Hooked on Spanish Soap

I must confess to a shameful addiction. If you have Netflix, you can succumb as well, if you’re inclined that way. It’s Gran Hotel.

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They call it the Spanish Downton Abbey, and in many ways it is—the period costumes, (complete with corsets), the rigid class distinctions, the multi-generational story lines. But it’s darker, more melodramatic. Family secrets are turfed out like ants from an anthill. Bodies drop in almost every episode, and not from car wrecks or natural causes as in the tepid Downton Abbey. Nearly everyone is some kind of murderer. And it’s all built around a charming love story between the married heiress to the hotel (Amaia Salamanca) and the hero, a handsome waiter (Yon Gonzalez). Muy Guapo, Yon Gonzalez. Possibly the prettiest  young man I’ve ever seen.

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As you can tell, I’m learning a little Spanish while I binge-watch this rip-snorter, which is subtitled in English. Already I’ve learned five or six words. By the time I get to the last episode—number 66, I think—I’ll be bilingual.

You’re saying, why doesn’t she get busy and write something herself? Hey, I’m studying. What is it that makes Gran Hotel impossible to turn away from? If I can discover their secret, I can write thrillers that nobody can put down, right? Anyway the week after Easter is a time to goof off and vacate. But that isn’t what I’m up to. No. I’m working. I’m studying. Here’s what I’ve discovered, the formula for a riveting and compelling story:

First of all the characters have to be interesting, varied, and deep. The plot twists have to be dizzying. And the writers must have no qualms about hurting people. No punches are to be pulled here.

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So that’s how you do it. I’m going to go forth and do likewise, as soon as I find out about the affair between the Marquesa and the priest, and whether the inspector ever discovers that the maitre d’ is the serial killer. And the explosion. I think there’s an explosion coming. I’m going back and watch some more.  Con su permiso.

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My Favorite Book

by-waysEvery so often someone wants to know what my favorite book is. I’m not sure about that. I know what my mother’s favorite book was—an Edwardian romance called The By-Ways of Braithe, the sort of novel that was said to ruin the morals of young girls. It was given to her by my Great-Aunt Kathleen, for whom I was named. The plot had everything: a lovely young red-headed heroine (my mother was red-headed), a priceless opal, an old mansion, secret passages, a dissolute but handsome cousin with carnal designs.

When I was two, or thereabouts, she put me down for a nap in the same room as her beloved copy of The By-Ways of Braithe, and instead of going to sleep I tore it up. I may even have eaten part of it. It was the sort of romantic twaddle that one could happily devour.

Years passed. I would have forgotten The By-Ways of Braithe, but for the fact that my mother mentioned it so often. Long after I grew up I discovered that there were such things as book-find services, and so I wrote away to one of them and secured a copy at last, which I first read and then gave to my mother for her birthday.

It was every bit as good as she had said. She was very pleased to receive it. She read it twice, or maybe three times, and then she laid it aside and began to pester me for other books that were lost in the mists of antiquity.

So I suppose one’s favorite book is the book one can’t quite have. For me, then, it’s The Yield of the Years, the memoirs of Admiral Sir Guy Gaunt, K.C.M.G., C.B., with twenty-seven illustrations. He makes an appearance in Firebomb, my spy thriller, and I’d really like to know him better, if only his book were available through interlibrary loan, or for sale in my price range.

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If you see it anywhere, please let me know.

Screaming

peacemarchYesterday I opened the front door to the warm winds of spring and heard the happy shrieks of the children playing down the street. “It’s fun to scream,” I said to Harold. “I haven’t had a good scream since 2003.” It was March 7, 2003, International Women’s Day, in fact, when George W. Bush and his cohorts had already decided to attack Iraq and a bunch of us mistakenly believed he could be dissuaded from this by hearing from the People.

It was fun to scream. Most of us were women; it was a woman’s march. As we might have expected, W. was out of town, but the DC police herded us as far away from the executive mansion as they reasonably could and told us that twelve of us at a time would be allowed into Lafayette Square, out in front of it. We gathered on Meridian Hill and marched down Sixteenth Street, chanting. Hey, hey! Ho, ho! I forget how the rest of the chant went. From time to time we would stop chanting and simply scream.

You’ve no idea how satisfying that is if you’ve never tried it, to bellow as loud as you can together with a huge crowd of like-minded folks and hear the echoes of your screaming bouncing off tall buildings. At the end of Sixteenth Street the parade was diverted way around the White House. We couldn’t even see it, let alone be seen by anybody who might be in there. The women milled around the Mall for awhile and then marched back up to try to collect on the promise that twelve of us, at least, would be let into Lafayette Square.

The Twelve were famous writers and like that, Maxine Hong Kingston, a beloved idol of mine, Alice Walker, and ten other luminaries whose names are lost to my fading memory. They got into the square, the police asked them to leave, and they sat down, whereupon they were all led away in handcuffs.

I got there just in time to see them being led away in handcuffs, most of them grannies like myself, arrested for trying to speak truth to power. I could have been among them, if I’d been a little spryer. It would have been an honor. But the sight of better women than me being dragged off to jail, along with the sight and sound of the twenty burly motorcycle cops who came roaring up to the curb, batons in hand, to keep all the other grannies in line, took some of the starch out of me. I haven’t had a good scream since.

Pretty soon it might be time again. We’ll see how this election progresses.

Naked Writers

titiaan_zondeval_grtWriters of fiction, and even of non-fiction, reveal who they secretly are in everything they write. Their feelings about themselves, their feelings about other people, their politics, their level of education, their attitude toward organized religion and the Lord God Himself—it’s all there, in the way the writer’s characters behave, in the way fate, society, and the other characters treat them, sometimes even in the occasional page or two of philosophizing.

Philosophizing is frequently a feature of  grim-jawed right-wing men’s thrillers. There are a lot of those around, great big fat volumes with the name of the author and title of the book in a huge font size that takes up the whole cover. People like them. I like them.You don’t have to be on board with a writer’s politics to enjoy the writer’s work. Many are written by grim-jawed right-wing men, no doubt, but the thriller writers I’ve met are soft-spoken, friendly people who don’t even carry guns.

Bernard Cornwell is a nice guy and a good public speaker. I love his work, all full of violence, battle, and severed limbs. After reading one of his Saxon novels, where the churchmen are stupid, tyrannical, hate-filled villains who get hacked to pieces in front of their deluded Christian followers by the heroic Viking protagonist, I feel as though I should go to confession. And I’m not even Roman Catholic. I sense a certain hostility to organized religion in those books.

Writers (and fans) of so-called cozy mysteries appear from their writings to have a low tolerance for chaos. Theirs is a world where the cats and dogs never die. The body falls, always the body of a human being, and the rest of the book is devoted to the restoration of order. These writers are my friends and Facebook friends, and their lives are as frightening and disorderly as anybody else’s, with horrible things happening to their neighborhoods, their families, and yes, their cats and dogs, because that’s real life. Who needs it? The cozy writers perform a valuable public service by giving us a place to hide out with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and escape for a little while.

The most naked sort of naked writing has to be the semi-autobiography. Women don’t do those so much. It’s a man thing, an entitled man thing. I am Man. Behold my words. Famous literary lions have been writing them forever, so that the Great Man Writer has become a dramatic convention.  You don’t see women in the movies writing their thinly disguised life stories to great respect and public acclaim. But if you do write a semi-autobiography, trust me, you are standing there starkers.

The idea of the great manly semi-autobiography as a worthwhile endeavor tends to lead young men astray, I think. Everyone says, write what you know, but before you start you should make sure you know something. Years ago I ran a workshop at a conference where among the other offerings I was supposed to critique was a chapter and an outline for a young fellow’s great manly semi-autobiography. When I read this opus I instantly hated the kid.

It was a story of how he took a job in a profession that I knew a little something about, and worked for a woman very like friends of mine. He proceeded to sneer at his job as worthless and sneer at his boss for being old, ugly, and lonely. Then his character went out to a bar and picked up a needy girlfriend, who moved in with him. I think he hung out with her because they did the same drugs. When his cold, rejecting, self-centered behavior drove her to try to kill herself he regarded it as a personal annoyance.

Luckily two women in the workshop were able to help him with his manuscript, which they wanted to do because he was very good-looking.  Maybe I would have cut him a break, too, if I had seen his face first. But probably not. Did you know that Steinbeck kicked his dog? I read that somewhere. At least it isn’t apparent in his work.

Bullies

1953_Kaiser_Deluxe_fixet_3I see by the New York Times that Donald Trump makes it a regular practice to tweet bullying things about anyone who criticizes him. His six thousand followers jump on, says the Times, and soon the twittersphere is abuzz with vitriol and crude innuendo. As a result, the people who disapprove of him have come to fear him.

But I’m not here to share my opinions about Donald Trump, although I could do so without fear, since words like “vitriol” and “innuendo” are not among the few that Trump and his followers know.  I’m here to tell stories about other bullies.

Not schoolyard bullies, although I ran into my share of those over the years as we moved from town to town. I want to talk about people in authority who bully the helpless. I want to tell you about India Smith.

India Smith was an office functionary at North Plainfield High School, back in the day, some sort of guidance counselor or truant officer.  When I was in junior high the girls in my class walked over to the high school once or twice a week to study home economics, since that was where the kitchen was, and the sewing room. All the girls were taught to cook and sew. That seems so quaint now. A couple of my classmates had experienced run-ins with Miss Smith, somehow, and she was an object of hate.

Everyone knew her car, a maroon 1953 Kaiser-Frazer. Since Miss Smith was an object of hate in the high school generally, her car was frequently attacked, which must have made her sensitive about it. One heard of boys scratching the paint or sticking her tires with ice picks.

One fine spring day as we were returning to the junior high from the high school building we saw Miss Smith’s car parked out front with the windows rolled down. One of the girls had a bologna sandwich that she didn’t want anymore and it amused her to fling it in the window of Miss Smith’s car. I didn’t see this done, but I heard a lot of giggling.

The following day India Smith showed her wolf-like face in our home room.

You know how it went. “There are mustard stains on my car seat. Everyone will sit here until the girls who defaced my car stand up and confess.”  The sense of helplessness and dread. In the end five girls stood up and were led away to the office.

What happened to them there? They were mercilessly bullied. Getting even with all the kids who had ever done anything to her car, India Smith showered her five victims with personal attacks. “Your mother is a drunk,” she said to one of them, among other things. Where she got that idea nobody said, but the shot hit home. The girls came back to class weeping, devastated, all for a dab of mustard.

As an observer of this, I was filled with a sense of injustice. I still think the woman was a terrible person, not unlike my orthodontist, that child-hating wielder of instruments of torture. Curiously, people like them have shaped my politics to this day. Here’s the thing. It’s a bad idea to let bullies get into positions of power. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Who to Spend Time With

romancecoverThere are 7.349 billion people in the world about now, give or take a few million. Each is as unique as a snowflake. The most prolific fiction writer in the world can’t write about all of them. Which of them do you want to be with for the six months to a year that it takes to write a novel? Or for the two or three days that it takes to read one?

I found myself pondering this question yesterday in the auto dealership while I waited for the service guys to install my new airbag, one that wouldn’t spray shrapnel all over whoever was in the passenger seat when the airbag deployed. They took a couple of hours. It was an old fem-jep spy thriller from the seventies, full of creaky romance novel conventions.

The heroine was kind of aimless about her life and in my opinion too stupid to live. The villainous spy was a sociopath who lived for the thrill of killing people, to hear him talk, which we did for four or five pages as he and the gormless heroine teetered on the edge of a cliff. When she finally got the upper hand, did she kick him over the cliff? Never occurred to her to do so. She ran away and stole his car. Of course it would have been the end of the book if she killed him, and that would have turned it into a novella. But, still.

Do such people exist in nature? Probably. Do I want to read about them? Actually, no, although some thrilling chase scenes followed.

What sort of people do readers want to read about, out of an almost infinite selection of beings? People similar to themselves, I guess, and then antagonists who complement those people in a balanced way, strength for strength. People who are not stupider than the readers are. Witty people, maybe. Courageous people. People like the readers’  friends, but whose sufferings and struggles are greater.

It seems to me sometimes that the whole point of reading is to encounter other souls. Not the appalling souls we see on reality TV, but creatures with actual feelings. This is a glorious and terrifying goal to shoot for in your writing.

Bending the Story

traditional-dining-chairsWriting a historical novel is in some ways like making a piece of furniture. Say, a chair. You have some wood, and an idea. To make the wood conform to your idea, you modify it. You saw it up, steam it and bend it, maybe stain it a different color. When you’ve done your work well you have something that people can sit on, something that highlights and does not disguise the beauty of the wood.

Your historical novel needs to be something that people can read with pleasure, that highlights and does not disguise the spirit of the period. You don’t want to make your book entirely out of fake events, but neither can you simply dump unvarnished history onto the page and call it a novel. If you want to do that, go be a historian. You’re going to have to change some things to get your idea to hang together and make fictional sense.

Anyway this is the conclusion I came to when I was working on FIREBOMB, a story about many real people and events, not only the ones I made up. I began with a strict timeline of what actually happened in New York City in the early days of the First World War. But if I stuck to that, all these characters would have to sit around for a whole year waiting for the climactic event while my readers closed the book and pitched it into a corner. So I compressed the action, and once I got up the nerve to do that, I found that I could move events around, arrange them to produce a sense of gradation and climax.

And then there were the characters: historical figures, people I made up, and historical figures I wanted to heavily fictionalize. Why heavily fictionalize a historical figure? I’m less sure about that now, but it just seems rude to paint somebody as a monstrous villain when his great-grandchildren might be around to take offense. “Grandpa was never like that.” I mean, what could I say?

Martha Held, however, was irresistible. A gift. Nothing is known about the woman except that she was a retired opera singer whom the Germans had bought a house for, a brownstone on Fifteenth Street, so that she and her young ladies could entertain German officers stranded in New York by the war. I was considering saying something more about her when Sheila York and I ran into a woman at a conference last year. This person, by her accent some sort of Middle-European, sat down with us and began to spew the most amazing bilge about the Jews. Sheila was almost fainting with horror, but I was delighted. Martha! Martha! Keep talking. I have such a spot for you in my book. Because a number of Germans were crazy anti-Semites even before Hitler took power, and it was useful to hold one of them up for examination.

Well, the book needs more work, it needs to be longer, but the structure is there. Now I’ll get back to it. A little glue, a little varnish.