Twelfth Night

tree mask

In many countries, the most important day of the Christmas holiday isn’t actually December 25th — it’s January 6th, the day the wise men finally appear, carrying their gifts. It seems like such a smart thing, to have the big day occur at the end of the holiday instead of the beginning, and to time it for the arrival of the travelers. I do admire those travelers — and feel that after having eaten so much heavy food, and played with so many electronic toys, we could all do with a little physical challenge like trying to get from Africa to the Middle East using only a star to navigate.

Instead, we’re gearing up for a huge winter storm and the resumption of school and work, which doesn’t feel quite the same. But I am going on a voyage — I’ll be in London from the 11th through the 18th, visiting my brother. It’s not exactly a journey from Africa to Israel using celestial navigation — I’m pretty sure the Virgin Atlantic people know how to get from San Francisco to London, having done it a couple times a day for years now. But I am looking forward to all those warm interiors and seeing a play or two (including Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theater). And I’m reading Twelfth Night, and thinking about twins and mistaken identities and disguise and how much I love Shakesperean comedy, that structure in which one loses oneself and then finds oneself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the next novel I want to write. The last one was a mystery. I chose that genre because it has a clear structure and so I didn’t have to figure out that at least. It was quite enough to work on believable characters and getting people to talk in ways that further the plot and reveal who they are. And then there were issues I never thought would be issues like whose voice to write in, and how to get people in and out of rooms. So, you see, it was great knowing ahead of time that I needed to kill a couple of people at regular points in the narrative and the tension had to mount to a certain point and then things needed to unravel. Having a structure ahead of time, I was left to work on things like figuring out how to describe someone’s physical appearance without having to resort to making them study themselves in a mirror.

The trouble is that I don’t want to write another mystery, not next anyway. I want to write about marriage and desire and how we sustain both, when they are so at odds with each other the longer we stay with our loved one. One day, in the shower, it occurred to me that my next narrative could follow the pattern of Shakespearan comedy, at least as I vaguely remember it from college — things are not right in the world of the play and then people enter a green world (an island, a forest…) and identities are mixed up, and then things are put to rights. There’s much more to it than that, of course, but that’s the basic outline.

So, for now, War and Peace will have to wait. I’m going to read the comedies and see what else is in there to steal for novel number two. I don’t feel too guilty about this kind of theft, by the way. In law school, one of my favorite professors used to tell us that if something really great already existed, it was stupid to try to invent it yourself. The only obligation you have, of course, is to honor what you’ve taken by trying to do something really good with it. If you have a favorite comedy, tell me about it, won’t you? I’d love to know where to go to steal first.


8 thoughts on “Twelfth Night

  1. I so wish I could recall the quote (but I can’t properly) about originality being only a matter of inventive stealing. Some of the books and films I’ve loved best in the past few years have taken a basic structure from a great work and had a lot of fun playing with it. It sounds like a fantastic new novel you are hatching over there, dear BL!!

  2. Lovely ideas for your new novel, Lily. I’d love to hear how that progresses.

    I just thought I’d let you know that yesterday my daughters joined the throngs of 500 000 German children all over Germany who dressed up as the Three Wise Men to go door to door carol-singing and raising money for other children less fortunate than themselves. It’s a 50-year-old tradition and it was thrilling to have my kids participate.

    Have fun in Londres!

  3. I was just asking my husband if January 6th is also known as the Epiphany? Is it? Am I just completely mixed up? He said he had no idea. I think it’s because he was preoccupied with something else, not because he didn’t know. 😦

    Lucky you, going to London. I was there once on business, and was originally told I’d only be there for a month. I spent all of my money on the theater and museums and weekend travel. Then the month stretched into another, and another. And another. By the time I left, I was dead broke. It was great.

    About stealing material: a great writing teacher said “Great writers steal. Good ones copy.” Go for it!

  4. I was thinking about the concept of the ‘green world’ just the other day — a lovely, lush world to retreat, a place where things are perfect. Steal away, Lily. You’re in good company — just look at all the retellings of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, (whether acknowledged or not).

  5. Hi happy new year to you bloglily. Hope it will be a good one. I´m just curious to know whether your books are published and available to buy in countries like Denmark, or on the net? Not necessairily in Danish…

  6. Hello Jane! I think it will be a wonderful new year. I have just started looking for an agent for my first novel, The Secret War, which is set in Bavaria in the 1960s. I loved writing it, because it is the kind of book I like to read. There are no guarantees in life, but I do hope that at some point in the next year or so, someone will buy it and then I’ll be able to tell you how to get it! My second novel, the one I talk about in this blog post, is just a gleam in my eye at this point. But I’ll be talking about it a lot, because it’s something I love to think about. And, finally, I have begun to send out short stories, a series of them in fact, all about women who, finding themselves in the middle of their lives and increasingly invisible, make choices — often foolish, but always interesting — about how to continue on. If someone takes one of those, I’ll be sure to let you know.

    Dear Cam, It’s monsooning outside my window this morning, and so that lush green world is sounding enticing. The funny thing is that I also think the world after a big winter storm can be a green world, because the storm so changes our familiar landscapes. I hope you’re having a very happy new year!

    You are absolutely right, Mari. It’s the Feast of the Epiphany — King’s Day. In France (and at the French school my sons went to when they were little), there’s a great cake baking ritual, with a little favor hidden in the cake — the child who finds the favor gets to be the king for the day. In the Basque country, which is where my mother’s family is from, and in many other places too, that’s the present giving day. And, of course, it’s twelve days after Christmas, so Twelfth Night. I love your London story! London is so expensive. I try not to eat out when I’m there, which is actually pretty easy when you’re mostly alone, as I will be (although I love my brother, he’s a very independent, very busy guy!). It’s yogurt, and hummus and crackers and carrots and oranges and cheese. And then there’s money for theater tickets.

    Oh Charlotte — That sounds like such a lovely, lovely tradition! And don’t you think being royalty is the best of all dress-up costumes? The wise men in our creche at home definitely have the most interesting clothing.

    Gail — You are the kindest of writing partners. It’ll be so good to see you soon and have that cup of tea.

    Litlove, I’ll remember that about inventive stealing! Thank you. xo

  7. Oh, I love the sound of your next novel! I remember my dad telling me, when I was stressing over one of the stories I wrote as a child, that there really couldn’t be any NEW stories, that human beings wrap themselves around the same problems over and over and over again, and so my job would always be to tell old stories in a new way. It sort of takes the pressure off…

    Shakespeare comedies are always good. I’ve always loved Noel Coward but I’m not sure he’s appropriate for your cause or not. Sam Shepherd. And really, you can’t beat some of Neil Simon’s work – those are the three playwrites off the top of my head I really enjoy…

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