Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My Worst Writing Habit; Imaginary Playmates, Real Writers I can recommend

My niece's daughter reading EVERYONE SHE LOVED

Sheila Curran

 Graham Greene said all good writers have bad memories.  I tell you this as an excuse for why I cannot remember whether it was Annie Proulx or Margaret Atwood who told Terri Gross, “In storytelling, there must be wolves.”  As in, danger.  To illustrate, she offered the example of someone who comes back from vacation and cannot stop saying how fabulous it was. Counter that with a story of my friend.  Her family got held up at gunpoint on their first day in Aix En Provence. Then, in an unrelated catastrophe, they were robbed of everyone’s computers, gameboys, phones, and Ipods on the second afternoon of their glorious summer in a small French village.  

Is it Schadenfruede that makes us gravitate to what went wrong, rather than the Kodak moments of our friend’s vacations?  Or is it just more the element of surprise?  Whatever, Ms. Proulx-Wood was right: there must be wolves.
Which leads me to my worst writing habit, my profound unwillingness to put my beloved imaginary playmates (aka characters) into situations where they might possibly suffer.  Which leads me to pronounce that in the Decade of Dystopia, I have a sinking feeling I’ve written a Utopian novel. 
It started with my sister’s family moving to a neighborhood in Atlanta, a hidden gem of urban beauty, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead’s sons to extend the meandering beauty of their father’s Piedmont Park past its gated borders 

  Built at the turn of the nineteenth century, the treelined streets and elegant brick houses make you feel like you’ve landed on a perfect planet.  A walkable, bikable community close to chic restaurants, bars, museums, cafes. 
So that’s pleasant scenery (ie Kodak moment) number one. 

Fantasy number two is standard issue with me,  a group of close friends who live in walking distance of each other.  They’re funny, smart, forgiving and just a bit eccentric.  There is one bad apple, maybe two, in their midst, but for the most part, my Ansley Park neighbors are dolphins, not sharks.  They are puppies not wolves.

To make all of this worse, one day, in this novel’s infancy, an imaginary Catholic convent and church sprang into being.  

Here, you would think I could find some problems.  Nurse Ratchets of the nun variety.  Maybe an abusive priest to go with the headlines. But no. 
This is the grooviest convent in the world.  More like an English country inn or yoga retreat, full of enlightened older women serving the poor.  They, too, are funny, smart, irreverent and just exactly how I wish the real Church could operate in my oh-so-lapsed Catholic mind.  

In my book of the same name, Our Lady of the Snows was spared during the civil war, when Sherman was burning Atlanta.  A very small but effective rectangle of snow hovered above the church and motherhouse, keeping the buildings (and the slaves hidden inside) from incineration.  It is a charmed place, full of charming sisters. They are are organic gardeners, great cooks, prolific vintners and die-hard football fans.  

Our Lady of the Snows in my parents' and grandmother's New Hampshire village of Dublin

To say I’ve been searching for something like this since I let go of my regular attendance at Mass, well, it goes without saying.  Call me crazy but if I’m making things up, why the hell can’t I make a place that is exactly like where I’d want to go?

Into this perfect vacation of the mind, thank God or Ms. Proulxwood, other things have crept.  Things like greed, envy, piety and hubris.  They are my wolves, both real and fictional, driving my antagonists to topple the kingdom of Heaven, so to speak, with strategies fueled by fear, insecurity and a midlife crisis or two.  (Maybe Lucifer thought it was just too dull to have everything go so perfectly all the time?  Perhaps he wasn’t so much evil as felled by profound boredom.)   

Bringing out the wolves, as figurative as they might be, has taken a very long time.  Like, oh, five years now.  While the cancer thing might account for some of that, I think the rest has been my disinclination to put on my big-girl-pants and just let my people go!  

If yoga is the path of love over fear (my new mantra) then this process has been a similar journey except inside out.  Starting with the love and equanimity, what happens when fear -- whether of bankruptcy, betrayal or bullets – begins to chip away at the better angels of our nature?  

When I think of my novel’s conflict this way, I find some comfort.  This is certainly a question that drives much of what I’ve been most entertained by this year.  In HBO’s Game of Thrones or SHOWTIME’s Homeland, the main characters might be warriors, but they’re undone less by weapons and more by avarice, deception and/or their own compulsions, the inner wolves that drive us all.  In City of Thieves, a gorgeous novel by David Benioff set in Nazi-invaded Leningrad, the heroes’ fates are still cast in the character flaws of their enemies, as well as in certain quirks and foibles of their own.  Similarly, in Pure, by Julianna Baggott, set for release on February 8th, the riveting plot may take place against an epic backdrop of monstrous beauty and perfect horror, (every bit as fantastic as Game of Thrones, every bit as apocalyptic as World War II).  Still, the real action pivots on the internal struggles of our protagonists.  Pressia and Partridge are dogged as much by the demons of memory and loss as the harrowing creatures that pursue them.

Getting back to that perfect vacation, the one your friend bored you to death telling you about, perhaps what’s deadly dull isn’t the beauty of those sunsets but the glossing over of the negative in pursuit of what I see as false cheer.  I mean, really, who has had a perfect vacation? Ten to one, they’re victims of their own internal PR campaign or they’ve found a drug I’d very much like to try.
 Even the best of trips are replete with small problems, those lizards on the ceiling of your picturesque Mexican resort, the squatting toilet in that amazing Venetian restaurant, or just the itchy first day of getting accustomed to sudden leisure.  Maybe what’s compelling – whether in dystopia or utopia – is honesty, the acknowledgement that perfection exists only in magazines and Mommy Dearest’s wardrobe.   We may inhale those stylist’s dreams of the day no one mussed up the couch by sitting on it, but the real payoff comes when we strive towards the immaculate, only to find the devil (and the drama) lies in the details (and those dratted wire hangers.)
 Speaking of drama, I am also looking forward to reading our former girlfriend, Joshilyn Jackson’s newest, due out next week.  A Grown UpKind of Pretty, like Gods in Alabama, Backseat Saints and Between, Georgia, will, I can lay a bet on it, take ‘pretty’ out for a ride in a fast car on a back road till the word takes on a Flannery O’Connoresque meaning.  

 Starred review, everyone!  You go, Joshilyn!

Lastly, I'm looking forward to reading Jefferson Bass's latest, The Bone Yard, which is set right near Tallahassee, at a horrific place called The Dozier School for Boys.  

Wolves abound, in the form of sadistic guards and callous generations of overseers.  Jon Jefferson, the writer part of the team authoring the hugely successful Bones mystery series, got up close and personal with this story, recruiting former boys who'd been abused to talk publicly about their incarceration in an institution that looked like a gorgeous prep school on the outside and within its meandering pastures, hides a graveyard (true story) of dead bodies, children beaten to death and never accounted for.  Perhaps it was just coincidence, but after the publicity surrounding this brave account, the state finally decided to close the school once and for all.  How's that for heroic endeavors? 

Happy Reading! Who says January is the cruelest month?  (T.S. Eliot is turning in his grave, Mr. Greene, not so much.)

Sheila Curran's second novel, Everyone She Loved, debuted at #34 on Amazon's rankings.  Diana Lively is Falling Down, published in 2005, got a starred review from Booklist, and won praise from Jodi Picoult for its "characters who make you laugh out loud, even as they break your heart."  Her third novel, Our Lady of the Snows, is in its fifth draft and is expected to go out to her beloved agent any day now.


  1. I love Ansley Park! Also I just ordered Joshilyn's book. She's a fav of mine too. Love that cover.

  2. I love Ansley Park! Also I just ordered Joshilyn's book. She's a fav of mine too. Love that cover.

  3. Karin, even in the climax (dare I call it that?) of your MFA, you take the time to read and comment. I'm adding a new resolution to my long list. Yes, and isn't Ansley the bomb?

  4. Ah, Sheila, what a wonderful post to wake up to this morning. You always make me think (in the good way)
    Keeping my fingers crossed that your agent loves the new book!

  5. I loved this post, Sheila. I completely understand about not wanting to put characters "in harm's way." I have to fight to do it! Loved the picture of Ansley Park, too!

  6. I cannot wait for this new Sheila Curran novel! (Thanks for the shout!)

  7. Great post, Sheila! And I have to agree with Karin, what a cover on the new Joshilyn Jackson novel!! Off to order it now.

  8. Ansley Park is SO much nicer a place than the nightmarish reform school where "The Bone Yard" is set ... and I'd MUCH rather spend time with Sheila Curran and her characters than with the bad guys who inhabit my pages!

    Jon Jefferson

  9. Aw, thanks all! What fun it is to meet up online and talk about books, as well as the writing process. So many of you have made me think too...Geez I think it's been 7 years now in the GCC and it's feeling more like home every day now. Brenda, Maria, Sarah, Karin, you rock. Jon and Bridget, you roll...not as in 'roll tide," but in roll me another, no, just kidding, as in "let's roll," Bobby Bowden's old pep talk. xoxo sheila

  10. I'm with Lauren. The house looks big enough for both of us.
    Great post!

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