Tag: Author

Madeline Miller — Writing Things

Back in January, I bought tickets to see Madeline Miller at the Tattered Cover.

A lot’s happened since then.

Luckily, in response to the pandemic, the Tattered Cover didn’t cancel the conference, but moved the Author Reading and Q&A to Zoom.

Hair the color of gingerbread, Madeline Miller appeared on my computer screen, on my writing desk, in my apartment; a celebrity encounter a little too intimate for my wife and myself. We repeatedly worried she could see or hear us, and we whispered sheepishly throughout the event.

(She couldn’t see us and the mikes were muted.)

Our awkwardness aside, the format was brilliant, with Len Vlahos (one of the bookstore’s owners) acting as interlocutor and host. Madeline Miller read from her work, her writing beautiful as Greek poetry, and talked briefly about childcare and cat ownership during the COVID-19 crisis. Her cat’s name is Sif, by the way, the Norse Goddess of Spring.

One of the themes of her talk was how classic literature can provide us context for modern problems. Miller employed the famous saying that there’s ‘nothing new under the sun.’ Humanity struggles, now and then, with many of the same things. Her first example was The Illiad. In Book One, a plague spreads through the Greek host and its leaders botch their response, ego and rage making for poor decision-making. How familiar. Her second example was Cassandra, the Trojan princess, who always presented the truth, despite being cursed by Apollo to never be believed. In many versions of the myth, Cassandra incurred the god’s wrath by refusing to be his lover. How prescient, Miller said, to have a woman struggling to tell her truth but no one will listen.

The central focus of the talk, however, was Circe.

To those unfamiliar, Madeline Miller’s best known novels are retellings of famous Greek myths, using a contemporary style combined with ancient backdrops. Her two great novels are The Song of Achilles and Circe, the famous sorceress from The Odyssey.

Purpose

Madeline Miller was very clear about how intention guided her approach to Circle. Years ago, when she first read The Odyssey, Miller was disappointed by Homer’s depiction of the famous meeting between Odysseus and Circle. Here were two smart and complicated people, but while Odysseus was brave and clever, Circle merely fell to her knees before his sword then invited him to bed. “The phallic sword did not escape my notice,” Miller added. Furthermore, Odysseus was one of the most curious men in Greek literature, and Miller was puzzled why he never asked Circle about turning men to pigs.

Later, Miller realized Odysseus was also the greatest liar of Greek literature, and that Circle’s section of the epic was reported from his point of view while he was trying to impress a royal court. Odysseus was a man concerned about his reputation and status; by glorifying Circle’s beauty and his sexual conquest, Odysseus was really saying look how great I am!

“Odysseus has told his story for the last 3,000 years,” Miller said. “It was time for Circe to speak for herself.”

There were other elements the author was interested in incorporating into the narrative, like motherhood as its own epic story, and how Circle wasn’t born into power, but used witchcraft, a skill and passion that Miller likened to art. The author also wanted to redeem Circe from her villainization; to respond to male anxiety about female power. Writing Circe, therefore, was an attempt to give the sorceress a full psychological portrait. “This is a story about a woman coming into her power and into her voice in a world hostile to women in power and the female voice,” Miller said.

In other words, Circe was always intended to be a feminist take on the character, just as Song of Achilles was intended as a queer take on Achilles and Patroclus.

Process

In regards to process, Madeline Miller was more ambiguous. She described the craft as a mystery, the reason the ancients spoke of inspiration as a muse.

“My role is to keep showing up to the work,” she said. To sit down every day, to focus, to write, to try her best to tell her characters’ story.

When asked, Miller said she doesn’t really outline. Instead, she has the ending of her novel fixed firmly in her mind. The problem is finding the beginning, the first line. “I know where to shoot the arrow, the target,” she said, “I just don’t know where to stand to shoot.”

Research

“I research as I go,” Miller said. “When I get to a section, I deep dive. Only 1% of what I learn makes it into the novel. Any more would be deadly.”

An important aspect of history writing, she added, was the material culture. An author must give the story a real physicality. The knives, the broaches, the snakes, the beetles, they were all inspired by real finds and studies.

“What something looks like might not make it into the story, but it’s important for the writer to know,” she said. Miller also traveled to Greece to smell the olive groves, to look at the sea, to observe the light on the wall.

Voice

As for the author’s ability to give characters real voices, Miller relies on her theatrical background. One strategy is to read dialogue aloud. Another is to make very intentional decisions about word choice based on a character’s background or mental state. Would this person be contemplative or easily angered? And what would their metaphorical language be; the way they process the world? Circe, living deeply in the woods, draws on nature as her source for context. Patroclus, in rejection of the war-glory tempting Achilles, uses the metaphors of daily life, reflecting Sappho and the ancient poets of ordinary experience.

Overall, I was not surprised to find Madeline Miller as brilliant as her fiction. If you ever have the opportunity to sit in on her talks, I would highly recommend the experience.

 

Joe Hill — Writing Things

Joe Hill, the legendary offspring of the legendary Stephen King (and a damn good writer in his own right, I’m guessing his constant connection to his father must be irksome), came to the Tattered Cover to discuss his short story collection, Full Throttle, and writing in general.

With a friendly, comedic demeanor, and those classic glasses and beard, Hill spoke about his own experience in the publishing industry and read aloud an unpublished short story. The Q&A lasted an hour, followed by another hour of signatures and photos, but I was able to glean a few writerly advicey things.

Here they are:

Good ideas do not necessarily
translate into a good story.

Joe Hill cautioned that one-sentence ideas don’t necessarily make for a story. He mentioned that he was very good at making an elevator pitch, and yet “the better I got it the more I became convinced it’s completely unimportant.” Of course a good concept pulls people in. Nosferatu, for example, has a great pitch: “What if a guy had a car that ran on human souls instead of gasoline?” But, while Hill said he comes up with two or three ideas a week, “it takes me about a month to write a short story and it takes me about three years to write a novel.” The work isn’t coming up with the idea, but what the next four hundred pages will look like; and part of his second-guessing and insecurity regards whether the fundamental idea will be altered irreconcilably, or if the idea must guide the direction of the piece, or if the concept is harming instead of benefiting.

“I’m orderly on the outside,” Hill said. “But inside it’s total chaos.”

The most interesting characters
start as mysteries to the author.

When asked whether he’s a plotter or a panster, Joe Hill said he’s “definitely in the latter camp.” Outlines do not work for him precisely because the most “exciting part of writing a short story or novel is falling in love with a character and wanting to learn about them.” How could he predict in an outline how a character will interact or conflict with others? How he or she will deal with the crisis at hand? According to Joe Hill: “There’s stuff about them that I can’t see but I feel will be revealed if I put them under pressure. Plot is the instrument to create pressure that will force the truth from my lead characters. I can’t plot out a outline about what they’re going to do or how they will respond to trouble because I don’t know who they are yet. … What do they hate, what do they love, what are their daydreams? I can only find that stuff out by churning out a lot of material.”

Sometimes write scenes for the reader and sometimes write scenes for you.

For a four hundred page book, Joe Hill will write a seven hundred page draft. All of which is a quest to discover who his characters are, how they tick and tock and talk. So some of his scenes are written for readers; they’re “part of the journey” the reader is on. But some scenes are necessary only for Hill to know how his characters might respond to this situation or that squabble. Those ‘scenes for me’ get cut, of course, but they help Hill solve the mystery of his characters.

James Brandon — Writing Things

James Brandon, author of Ziggy, Stardust & Me, came to visit my library. In fact, we were his first official school visit.

Brandon spoke of his experience growing up as a gay teenager when homosexuality was considered a sin and aberration and not another sexual orientation among many. He showed us awkward photos from high school, complaining that “I didn’t know what to do with my hair.” Now, in plaid and jeans, with friendly glasses, a high forehead, and hair at a near-coiff, he’d definitely figured out what to do with it. But the point of his lecture was to “Believe in Yourself.”

Brandon also spoke about forgotten LBGT histoy, including the year when the DSM stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disease. On a slide he showed us how a Chicago newspaper described the event: “20,000,000 Gay People Cured!” We learned about the Gay Liberation Front and Doctor Anonymous and the barbaric treatments used to ‘cure queerness.’ And we learned how an author can connect his own intimate life experience with greater historical events.

Brandon also imparted some excellent advice for our audience’s creative writers:

  • Writing is creating real life characters. As an actor, I need to research how to embody a person. As a writer, I need to research how to embody twenty persons. One of the techniques I remember reading on the internet was to write fifty things a reader will never know about your character. I decided to go further and filled a spiral notebook for each character. Dialogue became easier because I knew about the secret conflicts my characters were dealing with.”
  • Research will unlock the greatest mysteries of your novel.”
  • “I needed to tell this story because I wasn’t seeing me out there. I wanted to write not by looking in but looking out.”
  • “It’s okay if your book takes a while. Writing my book took about 18 months to go from draft zero to draft one. Then I wrote about a hundred drafts before I turned in my manuscript to my agent, and she and I rewrote the book three more times (which took another two years) before submitting it to publishers.”
  • Most important, believe in yourself. And be you. We don’t need anything less than who you are. And your differences are your most beautiful you. We suffer without it.”

Brandon Sanderson — Writing Things

I went to see Brandon Sanderson at the Tattered Cover in Denver.

You know, the guy who finished the Wheel of Time series and wrote Mistborn and forty-four other novels. He’s sort of the James Patterson of fantasy literature except Brandon actually writes his books and has a powerful, simple prose (as opposed to just simple). Maybe Stephen King would be a better comparison?

Brandon focused his lecture on failure and the difficulty of transferring nebulous ideas into physical writing. Although he was here to sell Skyward, the nucleus of the night was how his failed attempt at a novel in 2002 became Way of Kings.

A few of his best bits (paraphrased o’ course):

  • “You create beautiful stories in your head. Then sit down and what comes out is awful and dreary and miserable and flawed. You don’t know what to do, and feel dumb because you’ve been learning how to write since Kindergarten. You worry that you’re screwing up something wonderful.”
  • “I’m here to tell you there’s creation in destruction. And good stories from patience.”
  • “Sometimes you need to write the imperfect story. Reach into the stars and reveal their ugly flaws. You won’t get the story you’re searching for. But someday later, you’ll reach back, and give your brain something to fix.”
  • “The more you write, the more you identify plot archetypes, and separate archetypes from trappings. I’m not dismissing other writers, just different directions. Only when I’m stumped do I go to others. Otherwise, I use my instincts and systems. Going from premise to outline to drafting. Keeping that careful balance between determination and discovery.”

 

Markus Zusak — Writing Things

I went to see Markus Zusak (of Book Thief fame) read from his latest novel, Bridge of Clay.

Zusak wore a cream sweater and thin black pants—a mix of charm and casual. He had a surprising Australian monotone with which he delivered an arras of anecdotes and advice. From a story about his life (basically, Zusak manipulated his brother to crack an egg on his forehead), he drew five key points:

  1. “Stories from your life are the easiest place to start.”
  2. “There were two levels to my story. On the top—the switching of the egg. Underneath was the backstory. About hating my brother. About my Dad’s gruff exterior. Know what happened to the characters before they show up.”
  3. “I include small details like sitting on paint cans and the crack of the egg not because I can picture it, but because as a writer I can do simple things well, so people will believe.”
  4. “The best moment was supposed to be my brother smacking himself with an egg. But the best reaction was when my Dad said, ‘Brilliant.’ The unexpected is what helps story.
  5. “I’ve told this story a thousand times. It’s been work-shopped.”

After reading a portion of his new novel, Zusak went to interview questions. I’ve collected the best of his answers:

  • “It’s often the little things in books that are true.”
  • “Writing is a mountain with a sandpit at the top and if you can get there you can play.”
  • “Coffee is good.”
  • “Don’t network or latch onto other writers or form a club. The key attribute to writing is you need to be sitting alone. A lot.”
  • “It’s not about being better or worse than others. Write books only you can write.”
  • “More often than not the author did intend the meaning. I put it there for a reason. But also the more depth you put in, the more there is to find. The connections and relations.”

And my favorite bit:

  • “Absolutely no one encouraged me to be a writer. My teachers didn’t think I could write. Parents didn’t know. I just knew what I wanted, that I was most alive when I was reading or writing. I never won a contest, never published. I bet everything on my book, and endured eight years of rejections. You don’t have to be encouraged. No one has to believe in you. You can do it, you just have to really, really want it.”

Kathleen Glasgow, Library Luminary

Kathleen Glasgow (of Girl in Pieces fame) swung by my school to speak about the dark places she’s been and the dark things she’s written.

Glasgow wore a black coat, a shirt reminiscent of prison bars, thick glasses, the kind writers wear. I felt bad for her. The air was insufferable. This time of year, Colorado has a pattern of snow days, but today the sun was out, the streets glaring, and the school hadn’t lowered the thermostat.

When she started, I thought she was about to ask if anyone had read Girl in Pieces. Instead, Glasgow asked, “Have you ever lost someone?”

So many students put up their hands.

“Do you know someone who self harms?”

More hands.

From there, her lecture sought to answer the question: What do you do with pain? With darkness? With feelings that hurt?

As you may not know, I’m a high school teacher, so I had to smile at my colleagues’ faces when Glasgow spoke about low grades, perpetual truancy, her expulsion and GED, drugs, alcohol, an early career at Wienerschnitzel and Jack-in-the-Box. And when she muttered “shit” into the microphone. Not exactly the narrative we impress on students.

Now, while she may not be a model of academia, to the nation of women falling and failing and hiding scars under long sleeves, Kathleen Glasgow is an avatar of hope—a sign that art and literature and the wondrous act of creation can salvage scraps, can save the soul.

But the answer wasn’t only art. It was the act of honesty. Of unwinding and expressing the truth without romance. “I write books for people who think help me help me help me,” Glasgow told us. “But say I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“People tell you—you’ll get over it, you’ll heal. Not true. You go on with the weight of that trauma for the rest of your life. You learn to be with it.”

“If I’m not going to be open about it, who’s going to be open about it?”

Her final piece of advice to the assembled classes, freshmen to senior, was this:

“Do not self-censor. Always believe in the story burning inside you. Write it. Rewrite it. Read as much as you can. Reading assists your sense for story, teaches structure. And never, never be afraid of the things you want to say.”

Neil Gaiman, Cakes, and Writhing

Gaiman was the reason I always had purple baggy-eyes in elementary and middle school. The simplicity of his writings, the interweaving of mythology, monsters, and modernity, and the cruel world behind-the-magic offered my child-self something gripping, something utterly fantastic and appalling to explore late in the night. His writing still does—today—in my late twenties. Personally, my favorite work by Neil Gaiman is The Ocean at the End of the Lane (and not only because Fiction Beer Company has a citrus wheat beer inspired by the novel). I have a theory about literature (I’m allowed a few theories, being an English teacher) that great works must inspire the moral imagination, even if the wisdoms aren’t the sort we want to hear. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the title clues us in—Harper Lee wants us to understand that it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird” for they “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” The book indicts an American culture which regularly commits this sacrilege against its disadvantaged and minorities. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, behind an incredible narrative about magic and outsiders, there is an abundance of dark truths about adulthood—its deceptive ontology of control, its routine mindlessness. Gaiman reminds us “Adults follow paths. Children explore;” “Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside;” and—in the most incredible line I’ve read in literature, something that explains the opus of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft better than they did themselves—that what marks adulthood is not some maturity or inner growth, but the awareness of how fragile the surface of our lives are, the recognition that reality is “a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”