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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, November 24, 2005

the writer shops for a novel

The dark days of the year are here. The fog has lifted, leaving everything dark and wet and still. I turned my errand of cash-fetching at an ATM into a short jog, and ran around Victoria Park. The dark clouds were trying to rain as I walked off my run, but they are still only pregnant with rain.

Kimmie's colonoscopy went well yesterday: the doctor gave her the all-clear, and so whatever was paining her in her abdomen is of still unknown cause. The doctor feels that it's within the bounds of normal experience and is not concerned. Meanwhile, Kimmie is assured for now that there is no sign of cancer, which struck down her brother Freddie.

While Kimmie was in the tender hands of the St. Paul's GI Clinic staff, I walked along Burrard and Robson, winding up again at Indigo Books. This time I determined to search for a novel. Fiction is on the third floor, so I rode the escalators up there and started looking. My first impulse was to look in the science-fiction section. Why? Probably because what I'm looking for is to leave this world: to see how other writers handle the depiction of an imagined other place. Partly this is defeatism, though, because I expect all novels to be disappointing, and so want to have some imaginative verve as compensation for putting up with a basically unenjoyable reading experience. Isn't that a negative stance?

Pushing aside my defeatism, I strode to the "fiction/literature" shelves: the large section of general fiction. Starting at the As, I worked my way along the book-spines and covers. I held my gloved hands behind my back, only looking. No touching unless something looked at least a little bit interesting. Margaret Atwood--nope. Peter Aykroyd--nope. Jilly Cooper--nope! On...

I wanted to find historical fiction, if possible, to compare with my own work. At some point I'm going to have to compare my work to others', and I'll need to know what's out there. I find this thought tiresome. "What will your work remind me of?" "Picture the Shopaholic books, but written by Thomas Pynchon."

Shelf after shelf. Shelf after shelf. Here I am, people--I'm here to spend. Make me. C'mon...

Hmm...what's this? My first pickup: a big Penguin paperback called The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. Say, this looks not bad. Nice cover. Hm, part of a series, I see--dangerous, but also potential (series to me suggest cranked-out, repetitive work--but I'm planning one myself so I'd better not carp!). Penguin: I still associate this imprint with quality, and indeed British writers I regard as over all better than American or Canadian. Slight problem: it's set in the 16th century, a period I don't have any particular fondness for. Flip it open, read the first paragraph, the first page.

I don't exactly remember the first paragraph (I didn't get the book), but I was a little leery of its suggestion that the main character (or the character being introduced) was a kind of swashbuckling rake, back in the country after unspecified adventures. It feels kind of standard. The writing itself, though, was good, far from the schlock that is usually dished up as historical fiction. Should I? It's a big book--but I like that (if it's good). Hmm. I flipped to a couple of passages in the middle. I settled on one: a rapid narrative of some kind of forest campaign, in which large actions were summarized in brief sentences. This put me off. Combined with the opener, which again was an overview rather than a specific action of one character (it was along the lines of, "When news of So-and-So's return started circulating through the country, people could hardly believe it..."), I felt I was getting too much summary and not enough drama. Nah, I thought--it's too risky. I put it back.

(Now that I've checked the Amazon.com listing for this series of books, I see that every one of them gets 5 stars or 4.5: the reviews are stellar. I'd better go back and read this after all!)

Listlessly I trailed among the shelves. Back, forth. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I went past another biggie: a novel called Shantaram by someone called Gregory David Roberts. It had an Asian-looking design on its gold cover. I picked this up too. The back cover contained reviews of praise, but no plot summary. Odd. The striking thing was Roberts's own story, which occupied the largest paragraph on the back, next to his photo:

Gregory David Roberts was born in Melbourne, Australia. Sentenced to nineteen years in prison for a series of armed robberies, he escaped and spent ten of his fugitive years in Bombay--where he established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for a branch of the Bombay mafia. Recaptured, he served out his sentence, and established a successful multimedia company upon his release. Roberts is now a full-time writer and lives in Bombay.

Well. One thing's clear: I sure have a tame bio. I assessed the physical book. Hm, big trade paperback, 936 pages including two pages of acknowledgments at the back. The book appeared to be based closely on his life--that could be good. How does a junkie/robber/Bombay street soldier write? Let's find out. First-sentence test, chapter 1:

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.

Hm--is it good? Or a "hey notice me!" grabber? I'll read on:

I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

Good. For one thing, this writer is not among the great majority who share the same dismal characteristic: they write as though life were a pointless waste of time. He sees life and experience as the arena of important things: values. That makes him my kind of guy up front. I was willing to read more:

In my case, it's a long story, and a crowded one. I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum-security prison.

Good. I could see why such emphasis was put on Roberts's bio; without it, these lines would raise huge credibility issues. With it, though, they command attention. I get the feeling that although I would never want to live Roberts's life, here in this book I have the opportunity to learn from it, because he has himself. I was mostly sold at this point.

But it was so big, and relatively expensive (trade paperback: $19.95), that I wanted more security. I flipped ahead to other passages. Here's the second paragraph of chapter 2, in which he's describing a Swiss girl named Karla whom he meets in Bombay:

And I did--I liked everything about her. I liked the Helvetian music of her Swiss-American English, and the way she pushed her hair back slowly with a thumb and forefinger when she was irritated by something. I liked the hard-edged cleverness of her conversation, and the easy, gentle way she touched people she liked when she walked past them or sat beside them. I liked the way she held my eyes until the precise moment when it stopped being comfortable, and then smiled, softening the assail, but never looked away.

That clinched it. Here I was reading someone who's probably better than I am at characterization; I can learn from this guy. He deserves to have his book bought, and I'm happy to do it. I chose a pristine copy and headed for the till downstairs.

When I got home I read chapter 1 and very much enjoyed it. Now: chapter 2.


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3 Comments:

  • That Roberst is indeed a good writer. Tell me if the rest of the book keeps up to the promise of that beginning.

    Dorothy Dunnett (1923-2001) takes the reader onto a wild ride - I like her books but it's a question of personal taste, as always. If you want a standalone, try King Hereafter (about Macbeth). Her other books are part of two major series - the Lymond chronicles being my favourite.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at November 26, 2005 9:56 AM  

  • Thanks for those notes Gabriele. I should ask you for your top picks in historical fiction, then: what are your favorites over all, especially for the ancient period? (I'm thinking of 1st century BC and those environs.)

    By Blogger paulv, at November 27, 2005 9:28 AM  

  • For the 1st century BC, I think it's hard to beat Colleen McCullough's series, 'The First Man in Rome', 'The Grass Crown', 'Fortune's Favourites', 'Casear's Women', 'Caesar' and 'The October Horse'. She begins with Marius and Sulla and goes through the entire period of the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire, ending up with the Triumvirate between Octavian, Mark Antony and the other one (Lepidus?) after Caesar's assassination. The books give a splendid, vivid, detailed picture of a complex society undergoing massive political change. The characterisation is first-rate, the period detail is superbly convincing and the historical accuracy spot-on (although I should confess I am not an expert in this period). They form a series, but you can read any one as a stand-alone.

    I assume you've already read 'I Claudius' and 'CLauduius the God' by Robert Graves - if not, I'd recommend both of those too.

    And I second Gabriele's mention of 'King Hereafter' as a good place to start with Dorothy Dunnett. I never got on with Lymond or the Niccolo chronicles personally, but 'King Hereafter' is first-rate.

    Moving out of the Roman period, Edith Pargeter's 'The Heaven Tree' is beautifully written, a tale about a master mason in England and Wales in the time of King John and Llewellyn the Great.

    Kate

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 04, 2005 9:03 AM  

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