Saturday, December 22, 2012

Writing About Amelia Earhart-Part III

After all these years, and all those books, mystery still surrounds the person of Amelia Earhart.  Who was this woman who dared so much so often?  What drove her to take such risks, to give up so much of herself to flying?  That the questions are still asked tells us something about her desire to keep a part of her life away from the public's view.  She wasn't so much shy as reserved.  As time went by she realized both the rewards and drawbacks of a very public life.  The rewards were obvious.  She was a top earner on the lecture circuit.  Her books sold well.  She met and befriended some of the most interesting personalities of the period, everyone from Will Rogers to Eleanor Roosevelt.  The drawbacks were less obvious, but burdensome.  The type of record setting flying she did was very expensive, and as she made longer and more difficult flights the costs ate up her speaking income quickly.  She was one of the most recognizable women in America, so there was no such thing as feeling alone in a crowd.  And the crowds!  She truly hated and feared the mobs of people who wanted to touch her, even snatch at a scarf or hat as she moved through them at the end of a flight.  But what she did was by its nature public; the animalistic mindlessness of the throngs who pressed around her was unavoidable. 

That reserve, born of an awareness she was always being watched by people she didn't know, but who knew her, has left its own questions.  In 1992, researching what became The Truth Of It: Amelia Earhart's Private Journal I was privileged to speak to a number of women who were active in aviation at the same time as Amelia.  Even after forty-five years some of them were still bitter that she had been privileged to accomplish what they hadn't.  They attributed her success to her upper middle class background and posh social connections.  A couple of them told me she was "known" to be promiscuous.  The facts just don't support any of that.  Her dad was a talented lawyer who couldn't make a living because of his alcoholism.  She was raised by grandparents in Atchison, Kansas, hardly a social Mecca. 

Probably the promiscuousness is an after-the-fact result of publication of her famous letter to George Putnam, given him on the morning of their wedding.  She had grave doubts about the viability of mixing married life with an aviation career, and announced she might need to establish a separate residence where she could sometimes go to be alone.  She also told him she wouldn't hold him to any "medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly."  She demanded the right to end the marriage in a year if she wasn't happy.  You have to realize Amelia was raised in what we nowadays call a "dysfunctional" family.  Her experience of marriage wasn't a joyful one.  The biggest objection to the "promiscuous" Amelia, however, is the fact that she was watched wherever she went, and knew it.  Numerous biographers have been unable to turn up any evidence of extramarital affairs in her life.  And they've looked.  Lacking evidence, I have to agree with them.  The Amelia you read about in history is probably the Amelia that was. 
This novel available at #AmazonKindle .

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writing About Amelia Earhart - Part II

How do you write about someone like Amelia Earhart?  She led a life like few have before or since.  She was at once a very public and a very private person.  This has given us a somewhat uneven picture of her.  We have minute by minute accounts of Amelia's record flights, but have only a general idea of the details of her domestic existence.  I took my lead from a statement by her husband, George Putnam.  In his autobiography, Wide Margins, he wrote:   "There is, perhaps, another story to be written, if one could catch the spirit of the Amelia Earhart that was, and in a book that should be a novel tell a grand true tale of a modern American pioneer who was a woman."

Putnam's statement suggested to me that Earhart's story was really too big to be presented as straight biography.  A faithful biography would have given facts precedence over the spirit of adventure that enlivened Amelia.  It also hinted how she saw herself.  First, a pioneer of the air, but also a woman living in what was still a man's world.  And challenging that world.  Only the fictional method could catch the grand purpose driven life that set all those records, and upset all those men.

The first person journal seemed obvious to me.  Amelia Earhart's story was inconceivable unless she told it in a voice that was believable.  Finding that voice was the trick.  Luckily, I'd always felt drawn to Amelia, to her independent, self-sufficient, but playful approach to life.  And she left a clear record of that approach in her own published books, 20 hrs. 40 min.:  Our Flight In The Friendship, and The Fun Of It. Reading them, and some of her private letters, gave me a feeling for how she expressed herself.  When I sat down to write it seemed to flow, an indication to the writer that he's found the right voice. 

Of course, there are hazards in the first person voice.  Some may find the voice differs from what they expect.  Others, after a few thousand words, may begin to tire of it.  The only solution for these problems is a story that provides excitement on every page, with unexpected twists and turns.  If you don't like my Amelia I apologize and wish you better luck on your next read.  I won't apologize for the excitement or the twists and turns.  They're hers.      

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing About Amelia Earhart - Part I

I'm glad to announce the publication of my new novel,  The Truth Of It: Amelia Earhart's Private Journal (Quiver Books, $4.99, 2012). This novel is available as an ebook at most of the major retailers on the Internet.  The first twenty percent of it is free as a sample download.

My fascination with Amelia began as a young boy when I read library books detailing her short but eventful life.  It seemed her worldview was similar to mine.  She believed in exploring the limits of technology in search of new ways to better the human condition.  She thought all of us, male and female, should contribute in any field they chose, limited only be their capabilities, not others prejudices. 

She had a spirit of daring and willingness to risk all that I must confess I lack.  However, she took the time and effort to train and prepare herself to insure success was not simply a matter of luck, but a probability.  Her planning was immaculate.  That she seemed to be willing to rush into her final flight without the necessary crew and equipment mystified me-and led to a lifelong interest in new books about her.

It was in one of these, Mary Lovell's 1989 biography The Sound of Wings, I read a sentence that gave me the idea for my story.  Amelia's young photographer, Al Bresnik, was quoted as saying "I can't remember her exact words, but she told me she thought there was a possibility she was pregnant and that when she came back (from the final flight) she was going to be 'just a woman.'"

Could that be the reason for her changed behavior in the last few months of her life?  In 2012 flying around the world while three or four months pregnant wouldn't be a big deal.  In 1937 the idea would be shocking to a society that thought pregnancy required a withdrawal from active life.  She knew having a child would bring demands that she end her life of record setting flying; not just from the public, but from her family as well.  Did she want one last adventure, one final achievement for the history books?  If she did want that final aviation first, her story would be something like what I've written.

Of course, this novel is about the last ten years of her life, not just the tragedy that ended it.  But if you want to know more about Amelia's final chapter, download the first chapter of my book free at any of the big online book stores.  And check back here for more on her fascinating story in later blog posts.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Darwin's Ghosts

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott ( Spiegel & Grau, 2012) is an appealingly written history of Charles Darwin's intellectual predecessors.  The secret of its appeal lies in Stott's cv.  She's a professor of literature and creative writing with two novels and a previous non-fiction work about Darwin to her credit.  Only a novelist could make you want to walk the 4th century BC beaches of Lesbos with Aristotle and his students; or make the scientific issues of 1790's Paris seem to rival in drama the political ones.  And only someone with a life-long fascination with Darwin and his times could piece out the important intellectual developments from the cluttered mosaic of mid-nineteenth century publishing.  If Stott has a fault it is in not insisting her readers note the driving curiosity of those on both sides of the evolution divide (or to use the early 1800's terms "species transformation" or "descent with modification" controversy).  These were people who deeply cared about and respected data.  Interpretation of that data is what they disagreed over.
Respecting facts as they did, the French and English naturalists of the period (most of whom were also clergy) were in accord with what was needed to decide the issue of whether species arose whole and then became extinct when God willed their demise, or whether they changed over time as their environment changed.  They needed a provable mechanism that would cause change--a reason.  Otherwise divine whim would seem as good an explanation for the fossil record as any other.
By the time Charles Darwin tallied up the numbers, the curiosity of over thirty men had contributed to the process of the scientific discovery of evolution.  And, this book shows clearly, it was a process as much as evolution itself was a process.  Beginning with the fascination of of Aristotle and al-jahiz with the seemingly infinite panorama of nature that caused them to ask what animals surrounded them, the inquiry took the form of when had all these species come to life, where they originated, and finally, why so many of them had ceased to exist.   
Both Aristotle and the great Arab scholar al-jahiz were interested in cataloguing the rich living world around them.  The Greek didn't believe in a creator god, and the Arab had no doubt but that Allah brought the world into existence.  It was enough for both of them to organize the dazzling universe they saw into an understandable functioning system.  Even the great Leonardo da Vinci didn't concern himself with the question of species evolution, he was more interested in the fact that sea beds had over eons sometimes risen to become mountain peaks.  It wasn't until Benoit de Maillet, at the start of the eighteenth century that anyone set forward the idea of species mutation over long periods of time.  Denis Diderot in the mid 1700's, and a remarkable group of naturalists working during the upheaval surrounding the French Revolution, Lamarck, Cuvier, and Saint-Hilaire, brought evolutionary science to the very brink of acceptability.
As the European continent descended into war, A series of Englishmen, including Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, brought into focus the essential question:  So, if God doesn't cause species change, what does?  Like their French colleagues they had to tread carefully.  Both the Catholic and Protestant churches thought divine causation was essential to their dogma.  And both sects were willing to destroy the career and livelihood of anyone that threatened that dogma. 
Darwin, who had eleven children to raise, worked out a proof of species evolution by natural selection some twenty years before he published it.  His fear of the Church made him wait.  It wasn't till Alfred Russel Wallace put the pieces together in a flash of inspiration experienced while suffering from a high fever, and sent Darwin a letter asking him to comment, that Darwin rushed to publication.  That rush caused him to omit the introduction in which he had planned to credit the work of his predecessors.  That omission caused him to suffer not only the accusation of heresy, but that of plagiarising the work of others.  It wasn't till the third and fourth editions of his Origins that he put these "ghosts" to rest with a proper acknowledgement of their efforts.  Stott's book is engrossing, not only for its scientific story, but also for its lively description of the men who brought us the theory of species evolution, and the colorful times they worked in.
Note:  I downloaded this book from my local library's ebook catalogue provided by Overdrive, Inc.  If, by any chance, you want to purchase Darwin's Ghosts, be aware that the electronic edition has a number of formatting flaws, chief of which is poorly marked or lacking links between footnotes and chapter notes and the text.  Because of this, the print edition would be a better choice if you want to own a copy.           

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Great Lover

 The Great Lover by Jill Dawson (Harper Collins e-books, 2010)
is the first of the ebooks I'll review in 2012.  Dawson's novel grew out of a life long fascination with biography.  That, and the fact that, as she admits, "I think I've always been a sucker for a sexy brilliant, impossible man."  The poet Rupert Brooke, who died early in WWI, is just that.  He's also insecure in his identity as a man, a writer, and a lover.  Living at the end of the Victorian era, and just before the expensive carnage of WWI changed the entire social and economic structure of the world, Brooke inhabited an unusual transitional period.  Members of the upper classes could indulge themselves in the leisure and cultural pursuits that were only a dream to the millions who physically labored to maintain them.  Those millions are represented in the book in the character of Nell Golightly, a poor bee keeper's daughter who is a maid in the house where Rupert has rooms.  She brings him his food, cleans his dirty linen, and despite her best intentions, becomes infatuated with him.  In many ways Nell's story is the strongest one of the book;  one certainly has more sympathy for her character than Brooke's.  While he fusses over an editor changing the title of a poem from "Lust" to "Libido," Nell berates herself for not being able to prevent her fifteen year old sister from becoming pregnant, and enduring a dangerous labor and delivery.  There couldn't be a stronger comparison made between the working class and the idle upper class of the Edwardian period.  Dawson is to be congratulated for showing the differences in a tale of love rather than class struggle.

I wholly approve of the approach Jill Dawson has to writing biographical fiction. "I think of it as applying fiction to facts like a poultice, to draw something out..." she writes, "My novels based on true stories probably evolved because of the decade of psychoanalysis, I underwent in my twenties, and my beginnings as a poet.  I wanted psychological truths, not representational social realism."  She does well with this approach, chronicling Rupert's 'she loves me...she loves me not' ditherings and Nell's straightforward assessment of her reality.  What others call "...drudgery is freedom to me," Nell concludes about her work.  ""My little room--the first bedroom I've not shared with five others;  the kindly way Mrs. Stevenson lets us eat the broken scones for breakfast, warm and crumbling with butter; the new-pin order of the kitchen...How could I give this up and go back to a life like Lily"s, never to see a soul all day besides Mrs. Gotobed and wailing little ones?"  My novel The Truth Of It:  Amelia Earhart's Private Journal, to be published in the next couple of months, employs the same philosophical approach to fictionalized biography--getting to the truth underneath the facts. 

Stylisticly, Dawson's writing also reflects the search for psychological truths.  Nell is direct where Rupert is dreamy.  Both are detailed in what matters to them, the natural world and the description of the loved ones body.  Of Rupert, Nell writes, "It is only when he has left that I notice how vividly I remember his smell, the smell of him and how I have missed it.  It's a clean green river smell, the smell of warm flannel and Wrights Coal Tar Soap, and the smell of my childhood, my brothers playing in the river, or stripping bark to make a pipe:  something fresh mixing with something older, something male and a little sour, too."  Rupert describes Nell's "water-drenched body slim and green in the watery light like the shoot of a young tree, giving off her salty intimate river smell..."  Even though I don't know what Wrights Coal Tar Soap smells like, and can't quite imagine a salty intimate river smell, The Great Lover makes me wish to smell these things.  Isn't that the sign of good writing?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Child 44

This new entry in the suspense/thriller genre has an entertaining twist that separates it from the run-of-the-mill hunt for a serial killer story. Child 44 (Grand Central Publishing, 2008) takes place in the Stalinist Russia of the 1950's, where it's hard to tell the difference between the murderer and his state paid pursuers.

The author, Tom Rob Smith, has produced an engaging page-turner. But in today's publishing climate good writing doesn't guarantee publication. Smith's solution to the publishing industry's obsession with tried-and-true formulas, and its paradoxical insistence on exploring new territory at the same time, is to put his protagonist, MGB officer Leo Demidov, in an environment that is every bit as murderous as the killer is.

Leo's employer, the predecessor of the KGB, insists that communism has removed the social cancer that serial killers are a symptom of, i.e., serial murder doesn't exist in the Soviet Union. To suggest otherwise, by proving that a murder is one of many committed by the same killer for instance, is subversive in itself. Consequently, much of the suspense of the novel is generated by Demidov's attempt to investigate the killings without appearing to do so. Along the way we encounter some coincidences that would make Dickens blush. The strength of Smith's writing is such, however, that we don't really care.

I must confess I've long been a fan of the suspense thrillers featuring Nazi's, such as those written by Jack Higgins. German fascism contained enough unadulterated evil that one didn't have to spend any energy judging it; it was easy to concentrate on the plot and characterization. These novels were my way of escaping the pressures of real life.

As the destruction of Nazism faded in memory, though, the genre became dated. Attempts to replicate the same dynamics with Communist villains somehow fell flat (with the notable exception of John Le Carree). Tom Rob Smith has solved the problem, however, with his description of another totalitarian system whose evil logic requires it to consume its own in order to stay consistent. Smith can expect to receive the highest honor literary types can bestow: his solution will be copied.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Tokyo Year Zero

David Peace's detective novel set in a defeated Japan in 1945, Tokyo Year Zero (Alfred A. Knopf, 355 pages, 2007), first came to my attention, appropriately enough, through the radio. I heard a NPR reviewer talk about the emotional impact of the author's use of Japanese language words that sound like the action they describe. For instance, gari-gari represented the sound of scratching. Ton-ton is the tap of a hammer.

In a nation that lacked dependable clean water and soap, and had been leveled by American incendiary bombing, there was lots of scratching and hammering. Peace is able to create a virtual background soundtrack for his book by the continuous use of these onomatopoeic words. He also, by monotonous repetition, gives the reader a sense of the desperate drudgery of life at the subsistence level.

"I itch from black-headed lice. I scratch. Gari-gari. I get up from the low table. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I go over to the kitchen sink. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I comb my hair. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. The lice fall out in clumps. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I crush them against the sink. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. The skin lice are harder. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. They are white and so more difficult to hunt. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. I turn on the tap. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari. The water starts. The water stops. The water starts again--

I itch, I sctratch. Gari-gari. I itch. I scratch. Gari-gari..."

Few writers would be able to find the delicate point of balance between perfect depiction and tedium. Peace, luckily, is able to bring it off, and in the process creates a vivid backdrop for his compelling story of a detective's hunt for a serial killer. Tokyo Year Zero is more than just that, though. As the main narrator, the bitter and angry Detective Minami, continually suggests, no one is who they say they are and nothing is what it seems. There is a growing certainty that the killings are linked to other crimes, perhaps crimes involving the police themselves. The author selectively lets us listen to Minami's thoughts, which are almost as repetitive and monotonous as the sounds of scratching and hammering in the background. They are also mean and ungracious, unlike the polite Japanese ritual that Minami curses even as he graciously performs it.

Peace has given us a novel that works on three levels. It provides the narrative readers expect from fiction, complete with characterization and plot; it creates a virtual audio accompaniment for the book; and it gives us a glimpse of the inner mental workings of the key character. The result is important, because it provides entertainment which ought, given an intelligent and imaginative reader, to compete with video. The unintelligent and unimaginative will continue to prefer the passive video experience, and being the vast majority of the population the film industry needn't fear losing much of its audience. But for those of us who prefer to use the screen in our own minds, books like Tokyo Year Zero may be the novels of the future.

Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra's novel, Sacred Games (Harper Collins, 916
 pages) is a big, sprawling, wonderful read. This is a book one curls up with for evening after evening. It's easy to enter the lives of its characters and become fascinated with their activities. Chandra's characterization reminds me of Dickens: his characters swell with a perfectly believable eccentricity. The description of Mumbai is so well done you almost smell the place. You certainly see it in all its garish color.

It's a sad commentary on our video obsessed times that many reviews complain of the length of the book. One would think critics would approve of a modern author proving once again that the more subtle aspects of life can only be delivered by the long fiction form. In fact, most of the reviews I read seemed to miss the point. They complained that the "inserts" Chandra uses to tie the characters and their lives together in an unbroken whole are unnecessary and don't contribute to the story. In fact they inserts make the novel work. Without them we wouldn't understand one of Chandra's main themes: the interconnectedness of all life. Maybe Harper Collins and Chandra were trying to give us a hint by the design of the American cover: a vine on which objects that play key roles in the story hang like fruit. I found the American edition more attractive than the lurid Indian cover, which features realistic drawings of the main characters.

As other reviewers have noted (Paul Gray in the New York Times, January 7, 2007) Sacred Games combines several standard formulas of popular literature to provide a framework for his story. This makes the non-Indian reader comfortable in dealing with the unfamiliar aspects of Mumbai and Indian culture. Sartaj Singh may be a Sikh with a full beard and turban, but he's the familiar detective from thousands of cop stories: single, lonely, trying to maintain his dignity in a corrupt society. Ganesh Gaitonde is believable as a Hindu gangster because we've encountered his type in all the Mafia stories we've read. Gaitonde carries on a telephonic relationship with Jojo Mascarenas, who comes from a background many westerners would find incomprehensible, but practices as a high class procurer who we've all encountered before in popular fiction.

As believable as I found the formulaic characters presented by Chandra, I occasionally squirmed a little when they moved outside the limits imposed by the genres they are drawn from. Gaitonde, as a gangster, is quite acceptably investing his money in the film industry. After all, the complexity of the business makes it a favorite laundry for dirty money. When he takes an active part in writing the scripts, becomes emotionally involved with the characters, and fancies himself a critic, he verges on the unbelievable. I can also see a gangster who is superstitious, even religious in a sense, but Ganesh's involvement with his Guru is a little too spiritual for me to swallow. This is, after all, the same guy who unblinkingly guns down anybody who stands in his way.

All-in-all though, Chandra has taken the best parts of our comfortably worn modern literary conventions and melded them together into a wonderfully readable novel. Prove the critics wrong--read it.