A Murder for You

I read today someplace that if you are a writer, you should have an entire website, which should display excerpts from your work.  Good heavens.  How is it possible that I’ve written this blog for more than three years and never posted a single bit of my fiction (not to mention the utter absence of a website)?  Well, except that one time when I was trying to write about sex, and thought, “Now, THAT’s an interesting thing to post,” so I did. In 2007.  Otherwise, nada.

But I am indeed a writer, and I have in fact written an entire novel, and a number of short stories, one of which will shortly be coming out in a fine journal (in a separate post, I plan to flog that journal like mad, encouraging all of you to buy it, so they will know that I do have a few friends, despite the weird subject of that story).  So, I’ve decided I will follow that somewhat random piece of advice, and here post an excerpt from The Secret War, which someday might actually be for sale at your local Barnes & Noble (not to mention your local independent bookstore) if all goes well.

I picked the shortest, most coherent thing I could excerpt, which is the part where the first murder takes place.  This murder occurs in an interesting location, because all murders should.  The book itself is set in a small town in Bavaria, on the border of East Germany, West Germany, and Czechoslovakia.  From the names of those places, places that no longer exist, you might also guess that it is set in the past.  If you did, you would be correct.  It is set in 1969, in fact.   The village is home to a small American military base — on top of the highest hill on the base is a listening post.  There are a lot of antennas on that hill, and a mushroom shaped hut where guys sit around with big black headphones over their ears eavesdropping on the enemy.

What are they listening for?  Well, the main idea was that if a lot of planes started to head from, say East Germany, to Western Europe, the guys in the headphones would let people know.  The listening post is not very secret –the antennas are hard to hide– but it is still not a place just anybody is allowed to be on.  And that’s why it’s good to have someone murdered up there who isn’t supposed to be there.  So, with that in mind, here it is — an excerpt from my novel.

Chapter 6

Every night, a few hours before the end of his shift at midnight, the soldier ran between the two buildings at the top of the hill, clutching the rubber pouch full of the night’s reports, eluding the spotlight that slashed the darkness with streaks of light. When he’d been a boy he’d played a game like the one he played tonight. Coming home late from a friend’s house, he’d cut around the puddles of light created by streetlamps, passing cars, and porch lights, eluding the lights as though they were his enemies. Darkness meant safety. Tonight he was not far from boyhood as he ran toward and through the darkness on this foreign hill in this foreign place, like a swimmer moving through clean, cold water.

Before he’d come here, when he’d thought they would send him to Vietnam instead, he had often dreamed of death. But he had never dreamed of the actual dead, only of their sudden absence. In his dreams, a loved one would fall silent or no longer be in the room. He’d notice their silence and know they were gone. Sometimes his dreams would be of the event right before death — the explosion, the burst of gunfire, the menacing face of the enemy. And so, before tonight, he had never seen the dead, not in repose and not in the moment immediately after they make their passage from life into death.

At first he thought the body was a bulky pack left on the path by a soldier during a march that had ended abruptly. He bent to move the object out of his way and saw it was a man, sprawled across the path as though he had known the runner would come this way and help him. But the young man knew instinctively it was too late to do anything to help.

He touched the body and his hand came away warm and sticky. The spotlight fell across the body and illuminated the dead man, the spreading pool of blood beneath him and the truth that our skin only just barely keeps at bay our blood’s desire to free itself from our bodies, the way a weak dam barely contains the water behind it.

The dead man — for the young soldier knew without a doubt the man was dead — was almost his age. His angelic face under a mop of light hair stared wordlessly at the dark night sky. He wore black trousers and a t-shirt that might once have been white, but was now soaked and dark. The sharp object that had ended the man’s life had slashed through the t-shirt.

But the young man didn’t think about any of this until later. At this moment, he thought immediate and terrified thoughts, chief among them being whether whatever dark and angry thing was out there in the night might be coming for him too. He turned from the sight he’d dream about for the rest of his life, and ran back toward the light of the listening hut, no longer a stranger to death.

In an Utterly Unprecedented Move

I’m going to blog instead of refreshing my e-mail in box.  And what, you might be asking, is SHE going to write about?   Does she even read books, the  ostensible purpose for this entire blog?  How could she possibly find the time, so busy is she obsessing over why no one is e-mailing her editing suggestions for her book, or giving her news of her stories!??

But it turns out, dear readers, that I do indeed read, and what a pleasure it is to have that to hold up as a shield against anxiety.  I gave my camera to a child to take on a trip, so I can’t actually document the book I’m reading, but I’ll just tell you here and now that I picked up E.B. White’s Letters (with a very nice introduction by John Updike) at Moe’s Books in Berkeley yesterday and I am in the happiest of reading experiences:  thumbing through the personal papers of someone I admire.

Ever since I received my first letter from an author (come to think of it, it was my only letter and was written in response to my gushing fan mail), which was from Noel Streatfield, the author of Ballet Shoes, I have lusted after the casual writing of people I admire — writers mostly.   The only thing I learned about Noel Streatfield from that letter was that she used a fountain pen to write her name in that proper up and down English writing, which is not at all the same as the kind of cursive you learn in the United States in the third grade, because it is far SMARTER, but well, that was good enough for me.

It’s a weird kind of nosiness, this snooping around in the letters, diaries and notebooks of writers.  I think I do it  because I want to know who these people are, and how they managed to get so  much real life down in a story.  But until today, when I began to refresh my inbox for the six millionth time, and decided instead it would be better to write about what I’m reading, I have never really given much thought to the charm of the diary, the letter, the notebook.

I’m pretty sure what gets me about these kinds of things is the possibility that you’ll edge closer to the magic in fiction, that by knowing something true about the person who created it, you will somehow be invested with that magic yourself.  But most of  the time what you discover isn’t magic, exactly, but more that the person who wrote something you loved was sort of weird, or very funny, or even more anxious than you are.   And that is just as good as the whole magic thing.

Here are some discoveries I’ve made reading letters and diaries, because that is what this blog post is about to become:  a compendium of my favorite bits from the letters, diaries and notebooks I’ve read over the years.

Well, first, there’s Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet is not really a book of letters, of course, but more a guide to the writer he probably once was.  But the tone of it is so confidential and kind, that even though the young poet isn’t a real person, which means these aren’t really letters, any more than Plato is talking to actual students in those dialogues, it’s still a great book.  My favorite thing in it?  The news that good things are difficult.  I cannot tell you how many times I have repeated this information — usually to my children, but to myself also.  And I aso rely heavily on its reverse:  if it’s difficult, that’s probably a sign that you’re working on something worth doing.   (Except of course, if what you’re trying to do is turn a nozzle ON by turning it in the direction that turns it off.  THAT is difficult because you are being stupid.  It’s important to know the difference.)

Let’s see.  Who else?  Oh.  Wallace Stevens’s notebooks are collected in a very cool facsimile edition called Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects: Wallace Stevens’ Commonplace Book.  Have I mentioned how much I like to look at the handwriting of great writers?  And how sad I am that my generation is the last to actually write things down and not type them?  (And most of us don’t even do that.)  Anyway, this book is full of things Stevens copied down about other writers, because he was sort of nosy too and liked to read things artists said about doing their jobs.  I am particularly fond of this, which is actually something Henry James said in a letter to H.G. Wells, back when letters were written down in ink:

It is art which makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.

And then there is Henry James, himself, whose notebooks I have been reading in no particular order.  One thing I love about them is how James would sketch out the plots of entire short stories, as though he was describing the story to someone, and in fact, you realize that people told Henry James weird and interesting stories all the time, and then he’d steal them and make something really terrific of them.  Which makes me understand how it can be that people would sue someone like JK Rowling, because they too once thought it would be cool to set a story about some underage wizards in an English boarding school and maybe they were talking about it in some cafe in Edinburgh and a woman with a baby in a stroller who was sitting next to them was scribbling in anotebook the whole time they were talking and well. ..  The thing is, you have to be Henry James (or JK Rowling) to really make that work; those stories you hear from people aren’t fiction until you apply some magic to them.

And although there is much, much more, I see that this is where I can put my favorite thing from Virginia Woolf”s Diaries, which are very long and have a lot of great things in them, but this is one of the best and most beautiful of all those things and a good place to end this post, which has done two things:  made me realize how much I love books and kept me from that obsessive inbox refreshing thing, which is not refreshing at all:

to suppress oneself and run freely out in joy — such is the perfectly infallible and simple prescription.  And to use one’s hands and eyes; to talk to people; to be a straw on the river, now and then — passive, not striving to say this is this.  If one does not lie back and sum up and say to the moment, this very moment,  Stay you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying?  No:  stay, this moment.  No one ever says that enough.


I don’t get flash fiction.  500 words!  Good grief!   How can you even begin to tell a satisfactory story in the equivalent of six paragraphs?  By the end of the sixth paragraph, you’ve basically managed to introduce the unhappy family, the way the sea looks from the porch of their house in the summer, and the smell of the strawberry jam the little sister is making in the kitchen, without knowing how, because her mother is out on the ocean photographing sea life and her father isn’t paying attention to any of the children anymore.  

And texting!  Texting eludes me.  160 characters (for a long time I thought that was 160 WORDS.  I suppose I thought that because I found it unbelievable that any unit of writing could be measured in characters.  That messages are indeed measured that way breaks my heart.)  160 characters isn’t enough to do anything other than say no, an unsatisfactory no at that, because you can’t tell a joke after you say no, or explain your no, or make your no into a no-but-yes-to-you-because-I-really-like-you-even-though-I-can’t-go-to-that-thing-with-you.   

 Right now, all I know is that I don’t want to read 500 word stories.  If I’m going to read a  story, I want it in the conventional short form (say 4,000 words or more), or I’ll take it long.  I mean that.  I’ll take it Victorian, three volume long,   I’ll even take it Russian three million volumes long.  

As for the 160 character  no, I want my nos to  go on and on and end in yeses or at least devolve into something so interesting you forget about the no.  That takes more than 160 characters, I think we can all agree.  If I am going to get a message, I want it to come in a letter, a really good, long letter with lots of descriptions and funny stories.   In a pinch, an e-mail will do.  Okay — an e-mail will more than do.

And if I do want to read 500 words of meaning, then I want a poem.  A world can live in 500 words.  A no can become a yes in much less than 500 words — in half of 500 words, in fact.   That is what John Donne is expert at, for example.  

But here’s a thought:  What if there really is something wonderful about short shorts and I am missing the boat?  Yikes.   Could be that the problem isn’t the form at all.  I mean,  every form — whether it is a sonnet, or a short story, or who knows, even short-shorts and, what the heck, text messages — has its brilliant practitioners, artists who need the form to give birth to what’s in their heads.  Take the Shakespearean sonnet, for example — 14 lines.  A lot happens in those fourteen lines, but almost always at either the ninth line or in the couplet at the end of the sonnet there is a turn, and the thought that’s been extended through most of the sonnet is resolved, or turned on its head.  I think some people must think like this — in iambic rhythms, maybe even the rhyme scheme makes a kind of innate sense to them, and the way a sonnet reasons also is the way they like to think.  And this could be true of the short short (maybe even the text).  Maybe there is a sort of thought that really sings when it is placed in the short-short form.  And maybe the Shakespeare of Texting is out there right now, sending texts that are miracles of language.    

And so, today, I have resolved to work my way out of my aversion to flash fiction.  I mean, really, who am I to diss any written form?  After all, I am the woman who thought of the short story — for an embarrassingly long time — as a failed novel.  (I admit this because I am Catholic, and can only be absolved of my idiocy by confessing to it, except I don’t go to confession and I don’t think having bad ideas about literature is officially a sin….).   And I was very wrong about that.  Very wrong.  

 So, fortuitously, today I had tea with a lovely fellow blogger, who recommended I read Lydia Davis, which I’m going to do.  And then I had lunch, with another blogging friend, and I realized she writes 100 word pieces — so I’m going to look at some of hers.  

It might turn out that narrative is my thing, and that I will be unable to enjoy something that looks like it should be narrative, but isn’t.  But I will find out, and that will be fun to do.

“After we said billuns of suarewords,”

That is how chapter 3 of my son William’s book begins, the book he’s been writing for the last few days, pencil clutched in his seven year old fingers, red composition notebook already a little sweaty and bent from the effort of making real his dream of being a novelist.

His book is a doozy. I don’t want to give things away (although the title, The Revenge of the Kids, pretty much tells you everything you need to know), but there’s a lot of violence and a lot of swear words, also known as “suarewords”.

Which brings me to today’s topic: what do we say to other writers about their work when it veers wildly into a place we think is ill advised, particularly when we have been placed in the position of teaching them (not a job I’m qualified for, but I am the only one handy in the afternoons when the red composition book comes out). William’s a novelist just beginning on the road to acquiring his craft. He recently learned to read, and he can print pretty well, so there’s not much to keep him off the ladder that leads to the Pulitzer. His motivation for writing appears to be, in equal measure, a desire for power, and a desire to make a lot of money, which I’m guessing is somewhat typical of those who fill the ranks of creative writing classes throughout the country. That these things don’t actually happen need not concern us today. I am more worried right now about the suarewords.

They are in that story because yesterday afternoon he asked me if it was okay if he used “bad words” in his story. Remembering how shocked I was when my own mother told me that I shouldn’t write stories where there were bad mothers (how, then, I want to know, do you write ANY story at all?), I told him he could write whatever he wanted to write.

I should have added, however, that he could not actually read his stuff out loud at the dinner table, but by the time he’d read all the bad words to us, it was too late. William’s novel is full of cusswords. Billuns of them. They are not spelled correctly, but it is quite clear what they are. Read aloud, there is no doubt of them. Plus, lots of people are shot in cold blood and they die with nary a tear shed for their fates.

My husband was shocked by William’s work. He told him he didn’t like it and didn’t want him to use those words anymore. I stuck up for William, but I was a little worried about it myself and wondering if maybe I’d gone too far. So I pointed out to William that publishers of children’s books do not buy books that have lots of cuss words in them, and that, moreover, dying in droves is not always looked on kindly either. His reply: Even in middle school? He seems to have done some market research when he was not busy assembling his opus, one suareword at a time.

But I think I have hit on a solution. Do you remember that Francine Prose book I talked about a while ago? It’s called Reading Like a Writer and in it she talks about how the work of other writers can sometimes be all the help we need when we encounter issues with our own work. Want some help on dialogue? Try Hemingway. Don’t know how to get people in and out of rooms? Check out George Eliot and Jane Austen.

Want to use billuns of suarewords, but still want to sell your book to Scholastic Books? Then you do as Cecil Day-Lewis does in the Otterbury Incident which is the book we are reading out loud at bedtime these days. You say this, “He swore up and down something fierce, using words that are unprintable.” Cecil Day-Lewis is now William’s muse and inspiration. Your characters can swear, and you can still sell your book to the juvenile market. As a teaching technique, particularly when you don’t want to be judgmental or intrusive, it is very helpful to be able to point to someone else to back up what you are trying to say. It’s a little like having your brother tell your child it’s not a great idea to sneak cigarettes in the bathroom at school. It just seems more effective to have advice come from a third party sometimes.

I am still thinking of the dying in cold blood with nary a tear shed problem. I’m sure, though, that somewhere in the library my answer is waiting for me.

The House Where Jeeves Lives

The most recent evidence of the complete hold Jeeves and Wooster have taken on our life is the long conversation we recently had about who we’d rather be: Jeeves or Wooster. Careful consideration was given to how smart Jeeves is, and how Bertie Wooster’s head is frequently referred to as a “lemon.” Still, it IS Bertie’s fabulous car, after all, and he does get to eat a lot of awfully good food when he’s at his Aunt Delia’s, and he doesn’t seem to ever have to work. Plus, Wooster appears to be kind of rich, although it is not at all clear how he got that way. Three votes for Wooster. I vote for Jeeves, because he has such an objective way of looking at the antics and silliness of Bertie Wooster and his friends. I would so like to be that objective.

But the truth is, we love them both. We love Jeeves because he does not say everything he thinks, but manages to express great truths with a raised eyebrow (if you are watching Stephen Fry in the great television adaptation) or in a “Very good, sir” (if you are reading the books). Bertie is our beloved because, although thick as a board, he is sweet, and generous, and never seems to get really put out when people tell him he’s an idiot. He knows who he is, except when he decides to solve a problem without Jeeves’s help. They are perfect together, these two.

And so, every night we eat our dinner in front of the really big television I bought at Christmas time. We all dance around to the introductory jazzy music. William has developed his own little hand waving, toe tapping expository dance thing to this wonderful music. The episodes are long — at least 45 minutes — and deeply, deeply satisfying. Things go wrong, and then things go right. Cue the jazzy music.

I didn’t actually look this up, so I’m not sure I’m right, but I’m going to guess that these stories, many of which were written after the Great War, offered solace and escape to people whose faith in an ordered world had collapsed. For us, in the week after the event at Virginia Tech, Jeeves and Wooster have done something similar. This is one of the things art does, I suppose. It delights us, offers us solace and order — and sometimes, under its influence, people will bring you a cup of tea in bed in the morning, and listen to you sympathetically when you’re having trouble with your aunt or the chorus girl you’ve falled in love with. We cannot hire Jeeves, having no evening clothes to speak of for him to care for, but we can BE him a little bit, I think, and Bertie too — kinder, more generous, in the case of Bertie, and more sensible and rational, in the case of Jeeves.

This morning, someone brought me a cup of tea in bed. They did not glide in noiselessly, and they slopped the tea around a little bit, but it nevertheless worked its magic on me. I’m up and about, and off to figure out how to finish my story. Maybe I’ll introduce a Jeeves-like character, and let him do the work. But in the end, what matters most is that in the house where Jeeves lives, kindness and cups of tea reign. I hope your house is like that this weekend.