For readers: a good find. For writers: a role model.

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If you’re a reader – I mean a devoted reader who is perfectly content with a good book and a comfortable chair, sofa or hammock – I have a suggestion for you: acquaint yourself with Robert Harris.

I suspect plenty of you already have, since every new yarn he comes up with is an instant bestseller. And before you go thinking I’m in for some sort of kickback for publicizing his efforts let me assure you Mr. Harris doesn’t know me from Adam’s off ox (an old phrase I’ve always liked and have never had occasion to use).

Harris is a former journalist and BBC reporter who now writes mighty fine historical fiction. In fact, when I suggested to Margaret George, a master of that genre herself –The Autobiography of Henry VIII; Mary, Queen of Scots; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary, Called Magdalene and others – who is represented by the same literary agent as I am, that she should take on one of my personal heroes, Cicero, she quickly informed me that that old philosopher and statesman belonged solely to Robert Harris.

Years ago I happened upon Harris’ first novel, Fatherland, a “what if” thriller set in a post-World War II world where Germany had won the war. The plot of that page-turner was riveting, but it was the author’s writing that made me an immediate fan.  In each of his books he establishes a group of characters, real people from the pages of history  – some likeable, some definitely not – and puts them to wandering through a smorgasbord of conflicts needing some degree of resolution, all the time providing sufficient suspense and dollops of irony for good measure.

Harris blends all that together like a master chef. But it’s his use of sensory description of time and place that continuously most impresses me. In book after book he puts me so entirely into the setting that it’s as if I’m actually there.  Ancient Rome comes so completely alive in his fine three volume novelization of Cicero’s life (Imperium, Conspirita, and Dictator) that the Ides of March section (not Julius Caesar’s best day) was so real it was as if I was standing close enough to have my toga splattered by blood.

When I read Pompeii I – in a toga again; maybe I should buy one – was as frustrated as the protagonist, a first century engineer who tried to warn the citizens of that beautiful city about what the volcano that filled up the horizon was about to do.

Enigma took me so totally into the famous think tank at England’s Bletchley Park that I could smell the pipe smoke of the geniuses who worked furiously through Nazi codes, the breaking of which would turn the tide of the war.

When I read Conclave I sat staring up at Michelangelo’s exquisite artwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as my fellow cardinals and I went through vote after vote to select the next pope amidst political shenanigans and intrigue.  And as I am reading An Officer and a Spy, my current field trip with Robert Harris about the famous Dreyfus espionage case, I’m right there in Paris of the 1880’s feeling the falling winter snow on my face as I walk along the Champs Elysses or sitting outside a little café trying to enjoy a drink on a scorching summer day while the stench of the underground sewers lifts up through the grates of the cobbled streets.

In short, I like this teller of tales very much indeed.  So much so, in fact, that I hope he never retires, but keeps writing novels in the English village in Berkshire where he lives with his wife in a former vicarage.

If you are a reader, I suggest you let yourself be transported completely to another time and place by a storyteller who is as good at it as any I’ve encountered, and better than most.

And if you intend to be a writer I suggest you read his books for … the very same reason.  Because when you can do what he does you’ll be a writer in the true sense of the word.

 

A literary landmark, a haughty heroine, and a quiz

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This coming June will mark 81 years since Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of the Civil War, Gone with the Wind, was published.

So let’s start with a little quiz:  1) What is the source of the title (which is a nice way of saying where did Mrs. Mitchell steal it)? and 2) Thomas Mitchell won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1939 (the year the movie version of Gone with the Wind was released) for what role?   The answers are at the bottom of today’s column.  Stay off the internet; you’re on the honor system.

Now I have to make a confession.

Until not too many years ago I’d never read Gone with the Wind.

I think I always assumed it was just a big melodramatic romance, sort of a hefty (over a thousand pages of fairly small print) precursor of Harlequin romances.  I’ve seen the movie probably half a dozen times and, while I stop short of proclaiming it the greatest film ever made, it is very good indeed.  But other great movies have been made from not-so-great novels; The Godfather comes quickly to mind.

And the fact that so many girls used to read Gone with the Wind over and over – my sister read it several times in high school – was probably instrumental in keeping me from reading it even once.

So a few years ago in honor of the book’s 75th anniversary I tackled that massive tome.  And I can happily report that I enjoyed the journey and discovered that my reservations about both the story and the writing were completely unwarranted.   It’s a finely crafted tale, wonderfully paced, with some beautiful sensory description.

And the major characters are a perfect blend of personalities: the gentleman scoundrel Rhett Butler, the aristocratic Ashley, his saintly wife Melanie, the caustic slave Mammy, the proud Irishman Gerald O’Hara.  And, of course, his troublesome daughter, who is not only the main protagonist in this book but one of the brightest stars, and most complex characters, in all of American literature.

Scarlett O’Hara, shallow and capricious and almost silly at the beginning, becomes, in the course of the narrative, a determined force of nature not easily reckoned with and impossible to control.  She’s completely self-absorbed, spoiled rotten, arrogantly vindictive, and deviously manipulative.  But what sets her apart from other young literary divas like Daisy Buchannan in The Great Gatsby and Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, who are also those things, is that Scarlett manages to make readers admire her even while sometimes detesting her before everything comes to a close on page 1024.

It’s still easy on that page, after Rhett has made his famous exit, to see all her faults.  But it’s much harder, after spending that long in her head and in her various predicaments, to leave her.  I actually missed Scarlett for a while after finishing the book.

In my creative writing classes and workshops I encourage writers to pay constant attention to what I call the “Thing and the Bigger Thing”, which refers to the basic storyline and the greater series of events that swirl around it. In Gone with the Wind Scarlett’s escapades are played constantly against the hardships and sacrifices of the Civil War. In fact, that turbulent chapter in our past comes more fully to life in this novel than in any history book I’ve read.

I admit to being surprised at liking the novel as much as I did.  It’s dated, to say the least, and the major characters’ overt racism is hard to take at times, even in a fictional setting.  But it’s an extremely well-told story, and fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize.  If you’ve never read it give it a try.

And if you’re a writer pay special attention to how Mitchell worked her magic,  creating a character that can be equally admired and detested and a setting, a unique time and place, that becomes a living, breathing character as well.

Here are the answers to the quiz:  1) though the phrase, or variations of it, had popped in numerous places, Mrs. Mitchell probably stole the title from herself.  At one point in the book Scarlett wonders, when she is on her way home during the worst part of the war, if the big house on her family plantation, Tara, will still be standing or if it is “also gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia.”  2)  Thomas Mitchell (no relation to Margaret), played Scarlett’s father Gerald O’Hara, but he won the award that year not for that role but for his portrayal of the tippling Doctor Boone in  John Wayne’s first  big  movie Stagecoach.

If you got them both right I guess you’re expecting a prize.  But, in the immortal words of Miss Scarlett O’Hara, I can’t think about that right now.  I’ll think about that tomorrow.

[Most of this first appeared in a newspaper column that is long gone with the wind]

 

The power of a story

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I sometimes kid myself into thinking, when somebody tells me they enjoyed one of my books, that their enjoyment was owing to my excellent description, suspenseful pacing, believable dialogue, and clever wording.  When, in reality, it was the story they liked.   And, almost always, the story that a writer tells is his or her take on a story that has been told countless times before.

That’s not to say that all those other devices and manipulations aren’t important – essential, in fact – to the writing and to its ultimate effect on the reader.   But those things that a good writer employs are like the attractive parts of a car. And the story is the engine.   It’s nice to have lots of doodads and shiny chrome and glossy paint on a car.  But, first and foremost, you’d better have an engine.  The same goes, when it comes to writing, for a good, dependable story.  Because that’s what keeps your reader or listener onboard.

You want proof?

Let’s go to the first section of the Bible.  Not for any spiritual nurturing, though it is there in abundance.  This time, let’s consider the Old Testament solely as literature.

Anyone intending to read the Bible through – from Genesis to Revelation – is likely to start out swimmingly.  They will probably churn right through Genesis and Exodus.  But many a well-intentioned reader has skidded to an abrupt stop a couple of pages into Leviticus.

Here’s why.  Genesis and Exodus are full of stories, and mighty fine ones, what with that Adam/Eve/Snake triangle, Noah and his floating zoo, Abraham folding up his tent and taking off to parts unknown, and Moses pulling down all those plagues.  That’s good stuff.  Then, in Leviticus, there are suddenly no stories at all.  There’s a long, dry catalogue of rules.

I may need the rules.  But I’ll more willingly swallow the stories.

Who among us doesn’t have good memories of great storytellers in our lives?  Maybe it was a grandparent or an uncle who could spin a yarn as smoothly as sweet cream oozing out of a porcelain cup.  Maybe it was a teacher who made history come completely alive by turning dusty, old facts into a tale full of living, breathing people.

The Library of Congress and National Public Radio have always realized the power of stories and a few years ago they teamed up to harvest a bunch of them. They call this adventure Storycorps, and it involves putting a recording studio housed in a trailer at various places around the country.  It’s a simple enough process.  Two people – maybe a mother and daughter, a father and son, old friends – go in, sit down, and one asks a couple of questions to get the other one started.  Then a story emerges.  Finally, those stories end up in the audio archives of the Library of Congress, where they become individual threads of the rich, enormous tapestry that is our history.  And our soul.

NPR used to play one every Friday morning, and I would listen to it on my way to work.  One week a Mrs. Theresa Burroughs told her daughter how, in a city in the deep south in the early 1960s, she learned how to play dominoes by having to stand waiting while the white men at the voter registration table finished their games before asking her ridiculous questions that she couldn’t possibly  answer.  Questions that were designed to keep her from registering to vote. Like how many black jelly beans were in a large jar on the table.  She kept going back, day after day, and the men finally made the mistake of asking her to recite the preamble to the Constitution, which she did perfectly.  And so she voted, that day, for the first time.

That story, told by a  woman who I would be proud to know, speaks volumes about the ignorance of prejudiced people,  the inherent evil of discrimination, and the dogged spirit of persistence that can overcome them.

Stories are potent, powerful things.  They are the ties that bind us tightly to our past and, hopefully, they are the warnings that occasionally tap us on our collective shoulder and keep us from repeating our foolishness.

So, you heard any good stories lately?

I certainly hope so.