THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES explores female friendship amid cultural conflicts in Jordan

The Confusion of Languages

By Siobhan Fallon

Putnam — June 27, 2017

$26.00, 324 pages

Siobhan Fallon made a huge impression on me with her debut story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), about the experience of military wives living at Fort Hood, Texas, and the men who leave them and later return in a range of challenging mental and physical states.

Fallon, who lived at Fort Hood and now resides in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, returns with her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, set in Jordan during the Arab Spring uprising in May 2011. It is the story of two American women whose military husbands work at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Cassie and Dan Hugo have been in Jordan for a while and are asked to serve as mentors to a newly-arrived (and newly married) couple, Margaret and Creighton (known as Crick) Brickshaw. Cassie has mixed feelings about mentoring Margaret, but she soon decides that a new friend, with a baby in tow, would be a good thing so far from home.

The plot is set in motion when Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor rear-end car accident. Margaret is astonished the local police officer ‘s brief, on-the-spot investigation concludes that the accident was her fault. Cassie’s explanation that in Jordan the woman is always at fault, as a legal and cultural matter, falls on deaf ears. An embassy guard, called to the scene by Cassie, explains that Margaret simply needs to go to the police station to complete some paperwork admitting fault, and the embassy will take care of everything after that. It’s Jordan, and they do things differently here. Upset, Margaret decides to go home first so she can change, feed her baby, and then go to the police station while Cassie babysits. But the hours pass and Cassie does not hear from Margaret, nor does Margaret respond to Cassie’s increasingly perplexed and agitated texts. Cassie begins to worry about her naive and emotional friend.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. 

Before long, the plot of The Confusion of Languages becomes as much a thriller as a cultural exploration and character study. Fallon tells the story through Cassie’s first-person narrative over the afternoon and evening of May 13, 2011, and Margaret’s journal, which Cassie discovers and then reads while she waits for Margaret to return from the police station.

Cassie soon learns that Margaret has a secret that could change everything.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet. Slender, blonde, and pretty, and seemingly extroverted, she is in fact carrying two heavy burdens. Margaret is loquacious, effusive, kind-hearted, and curious, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. But, as we soon learn from her journal, she is also introspective and something of an intellectual.

She is struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer and an oppressive childhood. She has placed all her hopes on her new life with Crick and their baby, Mather. Crick, the ultimate warrior, is trying to fulfill his sense of duty toward Margaret despite complications in their past.

Can this small-town girl find her way as a military spouse in the Middle East? She finds life in Jordan chaotic and difficult to understand. So, at the same time she is studying Arabic, she is also obsessed with the meaning of words in English, writing their definitions in her journal. She attempts to impose order on the chaos of the world and her life, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan’s complicated culture are often met with stubborn resistance and her determination to do things her way.

Cassie is coping with her own sense of loss in not being able to have a baby, and it is driving a wedge between her and Dan. Cassie is methodical and reasonable where Margaret is impulsive and unpredictable. Their friendship is erratic, moving from a developing intimacy to perplexing distance without any pattern.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan and to teach her about Jordanian culture, especially expectations regarding male-female interactions, are often met with stubborn resistance and Margaret’s determination to do things her way, without concern for Jordanian and Muslim customs. Margaret is certain that her warmth, kindness, and American “can do” approach will be sufficient in every situation.

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions.

But she is mistaken. Her innocent attempts to form friendships with Saleh, the maintenance man in her apartment building, and Hassan, a widower who works as one of the entrance guards at the embassy and who teaches her words and phrases in Arabic, lead to confusion and misunderstandings that go beyond “the confusion of languages.”

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions. Margaret eventually rejects Cassie as her guide to Jordan, preferring to find her own way and place her trust in her new father-figure of a friend.

The Confusion of Languages probes the ramifications of these misunderstandings and the characters’ good intentions gone awry. Both Cassie and Margaret are good people, but they are flawed and deeply human. Here, as always in good fiction, that is what makes for a memorable novel. Although their alternating perspectives create a rich, insightful character development, I was occasionally distracted by the nature of Margaret’s journal, which seems overly sophisticated and literary for a journal but, admittedly, does make for a more compelling read. Fallon is reportedly now at work on a novel about foreign laborers in Abu Dhabi, so she appears to be carving out a niche as the novelist of the expat experience in the Middle East.

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Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel

 

Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.

*****

Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name. 

Janet Benton: How keeping a diary changed my life, as a daughter and a writer

  

There are a lifetime’s worth of influences underlying any novel, including my own debut, Lilli de Jong. But one fundamental influence was this: My mother kept a diary. And thus began my understanding of the power of writing to oneself.

I grew up in an old Connecticut town, a semi-rural place with a few remaining farmsteads and a growing population of commuters to job hubs in Connecticut and New York. Our house bordered a swamp, and I met my best friend there most afternoons to explore plants and snails, worms, and a modest creek—a wending, narrow, rock-filled place that we found fascinating.

I loved my mother dearly. In my early years, I loved watching her in action: seated before an easel, silently spreading oil paint across a canvas; standing in the kitchen, cooking from recipes she followed with care; engaging in animated conversation with friends. I watched her freckled, pretty face when she was yelling, crying, laughing, reading. When she read, her face was open and soft.

When I wasn’t watching, she kept a diary.

People may have viewed a housewife’s diary-keeping then as a cute past-time—a way of elevating the purported trivia of her life or, at best, a way of finding company. But diaries are powerful. They offer a place where muffled voices can tell their truths. Diaries are tools for digging up what we know and for laying claim to what we find.

My parents divorced when I was nine. Even before my father moved out, mothering and keeping house were no longer central to my mother’s life. She’d already blasted free of the confinement of being a housewife in suburbia, married to an often silent man. Yet I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted to think that, at least in private, she considered me central. And somehow I figured out that she was keeping a diary. She kept the book in her bedroom; perhaps I came in once when she was writing.

After the divorce, she sometimes stayed out till late at night, doing exciting and important things I didn’t understand. More than once I went into her bedroom, pulled open the door of her night-table cabinet, took out the cloth-covered three-ring binder she wrote in, and scanned its pages. My mother’s scrawl was nearly incomprehensible to me, as she’d been a left-handed person in a school system that made her hold a pen in a bizarre manner to conform. But I managed to find out some of what she thought and felt about her art, her lovers, her nighttime dreams.

These matters were not what I was hungering to find. I was searching for my own name. Now and then I found it in a note about me doing some out-of-the-ordinary activity. “Janet left for camp today.” “Went tonight to Janet’s play.” I don’t remember finding more than a few sentences.

I stopped looking. Because when I read her diaries, there was no denying that she was the central character of her life. This was not what I wanted to believe. Inevitably, such a realization occurs in every relatively healthy mother-child relationship; it is important to understand—for those who were lucky enough to have had the opportunity, to some extent, not to understand—that one’s mother doesn’t exist as the sun to one’s earth. She is her own planet. In some circumstances, at some ages—or perhaps in some secret part of ourselves, always—it hurts to know this.

Still, I must have appreciated the candid way my mother wrote of what concerned her. I must have seen that a diary was a place for truth-telling. Because I decided that a diary was a place I needed to have. At ten, I created my first one, folding blank paper in half, stapling it in the middle, gluing fabric to its front and back. My parents were divorced by then, and divorce was uncommon in our little town. My dad was just about to marry the second love of his life, which shocked me; I didn’t like to know that our family was truly never going to cohere again. I needed a private friend. I wrote my first entry on the evening of that wedding.

My relationship to the page wasn’t immediately confessional. Like someone in the early stages of a courtship, I was coy. Within a year or two, however, I needed the pages of my diaries more than anything. I needed somewhere to be real.

Diaries are subversive by nature; they contain points of view that can’t be expressed publicly. If we want them to, they can hold anything we feel. As such, they are a particularly meaningful tool for anyone who’s not ideally situated in life.

Until I was a mother, I kept a diary for myself, gradually filling two old trunks with notebook after notebook. I carted these trunks from one coast to another, from apartment to apartment to house. They sit in my home office now, growing more fragile by the year. They say, “Open us! Claim us!” But I’m afraid. Do I dare to feel again what I felt back then? One day, I’ve often thought. I’ll see what I can make from all that.

When I became pregnant, I stopped filling notebooks with stories from the life of me. I began writing to my baby-in-progress. After my daughter’s birth, I continued writing to her future self in notebooks. But my own truths about adjusting to my roles as mother and wife became awkward, difficult. They seemed traitorous. I did write them in my own diary, a little, but time was scarce, and I wanted to write the novel that was coming to me. For the next dozen years, I wrote that novel instead.

I’ve long loved well-wrought novels that convince me the narrator is writing to a diary. Their immediacy creates tension, and by nature they allow readers close access to the diarist’s mind—an intimacy that satisfies. The diary novels I’ve counted as favorites include Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and two by Geraldine Brooks: Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders.

So it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that the first novel I’ve finished of the four I’ve begun—the first one I was willing to put eight or nine thousand hours into—is a diary. Lilli de Jong keeps it during a transformative four months of her life: from the last weeks of her pregnancy through her first months of learning to be a mother.

Women have long kept diaries. The published American women’s diaries I’ve seen from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are telegraphic in nature, describing visitors, work accomplished, the weather, and financial transactions; they rarely contain feelings. In some cases, more intimate sections may have been deleted by grandchildren or other editors who compiled the published versions. But no doubt many diarists didn’t feel that such things should be entrusted to a page.

An artist, though, may be more likely to know that such honesty is transformative. Beginning with her diary, poems, and paintings, my mother, Suzanne Benton, became powerful. She turned 81 last January on the stage of the Women’s March in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a huge crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She was introducing the city’s mayor, Rick Kriseman, because it was she who had conceived of that city’s march, had drawn people together to make it happen, had worked long days and nights to co-create the largest march ever assembled in St. Petersburg, with an estimated twenty-five thousand people.

“We know what we have to do,” she called out. “We know the path ahead is ours. Did the Berlin Wall fall because the government thought it was a good idea?” (The crowd shouted, “No!”) “Did the civil rights movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (“No!” again.) “Did the second-wave women’s movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (A large and rumbling “No.”) “We were a lot smaller than you, and look at what we did . . . Rights are not given—they’re won. So be brave, have courage, look out for your friends, for your neighbors, for each other . . . We’re going to stand together. We’re going to email, we’re going to call, we’re going to sit in on those legislators who have no moral compass, who go with the wind. Well, we’re a hurricane. Watch out, and hear us roar!”

Amid applause, Mayor Kriseman took the microphone and read a proclamation naming that day, January 21st, as Women’s Rights Day in St. Petersburg.

This large life my mother has claimed was not what others expected of her. She, too, had to win her rights. But that’s another story.

I saw my mother’s genius and her courage up close. By example, she taught me that making art is a process of healing, of inventing oneself, of telling one’s stories. She taught me that we create ourselves continually, and that being true to yourself can connect you with others in meaningful ways. As for those who are uncomfortable with this, one should stay too well occupied to notice. My mother showed me that making art offers a way to face and transform whatever life offers. She taught me that making art is a form of perpetually rescuing oneself.

Rescuing herself is precisely what Lilli de Jong does by keeping a diary in 1883 Philadelphia. She matters in those pages, and this helps her believe that her concerns should matter in the world. Her notebook-writing helps her stay honest with herself—and strengthens her voice. Keeping a diary sustains the dear and courageous unwed mother I invented, a young Quaker named Lilli de Jong.

I hope her story will move its readers, bringing them close to her mind and heart, as diary novels can do this like no others.

bio: Janet Benton is a writers’ mentor through her business, The Word Studio. Her debut novel, Lilli de Jong (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), is the diary of an unwed Quaker mother in 1883 Philadelphia who decides to keep her baby amid fierce prejudice. Visit http://www.janetbentonauthor.com to learn more.

MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS a suspenseful study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship

Mothers and Other Strangers

By Gina Sorell

Prospect Park Books: May 2, 2017

$16, 314 pages

It’s not unusual for adult children to become estranged from their parents. Sometimes it’s a psychological and emotional necessity, other times it’s simply the result of unfortunate events or misunderstandings. As the old saying goes, we don’t get to choose our family, and there’s no guarantee we will like each other, particularly as time goes on and we build separate lives.

Gina Sorell’s debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, explores this fraught territory with compelling results. It is a complex family drama, a dual (and dueling) character study, and a suspenseful mystery all in 300 pages.

Elsie is 39 and an ex-dancer living in Los Angeles when she learns that her mother, Rachel, has passed away at home in Toronto. More than just physical distance separates them; they have not spoken in two decades. Rachel, it turns out, is what we used to call “a real piece of work.” She is a mean-spirited narcissist concerned with how she appears to others and following her own spiritual muse around the world. She is not interested in being a mother, even though her husband passed away when Elsie was an infant. So, Elsie grows up seeking her mother’s attention and approval, but receiving little of either, and ultimately doing her best to raise herself.

When Elsie returns to Toronto to sort through her mother’s belongings and tie up the loose ends of her life, she finds that little has changed in her apartment in a luxury highrise building, and that her mother did not appear to be the wealthy woman her lifestyle had always suggested she was. What happened in the last 20 years? Did it involve her devoted membership in The Seekers, a “new-agey” spiritual group based in Paris, and her obsession with their charismatic founder, Philippe? When someone breaks into the apartment and turns it upside down looking for something – although it’s clear to Elsie there is nothing of value in the apartment of this elderly woman – she begins to suspect that her mother had led a different life than she’d thought.

Elsie’s return to Toronto forces her to examine a past she’d long quarantined, and the structure of Mothers and Other Strangers moves back and forth in time to reveal Elsie’s life, increasing the mystery and tension as the plot progresses. How did a child born in South Africa end up being raised in Canada? What really happened to her father? Why does she have nightmares involving a house fire and a black caretaker? Why did her mother view the Seekers as her family instead of Elsie? Why couldn’t her mother love her?

As Elsie peels back the layers of her mother’s life, she confronts her own traumas and the resulting demons that continue to follow her. Little is as it seemed to either the younger Elsie or the divorced adult Elsie. Mothers and Other Strangers could have been written as a straight suspense novel or as a close study of an exceptionally difficult mother-daughter relationship. Instead, Sorrel has combined the two to generally good effect, although it occasionally makes for odd pacing. For example, just as the enigma of Rachel’s life becomes particularly intriguing, we are taken back to Elsie’s teenage years as a gifted dancer who steadily establishes her independence from a mother who is absent physically and emotionally. Both aspects of the story are compelling, but one makes you turn the pages faster, and readers can become greedy about a complex, thought-provoking plot. Wait! What happens next?! Why? How? No!

Suffice to say (no spoilers here!), Elsie moves back through her mother’s life, to Paris and on to South Africa, to discover her many secrets, including the one that had proven the most impervious of all: Why was Rachel the person — and mother — she was? By the end, she has changed from a mystifying and heartbreaking stranger into a flawed young woman fleeing her own tragedies and attempting to build a life for her daughter and herself. Elsie learns, as do we all, that who we are is a direct result of our parents’ character and choices, and that they are, like us, deeply imperfect people.

1999-2013: The Short, Sad Life of an Unsuccessful Novelist

  

By Margaret Verble

I noticed my first symptom in 1999. A tingling in my fingertips. An odd feeling, like they were trying to grasp what they couldn’t reach, or, maybe, trying to run away. Definitely doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I, however, was doing exactly what I thought I should be doing: running a consulting business, playing tennis, vacationing in places that suited my self-image. Still, the tingling persisted. There was something wrong with me.

When I wasn’t on the road working, I began hibernating. My basement den is nice. Equipped with a computer, exercise equipment, and TV. The exercise equipment and TV didn’t alleviate the tingling. The computer keys, though, had a soothing effect. That’s what those fingers had been wanting to do. Tap, tap, tap, and so on.

And on. I spent every spare moment I had from 1999 through 2007 in my basement den at that computer. That’s nine full years. I decided early on that I could run a business and write fiction. But I didn’t have time to run a business, write fiction, and talk about writing fiction. The only person I discussed my writing with was my husband. He was also a consultant; but, when we’d fallen in love, he’d been the Poet in Residence for the Metro Nashville School System. David had once had a fine mind for literature. I’d had a fairly good one. But, you see, we’d chosen, instead, to earn a living.

To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

By 2007, I’d produced a couple of novels. And had tried to get agents for them. But I had no success at that. I began having other symptoms. A sinking feeling. A tenderness. Maybe, a perpetual pout. I decided I couldn’t get a novel published alone. I needed help. I used the handy computer and looked on the Internet. To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

I picked my first workshop on the basis of dubious criteria. 1. It had to be near New York, as even down in a basement in Kentucky it had come to me that the action is up there in the City. 2. It had to be near enough to drive to, as I fly too much for a living. 3. It had to offer critique sessions, because I had to know if I’d been wasting my time. 4. It needed nonfiction offerings, so I could entice my college roommate to go with me.

We picked The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, and I was assigned Roxana Robinson as my instructor. I read a couple of Roxana’s books, as I wanted to be sure she could write. (She sure can.) I took the books with me, as you can’t expect anyone to take an interest in you if you don’t take an interest in them. Roxana critiqued my manuscript. After I left our session, I read what she’d inscribed on the title page of her novel, Sweetwater, “For Margaret, Already a good writer.” That’s what nine years in a basement will do for you. You have to write to be a writer. And write. And write. And so on.

You also need a mentor, because nobody, I mean nobody, is successful alone. Roxana was kind enough to try to find me an agent. But agents are running businesses and have agendas of their own. None of the ones we tried wanted to take me on. I was discouraged. Kept writing. By then, not really by choice. By addiction. In July of 2008, I wrote in a journal, “I thought I’d found an agent for my fiction. But I’ve just opened a letter that says I’m wrong about that. Likes the writing. Doesn’t know where to sell it. He’s not the first. I’ve failed at this so much that disappointment feels like destiny calling. Hard work isn’t enough. I need that confluence of forces called Luck.”

Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night.

In October of 2009, I wrote, “If I were inclined toward discouragement, that rock would be rolling me down a hill. Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night. I still haven’t found an agent. I may have lost sight of the line between perseverance and futility.”

In February of 2010, Roxana came to Lexington for a book appearance. On that trip, she suggested I try writing short stories to build some credentials. I’m a novelist at heart; I didn’t want to do that. And I was busy. I had a contract with the NHS in the U.K., and a new British partner who was going through treatment for cancer. I was also exhausted and frightened. I didn’t take up Roxana’s advice until the next year.

In January of 2011, I wrote my first short story, “The Teller,” and sent it off to the Arkansas Review. I didn’t hear anything for months. I finally followed up with the editor, Janelle Collins. She told me the story was in the “Maybe” pile. But on August 13, she e-mailed me to say she’d accepted it. The news gave me validation and hope. It justified all those years down the stairs.

I got a few more short stories published after that. But I still didn’t have an agent. And I still hadn’t given up being a novelist. By the fall of 2013, I’d finished a new novel, Maud’s Allotment; but by then, I knew I had cancer. Informed by the pathology report after surgery for something else. My cancer surgery had to be delayed until I’d healed enough to be cut open again. I went on to Scotland to work because I had a commitment there, and because, when you’re in business, if you’re not actually dead, you have to show up. While I was in Edinburgh, I had a bad meal alone, and a short story rejected by e-mail. You get the picture here: cancer, rejection, bad food, and half an island away from my partner. I e-mailed Roxana. Mentioned only the bad food, rejection, and novel. She e-mailed me back. Said her agent was taking new clients. To send her, Lynn Nesbit, a hard copy.

When I got back to the U.S., I had two days before surgery, but I mailed that manuscript off. When Lynn sent a request for an electronic copy, I was somewhere in the bowels of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, too ill to sit up. My best friend brought my computer to me, moved me up in the bed, and helped me hit the right keys. When luck comes knocking, you have to answer immediately, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many pain meds you’re on.

Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see.

I was two days out of the hospital, still heavily doped, and sitting next to a bag of urine hooked over a drawer when Lynn called. She said she thought my book was “About 85% there,” and, before she tried to sell it, she wanted me to send it to an editor she would pick. I tried to sound coherent, and Lynn said she’d call back with a name. When we hung up, I looked at the bag of pee. Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see. Cancer puts things in perspective.

But the sailing has been smooth seas from there. The editor, Adrienne Brodeur, had good judgment and was helpful. I slowly regained my health. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought the book, and, Lauren Wein, my editor there, has been lovely to work with. Maud’s Line (the title was changed in New York) has a Pulitzer Finalist badge on the paperback cover, and is selling. I have a new manuscript with Lynn right now.

Fifteen years isn’t really a long time to learn a complicated task like novel writing. It really isn’t. It’s not painting by numbers. That unsuccessful novelist is dead and buried. For now. I am alive and healthy. Again, for now. My fingers still tingle. But I’ve gotten used to that.

* * * * *

This essay is reprinted from The Authors Guild Bulletin, Winter 2017.

Margaret Verble is a successful businesswoman and novelist. Her consulting work has taken her to most states and to several foreign countries. Upon the publication of her debut novel, Maud’s Line, Margaret whittled her consulting practice down to one group of clients, organ procurement organizations, tissue banks, and eye banks, to devote the rest of her time to writing. Maud’s Line was a Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is available in hardback, audio, and paperback.

The Pulitzer Prize committee praised Maud’s Line as “[a] novel whose humble prose seems well-suited to the remote American milieu it so engagingly evokes: the Indian allotments of 1920s Oklahoma.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Verble, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells a compelling story peopled with flawed yet sympathetic characters, sharing insights into Cherokee society on the parcels of land allotted to them after the Trail of Tears.”

 

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR uses the contradictions of modern Brazil to explore the ways we translate everything in our lives

Idra Novey -- Ways to Disappear

Ways to Disappear

By Idra Novey

Back Bay Books: Jan. 17, 2017

$15.99, 272 pages

This review was originally posted on May 23, 2016 and is being re-posted because the book has recently been issued in paperback. And because I think you should read it.


Ways to Disappear, poet and translator Idra Novey’s debut novel, is an absorbing exploration of the dichotomy between the perception and reality of a writer’s life. Novey’s protagonist, Emma Neufeld, translates the novels of the critically acclaimed Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda. But Emma is more than just professionally engaged in Yagoda’s work; she is obsessed with her writing and intrigued by her personal life.

When she learns that Yagoda has disappeared, she is convinced she knows what makes Yagoda tick in a way no one else does and can help find her. She flies from Pittsburgh to Brazil to help Yagoda’s suspicious daughter, Raquel, and charming son, Marcus, search for her and discover why she went into hiding. But, as you might expect, young and naive Emma encounters an even greater mystery in Brazil itself and ultimately learns that there is both more and less to Yagoda’s work than she could have imagined.

Emma’s well-intentioned belief that she is uniquely qualified to serve as a private investigator leads her on an unpredictable search through Yagoda’s personal and creative life that exposes her to Brazil’s hard brown underbelly. She faces off against a loan shark named Flamenguinho seeking to recover a debt owed by the writer. Yagoda’s publisher, Roberto Rocha, offers eccentric suggestions and financial support, once he learns that Yagoda may have a work in progress for him to publish.

Raquel plays antagonist to Emma’s meddling, while Marcus is more receptive to her interest in his mother and, before long, him. Together and apart, they chase down clues that lead them to the city of Salvador on the central coast.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are transcripts of reports from Radio Globo, desperate emails from Emma’s fiance back in Pittsburgh, and witty dictionary entries of words and phrases that shed light on Emma’s adventures (including sample sentences referencing Emma’s fraught circumstances). These additional voices add perspective to the careening narrative, as Emma searches for Beatriz, copes with Raquel, falls for Marcus, and negotiates with both Flamenguinho and Rocha.

Novey, who translates works in Portuguese and Spanish (including the work of Clarice Lispector), has concocted a savory Brazilian dish that puts literary traditions as diverse as noir, magical realism, and romance to use in clever and surprising ways.

Ways to Disappear is as complex and enchanting as modern Brazil itself, alternately breezy with fish-out-of-water humor and manic plotting, and humid with portent and mystery. Novey knows how to spin a multi-faceted tale with a love of language and literature at its heart. Like Emma, we are all engaged in the act of translating an author’s work to suit our own needs, completing the writer’s work through reading. Novey’s auspicious debut marks the arrival of a writer worth meeting halfway.

Update: Ways to Disappear won the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize for Fiction and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover” selection. NPR named it one of the Best Books of 2016 and it was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The book is currently a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in First Fiction, which will be awarded at the Times’ Festival of Books on April 21.

THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages


The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.