It’s been a busy ol’ year—what with my return to the learning factory and such—but I have managed to maintain a modicum of momentum in my reading. Listed below are the best books I read, in the order in which I read them (more or less) in 2015. I’m also aware of how time-poor everyone is, and how sometimes you don’t want to read an in-depth, carefully constructed review… which is precisely where the #5WordReview comes into its own. Enjoy!
In Latin America, magic is in our blood. Our history, our days are filled with magic, either for reasons of religious syncretism or for fear of the unknown, or, rather, a great love for surprises. When something inexplicable happens—and in Latin America life itself is inexplicable—that’s magic.
Okay. Before I begin, let me just say something: this is not going to be your typical sort of traditional book review. It’s not going to be like most other reviews, in which you get a précis of the book’s plot, and a bunch of reasons why the reader liked or disliked it. I mean, I guess I’ll do all that, out of courtesy for other, potential readers or whatever, but really this is less a review of the book and more an expression of love and gratitude to its author, Lidia Yuknavitch.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve become rather used to seeing Richard Thomas’s name appear in my news feed. It seems hardly a week goes by without one of his stories finding a home—not surprising, really, given that he’s one of the most prolific and hard-hitting writers out there. Operating primarily within the neo-noir genre, Thomas has put out, to date, over a hundred pieces of fiction, including a novel, Transubstantiate, and two short story collections, Herniated Roots and Staring Into The Abyss. He’s also an extremely skilled editor, a gifted and generous mentor, and as highly respected for the advice he shares in his columns about writing as he is for his own fiction.
There’s a chapter in Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Stranger Than Fiction, in which the author explains how, every year, he finds himself having to re-buy a copy of each of Amy Hempel’s works, having given them all away to friends or fellow writers. In recent years, I’ve found myself doing the same thing with one of Palahniuk’s own books (Choke) along with Mark Poirier’s Modern Ranch Living and all of Junot Díaz’s novels. I now find myself doing the same thing with David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV, because not only is this book an invaluable tool for all writers of fiction, it’s also an endlessly fascinating read, regardless of any literary aspirations you may be harbouring.
That said, The Art of Character is, primarily, a guide to the craft, and to this end, Corbett kicks things off with a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: “A writer should create living people; people not characters.” Easier said than done, right? Fortunately, you’re in good hands. Very good hands indeed. With several novels already under his belt, and a New York Times Notable Author award, it’s fairly safe to say that Corbett knows his shit. Allow him, then, to lead you straight into Part One, titled Conceiving the Character, which focuses on the “examined life” and the idea that, in order to make our characters real—to create those “living people” to whom Hemingway referred—we must look at them closely and determine precisely what they want, what they fear, what they hate, what secrets they hide, and so on. In order to answer these questions, Corbett argues, we must know these things about ourselves… or at least be prepared to find out.
There are several key themes that Corbett revisits throughout The Art of Character. However, one question concerns him above all others. “Who am I?” he asks—or rather, he asks you to ask this of your work, throughout its evolution. A daunting task, certainly, but Corbett guides the reader through this process in a detailed yet clear and personal manner. “Take it in bits,” he advises at the beginning of chapter thirteen, ‘The Tempest Within: The Character’s Psychological Nature’, the longest of the book’s twenty-five chapters. “There’s a lot to consider.”
He’s not kidding. However, as I mentioned, the essence of this book’s appeal lies largely in the fact that it’s so damn readable. As wise and experienced as Corbett clearly is, at no point does he come across as aloof. Yes, his knowledge is vast, and his style forthright, but there is an unmistakeable generosity of spirit in the way he delivers his words. He also draws from a broad selection of key works in order to illustrate his points, and in many instances he goes into great detail in his breakdown of these works. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad via Death of a Salesman and Citizen Vince, these examples—aside from confirming both the central importance of character in all the great works, irrespective of medium or genre, and the universality of the principles that underpin the creation of great characters—provide hooks on which readers of all tastes can hang their hats.
There are few bases Corbett doesn’t cover, but it’s in the Epilogue—subtitled The Examined Life Redux: Our Characters, Our Selves—that he proffers the most fascinating food for thought. Drawing on the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, he revisits the idea of “lack” as a driving force for creating characters. To be an artist, Corbett argues, one must cast aside “the comforting notion of I Know Who I Am”. Be daring, he urges… but not at the expense of alienating those among whom we must live, on whom we depend, and whom we wish to impress. This, for me—and the conflict to which it gives rise—is at the heart of what Corbett refers to as “the writer’s journey”, and why I’ve already given away two copies of this excellent resource.
I recently took a writing class with David Corbett, a New York Times notable author who’s written numerous novels, short stories and poems, and recently published a book called ‘The Art of Character’. (As an aside, this book is excellent. If you’re a writer, and you’re serious about the craft, you should buy it. Seriously. Now). Throughout the class, David gave me a tonne of great feedback, but there was one phrase in particular that kept coming up in his notes.
“Swing for the fences.”
Swing for the fences? At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Being a Brit, it’s not an idiom I’m too familiar with. But hey! I’m an intelligent guy, and I quickly worked out that it was probably a baseball reference (I was right) which, applied to my writing, meant: don’t hold back. Go all out. Let your imagination run wild… and take a risk or two.
It’s tricky sometimes, when you’re writing fiction that’s based—however loosely—on real events, because you tend to forget that fiction is not real life, and that you can, and should, make things happen that didn’t happen in real life. And those things can be way more fucked up, outrageous or heart-breaking than the events on which they’re based. Up until a short time ago, I shied away from writing anything I thought was too “far out”, and I often worry that my stories won’t be realistic. This is ridiculous, of course, for any number of reasons—not least because what does “realistic” mean these days anyway? You just need to spend ten minutes watching the news, or chatting to one of your more licentious friends, to remind yourself that the shit that goes on in real life is often way more fucked up, outrageous and heart-breaking than the stuff dreamt up by us writers. Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk, of course. Or Stephen King. Or David Corbett, for that matter. Much like those writers, then, in order to make your story stand out, you need to go beyond the boundaries of the everyday, mundane reality of things. You need—in other words—to swing for the fences.
The other day, I rewrote a scene for the work-in-progress I’d submitted during David’s class. After I was done, I read it back and thought, wow. That’s really something. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe I had written it. I had done exactly as David urged me and swung for the fences, and it had paid off. Granted, it wasn’t exactly Chuck Palahniuk-fucked up, or Stephen King-terrifying, or even Junot Díaz-heartbreaking. But it was pretty far out—maybe even home-run far—whilst also being wholly believable within the context of the story.
And therein lies the key. Another teacher of mine, Jon Gingerich, once told me that while writing stories based on real events is all well and good, one has to be wary of becoming too attached to these events and putting them on the page simply because they happened that way. “Things that occur in fiction always happen necessarily,” he said, “because the writer is using these elements to yoke some deep-seeded meaning out of them. Whatever happens to your characters happens because the story needs them to reflect the thematic ideas you’re putting on the page.”
By marrying up these two pieces of advice, from two very wise men, I feel like I’m making progress…
Watch this space.
La Central bookshop in the Raval district of Barcelona is fast becoming my hang-out spot of choice. Not only is it air-conditioned and quiet—making it a safe-haven from the brocationers, flashpackers and multigens that descend upon this city in droves during these unbearably sticky summer months—it also houses a wonderfully diverse selection of reading material, which includes a pretty decent English language section. Here you’ll find everyone from Paul Auster to Zadie Smith; Vladimir Nabakov to Chuck Palahniuk; Jane Austen to William H. Gass… whatever your tastes, be they classic, contemporary or cult, this place has something for you.
Before I start sounding too much like a company representative, it’s worth pointing out that, for me, browsing the shelves of a well-stocked bookshop triggers a whole bunch of emotions—and not all of them positive. On the one hand, it’s great; I love it, being surrounded by so many inspirational works of literature, and indulging in fantasies of one day seeing my name up there as well… on the other, I hate it, because I get what I call writer’s shame. That realisation that there is a serious number of key works of literature I still haven’t read. And many of them, I really should have read by now, shouldn’t I? Books that every writer worth his salt has read. When I look up at the numerous titles by the likes of J.G. Ballard, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe, I hear a voice inside my head—and for the record, it’s not my voice, or any one particular person’s, but rather a composite of all my better-read friends and family members—asking that horrible, rhetorical question; “What, you’ve never read [insert title/name of immeasurably important novel/author]? And you call yourself a writer?” My response to this tends to be something along the lines of: “Hey, I’ve been busy. Working… Eating… Reading other books—books you haven’t read and probably should have, so shut up, yeah?” And then I get all pissed off and walk out, deliberately knocking over the display of Paul Coelho novels on my way.
Then I calm down and remind myself that I’ve actually read a shit-load of books, from a whole range of genres, and that they were all important, because I came to read each one of them for a reason, and each one has helped me on my journey as a writer in terms of finding my own ideas, my own style, and my own voice. And yes, there’s a shit-load more to read, and it’s good to stretch yourself, to diversify, but goddammit, there are only so many hours in the day. So, I select just one of those Terribly Important Works of Literature, or one of those books that someone has recommended—or even one that I’ve never even heard of but just like the colour of the dust jacket—and I take it to the counter and pay for it. And then I head back out into the sunshine and promise myself that next time—next time—I’ll buy Empire of the Sun… or As I Lay Dying… or Beloved… or The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test…