s and young adult literature when she was named for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2006, just a few years before her death.  The words written about her then bear repeating:

“Mahy's language is rich in poetic imagery, magic, and supernatural elements. Her oeuvre provides a vast, luminous, but intensely personal metaphorical arena for the expression and experience of childhood and adolescence.                 Equally important, however, are her rhymes and poems for children. Mahy's works are known to children and young adults all over the world.

Each year, The Margaret Mahy Award is presented to a writer who has made a significant contribution to the broad field of children's literature and literacy.   Author of 100 picture books, 40 novels and 20 short story collections, her advice to young writers was first to be good readers, and then simply, “to write.”  Perfect advice for A Writer’s Moment.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Private work, public responsibility

The grand surprise has really been the fact that being an author, which to me had always implied being a private person, actually requires you to be a public person as well, and those are two separate entities to me.” – Lois Lowry

Lowry, born on this date in 1937, has authored some 40 books, mostly for young adults, and won Newbery Medals for Number the Stars and The Giver (also a critically acclaimed move).   She has been a two-time finalist (the latest this past year) for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest recognition available to creators of children's books.

A native of Hawaii, she is a much sought-after speaker and panelist and is well known for her support of international causes, particularly those related to children’s issues.   “I believe without a single shadow of a doubt that it is necessary for young people to learn to make choices. Learning to make right choices is the only way they will survive in an increasingly frightening world,” she said.

Her lifetime body of work has been recognized by the American Library Association with its prestigious Margaret Edwards Award for "significant and lasting contributions to young adult literature."               
 “I have been fortunate,” she said.  “I have done so many things and enjoyed so many things and had such a great life, not to imply that it is ending, but that there aren't many things that I feel I have left undone.”

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Finding that 'right' next word

“The novelist's obsession, moment by moment, is with language: finding the right next word. “ – Philip Roth
Born on this date in 1933, Roth jumped into a writing career with a bang, his first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, winning the National Book Award.
One of America’s most-honored writers, he has twice received the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award, and three times the PEN/Faulkner Award.   His 1997 novel American Pastoral, which featured one of his best-known characters Nathan Zuckerman, earned him the Pulitzer Prize.

Roth's fiction, regularly set in his native Newark, New Jersey, is known for its intensely autobiographical character, and for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction    “Literature isn't a moral beauty contest,” Roth said.  “Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts.”  His 29 novels and 4 collections of stories – 8 of which have been adapted for movies – have done just that.                         
                                        “It was my great problem to solve: how to write a book, you know,” he says about his ongoing striving to achieve.   “And after you write one, you have to write another to prove to yourself you can do it again.”

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Language ... and the way to use it

“I've always envied people who compose music or paint, because they don't have to be bothered with the sort of crude mess that language normally is, in everyday life and in the way we use it.” – Franz Wright

Born on this date in 1953, American poet Franz Wright and his father James Wright are the only parent/child pair to have won the Pulitzer Prize in the same category (his for his 2004 book of poems Walking to Martha’s Vineyard).   Prior to his early death from cancer in 2015 he was lauded by several critics as 
“America’s greatest contemporary poet.” 
In his precisely crafted, lyrical poems, Wright addresses           the subjects of isolation, illness, spirituality, and gratitude.   Of his work, he has commented, “I think ideally, I would like, in a poem, to operate by way of suggestion.”   For Saturday’s Poem, here is Wright’s,

The Mailman

From the third floor window
you watch the mailman’s slow progress
through the blowing snow.
As he goes from door to door

he might be searching
for a room to rent,
unsure of the address,
which he keeps stopping to check

in the outdated and now
obliterated clipping
he holds, between thickly gloved fingers,
close to his eyes

in a hunched and abruptly
simian posture
that makes you turn away,
quickly switching off the lamp.

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