An Essay on Writing by Way of The Time Traveler’s Wife

I have just finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Some months ago I co-founded a rather studious book club, and this one has been nominated a number of times without ever being selected for group discussion. I had a vague understanding of the premise, and it sounded appealing. I decided to pick up a copy and see what all the fuss was about.

My goodness, there is a lot to fuss about.

Just to emphasize my emphasis, I bought the book less than twenty-four hours ago. Fifty pages in I knew whatever else I planned to do with those twenty-four hours was going to have to be put on the back burner. I needed to see this thing through as quickly as possible.

The book was published in 2003 to rave reviews and was made into a movie I’m told I shouldn’t watch in 2009, so I imagine many of you reading this already know what it’s all about. For everyone else, the novel is about a man named Henry DeTamble with a rare genetic disorder that causes him under certain stimuli to become unstuck in time, flashing forwards or more usually backwards through a span of roughly a century to any number of places throughout the United States’ Midwest. He cannot control where or when he appears, naked and disoriented, but the journeys are guided in some way by his subconscious. More often than not he appears in the vicinity of people and places who have great importance in his life: His mother who dies in a car wreck; himself at a younger age; the Art Institute of Chicago, but most often –or at least it features most prominently in the novel– in the meadow behind the house where his future wife lives.

Clare Abshire first meets Henry at six years old, and over the next twelve years their friendship evolves from an almost imaginary friend through to a guardian angel, and then eventually and inevitably into a crush that moves through her teenage lust into something adult and mature. On her eighteenth birthday he tells her they will not see one another again for two years and two months, and the Henry she meets at that point will be the Henry in the here and now –a Henry only eight years older than her who lives in Chicago– and he begs her to have mercy on him. He isn’t the man Clare knows yet, but he will become that person with her help.

Clare does meet the contemporary Henry after beginning university in Chicago, and their life together begins in both an ordinary and extraordinary way. Throughout their lives together it is understood that at any point he might disappear almost without warning, leaving a puddle of clothes behind. Sometimes he’s gone minutes, and sometimes hours, and sometimes days. When he reappears, he often bears the scars of his misadventures. She likens the waiting to women of previous centuries who married men who went to sea and spent long periods waiting and worrying and watching the horizon for a distant sail.

More than that I will not say. Read the book. You will not regret it.

Now I entitled this blog post, “An Essay on Writing by Way of the Time Traveler’s Wife,” and I do want to talk about writing in some depth. Many of you know that I’ve written a couple of novels myself, and when I read a book now, I read it as an author admiring another author’s craft. There is a bit of armchair quarterbacking involved, of course, but there is also a deep appreciation for the process and the art. I once had a trumpet player tell me I couldn’t be a real Beatles fan because I wasn’t a musician. I find that a laughable claim, but I will admit in the same way musicians can enjoy music with a fuller understanding of the mechanics involved, so too do writers appreciate books in a different way than other readers. We ponder motive, pacing, plotting, character arcs, prose, perspective. We wonder why something was done this way and not another. We peer between the lines to look at the author on the other side and ask, ‘What are you really trying to say?’

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My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Sharon Kay Penman

Hello everyone,

While I wait for the ISBN number for my next novel, Zulu, I thought I’d add to my ongoing 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.

#5 – Sharon Kay Penman

I’ve written about Sharon Kay Penman before in one of my earliest blog posts, a lengthy book review that I will not repeat here for the sake of both brevity and originality. That said, I will repeat again what I said back in 2009: She is one of the shining lights of historical fiction today.

The particular era and area she writes about  is on the Middle Ages of Great Britain and France, and her attention to detail in that time period is every bit as impressive as Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. If she says something happened on a Wednesday, she’s looked up the date and adjusted for the Gregorian calendar reforms that dropped ten days out of the year 1582 to make that statement. I’m only exaggerating slightly when I enthuse that when her characters lean against an oak tree, she’s probably seen the stump. She’s less a writer of fiction than a journalist who apologetically plays fast and loose with her quotations because of the understandable difficulty in interviewing people who have been dead for between seven and nine centuries. The history nerd in me gets all warm and fuzzy reading her stories, knowing she will confess her few inventions in a detailed author’s note at the end.

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My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Colleen McCullough

Hello everyone,

Here’s my fourth selection for my 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.

#4 – Colleen McCullough

I would like to begin by saying I have a tremendous respect for Colleen McCullough’s work, and I use that word deliberately: When I think of Colleen McCullough’s books, I always envision her work as a feat of sheer effort, a supreme focus of will and intellect and time and knowledge directed down onto the printed page, distilled and purified and refined until it is as clear and as right as a human can make it. I find myself exhausted at the obvious labour involved in her creations, and I suspect that’s how she applies herself to everything she does.

When she was a young woman in Australia she was training to be a doctor, but she developed an allergy to medical soap, so she had to switch to neuroscience. She wrote her first three books as a researcher and lecturer at Yale, and then gave up her medical career to write full time on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. She has been writing ever since, even though she is now going blind in her old age. Her life has been a series of hard choices, and I know that’s where some of her most driven characters have found their strength.

There are many other writers who have a greater dash and verve with their prose, and I wouldn’t include her among my top tier of character-driven authors, but when you read a novel of Colleen McCullough’s, at the end you have to set the book down in quiet awe that it came to be at all, and feel a warmth of admiration for the person who could make it so. If she would let me –and had I the means to do so– I would fly to her quiet home on the remote Norfolk Island and sit at her feet for a spell. I would gladly let her lecture me about her process, and though I probably wouldn’t be able to imitate a word of it I would be much richer for the experience.

Her Masters of Rome series are a revelation to a student of Roman history: Each a perfect jewel of scholarship that walks the tightrope of historical fiction with such conviction and purpose that I am left weak at the thought of it; my heart is in my throat at how much continuous effort and thought must have gone into each one. Beginning with Sulla and Marius and going through four generations to end with Octavian Augustus and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony, as he is more famously known), her series of epics –each worthy of the title of opus– encompass absolutely everything we know about what really happened during the eight decades from before Gaius Julius Caesar’s birth up to the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire. The staggering research involved in this feat includes the entire Loeb Classical Library as source material, and that is just to start! Fiction is only introduced to fill in the understandable gaps, and each work includes a lengthy disertation at its end explaining why she felt it necessary to invent someone, or explain a character’s choice as she did. For her works she was awarded a richly deserved Doctor of Letters from Macquarie University, and at one point the Prime Minister of Australia called her to personally plead with her for another book in the series. I find I cannot stomach most historical fiction set in this period any longer: She got it so close to what really happened, so very realistic and believable, that to read lesser work almost feels like an insult to the story there to be told.

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My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Gary Jennings

Hello everyone,

My e-book is still ‘Publishing’ according to Amazon. I imagine later today I’ll have some good news to announce. While we wait, here’s my third selection for my 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.

#3 – Gary Jennings

Gary Jennings has been mentioned on this blog several times in the last few days. My first exposure to Jennings was at the age of ten or eleven. My father saw I was taking an interest in historical fiction, and he pulled a paperback of Aztec off the shelf and told me to read it. I refused, I’m sorry to say. At the time, I had no interest in New World civilizations. It was three or four years before I eventually read it to humour him, and I remember being stunned that my father had ever suggested I read this thing.

I should preface the following observation with the disclaimer that I love Gary Jennings’ work and I will passionately advocate any adult read it, but the author has a  peccadillo that really must be mentioned front and centre: If his characters go fifty pages without having sex, he gets bored. When you consider that his books are all over a thousand pages long, that can get pretty kinky pretty quickly. Aztec starts off with an incestuous pre-teen drug trip, and throughout the course of that book I learned more about what was possible between two or more consenting or non-consenting adults and/or children than I would have believed possible. It was an eye-opening read for a thirteen-year-old, I can tell you. At the same time, Aztec is not written from the perspective of Christian morality, and there is a lot of scandalously fun back and forth between the Mexicatl narrator and the Spaniards he is speaking to on that point. It works amazingly well. The whole story does.

Aztec is the life story of a young commoner in a small town with poor eyesight who defies his parents and follows his dreams to eventually become a wealthy merchant who travels the known world. He is a flawed man who is constantly seeking to better himself, often with heartbreaking results. Every success is won upon the destruction of something he cherishes. When he can climb no higher, the Spaniards arrive and destroy everything he ever cared about. It’s a beautiful tragedy, a slow-motion trainwreck that leaves you gasping for relief. It humbles me as a writer.

Jennings spent twelve years in Mexico researching that book, learning Spanish and Nahuatl along the way. Absolutely everything there is to know about the Aztecs is in that book. I know, because I went to the library after reading it and there wasn’t anything else in all those works of non-fiction that he had not touched on in his novel. It is as clear and as perfect a rendition of the rise and fall of the Aztecs as any historical fiction can produce, and I stand in awe of what he achieved. The characters are all memorable and touching, and even as their world unravels, you want things to work out for them. Of course it doesn’t.I cannot say enough good things about Aztec. After Shogun, it’s probably my favourite work of historical fiction.

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My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Bernard Cornwell

Hello everyone,

My e-book has moved from ‘In Review’ to ‘Publishing,’ so I expect my next post will be the announcement that it is available for purchase. In the meantime, I thought I’d continue with the second entry in a new 11-part series I described in my last post.

#2 – Bernard Cornwell

I could not in good conscious put this list together without mentioning Bernard Cornwell close to the top. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry, that man inspires me. He’s prolific, he’s got his history to fiction ratio perfectly adjusted, and he’s having the time of his life doing exactly what he wants to do.

He writes smart, adventurous historical fiction in both stand-alone novels and long-running series, and he does so at a staggering rate: He has put out at least a book a year every year from 1981 up to the present; more often than not he’s written a couple, and in 1995, 2002 and 2003 he published three books inside of twelve months! Can you imagine if every author had this kind of work ethic? I can’t speak with great authority about Danielle Steel, but I suspect Cornwell has to be within an order of magnitude of her prodigious output, and that’s really saying something. It’s easy to get hooked on Bernard Cornwell, and it’s even easier to get your fix. Even if you can shoot through one of his novels in a single long day in an arm chair, his current book total stands at fifty-one. He also does a nice job of jumping between his several series and single passion projects. No matter what you’re reading of his, though, you can sense the author’s enthusiasm, intelligence, and general good humour. There are an awful lot of authors whose work I admire, but who I doubt very much I’d like as a person. I’d love to buy Bernard Cornwell whatever he’s drinking. It’s a standing invitation. One of my earliest tweets was regret that the man isn’t on Twitter yet.

I am the unusual Cornwell fan who didn’t discover him through the Sharpe series. My first Cornwell book was Stonehenge, and I doubt very much that we will see a better single work of historical fiction deal with that topic within our lifetime. At its core, it’s a family piece, and the stones rose and fell based on the power struggle between three brothers and the women they loved. What a perfect way to humanize something as ancient and incomprehensible as Stonehenge. I picked it up at Heathrow airport in the spring of 1999. I have rarely had as pleasant a read, despite the cramped airplane seat.

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My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: James Clavell

Hello everyone,

My e-book’s publication has been pushed back at least a day by a formatting error that I have now remedied. While I wait for Amazon to process the corrected version, I thought I would blog about my favourite authors of historical fiction. A writer is first and foremost a reader. Reading great books eventually inspires you to write one, and whenever I sit down at my computer I know I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

I’ll confess I was originally going to put them all in one long post, but after the first four I was at 3800 words, and I didn’t think anyone would hang in there with me for a 10,000+ word blog post. Instead, you’ll get them a piece at at time. The list is by no means exhaustive. I decided to whittle my pantheon of authors down by a few simple criteria. First, the writer needs to be known predominately for historical fiction, and I am going to narrow the definition of historical fiction to include only novels set before the author’s own lifetime. Second, I am only including authors who have at least three books that I consider some of the best that I have ever read.  There are dozens of authors I admire for one or two works, but to make this list I am including only those who consistently produced triumphs of the written word. Third, I am only including authors who are either still alive or who have died within my lifetime. I take nothing away from the amazing writers who passed away before I was born, but I need this list to be of manageable proportions; taking that razor to my selection drops away dozens of worthy novelists whose work doesn’t need further praise from me. Finally, all of these authors are people who I know at least something about as individuals, either from biographies, interviews, or articles. Their work inspires me, but I also admire something about them as people.

With those conditions in place, I still couldn’t bring my list down to an even ten. I’m sorry about that, but eleven is just as good as ten. Better, in fact, because it’s one more! Let’s get started…

#1 – James Clavell

Any list of historical fiction authors, for me, has to begin with James Clavell. When I was nine years old I read Shogun, and it changed my life as a reader. I make a point of reading it at least once a year, and I always learn something new about the craft of writing. I have gone through easily seven paperback copies of that novel: They fall apart from reading and re-reading. Clavell says he came up with the idea while helping his daughter with her homework. She was reading a textbook that included a single sentence about an Englishman who washed ashore in Japan at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate and eventually became a samurai. “Wait a minute, go back. What happened to him?” Clavell asked, but there was nothing else about the man in the book. After a great deal of research, Clavell wrote a book that changed the way the West thought about Japan. I know it’s not hard historical fiction –Clavell changed names and dates and heavily fictionalized the true events to add apocryphal content that was more exciting– but the book is the definition of an opus for me. It has a cast of hundreds, and all of them are knowable individuals with their own perspectives, desires, motivations. At the end of that book I knew about fifty phrases of polite phonetic Japanese. It has love and war, politics and intrigue, characters in constant conflict with who they are and what they could be. People I care about die, and some who I hate in the beginning are redeemed as heroes and heroines at the end. My only complaint with Shogun is it is too short, and when you think that as a paperback it clocks in at between twelve- and fourteen hundred pages, that’s saying something.

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Book Reviews: Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night and Slapstick

I’ll admit I’ve been intimidated at the thought of reviewing Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Literature with a capital L is something I enjoy without feeling like I have all the tools to really take it apart and see how it works. Even then, with most Literature, I can talk about what I appreciate. Kurt Vonnegut, though, is a breed apart. Kurt Vonnegut’s work takes the notion of the Great American Novel and makes it feel foolish about itself. You can have high art without pretense. In fact, quite often Vonnegut tweaks the nose of Establishment Literature by delivering more social commentary through satire, black humour, the study of absurdity, and what can only be called science fictional elements than Fitzgerald managed to do with a hundred garden parties.

I read Slaughterhouse Five in the Fifth Grade, and I remember very little about it except that it was good in an unexpected way. I didn’t pursue him any further, because I was getting into Tom Clancy, Ralph Peters and Larry Bond in a big way at the time. Forgive me: I was ten, and techno-thrillers were at the high water mark of their awesomeness. One day I will go back and re-read Slaughterhouse, I’m sure. In the meantime, a good friend of mine has taken to educating me about Vonnegut one book at a time. Put any fourteen Vonnegut fans in a room, and they’ll each have a favourite novel that I should have read first. That’s one of the powers of the man: His work is all engaging, but each is highly individualized and eccentric, engaging readers’ own idiosyncrasies in the course of the narrative.

Whatever I ‘should have read’ first (whatever that means), I was handed a copy of Mother Night to start, and when I was done that I was given Slapstick. I’ve wrestled with how to talk about my experience with them for some time now, but I think I’ve got that squared away. I can’t promise there won’t be spoilers, but I can promise nothing I will say should in any way take away from your enjoyment of what are, in all truth, fascinatingly unusual works of fiction.
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