Monday, October 15, 2007

The Fourth Draft

. . . or is it the fifth? I've kind of lost count by now. Whichever one it is, I started it today. Actually, I probably started it last week, when I arrived in the US, but I was dipping into the draft, changing dialogue and the odd setting. But this evening, after checking into my hotel in Portland, I went back to the start of THE REAPERS and began adjusting the prologue, then moved on to the first chapter. That's a proper rewrite. Anything else is just dabbling.

I've said it before, but I wonder if there isn't an easier way to write a book. Again and again I encounter fellow writers who produce perfectly good books by submitting their first draft to their editors. Perhaps they just have their act together, whereas I do not. (I'm not fishing for compliments here. I just genuinely believe that there are authors out there who have a clear picture of the book they want to write set in their heads from the start, so that the first draft is less exploratory than it is in my case.) Anyway, THE REAPERS is coming together, even if does begin with what feels like a lot of bloodshed, some of it at the hands of Angel and Louis.

A month ago, I received an interesting email, through the lovely webmaven, Heidi. It was from a woman who expressed some concern at the direction that she felt THE REAPERS was taking, judging from my occasional posts. She liked Angel and Louis, she said. She liked their humor. She was uneasy about the possibility thate her impression of the characters might be undermined by what was about to happen in subsequent books, and THE REAPERS in particular.

I thought of that email again as I was revising the first chapter. In this draft - and, to be fair, in every draft since the first - Louis is particularly cold-blooded in the way in which he deals with a set of potential adversaries. So too, to be fair, is Angel, even if he has some qualms about their actions. To me, it seemed like the natural response that these two men would have to a particular situation. They are, after all, killers, and one of the themes of THE REAPERS is the psychology of killing. I've been doing a lot of research in that area, and it's been fascinating, in a disturbing way. That research, I think, has informed (if not influenced) some of the actions of Angel and Louis in the novel. In other words, as I delved deeper into the psychology of killing, I found that the way in which I was thinking about Angel and Louis matched the reality of certain responses to the act of killing in, for example, warfare, and among soldiers.

Nevertheless, the lady's very thoughtful email raised an interesting question about the nature of a reader's relationship to characters of whom he, or she, has grown fond, and the writer's duty, if any, to those responses. It's a situation that only really arises in certain forms of genre fiction. As I think I've written before, mystery fiction is unusual in the strength of its dependence on recurring characters. Literary fiction, by contrast, uses them to a lesser degree, so much so that the latest Philip Roth book has attracted more attention than usual, I think, precisely because it represents the "last ordeal" of Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring alter ego in Roth's fiction.

Yet, by contrast with mystery fiction, Zuckerman has hardly figured at all in Roth's work. Only crime fiction (and, to a lesser extent, certain types of sci-fi, fantasy, and romantic fiction - or, to lump them all under one umbrella, genre fiction) returns again and again, on an annual basis in most cases, to a single character or set of characters. That is part of its appeal to the reader, and it is hardly surprising that a bond develops between the reader and those fictional characters, one that is frequently very loyal and affectionate. The dilemma for the author is: to what degree should he or she be influenced by that bond? The answer, to be brutally frank, is not at all, even at the risk of alienating some of those readers in the process. The writer has to be true to the characters, in bad things as well as good, otherwise they have no meaning.

So, in the course of the most recent draft of THE REAPERS, Angel and Louis behave in a way that is open to a number of interpretations, not all of them favourable, yet each represents a facet of their characters. Similarly Parker, by being seen through the eyes of an outsider, an observer, emerges as a far more enigmatic and disturbing individual than perhaps he does when his actions are explained in his own voice, but that too is not being untrue to his nature. The fact of the matter is that the way in which we want our favourite characters to behave is not necessarily the way in which they should, or would, behave, given our knowledge of their natures. They may be invented, but they are human, and they are duty bound to behave as human beings would do, or else they have nothing worth hearing to say to us about our existence.

It's now midnight where I am. Strangely, I am writing for the sake of writing. In a sense, none of this seems terribly important. Susie, who contributed regularly to the forum, passed away last week. I had hoped that she would get the opportunity to read the draft of THE REAPERS when I returned to Ireland with it, because I thought she would enjoy doing that, but it was not to be. I met her only once, after a signing, with her husband and a friend from the US. We had dinner. She was a sweet, funny, courageous human being.

May she rest in peace.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Guns, Guitars, Groceries . . .

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Middlebury, Vermont as I write this. There are, I must admit, worse places to be. Actually, I think I might have been in some of them yesterday: a succession of gloomy towns in upstate New York, doused by freezing rain, each one blending into the next through the windshield.

This is the last research trip for The Reapers. The book is due to be delivered in a month’s time, and I have the draft on my laptop, with a backup on a little portable hard drive. In some ways, it’s been a frustrating week. Someone who was due to act as a guide for a location in one section of the book couldn’t make it, so I went over the ground again on my own. I’ll get a friend to check the details later, just to make sure I haven’t got something hopelessly wrong. The weather has been pretty foul, so I’ve been trudging around with my hood up, trying to discern details through the murk. My little hardback notebook is filling with scribbles, some written while said notebook has been balanced precariously on the steering wheel. (I know, I know: I should use one of those portable recording devices, but I’d feel like an idiot, and a bit of a knob, talking to myself in the car.) I had hoped to set myself up in a rented condo in Portland for ten days, but the condo is only available for three days at the end of my trip, so I’m going to be moving three times in a week, shuffling from hotel to inn to apartment, which isn’t ideal. I’ve also had to cancel my appearance at the Guildford festival in the UK next week. I need to stay here and finish what I’m doing. If I leave early, the book will suffer. It’s the first time I’ve ever backed out of a commitment like that, the only time in almost a decade as a writer, and I feel bad about it, but I don’t seem to have a choice.

In the meantime, I’ve been rewriting as I go: in motel rooms, restaurants, coffee shops, trying to make the adjustments while what I’ve seen is still fresh in my mind: roads, buildings, the colors of the trees, the landscape that will be transplanted into the book. I’m reading a history of the Adirondacks, with Robert Harris’s The Ghost acting as my light relief. At a rough calculation, I’ve driven 700 miles in 48 hours. I’m seeing a lot of the country, albeit mainly through glass.

None of this, I hasten to add, is like working for a living. It’s constantly interesting, and by retracing the route that will be taken by Angel and Louis, and others, in the book, I’ve been able to improve what has already been written, I hope. It also gave me the pleasure of visiting Dick’s Country Store and Music Oasis at Churubusco, New York, which may be the most unusual store I’ve encountered in a very long time. Dick’s, for those of you unfamiliar with it, boasts that it has “500 Guitars and 1000 Guns”. I didn’t count them all, but that seems like a pretty good guess: Dick’s sells groceries, guns, and guitars, all under the same roof. It’s a one-stop shop for a particular type of shopper, I suppose. Louis and Angel visit it in the book, and even they’re a bit nonplussed. I bought a T-shirt. In fact, I bought a couple. I may even give one away in a competition for the nice members of my website a little closer to publication.

Now I’m off to find a place to sleep for the night. Time to move on . . .

This week John read

The Ghost by Robert Harris
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

and listened to

What is Free to a Good Home? by Emily Haines and the Soft Skeletons