magical realism

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Joshilyn Jackson

[asa book]0446579653[/asa] I’ve read a lot of books since I last put up a review. In three or four cases I really wanted to write something, but there just wasn’t time to gather my thoughts. And of course chaos has reigned supreme for so long I can hardly remember what plain busy feels like.

So here we are, talking about somebody else’s book for a change, and let me tell you, it’s a relief.

I’ve reviewed Joshilyn’s first two novels, both of which I really liked. I think it’s fair to say that with each novel she’s got her feet more firmly underneath herself, but in all her books there’s consistent evidence that she was born to write down stories. And she’s a southerner, born and bred. I think the two things are not unrelated. ((She’s got a website, if you’d like to explore, here.))

The first two novels had love stories at their center, but not exclusively. They are both also full of such clear observations of the nonsensical that I found myself laughing out loud now and then.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming has many things in common with Joshilyn’s earlier novels. First and foremost, the way women hold each other up, or down, as the case may be. Emotional complexity and really loud arguments are how many of these female characters communicate.

This new novel is about two sisters, Lauren and Thalia, their relationship to each other (primarily) to their mother, to Lauren’s daughter and to a friend of her daughter’s, Bet. It is also about Thalia’s relentless dislike of Lauren’s sweet, less-than-verbal husband ((Yes, he’s a Mathematician, in case you were wondering. So maybe I’m biased but at points I wanted to shake Thalia and tell her to leave the man be.)) Thalia does nothing by halves, and as the novel goes along we start to understand where that started and why.

Lauren and Thalia are adults still at odds with extreme childhood trauma. Thalia has coped by turning her anger into a high-speed life in the theater, always on the move, always ready to pick a fight. Lauren copes in the exact opposite way; she has a home and a husband and a daughter, she works as an artist out of the house, and she avoids confrontation and threats at al costs. But her past is always there, in the form of the occasional ghost who comes by. Most prominently the uncle who was killed in a hunting accident — until the night she wakes up to see one of her daughter’s closest friends standing next to the bed, soaking wet. Molly’s ghost walks to the window and Lauren follows her. What she sees sets a series of events in motion that drag the past into the present.

There are a few authors who focus on family or suburban drama, as it is sometimes called – condescendingly, in my opinion. It’s a genre that I like and read a lot of. I have a sense that Joshilyn is going to be one of the big names in that particular crowd. I am very curious to see what she comes up with next, but in the mean time I highly recommend The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished. This is one of those rare times I wished I belonged to a bookclub, because there are so many things to think and talk through.

shifting strategies

Someplace or another I read an interview with Gabriel García Márquez, the master of modern day magical realism. In that interview he talked about his writing process, and the thing that jumped out at me: sometimes it takes him weeks to get the first paragraph right, but after that, the story moves.

I think probably a lot of authors have this kind of mental process on one level or another. In my own case, I think of it as the subconscious traffic cop holding up one of those stop signs until I’ve got that one paragraph or sentence down in a way that suits the story as it is developing behind the scenes. If you push ahead through the stop sign, you are bound for trouble.

In my experience it can be the worst feeling, being so close to getting it right… but not quite close enough. Every time you look up from the screen, there’s the cop waving that sign in your face. I have lost many hours of sleep over the years arguing with my subconscious traffic cop. I have gone into light hypnotic trances in places where I should have been paying attention, trying to grasp a sentence by the tail.

A few years ago I broke the established pattern. I’m not really sure how it happened. I had been agonizing over a scene that I just couldn’t do without. I’d start and rewrite and restart and rewrite, change pov, change settings, and pretty much stand on my head but it just would not work. My muse, that insufferable bitch, was having a grand old time making me writhe, and using the opportunity to flirt outrageously with the traffic cop.. And then the most outlandish, most revolutionary idea came into my conscious mind. Without allowing myself to really think about it, I wrote these words on the page:

[market scene here]

And I moved on. Later, a few days if I remember correctly, I went back and tried again without any luck. So I just left it. Then one day out of nowhere, the solution came to me and I wrote the damn scene in about an hour flat.

Where was the traffic cop, I asked myself. The one who had held me up so many times for so long, in league with my muse, the sadistic bitch. Was he just… gone? And why am I so sure he’s a he? What’s a male traffic cop doing in the employ of my subconscious? Dad, is that you?

Never mind, I told myself. Let’s just pretend for the moment that the cop and the stop sign are both gone, and you will never again be blocked by that one sentence or paragraph or scene. From now on you’ll just put the pesky thing in brackets and move on. For example: [civil war here] or [destruction of the solar system here] or [the meaning of life here].

But of course the cop wasn’t gone for good. He’s there, but he’s not quite so ruthlessly by-the-rules as he once was. Once in a while I can pull out the brackets without his whistle rattling my eardrums. As I did just yesterday. This time it was:

[what she notices about the birds in the woods beyond the strawberry fields on this early spring evening]

The traffic cop grumbled a little, and then settled down. So maybe he’s getting more mellow as he gets older. Which is odd, because I most certainly am not.

Happy Accidents, directed by Brad Anderson

[asa left]B00006SFKM[/asa] So how did I miss this movie when it came out in 2002? I just watched it (thank you, Netflix) and immediately went to check it out on the web. It’s got consistently good reviews, so I’m mystified. Especially as I have been keeping an eye out for Vincent D’Onofrio since I saw The Whole Wide World (one of the saddest movies ever).

This is an odd story that defies cubbyholing. Is it a straight romance? Is it a postmodern jumble of self-observation and distorting mirrors? Is it sci-fi?

There is a love story here. Ruby has a history of getting involved in codependent relationships. Along comes Sam Deed, a sweet, caring, nice guy from Dubuque who is adrift in Manhattan. So very adrift that Ruby starts wondering if there’s something up with Sam; her therapist (in a gorgeous apartment overlooking Central Park) sees him as more of a bad habit.

But there’s more going on. Ruby finds clues, and confronts Sam. Sam responds with a story that sends her into despair. This sweet guy, her Sam, is really nuts. Delusional, or if she takes him for what he claims to be: a time traveller.

You really don’t know what to think about Sam right until the end of the movie. In fact, I’m still sorting it all out in my head. It’s the kind of story where you want to go back and pay attention to the clues you missed the first time, ala The Sixth Sense. There was only one false note in the whole movie, and it had to do with the therapist. And I’ll leave that as enough said.

In the meantime, Happy Accidents is that elusive beast, a good date movie, fun and thought provoking, well written, beautifully shot and edited, with good performances all around.

writer's block

… that’s the wrong term. There’s a period when the story is coalescing, coming together in strange ways in my head. I think about details and snippets of dialog and ask myself questions: what is it Hannah wants here? why is this character so persistant? what does the air smell like just now?

I keep myself busy with research and reading, reading, reading (a study on the history of the British army called Redcoat just now). Making notes to myself, and losing them and spending an hour looking for the notes and then starting all over anyway. Studying maps. Maps are great for helping the process along (for me personally).

Somebody asked on the discussion board at Yahoo whether or not plot comes first, or how that works. I can only answer for myself, and here it is: yes and no. I have the greater historical framework to pay attention to, and that is a kind of mega-plot I can’t change. Or not much, anyway. From there, it’s a fairly organic process for me. I have an overall knowledge of what’s going to happen (at least, I think I do; sometimes big things change half way through because a character just refuses to go along with what I had planned). While my conscious is busy thinking things through (okay, in this next chapter Jennet will have to…) my subconscious is getting up to tricks, and will spring surprises on me at the oddest moments. While I was writing Into the Wilderness I had no idea that Julian had seduced Kitty until she came around the corner in the middle of the night and ran into Elizabeth. Then it made perfect sense. Julian was a healthy male without female companionship and with a terrible habit of acting out on his worst impulses, what else was he going to do? That’s the way my plots develop: by hook and crook.

Just now the whole fifth book is simmering, and I’m jumpy and will remain jumpy until i get the first chapter nailed down. Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitutude) once said that it takes him forever to write the first sentence, and everything flows once he’s got that down. For me it’s a whole chapter. I have thirty pages written that I will rewrite and rewrite until I’m comfortable that I know the setting and the characters and where they’re headed (at least at first).

If you know Márquez’s work or any of the authors who are known for magical realism, you might notice that I actually lean towards such things myself once in a while, in a small way. Think of Treenie.