Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Widow and the Tree by Sonny Brewer

In a connected world, where every place is right next door to every other place via cell phones, airplanes, and the internet, it was really lovely to read a novel that was truly of a very certain place. The Widow and the Tree takes place in extremely rural Alabama, and the disconnected nature of the location separates the reader from any particular time, or any invasive modern influence. Without the ringing, buzzing, and informing, what's left is a quiet book that ends up booming, a small story that resonates.

A five hundred year old live oak is the central character, as it frames the lives of a few strange characters who also inhabit this swampy and wild backwater. If you told me before I cracked it open that I would be deeply engrossed in a novel which is essentially about a tree, and tangentially about a couple of hermits, I would have been skeptical. However, the scene that Sonny Brewer paints is compelling and surprising in its depth. Rather than limiting the book, the narrow scope propels the reader farther into the landscape, so it's possible to read a chapter about the noises a bird makes tapping on the branch of a tree and actually still stay engaged. It's possible to really be quietly present in this dangerous, haunting world of the Ghosthead Oak and start to know it, or at least to know how much you don't know about it.

The book is small, but it penetrates like a bullet. It's as specific as a fingerprint, and as unforgettable as a face. I'm impressed with Brewer's restraint, both in language and in characterization. There is nothing goopy and romantic about this widow, nothing drearily tragic about her hero either. The wilderness is hard, and the book is hard, but it's also beautiful in its simplicity.

The Widow and the Tree is a prime example of why MacAdam/Cage is great and would be sorely missed.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Water for Elephants: a Master Class in Craft

Water for Elephants was a runaway bestseller, a breakout book for author Sara Gruen, and a book club darling. The comments you hear in reaction to this book range from "Loved it" to "It blew my mind, changed my life, and I chewed my own wrists open when it was over." Not everyone likes every book, but I have to say that this one has met with universal approval from readers of every stripe. Writers, take heed. Water for Elephants is more than a good story; it's a seminar in technique from which aspiring writers could definitely benefit.

Lesson #1: Milieu. Choose to write in a world that people want to read about. Gruen set her book in a traveling circus during the depression. I wanted to read it before I had any idea what the plot might be like just because of where it was. For this book, you could almost write the pitch just based on the setting: the time, the place, the freaks, the violence, the hidden world, the desperation... it is automatically interesting just because of where and when it is. Want to write another book about someone who lives in an apartment in a trendy neighborhood in a modern city? Good for you. Have fun tweaking that one. Sure, Gruen had to research the hell out of her book, but she wisely chose a deep deep deposit of fuel in which to sink her well.

Lesson #2: Pacing. Water for Elephants has no down time. There is no break in the plot, no difficult middle section, no long period of rising action and building complication. The story goes from peak to peak, escalating constantly from the day the main character sets foot on that train to the very end. Gruen provides relief from the action by switching from the main plot in the past to the framing story in the present, but she never gives us a slow chapter in the circus plot. Looking at the structure and pacing of WFE, you realize that the thing about writing a novel is, you really don't have time for those slow chapters. Are you sitting on a middle section that kinda drags, just because things are "developing"? Are you happy with a plateau in the center of your book? Don't be lazy. Ratchet up the slope of that line that takes you from low start to high finish. Steeper is better. Don't waste time on low energy chapters.

Lesson #3: Transparency. In this book, there are no distractions from the characters, the story, and the world that Gruen is revealing to us. Her prose is not glamorous; it's not fancy. It is effective because it disappears. It's the kind of book you forget you're reading. You think you're listening, and not listening to some pretentious twat rhapsodizing just to hear herself talk, but listening to a story urgently told, every detail important. Instead of witnessing the construction of a narrative, it's like we're seeing a curtain pulled back. The focus is only the story, only the work, and it's so clearly rendered it's like a pane of glass. Any imperfection and you know you're looking through a window. So when you're writing away and you're falling in love with a turn of the phrase, a bit of something you think will be called "lyrical" or whatever, think carefully about whether what you're adding in there is going to show up in that pane of glass, or whether it's going to work to make the view more clear.

Writers, if you're waiting to read Water for Elephants, don't wait any longer. There are more than a few ways to tell a story, but here is a very successful formula for you: 1. Write in an interesting world. 2. Write without pause, relentlessly, every scene amplified and alive. 3. Write transparently. You're not the focus, the words aren't the focus, but the story is the focus.