confusing the readers

A comment that came in today:

I have read all the Sara Donati books. Just finished “Fire Along the Sky” and the beginning of Queen of Swords. I am just wondering why Luke Scott Bonner and Hannah Bonner became Luke Scott and Hannah Scott. I thought this was the story of the Bonners. Why confuse the readers?

If I do something like this (and by the way, if Hannah is called Hannah Scott, it’s only an assumption made by somebody else who knows her brother), there is always a reason. Think for a minute about where the characters are, what is going on in the world at large, and about the dangers of the situation.

Though it may seem at times as though I sit up late thinking of ways to be confusing, in fact if I’m up late it’s for the opposite reason. Or because I can’t put a book down. See the next post.

9/11 in fiction

A few days ago somebody (Smart Bitches? Alison? Beth?) had a post about building references to 9/11 into a storyline, and how very delicate a proposition that is. Apparently somebody (and again, my memory is leaking) read a novel where there was a reference to somebody who died in September of 2001, and didn’t clarify until late in the story that it was not in connection with the hijackings.

So I’ve been thinking about this, and I realized that without much thought I have avoided this problem completely. Parts of Tied to the Tracks take place in Manhattan and northern Jersey in about 1998; the rest takes place in northern Jersey and Georgia in 2003. No mention or reference to 9/11 at any point. And it never occured to me to try to build that in. Was this good sense on my part? Sensitivity or cowardice? The short answer (from my perspective) is that the topic is not one I want to pick up in passing. It’s too big and painful to be used in a casual way, so I didn’t use it at all. I suppose in fifty years it might be possible to do that, in the same way that there is a shorthand in place now to make it clear that a character survived the holocaust. But not now.

The only novels I have read that dealt directly with 9/11 are Jim Fusilli’s Terry Orr novels (I reviewed one of them here). Terry Orr and his daughter live in a house less than five minutes walk from the Twin Towers, and all of the novels in the series deal to some extent with that event and its aftermath. Fusilli pulled this off with great sensitivity and in a non-intrusive, thoughtful way. I think he was able to do that in part because he himself is from that part of Manhattan. I am not, and so I leave those stories to the people who lived them.

And now I just realized why I stay away from any mention of the topic at all, and it’s pretty simple. My fear is that no matter how carefully I approach it, I will end up either trivializing the events or exploiting the emotions that are still so raw and close to the surface when we (all of us, everywhere) think of that day.

Of course, it’s also impossible to set any story any place in the days immediately following 9/11 and not mention it. You couldn’t start a story like this:

Dorothy gave birth to her seventh child at eleven in the morning on September 11 at Manhattan General and checked herself out of the maternity ward less than an hour later, taking nothing with her but a pack of cigarettes, two thousand three hundred twenty two dollars in cash laboriously saved up, and the lunch they had brought her, wrapped in a pillow case.

The reader is going to have questions, but probably not the questions you’d hope for. You’d want: what’s up with Dorothy? Post partum depression? Leaving her family for somebody else? Going to jump off a bridge? If so, why the lunch sack? Instead of those questions the reader is thinking: 2001? Was this 2001? And if it wasn’t 2001, why that date? Why pick that date of all dates? What’s the relevance? Did Dorothy leave the hospital because she feared for the rest of her children, and how they were coping with the panic and fear of the attack? Was her husband a fire fighter on duty?

If the answers to that second set of questions is no, there’s no connection between this story and the 9/11 attacks, the reader is most likely going to feel manipulated, and with good cause. It’s in very bad taste, just plain tacky, to flash that date just to get attention. So the only solution (for me, of course — everybody will figure it out for themselves) is to stay away completely. In fifty years time maybe I’ll rethink that (cough) but that’s my policy for the time being.

true story

Our good friends Thor and Penny are a little unorthodox, each of them in a distinct way. Thor has a road kill license because he’s a paleontologist. Rotting animals are his thing. Their house is full of partial and whole skeletons, and their freezer offers up such goodies as dead badger, zebra head (the nearest zoo calls him when something dies) and other, less identifiable bits and pieces. The other thing about Thor is, he lives so much inside his head that you’re never sure if he’s heard you.

Penny is a wonderful, kind, generous person with a passion for education and the complete inability to understand any concept of time. We always tell Penny things are going to start a half hour before they do, and she’s still always wandering in after everybody else, usually with a wonderful story and oh, am I late?

About five years ago Penny decided she wanted to give Thor a suprise birthday party. At our house, which was fine. I shook the details out of her and went ahead with things, and then on his birthday we put together an elaborate scheme to get him to our house at exactly six, no earlier. It really was a good plan, but we forgot to reckon with Thor. ‘Elaborate plan’ and Thor = trouble.

At 5:30 somebody yelled, Thor’s here! And we all went nuts, running around, nowhere near ready. So Thor comes in and everybody yells SURPRISE and he’s so touched and happy and pleased, except:

his birthday isn’t until tomorrow.

I turned to Penny. Penny shrugged. Oh, said Penny. Did I get the date wrong again?

I tell you this story because today is the mathematician’s birthday. It is stories like this one that horrify him. The mathematician would rather stick a fork in his eye than have to show up at a surprise party in his honor. So instead of a party we’re going out to dinner, and I’ll be back here to tell you some other completely irrelevant story tomorrow.

The Wheelman, Duane Swierczynski

I was really grumpy after I finished this novel for two reasons. First, it kept me up until really late because I couldn’t let the story go, and second, I was astounded at the ending and quite unsettled.

So I did something I hardly ever do, I emailed the author and demanded a few answers. Those of you who have emailed me over the years wanting to know what’s up with one of my characters: you see, it happens to me too. Go ahead, submerge yourself in Schadenfreude, soak in it until your fingers get all wrinkled.

Duane (who has a good website*) was kind enough to email me back and not answer my question. That is, he didn’t answer it in such a way that the answer was clear anyway. And now I’m satisfied, and I recommend this novel to anybody who likes gritty, noir type stories that lean toward the absurd in terms of humor. I keep thinking of the movie Snatch (one of my favorites; Jason Statham as Turkish, Vinnie Jones as Bullet Tooth Tony, Benicio Del Toro as Franky Four Fingers and Brad Pitt as a Pikey, really, what more could you want in a movie?). This novel has that same kind of energy and quirkiness, all quick turns and odd characters. But Duane isn’t nice to his characters, so if you’re soft hearted, this might not be the book for you.

Oh, and: the cover is great, too.

*just read on Duane’s website that he’s got a new two book deal, so congratulations to him, and I hope he writes faster than I do.