Thursday, November 6, 2014

Critics


After he had told me everything he thought was wrong with my book, he suggested I should withdraw it from publication, rewrite it, and try again.

At first, he had not known what became of one of the characters. I e-mailed him a list of page numbers which described the character’s demise. Then last night, he said he thought I had published BYLINE too soon. The characters were not developed, he said, and there was no suspense in the book, and why didn’t I do more with the villain’s grandmother? He didn’t find anything to like.

I was curiously unmoved. “So what do you think?” he asked.

“I think I’m done with that book. I’m already working on something else,” I said. The whole thing made me glad I had not agreed to do any book signings.

I have had some generous five-star reviews from my friends. And I’ve had suggestions from others. The main character was too ingenuous, one said. She had worked on school newspapers; she should have known more about the big metropolitan newspaper. The story about the centaur was too long, another said. I killed off her parents too soon, someone said. There were too many characters. Who were all those people?

It should have been longer, someone said. A few people read the book in one sitting; others apparently couldn’t finish it.

Oh, well.

It made me think of a college production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni a friend once directed. He made the opera a Gothic horror story, murky, dark, sinister. Nobody understood what he was after, and a lot of people had a lot of criticism to offer. “Nobody once asked me what I was trying to do,” he said.

“What did you learn from this experience?” Last night’s critic wanted to know.

“I learned that everybody reads differently,” I said.

I thought about something my friend Sue said in response to an earlier spate of criticism. “I suppose you didn’t write the book he wanted to read,” she said, kindly.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Girl With Many Names


             I am pushing eighty now and am beginning to think about how many writing projects I’ll be able to finish before I forget how to type. One of these is a kind of autobiography with the working title “The Girl With Many Names.”
            When I divorced my third husband (yes; I learned my modest people skills the hard way) some 25 years ago, I asked the judge to restore my maiden name. I had to ask twice. I still get Christmas cards addressed to various old names, and while I am glad to be remembered, I think 25 years is sufficient to accommodate a name change.
            Partly I wanted to go back to my original name because my father, not realizing that it would hurt my feelings, said something about having only one male descendent to “carry on the name.” Partly it was because I was tired of being married and tired of having my name indicate I was somebody’s property...though it wasn’t as bad as the Greek system of a wife’s having her given name followed by “of” and both the husband’s names.
            When Nicodemus and I got married sixteen or seventeen years ago, Father Anthony of blessed memory put us through weeks of premarital counseling and made us go over and analyze every failed relationship we had ever had.  It took us a long time to get it right, and we don’t plan on marrying anybody else. Although Father Anthony was a traditionalist and didn’t truck with the maiden name business, I persisted in keeping my last name and nobody ever challenged it.
            It is a tribute to Nicodemus that various stores call HIM by my maiden name and that he doesn’t particularly care one way or another.
            My son Ed recently applied for a passport and had to produce the document he has instead of a birth certificate, a statement from the American consulate in Thessaloniki certifying the birth of a child abroad to an American citizen. “It says my middle name is Anthony,” he said. “I always thought it was Antonios.”
            “Well, now you’ve had an Ellis Island moment,” I said, thinking of all the new Americans whose names were too foreign for the clerks at the famous immigration office to pronounce.  The consulate officer had translated “of Antonios” into “Anthony.”
            My just-released novel, BYLINE, has an Ellis Island moment when an editor changes the heroine’s Greek name into something that’s “easier for the people.”
            And I won’t even start on my first name, which I have to explain to someone almost every day. It’s just plain old MY-KUL, I tell them. Like David’s first wife in the Bible. Not Michelle or Mikaela or, as a childhood playmate once essayed, Mackerel.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

BYLINE, Post-Partum


             So Amazon has published my little thriller, BYLINE. My East Coast writing buddy Susan has posted a five-star review, the friends have expressed support and congratulations, and a few copies have been sold.
            After reading and re-reading manuscript, proofs and revised proofs, I am a little tired of my own opus, especially when I find typos and things I could have done better. It’s not as if I thought I was writing about eternal verities or anything, but I thought I’d be more thrilled to have my shout-out living its own life.
            Twice this week I’ve talked with a reporter from our local newspaper, which will be running an interview about the book this week. She is young and pretty, but she has written for the paper 26 years, she said. Both of us have always loved to write and have tried pretty much every way of putting words together.
            She wanted to know how I jumped back and forth between playing the piano and trying to write news stories, poetry and fiction. I had to think about it, because certainly it seems that I flit from one thing to another, halfway between doing paying work and indulging myself.
            In newswriting and music program notes, I thought, you tell about something. In fiction, of course, you try to show rather than tell. In poetry, you play with the musicality of language, and in music you deal with the musicality itself. “But what do they have in common?” she asked, knowing, of course, the answer.
            Sue and I correspond almost daily about our current writing projects, but it was lovely to sit at the table and chat with someone else who thinks wordsmithing is worth while.
            The reporter and I reached a comfortable silence. We looked out the window at Montara Mountain. “It’s great living near the ocean,” she said, “but I have to confess that I’m really a mountain kind of girl.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Alice


             Alice hated being alone so much that as a youngster she did her homework on a park bench in order to have people around her. She died this month on her 91st birthday, on Pentecost Sunday. We had the same birthday, but this year for the first time I didn’t send her a birthday card, as if I already knew she had other plans.
            We couldn’t have been more different. She was 13 years older, sociable, cheerful, confident, bossy. But we recognized something in each other the first time we met. She was a family counselor and I was going through the Valley of the Shadow. Alice knew that what I most needed right then was to feel safe and be left alone.
            When I finally began to feel like myself again, I stood up to a neighbor who warned me not to plant anything near the fence which might shade her yard. “You mean like a giant sequoia?” I said. Alice thought that was about the funniest thing she had ever heard and she repeated the story more than once.
            Long after I graduated from therapy (with heart-shaped balloons and a party) Alice would call me up or send  me a card. She once confessed that she prayed for her clients, a surprising admission.
            Alice never got very far from the church. She was a Dominican nun, then a nurse, then an associate of Holy Names, a teaching order. She once asked me to convert a set of tape-recorded religious lectures into compact discs. I could hardly believe anyone could listen to 20 hours of lecturing, but Alice was delighted to have the tapes preserved and sent me two silk scarves as a thank you.
            She gave away almost everything she had when she moved to St. Anne’s home in San Francisco, where she spent the last several years of her life. A friend and I took her to lunch at the Palace of the Legion of Honor one day, wheeling her around in her chair, laughing and joking.
            Someone at St. Anne’s found my telephone number among Alice’s things and called me to tell me about the memorial service. “Alice really liked you,” the caller said. Hearing that was almost as good as getting to say goodbye in person. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Channeling Theodora




She was the daughter of a bear wrangler. As a child, she was probably a beggar and in her teens was some kind of entertainer, which in Sixth Century Constantinople no doubt meant prostitution. In a caste-defying miracle, she married  the heir Justinian and with him in 527 became the most powerful ruler in the Byzantine empire, which extended from north Africa to Rome to present-day Turkey.

Most people have heard of Cleopatra, who lived some two thousand years ago, but few have heard of Theodora,  500 years nearer us in time. Hagia Sophia, the cathedral in present-day Istanbul whose building Theodora supervised, still stands, a world heritage landmark. Her political and military influence affected the course of history.

Mosaics at the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in northern Italy completed the year before Theodora’s death show a serious dark-eyed woman framed by the extravagant gold and gem-encrusted decor which came to characterize Byzantine art.

Years ago, I read The Female City, a book written about Theodora and the city of Constantinople, written in the 1950s by one Paul I. Wellman, an American journalist.  I  tried for a long time to find another copy of the book  and finally on eBay last month I found and bought a well-worn edition offered by an Australian book store.

Theodora was becoming much better known while I was searching for that book. Unknown to me, Wellman’s book dropped the “City” from the title and was reissued. No fewer than three books about Theodora were published in 2013: Theodora of Constantinople by Elizabeth Elson, The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton, and The Bear Keeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw.

I have these three on my list to read, but frankly, I am not hopeful.

Historical fiction can be a little like Classic Comics or, in the case of Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), sheer fantasy. On the other hand,  it can be so convincing (as in the case of Mary Renault and Patrick O’Brian) that it seems to make a case for some kind of extra-sensory perception. Mary Renault’s books set in Crete were consulted during restorations of the ancient sites. Readers of O’Brian’s 21 Aubrey-Maturin seagoing novels find it almost impossible to believe that someone with that detailed knowledge of tall-ship sailing never spent any time at sea.

How Theodora came to reign almost single-handedly over all Byzantium is a bit of a mystery.  Wellman paints Justinian as an indecisive recluse who in his later days wore a monk’s habit and spent his time reading the book of Revelations in hopes of understanding why his empire was beginning to self-destruct. He was happy, according to The Female City, to let Theodora make the decisions.

The Female City has all the names and dates right, but it seems old-fashioned and almost voyeuristic in its attention to the lives of Constantinople’s working women. Wellman’s central female characters spend most of their time bathing, dressing up, and plotting their next conquest. Interestingly, all  his other books were  set in the American West. Some were made into cowboy movies.

While it is a wonder that a writer could have researched this material as meticulously as Wellman did decades before Google and the Internet, what he clearly intended as praise of the central character often seems patronizing and trivial: Three cheers for the little lady.

At the end of The Female City, Wellman writes “A man, though he be nothing himself, may be called great through chance fame, or position, not power. But being a woman is far more fateful and important, not only to herself, but to the world. A woman is judged always as a woman, no matter what she does or is, aside from that all-important fact. So this grave injustice has been done by history: though Justinian, far her inferior in mind and spirit, has come down to us as ‘The Great’, the only title given to Theodora is ‘The Notorious’.”

Justinian is indeed known in history books as “The Great”, but far from being called “The Notorious”, the empress Theodora was canonized as a Christian saint.  She was buried in  548 in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the edifices built under her direction, and her feast day is November 15.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Stranger in a Strange Land


 Let us assume that you have been dragged, as I have, kicking and screaming into a world dominated by gadgets. Cyberspace. The virtual world. A Strange Land.
            Unless you live in a convent or go to extraordinary lengths to isolate yourself, it is barely possible any more to get by without a computer or a mobile telephone. In addition to this, your automobile, clocks, printer, electronic reader, sewing machine, kitchen range, coffee maker, television and microwave all operate on some kind of computer system which may (and usually does) go wrong. The sewing machine, for instance, must not get below 50 degrees Fahrenheit or the computer will not work until it is warmed up again.
            New gadgets will appear minute by minute, and the pressure is on for you to have the most recent versions of the various gadgets.
            There are manuals to all these things. They are filled with errors and flat-out misstatements and are sometimes only available on line, which is not much help when it is your computer which is acting up. There are also help lines available by telephone; good luck. If you are very patient and your computer is still working, you may be able to get a chat window where a person in a distant land will eventually politely offer to assist you. It is the prepositions which give these people away. They do not know that “in the wireless gateway” is quite different from “on the wireless gateway.”
            The vocabulary for all the devices is ever-changing and non-standardized. Waiting in the electronics section of a department store, we asked the clerk “What do you call the device which records from the television. It isn’t a VCR any more, we know.”
            “Oh, you mean a DVR,” the clerk replied.
            “O.K.,” we said. “Can we buy one of those?”
            “No,” he replied. “That’s only available from your cable company.”
            Clue: Most of the gadgets are known by initials. Nobody knows what the initials stand for.
            Add this to your list of things obvious to natives of the Strange Land but maybe not to the rest of us: When entering letters on your new telephone handset (just purchased, because the expensive three-month-old telephones were not compatible with the new wireless gateway): Each number on the keypad (where you punch in the phone numbers) has three or four associated letters. Say you would like to have the airport taxi number on your quick-dial. To enter the first of these letters, press once. To enter the second of these letters, press two. So if you want to enter “cab”, you press three times, then one time, then two times. You may have to manually move the insertion point, but then maybe not. Something so obvious nobody would dream of mentioning it. The way “a space is a character” came as a computer typing revelation when somebody told you about it off-handedly.
            Your friends do not want to help you with this. It’s just the way they got tired of helping you move the piano in the old days. They figure if they had to suffer through useless manuals and unending bad music while being on hold for the help lines, you can jolly well do your own suffering.
            Clue: Sometimes turning everything off and starting over will work. Or you can do as the teenagers do and just try anything which occurs to you until something works. You may, however, have to get a technician to re-install your system if you get too wild.
            I got my first computer because I wanted e-mail. The computer stayed in the box for a week because I was afraid to hook it up. I joined Facebook because I wanted to find out what my grandchildren were doing. But you see what a slippery slope the Strange Land can be.
            “You are like your brother Les,” Nicodemus says. “You like your gadgets.”
            “I do not like the gadgets,” I answer. “I can’t figure out how to do without them, is all. And you don’t want anything to do with them.”
            “Yes, well,” he says.
            “I’d rather have two tin cans and a string,” I say, peevishly, trying to figure out how Skype works so he can talk to his friend Michael in England. (The new wireless gateway does not support 10-10-987 calls, which was the cheap way to go when we had a land line.)
            “I used to talk to my friends with tin cans and a string,” he says.
            “It would have to be a really long string to reach to England,” I answer.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

James Gandolfini



            James Gandolfini could have created the role of Tony Soprano without any dialogue at all. He had an uncanny ability to express the entire spectrum of human emotions on his unlovely face.  The eyes alone told you what he was thinking.
            I was such a fan of James Gandolfini, who died this week at the age of 51. I think his television character Tony Soprano in the Home Box Office production "The Sopranos" will join the likes of Candide, Blanche DuBois, Lieutenant Kije, Willy Loman and other figures in our drama, music and literature who have had a life beyond fiction. Maybe even Hamlet.
            Most of the media response to Gandolfini’s death at the age of 51 seems to think that age 51
was too young to die and that if the actor had taken better care of himself, he’d still be with us.
             I read the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song “Temporary Like Achilles” again, expecting to see some reference to the Iliad and the choice of leading a short life full of glory or a long life full of very little. The title, however, was about all Dylan had to say on the subject. The lyrics could have been made up on the spot.
            Some of the news stories used Gandolfini’s death to preach about the virtues of a low-fat diet. (The actor had eaten paté and shrimp for dinner.) I’m sure somewhere there were sermons mentioning his obesity or his cigar-smoking. But we don’t know enough to judge Gandolfini or others whose lifestyles may have contributed to an early death. Maybe their choices were what allowed them to reveal themselves to us in such a public way. Maybe the choices were crutches. Maybe their minds were just elsewhere. Who knows?
            I don’t think the death of a genius should be used as an occasion for sermonizing. I think we should be grateful for what we got, not what their longer life might have given us (look at J.D. Salinger.) I think their spouses and children should be grateful and not blame them for spending time and energy on extending their earthly days.
            My brother Les, speaking about a talented departed friend with bad habits, said “We respected his right to live his life as he wanted to live it.”
            Really, we owe them that for the moments of revelation they gave us.