Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lessons from a Master: David Vann on Voice and Language

It was from David Vann that I first learned about "aspirational authors." Soon he became one of mine. Recently released is the book Vann deems his best, Goat Mountain. Booklist agrees, calling it “his finest, most contemplative work to date.” As the starred review in Library Journal notes, “Alaska-born Vann experienced catastrophic family violence in his past, and his work has returned to this theme again and again, this being his most ambitious exploration of the subject.” And just last weekend came the announcement that Vann's previous novel, Dirt, had been selected from among 170 entries for the $50,000 St. Francis College Literary Prize.

Three years ago, Vann led the first 49 Writers Retreat at Tutka Bay. What I learned from him there about the relationship of content and language changed the way I approached my own work. A clear voice emerged from the novel I'd been attempting, and with that, the book, Cold Spell  found its legs. Here, a few notes from Vann's lecture on language, focusing on a selection by Annie Proulx, who’ll be the keynote speaker at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle.

  • Listing is a great way to compress content; an epic convention (from Greek and Roman) – compresses content, collapses time.  Also doesn’t fill in time.  Sentence fragments. 
  • You can divide the English language into grammar and content.  Morphemes not the same as words – they are the building blocks.  Grammatical parts organize; content parts are what Proulx (opening pages of The Shipping News) leaves in – nouns, adjectives, and active verbs.  She converts verbs to adjectives.  Using words as other than their normal parts of speech:  this makes language fresh.  Becomes foregrounded – readers tend to be automatons.  Cliches are bad b/c we get only the literal meaning.  Poor writers – readers can just skim.  As soon as something’s outside of its usual position – you’re required to pause. 
  • Style is choice.  There are different ways to present something:  the kinds of sentences, whether things are foregrounded and not in their usual spots.  Style is the combination of choices – syntax, phonology, lexicon; voice is the combination of that and the sensibility (attitude toward the world) – voice is bigger.
  • Basic distinctions of style:  language divides into Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and Latinate lexicon and meter.  Each has its own vocabulary and metrical properties.  1066 is the most important date in English literature.  Latinate meter in Aeniad is accentual syllabic (dactile: heavy stress, two soft stresses).  Metrical line arranged by the kind of metrical pattern in each foot plus the number of syllables.  Everything declined and marked.  Sentence order didn’t matter – much more flexible than Germanic, which had only accentual meter:  two heavy stresses and then two more (number of syllables doesn’t matter).  Poets can use either paired heavy stresses (accentual meter) or iambic pentameter (Latin) to satisfy readers.
  • Chaucer – first to write verse in Middle English instead of Latin or French.  Class divide in our language:  German is low; refined is French (example:  cow v. beef).  Instinctive class divide can be used for jokes:  Latinate sentence with crude German word thrown in for fun.  (Ex:  mad libs – swaps content with grammar; not fun to switch out grammar).  Grammar is our glue and we can’t process if grammar is switched.  Double heritage:  high/low vocab; double metric schemes.  Language use – simplify distinctions; tough words go away.  Hymns forced full ideas into single lines – destroyed language over time.  English made difficult sounds vanish; French – we’ve shortened sounds.  Chaucer’s initial lines:  Latin meter.  Over time, lost vowels, lost aspirations.  Language deteriorates, but English is still the beefiest.
  • Annie Proulx is one of our best stylists.  She matches style to content.  In first two pages, she heaps up content, cuts out grammar.  Favoring content over grammar, favoring Germanic over Latinate.  These two pages are among David’s favorite in contemporary writing.  Emphasis and foregrounding in last sentence on page 3, providing a snapshot of the rest of the book – theme.  Points of emphasis are about the meaning of the book and the character.  Similar moment to Faulkner:  this sentence tells us how to read the rest of the book; it will work through the landscape.  The book is a love story.  The sludge could be his thoughts, but it could also be his heart.  We get some sympathy for Quoyle.  We can’t reduce it to a one-to-one correspondence.  Syntactic departure – David’s theory is that the beautiful is not just in content, but it’s created by syntax.  There are road signs to beauty.  
For a study of voice and its impact on writing, I'll be teaching a four-week workshop “Sound and Fury: Find and Free Your Writer’s Voice,” in Anchorage beginning Oct. 17.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Where We Write

In the inaugural essay of the new “Where We Write” feature in Poets and Writers Magazine, Francine J. Harris wrote about Detroit, an urban setting that could not be more different than the place where I write. Still, her observations on regionalism, integration, and forgetfulness helped me think in new ways about Alaska, where I write.

Fresh out of a Midwestern college, I boarded a series of planes, each smaller than the last, until a single-engine Cessna dropped me on a muddy runway in the middle of the Alaska tundra. I saw no houses, no roads, no school where I’d planned to teach, only wind-rippled grasses and a brown, winding slough. The wind stinging my face, the plane droning into the gray sky as it circled and then disappeared, I couldn’t fathom then what a place like that might mean or, within it, who I might become.

Thirty-four years later, I’m still exploring those questions in my writing. Happily, I have company, in the form of what Oprah Magazine book editor Leigh Newman has dubbed an Alaska Literary Renaissance. In the sixteen years since I began publishing, first out of New York, later with regional presses, our once-marginalized Alaska literary community is growing into a sense of itself.

Breeding misconceptions even as it inspires, this place where we write is iconic—wild, vast, and in many ways unfamiliar, even to those of us who live here. To write within such a place requires resisting stereotypes and the rehashing of familiar themes. Geographically, culturally, and socially, we have many Alaskas to explore.  Beyond the familiar “man versus wild,” there are multiple tensions to consider, too—outsiders and insiders, colonial intrusion and aboriginal integrity, preservation and development, community and isolation.

I’m fortunate to have been writing and publishing here for a long time. I’ve lived in places few can pronounce, much less imagine— Nunapitchuk, Tuluksak, Akiachak—places that in many ways seem a world apart, and yet beyond the windswept tundra and the bitter wind and the collision of cultures run hopes and heartaches that inspire stories everywhere. On any given day, I may look up from my laptop and through the window spot a moose with her calf, a black bear sneaking across the yard, or a late winter sunrise cast a pink light over Mt. McKinley.

Where do you write?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Authors, Booksellers, Readers: You're invited (by none other than Sherman Alexie)

Sherman Alexie

In a letter signed "Sherman Alexie, An Absolutely True Part-Time Indie," one of America's best-known authors had launched a great concept, declaring November 30 "Indies First" day at local bookstores all over the country.

Addressing all "book nerds," Alexie makes his pitch:  "Now is the time to be a superhero for independent bookstores. I want all of us (you and you and especially you) to spend an amazing day hand-selling books at your local independent bookstore on Small Business Saturday (that's the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 30 this year, so you know it's a huge weekend for everyone who, you know, wants to make a living)."

"Here's the plan," Alexie explains. "We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends' books. Maybe you'll sign and sell books of your own in the process. I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing)."

The "Indies First" idea grew from an invitation extended to Alexie by Janis Segress when she and others re-opened Seattle's Queen Anne Book Company last spring. Alexie accepted. After all, he says, "What could be better than spending a day hanging out in your favorite hometown indie, hand-selling books you love to people who will love them too and signing a stack of your own?"

I love this idea. It plays right into one of my secret but (usually) suppressed urges: to tug the sleeves of strangers whenever I spot titles I love on the shelves of a bookstore. I'm spreading the word well in advance because booksellers need to sign up (only two to date in Alaska - what's up with that?) and so do authors.

Authors, booksellers, readers - you're all invited. Mark your calendars, sign up, and let's get out and sell books!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Tour a book before it’s published? Five reasons why it’s not as crazy as it sounds

In Whitehorse: That's me with Michael Gates, one of my favorite writer/historians

Recently I returned from ten days of traveling Alaska and the Yukon, touring a book that’s yet to be published. A year ago, I’d never thought of doing such a thing, but now that I’ve done it, it makes perfect sense.

Of course, it has to be the right kind of book. I wouldn’t do a pre-publication tour of a novel, for instance, because novels are slippery little things, prone to a lot of shifting even in their final stages.

You also have to be the right kind of author, meaning that you have the confidence and means to make sure the book actually gets published. Because my publishing options now include Running Fox Books, I’ve got an in with the publisher (me!), and that means I know Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold will see the light of day, one way or the other.

Finally, you have to be at the right place in your work. I’ve been at this project for two years. My research is nearly wrapped up (I completed the last of it while touring, which helped me decide where to stop.). I’ve written half the book, and the other half’s thoroughly outlined. Put it this way: I can talk about Kate Carmack in my sleep. All night. For several nights in a row. If there’s anyone in the world who knows more about her than I do, we definitely need to talk.

Here’s why I recommend a before-the-fact tour of your book:

·        You’ll be reminded why you’re writing the book in the first place. After a few years on a project, you start wondering why you ever began. A few talks in new places before eager listeners will get you jazzed all over again about your subject.
·        You’ll get to test-drive some of the book’s key components. Before a live audience, you can see where interest peaks and fizzles. You’ll find out which parts you’ve nailed, and which ones will benefit from further work.
·        You’ll build excitement for your project. If you’ve ever waiting nervously for those first reviews to come in, wondering whether anyone but you and your mother and your friends who are too polite to say otherwise will like what you’ve written, then you can appreciate how nice it is to meet a bunch of readers who are enthusiastic about your book before it’s even finished.
·        You’ll expand your platform. Is any phrase tossed around more in publishing these days? Enough said.
·        You’ll meet some really cool people. In Haines, I stayed with Nancy, in the very same house owned by Louis Shotridge almost a hundred years ago (as it happens, Louis Shotridge appears in my book. Thanks to my friend Dan, I also met Lee, a local genealogy whiz who helped me firm up some family connections of Kate’s.  In Skagway, I reconnected with Cindy at the National Park Service, who set my whole tour in motion with a lecture request made last spring. In Tagish, I was welcomed by Ida, a descendent of Kate’s who shared fantastic views (literally and figuratively) of the place Kate called home. In Whitehorse, a stranger I met at the archives became a friend, inviting me to stay at her home, where we swapped research on our subjects (thanks, Lian!), and a fellow writer delivered some research material I hadn't yet found (thanks, Michael!). In Dawson, Laura served wine and cheese at my lecture, and she made email connections for me with writers I need to know, plus I got a rare tour of the Anglican Church that Kate’s daughter attended (thanks, Dan and Betty!).

Cross-posted at www.49writers.blogspot.com.