Publishers Weekly

PW likes Pajama Girls

The Publisher’s Weekly review of Pajama Girls is already in print, and it is really good.

The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square
Rosina Lippi. Putnam, $24.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-399-15466-9
Southern hospitality and sweetly loose-lipped neighbors ooze from the pages of the sparkling latest from Lippi (Homestead). John Dodge is a traveling man, rescuing small businesses around the country to flip for a profit. When he finds himself in Lamb’s Corner, S.C., to take over a stationery store, he is greeted by some kooky Swedes building an automotive plant and an observant young girl who is determined to uncover his past, among others. Dodge, as he calls himself, befriends Julia Darrow, the owner of a fine linens store who is always in her pajamas. Julia is secretive and mysterious, but Dodge cannot ignore his attraction to her. He doesn’t plan to stay in Lamb’s Corner very long, and it becomes apparent that Julia can’t leave. Lippi’s characters are heartfelt and pricelessly named (one 10-year-old boy is called “Bean Hurt”). While the novel moves slowly, it’s never shy of drama: Lippi makes a great story out of how a hardcore wanderer and an agoraphobic come together. (Feb.)

They got some facts wrong (Bean is short for Beatrice and Scriveners specializes in antique pens) — but I’m really pleased with this review over all.

We’re off to a good start, review wise.

who knew? PW wisdom strikes again

So over at Amazon the cover for TTTT is up, and so is the first official review, by Publishers Weekly.

I’ve talked about the review process before, at length and I won’t go into that song and dance again. The PW review isn’t bad in any direct way; it’s more of a short plot summary with a couple of observations attached to the end. Snark, my agent and editor said when they called to warn me.

Now I’ve had some pretty nasty reviews in the past. Who can forget color by number cartoon caricatures? Obviously I can’t. It always strikes me as funny, when I think of that review. Somebody was trying so hard to be clever, I still get an immediate vision of a graduate seminar.

This newest review declares that while TTTT has some charm, “the novel makes no real emotional demands.”

So I’ve been thinking about that all day. Where do I get my emotional demands? That’s easy: I have an almost seventeen year old daughter. I have a husband and in-laws and good friends. The government is imploding, I find that emotionally demanding, even draining. But books?

If I think about novels I really like (here’s three, at random: Lonesome Dove, Possession, Pride and Prejudice) do I re-read them because they make emotional demands? Why do I re-read them? What about the story and the characters draws me back to the book? They make me think. They make me feel — well sure. What story doesn’t make me feel something? If I feel nothing, then the story doesn’t work for me. The range of feelings I get from novels is large, though. Is a novel that makes me sad better than one that makes me laugh?

Aha. Here we are, back at the culture of ugly argument. The no-pain-no-gain approach to writing and storytelling.

So the bottom line: Tied to the Tracks will not make you weep, or huddle into a conflicted ball of emotions, challenge your view of eternity. It hopefully will make you think about some things and make you laugh. I’m satisfied if I get that far. I’ll leave emotional demands to your loved ones, and the news of the day.

lost and found: books, opinions, snark from PW

1. It’s Friday, which means not the end of my workweek, but something even more wonderful: Battlestar Galactica. Which let me say, is outstanding this season.

2. Beth loves my new header.

3. I found a bunch of missing books: Norton’s Critical Edition of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (I do love Hardy most sincerely), some biographies I had been worried about. My stash of ten copies of Homestead in Chinese (which really, what am I ever going to do with them? I had twelve and gave two away to people who actually speak Chinese, and now here the rest sit.)

4. I’m reading a book that apparently the whole world has read already, but I somehow overlooked: and it’s good. Really good. Year of Wonders (OWC), by Geraldine Brooks. The only thing I don’t like is the review from Publishers Weekly which is very positive, but also manages to dismiss the rest of the historical novelists in the universe with a flick of the superior fingers:

Discriminating readers who view the term historical novel with disdain will find that this debut by praised journalist Brooks (Foreign Correspondence) is to conventional work in the genre as a diamond is to a rhinestone. With an intensely observant eye, a rigorous regard for period detail, and assured, elegant prose, Brooks…

I am indignant not for my own sake (or not much for my own sake) but for A.S. Byatt, Dorothy Dunnett, Barry Unsworth, and all the other novelists who bring such talent and passion to the daunting task of writing stories set in the past. So: a raspberry to PW.

5. This week I have written eight thousand words. Really. Iin five days. Don’t talk to me about this, okay, but that would jinx it and if I can keep up this pace, wow. That would be great. The good people of Greenbriar South Carolina are talking my ear off, Julia and Dodge are talking to each other and letting me in their heads, and words sprudel up like cheap champagne.

6. Stephen King’s new book. Cell: A Novel (OWC) should be in my hands just about the time I finish Year of Wonders. Eclectic is one of my numerous middle names.

characterization, part two

Here’s Cindy’s email question again:

My (compound) question is this: What else can I do to ensure that my characters are not too far off the mark, and how much should I worry about it? As far as possible I’ve based my characters on historical fact, but it looks as though a fair amount of extrapolation will be necessary. It seems to me, at this point in my literary development, at least, that one of the worst things that could happen would be for my work to be dismissed as inaccurate.

I take this question to be about more than one issue. It has to do with the nuts and bolts of storytelling (setting up, undertanding and following a character around) — when that character is from a very different time and place.

The first part of the question is relevant to any kind of storytelling. There are a lot of ways to try to get closer to a character, exercises that range from the odd (go out and decide what clothes they’d like or not like, what they would order for breakfast at a particular restaurant) to the scholarly: not to ask ‘what happens now?’ but to ask ‘why does this happen now’ (which some theorists will tell you is the ‘better’ question, and maybe it is. What do I know.)

Here’s the thing. You need to know the character very well. You need to know what she wants, and what is stopping her from getting what she wants. It’s by means of that conflict that the character becomes real to the readers. That’s true of anybody, whether they lived in the year 200 BC or in the year 2040.

Now, if your character does happen to be living in the year 200 BC or the year 1830, your job is that much more difficult because while human motivations are basically the same, the way people go about getting what they want depends a lot on the society they live in. I find it hard to write characters who really, truly are governed and even terrorized by strict religious beliefs because it’s almost impossible for me to get my mind to that place. It’s easier for me to get close to a character who is schizophrenic than one who really, truly believes in the literal word of the bible. So I avoid such characters — lazy of me? Maybe. That’s one of the benefits of writing fiction, you get to make up your own world.

But say you’ve got some characters (as Cindy does) who lived a long time ago, and you want to do them justice, or come as close to doing them justice as you can. My suggestion here is pretty much always the same. Find diaries and letters of the time, and read them. They will give you more information, real information, than any history could ever hope to impart. Sometimes those kinds of documents are hard to get hold of, that’s true. It might take some digging. But it is always worth it. When I was writing a study of language change in 16th century Nuremberg (long story, and a long time ago) I read volumes of diaries and letters written by nuns, women whose husbands were away on business trips, boys at university, etc etc, and it was those letters that let me hear their voices, for the first time.

So you do your homework, and you work hard on understanding the character, and you stay true to them. That’s all you can do. That is fertile ground out of which you may well be able to coax a good story.

One more thing: if you let your fear of potential criticism stop you, you’ll never finish anything. Not everybody will appreciate what you write, and some people will dislike it intensely. There’s no avoiding that. Will you let those people keep you from telling stories that interest you? I hope not.

Somewhere out there is the (anonymous) reviewer for Publishers Weekly (probably a graduate student being paid $25 a review, and resentful as hell) who wrote that my novels are populated by “color by number cartoon characters.” And there’s another one (maybe the same one?) who compared Elizabeth and Nathaniel Bonner to Wally and June Cleaver. But I’m still writing, and I’ll keep writing. And you should too. If you stopped, you’d be giving that kind of critic what he or she wants: People like that don’t care about the story, they only care about who gets their writing in print. Especially because it most probably isn’t them.