The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

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Capturing the Complexities of Time & Place: Ru Freeman

Novelist/journalist/activist Ru Freeman is a tender-hearted fireball. Her opinion pieces — from 2013 AWP highlights to feminism and gun control — appear regularly at The Huffington Post and her essays can be found in a variety of other journals. Her first novel, A Disobedient Girl, was published to wide acclaim in 2009.

But I met her by way of an early read of her second novel, On Sal Mal Lane, which debuted May 14. The novel begins in Sri Lanka — Freeman’s birthplace — in 1979 and chronicles the years leading up to the country’s two-decade civil war.

I came to the novel knowing, vaguely, where Sri Lanka was on a map. I also knew something about a civil war. But beyond that, my experience of the country, its culture and people, was limited.

That didn’t matter.

A mere page and a half in, I was swept onto the verandas of Sal Mal Lane’s homes, caught up in the games of French cricket children played and hearing the tinkling of a piano drift through an open window. I was, also, all-too aware of the mounting political tension surrounding this small dirt lane and its inhabitants.

I finished the novel — and not without a few pauses to collect myself — with a deeper respect for the human spirit, despite what politics, violence, and loss can do to it.

Here’s my conversation with Freeman on writing On Sal Mal Lane and also what it means to be a writer and activist.

The Millions: Publisher’s Weekly calls you a “social justice activist and freelance journalist.” What does it mean to you to be an activist, journalist and novelist? How do those worlds intersect (or remain distinct)?

Ru Freeman: Everything I write is immersed in everything I live, so in that sense there is no separation. However they remain distinct to the extent that the political journalism that I do is intended to further a cause or agenda that I espouse, whereas the fiction is an effort to create a safe bridge between what I think and what other people might think — a bridge both they and I can cross without fear.

As far as the activism — to live is, for me, to be engaged with the world around me. While I go away to write, tuning out everything, the inspiration for all that I do comes from that world and I am deeply, insanely, completely open to that world. I let it into my head and my heart in every way I can; it stands to reason then that I cannot help but want to assist that world along in whatever way I can, to nudge people this way or that, whether it is through writing or marching or simply having a conversation.

TM: On Sal Mal Lane was initially conceived as a magazine assignment. Though that didn’t ultimately work out, how did you begin to think about the novel as a result?

RF: The novel is much better and it accomplishes what that article never could have done: it brings people, characters into the light and it asks people to live with them for a while, to feel as they might have felt, to walk down that street with them, to be shattered and repaired the way they were. The magazine assignment would have been just another piece people read and forgot, too linear and simplified to ever convey the complexity of a time and place, or to allow a reader to look around them, wherever they are, and see that it is possible to end a war, that there is hope, that reconciliation and peace are possible and within grasp.

TM: You were born in Colombo and experienced the early years of the civil war. Was writing about your childhood memories/experiences of it always something you wanted to do?

RF: Everything a person lives is part of what shows up in writing. Whether it is written about directly, as I have done in this book, or obliquely, as I did in the previous novel, A Disobedient Girl, (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009), there is a part of a writer’s history, their evolution, in everything they write. That isn’t to say it is autobiographical, but that it would be foolish to claim that the autobiographical facts are not a part of what we write. I didn’t set out to write this book or the previous novel or the new one I’m working on now; the stories are just the ones that rise to the surface and seem to resonate with where I am as I begin to write.

TM: What was the easiest part of the On Sal Mal Lane to write? The hardest?

RF: Devi was the easiest to write; she is the quintessential youngest child, adored, indulged, often to her own detriment, but mostly to her good in terms of the way those kids grow up very assured of their place in the world, as able to break rules as they are to trust that everybody loves them. All the others took more work, Sonna more than them all. He is my favorite, and it was hard not to give in to the temptation to wave the magic writerly wand and bless his life. It was hard not to allow him to be no more and no less than what he was.

TM: Tell us how you chose the point of view. Were there any other options you were considering early on, or ones you tried?

RF: I had the prologue, and then I went on to write the story, so there was some essential element of that voice in the book from the start. But, it was in re-working that prologue that it became stronger, the voice that I wanted for the whole book. I wanted to have some distance for myself, as the writer, from the events that I was describing, since I had lived through that time in Sri Lanka, but I also wanted the intimacy of being right there with all those characters. This voice, of the street, worked really well for that.

TM: How did you balance writing the story with the need for some historical/cultural context for readers who may be unaware of Sri Lanka and its history?

RF: I really do not like novels that give us the political-events fillers, that pause in order to point to this or that historical moment in its entirety. I always want what I write to reflect the consciousness of the characters. I feel that if I can tell the story of how a certain time affected fully-realized people, then the reader will go do their own research about the background. There is some detail in here, but it is organic to what is going on, to the interplay of relationships — between Mr. Herath and his children, between Mr. Niles and Nihil, between the children themselves — rather than as A Small Treatise On The History of Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict.

TM: Wallace Stegner has said a writer is a (wo)man in search of an audience. Did you have a particular reader or audience in mind as you wrote On Sal Mal Lane?

RF: I have a responsibility as a Sri Lankan writer, to tell the stories of my country with a clear understanding that mine may be — for many people in the United States certainly — the only voice they hear with regard to those stories. I keep that in sight when I write. I have no wish to whitewash the mess of things, to portray my country as the jewel that it is to me, but rather to say here is a story from this place, here are the people who lived there, here is one tale about what happened to some of them. I also have Sri Lanka herself in mind, what is good for my country, what is good for her people. My words, written or spoken, are always in service to the greater good of the people of my country. To what they have lost, to what they may yet have again.

TM: Were there certain works you read while working on On Sal Mal Lane that helped you with character development, the overall story or, simply, moved you?

RF: There was a moment when I was thinking about this book that another writer suggested I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I don’t know so much that I used any technique or related things from that book, but rather that there was an immersion in a moment in Biafran history that captured my imagination. I felt an “it can be done” sense when I finished reading it. The other books that I read were My Brother, by Jamaica Kincaid, and those on technique: Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World, (Graywolf, 2008), and Charlie Baxter’s The Art of Subtext (Graywolf, 2007). If there was something I was grappling with, I’d turn to these texts and read through some relevant section, take notes, and, each night, think about if/how it might apply. The next morning, I’d go back to work.

TM: You’ve talked about how “the exercise of writing both fiction and opinion is reflective of a passionate attempt to contribute to our common human enterprise whether that is quiet, personal, public, political or all of these.” Why is this important to you?

RF: I write and my writing comes from being a human being, from inhabiting my very human, socially inter-connected, inter-dependent world. What else should I be engaged with? To eschew human experience — by turning into a recluse, by hiding from the world, keeping physical, emotional distance — but then to ask that world to read what I have written, hear what I have to say…this isn’t an equal exchange to me. If I lived that way then I fully expect you to consider my take on things to be entirely irrelevant.

I don’t like hierarchies, I don’t like the notion of the exalted thinker/writer who gazes from a distance. I don’t like people writing about worms without spending some time taking in the worm’s view of life.

How do you know what things look like to ordinary people if you don’t immerse yourself in that ordinariness? If you can’t acknowledge your own ordinariness? And if you aren’t putting yourself in service of furthering the well-being of such people, our people — whether it is through health care or a meaningful education or a living wage or access to the arts, or telling the stories of our experience? That is why it is important to me.

No More Model Airplanes: Essential Writing about Writing

In his essay,  “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals,” Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own.  He asserts, and rightly, “The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction.”

I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period.  The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing.  In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply.  A good reader isn’t necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader.

In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique.  I’ve found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it’s when I’m having trouble with my work–or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision–that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I’ve dug myself into. I haven’t read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with “the aesthetics of task,” as he puts it.  I’ve read and enjoyed–and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with–such books.  I’ve also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics.  It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it’s the step that allows the dancer to do everything else.  One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won’t make one a spectacular dancer–or even a dancer.   There’s technique, but there’s also passion, soul, grace, daring.

There are a few books on writing that I’ve not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally.  They  have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that’s the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects.  Aside from the usual suspects–The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O’Connor–here are some of my favorite books on craft:

How Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person.  The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood’s way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity.  I also love the short chapter breaks–often only a couple of sentences long.  They’re pleasurable to read.

Now Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn’t a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others.  I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students.  I’ve also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project.  A couple exercises a week–from “Why I Stole It” by Robert Anthony Siegel, to “The Photograph” by Jill McCorkle–will hone anyone’s powers of imagination and description.  I’ve done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained.  This kind of writing feels as fun as reading.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press.  In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective.  Baxter’s own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn’t make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules.  My class had a great time discussing Baxter’s analysis of the great J.F. Powers story “The Valiant Woman,” which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer.

I’ve recently been re-reading Joan Silber’s The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott.  One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students.  Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, “Five years passed”?  Is there nothing juicier than  crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters?  Silber’s discussion of “selected concreteness” in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely.

Lately, I’ve been reading the series’ books on poetry.  A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty’s The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction:

What descriptions–good ones, anyway–actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking

If that’s not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don’t know what is.

I’ve also found a few essays on writing online, which I’ve taught with great results:

Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue’s Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching.  The essay asks: What is voice and truth?  What does it take to write well?  How can one refine one’s consciousness?

William Boyd’s “Brief Encounters” is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners.  I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one.

Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: “What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action.”).  The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold.  Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen’s confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here:  “Nothing can happen nowhere” (when she’s discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): “Speech is what characters do to each other.”

Now, I’d like to know–teachers, students, writers and readers–what are your favorite books on writing?

Surprise Me!