Why and How I Wrote Beginning

Cover - FinalHello again everyone,

Shortly after publishing Inca I wrote a blog post explaining what led me to write about that empire and its people. A year later when I published Zulu I blogged about what drew me to the story of that kingdom and its people. I suppose now that Beginning is in the process of going live across the various regional Amazon websites, the time has come to talk about why I wrote this book.

Unlike Inca and Zulu, where my interest was first sparked by looking for more information about a civilization I did not know much about, Beginning began with me being self-conscious about my work. I suspect most writers after they have written a couple of books start worrying their stuff is all of a type, and maybe not the type they would have chosen if they had to do it over again. I have written two lengthy novels about cultures that are relatively little-known to my friends and family. If I wanted to write something much shorter with a broader appeal, what would that look like?

Inca and Zulu, much as I love them, ask for a lot of a reader’s time and attention. You cannot do a deep dive into the history and culture of people who most people are unfamiliar with while worrying about word count. They are by necessity long and dense. If I was free to write something where I knew my readers would understand everything from page one, what would I write about?

I have come up with half a dozen answers to that question so far, and most of them exist as a hundred pages or so of abandoned first draft material. One of the primary hurdles about completing a novel –long or short—is that you have to be excited about the subject matter and the plot and the characters for months and probably years of research and writing before you have a finished first draft to start editing and polishing. There were a lot of false starts as I searched for something I was sure I would finish. For maybe two years I despaired of finishing a third novel for want of an idea I knew would hold my interest.

I firmly believe writers need to read widely and deeply to develop their own craft. One of the most flattering things I have seen in the reviews for Inca is when someone says they can see some of Gary Jennings’ Aztec in my own work. Zulu was very much inspired by the early few decades of Wilbur Smith’s work. So who should I take as my muse for my third novel? Who writes the shorter novels that I adore?

I cast about through a few options, but again and again I kept coming back to Kurt Vonnegut.

Let me say categorically that Beginning is not a Kurt Vonnegut-esque novel, much to my regret. I lack his brevity and his wit. I am just telling the story of how I got started, and I started with Vonnegut.

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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.
Continue reading “Book Reviews: Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night and Slapstick”