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The Art of Attractions: On Books and Writing

The other day I went into Seattle to sit in a decent café and browse in a good bookstore. I haven’t done either in a long time and given the privilege of my life that was a sin. I was on my own so had no one else’s schedule, plans, desires to contend with, no necessity to appear gracious and understanding. I enjoyed taking my time in the bookstore, luxuriating in the fact that there was nowhere I had to be. Eventually, after wondering around from shelf to shelf, genre to genre, I bought two books: The Vegetarian, a novel by Han Kang, and The Art of Fiction, an essay by James Slater. Both authors were new to me.

There are too many books in the world for me to read them all. I don’t even have the time to  read the ones that I’m interested in (it may be more accurate to say, the ones I’m attracted to). And forget completely the books I would be attracted to if I had the time to find them. As it turns out, I was attracted to The Vegetarian after reading a review in The New York Review of Books, or The Guardian, or The Observer, or The New Yorker. I can’t remember which, but those are the places I read most book reviews. I wasn’t thrilled with the cover, but what can you do? The Art of Fiction I simply saw sitting on the table in the bookstore. My attraction was first the cover and second the book blurb. The bookstore had a café, of course, so I got myself a latte and opened the Salter.  

James Salter is a novelist with a more than interesting backstory. I’ve never read any of his books, but after completing The Art of Fiction I may just give him a try. In the essay Salter spoke of a number of things, but one that stood out for me was his thoughts on an author’s “voice”, or as he would say, “style”. He wrote, “You have to have a taste for what you’re writing. You have to be able to recognize when it’s gone bad.”[1] He says new writers have no voice, that they are influenced by the authors they read. I certainly have been influenced by Kurt Vonnegut. And of style? “Style has substance – so Nabokov said, and his own style demonstrated it. He wrote the way he spoke, only better.”[2]

I’ve always associated books with writing. When I read a book I often want to write one too. I have no idea if this is a common response to reading. I’ve never asked anyone. However, I doubt that is true for everyone. Why this happens to be so in my case is a mystery. As I have said before in my blog Ray Bradbury Died, and It’s Personal, when I was a little guy I hated reading and writing. I had a unpleasant physical reaction to even thinking about reading a book. Now I love reading and that is largely thanks to a wonderful teacher and her daughter, who was younger than me at the time, who invited me to her house on Saturday mornings. There she and her daughter taught me to read. Amazing when you think about it.

My point is, however, that though I’ve acquired a desire to write, it didn’t really become a vocation until I retired. Oh, I began writing a sci fi book when I was in high school about a post apocalypse world (how original!), but I never finished it. I did show it to my girlfriend at the time and she absolutely loved it. I should note, she was rather fond of me and her critique probably wasn’t reliable. After all, she once wrote, “I’m very confident that this year will be one of the best of my life, thanks to the most wonderful guy in my life! You’re different from any guy I’ve ever met; you’re sincere. I hope I can only make you half as happy as you’ve made me, and we’ll have a great future ahead of us. Love always…” I must report we broke up that year, the year that was to be the best in her life. Who knows, maybe it was anyway, or was precisely because we broke-up. As for my sincerity, I do wonder if sometimes I emulate sincerity so well people take it for the real thing. Who knows?

While reading The Art of Fiction, I did wonder what would have happened if I had committed myself to writing in my late teens and early twenties. We’ll never know. I might have found my voice, my style. Now I fear it may be too late. (Is “finding” one’s voice an act of discovery or creation?) As I rush towards 70 years old (few years out still, but it seems to be steamrolling towards me at light speed), I can admit that which I could never have comprehended in my mid-twenties. I have a limited number of hours left to live my life, and some of those hours need to be wasted in an often futile attempt to fend off melancholy. My style may be lost to moods and time.

For the moment let’s put aside whether or not I’m a good or bad writer. Let’s just admit there are varying degrees of goodness and badness in writing. The line between good writing and bad writing is often hard to locate, but when you cross over it, in either direction, you definitely know it. Also, a person can be a bad writer and a good storyteller, or a good writer and a bad storyteller. I think I may have the knack for storytelling and if I had the time, I might have become a good writer as well. Once when sitting in a Pizza Express in London with a good friend by the name of Peter, he said he had finished reading The Woman in White Marble and that “I had found my voice.” Now as I see the end in sight of my second Drake Ramsey mystery, I am desperately hoping Peter was right.

When I come across good writing and storytelling, it’s a supreme pleasure and often for me what makes both good is a mystery. Oh, I have a general idea or feeling for why it is good. When you read a beautiful sentence you know it. When you finish a well-structured novel you know it. But I don’t necessarily know it in a way that would enable me to duplicate it. When I read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson I was blown away. How did he do that, I asked myself. I’m no literary theorist so any thoughts on how he did it would be less than helpful. But I do know this: I don’t write like Johnson and so there is no sense in trying to copy him, or Nabokov, or Vonnegut, or Morrison for that matter. Copying someone this late in life is a waste of time. Might as well go for broke and at least pretend you’ve got style.

The title I’m going for for the almost completed Drake Ramsey mystery is The Krewe of Boo Murders. It’s distinctive I think. Of course the editor and publisher might give it a big thumps down. The book is written in the first person, Drake being, hopefully, the reliable narrator. Towards the beginning he muses:

Ever since I moved to New Orleans nine months ago…I’ve been going down to the Café Du Monde in the French Quarter, getting in the take-out line around the back, buying a small bag of beignets and a large coffee au lait, finding a public bench by the café, sitting, watching the tourist, and listening to a three-man band – trombone, trumpet and sax - playing some damn good jazz.

In case you don’t know, a beignet is a square donut covered in white powdery sugar, a lot of sugar. And there’s no damn hole either. The person who created the first beignet was nobody’s fool. I mean, a no-hole donut. How great is that? But the things is, there’s three of those square suckers in a small bag and you really have to eat them while they’re hot. When I first started this routine, I took two of them home and discovered that when they get cold they’re crap. When they’re hot, they’re out of this world. But let’s face it. A deep fried no-hole donut smothered in sugar has got to be reducing my 840,429,424 allotted heartbeats. I’m just saying. Makes you think.

So, one gets the “feel” for the character and his style, which is my style. Much later in the novel, however, we get this from Drake:  

Campanel entered the cabin first. Zuri followed, and as she stepped across the threshold she suddenly stopped in her tracks. Her hands by her side formed into tight, violent fists. Her whole body was tense, like a coil ready to spring. I watched her as she forced herself to ease her fists, her body, and take a first and then a second step forward. As soon as I entered behind her I saw why she had frozen…

It was obvious that Nia had been secured in the far left corner of the bayou cabin. The back wall between the open door and the side wall was splattered with blood. Attached to the side wall was a chain and shackles. The Palmetto branches, that had covered her otherwise naked body, had been placed on the left side of the cabin. Other than the chain, two shackle, and Palmetto leaves, the cabin was empty.

In my mind’s eye I could see Nia lying on her back covered with the Palmetto, both ankles shackled, the chain securely attached to the wall. Looking more closely it was clear that where she had been lying there was the stain of human waste and urine. I wanted to grab some of the Palmetto leaves and hide the image that was settling deep within us.

Whatever my style, it has to embrace both humor and tragedy, beauty and brutality. Well, we shall see. The writing is almost done. You can be the judge.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

[1] Salter, James. The Art of Fiction. Charlottesville/London: University of Virginia Press, 2016. P19.

[2] Ibid., p. 22.

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