Monday, March 30, 2009

Fatal Illusions

Big day for my online friend Adam Blumer tomorrow -- publication of "Fatal Illusions," his first (published) novel. The book is in the Christian suspense genre. Another recently published work in the same genre -- Mike Dellosso's Scream.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What I'm Writing About

Seven years ago, I was flying from St. Louis to San Francisco, and listened to one of the on-board music programs, about a Greek singer I’d never heard of but who had a spectacular tenor voice. The singer was Mario Frangoulis, and the music was from the CD entitled “Sometimes I Dream.” The CD contains a lot of good music, including a “Nights in White Satin” duet with Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues. One song, “Luna Rossa” or “Red Moon,” stuck in my head. When I heard it on the plane, it immediately evoked an image of – don’t ask me why – a priest dancing on a beach.

When I landed in San Francisco, I checked into my downtown hotel, and went looking for a music store. I didn’t find one, but I found Border’s Bookstore, took the escalator up to the top floor to the music department, and as I exited I immediately saw a display of the same Mario Frangoulis CD I had listened to on the plane. Kind of a Twilight Zone moment, right there in the bookstore.

The image of the priest dancing on the beach sat in my head for the next two years. I started playing with it, usually at night after lights out. So what was this priest doing dancing on a beach? I gave the priest a name, a family history and friends. I put him on a bicycle. I made him go to college. I had him fall in love. Along the way, I discarded the beach. But it was all in my head, and I had moments when I wondered if what I was doing was mentally healthy. It was definitely weird.

And then one day, about three years ago, I started typing what was in my head. It gushed, and it kept gushing. I finally got most of the story out of my head, and discovered I had vastly more than could ever be contained in one novel. What it became was two manuscripts, with at least another half a manuscript discarded.

In February 2007, police apprehended Michael Devlin, the guy who had kidnapped a little boy from a rural road near his Missouri home many years before, and then another boy a few days before Devlin was caught. Miraculously, both boys were found alive. And Michael Devlin was living right in my St. Louis suburb, about a mile from my house, and I biked right by his apartment nearly every day.

I had a terrible time dealing with the news about Michael Devlin. Yes, it was horrible, but for some reason it was affecting me far more profoundly than it should have. I didn’t know why. I still don’t. But I finally exorcised it by writing a 40,000-word novella, constructed within the manuscripts I had already produced. So now it looks more like three manuscripts.

As much as I’ve edited them, they still need major work. I know what I have to do with the first manuscript – a complete rewrite.

I know how I have to rewrite it.

I’m just trying to steel myself to do it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

And Now for Something Totally Different

I've been reading Christian fiction at almost breakneck speed -- and I decided to take a break. Last night, my wife and I watched a YouTube video that combined paintings of Van Gogh with Don McLean's "Vincent." It was cool. I wandered over to the bookshelf and spotted the guidebook to the Van Gogh Museum I bought when I was in Amsterdam last summer.

I'd been there on business, and found myself with a free Friday afternoon. I hopped a taxi and got dropped off at the museum. I'd never seen it; my wife had visited it back in 1978. We had tried to see it when we were there in 1999, but it was closed for renovation. So I stood in line (wildly eclectic mix group of people, of which I undoubtedly looked the most unusual -- sports shirt, slacks, socks, shoes and a light jacket; nothing pierced and no obvious tattoos, and no spiked or dyed hair) and found myself inside within 10 minutes.

I loved the place, and I liked the paintings of Van Gogh's comtemporaries as much I liked the Van Goghs. I think my favorite was Van Gogh's The Bedroom, located in his yellow house in Arles and painted in 1888. I found it later reproduced on a tile in the gift shop, and the tile now sits on my bookshelf at work. (Whenever I go to any museum, I always buy the museum guidebook and something else; my wife can tell you all about it.)

The guidebook is a friendly little thing, something that looks like it would have been created by the Dutch -- compact in size, straightforward text and containing reproductions of most of the paintings in the museum. The little book taught me several things I had forgotten or never knew about the artist:
  • He died in 1890 at age 37; only in the last year of his life did even minor notice begin to be paid of his work.
  • His younger brother Theo died a year later, and was reburied next to him in 1914.
  • It was Theo's wife, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who doggedly worked at gaining recognition for her brother-in-law's art. Theo and then Jo (and their son, Vincent) ended up with the bulk of the artists's unsold paintings. She sold a few, organized exhibitions, and edited the first Dutch edition of Vincent and Theo's letters. The paintings she held on to form the core of what's in the museum.
  • He didn't cut off his entire left ear, but only a piece of it.

Odd how a video, a song by an American singer and a little guidebook can transport you across the ocean in a flash.

Dale Cramer's "Bad Ground"

Last November, I was scouting Christian fiction at Barnes & Noble, and pulled a volume called “Levi’s Will” from the shelf. The premise looked interesting – a young Amishman runs away from his family in Ohio during World War II, and his rejected heritage shapes him the rest of his life. The novel was written by C. Dale Cramer, the third of his four published works.

Cramer drew on some of his own family history, and the life of his father, to create the novel. I was captivated. It’s a great story, well characterized and well plotted. The writing is exceptionally fine. And if I substituted “Southern Baptist” for “Amish,” and north Louisiana for Ohio, I was reading the history of my own black sheep father and, by extension, myself.

Bad Ground” is Cramer’s second novel. He scored well deserved acclaim for “Sutter’s Close,” his first published work, and “Bad Ground” lived up to expectations (a lot of second novels don't). It’s a story about mining, and it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that while it’s a work of fiction, the mining details are too realistic and too precise for this not to reflect the author’s personal experience.

The story is about Jeremy Prine, a 17-year-old boy whose father died years before in a mining accident and whose mother has recently died from breast cancer. Before she dies, his mother gives him a letter, telling him to go to his Uncle Aidan, because the uncle has something only he can give to Jeremy, and Jeremy has something that he can only give to Aidan.

Aidan is a miner near Atlanta, and he bears the physical scars of a terrible mining accident, the same accident that killed Jeremy’s father. Aidan has not seen family for more than a decade, because the emotional scars are worse than the physical ones. He's known to his fellow miners as Snake, because of obvious physical reminders of skin grafts. Aidan's blocked the emotional pain by isolation and alcohol. And then Jeremy shows up at the mining office, lies about his age, and signs on as a yard worker.

How Jeremy and Aidan come to understand each other and ultimately love each other is the heart of “Bad Ground.” It’s a fine story, a beautiful story, about the pain and joy of family, and the pain and joy of forgiveness.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Charles Martin and "Wrapped in Rain"

It's misleading, and wrong, to say Charles Martin's novels are formulaic. They are set in the same general region, the southeastern U.S., and place always plays a strong role. Children, often abused children, are often central characters. The plots always have a love story. While there are common elements like these to all of Martin's books, his novels go well beyond the formulaic because this guy knows how to write.

I just finished Martin's "Wrapped in Rain." While all of the seemingly formulaic elements are there, so is something else -- a powerful story of love and forgiveness. Photographer Tucker Rain is returning home to Clopton, Alabama, from yet another overseas assignment. His brother Matthew, known as Mutt, is plotting to escape from the home for the mentally ill where he's spent the last seven years. And Katie Withers, the childhood friend of Tucker and Mutt, is on the run with her five-year old son Jase. Tucker and Mutt are fighting the demons of child abuse; Katie is fleeing an abusive husband. Connecting them all is the voice of Miss Ella, the deceased black woman who raised Tucker and Mutt, and Rex Mason, slowly dying from Alzheimer's Disease and the father whose abuse so shaped Tucker, Mutt and Miss Ella.

Martin writes better than well -- far better. The reader comes to know and care about these characters and to experience the light and dark of life, represented by Miss Ella and Rex. the souls of Tucker and Mutt were claimed by both the light and the dark. Resolution comes when the dark is both rejected and forgiven.

"Wrapped in Rain" is a beautiful story, sometimes violent but always true.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Christian Fiction and Hope

Interesting discussion going on over at Mike Duran's deCompose blog on Christian fiction needing to be about hope. The discussion was prompted by an article in the Nashville Tennessean about Christian fiction is still doing well despite tough economic times, and why that is.

Christian Horror/Suspense

In the past several months, I've been expanding my reading of Christian fiction. During the Christmas holidays, I spent two hours at a local Christian bookstore, poring over the fiction titles (and occasionally stealing away to listen to samples of contemporary Christian music -- I found Brandon Heath while doing this). I bought a pile of books and consumed them -- authors like Dale Cramer, Charles Martin, Taylor Field, Nancy Moser, Elizabeth Musser and Annette Smith.

A number of these novelists write in the "women's fiction" genre, which, I'm told, is where I'm doing a lot of my own writing. In addition to these, I discovered a genre I was generally unaware of because I simply hadn't been interested in it -- Christian horror and suspense. There are some big names here (like Ted Dekker) but also lesser known authors who are equally good, writers like Mike Dellosso. I liked Dellosso's The Hunted, but I loved his most recent one, Scream. I wrote reviews of both on Amazon. If you like a scary good read, either one (or both) of these will more than satisfy the itch.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Life-Changing Novel

Today, I finished reading Sky Blue by Travis Thrasher. It's one of those novels that changes you; you don't quite look at the world in the same way, and you don't quite think in the same way after finishing it.

It's a stunning work, about books and book publishing and love and faith and art. It reminded me of something I'd long forgotten -- why I loved to read. In my career, I've spent so much time reading for a specific purpose that I'd forgotten the quiet joy of a really fine novel.

I got inspired to start this blog. I've been working on a series of novels for the past three years, but I've been circumspect about letting people know what I'm up to. Only two or three have read the manuscript of "my first novel." It still needs a lot of work, which is depressing given the amount of time I've spent on it.

But after reading Sky Blue, I understand why the work, as intense as it is, is necessary, if you're going to create something worthwhile. And because I work in the context of my Christian faith -- and that's all of my work, not just my fiction -- my purpose is to strive to create something worthwhile, as hard as that is.