On Reading: Raymond Chandler, a Biography

It seems like the last few times I’ve read certain authors, their names have become prefixed with “Uncle” in my mind. Is that weird? Well, maybe. It’s human though.

I guess I want to identify with, or feel connected to good storytellers.

When I read Einstein’s book on Relativity, his voice was so distinctively heard in my head, that it felt as if I were sitting on Uncle’s lap, with his voice speaking in my ear. It may have started there, I’m not sure.

Next were the memoirs of Groucho Marx, whose anecdotes, observations and humour seemed warmly self-deprecating. It wasn’t long before he became my “Uncle Groucho”. Likewise with his brother Harpo, whose long, detailed autobiography seemed to put me right into his early life in New York, and later, into the middle of his loving, idiosyncratic years as a devoted family man in California.

I think it’s the first-person narrative of an autobiography that makes it work so well. The “you” is replaced with an “I”, which we all have inside us, and which resonates one-to-one with similar “I”s.

That’s why pulp fiction author Raymond Chandler got under my skin more than, say, Ian Fleming. Like an autobiography, Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels are written in the first-person, so they each sound like Marlowe’s autobiography (although really, they are Chandler’s).

Raymond Chandler was highly intelligent, a keen observer of people and human nature, and also a major, chronic alcoholic who came to a sad and lonely end. He’s triumphant and tragic, all together.

So, he’d probably be a colourful “Uncle” who could spin tall tales and be witty as hell, but also could as easily fall down drunk into the tree and ruin a Christmas morning.

Been there.

Welcome to the family “Uncle Raymond”.

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On Writing: “Anatomy of a Writer”

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

“Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t only lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally honest and true than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.”

Every so often, particularly if I’m returning to a project I haven’t developed in a while, it helps to have the “reset Button” pushed on one’s perspective and expectations. This article pushed it for me.

As they say, “Writers write.”

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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 Writing: Having Uncommon Thoughts in Common

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, you really can’t see the outside shape of it.

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, I don’t think that you really can see the outside shape of it. You’re too close to it.

On Having an Outsiders View of Things

By outsider, I’m thinking of someone who goes against societal norms, conventions or values, especially in cases where they wish to help someone else who is less fortunate.

Dickens and David Copperfield

I tried to read Copperfield back when I was about twelve. We had inherited a few classics in old hardcover editions, which I’m guessing could have been from the early teens of the century. Being something of a fetishist for old things, I took David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn to my bookshelf, like a thief in the night. I wish I still had those old books. I got through Huck Finn without any trouble, but Dickens’ complex, florid style stopped me cold after a few pages, and I never went back, until recently. Thirty years later.

Anyway, Dickens had really gotten to me when I finished reading Copperfield last month. It struck me just how much I felt in agreement with the social values that he communicated through his characters. He boldly ran counter to the class-snobbery of his day, imbuing the poorest folk with the purest ethics and strongest character. David felt compassion for others, and tried to help them even when he himself would suffer because of it. Especially, Dickens seemed to care for the suffering of children living in poverty.

I recall one character (maybe Wilkins Macawber?) stating that you cannot judge a book by its cover. As a young lad, David was not well-off at all, and went out of his way to demonstrate character traits that one wouldn’t expect from such a young person. I heard David’s voice in my head, throughout the course of his “life” in the novel, and identified with his ethics, humanity, strengths and weaknesses.

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, and More…

The two Raymond characters who stand out in my mind the most are probably his most famous: Phillip Marlowe, and The Continental Op. Marlowe’s clear-minded, almost weary cynicism, and keen observations of the weaknesses in the ethics of others fascinates me. At first, I found some of Chandler’s use of period vernacular to be too frequent (almost to the point of obscuring meaning, rather than accentuating the colour of it), although I’ve come to appreciate how skilled he was at it, and how difficult it is to create punchy, compelling and rich dialogue that portrays the personalities, motivations and world of each character. Chandler wrote as if he was having fun with his colourful, smirking, almost expressionistic similes. You were allowed to accept his artistic license with tongue in cheek. Marlowe seemed a bit too flipant or devil-may-care, but he was no chump, and neither were you, thanks to Chandler. (I think the makers of the James Bond movies used this same kind of flippant tone. Ian Fleming did not, in his original novels, although he admitted to being a big fan of Raymond Chandler.)

Jeff Lindsay’s “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”

Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan (you know – from that TV series?) is a unique mix of cold-blooded serial killer and objective observer of the human condition. He’s bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the emotions of his friends (and his victims), and searching to validate  his own existence. He kind of sees himself as the trash collector of the universe, killing those most despicable monsters – child killers, rapists, pedophile priests – whom he decides deserve it, according to The Code of Harry.

Dexter is highly intelligent, wryly funny, and in many ways, truly superior, and yet, he is bereft of real emotional reactions (i.e. sociopathic), so plays an elaborate game of pretend in order to pass as normal to his coworkers and the rest of the waking world.

Something in Common with Uncommon Voices?

What is it that makes me feel kinship to someone who died well before I was born? I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed David Copperfield, and hearing Dickens’ voice. Chandler’s voice acts on me similarly: I feel a familiar personality at work in my head, some recognizable territory that I’ve visited in the past, but remains a little fresh each time I see it again.

I think that the intimate, personal sense of recognition that I have with these two authors has a lot to do with their characters’ first-person perspective: David Copperfield, The Big Sleep (and all the other Phillip Marlowe stories I’ve read by Chandler), and Darkly Dreaming Dexter are all written in the first person. It’s incredibly personal, intimate and effective – putting the reader right into the protagonist’s point of view.

Perhaps because I live in my head so much of the time, I enjoy living in someone else’s head in the same way.

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On Writing: Visualization and Collage in Storytelling…

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning. I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts.

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning.

I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts. The relationships that are created by placing elements next to each other create new contexts and meanings that each element did not originally possess individually.

As I write, I’m transcribing visual scenes in my head into words. Sometimes, I’m acting like a court reporter sitting in a movie theatre, watching my characters speak, smelling what they smell, listening to the sounds of their surroundings, and feeling their emotions. In my head, I’ve already shot the scene as a movie, and now the challenge is to get that scene down on paper in a way that will be powerful and will resonate in my reader’s mind.

Many scenes can be drawn out of snippets of personal experience, opinions, current events, and one’s own worldview or inner monologue. Each of these elements is a small scrap of paper with an image on it, waiting to be pasted down on a board along with other scraps, to contribute a piece to an overall theme.

I often think up the elements or “little scraps” first: an intriguing personality, a moment of tension, despair, or heroism, or a mysterious moment or place. A story is made up of many such individual scenes, each of which must have its own internal logic, beginning, middle and end, and each of which must work within the context of the greater story or plot.

If I can’t see how to use them, a lot of these elements get filed away somewhere for later use. It’s tough to know which elements to bring out of the drawer and place on the table, and which ones need to be kept in the file. Every little scrap is a piece of life experience.

We all have experiences, and some of us have had similar experiences. The challenge for me as a storyteller is to find and create the scraps that will seem familiar to someone else (because I want to know that I can reach my audience emotionally and culturally), and to combine the scraps into a collage of pieces that says these things to my reader: you may know this story, my friend. You’ve read it many times before in different guises. Some things are universal to human experience. You may have heard the story before, but you haven’t heard it from this storyteller in this way before.

Universal things happen to all of us, but come to each of us in a different way. That’s why the story is interesting, and why the collection of parts makes a unique picture on the page.

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On Writing: John Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath, and my Dad’s Stories.

My Dad was born in 1921, and as a young kid, knowing that he grew up during the Great Depression had always fascinated me. During the Great Depression, times were tough for Dad’s family, I’m sure, but I would learn in Social Studies class that other families had it much worse during that time, particularly farmers, and especially in the United States. That is the setting of Steinbeck’s major novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

Of Mice and Men, Grapes, and my Dad…

Back in high school English class, we read “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. At the time, I remember thinking how old the book seemed, in terms of the language the characters used, and also how much the character Lenny’s mental slowness frustrated me.

I think that in my young mind, I was invested enough in the story to feel empathy and frustration at the behaviour of the characters, but back then, I couldn’t really evaluate the story or the writing – I just reacted to what I experienced in the book.

I’ve read “Of Mice and Men” again a couple of times over the past three decades, most recently a year or two ago. As I did, I began to enjoy Steinbeck’s voice, style and depictions very much indeed. So I decided to finally crack open “The Grapes of Wrath”.

My Dad and the Great Depression

My Dad was born in 1921, and as a young kid, knowing that he grew up during the Great Depression had always fascinated me. I used to ask my Dad what it was like for him, growing up in Prince Rupert back in those days. He’d tell me stories, like the times when he and his brothers would go down to the docks and ask the fishermen to give them their leftover fish heads. Dad said that his Mum would cut the cheeks out of the fish heads and make the family a nice fish soup.

I’d ask him if his family were poor, and he’d say no, but they weren’t rich either. His Dad worked for the Prince Rupert Telephone Company, most often splicing cable, up on a telephone pole, soldering cable with a little blow torch. Times being what they were, he shared his job with another man, working different shifts. In a house with five kids (Dad, his three bothers, and one sister), and with their Father working only part-time, I’m sure the Love family of Prince Rupert had to tighten their belts a bit. Still, there were still lots of trees for the local Mills, and still lots of fish in the sea, even if the economy had gone to crap. Everyone in the Love family worked, kids and all. Dad always impressed upon me the importance of working for a living, and the value of a dollar.

The Grapes of Wrath

During the Great Depression, times were tough for Dad’s family, I’m sure, but I would learn in Social Studies class that other families had it much worse during that time, particularly farmers, and especially in the United States.

That is the setting of Steinbeck’s major novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”. The Joad family, Oklahoma sharecroppers for generations, are wiped out when the “dustbowl” (drought) wipes out their crops, and they become too far in debt to the bank. Their little farm, along with many others in their area, are taken over by the bank, and turned into industrial farmland. So, the whole clan (Grandparents, Parents, and brothers and sisters ranging from preteen to adult) head West with all their possessions strapped onto the back of a jury-rigged truck.

Along the many thousands of miles journey west to California, they enounter cold, heat, starvation, death, violence, kindness, cooperation, prejudice and eventually, some forms of redemption.

If you’ve seen the movie by John Ford, you’ve got a little taste of the story, but only a little. The novel is so much more than the movie. Steinbeck takes you into the hearts and minds of each of the family members in turn, over the course of a journey that must have only been a few months chronologically, but experientially was much more difficult than the miles traveled and the days spent.

Here are a few of the significant themes from this incredible novel:

  • The Mother is the provider of life, the supporter, nourisher and guide; the centre of everything. The sheer amount of work and responsibility that Ma takes on daily impressed me throughout the story. To a lesser but still significant  degree, Rose of Sharon represents the mother, being pregnant and on the edge of bringing new life into the clan.
  • Rose of Sharon and her Grandparents also represent the frailty – and sometimes the futility – of survival.
  • Tom Joad is the angry young man, fighting against injustice, and suffering because of how his fighting spirit and moral outrage places him potentially at odds with the capitalist farm owners.
  • Pa Joad and his brother represent the impotence and powerlessness of the old male generation – still able-bodied, but wracked with guilt or turoil from many challenges, and with their family authority essentially tossed aside and taken over by others. This represents how the former sharecroppers had their authority or rights taken over by larger interests.
  • Communism (or Socialism) vs. Capitalism.

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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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Preview Owe Nothing Free, on Google Books

In the spirit of “try before you buy”, I invite you to read a preview of my novel, Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

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

All ow me to introduce a few of the main 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…?

Check out the rest of Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

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Book Trailer Video: Owe Nothing

Check out the new book trailer video for Owe Nothing:

http://ejohnlovebooks.com/books/owe-nothing/owe-nothing-video-trailers/

This captures a bit of the humour and intrigue of Owe Nothing. I think I definitely see more video trailers in my future…

(Apex Reviews, and GhostWriter Extraordinare)

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Writing as a Form of Cocoon…

I tend to write the most and the best when the process is driven by a personal memory or feeling – something that might have been evoked by a unexpected sound or smell, or a memory triggered by that. Sometimes, a new perspective or pattern of thought evolves, which was brought on by a recurrence of events during the day.

I tend to write the most and the best when the process is driven by a personal memory or feeling – something that might have been evoked by a unexpected sound or smell, or a memory triggered by that. Sometimes, a new perspective or pattern of thought evolves, which was brought on by a recurrence of events during the day.

When I start digging into this raw material – often unconnected or disjointed – it takes shape as things that one of my fictionalized alter-egos, Jack, Jim, or maybe Mike – might say, do or have a strong opinion about.

Writing from the Gut?

In short, it’s a chain reaction: gut, sensory experience evokes a thought or a theme, which finds resonance inside my current cast of characters, until one or more scenarios begins to form.

This whole process happens in my skull, with often little or no input from outside parties. It’s like writing inside of a cocoon. Research comes later, when I realize that I’ve painted myself into a corner – when I don’t understand a particular aspect of what I’m describing – or if I’m dealing with things and places, rather than people.

Working this way is largely solitary, and I wonder if or how this process may limit me.

Most of my favourite writers are dead.

I’m largely ignorant of “the book market” or popular writers, save for a have dozen of the biggest, most famous names. I’m not up on new fiction, period. Most of my favourite writers are dead. Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett. John Steinbeck. O. Henry.  Ernest Hemingway. All dead.

A few writers I like are still kicking.

Canadian crime/adventure author, Brad Smith. I love his blue-collar humour and crime tales. His voice sounds so familiar to me.

Douglas Coupland. I loved Generation X, and I loved Microserfs even more. I relived my own tech bubble meltdowns reading Microserfs. Life After God was pretty good too. (I’m puzzled as to why Coupland needs his own Roots clothing line. Oh well…)

Elmore Leonard. His is a tough, contemporary voice, that reminds me of how much of our cop/crime fiction we get from TV shows like Law and Order.

But, here’s the thing… I’m selfish.

I read often – almost all the time, but I’m really much more interested in writing my own stuff than in reading someone else’s stuff. What does that mean? Does that mean I’m insensitive to readers and writers who aren’t me? Is it Art School all over again, where no project is as fascinating to you as the one you’re currently working on? It’s taken about 14 readings for me to see my own novel, Owe Nothing, in anything resembling an objective light.

I don’t really know. I suppose all I can say is that in time, I will see my audience more clearly, and when I do, I should listen to them as carefully as I can.

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