Ian Speaks! When Your Characters Take on a Life of Their Own

AngelLargeSquareOne of my favorite things about being a writer is learning how different readers respond to aspects of the writing. No two readers take away exactly the same thing. Sometimes readers respond strongly to things you didn’t even know were in there. Sometimes the exact thing one reviewer hates is the thing the next reviewer loves.

Fictional characters are sketched out by the author, but they are completed in the reader’s mind. I, of course, have a strong notion in my own mind of who my characters are, what their voices sound like, how they speak. But I do not for a moment believe that my version is the right one. It is simply my vision of them.

That is why it has been so interesting to have an audio version of my novel Angel recorded. The production is now complete and once it has gone through a quality control process taking about two weeks, an Angel audiobook will be available via Amazon, Itunes and Audible.  I am really pleased because I am a fan of audiobooks. (I listened to tons of them back when I was delivering pizza.) I have always wanted to have a book of mine available in audio, and this is the first one that will be.

The voice actor, Shea Taylor, did a marvelous job. What has been fascinating for me in listening to it is the dialogue. Taylor has his own ideas about how Paul, Ian and their friends speak. It is different from the voices I heard in my head. This gives the characters a slightly different flavor. It is really interesting to have an opportunity to hear how another reader perceives of them.

If you reviewed the print book, and would like to review the audio, please let me know. I will be getting some download codes for it once it becomes available.

Want a preview? You can hear a sample on Clyp.


Unrepentant Sensuality and the Pleasures of Sin

Dorian-Gray-dorian-gray-32846735-1600-1067So today I was reading a literary analysis of the works of Oscar Wilde. (Christopher S. Nassar called Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde.) Wait… Don’t hang up yet. Yes, I know that is a very dry opening.

I began to think about forbidden sexual practices and unrepentant sensuality, the pleasures of sin. Better?

Scholars and non-scholars have long debated the meaning of the end of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian GraySpark Notes for example, puts it this way: “The end of the novel suggests a number of possible interpretations of Dorian’s death. It may be his punishment for living the life of a hedonist, and for prizing beauty too highly, in which case the novel would be a criticism of the philosophy of aestheticism. But it is just as possible that Dorian is suffering for having violated the creeds of aestheticism.”

I am inclined to believe Oscar Wilde when he said he was not trying to impart any moral lesson at all, he was just trying to write the best literature he could. The premise he began with determined to a large extent what endings were possible. Imagine the story of a young man who wished his portrait would grow old and take on his sins instead of him. He found that his wish had magically come true… and he lived happily ever after. This is not much of a story.  I believe what Wilde wanted readers to think upon finishing the book was “Wow, that was a great story.” (And perhaps “Wow, Oscar Wilde is very clever.”)

Nassar wrote about The Picture of Dorian Gray and its relationship to the decadent movement.  the decadent “looking within and discovering not only purity but evil and corruption, yields to the corrupt impulse and tries to find joy and beauty in evil. Finally, the vision of evil becomes unbearable, the decadent has burned all his bridges, and he finds himself trapped in a dark underworld from which he cannot escape.”

When I tried to think about more modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.

The most obvious example is Breaking Bad. The main character, Walter White, is drawn into a world of crime in order to secure his family’s financial future. As the series goes on, he is drawn more and more into “a dark underworld” and becomes increasingly vile and unsympathetic.

The drama of Dorian is fueled by a particular anxiety about what can happen when sensual pleasure is entirely divorced from any emotional human connection. Victorians, on the one hand, felt constrained by the roles society forced them to play and they enjoyed the fantasy of throwing off all of those moral codes and giving in to their basest desires. On the other hand, they were afraid of what would happen if their sensual pleasures were not constrained. What if sexuality was not coupled with a sense of responsibility for one another?

It strikes me that the ideas that made Oscar Wilde seem so dangerous have become quite mainstream. He advocated the idea that artists needed to explore all of their impulses in order to create art and serve humanity.  In the 21st Century the notion that a person must be in touch with her sexual nature in order to be creative and healthy is commonplace. It is hard to imagine a book like Eat, Pray, Love in which the protagonist did not find amazing sex as part of her journey of self-discovery. Our anxiety, if our blaring magazine headlines and advertisements are anything to go by, is more that we are somehow missing out on the life-transforming bliss sexuality is supposed to be bringing us.

If Breaking Bad is anything to go by, however, we do have anxiety about what happens when money is decoupled from a sense of responsibility to one another. We love the fantasy of having all of our financial worries eliminated quickly. We loved watching Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, charismatic, powerful with that cool mobile phone with the antenna. In Wall Street, Charlie Sheen’s slightly less memorable leading character is, like Dorian, trapped in a dark underworld. It is not dark in the way Breaking Bad’s world is dark, but it is depicted as a world of questionable moral values which threatens to suck the young man in– a world of large Manhattan apartments, expensive cars, and gold-digger model-esque girlfriends–pleasures that are hard to escape.

Sheen’s character keeps his moral center, although he goes to jail. The real Dorain character, though, is Gekko who has sold his soul. “Greed is good,” he says. “Greed works.” Like Dorian, Gordon Gekko has no conscience about pursuing his own pleasure. As an audience we find him both attractive and repellant because he represents the freedom that comes with complete self interest, the dream of not having to make all of the compromises we mere mortals make each day in order to get along. Yet he also represents the danger of complete self-gratification.

It is a mistake, I believe, to ask whether Dorian Gray is an argument for or against the philosophy of aestheticism. It is neither and both.  Too much social constraint and too little social constraint each have their dangers. The question is not “is pursuing self-interest good or bad,” it is “to what extent should a person pursue self-interest, in what balance and what context?”

I wrote a much more detailed version of this a few days ago and Word Press ate it. The pithy version is probably an improvement.

The Happy End: Male vs. Female

over-the-rainbow“Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.”-Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead

Back in November, I had a conversation with an agent about a novel I am looking to publish. He had strong opinions about what types of books are marketable, as all agents do. His point of view was that for a story to sell it had to conform to certain reader expectations. There was, he argued, a natural ending for stories and the natural ending was exactly the one you would expect. In the Hollywood movie, the hero saves the world and wins the respect of his estranged girlfriend in the process, for example. If the film does not deliver the expected resolution then audiences will not be satisfied. Call it the “Rosencrantz Theory of Literature.”

Of course, what is considered a “natural ending” changes over time and across cultures. The satisfying end for the Victorians was one in which the protagonist was destroyed by cruel society. We prefer the “happy end.”

The “happy end” differs depending on whether the protagonist is male or female. Here are the two “natural ends” for popular narratives: In the male happy end the narrative is complete when the hero has scored a victory against great odds. In the female narrative the “natural ending” comes when she is content with the life she has (with bonus points if she finishes the story in true love).

Dorthy has all kinds of adventures in Oz, but the message she comes away with is “there’s no place like home.” Her victory is not becoming the leader of Emerald City, it is being content to live in black and white Kansas. She has a happy end when she stops dreaming of a better life “somewhere over the rainbow.” Put another way, victory for Dorothy is giving up on her dreams.

This is not a narrative that died in the 1940s. It was not pushed aside by women’s lib in the 1970s. In fact, I came to the realization that the expectation of a “natural ending” was different for women while watching “The Devil Wears Prada” the other night on a hotel TV.

In Prada, the protagonist is a young woman who scores what is considered to be a dream job as the assistant to the editor of a major fashion magazine. Her boss is demanding and ruthless. The young woman moves up the ranks and ends up on a glamorous trip to Paris Fashion Week rubbing elbows with high society. Her boss, incidentally, is pictured as having a rocky home life as is expected. Powerful female business women are expected to achieve status at the expense of real relationships. Our protagonist does not want to make the same mistake. In the end (spoiler alert) she walks away from the shallow and artificial life of status and glamor to return to a more “authentic” existence. We see her stepping out of a taxi and abandoning her boss as the boss looks on with disguised admiration for the young woman. The film ends with the main character walking in comfortable clothes with her head held high.

It struck me that this was the expected ending, the Rosencrantz ending, the one audiences are prepared to believe and publishers are prepared to buy.

It also struck me that it was an inversion of the expected male ending. The male protagonist’s story would tend to resolve with the man victorious in the career field he had entered. There was a point in the movie where the main character becomes aware of a plot that could oust the editor. She tries to protect the boss who has made her life so difficult. I would expect the male character to use this opportunity to forward his own interests and bring down the bad guy. It might end with him as the editor of the publication himself. It is not common for the male narrative to end not with worldly success but with the character deciding he does not want to play the game.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

Dorothy has a happy end when she gives up on her dreams.

Challenges of the Dramatic Parenting Narrative

A few years ago I saw this interview with Julian Lennon, and it stuck with me. I have always been a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon in particular. This interview, however, presents the stark contrast between John Lennon’s success as a musician and his performance as a father to his first son.

A couple of days ago I proposed that there might be a place in the world for the dramatic parenting narrative, a story that finds drama and heroism in the sphere of raising children.  Here is one of the challenges I see in making such stories a reality. In order to have real drama, the hero must be in jeopardy. There must be a chance that the hero will fail.

Accepting the notion that a parent might not do well, that a parent might be on the verge of completely making a wreck of things, while not losing an audience is hard. It is especially hard with a female protagonist.  We are much more apt to forgive John Lennon for his shortcomings as a parent than we would be to forgive a woman who prioritized rock star success over her child’s emotional needs.

But whether the parent is a mother or father, the dramatic parenting narrative is a challenge.  Here in the land of the free and home of the brave, we have a culture makes it seem downright immoral not to be on guard at every moment.  Terrible dangers lurk around every corner and if you fail to prepare for them, well, that is your fault.

“There’s been this huge cultural shift,” Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids said. “We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”

The quote is from an article that is arguably a rare example of the dramatic parenting narrative. It appeared in Salon today.   The Day I Left My Son in the Car was written by Kim Brooks, whose split-second decision to run into the store would consume the next years of her life.  A stranger, seeing that  incidence of what she believed to be a child in jeopardy, videotaped the boy waiting in the car and– without confronting the mother– went to the police.  Lapses in maternal judgment find little sympathy in a media environment which features constant reports of child predators, kidnappers and bad guys with guns.

Why are we so fearful? My best guess is that it is the flipside, once again, of our optimistic American belief in the power of the individual to control her circumstances. If you believe there is really no such thing as an accident or a crime, only poorly prepared people, you can maintain the idea that nothing bad will happen to you. (Also, you do not need to expend as much emotional energy on compassion for victims who obviously brought their misfortunes on themselves.)

With almost no permission to risk mistakes, the dramatic parenting narrative becomes rare, almost impossible.







My Novel is Growing Obsolete- And I am Glad

Angel by Laura Lee A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Writing the final version of the book in 2009 and 2010 I described a mainstream church with a congregation divided on the question of whether or not to accept a gay pastor.  At this time, there was a widespread view that Christianity and homosexuality were simply in opposition.  In my depiction, I wanted to make it clear that this was not the case and Christians held a wide range of views.  At the time, I was trying to show, in essence, that churches were more progressive on this issue than many outsiders think they are. Two years after the book came out, reviews tell me that some readers are now seeing the church as more conservative than mainstream.

When I was writing, I drew on official church statements from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. By the time the book was in print, the Presbyterians had already changed their stance and were ordaining gay ministers.

While there were those who talked about the “controversial” nature of my book when it came out (one web site refused to run ads for it), I never felt as though it was all that controversial. By now, I feel as though its point of view is entirely mainstream.

I discovered something recently while searching through an old journal.  I have told the story many times of how I came to write Angel, how I was inspired by a trip to Mount Rainer and the question of why a man would leave the ministry for a career as a mountain tour guide. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a regular writing prompt for years. I wanted to bring out all those themes of natural beauty, transcendence, and the impermanence of life in the shadow of a sleeping volcano. I knew what the heart of the conflict had to be– a minister had to fall out of step with his congregation. He would have some sort of change in his worldview.  I kept going back to what that change might be. Over the years I tried a number of different plots and nothing quite worked until I saw an image of a beautiful man, and meditated on my aesthetic response to his beauty.  That is when the idea hit me that my minister might do the same, and this might be the thing that would put him in conflict with his congregation. From that point the story flowed as if it had already been written and I just had to take dictation.

That is how I thought it had happened. But memory is not always a faithful recorder of events. Apparently my subconscious had been at work on the novel for some time when I had that eureka moment. When I looked back in my journal at my earliest ideas for the novel I was then calling “The Minister and the Mountain,” written in 2000 immediately after my return from Seattle, I discovered two things.  There was a draft of what is now the final scene in the book. It is quite similar to the final version. There was also my first idea of what the plot of the book should be. My very first idea for the central conflict had been that the minister would fall in love with another man. Why did I abandon that promising plot line and put it so far out of my mind that I forgot I’d ever thought of it? I don’t remember, and the journal doesn’t really say. The most likely explanation is that the idea scared me. It seemed too incendiary and I was not yet brave enough to tackle it. I ran away.

That was only 14 years ago, but it seems a world away.



Dramatic Parenting Narratives and Other Stories

In my last post, I commented on a story in the Atlantic by Monica Byrne. Her article is a call for more diversity in publishing. She writes about her own experience as a girl reading adventure stories and growing up wanting to write about male characters like them. She wonders why there are so few female road narratives:

Despite a liberal upbringing and an education at a women’s college, it didn’t occur to me that my identification with male heroes had damaged me in any way—that is, until I became a writer, and found myself weirdly reluctant to write a woman hero. This wasn’t an accident.


As Vanessa Veselka wrote in The American Reader, there is a profound relative lack of female road narratives in the Western literary tradition. This absence hurt her in much more concrete ways. When recounting her years as a teenage hitchhiker, Veselka writes, “my survival depended on other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me…[but] there was no cultural narrative for [us] beyond rape and death.” Male hitchhikers had Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and dozens of others. Veselka had bodies in dumpsters on the six o’clock news.

Of course there are, and there can be, female adventurers. But as I read this I wondered something else. Does our notion of what makes a dramatic story itself exclude certain groups of people? Put another way, women are right to question their exclusion from certain narratives, but shouldn’t we also be asking whether certain narratives are excluded? Is the problem not that women fail to act as heroes but that we do not have a story structure designed for their particular form of heroism?

In Encounter Milan Kundera observed that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”

Parenting has, probably since the beginning of time, been a central driving force in the lives of so many women. How is it possible that something so essential to human existence could be thought to be entirely without drama? We take it as given that the hero leaves the home. The home itself is not a setting for great adventures. Is this really true or is this belief the result of years of story telling by and for men? Women, like men, can leave the domestic setting and go off on adventures– but do people have to leave the domestic setting in order to have tales that are exciting, heroic and engaging?

If you read Homer you will find that his descriptions of color are a bit strange. As Guy Deutscher explained in Through the Language Glass: “…he may often talk about light and brightness, but seldom does he venture beyond gray scale into the splendor of the prism. In those instances when colors are mentioned, they are often vague and highly inconsistent: his sea is wine-colored, and when not wine-colored, it is violet, just like his sheep. His honey is green and his southern sky is anything but blue… For if Homer’s ‘violet’ or ‘wine-looking’ are to be understood as describing not particular hues but only particular shades of darkness, then designations such as ‘violet sheep’ or ‘wine-looking sea’ no longer seem so strange. Likewise, Homer’s ‘green honey’ becomes far more appetizing if we assume that what caught his eye was a particular kind of lightness rather than a particular prismatic color.”

It was only with the development of pigments and dyes that people started to conceptualize color as separate from objects.

“We don’t see the need to talk about the taste of a peach in abstraction from the particular object, namely a peach… When they talk about color in abstraction from an object, they rely on vague opposites ‘white/light’ and ‘black/dark.’ We find nothing strange in using ‘sweet’ for a wide range of different tastes, and we are happy to say ‘sweet a bit like a mango,’ or ‘sweet like a banana,’ or ‘sweet like a watermelon.’ They find nothing strange in using ‘black’ for a wide range of colors and are happy to say ‘black like a leaf’ or ‘black like the sea beyond the reef area.'”

So Homer was able to weave a narrative of a great human adventure but there were also things he did not have a vocabulary to describe– the color blue, for example, and the lives of the women who stayed behind.

We have since come up with words like teal and puce and aquamarine. Maybe we need a pioneer to create the language of the heroic maternal adventure as well.