Turning her mother’s life into fiction: Anne Raeff talks with Barbara Ridley about her new Holocaust novel, WHEN IT’S OVER

  


I recently had the pleasure of reading this moving novel inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II. The protagonist is Lena Kulkova, a young Jewish woman who comes of age in Prague during the 1930s. There she is a member of a group of leftists and falls in love with a charismatic activist, Otto, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Before the war breaks out, she follows him to Paris and eventually joins him in England, where they spend the war years and where most of the book takes place. Although they are relatively safe in England, Lena is in a perpetual state of anxiety about the fate of her mother and sister who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia.

Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and dog. Find her online at http://www.barbararidley.com.

Anne Raeff is a novelist and short story writer. Her book of stories, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including New England Review, ZYZZYVA, Antioch Review, and Guernica. Her novels are Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia (2001) and Winter Kept Us Warm, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in February 2018.

Raeff: My first question is about how you came to write this book. Is it a book that you have always wanted to write, have always been writing, or was there something that pushed you to take up your pen now after all these years?

Ridley: It didn’t occur to me to write this novel until the death of my mother in 2002. A friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 40 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up in England, and when I started to tell her, she said: that is an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is. I had done very little creative writing before—just occasional poems or stories over the years—but I had published several academic articles, so I knew how to string words together on the page. So I thought: okay, maybe I could do this. But I didn’t start writing until three years later.

Raeff: I am wondering why and how you made the decision to tell your mother’s story as fiction. Did you consider writing it as memoir or biography or did you conceive of it as a novel from the start?

Ridley: I pretty much realized right from the start that I would write it as fiction. I had always known the outline of what had happened to my mother and her family during World War II, but there were a lot of gaps.  And the people who might have been able to fill in the gaps were either dead or memory-impaired. (I tried.) So, I thought, well, I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know.

Raeff: What was the most unexpected detail or information that you came across while you were doing research for this book and how did this affect the shape that the book took?

Ridley: First: I came upon a book on my parents’ bookshelves—this was after they had both gone, but before we had cleared out the house and their hundreds of books. It was a small 1940’s style Penguin paperback called The Internment of Aliens. I was astonished to learn that thousands of Germans, both Nazi sympathizers and Jews or Communists who had fled for their lives, were interned in England in 1940, as “enemy aliens.” It was very controversial, and this book, written at the time, was a polemical critique of the policy. I knew nothing about all this, and I found it fascinating. It became an important element in Lena and Otto’s story.

Then later, I was given the opportunity to read the letters my father wrote during the war. Initially, I hoped they would contain more information about the early stages of my parents’ relationship. But in spite of the fact that they were written to one of his closest friends, they were almost entirely devoid of any personal information, and didn’t mention my mother at all!  Instead, they offered long, detailed, and fascinating insights into the political climate during the last two years of the war, leading up to the defeat of Churchill and the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.  I always knew Labour won this election, but how was it that Churchill, the great wartime leader, lost so badly? And how would it have affected my protagonist: the euphoria of this victory against the backdrop of the revelations about the fate of those sent to concentration camps? This was very interesting to me, and I incorporated it into the last section of the novel.

Raeff: Since the book is so rooted in your mother’s story, can you talk a little bit about how you learned her story? Did you grow up hearing the stories that would later become the core of this book, or were you the one who initiated discussions about her past?

Ridley: I grew up knowing the general outline of how she was a refugee during the war, and she told a few stories about the group living together in the tiny cottage in the village. But she didn’t talk about it often or in detail, and certainly she never dwelt on the emotional impact of her family’s past. When I was in my thirties, after I had already moved to California, I interviewed her, recording an oral history on a 90-minute cassette tape.  This was 20 years before she died, and the first and only time she told me a lot of the story that forms the core of the novel. She gave me a glimpse there of her hopes and her anguish about the fate of her family members left behind, but we rarely talked about it more after that.  Years later, I had that tape transcribed, and I referred to it a lot while writing. Unfortunately, the tape ran out just as she was talking about the man who formed the basis of the character of Otto in the novel—and I can’t remember if she told me more about him, but if she did I didn’t record it.

Raeff: Since the book is based on a true story, I am curious to what extent you used the facts and actual details of your mother’s life. I am especially interested in knowing whether the main characters surrounding her existed and whether their roles in her life and in politics are the same?

Ridley: Broadly speaking, yes. My mother was involved in the Socialist Youth movement in Prague in the 1930’s. The man whom I call Otto in the novel did exist, but I know very little about him or their relationship, so most of that is fictionalized. But it’s true that he was a spy for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, she did follow him to Paris, and he was instrumental in finally getting her an entry permit for England—after many failed attempts. The characters Muriel and Milton in the novel are based on my grandmother and father, and their politics are pretty accurately portrayed. My grandmother came from a very privileged background but developed an unorthodox lifestyle and liberal views.

Raeff: In the book both Lena and the British man she ended up marrying were activists, socialists. Did your parents continue to be active in politics in England until late in life? Did their politics change? How did their activism affect the way you view the world and the choices you made?

Ridley: My father continued to be active in politics, and in the 1950’s ran twice (unsuccessfully) for Parliament as a Labour Party candidate. I grew up a “red diaper baby,” as it used to be called in the U.S.  At the age of two, I declared that “there are two kinds of parties: the Labour Party and birthday parties,” and soon I was taken to “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations.  Later, my father became disillusioned with Labour for moving too much to the center. I was constantly exposed to his running commentary on current affairs, which was very different from the narrative I heard at school or in the media.  So I learned to be skeptical and form my own opinions.

My mother became a 1950’s stay-at-home housewife, and was not directly involved in politics, but they both maintained a left-wing outlook throughout their lives, and my mother was an early supporter of the Green Party.  But they lived in a staunchly conservative upper-middle class area, where they were very different politically from their neighbors, and they took a conservative newspaper. In England, as you may know, the daily newspapers are all national, not regional, but distinguished from each other by their political bent.  So usually, if you see what kind of newspaper someone reads, you pretty much know all you need to know about their social class and political affiliation. But my parents read the Daily Telegraph, the most conservative of the quality papers. They preferred its news coverage, they said.  I found that odd.  I was eager to escape the conservative small-town environment in which I was raised, and head for the big city, and I have chosen to live most of my adult life in the politically-liberal San Francisco “bubble.”

Raeff: Because I am also the child of immigrants and refugees from World War II, I was particularly interested in Lena’s loyalty and feeling of connection to England, her adopted country. As the child of an immigrant, growing up English, what were your struggles?

Ridley: My mother was loyal and grateful to Britain, but as an immigrant, she also had an outsider’s perspective, and she often mocked English mannerisms and certainly English cooking, the way the vegetables were boiled into oblivion, for example. (This was back in the 50’s and 60’s; it’s vastly improved now.) So, I always felt different, and somewhat of an outsider myself. I had a mother with a foreign accent (which was uncommon), and then there were all the political differences I just mentioned, plus we didn’t go to church, which was a big deal. My parents were not religious, which was unusual back then, and in school—the equivalent of what we would call a public school in the U.S.— we had to begin every day with Christian prayers.  So I always felt odd, and that I didn’t completely belong. And then, in an interesting parallel, I ended up as an immigrant myself, moving to another continent, to find a place where I felt more at home.

Raeff: I am always interested in how a writer’s profession or work influences his/her writing. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how your years as a nurse practitioner shaped you as a person and a writer?

Ridley: That’s such an interesting question. I loved my work as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner and I spent most of my career in rehabilitation nursing, working with people with neurological disabilities, helping them adjust to life after devastating injury or disease.  As a person, this has made me always appreciative of my own good fortune and health. As a nurse, I felt privileged to witness the huge range of response to trauma and adversity.  I had to accept wherever my patients were coming from, and acknowledge their perspective, not impose my idea of what they should be feeling.  I was always inspired by their resilience.  Perhaps this informs the way in which I write about my characters facing trauma and my ability to get inside their heads, interpreting scenes from different points of view.

Raeff: Do you have any advice for other writers who are working on books that are so closely drawn from real historical events?

Ridley: I worked very hard to make sure that all the historical details were correct, and that I was not introducing any objects or language that would not have existed at the time. I think this is very important. You don’t want the reader to be thrown out of the story and not trust the authenticity of the world you are creating.  But working as I was from family history, I learned that you have to be able to view the narrative as a separate entity, with a life of its own. My protagonist is based on my mother, but Lena is not my mother. She became a character that I created. During the process of writing the novel, and workshopping chapters, I would sometimes receive feedback that this action or event was not “believable.” And I had to resist the urge to say, “But it really happened.” It is not enough that something really happened; it has to be believable within the arc of the story.

Raeff: What are you working on now or, if you haven’t started something new yet, what are you thinking of working on next?

Ridley: I am working on another novel—completely different, set in contemporary California, and very much based on my years of clinical experience. It’s about a young woman having to reinvent herself after a spinal cord injury.

Advertisements

Jung Yun’s long and unlikely path to publication, from Fargo to NYC and beyond

              

Seven acclaimed women authors shared personal stories of their writing life at the ninth annual Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, held at the Pasadena Hilton on April 8.

Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest), Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty), and Amy Stewart (Lady Cop Makes Trouble) headlined the event, speaking to more than 500 attendees in the hotel’s main ballroom. Mid-morning breakout sessions featured Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen), Rufi Thorpe (Dear Fang, With Love), and Jung Yun (Shelter).

I attended the session with Jung Yun, whose debut novel, Shelter, impressed me (and seemingly everyone else who has read it). Yun’s path to publication is a long and unlikely one. She immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea at age 4, following her father, who came a year earlier to scout out a place in Chicago. Finding it too expensive, he was considering alternatives when someone told him that Fargo, North Dakota was a nice place to live and quite affordable. Yun laughed as she told us, “He visited in the summer!” Her father liked it, despite the fact that there was no Korean-American community there. You can imagine the family’s culture shock when they arrived in November.

Yun was slow to learn English, so she spent a great deal of time watching people, particularly how they addressed each other, an important element of communication in Korean. She began writing early and developed other interests common to the smart, solitary person: reading, painting, and playing music. Her artistic sensibility did not fit her parents’ ideas of what constituted worthwhile activities and career goals. Yun explained, “My parents had left everyone and everything for their children, and my achievements were material evidence of the value of their sacrifice.” The more pragmatic and academically successful she became, the more she lost her artistic interests and activities.

She attended Vassar College and the University of Pennsylvania and before long was working as the assistant to the president at the New York Public Library. Even though her parents would have preferred Yun to study something other than English and to enter a profession, she said, “I knew that it meant the world to my parents to visit me there,” in the iconic building with the statues of lions at the entrance and the impressive Rose Reading Room. Yun was both frustrated and inspired by the sight of writers like Gore Vidal and Francine Prose working in the Reading Room.

Walter Mosley spoke to her one day and when she said she was a writer, too, he immediately asked, “What are you working on?” His interest and acceptance in her as a fellow writer validated her. But when she said she wasn’t writing much because of the demands of her job (including working 15 hours a day), he replied, “Something has to give.” She needed to write. Unhappy with work, she enrolled in a community writing workshop in Tribeca. It was the source the greatest happiness in her life. “I never missed class, no matter how crazy my day was. Sometimes I raced down there for class and then went back to the library to work into the night.”

After the events of 9/11, she decided to leave New York. Within nine months, she quit her job, sold her apartment, got a divorce, and moved to Amherst to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts. It all seemed so drastic that her boss at the NYPL asked her, “Are you OK?” So, in 2002 she found herself living in Amherst with a cow for a neighbor. “That was the first thing I saw every morning.” She found the MFA program “a trying experience, I wanted to quit the entire time.” But she earned her MFA and continued to write while working as an administrator at UMass.

The inspiration for Shelter came in 2004. Her parents were getting older and talking about retirement, something she struggled to grasp, as they were such hard-working people. She knew they were going to need her and her sister more. This change of circumstances inspired scenes and conflicts that eventually led to the novel. But she shelved the idea until 2007, when she read about a violent home invasion in Connecticut, which only the father survived. She followed the case obsessively. In time, she connected one of the early scenes from the book – of the mother wandering around the backyard naked – with this crime. Yun became intrigued by the question of what would happen to a family with a history of violence in their lives.

Yun started writing Shelter in 2010 and finished in 2013. Having turned 40 during its writing and receiving no response from agents, she began to feel discouraged about the likelihood of being published. “But I knew I couldn’t return to life in New York, so I kept writing and revising, trying to turn the character of Kyung [the young husband and father at the center of the novel] into a person.”

Yun concluded the story of her long path to publication by telling the audience, “I was 42 when an agent took Shelter on, 43 when I got a publishing contract [with Picador], and 44 when it was published [last year].”

Jung Yun lives in Baltimore with her husband and serves as an assistant professor of English at the George Washington University. Shelter was a finalist for the 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and the Good Reads Best Fiction Book of the Year, and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. It was also an Indie Next selection, a Barnes & Noble Discover spring 2016 selection, an Amazon Best Books of March 2016 selection, an iBooks Best Books of March 2016 selection, and one of Google Play’s Best Books of Spring 2016.

***

The PFWA began in 2009 when Pasadena residents Elsie Sadler and Susan Long, inspired the Long Beach Festival of Authors sponsored by the city’s Literary Women group, collaborated with Peggy Buchanan, Executive Director of the Pasadena Senior Center, to host a small gathering of book lovers with six authors, including Gail Tsukuyama and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. With a rapidly growing membership, the board formed the Pasadena Literary Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, in 2015. Proceeds from the event are donated to the Senior Center’s Masters-in-Learning program and Pasadena City College’s Writer-in-Residence program.

Authors featured in previous festivals include Aimee Bender, Cynthia Bond, NoViolet Bulawayo, Heidi Durrow, Fannie Flagg, Reyna Grande, Kristin Hannah, Michelle Huneven, Attica Locke, Joyce Maynard, Nayomi Munaweera, Lisa See, Maggie Shipstead, Marisa Silver, Mona Simpson, Susan Straight, and Helene Wecker.

Photo of Jung Yun by Stephanie Craig

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR explores a life in translation in modern Brazil

Idra Novey -- Ways to Disappear

Ways to Disappear

By Idra Novey

Little, Brown: Feb. 9, 2016

$25.00, 258 pages

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. 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 gone missing, 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.

Missing the Turn: Debut novelist Ashley Sweeney on the hike that led her to ELIZA WAITE

Ashley Sweeney

We missed the turn.

Bracken fern and wild salal must have covered a weathered sign marking the trail route along the seldom-used path to Eagle Cliff. My husband, Michael, and I were hiking the three-mile loop to the top of the cliff on remote Cypress Island in the Washington San Juan Islands on one of those rare and beautiful October days that we get here in the Pacific Northwest—with peppered sun, light breeze, and balmy fall temperatures.

We had anchored the night before in secluded Eagle Cove on the eastern side of the island with a half-dozen other late fall boaters and sailors. The morning chill disappeared after scrambled eggs and coffee—and when the sun finally peeked over the Cascade Mountains. Sometime in the late morning we rowed the dinghy to shore to explore the island.

Without a map, we ventured into the deep woods of the largely uninhabited island and relied on trail markers to guide us to our destination: Eagle Cliff, a 700-foot basalt outcropping overlooking the whole of the San Juan archipelago and Vancouver Island beyond. Eagle Cliff is a recognizable landmark for boaters and sailors for miles away, located at the northernmost tip of Cypress Island in Washington State’s Northern Puget Sound. From that vantage point, we would see for nearly 100 miles in almost every direction.

About halfway through the loop, we came upon a marsh buzzing with activity—frogs, dragonflies, and armies of insects skirting the pond’s surface of scum and debris.

“I think we might have missed the turnoff,” Michael said.

We sat by the pond’s edge for a half-hour as Michael offered his biologist’s observations about the marsh flora: its pond grasses, lily pads, and duckweed. The birds. The frogs. The constant hum of activity.

We swatted mosquitoes. Swigged bottled water. Sat for as long as our conversation meandered.

“Shall we go back and try to find the trailhead?” I asked. “Or should we follow this path and see where it takes us?”

We decided to follow the trail to see where it would lead, knowing we could easily retrace our steps back to Eagle Cove. Where the trail eventually led was to Smuggler’s Cove, a sheltered cove on the island’s north side at the foot of the massive cliff face we had aimed to climb. Picking our way down to the beach through brambles and errant twigs, we looked up to the top of Eagle Cliff, our missed endpoint.

Before us lay Rosario Strait, the major north-south waterway running through the center of the San Juan Islands. Several powerboats motored into view, with popular Orcas Island in the backdrop beyond.

As our eyes adjusted to the filtered light at the edge of the forest, we spied a structure almost completely hidden perched just above the cove.

Curious, and never one to shy away from intrigue, Michael tromped up to the dilapidated cabin and disappeared inside.

“Come and see this!” he hollered down to the beach.

I picked my way to up through the dense underbrush to the cabin and peered inside.

Barely 15 x 15, the cabin’s single room housed stood completely empty except for the memories of any former occupants and copious wildlife droppings.

Who had lived here? When? And why?

A small plaque near the cabin recounts the story of a Mrs. Zoe Hardy who lived as a hermit at the cabin in the 1930s. She farmed the area, eschewed strangers, and lived self sufficiently. Her story ends abruptly and mysteriously a decade later. After a terminal medical diagnosis she refused all supplies and visitors and eventually died, although her body was never found.

The find fascinated us.

“I can just envision it, a woman, alone on Cypress Island. What led her here, and why?”

That night, the seed for Eliza Waite was born. We stayed awake deep into the night discussing the plot arc and character development. Although completely fictitious, Eliza inhabits the same cabin that Mrs. Hardy once occupied. On the island, both Mrs. Hardy and the fictional Eliza scramble to feed themselves, stay warm, and remain sane in a remote and lonely place.

Thus began an eight-year journey to bring Eliza Waite into the world. Eliza Waite follows the story of a disenfranchised woman who faces tragedy and loss, first as the daughter of Victorian parents and later as the young bride of an arrogant minister. When her son dies in a smallpox epidemic, her grief knows no bounds. Although all but a few misfits leave the island after the tragedy, Eliza cannot abandon the only child she thought she would ever have, even though he was dead. She remains on the island for three years. As her grief wanes, she glimpses a brighter future and joins the throng of humanity traveling north to the Klondike in the spring of 1898 in search of gold.

When she arrives in Skagway, Alaska, Eliza has less than fifty dollars to her name and not a friend in the world. With a backdrop of historical events and historical characters, including the infamous Soapy Smith, who died in a gunfight on Skagway’s lawless streets, Eliza borrows money and opens a successful bakery on Broadway and grows into a confident and enterprising businesswoman.

Her story is full of surprises and yes, what could be perceived as wrong turns. Where Eliza ends up is a far cry from where she started.

And, just like our missed turn on a day hike on Cypress Island, it goes to show that making a wrong turn, missing the signs, or taking the road less traveled—whether by choice or by chance—can lead to another story, and even a fascinating life-changing adventure.

“Your story is the best one to tell.” Marian Palaia on writing who you are and what you know

Marian Palaia 2016  the-given-world-paperback

By Marian Palaia

Here is a thing I have been known to tell beginning fiction students: Write about someone who is not you. I tell them this because I am trying to get them to use their imaginations. I am trying to head off the production of another batch of more or less true “short stories” about break-ups, disloyal friends, summers in Paris or Stockholm, winter breaks in Cancun. Of course when you — most of you, of us, straight-out-of-high-school freshmen — are young, and have had our hearts broken, found out our best friends are not who we thought they were, or traveled to Mexico or Europe for the first time, the number of experiences we have had, against which to compare these, is limited. Because it is, these experiences shine exceptionally bright. I totally get this part, but it’s my job to push my students past their limits (as writers). They do not always go willingly.

When I ask students to try to imagine being someone else, whose stories might be more interesting and more complex than the ones they tend to gravitate to, it sounds simple enough, but it isn’t, because they have already been told, over and over, Write what you know. At face value, this is usually taken to mean, Write true stories, starring you. Also, as Willa Cather had it, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” And while I don’t disagree with this theory (though it might be a bit of an exaggeration), because there is much in each of our lives that is unique, I do believe it takes most writers a long time to recognize what parts are worth mining, what is most rare and distinctive about their stories. So they write about their trips to Paris, because trips to Paris are what is different to them. Because their lives have been normal, fairly uninteresting, for all they, so far, know.

So I try to explain what “write what you know” means to me. But it’s hard. Maybe because it is a moving target, and it means different things at different times. Maybe it is the DNA sequencing of a tiger, and maybe it is what you know on an emotional level to be true. In the latter case, you might find the proper combination of words and formation of imagery that what your reader experiences is exactly what you were after. Or maybe you won’t know what you’re after, which is not only fine, it is good, so long as you are writing what you know in your heart to be true. Another moving target, but moving targets come with the territory.

A middle ground is one I roamed often in my early writing years (like, 20 of them). It was more or less a schizophrenic place, where I did make things up, but at the same time felt beholden, too often, to adhere to the verifiable truth. My life has been other than ordinary (whatever that is, I know), in that my trajectory was pretty much all over the place, in that there was zero track-able trajectory at all — there was just me, launching myself, mostly blindly, into whatever space was in front of me at the time. Without going into too much detail, for many years I thought writing short stories meant tacking pretty endings onto true stories of fucked-up-ness. Or not pretty, but ways I wished things had turned out, things I wish I had done. Gotten a gun, for example, and shot the bad guy — the real guy, a poker player, who thought breaking into my house to beat me up was the best way to get me to come back to him — and driven off into the mountains with the good guy (the nonexistent one, the perfect boyfriend all the girls in workshop fell in love with) and the cat (also fictional, but the story needed something furry, as a foil) and the pint of Jim Beam (based on a true story lasting years). Etcetera.

For a long time I thought the fucked-up-ness was the story, and this mindset prevented me from creating anything that was more than a series of “punk westerns” (as my workshop mates in Montana called them). Eventually I ran out of punk western stories, and sort of grew up, or maybe it was the other way around. In my forties I embarked for a while upon a “normal” existence (job, benefits, bureaucracy, house, dog, alcoholic boyfriend), and when, after five or six years, it threatened to do me in (I really suck at bureaucracy, and boyfriends), I went back to school, at 54, to get my MFA. And even though I had “grown up,” I still felt beholden to writing old truths, until I took a nonfiction class, which gave me a place to put my real stories, which opened up a vast landscape of lying, which is what fiction writers are meant to do. Problem solved, as in, not exactly.

The first piece of what turned out, 12 years later, to be my first novel, The Given World, begins, “So that was me, going on 18, not too tall, no tits to speak of, brown hair to my ass, parted in the middle and brushed intermittently, worn just far enough out of my eyes so I could see, but my peripheral vision was not what it could have been.” That was me. She/I worked in a gas station, drove a ’67 Mustang convertible which looked like it had been through a war, dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic (and perhaps joining the Army to do it), smoked copious amounts of dope but didn’t handle being stoned very well, and was more than a little crazy. Heard voices, really. Drove and drove, in search of, on the run from, imagining total wreckage at every turn. That kind of crazy. My kind.

Fast forward to the MFA, the nonfiction workshop, the addition to the story of more stories about this girl, who became Riley, who became (so the real-life story goes) less and less me and more and more herself. As she became more and more herself, the book became a whole lot better, until it became a novel about a girl who was not me. Whew. Except. At least half the book is still me. On the “write what you know” emotional and psychic level, a lot more than half. What goes around comes around.

Horror writer Stephen Graham Jones, in a recent interview with Indian Country Today, uses hypothetical vampire cats to talk about his experience:

. . . the trick is, whatever you write, you invest your whole self in it. So what I have to do when I write about vampire cats in space or whatever is find the story in there that’s actually me, dealing with my dad or with women or something like that. And once you have that emotional core, that dynamo spinning, it just makes the cats in space come alive in a good way.

That spinning dynamo is key (vampire cats, metaphorically, a little less so), and an incredibly difficult thing to teach. Lorrie Moore was my first MFA teacher. She told me, in essence, to write the hard stuff, the stuff that hurts. I believed her, and found that I could write “painful”, without soft landings or happy endings, and I began to, because I was ready. Because I had already gotten all the punk westerns I had in me out of the way. I just needed someone to tell me. And since I do not write horror, or any sort of speculative fiction, instead of vampire cats I had real people — real messed up people — and my relationship to them. A few of those who were closest to me had died by the time I wrote the book (a few others are now hanging on by a thread). My version of cats in space was to bring them back to life, which was a gift, but which also required digging my heart open with a dull implement, like a spoon. I did what Lorrie said. I am very attached to these characters, who were and are my people, and very protective of them, as it turns out. I wasn’t exactly prepared for this.

When I read about my book (newspaper and blog reviews, Amazon, Goodreads, etc.), I often encounter acceptance and understanding of these not-so-imaginary characters (“me” included), and I think, “Yay! Somebody got it.” Less often, but still often enough, Riley’s choice of traveling companions and her inability to get her shit together, in a linear fashion, are a huge source of frustration for readers. At first I was surprised by this, not to mention hurt by what some folks said. I have been advised by more experienced writers to not even read my Amazon and Goodreads reviews. (They say they don’t, and I believe, like, two of them, though it does become much less of an obsession as time goes on.) The easy thing to do would be to decide that these frustrated readers have clearly never had anything bad happen to them, and therefore do not have the perspective necessary to understand Riley and her posse of misfits. That would be the easy thing. But.

I have come to accept, not because I wanted to, but because I have had to, that if the problem is not some reviewers’ un-empathetic (my take, on my worst days) impatience with Riley, some of it must be with my stubborn insistence on telling a mostly relentless series of dark truths, to the point that a lot of readers want nothing more than to be let up, relieved, and released from them. I cannot express how hard this acceptance has been. I’m not even sure yet it has been acceptance. But I do get it, as much as, being me, I can.

Here is a connection, though, which is not completely tangential: a thing I have at times given some thought to, but had not applied directly to my work, but was reminded of recently, at an event at which three writers — all women — spoke about writing, and publishing, and being female in the world of books. They talked about Claire Vaye Watkins’s excellent Tin House essay on pandering, which is (loosely) about women writing what they know men will accept, because it is written, however consciously or unconsciously, to hew to a male aesthetic. They talked about “likable” characters, and whether or not female characters, written by females, are expected to be likable, whereas male characters, written by males, can be anything they damn well please. And it hit me: “Right? There it is.” Riley is not likable throughout much of the book. She is not meant to be likable; nor was I trying to write a character whose nature was to be disliked. Likability was the last thing on my mind as I was writing. Fuck likable. People are complex and messy and they do stupid things. Sometimes they do stupid things over and over for long periods of time, trying to sort it all out — three steps forward, two steps back, or two forward and three back. That. Is. Life. That is male life, and it is female life and it is non-binary life. It is what we all share. One would hope.

If I got to choose, I would say the book that The Given World most closely resembles, in structure, subject, trajectory, is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I loved when it came out, and still love after many reads. (I even have the movie poster.) I do not claim to be the writer Johnson is, or was then, but my writing is not, either, what seems to bug some readers about my book. What bugs them is its disjointedness, its main character’s inability or refusal to walk a straight line. I started wondering, so I looked at some reviews of Johnson’s book, and I don’t know if “gratified” is the right word for my reaction to what I found, but it might be. What I found was that readers (percentage-wise, as Jesus’ Son has many more reviews), found our main characters and our story-telling styles equally aggravating. The terms “hot mess,” “lost,” “disjointed,” “not inspiring,” and “broken” are very familiar to me, and would be to Johnson if he read his Goodreads reviews (which I doubt he does, with absolutely no evidence to back me).

One person’s take on Jesus’ Son, pretty much representative of both our one- and two-star reviews:

“Don’t waste your money on this book! If you want to read about drug use and wasted lives, feel free. (Angry at the book club member who picked this book over Tenth of December.)”

I know of at least one book club member who is in similar trouble for recommending The Given World, for exactly the same reason. Long story short, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is, when you are ready to go digging at your heart with a spoon, disregard the advice (from that exhausted teacher) at the beginning of this piece, about your story maybe not being the best one to tell. Your story is the best one to tell. It may take you a while to find it, but if you work at it long enough, you will. And maybe I was too relentless with mine, because I was telling a story I had to get out of me, because I had been carrying it around for so long. It is dark. It is bruising. It is fucked-up-ness piled on tenderness piled on more fucked-up-ness, leading to something that looks something like redemption might look after it has been buried in a pile of refuse under a pile of rocks for a very long time. It is still my story, in more ways than one. And despite its relentlessness, I don’t know, if given the chance, that I would write it any other way.

This essay was previously published on Medium on April 5, 2016. 

https://medium.com/galleys/fuck-likeability-write-what-you-know-write-who-you-are-f4fc7dba8176#.3sxwnz1jf


Marian Palaia is, according to her website, a “writer, wanderer, shit disturber.” Her debut novel, The Given World, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015. It made the longlist for the PEN/Bingham First Novel Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick and an Indie Next selection. Born in Riverside, California, Palaia currently resides in San Francisco and Missoula, Montana. To support her writing habit, Marian has been a teacher, a bartender, a truck driver, “chip girl” in a poker room, and the littlest logger in Lincoln, Montana, where she and Ted Kazynski were neighbors, sort of.

Of The Given World, Lorrie Moore said, “Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer.”

JUVENTUD a thought-provoking coming of age story set against complexities of Colombia

Juventud cover  Vanessa Blakeslee 2014

Juventud

By Vanessa Blakeslee

Curbside Splendor: Oct. 27, 2015

$15.95, 338 pages

As serendipity would have it, I ended up reading two books set in South America back to back. After a steady diet of fiction set in the U.S. and Europe, spending time in Colombia and Brazil constituted a much-needed change of scenery for my Westernized imagination.

Juventud (Youth) is Vanessa Blakeslee’s first novel after a stellar short collection, Train Shots. The standout story in that book was set in Costa Rica, so it’s not surprising that she would write about the manifold issues of life in Colombia at the turn of the millenium.

The story is narrated by its 30-year-old protagonist, Mercedes Martinez, who guides us through a multi-level coming of age story. The novel begins in 1999, as she looks back 15 years to the period in her life when everything changed. Mercedes is the 15-year-old daughter of a wealthy Cali landowner and an American mother who long ago fled to her home country. She adores her father, dreams of her long-absent mother (about whom she knows little and has had no contact with), and frets about her social life. She is, in other words, a fairly typical adolescent.

Mercedes’ opening observations set the stage for the textured depiction of a young woman navigating a complex set of conflicts in her personal life and her homeland.

“Along with most of the professional- to upper-class, I moved through my daily routine largely unaffected by their troubles: one in five residents out of work and unemployment rising, the streets jammed with listless young men, guerillas and government still at war after four decades, one- to two-million Colombians displaced from their villages by the bloodbaths….Otherwise, the disparity outside my windows didn’t faze me much. I was still mourning the loss of my first crush, whom I’d met at a Valentine’s dance and whose parents had swiftly enrolled him at a military school in the United States a few weeks later, after the FARC [the dominant rebel army] captured and assassinated three indigenous-rights activists, all American. That was my luck, I thought, almost sixteen and still no boyfriend. Like any teenage girl, I yearned to fall in love. Beyond that, I had few desires.”

Soon Mercedes meets Manuel, a handsome 21-year-old activist and devout Catholic, who shows her the brutal reality of the economic and cultural woes of her country. She experiences an awakening of her social conscience and now views the desplazados (displaced ones) who camp on the fringes of her family’s sugarcane plantation with new eyes. But a greater awakening awaits her, as the social justice work of Manuel causes her to examine her assumptions about her father and the past he has left shrouded in silence and misdirection.

As Mercedes becomes increasingly involved with Manuel and his activities, the fog of her youth lifts and she begins to see more clearly the circumstances of her privileged life, especially the precarious nature of her father’s financial success and social status.

An explosive event (no spoilers here) forces her to flee to the United States. The second half of Juventud follows Mercedes as she navigates culture shock, completes her education, and moves into life as a young professional. Her memories of life in Colombia remain a powerful presence and an unshakable part of her character. Her mother may have been American, and she may have lived there from age 16 on, but she is Colombian. After 15 years, events call her home, where she confronts the truth about her father and the life she thought she understood.

Blakeslee has written a multi-faceted novel that combines a coming of age story, a socio-political exploration of modern Colombia, and a sympathetic fish out of water story full of cultural conflict. It seems well-researched and accurate (to the extent I am able to judge that) and never struck a wrong note in its detailed descriptions or crisp dialogue.

What struck me as I read Juventud was that, with some judicious editing, it would make a terrific Young Adult novel about a time, a place, and a set of social and economic issues that the adolescents of 2016 know little or nothing about but would certainly find involving and enlightening.

Juventud is a satisfying and thought-provoking read, intelligent fiction that informs as it entertains.

BLACK RIVER seeks redemption in the heart of Montana’s darkness

Black River paperback cover

Black River

By S.M. Hulse

Mariner Books: Jan. 5, 2016

$14.95, 240 pages

 

Anyone who lives or travels in the west knows well the distinctiveness of this region: it’s not just the mountains, valleys, and deserts, or the mighty Pacific Ocean, it’s the big sky, the quality of the light, the dryness of the air, and the sense, always, that anything is possible, both good and bad. And once you get away from the Pacific coast, there is an independent, rough-hewn spirit that is particularly American.

Writers have been exploring the people of the West for a very long time, but it seems as if there is more good fiction capturing this powerful sense of place than ever. In recent years, Peter Heller (The Dog Stars) Kim Zupan (The Ploughmen), Smith Henderson (Fourth of July Creek), Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist), and Kent Haruf (Plainsong, Our Souls at Night) have written novels featuring strongly masculine characters and prose and set in Colorado, Utah, and Montana.

Women writers have been their equal in this genre, with the bonus that they have subverted some readers’ expectations by featuring female protagonists. The prose and descriptions are as spare as the laconic characters in their books, but they are digging deeper beneath this crusty surface than the genre’s characteristics call for. Noteworthy contributions include Carrie La Seur’s The Home Place (Montana), Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians (Wyoming), Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted (Oregon), and Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist (Washington).

S.M. Hulse’s debut, Black River, sits astride these two stellar groups of novels. This slim but potent novel tells of the crisis faced by the protagonist, Wes Carver, when he is forced to return to the tiny town of Black River, Montana following the death of his beloved wife Claire, who expressed a wish to have her ashes spread there. Carver grew up in Black River and followed the men of his family into a career as a correctional officer. But he and Claire left 18 years earlier after a prison riot in which he was held captive for two days by Bobby Williams, a sadist who tortured Carver and left him with crippled hands, forcing Carver to retire and give up his passion for playing the fiddle.

Carver is reluctant to return because two people await him, neither of whom he has wanted to face for many years. He has received a letter notifying him of a parole hearing for Williams, who claims to have found Christ. Carver is determined to prevent Williams from seeing daylight. But the more complex situation involves his relationship with Claire’s son, Dennis, whom they left behind as an especially rebellious and independent 16-year-old. He and Carver have hardly spoken since then. But Claire’s death has forced them to face each other.

Black River probes deep into Carver’s broken heart and hands as he struggles to achieve some type of understanding with Dennis and a path to peace of mind regarding the Williams incident that has haunted him for so long. Carver is not a religious man, so he is not inspired to find forgiveness in his heart or to believe in Williams’ rehabilitation through faith. But he slowly befriends a skittish colt of a teenager with a troubled family life (his father is an inmate at the prison) who works for Dennis on his farm and shares Carver’s gift for music.

Hulse weaves together the various conflicts convincingly. And although we spend a lot of time in the head of the introverted Carver, the plot moves along as steadily as the river at the heart of the novel. Hulse’s writing is spell-binding; it is spare but poetic, and her western Montana setting is a character that looms over the story’s events. Readers will find Carver’s search for redemption a compelling and illuminating journey.