Holiday reading

12 Oct

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‘It’s as beautifully sad as a Paul Kelly song,’ I said to the mister when I went back inside to get a mid-book snack (dried peach) and refresh my cup of tea (green).

We’ve known each other a long time, the mister and I, and I could see him thinking to himself ‘oh, fuck’ and I could see him not saying, ‘Do you think that’s a good idea?’. Now, I don’t know what preparations the mister made for himself, but he was right. I was headed for a meltdown. Two days later I hit one of grief’s brick walls, which, for  days has left me paralysed with fear. I’ve got not parents. Fuck. It’s the worst I’ve been since Dad died (which, I note, was barely three months ago, so, you know, it’s to be expected and all).

Of course it wasn’t the book that caused the meltdown. I believe that my subconscious knows me so well that it lead me to pack my reading material carefully, knowing that the meltdown was building and would probably come at the end of a week’s holiday.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I went away for a week, and during that week spent a lovely morning reclining here, listening to the sea and reading Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life. It’s been on my to-read pile for quite some time – I would have said around a year – but I’m almost certain I first heard him on The Book Show and ordered the book pretty much straight away (as an aside, I very often love The Book Show as I did the day they were interviewing Willy, but sometimes that show makes me so mad I can’t see straight – does that happen to you, or is it just me, I’d be interested to know).

The backcover blurb says, “Narrated by Frank Flannigan, The Motel Life tells the story of how he and his brother Jerry Lee take to the road when bad luck catches up with them.” That’s a pretty fair description. Then, because this isn’t a first edition, the cover – front, back, inside and outside – is peppered with quotes and snatches from reviews. “A hugely compassionate, wildly original road movie of a novel…”, “courageous, powerful, wonderfully compassionate, this is a very fine novel”. Actually, I think they’ve gone overboard on the quotes. I agree with most of them, I just think, ‘All right already let the book speak for itself a bit’.

My subconscious did an excellent job because for me, books like this are perfect for times like this. Not that I want to wallow, but “plaintive ballads” of books provide me a way of giving into it all. Of letting it be. Of getting to the heart of things. Without wanting to get all overly-romantic on you-all, my mum was something of a Paul Kelly song. Complex and fascinating and strong and vulnerable and flawed. It’s what’s made me mad at her when I was fifteen and what makes me miss her now.

And it’s what made me love reading this book.

Plus, I like stories about vulnerable young men who make my heart ache (that’s inherited from my mother for sure). I like writers who make us think about the spaces in our relationships and what those spaces mean. I like page turners of books that make you beg of the characters, ‘Please don’t do that’.  (Just now as I’m writing this, it occurs to me that’s what Vonnegut meant when he said “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages” – though admittedly he was talking about short stories – but I’ve struggled to understand what he meant by that).

I was also reading this book in a way I’ve never read before and with a different awareness of writing than I’ve ever had. Because for the few days before we left on our holiday, I worked like the clappers to get the latest draft of my manuscript back to my editor. I’m at the fairly detailed editing stage, rather than the kind of structural things I’ve been doing until now. I am in no way comparing myself to any published writer, but I’m reading very carefully to see how experienced writers deal with different problems I know I’ve got.

It’s an exciting way to read.

For example, I was paying very close attention to the dialogue. I’ve got much more dialogue in my manuscript than I realised. Which is fine. As long as it’s good. And as long as it’s not punctuated with endless ‘stage directions’. Which mine was. So much biting of lips and flicking of hair. Oh, my. By the time I’d taken out all the flicks of the hair and the curled lips and the blinks of the eyes I’d lost about 4 000 words. Thank goodness.

Anyway, there’s lots of dialogue in The Motel Life and it’s good, and I see that it sits just nicely without endless decoration.

I think my writing style is what people often call ‘spare’. By which they mean (I assume) spare as opposed to ‘not baroque’ not spare as in leftover. So I was reading this book with a very strong awareness of that spare style – and I noticed that it has more dangers than I had realised. For example, “I turned on the radio, put a can of soup on the hot plate, and sat down at my table. I lit a candle I kept and ate”.

I reckon that last sentence is shit. You can love a book and still see that every now and then something doesn’t work. That sentence is clumsy and awkward, and made me stumble even though I was only reading to myself. But that made me think. Is it too pared back? Is it too spare?

Mostly though, as I was reading, I finally understood what a couple of people have told me over the last year (as they’ve been rejecting my new work). You can be a bit too enigmatic, leave too many spaces. You need to give the reader more. I wasn’t entirely sure about that, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. But while I was reading The Motel Life I ached for more about the relationship between the brothers. Not much more. But more (oh. I think we’re back at that Vonnegut quote again). Just a childhood incident here or there. Just a bit more reflection on Frank’s part about Jerry Lee as a person.

And then of course I fell into a funk – oh god, he’s got the odd awkward sentence, but all of mine are shit, what made me think I could write blah blah blah.

But then, I would’ve taken another sip of tea and moved on. I can’t have dwelled on it too long, because my overall memory of this book – no, I should be more precise about that – I should say that my overall memory of the experience of reading this book – is a good one.

Good. What does that mean?

It means I was completely absorbed and fully alive and knowing that life is hard but good.

Although, if it was me, if I’d had the final say, I would’ve ended the story two sentences earlier. Which didn’t stop me going to the bookshop when we got home and buying Northline.

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15 Responses to “Holiday reading”

  1. Isabelle October 13, 2008 at 5:42 am #

    Sorry about your wall of grief. My dad died in April last year and I know what you mean.

    Since you ask, I don’t think I ever get so mad that I can’t speak. Or mad at all, really. I’m a bit scared of anger.

    You write beautifully. Sparely, yes, but fantastically.

  2. Isabelle October 13, 2008 at 5:47 am #

    What I mean is, sparely AND fantastically.

  3. Kath Lockett October 13, 2008 at 6:02 am #

    You are a brilliant writer – just visiting your blog easily confirms that. Your book will be eagerly anticipated by more than a few of us.

  4. Pavlov's Cat October 13, 2008 at 8:32 am #

    ‘I lit a candle I kept and ate’ is indeed shit, not because it is too pared back but because of its grammar, which is highly ambiguous in the obvious way. I can’t believe his editor didn’t see it — I thought you must have made a mistake transcribing it, in fact, until I read what you’d said about it.

    And that quotation in its entirety indicates what a very heavy influence Hemingway has been on him, as on practically every male writer in English ever since, oh, 1940. The simple-sentence structure, the string of physical actions involving one-syllable concrete objects, the ‘I did this, then I did that’ — it’s all there. In fact it looks like a parody of Hemingway.

    The difference is that the spareness of what you do is not about actual style. Your style is sometimes quite lush. What your writing has is spareness of content, leaving out bits of information that a less imaginative or less thoughtful writer would automatically put in. Which makes it incredibly evocative and suggestive, and leaves lovely spaces for the reader to play in. When people say your writing (as distinct from your style) is ‘spare’, what they probably mean is that here and there you have left out too much information and they can’t actually get a handle on what’s going on.

    A lot depends on how many people you think are going to get it, and how much you care about that.

  5. Pavlov's Cat October 13, 2008 at 8:32 am #

    ‘I lit a candle I kept and ate’ is indeed shit, not because it is too pared back but because of its grammar, which is highly ambiguous in the obvious way. I can’t believe his editor didn’t see it — I thought you must have made a mistake transcribing it, in fact, until I read what you’d said about it.

    And that quotation in its entirety indicates what a very heavy influence Hemingway has been on him, as on practically every male writer in English ever since, oh, 1940. The simple-sentence structure, the string of physical actions involving one-syllable concrete objects, the ‘I did this, then I did that’ — it’s all there. In fact it looks like a parody of Hemingway.

    The difference is that the spareness of what you do is not about actual style. Your style is sometimes quite lush. What your writing has is spareness of content, leaving out bits of information that a less imaginative or less thoughtful writer would automatically put in. Which makes it incredibly evocative and suggestive, and leaves lovely spaces for the reader to play in. When people say your writing (as distinct from your style) is ‘spare’, what they probably mean is that here and there you have left out too much information and they can’t actually get a handle on what’s going on.

    A lot depends on how many people you think are going to get it, and how much you care about that.

  6. tut-tut October 13, 2008 at 9:06 am #

    oh, it always hits hard.

    Pavlov’s Cat has good advice.

    And I’d still like to read your short story . . .

    No, I don’t live where the little browser indicator says I do! I quite like that, actually.

  7. Susan Feldman October 13, 2008 at 9:16 am #

    I came across your website only today so don’t know much about you, but can only say I cannot believe your comments about Kerry Armstrong promoting Coke. Kerry, as a mum, should know better than that. The whole ad, which I saw on the weekend, was a disgrace! And clearly written by Coke’s PR agency to try and position Coke as a healthy product which the vast majority of people know it isn’t. Perhaps you need to read the ad again to see Coke, like every clever politician, either frames the questions to suit their own agenda, or deflects the question with puffery, irrelevant ‘facts’ and useless commentary. Coke, and Kerry, will be roundly condemned for this.

  8. ThirdCat October 13, 2008 at 9:31 am #

    hello and thanks all – really

    pc, you are as generous as always, and also I am hurrying back to my ms now, because a few things have now fallen into place a bit more firmly. I’m such a slow learner.

    and, erm…hello susan feldman…I don’t know what to say really except erm…well, pc’s last comment was almost prophetic

  9. ThirdCat October 13, 2008 at 9:41 am #

    Sentence. I meant ‘pc’s last sentence was almost prophetic…’

  10. Stomper Girl October 13, 2008 at 3:21 pm #

    That’s why we have art, isn’t it? As catharsis.

    I was really interested to read your writing learning curve. (I always enjoy your writing, by the way. Although I’ve been known not to understand sometimes. which could be me, not you). I’ve been having a similar learning curve with choreography in the last few years and although getting older sucks in a few ways, I think the gift of analysis is something to appreciate.

  11. ThirdCat October 13, 2008 at 3:37 pm #

    stomper girl, I would guess that the things you don’t understand are the things which I’ve written that only irl friends or family would get. In jokes and the like. And stuff I’ve written after one too many wines.

  12. ThirdCat October 13, 2008 at 3:37 pm #

    In-jokes. I meant in-jokes.

  13. m October 13, 2008 at 5:34 pm #

    yes, it has only been three months… that is NOT long. and yes, of course the brick walls are to be expected. they never go away, just keep getting smaller.

  14. fifi October 13, 2008 at 9:12 pm #

    I’ve been thinking on this for a few days. First of all, sorry about the paralysis. Sorry for all of that.

    And secondly, I know faff all about writing, really. i used to think i did but the internet has educated me to the fact I know nothing.

    BUT.

    I must agree with pavlov on the lush bits, which sit so well within the spare. I still have, and always will, i suspect, a visual fragment of your prose in my head, beautifully coloured and tonally rich, from when i read it last year in your short story. It’s really beautiful.

    I can’t wait for your book.
    My (not so ) secret desire is to publish a short story. Since I have pavlov’s cat in my literary cyber-psyche, I shall be editing it for about 5 years or so.

  15. Francis Xavier Holden October 13, 2008 at 11:58 pm #

    I like stories that leave space for readers to invent or interpert – we all do it differently and good writing allows differing interpretations. Tell, explain, describe, too much and there’s no space for the reader.

    I can thoroughly recommend “How fiction works” by James Wood.

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