The Wisdom of Donna Leon

Friday morning, sitting in a coffee shop, I’m back at work. My work is writing, although I spent yesterday, a snow day, reading crime novels, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. Leon is prolific having written over 24 books in this series and several more in other categories. My intent was to binge read and let my own fiction, poetry, non-fiction rest and ripen. I know that if I take an occasional break, I go back to work with renewed energy. But Leon’s fiction is not escapist. Sure, it’s set in Venice, a place I’d love to visit, this Armchair travel, an excuse to read, drink tea and not worry about production or driving on snowy roads in Colorado.

Here’s the thing, though. In every “crime novel” that I’ve read in Leon’s oeuvre there is a large issue that affects the plot line and the reactions of her characters. The plot of the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, develops around issues of homophobia and sexual child abuse. In Blood from a Stone the issues are immigration and racial inequality. Yes, in the lovely tourist-filled city, issues rise that challenge us all. Plot lines etched on the page are set like rough jewels in the middle of a nuclear family with reliable parents, believable offspring, domestic issues of homework and grocery shopping, a solid, sexy, loving marriage. And any of the characters, whatever their involvement in bringing the villains to justice, might reveal a concern I share, like polluted air: “What Redeemer could come and save the city from the pall of greenish smoke that was slowly turning marble to meringue?” (Death at La Fenice, 148)

The real message today is this: categories for literature are not absolute, can be unreliable restrictions. If I want to read more of Donna Leon’s work, I have to go to “Mystery” or “Crime Novels” in the library or bookstore. She obviously exceeds these labeled categories and reassures me that whatever we write might be just what the reader needs. Fiction, poetry, memoir—any genre can inform and inspire us. And as writers we have the privilege and responsibility of deepening our understanding of reality even as we “make it up.” If one reader is enlightened, reassured, challenged, or distracted from grief, a writer has done the world a favor.

Blind Date with a Murder Mystery

A couple of weeks ago I plucked a novel by Sara Paretsky off a library shelf. I was vaguely familiar with her name, in part because she has written nineteen novels, but it was sort of a blind date and we just didn’t hit it off. I read a bit and set it aside. Then I heard an interview with Lee Childs on BBC World Book Club. Childs praised Paretsky. He is quoted on the front cover of her book: “Sara Paretsky is a genius.” I like his novels, so I decided to give her another chance. Right decision!

Back to the library, this time I checked out a V. I. Warshawski mystery, Fallout. My first clue that I was in for a good read was the acknowledgements at the front of the book, what I imagine might be like a speed dating intro. The book is set in Kansas; I’m working on a novel set in Kansas; a county sheriff figures prominently in the action; I have a county sheriff as an important character; racial tensions play an important part in Fallout; I have biracial characters; cars are important in Paretsky’s book; my fictional car is a Porsche, a very important Porsche. Oh, yes, and one of her characters is connected to the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As a military wife, I spent several months there while my spouse was enrolled.

Then again, there’s the coincidence of my surname, Douglass, and Paretsky’s setting in the Kansas county of Douglas. Yikes! I’m happy to report that I’m already halfway through the initial draft of my novel, so I don’t fear her influence, and I welcome her company. I have only the final conflict to read in Fallout. I had to stop. I’d missed my usual bedtime by two hours last night, but I will resume reading today. I am so glad I took Childs’ advice and remet Sara Paretsky. I think we will have a long and fruitful relationship.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The old year, 2018, was productive and safe, despite the grief of the daily news. I’ve had poems published, made a good start on a new novel, one in a genre I’ve not written before, pared away some distractions from my creative work, and still maintained friendships.

Looking into the deep well of 2019, I intend to keep writing (as if I could stop!), remain healthy and read any book that catches my attention, reserving the right to put it back into the library bag unfinished if I’m not captivated. Life is short, boredom a burden I choose not to bear.

I’d like to write more reviews, be more faithful to this blog, walk more, watch birds more, spend a few days sequestered with my journal and manuscript. I’ll help publish a couple of books of poetry, and I may seek a literary agent for the novel. That has not worked for me in the past–time consuming and generally frustrating–but I’ll consider it.

Here’s to all who visit this site, Happy New Year. Stay awake, don’t hurt anyone, write like it’s a debt you must pay to the universe.

A Debut Novel Worth Reading

Let me introduce you to a friend of mine and encourage you to read her debut novel. Her name is Anita Halvorssen and the book is a killer thriller.

Originally from Norway, living in Colorado, Anita has taught law and writing on environmental issues, especially climate change. Her first law degree is from the University of Oslo, Norway. She has a Master of Laws and a Doctorate in Law from Columbia Law School, New York. Before pursuing an academic career, she was an Executive Officer at the Norwegian Ministry of Environment. She is a member of the International Law and Sea Level Rise Committee of the International Law Association. Halvorssen is Director of Global Legal Solutions, LLC, an international think tank and consultancy. She is also a member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and the International Thriller Writers.

Why fiction when your previous publications have been non-fiction?

Teaching climate change law at the University of Denver, I thought that having some students learn about climate change was fine, but a much broader audience should be enlightened. Few people read the scientific reports (IPCC reports, etc.) and the newspapers had the stories backwards for a long time. I thought plenty of people still read novels, so I decided to write a novel and put climate change into it, being careful to make it a thriller first and foremost, not an info dump on climate change. This thriller belongs to the newly recognized genre of climate fiction (cli-fi).

You chose thriller as your genre. Do you read thrillers? Whose work do you enjoy?

Yes, I read thrillers. I enjoy Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Liza Marklund, Dan Brown, Daniel Silva, John Le Carre, and many others.

Talk a bit about your writing process.

I used the first draft just to get the plot down. Then I focused on character development and emotions. It takes a lot of work, since I wrote law journal articles for a long time and they don’t have characters or any emotions.

What has changed for you since you began writing fiction?

It’s a whole different world. Discipline is of the utmost importance. Writing every day is the key. Joining workshops to learning the writing craft is crucial.

Who is your ideal reader?

Everyone who’s worried about climate change.

As we should all be. How did you come to feature your main character, Zakia?

Somehow the idea came to me to start in Morocco. I met a woman in a restaurant in New York City who was from Morocco and named my character after her. Then I did a lot of research on the country as it related to Zakia. Since she has a mixed background, British-Syrian on her father’s side, French-Moroccan on her mother’s side, and is also married to an American, I look upon Zakai as multicultural. The idea of Zakia being a journalist was based on journalists having to present facts—in my case, climate change facts. Having met her American husband at Columbia University and ending up in Chicago allows readers in the US to identify more with the characters.

What advice do you have for new novelists?

Keep at it. Don’t give up if you’re passionate about what you’re writing, and you’ll most likely persevere.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a sequel with Zakia again, also addressing climate change.

This sounds wonderful. When will we get to read the book?

The Dirty Network will be launched at Barnes & Noble, Pearl Street, Boulder CO on December 18 at 4:30pm.

Morning Routine

Rereading poet Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius, I was again inspired by her advice to love what you first see. Such prompts don’t always work for me because I’ve found similar advice in other books on writing. But this time it clicked and here’s what poured out:

Purring and head bumping, Haiku leaps onto my bed to announce the time, 6:00 am, “Feed me, feed me, feed me,” although he has cat chow left in his white bowl. Black cat, white bowl yet nothing as clear as black and white, that sleek shadow on my bed mysterious and familiar. He speaks a tongue I cannot quite mimic and if I do come close, I don’t know what I’ve said, his vowel-rich voice varied and vague to me as Latin, though his language is not dead.
The house dogs think him a marvelous toy, until he takes refuge in a nook too small for them. His only work is hunting—a rare house mouse and the spiders, whom I respect as part of our small biome. I top off the food bowl to reassure him that, yes, ours is an opulent life full of Hills Science Diet for Indoor Cats. He eats two bites, bids me goodbye and makes his rounds: from the front window he supervises sunrise over the lake and takes stock of visitors at the bird feeder. He does not read and if I have a book in my hands, he nudges the nuisance  to clear space on my lap, which he thinks, I think, rightfully his alone for the asking.
And you will understand, please, that living with another species can lead to tolerance and peace. Toward those who see only utility—the rodent haters—Haiku is a demonstrator, demanding his rights to regular feeding, a warm spot on a soft bed, a measure of affection, safety and good health (Yes, he has health insurance.) and clean water in his bowl. Surely you see this house cat, once a stray, has a better life than many a refugee.

Stagecraft in Fiction & Memoir

Immersed in writing a fourth novel, I’m thinking about the overlap between live theater and the narrative forms of fiction and memoir. Theater has the advantage of the visual set, no need for description of the place or the characters.There they are, well lighted, voices projected to the upper gallery, free to move in meaningful ways.

However, (You knew there was a turn coming, didn’t you?) the written narrative has the advantage of taking us inside the character. Those internal monologues are useful to the reader who cares about things like motivation and impulse control, etc. No need for squishy dialogue between characters to enlighten us.

I read up about directing in theater, a role somewhat like that of the author, who must create a workable story from the following bits and pieces:

Casting: appearance, attitudes, demographics, fear, love, etc. All named and every single one necessary to the story.

Blocking: entrances, exits, proximity to other characters or to important props. I fret if a character is standing idle while others talk. I tend to send them off stage, go get lunch or use the bathroom. Just don’t hang around while others discuss the murder suspect.

Set: too much is too much; in fiction it leads to description overkill; think interior scene or exterior; lighting; noises off stage.

Props: every item has meaning; Chekov’s famous dictum says a gun that appears in Act One must be fired in Act Three. I’m probably going to ignore this, because there is a gun that must not go off in my story.

Dialogue: concise, meaningful, not an info dump telling the reader by means of cross talk, and the wonderful option of interior monologue: She thought, I should not have gone down those cellar stairs.

Time frames: stage time, aka, elapsed time in the story, vs audience time. How long will theater patrons sit? How many hours will a reader devote to the book?

Action: meaningful (see dialogue, speaking is action), reveals emotion, includes posture, voice modulation, facial expression in addition to the punching, the stabbing, the driving while angry.

Tension: rising action, interaction between characters as well as between text and the reader: often a result of resistance, suffering.

I’ve written exactly one play and vowed never to do it again. Once the script was in the hands of the director and out of my hands, I felt like I had abandoned a child in the train station, and it was going on a long journey without me. But story is story and has its place on stage or between the covers of a book. Think about it.

All About Poets #4

Michael Macklin was a good friend and a fine poet. We both had MFAs from Vermont College and for several years we were both on the editorial board (that sounds far more formal than it was) of the long-lived poetry magazine, The Cafe Review, out of Portland, Maine. We both had chapbooks published by Moon Pie Press.

Thanks to Michael I learned the pleasure of drinking Tullamore Dew, part of our shared Irish-American heritage, straight up, no ice. When I decided to feature Michael on this blog, I thought that I should again read his poems. Having recently culled my collection of poetry books, I confidently went to the M shelf and … what? No copy of Driftland? That made no sense. I would never have discarded that beloved book.

Well, if idiocy was the inevitable diagnosis, I’d work around that. I went online, found Moon Pie Press, ordered a copy, hit PayPal and send. Whew! Waiting for the book would delay the blog post, but I had no choice. However, I’m not the sort to lose a treasured book, so I went again to the shelf and what? There, nestled beside Montale was Macklin, where he belonged.

I’m not often mystically minded, but I swear that I heard Michael’s laugh. Hide the book until I’d bought another, a wee prank, eh? Of course, Michael was a true son of the Emerald Isle despite his birth in Michigan. When I left Maine to relocate to Colorado, he gave me a teddy bear, two bird feathers—one from a flicker and one from a crow—and said that he had commissioned three crows to attend me in my travels. To this day, a decade after we parted, I often see a trio of crows nearby.

Fate generously allowed me to have Michael in my life for years, but fate is also a mean trickster. Michael died in his sleep when he was volunteering at a residency at our alma mater, VCFA. How awful and how appropriate that he would die in that community of poets. People loved him and he loved people. He taught poetry at the private school where he was also the main carpenter. He left behind his wife, his son, his beloved dog—Murph—and his love for the coast of Maine. Yet, in truth, he’s never far away.

 

 

 

You can find Michael’s book on the website for Moon Pie Press and a copy of The Café Review dedicated to him here: www.thecafereview.com.