The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price”

“Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.”

The above quote is from an article* I read this month comparing the experience of reading a novel and that of watching a movie or TV.

I’ve often pondered the question of why I am drawn to novels—both reading and writing them. My upcoming novel, The Second Mrs. Price, dwells quite a bit on this “interiority.” Selene, the principal character, is continually examining her thoughts, her motives, and her actions.

This “drama of the mind” propels the narrative forward. It enables the reader to understand Selene’s mixed emotions, her divided loyalties, and her overwhelming attraction to Griff. Here is a brief passage from the novel:

Why the brother? she asked herself. They share the same last name; they emerged, bloody and enraged, from the same womb. There’s something similar in the stacking up of the features, the way the ears fit snugly against the head; but how at odds they are, otherwise. Alex so solid, so grounded, so cocksure of himself; this other one so tentative, so unsettled, perched on his chair as though waiting for, expecting an alarm—a signal to flap his wings noisily, heavy and awkward as he lifts himself up and flies away.

There is no doubt a talented actor could convey this comparison between Selene’s husband and Griff with little more than facial expression and eye movement. But it would be a general impression, without the narrative detail, or the opportunity for metaphor. In addition, it would be conveyed, first, by the skill of the actor, and then, indirectly, by the writer and the interpretation and additional consciousness of the director, the cinematographer, and the editor—not to mention the production designer and the composer of the musical score.

There is much discussion these days about the declining popularity of the novel, especially in view of the increasing popularity of the TV drama series, in which there are no time or viewing constraints. Viewers have an in-depth experience as they watch characters develop over time—one of the great achievements of the novel.

In a novel, however, there is nothing between the reader and the writer. The novelist provides the narrative, with or without authorial interpretation. The reader takes it from there. The story goes from mind to mind without filters.

The comparison between the novel and visual storytelling bears some resemblance to that of the artist versus the photographer, after photography made its debut. What could a painting or sculpture do that a photograph could not do better, and with more precision? Photography is, and was from its inception, an art form, because it involves making artistic choices. But the traditional artist is still very much alive and kicking, as is the novelist.

All art forms, in their essence, examine the soul. They do not so much compete with each other as add to the ever-evolving manifestations of creativity.

*http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/05/the-novelists-complicity/

The Second Mrs. Price is coming soon!

My new novel, The Second Mrs. Price, will be published in February. That’s next month! I’m super excited to get it out there in the world!

Here’s a preview of The Second Mrs. Price:

From the moment Griff turns up in his dusty red pickup truck, Selene is infatuated. Unfortunately, she’s married to Alex — Griff’s brother. Will Selene disregard her own scruples and risk everything — the security of her marriage and the husband she still loves, her career, her home — for an elusive man she passionately desires but who may leave as suddenly as he turned up?

Stay tuned for more!

The Camera’s Eye

The Camera’s Eye (New Libri Press) by Judith Kirscht is a novel that I’m convinced should be the first of a mainstream mystery series. The central characters, Veronica and Charlotte, are so likable and so well drawn the reader doesn’t want to let them go away for good at the end of the novel. For me, that means, “Series, please.”

Veronica Lorimer is a professional photographer with a camera she calls “Constance the Nikon.” Charlotte McAllister is a retired prosecuting attorney. They share a house and property on an island in Puget Sound, where they live contentedly until someone throws a pair of rocks through their front window—first move in an increasingly destructive series of hate attacks.

With her narrative drive and her talent for placing the reader firmly and tangibly in the setting she has chosen—in this case the islands off the northwestern coast of Washington—Kirscht grabs the reader by the horns and pulls him or her into the story. But The Camera’s Eye has another gravitational pull—that of the two main characters, who take on the challenge of the attacks with unflinching courage.

As the attacker (or attackers) become more brazen, Veronica and Charlotte, described by the former as “gray-haired white ladies who looked like English teachers,” become more determined to get to the bottom of the incidents. In the course of their unofficial investigation, Veronica finds she must communicate with her estranged son and daughter, which sparks additional complications.

In the end, the reader comes to know, and admire, these two intelligent and persevering women. As with any novel that introduces engaging central characters, and a mystery that must be unraveled, the author has the obligation to detect and resolve—but also the option of letting the characters live on. Series, please.

Who is Colm Toibin and how do you pronounce his name?

Probably the hardest thing to know about Colm Toibin is how to pronounce his name. After that, reading his work is a smooth ride, with pleasant bumps and grooves along the way.

The author himself pronounces his name as CUH-lum Toe-BEAN. The “lm” in “Colm” is a separate syllable.

In the film, Brooklyn, the name of the young immigrant woman, Eilis, is pronounced AY-lish, though many Irish people would say EYE-lish.

Somehow, this brief look at Irish pronunciation helped me to enter the fictional world of Toibin. The world itself is front and center for me right now, as I’ve read three of his novels and am poised to read more.

My first introduction to Toibin—before I was familiar with the author’s name—was reading the script for Brooklyn, then watching the 2016 movie. Then I read Nora Webster, The Master, and Brooklyn, in that order. Then I watched the movie again, with fresh eyes and an appreciation for the filmmaking that was heightened by the books I had read.

I am now a Toibin reader. I like his style, and I like his stories. He is at ease with his settings. Nora Webster takes place in Ireland; The Master is set in England and Italy; Brooklyn is set in Ireland and, of course, Brooklyn. The time frames extend from the 1890s (The Master) to contemporary (1950s, 1960s, and beyond). The characters range from a fictional Henry James (The Master) to young and middle-aged women as they search for their identity and their unique place in life (Brooklyn and Nora Webster).

Toibin’s style is deceptively simple. He uses dialogue generously, and trusts the reader to place himself or herself in the setting and time frame he has in mind. Except for The Master, which is divided into chronological sections, he does not tell the reader where he/she is, or what year it is. Toibin simply tells the story, trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. Not for him the intense detail and sophisticated style of, say, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

What is it about the Irish that makes them such natural and engaging storytellers? I put this question out there without knowing the answer. It’s like the magic in one of their own legends of leprechauns and pookas. It’s just there, and I accept the gift, gratefully.

Of the three Toibin novels I’ve read so far, I am most drawn to Brooklyn. It is the immigrant story told from a fresh point of view. Not Ellis Island around the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. Not dire poverty and escape and/or banishment from one’s homeland. Eilis is a 1950s character, with strong family ties, who comes to America freely, is sponsored by a friendly priest, has a job in place and is enrolled in night school. She faces the prospect of a new life and new relationships—as well as the option of returning to the familiar community and people of her birth.

Toibin’s style is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t reach for the right word. The right word—or phrase or paragraph or dialogue—seems to flow effortlessly from what preceded it, and into what follows. I didn’t find myself marking memorable passages. His is an even-handed style that grows out of the story, rather than one that is imposed on the story. The seamless fusion of style, story, dialogue, and narrative is a magical art that is not necessarily Irish but is always impressive. Jane Austen does it as well as anybody.

More about Toibin to come. I am just beginning to put my thoughts together—and I have some more reading to do.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and died on July 18, 1817. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her death. It’s strange that we mark the year of her death with conferences, events, exhibits, and celebrations. It seems more appropriate to mark the anniversary of the year of her coming into the world rather than that of her going out of it. But Jane Austen societies throughout the world would not, I feel certain, agree. We hang our tributes to the celebrated dead on two hooks: the entrance year and the exit year.

I have been reading Jane Austen’s six novels since I was in my late teens. She has influenced my writing profoundly. I admire her, most especially, for her use of dialogue. Jane Austen’s dialogue is superb in several respects: It is, first of all, ahead of its time in its effortlessness, its grace, and its informality. One could dump the first chapter dialogue of Pride and Prejudice into a TV script, update the grammar and contemporary references, and create a modern couple, Mr. and Mrs. B. They are comically—even tragically—mismatched, dependent upon one another, living in the dim afterglow of a long-lost attraction.

Mrs. B: Have you heard? Someone has finally bought the old Netherfield house down the street.

Mr. B does not respond. He is watching ESPN.

Mrs. B: Well? Don’t you want to know who bought it?

Mr. B: Obviously, you want to tell me, and you can’t wait for a commercial break, so go ahead. You have my divided attention.

Mrs. B: Well! Mrs. Long next door says the house was sold to a young man—a rich young man—from London—or maybe it was New York. He came here on Monday in a Jaguar—or it might have been a Mustang—to see the place. Mrs. Long says he was sold on it almost immediately, or at least before he left. It’s such a fine old place! He’s to move in by late September. They’re starting work on the house next week. Pouring money into it, I’m told.

Mr. B: What’s his name?

Mrs. B: Bentley. Or maybe it was Barclay. I didn’t hear his first name

Mr. B: He has a wife, I assume? A family?

Mrs. B: That’s the thing, Mr. B: he’s single! A single man. Rich. Living right here in our neighborhood. I hear he’s a millionaire. Maybe a multimillionaire. What a great thing for our girls!

Mr. B: What does it have to do with them?

Mrs. B: How can you be so dense? He’s single! He’s rich! You must know that he could easily fall in love with—even marry—one of our girls.

Mr. B: I see what you mean. A single man, rich, possibly a millionaire, must want a wife to help him spend his hard-won fortune. Why not one of our girls? Is that why he’s moving into the neighborhood?

Mrs. B: Of course not! He doesn’t even know us. But he has only to meet our girls to fall in love with one of them. It’s up to you to get to know him, so he gets to know our girls. You can stop by, offer to help him get settled, introduce him to your business cronies, invite him over for a backyard barbecue—that sort of thing.

Mr. B: Thank you for your confidence in me, Mrs. B. and, God knows, the household and student-loan bills are piling up. But I don’t think I’m cut out to be a matchmaker. You and the girls go—or you can send them over by themselves, one by one, so he can look them over and choose the one he likes best. Come to think of it, since you’re as pretty as any of them, that might be the better plan. We wouldn’t want this Bentley or Barclay fellow to choose you instead of one of them.

And so on.

In addition to its easy grace and modern feel, Jane Austen’s dialogue brilliantly reveals character. The author doesn’t have to tell the reader about her characters; the dialogue says it all—although she may give us some insight, and often does. Here’s her description of the Bennets:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

I always have a complete set of Jane Austen’s novels on my bookshelf, which I replace when they become dog-eared and begin to fall apart. I don’t know why I keep going back to them. She died two centuries ago. We live in a different world—or do we? Is there a way a novelist can capture character—and express that character through dialogue—that is so solid, true, and revelatory that it never goes out of date? Isn’t that why her novels, which are essentially six variations on the same story, seem so fresh, even today? She never went out of her depth. She wrote only peripherally about the historical events of her time, and only insofar as they impinge on her characters. Her stories are character driven, and her characters are money driven, sometimes by greed, but usually by necessity.

Jane Austen writes about people who happened to live in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because she lived at that time—but they are timelessly humorous, flawed, governed by their quirks and their frustrations. They behave as they do because their lens onto the world is clouded, as is ours, to a greater or lesser extent. They see as we see—through a glass, darkly.

Interview with Toni

Judith Kirscht is a fellow novelist and a good friend. She and I met in Ann Arbor in the 70s. We have a long history as fellow writers.

To mark the publication of the print edition of my novel, One Who Loves (New Libri Press, 2017), Judy recently reprinted her “Interview with Toni Fuhrman.” In the interview, I talk about my writing background, style of writing, and sources of inspiration. Here’s the (slightly revised and updated) interview.

Tell us about your writing background. When did you begin to write?

I always liked writing, including the act of writing, which involves handling pencils, pens, and paper. I still like touching the page with a writing instrument—that closeness, that physicality. I once took a calligraphy course so that I could indulge my love of writing by hand. I also write the first draft of my novels by hand. This may seem labor intensive but it’s not, if one is working on a few pages at a time. The pages just pile up and, some months later, there are several hundred pages and that wonderful thing—a novel manuscript. Once the first draft is complete, it’s much easier to edit and rewrite on a mechanical device. Over the years, I’ve transitioned, without too much difficulty, from manual typewriter to electric typewriter to word processor to desktop to laptop.

I didn’t write extensively while studying English literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. I didn’t write a novel until a few years after that, when I took myself off to England and wrote a very bad first novel, sitting in front of a rented typewriter at a gigantic claw-foot desk, in a bed-sitting room on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea—across the street from the Thames, just down the street from the former residences of Thomas Carlyle and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I took my first writing course—and got my first rejection (from The New Yorker)—as an undergraduate. Following graduate school, I took two other writing courses, one at Windsor University (with Joyce Carol Oates) and one at the University of Michigan (with Robert Haugh). That was the extent of my formal training. I was accepted at the Iowa Writers Workshop but did not attend. One of my few regrets. I was in love, and Iowa seemed much too far away. I still have (filed away somewhere) the letter of acceptance from Vance Bourjaily, at that time a writer and teacher at the Workshop.

Where do you get your story ideas?

Story ideas. Where do they come from? They are often a momentary thought, realization, or insight, during which I visualize the story, or the key elements of the story, sometimes from beginning to end. It might simply be a title—at this point nothing more than a place marker. More often than not, the title, and its accompanying note, land on a stray piece of paper. I try to remember to put the idea in some more permanent place, like a journal, before the idea is lost and gone forever. Inspiration is ephemeral. It needs to be captured and pinned down before it dissipates. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”

An idea for a novel is not much more complicated than an idea for a short story—at least in the beginning, at least for me. I know the main character or characters. I know what the thrust of the story is. I know how it ends. The rest is process. The story unfolds as I write it.

I often write plot outlines, but only after I’ve drafted the entire manuscript, and only to assist me in recalling the sequence of events, or because a potential publisher has requested it. I don’t map out novels or stories before I write them, or as I write them, because, for me, the story and the characters have lives of their own. My job is to get the story down on the page and allow the characters to progress in their own way and at their own speed. They’re often fated, as I may already have determined the ending, but they have a lot of freedom within that boundary. Yes, sometimes they force me to rethink my endings. That’s when I know I’ve created strong characters.

In several of my novels, including One Who Loves, I’ve written in the ending, or some portion of the ending, at the very beginning of the story. Even though some might consider this a “spoiler,” I’ve found it an effective way to launch a story. Most readers, I believe, will become too involved in the story to put down the book because they know the ending. The stories I tell are not about plot but about character development.

How would you describe your style of writing?

It’s probably easier for someone else to describe my writing style than for me to attempt it. My primary stylistic model and ongoing inspiration is Jane Austen. I am almost always reading Jane Austen. I read her six major novels over and over because I admire her stylistic clarity, her utter lack of sentimentality, her smooth, effortless narration, her satire, her witty and engaging dialogue, and her timeless stories of family conflict and romantic mishap. She is a realist in the best sense; that is, she portrays her flawed characters with wit, humor, and compassion. As she said in one of her letters, “Three or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” Modestly, she refers to her literary output as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”—a reference to the miniaturist art (watercolor on ivory) that was popular at the time. I’ve always believed, however, that she knew how good she was. After all, at his invitation, she dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was an admirer of her novels.

What other authors have inspired you?

Lined up behind Jane Austen are many other novelists and philosophers whose works have inspired me.

For its narrative drive: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (a favorite from age 12). For style: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the short stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. For imagination and originality: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. For majestic storytelling: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

For language and subtlety: Henry James’ Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. For brilliantly capturing a particular period and social class: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and her New York stories. For enlightened discipline: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (another early favorite, from age 18), Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography, and B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. For voice: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. For compelling story: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For its iconic character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

For fearlessness: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. For empathy: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. For combining mystery with narrative mastery: Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. For narrative style and personal warmth: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. For shattering impact: Paul Bowle’s The Sheltering Sky and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. For their clear, inviting style and stories of ordinary people: the novels of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller.

What inspired One Who Loves?

One Who Loves had several layers of inspiration, all of which came together at one point, and became the story it is. One layer is the title itself, which comes from a line in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage: “There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved.” I’m drawn to what I can only call Maugham’s “voice”—and I found that line, which is very thematic to his novel, and to mine, most intriguing. Do we ever love equally? Does the balance always tilt one way or the other?

Another novel that inspired me was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. Stegner is a great favorite of mine, and this is a novel I like particularly well, and have read and reread. It’s about two young married couples who meet at the University of Wisconsin and form a deep bond of friendship, which continues throughout their lives. It’s one of those novels in which nothing extraordinary happens, but which sweeps the reader into the adventure of living one’s life and enjoying one’s closest relationships.

The third layer of inspiration was not so much inspiration as observation. My son, David, lived in a co-op while attending the University of Michigan, and I was an occasional visitor on the premises. I kept a picture in my head of several of the co-op houses, and imagined one that had its own look and personality. Co-op life is a source of close and lasting friendships, as the residents share not only space but responsibilities and a special kind of interconnectedness. It seemed to suit the story I was writing, so I used it to launch my two couples—who are a generation older than my son—on their life journeys.

Can you describe, in a few sentences, what One Who Loves is about?

One Who Loves is a story of friendship and love—including obsessive, misdirected, and frustrated love—troubled and challenging friendship, and the extraordinary conflicts that impinge on seemingly ordinary lives. Liz, Patrick, Tess, and Jon meet at a University of Michigan co-op in the 70s. They quickly form lasting friendships, which continue through the 80s and 90s. Liz, the narrator, takes us on her journey as she grapples with crises of love, loyalty, and the inexorable pull of sexual attraction.

What has sustained you as a writer through the years?

Stubbornness. While continuing to write and submit short stories and novels, I worked as a creative director in the marketing field and, more recently, as a feature writer. Some of my short stories were published and, intermittently, I made an effort to hunt down an agent for my novels. Then, I began submitting to independent publishing houses, and New Libri Press accepted One Who Loves. Independent presses are the lifeblood of contemporary literature.

I should add, however, that, were I not published now, I would continue to write, as I have always done throughout my adult life. Why? Because, gratifying as it is to have readers out there who are enjoying what I’ve published, I have stories I have to tell—or, perhaps, one story that I have to keep telling—and, readers or no readers, I’ll keep telling that story as long as I’m able. Although my writing is character driven and revolves around family and relationships, it is—as is all literature—influenced by a personal quest, our search for—what? Love. Purpose. Rootedness. A sense of belonging. A room of one’s own.

What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?

During my brief stints as a teacher of freshman composition, I told my students, at the beginning of each term, that becoming a better writer was an ongoing two-step process, and that both elements of the process were absolutely essential for success. The two steps, in order of importance, were (and are):

  1. Read.
  2. Write.

I would reiterate this advice often during the term, but I doubt if it made much of an impression. It’s like that timeless advice for losing weight: Eat less. Exercise more. It’s just too damn simple.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a novel, as well as submitting for publication another novel that was first developed some years ago and has recently undergone a considerable makeover. It’s a novel about family (sound familiar?) in a small town (think: “Three or four Families in a Country Village”). The characters will, I hope, be fully realized (at least to the best of my ability), but their quest—in all fairness to my readers—will be only partially fulfilled. As a realist, I don’t believe in happy endings. I do, however, believe in the resilient human spirit. We aspire. We struggle. We take risks. We often fail. But we are sustained by friendship, family, and love.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

In a recent “60 Minutes” episode, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton playwright, lyricist, composer, actor) had this to say about the creative process:

I think of acting and writing as pretty much the same thing. It’s all about getting inside the skin of your characters, and seeing where they are, and knowing how they’ve grown up. You have to know all this, like, in your bones, what they’ve come up against, who they are. And then you just start talking as them. And you write until the rust comes out of the faucet and it’s clear water. And you write down the clear water.

The “clear water” of truth is what’s left after the writer or actor flushes out “the rust” of slushy thinking and irrelevancy. When I turn on the faucet of creativity and I get rust and grunge, I can choose to turn off the faucet until another time—or push through until the water runs clear. Those are the hard times; the discouraging times. But, eventually, the water may run clear—and this is what keeps me going.

Sometimes, when I turn on the faucet, I get an immediate rush of clear water. That’s when I fill up my teakettle and my water vessels. That’s when I water my plants. That’s when I shore up the truth that flows out of that faucet. That’s when my characters come alive.

In these days of “alternative facts,” we’re all looking for the clear water of truth. Truth doesn’t change from generation to generation and, for many of us, it’s worth a lifetime search. But sometimes truth is too obscured—or too blazingly bright—for the direct approach. That’s why we have writers and performers, poets and artists, to interpret the truth in a way that is fresh and meaningful for each succeeding generation.

Of course, there are many vessels of truth that have withstood the test of time. Emily Dickinson had a lot of truth to tell. In fact, she kept telling it, over and over, in her nearly 1,800 poems. She preserved the truth in clear-water vessels that are still fresh and bracing today:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —