Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jane Eyre's First Day in London

The woman left her home near the bleak cemetery and walked to the post office near the top of Main Street to send her package south. On August 24, 1847, plain brown paper concealed an unknown author’s remarkable story, now on its way by train from the wild moors in the north of England to one of the principal streets in the heart of London. The journey ended several hours later at a large bookseller’s shop, situated at 65 Cornhill where the publishers, Smith, Elder & Company had occupied the premises since 1824. Inside, several young men sat at a long table reading and editing sheets of manuscript while a few younger lads hurried back and forth filling inkwells, sharpening quills, or opening the post. The recently delivered packet lay on the front counter among first editions of Smith, Elder publications. A boy’s small hand lifted the brown package and tore off the paper before placing it beside one of the company’s readers.
For the next two days, the story remained nestled among soon to be published works due out in early 1848. By Thursday afternoon, the 26th of August, a young reader had found the opportunity to begin reading the newly arrived manuscript. He completed it the following morning and was so powerfully moved by the central character that he rushed into Mr. Smith’s office to declare, in the strongest possible language, that the company must publish this novel.
Smith laughed at the young man’s enthusiasm. ‘You seem to have been so enchanted that I do not know how to believe you.’
George Smith was an attractive young man with dark hair and an ambitious nature. He had begun his apprenticeship at the age of fourteen and had taken over the running of his father’s publishing business at twenty-one. Now at the age of twenty-three, with his father’s recent death, he had assumed full responsibility for the company. He was an enterprising, but fair and cautious man, so he decided to solicit a second opinion of this new novel. He chose an older, clear thinking employee who would be less susceptible to enchantment. He told the young man to give the manuscript to William Smith Williams, the company’s most experienced reader.
William Smith Williams began his publishing career with Taylor and Hessey who in 1818 had published a book of poems by John Keats. Reports find Smith Williams among a select few in 1820 who witnessed Keats departure to Italy, the country where the poet died less than a year later. After a few years of writing articles, William Smith Williams became a literary editor at Smith, Elder. From early childhood, he had loved reading literature, and in later years became a friend to writers, but being a modest man had neither required nor desired recognition for his contribution to the world of letters.
Smith Williams removed his handkerchief and wiped his brow and neck. The sultry August heat had expanded to every corner of the shop and was slipping beneath his collar. His pale face affirmed that he had passed the majority of the summer indoors, and his stooped shoulders hinted at a profession spent bending both his body and mind to the promise of discovering great books. He was in his late forties, a quiet man with mild eyes and a relaxed mouth that suggested a contemplative temperament, but the strong brow marked a large intellect hidden behind. As requested, he put this new manuscript into his bag to read at home. He gripped the bundle long enough for the damp tips of his fingers to leave a faint imprint on the last sheet. That evening he began reading and continued reading well into the night.
The next day, Smith Williams showed the manuscript to George Smith. He hesitated before handing it to him, and when he reluctantly let it go, cleared his throat, still searching for the right words to express his deep conviction that they had in their possession a writer of great literary power. Not a man prone to ebullient expression, he put one hand in his pocket and simply said, ‘I’d like you to read this.’
George Smith knew something was up, so he took the manuscript home with him on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, a warm breeze carried the perfume of blooming honeysuckle through his open study window. After a light breakfast and cup of black coffee, he began reading the story. Summer tints glowed among the furniture as a ray of sunshine traversed the small room, casting rosy reflections on the walls. A dog’s bark and the loud peals of a nearby church bell gradually lost distinction as Smith ventured deeper into the novel. At midmorning, darker hues crept in when the sun disappeared beyond the house. The cooing of doves on his windowsill had stopped and a multitude of shadows gathered round his chair. By the end of chapter nine, he felt a sense of deep solitude.
Just before noon, his groom brought Smith’s horse round to the front door, saddled and ready to go. Smith stared at the bridle in the man’s hand and tried to recall why he had ordered his horse at this time. His man reminded him of an appointment he had made with a friend to take a ride together in the country. Before Smith could respond, a woman’s voice, echoing from the novel, summoned him back to the story, so he scribbled out a quick note to his friend apologizing for not being able to see him that day, explaining that circumstances had arisen to prevent his meeting him. He handed the note to his groom and asked him to deliver the message to his friend.
Back inside the comfort of his study, Smith continued to read. An hour later, a servant rapped at the door to announce that his luncheon was on the table. He tried to soften his displeasure at the interruption.
‘I’ll be eating in my study today. Just bring me a sandwich and a glass of wine.’ He lowered his dark eyes and returned to the young heroine’s plight.
By the dinner hour, he was compelled to eat and to rest his eyes. He put the manuscript down and hurried through the meal, wondering if the heroine’s spirit would survive the tempest of her emotions. Would she indulge her feelings and return to the other man?
The clock in the hall struck once. The candlelight dimmed. Smith read the last page and placed both hands on the sheet of paper. His brain worked restlessly, calculating publishing terms for this new author. He would offer a hundred pounds conditional upon Smith, Elder obtaining the right of first refusal on the next two books. Thoughts of subsequent editions, foreign rights, and future payments circled round the image of words on a cover. A slight alteration needed there. Not quite so dry a title. Better to suggest a true story, one told to an objective party by the governess herself. Yes, that would do well. The book would be called, Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Bronte Museum

On a warm afternoon in early autumn, I climbed to the top of the cobbled Main Street in Haworth, observing the serried ranks of shops and homes whose grim stone faces still wear the grey stain of nineteenth century industrial smoke, and I paused at the crest of that steep, winding hill to steady my excitement before turning up the lane that leads to the Brontë parsonage museum.
To my left stood the imposing front entrance to the church of St. Michael’s and all Angels where the Reverend Patrick Brontë began his duties in 1820 as perpetual curate. After following a slight bend in the lane onto Church Street, the famous Brontë home came into view. A few tall trees masked the full glory of the two-story structure as did a high stone wall that enclosed the grounds. Set between the church and the parsonage was a cemetery with its oblong gravestones and large, stone boxes that resembled forgotten coffins still waiting to be interred. Strips of persistent grass crept along the edges of stone, growing among flattened slabs that designated burials of men, women, and children honoured and loved from centuries long past. To my right was a house built around 1830 by John Brown, a stone mason, church sexton, and friend of the Brontës. Attached to the house is the old school room where Charlotte Brontë had once taught the village boys and girls.

I made my way to the opening in the stone wall and stepped onto the front garden of the parsonage museum. My first impression was that the grounds were smaller than I had imagined, but neatly kept with varied shrubs and trees providing a peaceful setting. I walked along the path and faced the museum with its five windows along the second story, its two windows on either side of the front door, and the two story extension on the right, added after the Reverend Brontë had died. The white curtains contrasting with the grey stone suggested a civilized and gracious façade had merged with the darker substance of life.

Here was the home where great works of literature were imagined and penned: Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Professor, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, and Villette. Hundreds of pages written behind those windows during windstorms and endless rainy nights when the Brontë sisters would light candles, and the silhouettes of their bodies bent over the table would fade with the embers in the fire’s grate. In the imagined silence and stillness of a foggy dawn, brown moors and icy streams visited a corner in my mind’s eye where I saw nature’s elemental power igniting the Brontë soul to speak of passion and truth, and fuelling the mysterious yearning of a lonely spirit determined to unite with her invisible readers.

Charlotte Bronte, a shy, small girl with short-sighted hazel eyes, soft, brown hair and a plain face, could just as easily bury expression while she roamed among strangers as light up with excitement from a thrilling passage of prose. Her thin, tiny frame and poor eyesight held her in check whenever she sat in company, but those eyes were observing her world, and her powerful intelligence was recording events and consuming literature from the solitude of her home.

She once wrote of a 'soft blindness,' but she wasn't speaking about her eyesight. She advised that men prefer women who have mild eyes that never look below the surface, that accept all that is told them and see only what appears to be true, but sometimes even the most downcast eyes have their loopholes: 'I remember once seeing a pair of blue eyes, that were usually thought sleepy, secretly on the alert, and I knew by their expression--an expression which chilled my blood,' that those eyes 'had been accustomed to silent soul-reading.' A woman who studied humanity and whose fine, deep, subtle mind was able to look into another's soul and understand the spirit and the devil residing there. Was she speaking of herself? Probably. A writer needs to look beyond the surface and know the yearnings of each silent soul mirrored and embodied in her characters.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Where Do I Start?

If you're thinking about writing a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, you might ask yourself, 'Where do I start?' What comes to mind when you say those words? A character, an image, an event, an incident from your past? At this point in the creative process, it doesn't really matter because over time it will change and develop into something that rises gradually and unexpectedly from your 'writing self.' This writing self or Welf is a Secret Being that's lodged in your subconscious and is in charge of your vision as soon as you make the commitment to start scribbling. Before you've really got your story set in your mind, the Welf lets you meander over ideas, impressions, feelings, and mental pictures of the big book deal. It lets you get warmed up with your myriad imaginative thoughts. The Welf is a patient being, and it allows you the space to be creative before it quietly and surreptiously sneaks into your brain and takes over your pen. Don't be alarmed; you want and need its help, but don't forget, it's a Secret Being; you won't know it exists until you start writing.

Thanks to your writing self, you don't have to worry about where you start, but you need to write something. It's not carved in stone, and the Welf will be making dramatic changes to your ideas anyways, but just get something started in your head that interests you and keeps you connected to the whole process of self-expression.

For instance, a character I remember from my childhood was called Nature Boy. He never made it into a story, but he was one of my 'start characters.' Nature Boy was our town's first jogger. He literally lived in a shack a couple miles from my neighborhood, and every few weeks I'd see him jogging along the road and sidewarks in his hiking boots or sneakers (depending on the season). In his late forties with greying hair surrounding a face beaten and tanned from the sunlight and wind, he wore leather shorts and a heavy cotton shirt in the winter, and a clear, plastic cape when it rained. In warmer temperatures he sported light-weight shorts and a shirt. Jog, jog, jog. Never walking. Always on the move. Recently divorced, he had experienced a kind of breakdown when his wife left him. That was the town's reason for him being 'not quite right in the head.' My father was a newspaper man from Irish farmland who empathized with Nature Boy's desire to live the simple life. He would often visit the man at his shack, rest on an apple box, smoke a cigar, and share a cheese sandwich while discussing the difference between cow's milk and goat's milk. His final visit involved explaining to Nature Boy why the town needed him to move off his property. He was a squatter and the land was being developed into a housing subdivision, so the city council needed him to vacate as soon as possible.

As kids, we never knew he was the first jogger until jogging became popular. We all just thought Nature Boy was cool because he was so different. Harmless and odd, an interesting combination for a young writer who never saw him again after he left his shack, but whose essence stayed and settled in my mind until the day I started my first novel SHADES OF WAR. The Welf took Nature Boy and morphed him into a character named Oscar, an odd but healthy and hardworking miner whose eccentric behavior barely raised an eyebrow among his fellow townsfolk. On his days off, he preferred to dress in women's skirts and silky lingerie.

For me, the image of Nature Boy was a start. You have to start somewhere. After that, trust the scribbling gods to surface and guide you to where you really want to go. In my case, I wasn't really interested in the jogging man; after all, I never met him or spoke to him, but I was fascinated by his determination to do as he pleased. That was the real start of my character.

I had no idea that Nature Boy's individuality had impressed me, but that's the joy of writing: you never know what's inside you, what's trying to come out, but it's such fun to discover your secret life with its resident Secret Being when you put it all down into words.

So, where do you start? Easy. With yourself.

Friday, May 28, 2010

My First Novel

'The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it.' ~Jules Renard, "Diary," February 1895

I remember when I began thinking about writing my first novel SHADES OF WAR, I'd only completed about 50 pages and hadn't taken that big step to make the committment to finish it. The novel was simply a possibility, an idea to play with, a project I'd get to one day. The hesitation came from seeing how daunting the work would be: hours of research about WWI, the Suffrage movement in Canada, and the mining industry in British Columbia. Way too much to contemplate. And when would I find the time? Novels take hours of empty space just to train your mind to relax and go to that place in your consciousness where the writer lives, and then she might not even want to wake up, so you need to trick her, which usually means you must write, write, and then write some more, and that could take hours, weeks, months, and probably years. Who has that kind of time floating around their day, waiting to be used for one's sole pleasure? But something about the pieces of story I had in my head, and those 50 pages I'd put to paper, and the fun I'd had writing them pushed me closer to making that committment to dig in and write.

During this contemplative time, on my way home from a visit to my local library, I looked around and noticed I had arranged my life in such a way that I could find enough hours to make that committment. I suddenly knew it was time. So I decided I would sit down and do the research and write the novel. The instant I made that decision, a thought popped out of my enthusiasm and eliminated any self-doubt I may have been secretly carrying around inside me. Self-doubt is the kiss of death to a writer, so the new thought was a comfort and a nudge. What was the thought? Pretty much what the French writer Jules Renard wrote in his diary (see quotation above): The novel already exists. It's finished in some parallel universe, and all you have to do is link up with it and scribble it down. I hurried home with the knowledge that 'it's done,' and I celebrated in advance as I believed wholeheartedly that I'd make it happen: my novel is already written! Well, sort of. In this universe, I needed 18 months to create it but, thanks to the certainty in that thought, I never doubted I would.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Beggar's Book

Thought I'd start my blog with the opening of my second novel, a historical fiction that spans several years through the 20s and 30s and follows the adventures of Aidan Malone as he comes to America with nothing more than a youthful dream to be with the woman he loves. Before he succeeds in love and career, however, he must first suffer the indignities of becoming a man. Yikes! Who wants indignities? No one, obviously, but without them there'd be no story. Nature has a plan, and as Aidan haunts the trainyards harmless and thoughtful, though of what one so besotted can think of when he's broke and hungry, it's difficult to divine, his dream becomes a different kind of reality from what he first imagined.

Independent of the woman’s advice, with time on his hands, the young, bloody-minded Irishman stood hunched in his long coat and wet boots in the freezing, gray outskirts of Boston’s train yard. He momentarily regretted his foolhardy decision but, nonetheless, prepared himself to make the great leap, a lone, miserable figure beside the bare rails, gripping his tatty suitcase, and praying for an early departure of the midnight freight heading north. The buttoned topcoat hung large over his thin legs, barely protecting him from the bitter cold. In the lingering, frigid mist round the yard, the biting mist of a March night, the tracks seemed to reach for the ends of the earth. They led forward and backward like a horizontal ladder. First forward to Hollywood and sunshine, and now back to the east coast and frostbite.

He welcomed the familiar reality of the train yard, but he was too tired to remember why. He had grown accustomed to the sharp smell of iron and steel that contrasted with the musky scent of his clothes. He tightened his coat collar as he waited and prayed. “God, please make the train come faster.” His earlier inspection had shown no empty cars, which meant a trip on the caboose in icebox temperatures would be the best he could manage. No way on earth he was climbing to the top of the catwalk for the chill of his life. Better to hang on below, pressed against the siding, imagining the wind was a heat wave. Best seat in the house was inside a boxcar near the back of the train on a long freight. The local bulls looking to make an arrest rarely wandered that far down the line. Crewmen were pretty much the same: a quick check of the first few cars, and they returned to more important work.

The March air filled his lungs as he lifted his head. Were his ears deceiving him or was that the precise chug of an engine growing louder? His hazel eyes strained. Tons of freight dragged back of a low, white spotlight flooding the track. Boxcars, filled with wood and coal, lumbered down the line behind their leader. He waited to make the jump. He never liked catching a train on the fly. His lunge for the car had to be timed perfectly. One slip and he could mangle himself bad. He waited with a mix of nausea and excitement in his stomach. He sucked in a deep lungful of air and kicked at the gravel, running hard. Immediately he was moving as fast as the train.

The door was too high to reach. He aimed for the ladder. He had to catch it at the front where he could best judge the speed. He could grab hold, but he might not hang on. The freight was picking up its pace. The worst was being hurled against the side of the car. Better to retreat than reach for the back end. If he lost his grip there, the force would toss him between the cars like a can of peaches, drag him under the wheels, and flatten him.

He charged the last car, making a desperate leap. His foot slipped, but he caught hold of the ladder. Reached his whole body toward the lowest step. His right hand was too cold to cinch his fingers round the iron rail. He barely held on. His right foot landed on the metal rung, but his hand was sliding loose. The rhythmic strain from the engine clanged a false note; he might not survive this ride.
Rather than struggle against his fate, he submitted to the inevitable. At the peaceful moment of surrender, a low shadow formed to his left above his head, separating itself from the black mist and taking shape. He raised his eyes and became aware of his left hand forming a fist and sticking to the rail. His arm tensed. One more second to make his move. He lunged against the ladder, and felt his heart inflate. A final push and his left foot scraped the lowest rung. The train picked up speed. His body settled in and bent against the wind. Holding tight, Aidan Malone understood that, like his Irish forebears, he was born with a rebellions spirit and a good set of hands. He was not about to give up when he was just getting started. He wedged his suitcase against the train. The ends of his rope shoulder strap flapped in the wind. Beneath him, a mess of tracks crisscrossed until gradually only one remained. The whistle blew three short wails. He was on his way.