Wednesday, September 26, 2012

As far as Chuck Parker is concerned, the definitive Robin Hood was photographed in Technicolor in 1938, starring "Arrow" Flynn. Then one Saturday he happens to see The Roots of Heaven, in which a much older Flynn plays a washed up drunk. It's quite a shock for Chuck. In my research I discovered that this film was shown in a Michigan theater at about the time that I have Chuck and his friend Stevie going to the movies. This was not your standard Saturday afternoon matinee fare. In all likelihood it would have been shown on a Friday night. But I didn't want to have Chuck going to the movies twice. So I collapsed the events. And anyway, we can imagine some sort of mix up or malfunction that made it necessary for the cinema to run this film instead of Hopalong Cassidy. Moreover, this is a movie about hunting and human guilt. The way this tied into Chuck's own hunting experience was too rich for me to ignore. Then when you throw in the very odd scene in which a grown woman is spanked -- given Chuck's current and running trouble with women -- I could hardly pass it up. The fact that the glamorous Robin Hood now is aged and shamefully debauched made this a priceless find. Do I need to come out and say Oedipal? Happy hunting! 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and The Merry Life of Charles Parker. There is a significant robin or two in Chuck's story.  And Chuck has outlaws in his family tree, perhaps this is one reason he isn't more drawn to the bow and arrows of this merry thief. Chuck does dream of life in the woods and hunting. His pal Stevie Groll tells us that at one point Chuck made a bow out of ash wood. I did slip a sly nod at good old Robin by having Chuck admit to preferring the Green Arrow to Superman as far as superheroes go. 

When I was a kid The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was one of the first books I read on my own for pleasure. I got one of those little square paperbacks from the grocery store. Robin Hood was already a household name. Not bad for a thousand-year-old legend, eh? Even Daffy Duck takes a turn as the outlaw in Lincoln green (1958). And in this year's election season President Obama's speechwriters came up with a Robin Hood reference. Whether it's robbing the rich to give to the poor or being the greatest marksman to ever take up the longbow, we just can't get Robin Hood out of our collective system. He's merry, he's skillful, he's generous. What's not to love? 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How do you write a convincing kid? How do you write a character who sounds believable set in 1958?

One obvious answer is to see how other writers have handled the situation. What did kids talk like in 1958? I could tell you how they talked when I was a kid. I had Star Wars and Bugs Bunny, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. But what was it like to be a kid in 1958. Mr parents grew up among working class people. So I started looking for literature that dealt with working class people. The Catcher in the Rye was too East Coast. High balls? I don't think so. Farrell is at least in the Midwest. Of course, being an Irish Catholic is important to him. This made me wonder how much I could actually draw from him, but what I did discover is that the youth of Studs Lonigan was in many ways similar to that of a lot of guys I knew. If we weren't doing the things Studs did, we had at least heard of them. This told me that I probably knew more about what it was like to live in 1958 than I had realized.

Now, my hero in The Merry Life of Charles Parker is a twelve-year-old paperboy. I have a twelve-year-old son but I figured the times have changed a lot. I didn't want to rely solely on how my son talks and thinks, and how his friends talk and think. I wanted to get inside a mind that has in some sense vanished. I was greatly encouraged to find in Studs Lonigan a world that was not at all foreign to me. His Chicago seemed much closer to me than the world of Tom Sawyer, for instance.

I can imagine someone who has read my novel reading this blog post and thinking, How is The Merry Life anything like Studs Lonigan? There are a lot of differences, it's true. But without having read Farrell, I might not have ever finished my novel. I might have felt like I had never solved the riddle of the squeaky clean Fifties. It wasn't all Leave It To Beaver. Some of it was beaver, though. Maybe it was all those phallic rockets overhead that made the era so sexually straight-laced. But the sex was there, throbbing, just below the surface. My character Stevie Groll with his collection of magazines helped me to express some of that contradiction.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How do we get to a place we've never been to and neither has our readers? We writers have it drummed into us to "write what you know." This was probably why I initially decided to write The Merry Life of Charles Parker: the basic plot was about people I knew. I took a few events from my family history and started building a plot. 

At first I just had a couple events in the life of a twelve-year-old. I needed to get beyond that. I had to feel comfortable in the Fifties because it was something I did not know. I was born two decades too late to remember any of it -- and I didn't start taking notes until well into the Eighties! 

Google was great for finding old ads like the one above. There is an anecdote in my novel concerning a doctor and smoking. I got it from my late grandmother. We would be shocked by such a thing today -- that's another neat thing about the march of history; how fast some things change and how soon we become scandalized by our own actions from just a few years ago. We don't remember the past right. We put it through soft focus. For this reason I envy some of my writer pals who work on earlier periods. Hey, who remembers when coffee first came to England? Yeah. Nobody. You can fudge that. Mmm. Fudge and coffee. Anyhoo, if I have jets flying a few months too early, you can bet I'll hear about it. (Well, actually . . .) Poetic license, right?

But for whom is the book written? To people who remember the Fifties because they lived through it or people under 40? And are historical factoids the reason you read a novel? There's Wikipedia for that, no? Surely, one reads my novel for similar reasons to why I wrote it: the story of a kid whose mother gets remarried on the QT is interesting. We want to know about this kid and how he deals with shame. 

People lived with shame in America? Yep. What was that like? Well, let me tell you. Here's a story about it. And it's a story about courage. Perseverance. Survival. The story is starting to sound a little like Huck Finn. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fabulous or False? 

Who hasn't heard of Tom Wolfe's contention that John Updike wrote "those fables" set in Pennsylvania? And apparently, when you are interviewed by Terry Gross you are supposed to say, "This is where my story led me." You aren't supposed to say that you had heard about this strange kiss Satan is said to have received and that's why you wrote that one scene. But come on. If you don't think that kiss was hilarious you should probably, A., have a humor transplant and B., never play tennis with the Devil. 

Why do we write? To record what has shaped us? To discover who we have been made? Or is it to shape? Is it to imagine who we could become?

I assume that by fable Tom Wolfe meant that Updike's novels were constructed as kinds of arguments. They act to prove something. They aren't an accumulation of data. I almost said mere data. Is that what a realistic novel is? Something to think about. But do you remember the Reverend Bacon in The Bonfire of the Vanities? He was one of the few actual black characters in the novel. He was some kind of cross between Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton except that he had none of the real mundane vitality of either of them -- Bacon always feels like a Dickensian cartoon version of Jackson or Sharpton, although with none of the weirdness that Dickens was a genius of. And since Bacon was such a major minor character, one couldn't help get the feeling that Bacon was meant to represent something. Even if he was not an unrealistic character (was he a recording of a real character?) it seems his role was somehow a symbol. I'm not sure of what. Probably that Wolfe could have a novel with one notorious black character and no good, strong black characters, thereby proving his authorial audacity. Of course more audacious would have been a simple non-fiction piece on Jackson or Sharpton or a more thoroughly realized fictional version of these men and perhaps some believable black children, women, janitors.

At any rate, think what you may of Wolfe, the distinction between real and false is not so clear in fiction. Fable and novel have more subtle nuances than the one has talking animals. A novel is meant to represent something, not present a whole. It's partial. That's what a symbol is, it has been abstracted, simplified. It stands for much more. It is shorthand. A novel need not have a white whale to have symbols or to represent a larger set of meanings. Novels always do that. And novels give us an experience. There is a right way to read a novel. And a bunch of wrong ways. But it is designed to shape our understanding of something. I say all of that to say that the author is not led by the story. The author originates the story. For a reason. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Artificial is bad in food. But why does it seem to be bad in fiction -- it's supposed to be made up? If you listen to Terry Gross, unless I'm wrong, it seems like a lot of writers are channeling or recording. There isn't a lot of creating, shaping, forcing into existence. A writer isn't supposed to say things like, John Updike has this scene in one of his novels and I wanted to do something like that too. You can say, I've always liked noir and I wanted to do something noirish. Genre is OK. You can write something because you like cowboys in general. Or you can write a funeral scene. But if you want to put a 1922 Peace dollar in your story you are looked at like a sham. Things have to be natural, organic, not contrived. Contrivance is bad. You aren't supposed to admit that you are sticking something into your book because you like the Blue Beard fairy tale. In historical fiction accuracy is apparently paramount. Reality is king. Unless you're Tony Morrison. But if you basically want to write realistically -- and so many American writers do -- you aren't supposed to admit that you concocted a scene so that you could mention V-2 rockets, I mean, that was why you had that character who drank V-8 in the first place, right? 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Christmas, 1958. Chuck Parker is a twelve-year-old paperboy haunted by a shameful family secret -- and now his mom has slipped off and married a man he neither likes nor respects. 

This is a story about the bonds -- and limits -- of family and friendship.

Based on actual events. By turns hilarious and heart-breaking -- Chuck's struggle to get along with his new step-dad goes from bad to ridiculous. But when a black kid in his neighborhood is killed, Chuck will decide to go looking for a lost family member, and eventually he'll have to confront his feckless father.

The Merry Life of Charles Parker is available on Amazon Kindle. 
Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Mowgli, Tarzan, Harry Potter. Superman, Batman, Spider-man, the kid in The Graveyard Book . What's our deal with orphans in modern literature? I don't know but I could not buck the system.

"He steals out into the still house with the self-discipline of an orphan." 

So my novel The Merry Life of Charles Parker opens. Chuck is not exactly an orphan. But at 12 he is strangely adult-like. And isn't that really what an orphan is? A self-raised child-adult? Do we fear we are made to grow up too fast? Is this why we invented the idea of the teenager? A way station we never have to mentally leave? The orphan could be a more vulnerable self that we watch anxiously. The literature is probably for the non-orphan. Do orphans read novels? The literature is probably always for the reader and not about the protagonist. That's an option we have to consider. Here is the link where I found the above photo.

Friday, September 14, 2012

NEWS FROM 1959 -- The Soviet Union successfully launches the Luna 1 spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome, January 2. This space craft marked a number of firsts. It got close to the Moon, passing by Earth's natural satellite on January 4. Pioneer 4 - a similar NASA mission launched 3 March 1959, two months after Luna 1. This was a spacey age. It would be May 25, 1961 before President Kennedy proposed as a national goal a trip to the Moon. Nonetheless, space exploration was very much in the air at the moment my novel begins and I tried to keep this thought always in the forefront of my mind as I wrote The Merry Life of Charles Parker
Here is a link to my novel The Merry Life of Charles Parker, available on Amazon Kindle.
In my novel The Merry Life of Charles Parker, our protagonist has an acquaintance by the name of Stevie Groll. He is obsessed with science fiction. He would love to write a story that was turned into a movie. It would need robots and maybe some monsters. He is sure to have seen 1954's The Forbidden Planet. And since he follows some of the movie magazines, he more than likely read an article on the movie and daydreamed of taking on the role of the leading man.
A bird? A plane? Nope. A super vehicle. Next stop: the moon. No wonder Kennedy would demand in 1960 we go there. That was just around the corner as far as Chuck was concerned. All of the kids had been reading Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles for quite some time. This Impala looks like it has just come from Mars.
Not all the models had huge fins. But bird is right in the name of this legendary vehicle. Very near the opening of my novel this car is mentioned on a radio spot.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Year of Big Fins. 
1959 had the really big fins on cars. Everything looked like it could fly. It wasn't much of a leap for me to going from looking at the cars to thinking about flight. This was already the time of Sputnik, right? When my oldest son was young he liked to watch "October Sky" over and over again. This was set in the same period and told the story of the Rocket Boys.

What's in a title? Probably not everyone would connect my novel The Merry Life of Charles Parker with Hemingway's story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." But the truth is, I can't help doffing my hat to Hemingway. Here is a story about courage and about a short happy life. And hunting. Chuck Parker figures he has no shortage of courage, and I see no reason to doubt him. Would he love to go hunting for big game in Africa? You bet! African hunting does make an appearance in the novel and one of the crucial events in the plot involves hunting. Connected to both hunting and merriness is The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. It's all a bunch of yuks until Thud! you're dead. OK, maybe not thud, but this does circle us back around to what is a happy life? What is the meaning of life? In all events, Robin Hood gets his share of allusions in my novel.

Merry also can't be separated from Christmas in American culture. Much of the novel is set around Christmastime, 1958. So, when I got the idea for the title of the novel -- it came in a flash, about the only aspect of the novel that did come in a flash -- I knew it would conjure comparisons to "It's a Wonderful Life." This does allow us to raise questions of what a good life is. What is the summum bonum? How ought we to live? This is never directly addressed in the novel but the implication is always there. Chuck is trying to live right. He is trying to outlive the shame that haunts him. Shame itself rises from society's desire to impose certain limits, to enforce a set of conventions. From even before he is birth, Chuck is living under a curse.
This is the kind of bike Chuck rides as one point in The Merry Life of Charles Parker. There are all kinds of images of vintage bikes on the internet, as well as good information about when makes and models were produced and what sort of features they had. I've never ridden a bike quite like this but I did have access to a similar three-speed in the Eighties.
Period Piece.

What makes a piece of fiction "just a period piece"? The difference between a history book and a book of historical fiction is that you have surrendered more to the fiction. You see yourself in the situation. History should be somewhat scientific, tentative, at a remove, contingent and open to debate. There is no such emotional luxury in a novel. You are right there in the moment, in the predicament. But still, it can't just be a historically limited predicament that feels over and done. It has to feel like a problem that still relates to the reader. How can the writer fool the reader into thinking he or she is still implicated in the plot?

Is it all a matter of the rush of the plot? If so, it might only be good for one viewing. It might not be the kind of story that really sticks with you. How do you shape a narrative that adheres to the reader's mind? I'm not sure I have the answer, but I do know that from Homer to Updike literature has made of patterns. Doubles, opposites, echoes and repetitions. A theme is sounded and brought back up. This is fiction. This is not science. So the fictive can be somewhat at odds with the historical. A novel is like life only better. It has more coincidence and clearer significance. It might not always make sense to the people in the story but readers can come back to it and find patterns. These can be abstract -- take, for instance, the linden tree in Thomas Mann's *The Magic Mountain.* Lindens just show up from time to time. What do they mean? Are they even a symbol or a simple repetition? Surely they are part of a pattern. It's probably easier to see why Hamlet uses a lot of talk of disease in his play. He thinks the world is sick, and his sick of the world.

I've already mentioned birds in my novel, but there are flies, mosquitoes, and rockets as well. Weaving such things into the woof and weft of a book is something I learned to do by reading Mann and Updike, ETA Hoffman, Poe and Herman Melville. It may not be realistic always, but it has a kind of beauty, I believe, that goes beyond the particular and points toward the universal.

The Historical Imagination.

What is it to have an imagination of the past? How do we get a mental picture of the past? Historical fiction is not a record of the past. It's more of an attitude toward the past, that foreign country where we are only visitors. Postmodernists will tell us that we can't ever visit the past because our big fat self is in the way, blocking the view. Everything I see is Me. But we know that we need a sense of the past. Whether we are trying to deal with the legacy of the events of 9/11/2001 or we are trying to see this year's presidential elections in terms of an echo of the 1930's, we have rely on an imagined past. The past is gone, but we have to believe that we can find enough of it to make sense of how the causes from then to the effects now.

Historical fiction is one way we build this faith that the facts can be found, the past can be re-constructed, the present can made comprehensible. The fiction is not an actual record. It has facts in it but like all fiction it is a metaphor. None of these events happened just as described, but they are similar enough to tell us something significant about the past. Chuck Parker lives in a time when shame held a great deal of power. He also lived in a time of tremendous transition. You could watch cowboy pictures in the theaters and imagine a wild west. But up in the air there were now jets -- America started commercially using jets in 1959. My novel reflects this fact in one scene but it blends the experience of seeing a jet trail in the sky in 1958 with a sense of what it might have felt like to look up in the sky any time in the next twenty years. Why? Well, I wrote the scene partly based on my own memories of watching jets flying overhead to Chicago -- most likely from Detroit but possibly from New York. But I had asked my dad if he remember the first time he ever saw a jet trail in the sky. He couldn't. Isn't that the way of it when we live through history? The times are changing even more than we had realized.

I hope you are able to pick up a copy of The Merry Life of Charles Parker

Here are three coins from my novel. The bottom Mercury dime only gets a mention, but the top Peace dollar from 1922 plays a significant role. The middle coin is a Morgan silver dollar like Chuck's and it is in fact from 1880. I ordered the coins pretty early in the writing process. I wanted to have something tangible from the period in my hands. Little did I know they would take over some of the plot.

So this is day one of being a published author. I started this novel three years ago. The journey we are taking together has really only just begun. Being an independently published author means a lot of self-promotion. I still need to get good reviews for the book. That means I have to pay for an outfit like Booklist to read and review the novel. 

I want the book to go far. I put a lot into it. I hope its echoes of Americana have some appeal outside of just a story about a paperboy. No story is completely universal while thoroughly concrete, but I have threaded through the novel symbols that hopefully lend the book more depth. From the epigraphs on, birds are an important symbol in the book. Flight is a universal dream of human beings. Flight is sometimes a necessity. Charles Parker is very much a wedded to the ground, but he is haunted by flight. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It's Christmastime, 1958, where are you? Me? I wasn't born yet, so to write about events in that year I had to do some research. And more importantly, I had to use a lot of imagination to get to where I felt comfortable creating scenes there. I felt like an intruder at first. The past is a foreign land, someone smart has said. I think that's true and I began there as a pretty anxious tourist, afraid I'd have my visa revoked at any moment. 

The Merry Life of Charles Parker is my first published novel.