Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction

Benjamin Percy was the keynote speaker at a literary conference I recently attended. I generally dislike these opening addresses, and fully expected him to deliver yet another self-congratulatory homily, followed by a desultory reading and a perfunctory exhortation to “believe in your writing.” Yet immediately after being introduced, Percy pulled out a dry-erase marker, went over to a white board, and launched into an informative and engaging discussion of the craft of writing fiction — creating engaging characters, building suspense, the strategic placement of scenes, alternating between action and moments of repose. After compiling seven pages of notes over the next hour, I bought his book with the enthusiasm of a Marvel fan on opening night of an Avengers film.

I won’t reveal the advice offered in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, partly out of fear the author would hunt me down if I did (while affable and inviting, Percy can be physically imposing — broad shouldered and deep voiced, he seems capable of sprouting fangs or claws at any moment). I do feel safe in revealing his central theme, introduced in the opening essay and expanded upon in the following fourteen: the accepted distinction between literary fiction (think Antioch Review) and genre fiction (think Fantasy and Science Fiction) is arbitrary, and writers wholly committed to either category suffer from not adopting the best practices from the other. “Literary writers tend to overdo thoughtfulness,” he writes, “just as many genre writers tend to neglect interiority in favor of action.” Percy, who has published in both literary magazines and comic books, advocates eliminating this distinction, and combining “the careful carpentry of storytelling” with page-turning excitement that makes the reader want to know what happens next.

In his description of the worst qualities of literary fiction — elaborate prose, abstract ideas, and lengthy dialogue leading to underwhelming epiphanies — I recognized a lot of the problems I’ve been seeing in my own writing. To put it bluntly: Nothing happens. My characters talk (a lot, and to be fair to myself I’ve been commended for my conversations), but they live in a world where inertia is as common as air. Having recognized this problem, I’m contemplating (there I go again with the thinking) following the advice of what Percy calls The Exploding Helicopter Clause: “If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter [or similar spectacular event or character], an editor will not publish it.” As authorial recommendations goes, this sounds both reasonable and a heckuva lot of fun.

Percy is a storyteller, not an academic, and true to his calling he weaves an engaging memoir through his essays. We learn a lot about Percy — his childhood fascination with genre and later respect for literature, a wonderful marriage, early struggles and eventual successes in his writing career, unintended lessons about writing learned from his in-laws, a mortifying illness of a son that lead Percy to dread watching Toy Story, a decrepit home he and his wife refurbished — revealed not in chronological order, each anecdote chosen to underscore the ideas of the current essay. Among the more interesting facts we learn is that as a teen, Percy conducted a ceremony which failed in its stated intent to turn him into a werewolf. My trepidation around him seems fully warranted.

I was impressed enough by Percy’s keynote speech to have him autograph the book I purchased. He signed it with advice I imagine he includes with all his signatures: “Go the distance,” the title of the his last essay and a reference to Rocky, a film that inspired him through his early days as a writer. Stallone’s plucky pugilist, waking before dawn to run and beating a speed bag until his knuckles bleed, succeeds in his goal to leave his bout with the heavyweight champion standing on his feet — going the distance — and Percy sees in him a model of tenacity for all novice writers in their struggle to rise to the top of the slush pile: “you must develop around your heart a callus the size of a speed bag.” There could be no better end to Percy’s marvelous collection of essays than this eloquent metaphor based on a gritty work of pop culture.

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Amjad Hamid

He smiled like someone who would welcome me into his home.
We were also about the same age.

I know little about him, not even his name really —
Is the J silent?
Would he have pronounced the first letter of his last name with a glottal fricative?
Our first meeting would have been awkward:
Hi, nice to meet you…
and if he hadn’t picked up on my hesitation, I’d have opted for the silent consonant —
Is it, Am – ad?
I like to imagine him laughing at my clumsy greeting.

If I were really curious, I’d consult the WWW and discover the WWWWHW of his life:
Who was in his family,
What he did for a living,
Where he went to college,
When he joined his mosque,
How he was being remembered.

Why he was there last Friday

I’d rather not know these things.
Such knowledge would only bring the horror closer.

But I did hold his picture in one hand the other day,
an electric tea light in the other,
and along with a few hundred people in my home town
said a prayer in three religions united in one voice on a bracing cold day half a world away
that we could evolve into a world where nobody would have to mourn for strangers.

Value

Mitzie pulled on Heyward’s sleeve, forcing him to stop and see her pointing at the object.

“What the hell’s that doing here?”

Heyward shrugged. “Waiting for someone to put it out of our misery.”

Mitzie leaned over the what had once been the keyboard. “This had value, once.”

Her boyfriend picked up one of the vines. “And these once bore fruit you could eat.”

Mitzie stood, and folded her arms across her chest. “You judge all things by their current value?”

He turned, and resumed walking. “There is no value in another person’s memories.”

Dumbphone

[Instead of my usual “oh gosh that’s cool” appreciation of Sarah Doughty’s latest epigrammatic poem, I thought it would be neat to write a response.]

I have trained the ear of my soul
to not be distracted by the rumoring whispers of untrustworthy shades

You are my beacon,
steady through my mind’s fiercest storms,
and without your love I am dumb,
a phone with no signal.

Let us dispense with the mourning of broken memories,
and revel in the anxious joy of a new day’s discoveries.

Unseen Movie Review #3: Gone With The Wind

Continuing a series of posts I started last week, recounting fond memories of movies I’ve never actually seen.

Why I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Seen This Movie: This 1939 classic routinely appears on top ten lists of greatest films of all time, and while I was in college it played nearly every quarter either at the student union or at a vintage theater near campus. I watched nearly all the films I never got to see as a child in the rural town where I was raised, but there always seemed to be something that needed to be done each time I considered going to this show.

The One Time I Came Close To Finally Seeing The Movie: Maddie (name changed on the remote chance she’s actually reading this) was a smart, funny, and comely lass who shared my appreciation for classic cinema. One day at lunch in the student cafeteria, she mentioned wanting to see the showing of this film over the coming weekend, and asked if I was interested. If she had asked me to watch “Dawn of the Dead,” I’d have said yes. Unfortunately she had to go home to her parents that weekend, and our date did not materialize until we went to see “The Neverending Story” a few months later.

Why I Probably Won’t Ever See It Now: After my college days, I read a lot about American history in the Civil War era, and my study convinced me the war was inevitable. The Union states did not fight the war to end slavery or for any other noble purpose, but their victory over the Confederacy was absolutely necessary. For these reasons, I can’t appreciate any work that glorifies the South in the antebellum era.

The One Image I’ll Never Forget, Even Though I Haven’t Seen It: Clark Gable carrying Vivien Leigh up the staircase.

The One Line I’ll Always Remember, Even Though I’ve Never Heard It: Among several great quotes in the movie, one has become a personal mantra — “Tomorrow is another day.”

I Haven’t Seen This Film, But I Have Seen: Sommersby (1993), an insightful film about the aftermath of the Civil War, featuring great performances from Jodie Foster and Richard Gere.

Friday Fictioneers: Somewhere Else To Be

PHOTO PROMPT © CEAyre

Late for work, Alain rushed out of his apartment building and into the alley where he had parked his scooter, not noticing the pillow-sized living fur lying on its seat until he had put on his helmet.

“Jesus!” The ebony cat looked up at Alain, and blinked its olive eyes.

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” The cat shook its tail as if dusting the leather seat. “Look, if — ”

The cat leaped over the rear of scooter, and scampered into a nearby bush.

Alain shook his head, reached into his pocket — then realized he had forgotten his key.

 

If writing a complete story in 100 words or less sounds like your idea of a good time, check out Friday Fictioneers

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere begins with a fire that’s actually pretty big — a concession, it seems, to the demand of contemporary literary agents and editors for a dramatic first sentence. But then, for the rest of Celeste Ng’s novel, nothing happens. There’s a lot of conversations, and people do things they probably shouldn’t and discover long-hidden secrets, but aside from a subplot that doesn’t involve the central characters, not one event occurs that would make the headlines of a community newspaper.

And yet, the novel is engrossing from cover to cover. The characters may lead mundane lives, but Ng makes them memorable. The novel focuses on the Richardson family; Elena and her husband Bill (who the narrator nearly always refers to as Mr. and Mrs. Richardson) are hard-working parents of four high school students, and own a townhouse they rent to an artist, Mia, and her own teenaged daughter. The Richardsons define success through their accomplishments — good paying jobs, athletic victories, admission to Ivy League colleges. Mia hardly fits in their world; her artistic instincts keep her moving throughout the country, never settling in any place any longer than a couple of years while working an assortment of menial jobs. Mia’s daughter becomes involved with each of the Richardson children, and neither family comes out of these meetings the better.

The novel takes place in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, but unlike another novel with a similar setting I recently reviewed, this is one where I actually cared about the characters. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson are decent people who deserve better than what comes to them, and Mia is as engaging as she is enigmatic. It would be easy to portray the Richardson children as pampered and self-centered, and Mia’s child as a victim of her mother’s unconventional career, but Ng instead invests each of her characters with intelligence and empathy. It’s difficult to create an engaging tale around ordinary people who don’t do much, but Ng makes it work.

Hulu is producing an eight-episode adaptation of the novel, and episode one will likely begin with that spectacular fire. Here’s hoping the series has the same focus on characterization as its source.

Unseen Movie Reviews

I review movies occasionally on this blog, but there’s one type of movie review I’ve been anxious to try: an analysis of a film I haven’t seen.

The impulse comes from the large impact cinema has on American culture. Movies influence the words we use, the conversations we have, the shape and movement of our dreams. They can reach us even when we try to avoid them; I will never, ever watch a particular film from 1986, mostly because I have always wanted to punch the face of the lead actor from the film’s movie poster, but I still know that insufferable punk stops a Chicago parade by singing Danke Schoen.

I embrace the cinema’s influence, which is why I find it unusual to have missed certain films. From professional reviews and anecdotes related by friends, I know their most memorable scenes, and can recite many of their famous quotes. And while I could rent most of these movies from the library or an online rental service, I like being able to convey my appreciation for these films that I’ve never seen.

Some ground rules. First, and most important, these are films that I want to see; disappointing sequels, enigmatic foreign films, renowned movies from a genre I don’t appreciate, and the just plain bad are all exempt. Second, movies that remain on my must-see list, like this one, will be exempt from my irony. The films to be reviewed in these posts are ones that I have no good reason for seeing any more, as they can have no greater influence on me than they already have.

Four films come immediately to mind; I’m certain to think of others. But every series of movie reviews has to have a countdown.

#4: Dracula (1931)

Why I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Seen This Movie: All those weekend evenings watching black and white Creature Double Features on grainy UHF channels, and I somehow never saw this classic. I am completely enthralled by Bram Stoker’s novel, and many critics consider Bela Lugosi’s performance as the Count to be the best.

The One Time I Came Close To Finally Seeing The Movie: About a decade ago, I saw a DVD edition of the film on a shelf, and checked it out. It sat on the entertainment center for months, collecting late fees, until I got annoyed with myself and returned it.

Why I Probably Won’t Ever See It Now: The film’s nearly a century old and apparently wasn’t particularly well-made even by the standards of its time. Forty years ago, the fanboy in me would not have noticed the lack of quality; today, the film would probably inspire me to check my phone for Facebook updates.

The One Image I’ll Never Forget, Even Though I Haven’t Seen It: Bela Lugosi, hands raised to shoulder level, ready to pounce on his victim.

The One Line I’ll Always Remember, Even Though I’ve Never Heard It: “I don’t drink… wine.”

I Haven’t Seen This Film, But I Have Seen: The Lost Boys (1987), a distinctly modern American take on the legend of vampires, and a film that is both scary and genuinely funny. “Attack of Eddie Munster!”

Bound for Somewhere

[I’m currently taking a writing class that in all honesty has been pretty disappointing. Yet I liked what I wrote for one of the assignments, so at least I got something out of it.]

My high school guidance counselor was a big-city tough woman who, after four decades in Philadelphia, fled the chaos of urban life for the chaos of small-town living. She had broad shoulders, thick arms that looked like they could crush you if she wished (and given her temper, this often did seem to be her wish), and a voice gravelled from cigarette smoke. She did not suffer lack of effort gladly, and would call you out if you didn’t perform up to her standards. Yet for all her brusqueness, students at our school knew she had our best interests in mind, and would fight anyone on our behalf. Which is why none of us ever reported her for using the f-word in class.

I was one of a handful of students who got along well with her, so when my time came to discuss college applications during the fall of my senior year, I actually looked forward to our meeting. At that time, I wanted to attend one of the small liberal arts colleges my father and I had visited over the past month, each of them far removed from my hometown in rural Maine, but no more than a day’s drive away from my family. A good, but comfortable distance.

As I entered her office that afternoon, she was leafing through papers on her desk. Without looking up, she commanded me — “Sit.” I obeyed. “Where are you applying?” I gave her the names of three colleges in New Hampshire.

For the first time that afternoon, she looked up at me. “No,” she said. “Not good enough.”

She leaned back in her chair, and pulled a college guide from the shelf, a book thick enough to cause blunt trauma should it be used as a weapon. She tossed the book onto her desk, and glared across the table at me. “Major.” I stared back at her blankly, and she replied by barking my last name, and asking “What are you going to study?” When she called you by your last name, she was done joking with you.

“J — journalism.” I swallowed. “I want to be a journalist.”

She pursed her lips, evaluating my career choice. She then nodded, and as she opened the college guide, I exhaled.

She leafed through several pages, until finally stopping. “North Carolina. Good journalism school.” She looked up, and pointed a gnarled, nicotine-stained finger at me. “You’re applying there.” She returned her attention to the guide, and was about to turn the page when her eyes found another entry. “Northwestern. I don’t know if you have the grades to get in, but that’s your reach school.”

I raised my eyebrows upon hearing, for the first time, the name of the university which would be at the center of my life for the next two decades. My initial reaction was to the distance. “You really think I want to go to Seattle?”

She looked at me as if I’d asked her if I could apply for college on Mars. “It’s in Chicago, for Christ’s sake. My God, we gotta get you out of this damn town.”

Wagon Tales

Every winter, I like to abstain from alcohol for a brief period, 10 days or so. It’s a way to break the momentum of consumption that begins over the holidays, gathers momentum over my tropical vacation (have I mentioned lately how fortunate I am?), and turns into a runaway train as my favorite professional football team marches towards the championship game. A bit of sobriety around this time helps keep me from going off the rails.

In an instance of literary karma, in my second day back on the wagon I stumbled across an intriguing personal essay on sobriety. Thomas Cochran writes with integrity about himself and his year-long break from alcohol. His self-deprecating wit prevents him from either pitying or congratulating himself, and he relates the discoveries he’s made without being preachy. His voice is of a man you can’t help but root for.

I can’t see myself riding this wagon for a whole year, but having my head clear for a couple of weeks lets me reassess why I choose to use. And that type of self-assessment is never a bad thing.