The Novel (Part 2): Why novelists should read (and write) poetry*

For a long period of my adult life, I paid little attention to poetry. Yes, it was a part of my growing up. My father loved to read and recite poetry. Yes, I studied it in college and grad school, as my degrees were in English literature. Yes, I taught English composition; therefore, I read and reflected on poetry during those chapters in my life. Other than those periods, however, poetry remained in the background of my reading and my consciousness for many years.

When I moved to Los Angeles, some years ago, I was accepted into a local writing workshop. The moderator and some of the participants were poets. We met once a week. Every fourth week, we had a poetry hour, during which we read and discussed poems we had chosen from among the world’s poetry, old and new—poems that were as near as my bookshelf, my computer devices, my library and bookstore.

It was while preparing for and participating in the monthly poetry hour, as well as listening to workshop members discuss their own poetry, that I rediscovered poetry.

Inevitably, I gave in to the urge to write a few poems of my own. Most of my attempts were crudely crafted, but I got help and encouragement from the workshop. I was urged to rethink, revise, go farther, go deeper. The outcome I hadn’t foreseen was that, because of my exposure to and attempts at writing poetry, I became a more disciplined, a more thoughtful, a more insightful novelist.

In my novel, The Second Mrs. Price, there is a scene in which the Price family gather together one evening and read aloud, in round-robin style, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.** The poem itself is a favorite of mine. It is a celebration of youth, and a nod to the inevitability of losing that youth. It is about the timelessness of that brief, often idyllic, season when we were “happy as the grass was green.”

Dylan Thomas has been described as “a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.” *** In a style reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas takes daring leaps as he bends and shapes language to fit his vision, his voice, his unique consciousness.

When I linger over the fluid, tantalizing lines in “Fern Hill,” I am beguiled by the potential of language freed from the restraints of formality, convention, grammar, even logic. I ask myself: How many ways can a story be told? How close can I get to my character’s thought processes? How honest can I be, especially in portraying flawed, sometimes unsympathetic, characters? How can I put into words the ephemeral moments that make up our lives?

In The Second Mrs. Price, I attempt to answer those questions and test those boundaries, just as, in “Fern Hill,” Thomas is testing the boundaries of language.

Bernard, the patriarch of the Price family, is in his late 80s. It seems natural and appropriate that “Fern Hill” is one of Bernard’s favorite poems. I see him as the embodiment of time and timelessness, perennial youth and death, as he remembers “the sun that is young once only.”

Even as he approaches the end of his life, Bernard is in love—with youth, with beauty, with nature, with the small comforts of each day, with the memory of his late wife, Anna. Just as Dylan Thomas is aware of the intertwining of life and death in all of creation, Bernard understands that, from his earliest youth, “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Selene, the flawed heroine of The Second Mrs. Price, takes a daring leap into the unknown in her quest for a fulfillment that is, perhaps, beyond her reach. She is attuned to Bernard, but she is living her “green and golden” moment, rather than reflecting back on it. Her obsession for Griff is disturbing but, hopefully, the reader comes to relate to her—to the pulse of her attraction, to the often self-imposed stranglehold of security, to her longing for freedom.

“Poetry,” Dylan Thomas is quoted as saying, “is what in a poem … makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” ****

In much the same way, the novel allows us to enter the mind, the consciousness–the very soul–of the characters. The emotional divide that separates us as individuals can be bridged through storytelling and the imaginative use of language.

For more about Dylan Thomas, his life and his work, visit discoverdylanthomas.com, the official website hosted by Hannah Ellis, granddaughter of Dylan Thomas and Creative Director of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate.

*See my January 27 post, The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price,” at tonifuhrman.com.

**“Fern Hill” was published in 1945. Born in Swansea, Wales, in 1914, Dylan Thomas died in 1953 while on tour in New York. He was 39 years old.

***https://vinhanley.com/2016/02/23/the-poetry-of-dylan-thomas/

**** https://izquotes.com/author/dylan-thomas/6

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 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.

“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 —

“The First Lesson”

There’s something about December that’s both joyful and depressing.

It’s the season of joy, of course. Holiday cheer. Festivities. Presents. Twinkling lights. But it’s also the final month of the year, a summing-up month. For most of us, the year behind us has been both good and not-so-good. And some of that not-so-good was, and is, depressing.

Not long ago, I was introduced to a poem that has been on my mind a great deal. It evokes the season for me—and my current mindset as well. Here it is.

THE FIRST LESSON
by Deborah Pope***

The Angel knocked
and when I opened
the door to it
I lost the Angel
already sitting
at my table.
Wind poured in
through the crack
slapped my cheek
a voice cried      you cannot have
two Angels.
The Angel in the doorway said
let me in
I see
you are alone.

The wonderful thing about a poem is that it is open—open to interpretation, to speculation, to the most personal associations. Once the poet has sent his or her lines out into the world, we are free to infuse them with a meaning that only we can know—a significance that only we can fully understand and appreciate.

For me, the message of this poem is very personal. I’ve had a good year. My novel, One Who Loves, is published, and the print edition is coming out soon. My family is in good health and spirits as, for the most part, am I. I have small means but big plans—and I’ve managed to convince myself that this might be better than the reverse. So I count myself among the fortunate.

On the other hand, I’ve had my disappointments, including, but not limited to, the recent election. Even though the wind of change “slapped my cheek,” I’m not without hope. Something—some lingering innocence from the last century—has gone out of our lives, but I’m hoping that goodness prevails.

“The First Lesson” is about hope—and loss. What is the Angel at the table taking away? What have I given up in order to admit what is new and unknown, good and not-so-good?

Perhaps one of the lessons I’m still learning is that moving ahead—opening the door to new possibilities, new challenges—is inevitably transformative. The Angel with whom I sit comfortably at the table must move out the moment I open the door to whatever is out there, knocking for admittance, because I “cannot have/two Angels.” The Angel at the door may be a harbinger of good or a messenger for the not-so-good, but my inclination is to open the door, to go forward.

Happy Holidays to you, and best wishes for all that is good in the New Year.

____________
***from Falling Out of the Sky (Louisiana State University Press), nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. Deborah Pope is the author of two other poetry collections, Fanatic Heart and Mortal World. She is on the faculty at Duke University. Reprinted with permission.

“First shut the door”

East Hollywood is a neighborhood of some 80,000 souls in central Los Angeles. It’s shaped like a rough-cut diamond, cut through the middle by Santa Monica Boulevard, edged (roughly) by the Hollywood Freeway (101), Western Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and Virgil Avenue. On its borders are Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Koreatown. Within its borders are Thai Town, Little Armenia, The Church of Scientology, Los Angeles City College (UCLA’s original campus), and a thriving Spanish-speaking population. From atop Mount Hollywood to the north, Griffith Observatory benignly stands sentry over all.

It is here, in this neighborhood, that Harry Northup lives, walks, and writes the poetry collected in East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason (Cahuenga Press, 2015). This is Northup’s eleventh book, and the voice we hear in the poems is exuberant, Whitmanesque.

Northup is a poet who seems to say what he thinks as he thinks it – so that one moves through the poems impressionistically, prepared for open-endedness, unexpected twists and turns, side trips, lyrical (or narrative) interludes. “Poetry puts you right where you are:/no door, no closure, empty shoes, empty/chair, the walk around & return,” he says in “Poetry.” In many of the poems, “where you are” is walking the streets of East Hollywood. In “Place,” he says:

—walking has my/soul, furtive wanderings on fountain,/mariposa, de longpre, alexandria,/lexington — to walk in the night air/tonight, i walked to franklin &/vermont & home later … buying a six-pack of bud light at/7-eleven, a cut-in-half, zankou/chicken with pita bread & garlic/spread.

After his long, rambling, walks, Northup delights in home: “home in front of a fan, my wife’s/through teaching for today, home.” In “short love song,” it is a “home of light & reason/clean, bare, full, home with wife,/love, cats, song & tv, primrose/darling”

There’s also the ongoing spell of the writing process itself. “First shut the door. Write what you want to write,” he advises in “Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles.” And, in “Hot Night”: “The words open, fall apart &/rearrange themselves. One word/files a nail. One holds up a rose/opening … One word springs water.” In “In Memoriam,” he reminds himself “To not bully or order words around./To not interrupt words”; and, in “stillness not quite,” “to be still & thankful/for one & two syllable/words”

Northup’s love of poetry followed him from Nebraska to Manhattan to Santa Monica in 1968; there, he discovered the literary center, Beyond Baroque, where “the themes of youth & struggle, loss & place, were ever present.” In Los Angeles, these days, he says his main themes are “aging, acceptance.” But there is a youthful vigor to the poems, an energy that keeps him walking, observing, listening, conjuring fresh word patterns. This is from “no death heart”:

i will never be lost/ as long as i have words/I will never be lonely/as long as i have my wife/i will never be cold/ as long as i have cats … i will always be young/as long as the lakers thrive/i will always love summer/as long as the dodgers struggle/i will always love the dark/as long as movies play …

Northup is not only a poet and a sports fan. He’s an actor who, “as a man just past 21 hitchhiked/to new york to make it as an actor” (“ridiculously simple”). His acting life is infused in his poetry, his recollections. “I came to Los Angeles to act in Westerns,” he says in “Remains.” He also studied Method acting with Frank Corsaro in New York, and acted in 37 films, including Martin Scorsese’s first six feature films. “At this moment,” he muses in the same poem, “I am eternal.”

Always, in Northup’s poems, there’s the intimate, soothing sensation of coming home, of love for his wife, Holly. In “For My Love Sleeping,” he reflects, “To find means to rescue/Stay within & not hide/To not escape means forever.” In “Careful Notion,” he juxtaposes poetry and baseball:

“The walks in East Hollywood, films at/local theatres, my wife’s cooking & the/fresh flowers she brings home, our bed,/her arm, cats & fan, poetry & baseball/save me, nourish my dazed spirit … I connect poetry & baseball – to lose/oneself in the shadows coming in out/of the sun”

As for his life in the neighborhood he calls home, he concludes, in “for my friend aram”: “I’ve had enough time to think about/living in los angeles and the answer is/simply yes”

Revisiting The Bridges of Madison County

Part of my work as a novelist is to ask myself this question: what makes a good story? What makes it compelling? What makes me want to read – and reread – a novel?

I asked myself this question not long ago, as I drove down the streets of Los Angeles, scanning the street posters for the touring musical, The Bridges of Madison County, which played here in December and January. I recalled having read the novel some twenty years ago, not long after watching the movie adaptation.

My first thought, as I scan the multiple street posters, is that it’s a damn good title. It is, in fact, a magical title – one of those titles that stays with you. But what is it about the story that resonates – so that it was made into a Broadway musical and, before that, a feature film and, before that, a hugely popular international bestseller?

I decide to reread the novel. “Ah, yes,” the librarian says, when I ask for the book, “a classic.” My first thought is, “Really? A classic? Is it old enough to be a classic? Is it good enough to be a classic?” But, then, if the librarian thinks it’s a classic, he’s probably not alone in his estimation. I take home a hardcover copy, published by Time Warner, photographs by the author, Robert James Waller. At the time, Waller lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He now lives on a farm in Texas.

I start reading the novel. It begins: “There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.” My response is, “What did I just read?” I still don’t know. I read on.

The wraparound story, which begins and ends the novel, is that, after the death of their mother, Francesca Johnson, her son and daughter discover papers and journals detailing her brief love affair in 1965 with Robert Kincaid, a traveling photographer, which took place while her children, and her husband of 18 years, were away at a state fair. The son and daughter decide to hire an author they’ve heard about to write their mother’s story. After some resistance, the author agrees.

I’ve heard that Henry James got story ideas from anecdotes picked up at dinner parties, but I can’t quite imagine this particular situation, and wonder why the author thought it added to the story. I read on.

The story itself – at about 36,000 words – is scarcely more than a novella. Each chapter is introduced with large type and a photo of a covered bridge. The Italian-American housewife, Francesca, meets Robert, the National Geographic photographer, when he stops at her Iowa farmhouse to ask for directions to one of the covered bridges. They fall in love. After four days, they part. I pause in my reading to wonder at Waller’s naming “Robert,” the attractive photographer, after himself. I read on.

The writing style strikes me as that of someone intent on lifting this simple story (and I love simple stories) to the level of exalted literary prose – and not quite succeeding. I try, as I read, to understand this disconnect. What would have made the writing better, more believable? I like the story. I’ve written stories about instantaneous attraction between a man and a woman. Perhaps it’s the author’s reaching for the sublime when the reality is all that needs to be told.

Francesca says of Robert, “God, what was it about him! He was like some star creature who had drafted in on the tail of a comet and dropped off at the end of her lane.” I pause while I contemplate this line and, among other things, the use of the word “drafted.” He says to her, when they are making love, “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.” I ask myself, who would say this while making love? The author likes this line so much he repeats it in the letter Francesca writes to her children.

At any rate, I read the novel, finish it, and enjoy the epilogue, entitled “Interview with ‘Nighthawk’ Cummings,” a black musician whom the pretend author meets, and who provides some affirming insights into the character of Robert Kincaid. Unlike many of the overwrought passages in the novel, the interview seems simple and real, like the underlying story itself.

So now, having reread this “classic” novel, what do I think of it?

Although somewhat overwritten, sometimes clunky, The Bridges of Madison County is enough of a story at its source to sell in the millions, to be the stuff of a good movie, and to inspire a fine musical score. There is something iconic in the story, some nugget of truth that is felt by its readers, its moviegoers, and the theatre-going public – something that transcends the limitations of the writing, and soars.

Born as a novel in 1992, visualized as a movie in 1995, then resurrected as a beautifully scored musical in 2014, The Bridges of Madison County continues to resonate because so many of us, critics and skeptics as well as the susceptible, still want to believe that love, even well into and beyond the middle of our lives, even after our lives are supposedly set in cement, can rescue us.

And that, dear reader, includes me.

September

September is for beginnings. January traditionally holds that distinction, but September is transformative.

In September, as children, we go back to school, proudly, in our new clothes, our new shoes. We give ourselves permission to begin again. We are older, wiser, more sure of ourselves than we were a few months before. We open ourselves up to the possibilities inherent in that blank slate that is a new school year.

As adults, we breathe in the slightly cooler, slightly crisp air that foretells autumn, and our confidence revives. There is a shift within us. We are moving toward a season of activity. We are energized. We are full of hope. September will lead us into the creativity of October, the synthesis of November, the perfection, in December, of the promise that had its genesis in September.

For me, this September is a real and tangible beginning – a time when I will set in motion my future as a published novelist. This is my time of preparation – of the manuscript, of myself – for the changes that this will entail. Before the end of the year, one of my novels will be ‘out there’ – formally presented to the world. This child of mine – the yield of my thoughts, my intense labor, those precious moments of inspiration, gratification, bliss – will make its debut. Not my first child, but the child I have chosen to be first: the child who will lead the way.