On Joe Buck, the Midnight Cowboy.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been chipping away at “Midnight Cowboy” by James Leo Herlihy. This is the novel that the famous movie was based on, and although I cannot help but picture a young, cocky, blonde Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the Buck from the book beats the movie Joe handily – to a fictiony pulp, in fact.

This is not to say I don’t like the movie. I love the movie. The movie is beautiful to me. But although it was the novel that led to the film adaptation, in a weird inverted loop-around, it was the film that got me interested in the novel.

On the silver screen, Joe Buck is kind of surface-sincere-sweet and demonstratively himself, but in the novel, once you’ve read two dense pages of Joe’s internal deliberations on whether or not he’s being noticed in the Universe (or if he’s even worth noticing), the book version of Joe seems novel indeed, and the onscreen version seems as flat and fleeting as a film frame.

In his novel, Herlihy gives Joe Buck a depth of feeling and an existential sincerity that completely enobles him. Joe searches his blurry memories and his daily street life for answers to the question of who he is. The Cowboy is Joe’s conscously-adopted swaggering persona – the outward-facing role – that he, a lost and wayward son, has adopted in response to a hard, uncaring, and confusing world. Midnight is the dark confusion in which he sits, asking himself and the Universe his deepest, most difficult questions.

He’s lost so much in his young life: his innocence, his family, his security and identity, and his place in the world. The novel is about Joe’s world, his estrangement from it, his attempts to reconnect to it, and how he claws his way back into the light of hope by ditching the Cowboy in him. Texas and New York city are the gauntlets that Joe must run in order to pass through his trials.

Finding Rizzo gives Joe an unlikely ally, but even more, it gives Joe someone to take care of. As a wannabe hustler, Joe only really ever held alegiance to money and to the sexual power he could exercise to get it. However, throughout all his nasty adventures in dark movie theatres, hotel rooms, or up on rooftops, Joe always felt sympathy for those others who were suffering. He had compassion within him, perhaps waiting to be drawn out from under the embroidered shirt and suede jacket. So, the cowboy finally ended up trusting Rizzo, and became a friend and confidante to him. Joe Buck became a caregiver to somebody smaller and weaker than himself. He evolvd from a man-child to a parental figure, in his own way.

Herlihy uses plain language and essential phrases to weave together an elaborate world of internal confusion, torment, and compassion. Through Joe Buck, he questions the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the nature of family and friendship. In the movie version, Joe is a bit of a shallow but well-intentioned hayseed, and it is Voight’s personality that illustrates the sweet soul of Joe Buck onscreen. In the novel, we dive head-long into the emotional quagmire and philosophical dillemmas of a sensitive, yet illiterate young man who’s desperate to ask the big questions about his life without really having the tools to articulate them.

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On Creativity: Carnivalé and the Hero’s Journey

The HBO series Carnivale has been inspiring me.

We recently picked up Carnivalé on DVD, and are enjoying season one. This series was broadcast on HBO in 2004 and only lasted two seasons before being cancelled, but not before attracting attention and kudos for its haunting stories, great cast, and movie-quality production values.

Carnivalé presents us with two unlikely protagonists: an abandoned farm boy who has recently lost his mother and his home, and a tortured preacher who struggles to save the down-trodden “Oakies”, outcasts from society in the midst of the American dustbowl-era depression.

Ben, the farm boy, is beset with dreams and visions of his late father. Ben possesses a healing ability, which his devoutly religious mother condemned him for moments before she died.

Brother Justin, the Preacher, also possess a power – the power to make others see visions. He uses this power to convince the weak and the evil to follow his path of righteousness, specifically to help the downtrodden and especially, poor abandoned and orphaned children.

Each of these men lives in a different world from the other: Ben with the “Carnivalé” circus, and Brother Justin in a small, conservative town that would never accept him as their pastor if they knew of his special abilities.

Ben undergoes what I see as the classic Hero’s Journey, or trial, where he becomes trapped and lost in an abandoned mine, and sees visions involving his late father and a man from the Canivalé, whom he knows as Ludz.

In the Hero’s Journey (a la Joseph Campbell), the hero becomes trapped in a maze or some kind of labyrinth, but eventually escapes after having a vision or dream.

This maze experience is a test. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker went to Dagobah to learn from Master Yoda, and one of his tasks was to enter an underground cave, where he confronted Darth Vader in a dreamlike battle. We knew it wasn’t the real Darth Vader – it was a test visited upon Luke by his Master, to help him see his own soul and potential future.

 

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On Research: Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey

I’ve only ever read snippets of Joseph Campbell’s books on heroes and heroic tales and myths, so I never expected to find influences in his works. Yet, the influence is there. Many other writers and film-makers *have* studied Campbell (not the least of them being George Lucas). So, in being a fan of modern epics like “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings”, it follows that I must have subconsciously absorbed and recycled some similar ideas and themes when writing my own little book, “Owe Nothing“.


Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Hero With A Thousand Faces)

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation–initiation–return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. Stages of the hero’s journey:

1. Birth: Fabulous circumstances surrounding conception, birth, and childhood establish the hero’s pedigree, and often constitute their own monomyth cycle.

2. Call to Adventure: The hero is called to adventure by some external event or messenger. The Hero may accept the call willingly or reluctantly.

3. Helpers/Amulet: During the early stages of the journey, the hero will often receive aid from a protective figure. This supernatural helper can take a wide variety of forms, such as a wizard, and old man, a dwarf, a crone, or a fairy godmother. The helper commonly gives the hero a protective amulet or weapon for the journey.

4. Crossing the Threshold: Upon reaching the threshold of adventure, the hero must undergo some sort of ordeal in order to pass from the everyday world into the world of adventure. This trial may be as painless as entering a dark cave or as violent as being swallowed up by a whale. The important feature is the contrast between the familiar world of light and the dark, unknown world of adventure.

5. Tests: The hero travels through the dream-like world of adventure where he must undergo a series of tests. These trials are often violent encounters with monsters, sorcerers, warriors, or forces of nature. Each successful test further proves the hero’s ability and advances the journey toward its climax.

6. Helpers: The hero is often accompanied on the journey by a helper who assists in the series of tests and generally serves as a loyal companion. Alternately, the hero may encounter a supernatural helper in the world of adventure who fulfills this function.

7. Climax/The Final Battle: This is the critical moment in the hero’s journey in which there is often a final battle with a monster, wizard, or warrior which facilitates the particular resolution of the adventure.

8. Flight: After accomplishing the mission, the hero must return to the threshold of adventure and prepare for a return to the everyday world. If the hero has angered the opposing forces by stealing the elixir or killing a powerful monster, the return may take the form of a hasty flight. If the hero has been given the elixir freely, the flight may be a benign stage of the journey.

9. Return: The hero again crosses the threshold of adventure and returns to the everyday world of daylight. The return usually takes the form of an awakening, rebirth, resurrection, or a simple emergence from a cave or forest. Sometimes the hero is pulled out of the adventure world by a force from the daylight world.

10. Elixir: The object, knowledge, or blessing that the hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often it has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the hero’s role in the society.

11. Home: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

 

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On Writing: Motivating Characters (and their Author)

What is it that will drive a character to take an action?

By this, I mean to ask “What, in the character’s mind/worldview is the rationale that will cause them to do one thing instead of another? For the Author, this includes considering the underlying goal of driving the story in a believable way, consistent with the character’s behaviour as the reader understands it at that point in the story. An Author pulls a lot of strings and balances a lot of balls in order to get these goals to mesh.

For me, this requires either research into the elements that form a character: lifestyle, health issues, career or technical skills, values and religion, speech/vernacular and attitudes.

It sounds like a lot when I lay it all down at once here, but realistically, I only have to focus on one of those categories/areas at a time. In many cases, I can use my own experience to answer questions and narrow down the scope of research. Subjective elements (a character’s personal opinion, for example) is much easier to write – it requires little qualification via research.

Basically, whether I can immerse the reader in my character’s world by virtue of objective-seeming realism, or by using compelling and rich subjective “opinion” based on my own experience, it all boils down to creating an experience that the reader accepts and in which they want to immerse themself.

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On Research and Digging Deep: Setting the Tone for Believability

The raw material of a story or any creative work probably comes from at least two kinds of sources: the Subjective, and the Objective. Somewhere between these two seemingly opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either approach, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

(This is a brief followup on the theme of researching for my next novel, “The Two Sisters”.)

I’ve probably stated this before in previous posts, but factual research is a big deal to me. I don’t claim to be the most tenacious digger of facts, but if, as a Reader, I can’t relate to some level of realism in a story or its characters, the author will easily lose me.

The raw material of a story or any creative work comes from two categories of sources: the Subjective and the Objective. Subjective material includes events, memories and things of with which you have a direct personal involvement and/or memory. They can also be fuzzy, under-defined, elusive or prone to contradiction – after all, they are your memories – and from my experience, human memory is fragile and subject to change without notice. But, still, it’s yours and you own it, and it’s there to be utilized.

Objective material means, to me, information that has been documented, and hopefully verified, by third parties, associations, papers or contains some testament as to its proof, like scientific research.

Somewhere between these two opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either side, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

For example, I remember an article by James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, who advised writers that when creating a thriller novel the author must include enough realism to provide a solid base upon which the more fantastic elements of the story can stand. In other words, Fleming said that if you can initially establish believability and credibility in the known and possible elements of your story (the recognizable places, personalities and objects), the reader would be more likely to accept and engage in any unknown or seemingly impossible elements.

This kind of social realism is a core approach that I took in my first novel, Owe Nothing, where I tried to create a detailed, recognizable, and somewhat gritty  portrait of my home town of Vancouver, BC. I tried to kind of iconify settings such as rusted, rotting motels, junk-strewn alleys and fast food drive-thrus. I’ve read some novels which, in my opinion, have almost no scenic descriptions at all; everything is described in between a character’s ears, but almost nowhere else (“The Boys From Brazil”, I’m looking at you).

By contrast, thriller/detective authors like Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler, have a way of bringing places to life and almost transforming them into characters in their own right. In “The Lady in the Lake”, Chandler makes you taste the dust inside the deserted lakeside cabins in a little town. In “Live and Let Die”, Fleming evokes the neon sights, blues and jazz music, speech patterns and emotions of Harlem in the mid-50s (at least from the perspective of a middle-aged Englishman). Rich settings like this help to involve the reader in the world to a greater degree, and to legitimize and contextualize the characters.

Subjective work can be more elusive and difficult to feel confident about. I have a major character in “The Two Sisters”, Rose, who in her teen years suffered a horrific personal assault – the kind that I’ve never experienced personally. To create this event for Rose, I had to dig down into a few scared, sad moments from my own youth (as well as read testimonies from other sources) and synthesize the character’s physical and emotional responses, layering them with the in-the-moment sights and sounds that add a level of irony, symbolism and drama, all while relating to larger plot line and themes of the story.

Often, the subjective and objective aspects are intermingled. In her later years, Rose becomes a long-term resident of a psychiatric hospital. I began to describe her appearance and behaviour quite easily, since I based her on my late mother, who was a 14 year resident of BC’s provincial mental health facility, Riverview Hospital.

However, describing the specific medication or intimate details of the day-to-day life of a Riverview resident are much more difficult, and require research to be accurate. Few people will ever try to refute your subjective personal experiences or opinions, but things that are objective, verifiable matters of record are certainly more vulnerable to scrutiny.

It’s the Author’s job to set the terms for believability and plausibility inside the worlds and the characters they create. I haven’t become skilled enough to let my characters push the bounds of believability within their own worlds (i.e. to bust through that invisible wall to the audience, as it were), and use the voice of an incredulous reader (“that doesn’t seem real to me”, etc.) but perhaps one day…

At the end of the day, no work can be perfect. I think that most readers are willing to forgive minor inconsistencies or errors, so long as they believe that the author has made their best effort to get the facts straight and to present an entertaining and believable story.

Related: http://ejohnlovebooks.com/2010/08/research-photos-from-riverview/

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Owe Nothing: Taking Writing and Marketing to the Next Level…

Ah, Spring. A time for growth, renewal, and positive change. And spring cleaning.

My personal web presence at www.ejohnlove.com has been in play since 1998, and over the years, it has been the home of all of my online personal shrines and pet projects, not the least of these is “True Life”, my personal family memoirs project.

Creating Characters, and a world…

In 2002, during a particularly bleak period of unemployment, I reacted to my frustration and lack of control with a familiar and comfortable escape into fiction. However, instead of reading spy novels, comics or graphic novels, I began my first attempts at writing fiction. Scribbling in my notebook on the edge of my bed during the late nights and early morning hours, I created a cast of characters and a world through which I could tell stories that spoke about the events and values of my personal life.

I created a mythical family and friends – composites based upon real people. Jack Owen and his family, friends, his motel home, and his fictionalized Vancouver-Kingsway neighbourhood all resulted from this. After seven years, countless Starbucks runs, and seemingly endless paragraph-by-paragraph writing and editing sessions, my first novel, Owe Nothing, finally came into being in April 2009.

September through October of 2002 turned out to be an incredibly productive time for me. Not only then did I begin writing the first scenes of Owe Nothing, but I also developed basic outlines for many of the characters who appear in the novel, and a few who don’t.  This burst of activity, seemingly automatic in nature, spurred further ideas for related stories, all of which could occur at different times within the same world as Owe Nothing. I was sketching out a new world inside my dog-eared, spiral-bound notebook.

My second novel, The Two Sisters (currently in progress towards a first draft), was originally sketched out as a short story outline in 2002. Not long after Owe Nothing launched online with Trafford in April 2009, I revisited my notes for Two Sisters and started trying to flesh out the story. It was around this time that I realized that I might actually have a second novel in me, and maybe even a third one after that. I realized that this fiction writing thing was starting to become a major preoccupation, and that perhaps I should consider developing it into more of an occupation.

Taking my book marketing to a new level…

In the first year since the publication of Owe Nothing, I’ve confined my marketing and sales efforts to anything I can accomplish online, particularly in some sort of semi-automatic manner. From this came a Facebook page, AdWords ads, one hundred Twitter tweets, and promoting and linking my old fiction page (http://fiction.ejohnlove.com) in directories, blogs and message boards all over the web. I tried a number of tactics. While these may have helped somewhat to get me web visitors, none of them seemed to result in any actual sales (if Trafford’s records are to be believed, anyway). I began to feel as if I were flailing around ineffectually, so I decided to find myself some good advice.

Nowadays, I’m taking counsel from a book marketing pro, and thinking more about the future of Jack Owen, the character, and of E. John Love, his official biographer. It has become the right time to move Jack and the “Owe Nothing Universe” off of my personal hobby site, and to develop a separate new web presence – one that gives Owe Nothing and any related stories the focuses they need and deserve.

It’s time…

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Owe Nothing: a different look at life in Vancouver…

Recently, people from all over the world have been watching Vancouver, BC perform at its best, and there certainly is a lot to be proud of.

This city has many sides to it, and truly, no two people experience this town in the same way.

Owe Nothing is a non-mainstream look at this city: an adventure novel based upon real people and places that I knew when my family lived in dodgy Vancouver Motels for over a year. The names of the people in Owe Nothing are fictionalized, but the events and feelings are based in reality…

Meet a few of the characters…

Jack Owen:

A young guy looking for adventure, and an escape from his lower-class rut. By accepting a bizarre job offer, he soon discovers that the back alleys and rooftops of East Vancouver hold more mysteries than he may be able to hide from his Dad or his Sister.

Parminder Singh:

Jack’s buddy from work, and his companion through some bizarre surveillance tasks that they’ve been recruited to do for a man they’ve never even met. Parm’s not sure if this is on the up and up, but he’ll do it for the money.

Mike and Chris Coffey:

Brothers, and friends of Jack from the neighbourhood. They’ve got to find a way to get rid of their violent alcoholic step-father Ted, without their mother Regina finding out. Maybe Jack can help them…?

The Reviews are Good:

Readers have given me some very positive feedback:

“Awesome”, “Engaging, endearing… with a deft humorous touch”, “a great read!”, “A real coming-of-age story”, “Vancouver is a city without much appreciation for its history… you’ve rendered a great service with such a vivid picture of that time and place”

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Process: Casting a play with composite characters…

My first novel, Owe Nothing, was finally published on April 17, 2009. This is, of course, the achievement of a personal goal that took me years to accomplish (I write slowly). It’s also an accomplishment in how it has allowed me to continue writing about my family history, using surrogate characters instead of directly writing about the real people.

Owe Nothing takes scraps and bits of my own personality and embeds them into the main character, a twenty-ish young man named Jack Owen, and to a lesser degree, his father Jim. Jim embodies little pieces of my Dad (also Jim) and of my brother David. Aspects of my sister Kim live on in the characters of Jack’s older sister Kelly, and in Regina Coffey, whose struggles with her abusive partner Ted form a central theme in the book. Old men look back with regret on the mistakes and losses from their past, women struggle in abusive relationships, and young people try to learn about who they are and where they are going in their lives.

The list goes on and on and on through the dozen or more characters that appear throughout the novel. Structurally, it represents the method and challenge that I put to myself when originally embarking on this long writing project: How can I use the memories, emotional energy, joy, anguish, smells, temperatures and opinions from my scattered memories, and form them into a cohesive and compelling story.

Almost like a form of psychological recycling; taking images and impressions from my past, reforming and refocusing them, and spinning them out there in a new form. My hope is that it will result in a story that others will recognize and enjoy – something that resonates outside of its pages.

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Is Fiction a “Do Over” of Real Life?

Since 2002, I’ve been writing fiction (well, trying to write fiction), and over the past six and a half years, I’ve cobbled together a fairly extensive cast of fictional characters, all inhabiting a world that has numerous similarities to my own – but better.

Surprise, surprise.

In my first book, titled Owe Nothing, my main protagonist (there are a few of ’em) is named Jack Owen. Jack is a slang or familiar form of John, or so I have been told throughout my life. (Given that I was apparently named for my grandmother’s brother, John Edward, who was my Uncle “Jack”, I take it as gospel.) So, Jack is a twenty-ish version of me. Kind of. Or, the me I almost with I could have been when we briefly lived in motels.

Jack’s Dad is named Jim, after my Dad. He’s about 55-ish, and his main issue is that generally, he questions how he got to this stage in his life with apparently so little to show for it, and with such a weak and tenuous relationship with his son (so he thinks). I’m 43 – not so far behind Jim’s age that I couldn’t imagine his predicament. Both my Jim and his son Jack are in a kind of life path rut, but while Jack is near the beginning of his journey, his Dad is closer to the other end.

Jack has an older sister named Kelly. I drew a lot of inspiration for Kelly from my sister Kim: her love of animals, her tenacity, and her ability to defend others to her own deteriment. A seconmd character also represents qualities of my sister: Regina Coffey, who suffers through an abusive relationship, and struggles to assert herself while raising her two sons with very little income. Regina is a survivor, but not a prosperer in life.

The world of “Owe Nothing” is a 2001-2002 version of East Vancouver, with a few curious throwbacks or hold-overs from the ’70s left intact. The main incongruity is that the two large, neighbouring motels in which much of the story takes place exist at all. The Mountain View Motel (where Jack’s family lives) and the Peacock Court Motel (where Regina Coffey and her sons live) were real places, both bulldozed sometime in the mid-1980s, I believe. The motel culture of Kingsway in East Vancouver was dying even when I lived in it briefly, as a kid in the mid-1970s. It was grimy and harsh in places, but also lively and friendly – like a motor-hotel version of a low rent, big city tenement project.

More to come…

Join my Owe Nothing page on FaceBook:
http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?v=info&edit_info=all#/pages/Owe-Nothing-a-novel-by-E-John-Love/81433960464?ref=ts


A Few Related Links:
http://ejohnlove.blogspot.com/2008/10/about-plucking-old-strings.html
http://ejohnlove.blogspot.com/2008/06/how-to-become-writer-part-2.html
http://ejohnlove.blogspot.com/2008/03/how-to-become-writer-by-john.html

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