Chigozie Obioma explores the thematic power and appeal of fate in his masterful sophomore novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. “I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great literature,” he said.
Narrated by a chi, or guardian
spirit, Obioma’s latest novel follows the life of Chinonso, a poultry farmer,
whose entire world changes when he comes upon a young woman named Ndali, who is
preparing to jump from a bridge. Soon, Chinonso and Ndali find themselves in
love. But, like most things, their relationship proves itself to be more
complicated than either of them could have expected. Burdened and blessed by
the weight of sacrifice, determination, and destiny, Obioma takes readers on a
journey that weaves from the physical world into the spiritual one.
Obioma and I spoke about classic
literature, Nigerian influence, and human limitations.
The Millions: When I
read your novels, I recall elements of myths, epics, and even Greek tragedies.
When you set out to write, do you know you’ll be telling your stories in a
style and language that is reflective of these forms?
Chigozie Obioma: My answer would be that I grew up consuming Greek myth and Shakespeare, and Igbo tales. Across them, there is a tight thread, woven into a knot, which makes it almost impossible to tell them apart from each other. The universality of the archetypes in these stories—whether it is of the murderously ambitious serviceman who becomes convinced he must become king (in Macbeth) or the murderously angry man who becomes convinced that his life’s duty must be to hunt down the man who killed his father (Oedipus Rex) or of the man who embarks on a far journey into the forest of the Living and the Dead to reclaim his male potency (the tale of Ojadili)—make some of the most fascinating stories I have encountered.
So when I write, I’m often drawn unconsciously to these. The only conscious choice I make in this regard is in picking my subjects. I’m more chiefly concerned with metaphysics of existence and essence as they relate to the Igbo philosophy of being. We believe that life is in essence a dialectic between free will and destiny. It is a paradox: that you can make a choice, yet, that everything is preordained? And it is in this space that I anchor my stories.
TM: Do you think
you’ll ever veer away and write another kind of novel?
CO: I’m not sure but I know, by the short fiction I’ve written, that I’m capable of doing that. The issue is, the subjects I have been choosing are often so vast, so expansive they demand to be told in new ways. It is a constant surprise for me, personally. In fact, when the idea of narrative structure of The Fishermen first came to me, I waved it off as crazy. But as I wrote the book, it demanded that Ben tell the story that way. For An Orchestra of Minorities, I resisted the very challenging task of creating the chi. But again, the subject and vision for the novel demanded this structure. We will see what happens in the future.
TM: Your two novels
are both set largely in Nigeria, and there is a clear love and respect of place
in your prose. Do you think of Nigeria as being a character in itself in your
CO: Absolutely, in
both novels. The Fishermen has been correctly read as a metaphor for how
Nigeria was created by the chaos left in the aftermath of the encounter with
the madman (therein the colonialists who insisted we must become this specific
way). Nigeria has a more physical presence in An Orchestra of Minorities.
It is the land that sends its child—Chinonso the main character—away into his
great suffering and is also the mother that embraces him when he returns.
This is my complex relationship with Nigeria even on a personal level. It
is at once the home that sent me away, out of it because of its lack of
provisions for me, and it is the home that embraces me whenever I return.
TM: From where did you
get the idea to write An Orchestra of Minorities?
CO: I had been thinking for a long time about writing a novel about the Igbo civilization, a cosmological novel that will document for posterity the complex systems of my people. I wanted, in essence, to do what John Milton and Dante Alighieri did for Western civilization. But I didn’t know how to go about it until I moved to the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus and encountered a Nigerian man who was duped into moving to North Cyprus and, when he discovered he had lost everything, got drunk and died tragically after falling from a three-story building. That became the inspiration for Chinonso. I wrote about that experience for The Guardian in 2016.
TM: I have to ask
about the narrator of An Orchestra of Minorities. A chi, or guardian
spirit, is who tells of the story of Chinonso and Ndali. Is having a narrator
who isn’t restricted by human limitations more difficult to write because of
the unknown boundaries? Or does that sense of freedom make the chi easier to
CO: The answer would
be both, but I imagine that the latter category will receive precedence. This
is because of the nature of the chi itself and the journeys it undertakes. The
Igbo has a concept of the heavenlies, a place where the afterlife happens. But
various zones and places in the Igbo nation do not have a unified description
of what it looks like. And where the descriptions are present, they are not as
comprehensive as you’d have, say, heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So,
I had to invent something as close enough to what our ancestors would have
believed Alandiichie must have looked like. Things like this were very
difficult to do. But also, as you noted, the chi isn’t restricted by human
limitations so one has some space to write it without any fear of logical
inconsistencies or logistics. But the chi is also limited by a central
cosmological belief of the Igbo people. And it is more than 700 years old, so,
its memory is vast and to keep up with its commentary on life and being, to
continuously give it consistent prelapsarian eloquence—which sometimes allows
it to function as both a first and third person narrator—was difficult.
TM: Most of the
chapters begin with Chinonso’s chi offering wisdom. In one of the early
sections, the chi says, “Fear exists because of the presence of anxiety and
anxiety because humans cannot see the future. For if only a man could see the
future, he would be more at peace.” Do you think that’s true for contemporary
CO: I think so, at least as far as I know. There is a constant quest to know the future, to divine into matters we do not know. This is an ancient, almost primal quest that humanity has been engaging in. This is why Americans go to the tea leaf readers and Nigerians to “Miracle Center” churches and traditional priests. Que sera sera—what will I be? Will I be rich? Will I get that job? How about kids, will I have them? Are you sure this is the right man or woman to marry? OK, well, when will I die? And etcetera. I dealt with this fear as the central inciting action in The Fishermen as well.
TM: Thematically, this
novel looks closely at the value of sacrifice and the limits of love. However,
I want to focus on one theme that I think of most of all when thinking of An
Orchestra of Minorities: how fate shapes our lives. Chinonso struggles
constantly with the idea of his own life’s fate. Ndali and Chinonso’s chi do
too, but with some limits. What is it about fate that makes it such a compelling
CO: I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great Literature. As we speak, I’m writing an essay titled “Retreat from the Metaphysical” which looks at how great fiction has always tackled these questions and how modern fiction seems to be looking more and more at the self and to become more and more solipsistic because our vision of the scarcity of life is being obscured by the overwhelming abundance provided us by capitalism. Think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Milton’s Paradise Lost which dealt with the question of foreknowledge and predestination—these are centered around the question of fate.
That said, fate is at the center of the Igbo-Odinani belief system. And if there is anything I have been trying to achieve in my work to date it is to center African philosophical ideas in the world discourse. Look around at the vast oceans of ideologies that mean anything today even to Africans themselves and none comes from us. The agelong erroneous belief that we had no complex systems of thought continues unchallenged, and today, even our intellectuals tramples on our cultural beliefs and philosophy. An Orchestra of Minorities shines a light on many strands of Igbo thought, and one of them is the essence of fate and its place in the cosmology of human existence.
TM: Chinonso is such a
complicated man. He saves someone’s life by sacrificing that which he values so
much. He loves. He tries to better himself. But he is also deeply flawed. He
does things rashly. He has a bad temper. He abandons who he is. I don’t want to
spoil too much, but what do you hope readers take away from Chinonso?
CO: I think this is open to the reader. I completely agree with you that Chinonso is very complicated and he is all of these things. But there is a line about him from the book that I always think about: “He has been vandalized by a spiritual politics into which he had been unwillingly conscripted.” This is my view of him. I think he is changed mostly by the things that had happened to him, and that test his humanity. And sometimes, when our humanity is tested beyond what we can bear, we can fail. This was the central theme of William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies.
But also, there is the element of
the physical politics that vandalize him: being defrauded by others and the
international racism he faces in Cyprus, which causes him to be unfairly
jailed. These things shape and reshape him, and his character evolves all
through the story till the last act in which he becomes, himself, a vandal.
TM: Readers fond of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey will likely view An Orchestra of Minorities as a contemporary retelling of sorts. How heavy of an influence was that text as you began writing? Did you always know your novel would have some similarities?
CO: In a way, yes. As I was plotting, it occurred to me that Chinonso’s journey would resemble that of Odysseus. So, I had him read the book as a child and use Odysseus’s story as a device to encourage him to continue on during times when it feels as though his troubles are beginning to sink him. But this is not a rewrite or re-imagining or retelling of Homer’s tale. There are just similarities.
recommendations are basically what I live for. There are a few weeks until An
Orchestra of Minorities is available, so I want to ask you something a
little different as we close. Are there any books you suggest readers check out
before they pick up your book? Ones that might help put readers in the perfect
place before they get to know the story of Chinonso and Ndali?
CO: I would ask them to read John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, if they haven’t done so. I would also recommend Dante’s Inferno. For an understanding of some of the Igbo traditions readers will encounter in my book, I recommend Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. But absent these, great contemporary books I have recently read and loved are Gun Love by Jennifer Clement and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique Bauby.
Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is scheduled
to hit bookstore shelves on Jan. 8, 2019. Chigozie will be on tour to promote
his latest release. Be sure to check him out at one of his scheduled events:
1/8/2019, 5:00 PM: University of Nebraska/ Lincoln, NE
7:30 PM: Greenlight Bookstore/ Brooklyn, NY with Nicole Dennis-Benn
7:00 PM: Harvard Bookstore/ Cambridge, MA with Okey Ndibe
7:00 PM: Books & Books/ Coral Gables, FL
7:00 PM: Novel Neighbor with the International Institute of St. Louis and
WeStories/ St. Louis, MO
7:00 PM: Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX
7:00 PM: Raven Bookstore/ Lawrence, KS
7:00 PM: Madison Central Library/ Madison, WI
6:30 PM: Indigo Bridge Books/ Lincoln, NE
2016 was a strange year in so many ways. We were at once confused and hopeful about the coming elections, I was traveling way too much — first because of the National Book Award for my memoir Brown Girl Dreaming and then for my novel Another Brooklyn. I was talking about writing more than I was writing and that was making me cranky. I was away from my family and that was making THEM cranky. Then we were planning our trip abroad and gut renovation so we were all scattered and crazed. Reading became a balm for all of us. In the days I was home, time was spent reading to my eight-year-old. He had turned a corner as a reader and listener so we moved from the younger graphics — mainly his favorite book of all time: The Crock Ate My Homework — to deeper books like Jason Reynolds’s As Brave As You and later, Ghost, both of which are so brilliantly written that I often tried to move bedtime up a bit to get back to our nightly readings. At the same time, my daughter was grumbling her way through the (still assigned!) Lord of the Flies, (poor child, I felt her pain!) and finding comfort in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik Krak. Krik Krak for my daughter, was the Danticat gateway. She went on to devour Brother, I’m Dying, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Untwine. I was more than thrilled to see these books stacked beside her bed and, in the morning, one or the other of them brought down to the breakfast table. Losing a teenager to Danticat is not really losing a teenager. The child that re-emerged was a bit deeper, a bit kinder. Then there was my partner — a doctor by day and a reader by night. The stack of books grew high beside her bed, got hauled up to the library, only to be replaced by a new stack. The book she loved the most was Carolina De Robertis’s The God’s Of Tango. It came with us to France this summer and got passed around our extended family. Not one of the people who opened that book didn’t love it. I’d have to say The Gods of Tango is on the list of amazing books written in my lifetime. I would love to spend the rest of this commentary telling anyone who wants to listen about The Gods of Tango but I won’t. Just read it. Or listen to it on audio. Or do both. The same of anything Ann Patchett puts a pen to. Commonwealth – Wow!! State of Wonder — Jeez — how did she do that?! Bel Canto — What…?!
Audio was big for me this year. Spending so much time on planes and trains, the words of other writers were healing, reminding me of why I write. So I plowed through Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill, Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
Here’s the truth about me — while my partner will read a book she doesn’t really like until the last word, I will not finish a book I don’t love to the bone. Life is too short. There are far too many good books out there. I’m looking forward to finishing more of the ones I love.
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Nowadays, Lord of the Flies is a byword for savagery, a book that illustrates more potently than any other just how low it’s possible for humanity to sink. In The Guardian, Robert McCrum ties the book’s conception to the second World War, arguing that its view of the world was “unimaginable” without Nazi Europe.
“Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature. They are always suspecting some dirty trick.” – Margaret Atwood, Survival
Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush was less an emigrant’s guide than a cautionary tale, and much early Canadian literature wrestled with the realities of that experience. Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966) finally freed Canadian writers from writing about the pioneer life and the implacable menace of the wilderness, but our anxiety about it never really went away (Elle, Solomon Gursky Was Here, The Orenda, and Indian Horse, to name a few). The land continues to demand our respect and attention.
The Bear, set in the early 1990s, rehearses that anxiety in a visceral way. Five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother Alex (Stick), survive a bear attack that kills their parents and then face the wilds of Algonquin Park on their own. “I need you to get your brother off the island,” her mortally injured mother whispers, when Anna and Stick emerge from the safety of the cooler. “It’s not safe.” With these words, Claire Cameron reminds us how tenuous is our mastery of the natural world.
I interviewed Cameron on a morning in early March. It was still too cold for a canoe trip, so we walked through the curated wilderness of High Park in Toronto instead. There was still snow on the ground but the cold snap had finally lifted and the birds were singing.
The Millions: In her study of Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that in the books she read as a child, “The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience, and narrow escapes could the animal — or the human relying on its own resources — manage that.” Five-year-old Anna narrates your novel, and part of the tension in The Bear is the reader’s awareness of the killing indifference of the Canadian wilderness: we know the kids are not all right.
Claire Cameron: The real start was in the voice. It started to whisper to me. My son was five years old at the time and nattering incessantly. At five there’s that moment when their vocabulary catches up with their inner life. In the background was my ongoing interest in bears. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I started to write with that voice and the wilderness stuff wrapped itself around that voice. A bear came to mind. I’m so well acquainted with the attack that happened in 1991 in Algonquin Park, where I’d worked as a camp counselor the year before and the year after it happened. It was a couple who were experienced campers and it was around Thanksgiving. As far as bears go, that timing is crucial. No one else was there to witness it, but in reconstructing the scene they think it was a predatory attack, and they think the bear attacked the woman first. There are signs that the man put up a fight. It was a young male bear, which is another important point. Young males get kicked out by their mums and they don’t have their own territory. They are the ones that are more experimental and willing to take a chance.
What took me years to come to terms with was that the couple didn’t do anything wrong, and the bear was just being a bear. The summer after, I and a lot of people who worked at the camp were searching for a reason, we were hoping that the campers had done something wrong, that the campers had done something to bring this on to themselves. There wasn’t much detail available. It wasn’t until years later that I came to terms with the idea that they’d done nothing wrong. It was quite chilling.
TM: You say the bear was just being a bear, but bears don’t attack people often.
CC: No. Some people call it a rogue bear, and I use that language sometimes, just to communicate that it’s very unusual for a black bear to do that. But there are biologists who say that if a bear, especially this young male bear, has made a successful kill of a young moose calf, that a human isn’t such a leap. It’s not a matter of them having taste for human flesh. It’s that it’s October and they need to hibernate and they need calories. A lone male is going to be struggling.
TM: When Anna and Stick reach the mainland and eat some of the “dangle berries” they forage, my mind went to the recent news about the neurotoxins in the wild yam seeds that Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) ate. If an adult, equipped with guides to edible plants, couldn’t figure out what might kill him, how could children be safe? Putting your characters directly in harm’s way meant simply letting them run out of food.
CC: Because I’ve taught Outward Bound courses, which were 30 day stretches in the wilderness with young kids who didn’t have much experience, I’m acutely aware of the boundaries, which are first and foremost hydration. And adults can really only go for three days. A lot of people worry about food but that’s just a distraction.
I love the wilderness for all sorts of reasons but my fundamental reason for being out there is what you learn about the people you’re with, especially when they come under stress. That section I was very much playing with those things, seeing how they’d react and what they’d do. What their priorities would be. A child is often stomach-led. I had this instinct that they would be wanting to put something in their mouth.
TM: Did you think of them getting hold of something poisonous?
CC: My son and I go hiking enough and one of the things we’re always talking about is, “Doesn’t that look tempting to eat? But you don’t eat that.” He can drone on about how he shouldn’t eat things. It’s one of my hobby horses. My intention was that her mother had been similarly on Anna about that kind of thing. I did feel that to be realistic and not fall into a heap, Anna needed some kind of prior structure.
TM: Earle Birney coined the term “bushed” in his iconic poem by that name to describe the way the wilderness does a number on our mental health. As the weather turned and the bush became something he knew he might not survive, Richard Wagamese’s young Ojibway character (in Indian Horse) put it this way: “The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness.” You give fresh meaning to being bushed when Anna imagines the darkness as a flesh-eating monster. Were you consciously working from that literary tradition? It’s hard to imagine in an urban park, but have you ever been bushed yourself?
CC: I’ve been bushed lots. I was working more from an experiential tradition than a literary one, probably, though I’m very attracted to all of those writers. I’ve done a lot of time outdoors. Some of the most interesting times, in retrospect, are when you get bushed, up against the edge. It reminds you of your place in the world, how small and insignificant you are. We love to put sentiment on nature, we love to give it human emotions, but it’s really about realizing your place, and how precarious your place is.
TM: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson, the worst-kept secret in Canadian literature) recently published a horror novel about young people in the wilderness, The Troop. In an interview about it, he said, “I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive.” This childlike trust that the universe is benign is very much a thematic concern in The Bear, too. It makes it possible for Anna to endure.
CC: I loved The Troop for that point, that the young mind is flexible and can snap back. I feel like we had that observation in common. I picked up on that in conversations with my son, when I noticed he’d be so sad about something that he’d feel that his life was over and it was all ruined and then in the next minute be laughing hysterically. I was amazed at watching that, noticing how much protection there was in that, to be able to switch and be in a moment like that. I think it is a survival tactic.
TM: Writing from the perspective of a five-year-old also means childish self-absorption. She laughs at her brother’s nakedness, notices the way her skin turns white from so much water, and worries about being in trouble with her parents. Meanwhile, she’s lost in the wilderness. Does her tunnel vision protect her from the larger terror an adult with greater knowledge of the world would feel?
CC: I think it does. That ability to be in the moment helps you keep relaxed. In a survival situation, being relaxed is one of the key things. I think it stops her from overloading with stress, which an adult might do. It’s a survival mechanism of its own.
TM: You’ve said that you were very much aware of Lord of the Flies while you were writing this book, and that you were consciously writing against it. Tell me more about that.
CC: I reread it sometime in the year before I started writing. When I’ve been working leading wilderness courses, there’s been a longstanding joke when things start to break down, everyone says, “Oh, Lord of the Flies!” So I reread it. I’d known it wasn’t exactly a kind take on human nature, but having two boys I was really struck by how it gave them no benefit of the doubt. It was quite a mean take on human nature. I saw so much kindness in my boys that I got angry that I’d let Lord of the Flies define so much. Why is that the reference point? That really frustrated me. So I started writing against that.
TM: So you said you were listening to your son’s voice, and yet you drew the character as a girl.
CC: The book was originally two boys. I was listening to my son’s voice and the character was a boy, and I had a much longer section when they were grown up and returning to the island at first. I was really struggling with that and my agent said, Well, maybe it’s a girl. I went into a three-day snit. Absolutely not! It was so foundational that I was writing against Lord of the Flies. I calmed down and I read through, and the older character was going on about popsicles and Band-Aids. I realized that she and I shared a lot of interests. I started to leave Lord of the Flies behind. Maybe that was a reason for starting, but why would that matter to the reader? I knew I’d write about a strong little girl really well.
TM: In your review of The Troop for The Globe and Mail you wrote about how the female character is always the one being eaten, and how that irritates you. Was that part of that character decision as well?
CC: It became a big part of that. Especially in wilderness and survival writing, there’s been, similar to horror, a damsel in distress role for women. My grandmother’s sister was a climber in the 1950s who was in the Kootenays (south-east British Columbia), a back-country skier, and I don’t see her story. There were quite a few Victorian rock-climbers, they went in skirts, but it’s not really established in the wilderness writing canon. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I was so glad that Craig Davidson didn’t have anyone skinny dipping at the beginning!
TM: Releasing children to their own recognizance is a common fairy tale trope. When she was small, I’d hear my daughter announce “we were orphans” during imaginary play. Like in fairy tales, that was always the start of everything: get the parents out of the way so something interesting can happen. There are clear narrative constraints when you limit yourself to the perspective of a five-year-old, but I think there are freedoms, too. Did you ever attempt this story from the adult perspective?
CC: I didn’t, because it started with the voice. One of the first times I’ve thought clearly about this was when Mark Medley interviewed me for the National Post and he said, You have all these tools but you’ve chosen to throw them to the side and essentially tie one hand behind your back. Why would you do that? And I had no way to answer. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write from the child’s perspective, I thought, I’m going to use this voice. In my first few drafts I had many more signposts for the reader, days of the week, some articles, a section from the rescuer’s perspective. I was not confident in my ability to pull it off. As I got more into the voice and attuned to what I was doing, I started to strip that back and the last step was taking it all out. I thought, Ok, I think I can stand up. I had to be brave.
It was incredibly freeing. I stopped worrying so much while I was writing, and I stopped using that analytical part of my brain and I let it go back to this instinctual brain. When I was writing Anna’s voice I let myself write fast and I didn’t read back. I just let it rip.
TM: Your bear is very different from Marian Engel’s bear, but both animals seem to stand in for our relationship with the natural world. We understand it as benevolent as well as destructive; we love it and we fear it. Has the writing of this novel changed your relationship with wilderness?
CC: The review in People magazine said something like, “This could do for camping what Jaws did for beaches.” I thought, Oh, good lord! I actually loved the novel Jaws and I’d been reading about how Peter Benchley has such great regret about what he did to great white sharks. They weren’t understood when he wrote that, and the novel portrays them as killing machines. If you read the blurb about my book, and you don’t actually read the book, there is potential for harm. It’s made me realize the extent of my conflict. Of course when I go outdoors I’m very conscious of them and I’m scared of them in a way, but all of my experiences say that I don’t need to be. I think that part of writing this book was trying to reconcile those two things.
At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
I confess: I am a late-night reality TV binger. After a day of writing black and white words on a computer screen, wading into deep, quiet page pools, and capturing fantasy scenes as quick as my fingers can follow, my brain is pickled come nightfall. While my husband unwinds with epic movies, intricate crime dramas, and complicated plots, I lean toward one-hour forays into reality’s peccadilloes. Judge as you may. And rightfully so.
At a particular hour, my mind goes flat as a penny, ready to be dropped in the candy turnstile for bubblegum reward. It isn’t hard to find fodder for my bender. Years ago, Survivor was the only “reality show” on prime time. Now, however, they’ve become the mainstay of network programming.
Just when I’d pronounced myself lost to empty, mindless indulgence, I invented a game: matching reality programs with classic literature. After playing a few times on the couch (flat screen to my left, library shelf to my right), I’m now unable to watch reality shows without asking, “So, what book is this like?” Inevitably, I discover one lesson on how to live and another on how to write.
Here are some of the cards on my DVR deck:
1) Hoarders by A&E/Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Life Lesson: There’s a fine line between wanting to possess all the best and madness.
Writing Lesson: Beware of overwriting. That collection of French lace doilies on the piano, drawers of prized pewter spoons, and shelves of antique Dresden figurines might make you proud, but if they don’t serve a plot purpose, they’re no better than Emma’s house of debt. Box up the expensive word clutter and give it to the story Goodwill. The prose will be finer for it, and you won’t have to eat arsenic to get out of bankruptcy with readers.
2) The Bachelor by ABC and The Voice by NBC/”The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Life Lesson: A pretty face will only get you so far. Never underestimate the power of your unique voice.
Writing Lesson: Describing a story’s landscape, clothing, food, room objects, etcetera is excellent to immerse the reader in your fictional world, but the voices of the characters are the true lifeblood of the narrative. You lose those and all the rest is flotsam on the sea.
3) American Pickers by The History Channel/“Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” in The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland
Life Lesson: That corroded oil lamp might be worth something…extraordinary. But if you leave it buried in the garage, it’s just a forgotten thing.
Writing Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take your time and dig through the top layer of your story idea, to research and explore the possibilities of seemingly grimy, old secrets. Those usually prove the most valuable to the makeup of your characters and plot. A diamond isn’t glittering bright in the mine. It’s hidden, dirty, and in need of someone with the patience to give it a good scrub and believe in its splendor.
4) Duck Dynasty by A&E/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life Lesson: At the end of your best or worst day, gathering round the table with your family for blessing and home cooking feels good.
Writing Lesson: As writers, we often neglect our realities for the prose. We invest so much of ourselves in our craft that how the writing goes is how we go. A good writing day and we are Pollyannas. A bad writing day and we grump around the house, annoyed that the dog dared step in our path. I’ve learned that after a long stretch of writing — good or bad — I need dinnertime. I gather ingredients, chop, sauté, simmer, and cook a solid meal, then I sit with my family and reconnect. It never fails to ground me and rejuvenate my creativity.
5) The Real Housewives by Bravo/Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Life Lesson: Whenever you make your world a remote island, there’s bound to be a tribe gang-up, a broken shell of decorum, and people listening to pig-headed voices. Savage.
Writing Lesson: Enclosed scenes are dramatic. Lock your characters together in a room (be it a gated community or an island). It’s bound to produce conflict and conflict is story fuel.
6) Breaking Amish by TLC/The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Life Lesson: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” From Tom himself.
Writing Lesson: Everyone wants the bylaws to writing prosperity. That’s why nearly every published author interview includes the question: “What’s your daily routine like?” We want to know how they did it so, perhaps, we can mimic to similar results. But the truth is, there is no set of commandments. One of my M.F.A. mentors wisely counseled me that yes, creative workshops and studying great literary masterpieces would strengthen my writing muscles. My shiny diploma would be a reminder that I exercised with experts and tested well. But…so what? In the end, she said true success would only come when I threw the traditions out the window and journeyed on my own. That pretty much terrified me. Now, I realize how right she was.
7) Love It or List It by HGTV/The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Life Lesson: If you’ve re-envisioned, demolished walls, rebuilt, replanted and repainted, sweat, cried, and exhausted yourself in the creative process but the results don’t make you marvel, it may be time to move on.
Writing Lesson: Never be afraid to shelf a project or even (gasp!) toss it in the never-to-be-seen-again drawer. I have two entire novels in that garbage drawer and one novel on the maybe-another-day shelf. I had to write these books to be able to move on to better story ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one might argue it’s far healthier than sitting on a mush of an overworked book that you find tired and dreary. I’m not an advocate of book burning or anything dramatic. Keep the pages under lock and key. Stroll through them from time to time if you like and maybe, one day, their season of bloom will come round…or maybe not. And that’s okay, too.
8) Family S.O.S. by TLC/Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Life Lesson: A dysfunctional household begets progeny that may end up poisoning the whole lot. The Brits get it. S.O.S., Kenneth Branagh and Jo Frost.
Writing Lesson: Stop and examine your writing motives. Be real with yourself: ask why you want to write and answer truthfully. It’s between you and you. If your aim has anything to do with money, power, fame, revenge, or recreating the death of your father to shame your mother, well, you got trouble in your household. All of these are toxic to your book and the writing community. If your answer has to do with being devoted to a story and so blitzed in love with the characters that you feel a physical ache whenever you aren’t actively engaged with them, then you’ve got a wholesome foundation to build on.
9) Giving You The Business by the Food Network/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Life Lesson: To whom much is given, much is expected.
Writing Lesson: We don’t bequeath our treasured stories to just anybody. As writers, we need to remember it’s vitally important to be readers and cheerleaders of each other. We’ve been given much and we must give in equal abundance. I don’t understand anyone who wants the world to sing his/her written praises, yet remains mum about courageous colleagues. We need the “Fellowship of the Book” for all to succeed.
10) Keeping up with the Kardashians by E!/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Life Lesson: They may drive you crazy, destroy your prized possessions, steal your best friend, and break your heart, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, your family will fight the paparazzi for you.
Writing Lesson: Your characters might make you crazy, keep you up all hours chatting your ear off, and cause you to wonder if you’re clinically diagnosable, but they are your people — as much a part of you as your kin. In some ways, they might even be more you than flesh and blood. So forget everything else and fight for them. No matter what happens in the story or with the manuscript, that’s one thing you won’t ever regret.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Writers often make cameo appearances in films based on their stories. Occasionally, they play themselves in movies. Some playwrights, by nature of their proximity to actors and the theater, are almost better known for acting than for their writing (Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard, for example).
There are writers, however, who act in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Who are some of these authors, and how do they fare on the big screen?
1. Calvin Trillin – Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
In his debut performance as Uncle Milton in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy, Calvin Trillin can be called subtle. The author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out and About Alice is doing one of the things he does best: eating dinner. He is also relatively avuncular, if your uncles are, like mine, the sort who basically ignore you. (You can catch most of his performance here starting at 1:05.)
Trillin followed up his Sleepless in Seattle performance with a role in another Nora Ephron film, Michael (1996). As the sheriff who throws the eponymous archangel and his entourage in jail, Trillin has a few lines, but he appears acutely conscious of the camera — and determined to turn away from it. How like a writer.
2. George Plimpton – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The late editor of the Paris Review auditioned for the role of himself in Paper Lion (1968), based on his book of the same name, but the part went to Alan Alda. However, Plimpton brought his transatlantic honk to many movies. He made his film debut as a Bedouin running across the desert in David Lean’s epic and went on to make 18 more big-screen appearances. He donned a cowboy hat in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) and partied with club kids in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). He logged bit roles in The Detective (1968), L.A. Story (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), among others.
3. Jerzy Kosinski – Reds (1981)
George Plimpton appeared as an editor in Reds (1981), which also featured writer Jerzy Kosinski as Grigory Zinoviev, the Russian revolutionary-turned-bureaucrat. Kosinski’s portrayal of Zinoviev is cold, furious, and authentic. Before filming began, Kosinski also convinced director Warren Beatty that the latter was having a panic attack. Beatty says, “I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely…Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually.”
Plimpton and Kosinski also had cameos in A Fool and His Money (1986). Plimpton played God. Kosinski was a beggar. Literary Brat-Packer Tama Janowitz made a brief appearance as a talk-show host. By all reports, the film is terrible. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock had a small role. She is featured prominently in the re-cut trailer.
4. Maya Angelou – Poetic Justice (1993)
Poetic Justice was directed and written by John Singleton but Maya Angelou supplied the poetry recited by Justice, played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also had a small role as June, one of three sisters whom Justice encounters at a family reunion. Angelou also played a woman named May and read her poem “In and Out of Time” in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). The writer is comfortable on camera, impressive and sonorous. Really, though, Maya Angelou plays Maya Angelou, even when she’s ostensibly a character named after a month.
5. Martin Amis – A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
A very blond, 13-year-old Amis appeared in the film based on Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel. The story has been described as The Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. British children who are being sent to England for schooling find their ship commandeered by pirates. The pirates prove juvenile, while the children find their blood lust awakened by the plundering and pillaging. Amis describes the making of the movie in his memoir, Experience. Puberty hit the future writer during filming, forcing filmmakers to overdub Amis’ voice with that of a young girl’s.
6. Salman Rushdie – Then She Found Me (2007)
In the film based on Elinor Lipman’s book of the same name, the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children plays physician to a pregnant Helen Hunt. The film is filled with off-puttingly familiar mugs: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Colin Firth. Most distracting of all may be Rushdie’s. He tries his best, but let’s face it: SALMAN RUSHDIE, fatwa survivor, ex-husband of Padma Lakshmi, plays an obstetrician who is not using enough gel while operating an ultrasound machine. Disbelief has not been suspended if the audience* starts yelling, “Use more gel, Rushdie! Use more gel!”
*Okay, I was watching it alone in my living room. Still.
8. Norman Mailer – Cremaster 2 (1999)
Mailer acted, directed, and wrote many films (including Maidstone , in which Mailer’s character’s fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn, turns into a real-life brawl). But Mailer also received good notices for his role in Ragtime (1981), based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, in which he portrayed architect Stanford White, and as Harry Houdini in artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999). Barney’s avant-garde film was loosely based on the story of Gary Gilmore, who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and was convicted of killing two Utah gas station attendants. Gilmore was also the subject of Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner’s Song.
9. Gore Vidal – Gattaca (1997)
In 1971, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett show (the on-camera portion of the spat can be found here). Clearly, the two writers shared a sense of theatricality which might explain their attraction to the cinema. Vidal enjoyed turns in Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) and the comedy Igby Goes Down (2002), among others. Vidal also had a supporting role as the sinister head of a space agency in the dystopian thriller, Gattaca, which also starred novelist Ethan Hawke.
10. Anita Loos – Camille (1926)
This 33-minute silent film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, probably shouldn’t qualify for this list — it’s essentially a home movie of a drunken party — but the cast is completely insane. Paul Robeson! Clarence Darrow! Charlie Chaplin! Loos, writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame, played the title role. Essayist H.L. Mencken, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and W. Somerset Maugham made appearances. Publisher Alfred Knopf also had a cameo.
N+1 editor Keith Gessen had a minor role in Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore Mutual Appreciation (2005). Beat writer William S. Burroughs appeared in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff acted in Capote (2005) and Strangers With Candy (2005). And finally, novelist and professional egoist Ayn Rand, an uncredited extra in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927), probably spent her life wondering why she wasn’t the star.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Even a slight familiarity with pop culture provides the awareness that Scandinavian crime stories are ascendant — due in part to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s internationally bestselling trilogy. There are, of course, numerous other practitioners of the crime genre from ice-bound precincts — Åke Edwardson, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Arnaldur Indriðason, and so on.
Norwegian Jo Nesbø, whose CV includes stints as a stock trader, cab driver, musician, and soccer player, has seen six novels featuring his driven and single minded Oslo homicide detective, Harry Hole, published in English translation. Harry likes jazz, ’80s rock, booze, and solving crimes. And, naturally, Hole resents and resists authority — a burdensome characteristic for a big city policeman. All of which produces entertaining and, dare I offer, suspenseful reading.
In our face-to-face chat we talked about American crime writers, Nesbø’s ineptitude as a taxi driver, who is making a movie from his book, Lord of the Flies, his reading habits and more:
Robert Birnbaum: How do you pronounce your name?
Jo Nesbø: Ah, well. Outside Norway I prefer Jo Nesbø (both laugh). It’s the simple version. The Norwegian version is Ug Nespa.
RB: Say it again.
JN: Ug Nespa.
RB: Is there a “g” at the end of your first name?
JN: No there’s not.
RB: Sound’s like it. There’s a hard sound at the end. And Harry Hole is pronounced how?
JN: Same thing — outside Norway I am happy with Harry Hole and so is he, but in Norway it’s Hahree Whoule.
RB: Since your book is translated, it must be first written in Norwegian, yes?
RB: When you think about American crime fiction, there are a number of icons that people around the world refer to — Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Thomson. Is there someone like that in Norway?
JN: Yeah, you have [Henrik] Wergeland. [He] is recognized as the godfather of Norwegian crime literature. In Scandinavian crime you have to go to the ’70s — Maj Sjöwall andPer Wahlöö founded the modern Scandinavian crime novel based on social criticism.
RB: And more procedural.
JN: It was. So everyone in Scandinavia who writes a crime novel, whether they l know it or not, they are influenced by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
RB: You have a varied CV — how did you come to writing?
RB: You were a stockbroker, a rock and roller, soccer player, taxi driver.
JN: I was a really bad taxi driver. I was famous for it.
RB: Bad sense of direction or poor driving?
JN: Just bad driving. Lack of concentration. But I come from a book reading home. My mother was a librarian. My father was a book collector. And so he would always be reading. So I started reading as soon as I could tell the letters [of the alphabet]. The first novel that I made my father read to me was Lord of The Flies by William Golding. A Nobel Prize winner. I wish I could say I chose that book because I have good taste, but I liked the cover. It was a pig’s head on a stake. Actually, when I wrote my first novel at the age of 37, none of my friends were surprised that I had finally written a novel. They were more like, “What took you so long?” It took some time, but it came very naturally.
RB: I am a little confused. There are eight novels in the Harry Hole series and four have been published in the U.S. [there are actually six available, with a seventh on the way in fall 2012]?
JN: I’m a bit confused myself. Because the first two novels feature Harry Hole in Australia and then in Bangkok, Thailand. And when we started selling the rights abroad we decided we would not sell the rights to the first two novels because they were a bit far-fetched — a Norwegian detective in Australia and Thailand. So we started with the third novel, but then the U.K. and later on the U.S. decided they would publish them out of order. So it is a bit confusing. Not only are they out of order, but also they are in different print sequences in different countries.
RB: And Headhunters?
JN: That’s a stand-alone.
RB: And Harry Hole is not in it at all?
JN: No, he is not mentioned and he is not there.
RB: Headhunters has been made into a movie in Norway — will it play in the U.S?
JN: Yes, which is rare. I just came back from Cannes and we showed it to distributors and the American distributor was so happy with it that it will be shown in at least 15 cities.
RB: Is Working Title the distributor?
JN: No, they bought the rights for one of the Harry Hole stories.
RB: Which means they effectively bought them all.
JN: Yah, yah.
RB: Working Title is the Coen Brothers?
JN: That’s right. That was their opening line when they phoned me. Because I had turned down offers for the Harry Hole series for a long time. Not that I don’t love movies, but they’re so strong compared to novels, so I wanted to keep that universe untouched. But they phoned me with a great opening line — “Hi, we are Working Title and we made Fargo.” (both laugh) And so I said, “OK, I’m listening.”
RB: Why did they mention Fargo, of all their films?
JN: I think they had a hunch that I liked that movie. It was probably on my top 10 list of movies ever.
RB: That’s great. I always have liked them, but I gained a lot of respect for them in the way they re-made True Grit.
JN: I just saw the first part of True Grit on the plane — I hadn’t seen it. And the dialogue was great. And I was curious because I hadn’t seen the original and it was really whippy great dialogue. It reminded me of Deadwood. Different, but still with great attention to dialogue.
RB: I recommend the novel Deadwood by Pete Dexter.
JN: I didn’t know there was a novel. Is it written in the same, almost Shakespearean way?
RB: Dexter is a great American writer, most well known for Paris Trout.
JN: I’m so ignorant.
RB: Is this your first visit here?
JN: No, I was here two years ago [for a book tour] and I was here before that. My father grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, with my grandparents. So I have some ties and bonds with the U.S.
RB: Besides gruesome deaths, what would define and distinguish Scandinavian crime literature? As opposed to American?
JN: Hopefully, Scandinavian crime has — the quality is good. You do have bad Scandinavian crime lit — but I think what separates it from not only American, but the rest of Europe also, is there is a tradition stemming from the ’70s that it was OK to write crime literature. It was prestigious. Sjöwall and Wahlöö sort of moved the crime novel from the kiosks into the bookstores, meaning that young talented writers would use the crime novel as vehicles for their storytelling talents. And so you have had good crime novelists, good writers, who would, from time to time, write so-called serious literature and almost all the well-known, established serious writers in Scandinavia have at one time written a crime novel. It’s sort of a thing that you do. You must have a go at genre.
RB: Here it seems acceptance of genre fiction as legitimate has come later. Elmore Leonard is championed, by among others Martin Amis, Michael Connelly, and George Pelecanos.
JN: James Lee Burke.
RB: I have read three of your books — and you have avoided what I think is the reason I don’t read series. Harry Hole is not predictable and clichéd. You know some of his habits, but the plots aren’t cookie cutter. What’s on your mind when you write the next Hole story? When are you done with him — how old does he get to be?
JN: That’s a secret.
RB: You know?
JN: I know — I have a storyline for him. He is not going to have eternal life. And he is not going to rise from the dead. So after the second novel, I sat down and wrote his story — I am not 100 percent sure how many books there will be, but if we are not near the end, we are nearer the end.
RB: Philip Kerr, who has written seven Bernie Gunther novels, says that the problem with writing a series is that the author usually writes one or two too many. They don’t know when to stop. Will you know when to stop?
JN: I don’t know. (laughs) I have no idea. Hopefully somebody will tell me. As long as the books sell, probably they won’t.
RB: Sales and quality don’t necessarily correspond.
JN: Actually, I think that — I am reading Jim Thompson on the plane. He had to write to pay the rent. I am so lucky I don’t have to write. I don’t have to sell books. So I can focus on what I want to do — what’s interesting. Do I know when to stop? Yes. It will not be decided by sales numbers. From the start I wrote for myself and two friends that I wanted to impress — two friends that had more or less the same taste in culture. And it’s still the same. Those are the two guys I am writing for — they don’t know this. If they say, “I read the last book and it was OK, then I am over the moon.”
RB: OK is good?
JN: OK is great.
RB: Do you have first readers?
JN: Yah, at the publishing house.
RB: But not friends?
JN: No, nothing like that. I have four or five people at the publisher. They coordinate their opinions and we sit down and have a meeting.
RB: Chandler was in the same situation as Thompson — so it goes. So, there is a limit to the Harry Hole. Are you already thinking about other fiction that you want to write?
JN: I am.
RB: How far ahead are you in your aspirations and goals?
JN: Other series or novels? I don’t like to think that long term. The problem is that I have more ideas than I have time. So I have — I am 51 now. I probably won’t be able to read all the books I want to read. And I won’t have the time to write all the books I want to write. So I try to give them the right priority, meaning that— — I have a children’s book series that I am working on now. There will be one more book in that series. And then a stand-alone children’s book. And then I will finish the Harry Hole series. I have some ideas for maybe a new series. I haven’t quite decided yet because I want to write this stand-alone thriller. When you write, it’s important to do it while you have the enthusiasm for the idea. Maybe the most important period of your writing is when you are convinced that your idea is the best idea any writer ever has had. So you have to use that energy, because the time will come when you wake up in the morning and you will doubt your idea. And then it’s good that you have already more than half–
RB: That doesn’t happen when you start something?
JN: Not when I start. And it doesn’t really happen that often. I wake up in the morning unsure. It did happen two years ago. I had been working on a novel for a long time and I started doubting. I went to my publishers and they were quite happy with it. But they had some suggestions and I immediately knew that they read it the way I read it myself. And what I did was delete the whole novel. Two years’ work out the window. Like I said, I am in the fortunate situation that I don’t have to publish books to pay the rent.
RB: It sounds like you don’t encounter writer’s block.
JN: No, I never experienced writer’s block, no.
RB: Do you have to write every day?
JN: I try to write every day, and I can write almost anywhere. I have been writing on the plane coming here. I thought our meeting was at four o’clock, so I was planning to write for an hour. When we are done here, I am going to write for two hours before my next meeting.
RB: Sounds like you love it.
JN: I love it. I started writing so late in life. I was 37 — I had worked, as you said, as a taxi driver, a stockbroker. A fishing trawler. I had many kinds of jobs. And I know this is the greatest job that you can have. To actually get up in the morning and people are paying you to do what you really want to do. To come up with these stories. It’s unbelievable having that as a job.
RB: Do you go for periods without writing?
JN: I don’t. Not really. Like I said I have more ideas than I have time. When I am going on vacation with my daughter for a week, she says, “Daddy, don’t bring the laptop, ok?.” I say, “No, no, no, I won’t.” Like an alcoholic, I will have it hidden somewhere. No, I have one week a year that is sort of sacred, that I don’t write.
RB: Can you imagine not writing?
JN: I can. I had a long life not writing, so I can imagine. But it would a poor life, that’s for sure.
RB: What is life like for a successful writer in Norway — do you live in Oslo? Is there a literary circle?
JN: I live in Oslo and there is a literary circle. I guess I am not part of it. I never was. I have my friends before I started writing and I stick with them. We hang out and do things.
RB: No publishing parties and movie openings?
JN: Not really. I probably did that more when I was a musician. And you get tired of it — talking about books, talking about writing. I do that enough when I am traveling. It’s good to go back home and go rock climbing or just talk about Bob Dylan — anybody but me. When I first started talking about myself at interviews like this, I though this must be the best job ever. To have people absolutely listening to you, talking about yourself for hours and hours. So I was a bit surprised when after a couple of years I felt I was getting tired of myself. Listening to my own voice, retelling the story of my life.
RB: Answering the same questions–
JN: You know this interview is a bit better than most–
RB: Well, thank you. Is there a big boom in writing programs, MFA programs in Scandinavia as in the U.S?
JN: Ah, yah. Something happened in the ’90s that suddenly writers became pop stars. They started being interviewed on talk shows and they started having their own shows called Book Box — there was an old building in Oslo where they had an indoor pool. They started interviewing writers there. They were like rock concerts. Actually, they had rock concerts in the same arena. It would be sold out — just for a writer being interviewed for 45 minutes. Ever since that, all the young talented people, they want to become famous writers because they would be treated like pop stars.
RB: What is the book business like in your part of the world? Is it prospering?
JN: It is. Norway — I am not sure about Sweden and Denmark, but Norway is one of the best countries in the world to be a writer. Both economically and artistically. I just went to France and I asked a bookseller there, “How many writers can write full time?” He said, “Probably, 50 or 60.” In Norway there are probably 200. Which has a smaller population — smaller than Massachusetts — 4 or 5 million.
RB: Which Americans do you try to read? How do they filter into Norway?
JN: I guess European literature has traditionally been more important in Norway than American. But myself, maybe because my father grew up here, I was influenced by American literature from a young age. Mark Twain, who I still regard as one of the great American writers. And Ernest Hemingway. Later on I read the Beatniks — Jack Kerouac. I was a great fan of Charles Bukowski.
RB: And contemporary novelists?
JN: Michael Connelly. James Lee Burke. There are so many greats. I didn’t read that much crime fiction before I started writing it myself. I can remember reading Lawrence Block. Dennis Lehane, of course. His Mystic River. I went to Asia and I bought 10 crime novels that were supposed to be good. Out of the 10, I found one good book — which was Mystic River.
RB: It’s also a great movie with Robert Mitchum. You are here for an extensive charm initiative?
JN: I will be here for nine days, trying to charm as many [people] as I can. Toronto, NYC, and the West Coast.
RB: By the way, how is it that your father grew up here?
JN: My grandmother left Norway for the U.S. when she was 16 and then she went back and met my grandfather. They made my daddy. And they went back to Brooklyn. To a part of Brooklyn where you had many Scandinavians in the ’20s and ’30s.
RB: Do you watch crime movies?
JN: I do. When I started writing I was probably more influenced by crime movies based on novels than the original novel. In some cases the films are better than the novels. The Godfather is probably a better movie–
RB: Someone is actually writing a prequel. What a god-awful idea.
RB: Did the HBO series The Wire make it to Norway?
JN: Yes. I have seen it and it’s great. The most interesting thing happening in storytelling right now is probably in American TV series. Breaking Bad–
RB: Justified based on an Elmore Leonard character — pretty funny. Are there original serials like that in Norway?
JN: We do, but with a small population and limited resources — there is a Danish series that made its way at least to the U.K. It’s called The Crime.
RB: It’s called The Killing here. A female cop tries to solve the killing of a young girl–
JN: That’s it. Are you seeing the original series?
RB: No, it must be made for the U.S. It’s in English and set in Seattle using American actors.
JN: Yah, the original is shot in Copenhagen. It’s great, if you can get it. It has subtitles.
RB: When I saw The Wire, I never saw it in episodes — I got the DVD and watched four or five hours at a time. It seems counterintuitive to watch these long stories a piece at a time.
JN: I agree. Watching the DVDs is like books, you decide when to consume the story. But don’t forget Charles Dickens would serialize his stories.
RB: Who knew the difference then? What is it, a new phenomenon?
JN: I think he was the first one who did it — if not, it was unusual to do that. I heard he would receive letters from his readers advising him how the story should go. And he would actually listen to them.
RB: Dickens was fascinating character. I’ve read a few novels where he actually appears as a character — Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Joseph O Connor’s Star of the Sea. What kind of music do you like — jazz appears a lot in the Hole books?
JN: Jazz and American rock from the ’80s. I still play about 50 to 60 gigs a year. I play guitar and I sing. So most of the gigs are with my bass player. We also go touring with my old band. We are going touring this summer — just for a few festivals. Just for fun. We keep the tour short enough so we don’t kill each other (laughs). So we are having fun.
RB: Do you tour outside Norway?
JN: No, the lyrics are in Norwegian and I don’t think the music makes sense outside Norway.
RB: Who comes to Norway to play? Anyone big?
JN: Most of them — either to Oslo or Stockholm or to Copenhagen — which is not so far from where I live in Oslo.
RB: Do you travel in Scandinavia?
JN: The land is more or less the same — just different dialects.
RB: Danish is understandable?
JN: No you have to read Danish. They speak funny. Actually, and I love Danes, but Danish is difficult. Children all over the world learn their mother tongue at the same age except for one country — Denmark. It takes a little longer.
RB: Apparently Dutch is unpronounceable by anyone except the Dutch. That’s how the Dutch Resistance tripped up spies in World War II. So will you participate in the making of the Harry Hole movie?
JN: The deal is done. I am an executive producer. I have a veto when it comes to the director and screenwriter. And that was what was important to me. I wasn’t too eager to sell the rights for the books as long as I was writing the series. So that was a condition — that I would have veto. The first time we met they said, “We can’t do it like that. We can’t go to Martin Scorsese and ask him to write a screenplay for this unknown Norwegian writer and if he likes it then maybe this unknown Norwegian writer will say yes. And have you direct the movie.” I said, “I completely understand but that is my condition. I am happy not to have the series filmed, yet.”
RB: Is it difficult that once the film is made there will be a tangible character and so when you write–
JN: That was one of the reasons I wasn’t eager to have it filmed, you know. I‘d rather there be a 1,000 Harry Holes in the heads of my readers than one character defining him.
RB: Having said that, who do you think may be a good Harry Hole?
JN: I have no idea.
RB: Norwegian or American?
JN: I have been thinking hard — Nick Nolte is probably too old. But I have no idea.
RB: Do you like Harry Hole?
JN: I do. He is a bit annoying at times. But most of the time I like him.
RB: Because he comes through — for truth, justice, and the Norwegian way?
JN: I mean he is irritating. He always has to do things the difficult way. He can’t ever — he has this problem with authority. And in my opinion he should try to avoid authority more, instead of always picking a fight. He’s a bit annoying in that sense. He is not the kind of guy I would like to hang out with — he is a bit too intense.
RB: He doesn’t really have any friends. One guy — his tech guy; he is sort of a friend. Even his colleagues who seem to respect him don’t gravitate to him. He is a tough cookie. His girlfriend obviously has problems with him.
JN: I think women want to save him more than that he is pleasant to be around. But he has one childhood friend — the hard drinking taxi driver. Apart from that, a psychologist and women.
RB: Often in crime stories, the crimes are not that important. Certainly in Raymond Chandler, in The Big Sleep who could figure that one out. Or in Chinatown where you are told not to try to understand “because it’s Chinatown.” In the Harry Hole stories, you do plot out a crime and have surprising solutions and endings. It’s something you care about?
JN: Yes. I like the dialogue you have with the reader — I am going to give you a chance to sort out the riddle. And I will give you enough information to solve it. I am not going to give you all the vital information from the last 30 pages. But before that, at least you have a chance. That was what Dennis Lehane did in Mystic River — there was a bit of information in the middle of the book and an experienced reader or writer — you could probably tell, okay, here is the killer.
RB: I liked his standalone novel about the 1919 Boston Police strike, Any Given Day.
JN: Yah, yah.
RB: It mentioned the Great Molasses Flood where a big vat of molasses escaped killing 19 or 20 people and wreaking untold havoc. Robert Parker also wrote a number of series and I thought his best work was a standalone, All Our Yesterdays. Did you read Parker?
RB: When The Road came out, I wasn’t in the mood to read it. But I did read a post-apocalyptic novel by Jim Crace called Pesthouse. Twenty years hence, most of America has been destroyed and survivors are searching for safe areas and viable communities. And of course they encounter obstacles. It came out around the same time as McCarthy’s book and was overshadowed by it. Do you know of Jim Crace?
JN: No. There are so many writers. We been sitting here almost an hour now and you are mentioning well-known writers and I don’t know about them. I probably should be embarrassed, but I am not. There are so many books and we don’t have time to read them all.
RB: It is frustrating. If you read 200 books a year, you still don’t scratch the surface.
JN: How many do you read a year?
RB: I may complete 150.
RB: I start a lot more. I used to feel bad about not finishing a book. I’m better at that.
JN: I ‘m a slow reader. I read more like 30 a year. It’s a crazy thing — there so many talented writers that you are not going to hear about. That’s why I feel so privileged and lucky to be able to come here after years of writing and have a name in Europe and hopefully some day in the United States. It’s not enough to be good.
RB: Is your backlist available here now? Harper has four, Knopf as two. The others?
JN: The first novels will translated to English next year. Harper will probably keep the backlist.
RB: Which one will be made into a movie?
JN: The Snowman.
RB: The new one.
JN: Actually that’s the previous one — the next one is called The Leopard.
RB: All right, thank you
JN: Thank you.
Image courtesy of Robert Birnbaum.
George Orwell never thought that his work would outlive him by much. After all, he considered himself “a sort of pamphleteer” rather than a genuine novelist, and confidently predicted that readers would lose interest in his books “after a year or two.” Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.
I say this as someone who not only reads Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four once a year, but who also owns collections of essays, biographies, and even a copy of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which according to one reviewer “at times mak[es] the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair.”
But for people like me who are under 30, there will always be something remote and incomprehensible about Orwell. I was in preschool when the Berlin Wall fell, and I know perestroika and détente as answers to exam questions rather than lived experiences. I grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ICBMs, and found LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Girl” ad far less terrifying than some of the spots from the 2008 presidential election. I think of politics in terms of individual issues and partisan planks rather than grand, historicizing political ideologies. In short, because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not.
In ninth grade, I was required to read Animal Farm. My class read the book over a period of three weeks, which was not that hard of a task, since it is all of 30,000 words. Our teacher gave us the barest outline of historical context, enough at least to know that Napoleon represented Stalin, Snowball represented Trotsky, and that was about it (a whole unit on allegory would have to wait until sophomore year, and Billy Budd). But because the book is a “fairy story,” I learned its themes easily: power corrupts, principles are elastic, revolutions will be betrayed, and evil’s greatest allies are the unthinking masses.
Two years later, I found myself following Winston Smith into the cabbage-smelling hallways of Victory Mansions on a bright cold day in April. This was the year of “relatable” protagonists, so after Ralph from Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I was primed to look for affirmations of my own worldview. And Nineteen Eighty-Four was both cynical, anti-authoritarian, and a paean to hopeless dissent in the face of inexorable conformity (its working title, after all, was “The Last Man in Europe”). To my teenage mind, Winston was both pathetic and sympathetic – a role model – even if Big Brother got him in the end. Surely, I thought, these were the only lessons that were worth keeping from the book, since nothing else was obvious.
If there is such a thing as a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read books, then my high school approach to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been the latter. But that was because I did not know exactly how these books were shaped by their times, and how contemporary audiences would have reacted to them. We never heard about Orwell’s influences, such as Arthur Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin, or James Burnham, because they are not part of the literary canon. We never learned about the show trials in Moscow or the Spanish Civil War, either, because that was meant for history class, not English. And any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds: I did not, for instance, understand that the concept of “Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism, whereby fascism advanced under a socialist veneer, until much later. In short, I could not have known what Orwell intended his works to be, and so I understood them in the only way I knew how, as advice manuals for the American adolescent.
I’m not the only one who never quite “got” Orwell the first time around. Because few people who read Orwell’s novels in classrooms also learn about their context, most people misunderstand them, or at least half-remember them, in the same way. Sometimes, his name gets applied to topics that he never really thought about, such as the “Orwellian” investment philosophy of Goldman Sachs (at best, Orwell railed against the “sheer vulgar fatness of wealth” and the “worship of money” in general) and the “downright Orwellian” American Community Survey form for the 2010 Census (Orwell has nothing specific to say about government paperwork). Other times, this means that Orwell’s political enemies try to claim him for their own side. This is nothing new: in the 1950s and 60s, for example, Soviet publications like Kommunist and Izvestia argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually a critique of American excesses and amorality, and in 1984, Norman Podhoretz famously tried to make Orwell into a pro-nuclear neoconservative hawk.
But even though Hitler and Stalin belong to the dustbin of history, people still manage to find shades of totalitarianism and organized lying – Orwell’s favorite targets – in more places than ever. During the summer of 2009, for instance, opponents of health care reform wielded Orwell’s name indiscriminately. Steven Yates, a philosophy Ph.D. and member of the John Birch Society, told us that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave.” Bill Fleckenstein, an MSN Moneywatch columnist and hedge fund manager, also decried such an obviously “socialist” project: “For those who aren’t clear on why socialism doesn’t work, I recommend reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”3 And Tea Party protesters have carried signs reading STOP. YOU’RE STARTING TO SCARE GEORGE ORWELL, ORWELL WARNED US, or ORWELL WAS A VISIONARY. Never mind that, in “How the Poor Die,” Orwell criticized how the indigent had inadequate access to health care; never mind that, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he blamed inadequate government intervention for poor nutrition and squalid living conditions in northern mining towns. Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.
Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval.
So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent.
And Orwell was wrong to believe that good writing alone could promote honesty. He wrote that euphemistic, dishonest, and generally bad prose “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” whereas “good prose is like a windowpane,” through which the author’s purpose can be seen clearly. All true. But good writing can still be perverted, as many of his readers have shown and continue to show. As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker, “Orwell’s prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought.” His style, in other words, has overwhelmed his substance, and if he had not been such a good, clear, memorable writer, he would not be plagued by grave-robbers.
Clearly, literary immortality has its downsides. And as the last sixty years have shown, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not like other canonical works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, whose messages are straightforward in comparison. Instead, they are as much pamphlet as novel, which means that it is impossible to understand his political purpose without knowing the intellectual and ideological environment in which he wrote. Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.
I had no notion of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica before I read it. I had never even heard of it before I saw it on the Modern Library list, which is unusual in that the Modern Library list is full of known, if unplumbed, quantities. I’ve encountered no reference, read no synopsis, skipped no assignment, endured no cringing moment with the combative, be-sideburned, aesthete of my nightmares. So I was very curious, and after months spent in an (admittedly low-grade) fever of anticipation, when it arrived in its plain brown wrapper I fell upon it, and read it right away.
I want not to resort to the repellent vernacular of the internet meme, but my reaction to the book is difficult to express otherwise, so,
This is a nasty, wicked little book. It’s wonderful.
Maybe everyone knows about this book already, the plot I mean, and I just missed that page in the dictionary of cultural literacy. For those of you who were likewise not hip to the dark magic of this novel, it’s about a group of children on a pirate ship in the Caribbean. Which it makes it sound like a fairy tale, a riff on Peter Pan. When I read the introduction to my copy I thought, “This sounds ludicrous.” And it sort of is ludicrous. But rather than weave a swashbuckler about cutlass-wielding badduns, Richard Hughes made his pirates real men–weak, minor, foolish villains who nonetheless make (sometimes) fairly decent nannies.
A great feature of the book (oddly like To the Lighthouse in this regard), is the almost parenthetical, and thus hugely shocking, treatment of important and horrifying events. So I can’t tell you about specific goings-on. I will tell you that the story opens, titularly, in Jamaica, where things are colonially swampy and humid and decrepit, with excessive foliage and rotting aristocracy and covert racial violence. The fecundity is palpable–the seen-better-days Britishers have five children, and vicious cats abound. And then, through this corrupt Eden a destroying wind blows. The children are sent off to England, and safety.
These pirates! These children! Separately and in concert, they are, sometimes, unbearably cute. The children become friends with the ship’s pig:
They grew very fond of him indeed (especially Emily), and called him their Dear Love, their Only Dear, their Own True Heart, and other names. But he had only two things he ever said. When his back was being scratched he enunciated an occasional soft and happy grunt . . . When a particularly heavy lot of children sat down on him at once, he uttered the faintest ghost of a little moan, as affecting as the wind in a very distant chimney, as if the air in him was being squeezed out through a pin-hole.
One cannot wish for a more comfortable seat than an acquiescent pig.
‘If I was the Queen,’ said Emily, ‘I should most certainly have a pig for a throne.’
‘Perhaps she has,’ suggested Harry.
‘He does like being scratched,’ she added presently in a very sentimental tone, as she rubbed his scurfy back.
The mate was watching:
‘I should think you’d like being scratched, if your skin was in that condition!’
‘Oh how disgusting you are!’ cried Emily, delighted.
But the idea took root:
‘I don’t think I should kiss him quite so much if I was you,’ Emily presently advised Laura, who was lying with her arms tight round his neck and covering his briny snout with kisses from ring to ears.
‘My pet! My love!’ murmured Laura, by way of indirect protest.
The wily mate had foreseen that some estrangement would be necessary, if they were ever to have fresh pork served without salt tears. He intended this to be the thin end of the wedge. But alas! Laura’s mind was as humoursome an instrument to play as the Twenty-three-stringed Lute.
Richard Hughes knew what he was about with this cuteness; in a 1969 New Yorker interview he describes borrowing the various children of his friends (which included Robert Graves, according to the introduction to my copy), for research. “Children are vulnerable, like pirates,” he remarks, and in this novel he exploits their respective vulnerabilities with great tendresse. But the inane, creepily accurate patter of the children, and the farcical Mr. Mom-style antics of the pirates are the ground beneath which hums a constant current of anxiety, a current that flares without warning into terror, disgust, and profound sadness. For every charming vignette–the children’s conflation of “pirate” with “pilot,” for example, or the Captain admonishing them about the precarious state of their drawers–there is an element of horror. Sexuality and perjury and murder. And that’s just the pirates. The responsible adults fail to pass muster, in different ways.
To be sure, there are few ways to interpret kidnapping. No one is inclined to be sympathetic to the vicious pirates who have ensnared the young. But there is something shameful and perverse in the adults’ (the regular adults’, I should say) bloodlust, their fixation on the lascivious details of captivity. Miss Dawson, the refined young woman who takes Emily in hand upon the children’s rescue, presses her for details on their bondage. “She saw that Emily did not want to talk about the horrors she had been through: but considered it far better that she should be made to talk than that she should brood over them in secret.” Young miss imagines the children “Chained, probably, down there in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water.” To divert Emily, she “took her down to her cabin and showed her all her clothes, every single item–it took hours.”
I left A High Wind in Jamaica feeling sad about the great adult poverty of understanding–the gulf between us and our childhood selves and one another, and our fragile grip on reality. It’s not that children are special pure angels, “If we saw the world through their eyes there would be no wars” and that kind of drivel. I read Lord of the Flies. And Hughes’ children at their best are charming rather than lovable, and at their worst they are vile. But this novel does not reassure us that children grow up to be good and noble. In Hughes’ bright, cynical light, the great institution Adulthood is revealed too as a load of rubbish. It’s bracing, actually, his cynicism; it’s a wry and unusual vintage. This novel is not uplifting, but it’s very good.
Theodore Taylor died this week. He was best known as author of The Cay, a book that has stayed with me since I read it in fifth or sixth grade. The book has a premise appealing to an 11 year old as it imagines a boy that age during World War II who, after the boat he is riding on is torpedoed, ends up on a small island with an old black man, Timothy, and a cat. The boy, Phillip, has been blinded in the accident, and he has an ingrained mistrust of Timothy. Though the book is a story of how Phillip comes to love Timothy, it is unsentimental and peppered with enough adventure to keep a young reader interested. Unlike The Lord of the Flies that other classic about the youthful shipwrecked, The Cay felt more real to me as it wasn’t as weighted down by allegory. I hope kids still read The Cay in school.Taylor’s obit in the LA Times.
Garth and Elise had some aditional thoughts on yesterday’s question: Elise, daughter of a children’s librarian and a great afficianado of too-smart-for-kids-too-fun-for-adults fantasy, likes the Garth Nix books (Lirael, Sabriel, and something else I can’t remember). I used to love Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer. Also, the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collabo Good Omens is pretty awesome. And did anyone actually read Summerland [by Michael Chabon]? Maybe it’s good, too.Great ideas. I can’t speak to many of these picks, although they sound intriguing. I didn’t read Summerland and I didn’t have any customers rush back into the store a week after buying it saying that it changed their kid’s life, as I occasionally do with, say, the Philip Pullman books. On the other hand, Chabon is a talented writer, so it makes sense that the book is at the very least quite readable. Moving on. Garth also posed an interesting question in which we enjoy the pleasures of trying to predict the future: Here’s my book question. Who are the under-50 writers you and your readers think are capable of producing something that will be read widely and passionately 100 years from now? Here’s my extemporaneous list: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Nick Baker, Paul Beatty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Conor McPherson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Patrick Chamoiseau and myself. Any thoughts?This is an interesting question having to do with capabilities. I think it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of Franzen’s The Corrections, none of these writers has as of yet written something that will be read in a 100 years. I am familiar with most but not all of the writers mentioned above, having said that, here are the writers that I think have the best chance to become immortal from the above list: Franzen, Wallace, Whitehead, and Lahiri. On the other hand I’m not sure that Zadie Smith or Suzan-Lori Parks should be included at all, though that may have to do more with my personal taste than the quality of their writing. This is of course an impossible question to answer, but you have to wonder what the prevailing opinion might have been to the same question posed 50 to 100 years ago. Do Hemingway and Faulkner get mentioned? Or is everyone convinced that Sinclair Lewis wll have enduring undying popularity. At any rate, it’s clear that the most fervent current acclaim is no guarantee of canonization. (For what it’s worth, the most voraciously read books that are at least 50 years old are as follows: The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Animal Farm. These will be joined by To Kill a Mockingbird in a few years when it turns 50.) I would add a few names to Garth’s list George Saunders, Gary Schteyngart, Maile Meloy, and my favorite to take the title, Jonathan Safran Foer. Finally, I would like to point out three authors who may have already written something that will be read by future generations. All three have only recently turned fifty, so I don’t mind bending the rules to include them in this discussion. They are: Denis Johnson (age 54), Ian McEwan (age 55), Haruki Murakami (age 54), and maybe I’ll throw in Paul Auster (age 55) for good measure…….. Anyone else got some ideas???Loving the Little GuysI went to a “publishing party” at Book Soup in West Hollywood the other day to celebrate the emergence of two local publishers. First Cut Books is the coolest online book store ever. Each month or so they feature a new set of great books that their dedicated staff of reviewers selects and recommends. First Cut is also a publisher and their first publication is Filthy, a quarterly about baseball pitching, to which I am a contributor. Also there was Tam Tam Books, devoted publisher of all things Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord. Small publishers and the devoted people who run them may be the most exciting thing about the publishing industry.A Brief ExcerptFrom the book I’m reading right now: “I watch him go not without a tinge of envy. In nearly two decades of meditation the Buddha has not told me a single joke. Surely one would laugh for eternity?”