Sunday, April 17, 2011

XVII - On Writing a Novel / Soulless

So I’m apparently in the middle of writing a novel, which is exciting. And, though I am writing, and writing quite a bit, I don’t feel comfortable putting up even intermittent snippets—for me, getting critiques about the writing as I’m putting something together end up killing the process for me, as I discovered on my old blog. I’ve lost whole short stories (like my shotgun coffee shop/live painting story in 2009) because I just put stuff up before I’d gotten through a whole draft.

That said, I can share some other things. I find that, as a writer, I respond especially to music as I compose stories. The music affects a wide range of things—most noticeably my mood, and the overall emotional timbre of the piece. I’ve had short stories spun out of lyrics or concept albums—like my seven dreams piece, which was really rooted in Shearwater’s Palo Santo. For Americano—which I’d sum up succinctly as Faust in a coffee shop, replete with train stations through hell, strange guardian angels burrowing through basement walls, and a lot of tempo changes—I turned to both Amanda Palmer (specifically her persona, drunk in an empty auditorium singing radiohead covers) and other strong female singers, as well as Nick Drake, Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, Blonde Redhead’s spare euro-pop album Penny Sparkle, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, and, earlier in the process, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”. Near the end of the process, and the novella, I found a tone in Boards of Canada’s album “The Campfire Headphase”, which sounds like you’re sixty years old on a salt-sanded beach.

Overall, after I’d smoothed out the kinks with the voice, I was left with a second draft that was, largely, controlled and sad and, for the most part, distant. I’d told a story that spun Eurydice on her head, made her a sex-crazed emotionally torn Faust, and left her, at the end, more or less in hell. It wasn’t an easy thing to write, and though I found a lot more hope in it than others, my impression from readers was that it was more or less depressing, and in their eyes, hopeless. This was not my intent, but the music sang, and the prose spoke, and the character ended where she would.

It’s my hope, as I move forward with this novel, that I find a different emotional core, a different voice. If Americano was Eurydice, then this one’s Orpheus. Doesn’t mean it’ll end happy, but I think it’ll end differently, if nothing else. It’s turning deeply personal, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of it. At the time of this writing, it’s at 26 pages and counting.

I’ve compiled a playlist for this album, too. It’s massive, and I’ve tried to keep it alternating between two extremes—every other song. What’s on it? I started with Patty Griffin and Over the Rhine, the National, M. Ward and Joni Mitchell—warm, soulful voices—and then I heaped artists like Aphex Twin, Radiohead (Kid A & King of Limbs style), Flying Lotus, the Knife, and Boards of Canada—distant beats, cold, quick sounds. Among others. Sigur Ros’s Untitled album looks to be a fair influence too, for different parts. It’s my hope, through my voice, if nothing else, that I can produce something warmer, though just as trying and emotionally resonant as Americano.

I’d like to close with a short letter one of my close friends sent me—some harsh criticism that I really took to heart. Posted without his permission, of course, as is my wont.

I did read your book, and I found it to be further proof of your excellence as a writer. Indeed, Joe, you've quite surpassed the rest of us in that regard. I liked the hell scene and I thought your unctuous Mephistopheles -- Mr. Bean -- was the perfect tempter. I was not convinced, however, by the logic of the Faustian bargain. In order to sell her soul, Mary had to have one in the first place, and I found little evidence of that. She seemed too cool, detached, cynical. The sex she engaged in was horrible in its passionlessness -- it reminded of the encounter between the secretary and the "young man carbuncular" in the Wasteland. But maybe that was your point -- to show the blending of earth and hell, to rewrite the Faustian bargain as something easy and unconscious, rather than momentous and signed in blood. But this brings me to my primary concern: why is it, my dear Joe, that you refuse to allow your main characters souls? Real, living, human souls? The ghost, the little mermaid, the necrophile, now Mary -- I feel like it's becoming a problem. Really, I'm curious. Your newsletters are so full of color and life -- but your fiction is always gray and, well, dead-feeling. Beautiful, too, don't get me wrong. Dead things often have a kind of ethereal loveliness (and when you aren't being intentionally ugly -- with the vomit, urine, mechanical sex -- this story has it too). But seriously, what's the deal with that? Why do you think this has become your aesthetic?


  1. that letter sounds self-consciously like Seymour's notes to Buddy about his fiction in "Seymour: An Introduction".

  2. Hah! I really need to read more Salinger. What'd you recommend?