So, I’m writing a novel…Part I

Somehow I’ve managed to be surrounded by people who write.  I’d like to trace some thoughtful evolution or attribute my position to some fluke of random chance.  Rather, I lean towards Chaos Theory, that butterfly flying in China that I’ve mentioned in a previous post.  When I withdrew one of my sons from school to be taught at home, this action created connections with other homeschoolers, followed by shared needs and experiences, and, finally, to the declaration, “You should put that in your novel!”  Life decisions for the well-being of my son have brought me to my keyboard.

The process of creating fiction is, on the whole, foreign to me.  I’ve published my statistical analyses of health data and explained variance and significance of findings.  My work has been in the concrete, the measurable, the truth.  Even reviewing others’ writing is grounded in reality:  this is how it made me feel, what I connected to it, what confused me.

Throughout this process – I’m approaching my second submission to a writing group – it has become clear that it is impossible to untangle my personal experiences with my writing.  With particular emphasis on the lows, the path that is my life has seeped into my characters and their story lines even as I attempted to conjure words that were completely new.

With certainty, I have developed a curiosity on the genesis of others’ writing.  While some clearly draw from the gestalt of their hometown or their family’s history, others could be repackaging some dark, personal truths.  I look at one of my favorite authors, Chuck Palahniuk, with suspicion.  Perhaps I don’t want to meet him now?  I wonder, after reading my novel, would my reader want to meet me?

The Plum Tree

The Plum Tree, set in a quaint, German town during World War II, keeps alive the memories that must never be forgotten.  Ellen Marie Wiseman brings to light the seldom acknowledged sufferers during this war:  ThePlumTreeGerman citizens themselves.

The ever-whispered question throughout this story of family resilience and, ultimately, love, is simple:  What would you do?  Once the government has turned on its own people, who would you protect?  It is easy to point fingers at the German homeland and judge its people for allowing the systematic isolation and extermination of the Jews.  What history does not mention is the Nazi choke hold, the rationing of basic necessities to the starvation of the Germans, the harassment and the very real, very visible threat of imprisonment and murder of any and all Germans who opposed Hitler’s will.  What does a mother do but protect her children, and only her children.  Would you fathers out there risk your sons to Auschwitz for your neighbor?

In some ways, the silence of the German people is mirrored in the silence of the peaceful Muslim living in, say, Afghanistan.  How many curtains there are closed knowing that prison, torture, death await any family member challenging Sharia law?  When the state has more physical power than its citizens, when the state has the authority to seize, control, destroy, what do its citizens do?

In my rational mind, it seems ridiculous for the average-Joe citizen to own an assault rifle.  I fail to see the purpose of an AK-47 and a closet full of ammunition magazines.  I have to wonder, though, would such resources have lowered the risk, amplified the voices of those German citizens privately raging against Hitler?  Would I bear arms against the SS at my door if I knew that I had the power to combat the first, the second, the third wave of soldiers?

Wiseman offers a painful, yet beautiful overview of the daily wartime life for Germans.  Her novel contains the whole set of wartime experiences:  the poverty and starvation, the fear of imprisonment and mandatory military service,  the allure of Hitler’s Youth and the Nazi party allegiance, the Lebensborn program, the gradual restrictions and relocation of the Jews, the politics of concentration camps, the American bombings and the Russian invasion.  While not overly literary, The Plum Tree lent itself to wide and deep discussion at my dinner table.  What would you do?

The Plum Tree

Ellen Marie Wiseman

Kensington Books

December 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful

While reading Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, I hadheading out to wonderful to remind myself that the characters were not real, that the events were fictional.  My blood pressure spiked after becoming acquainted with a town full of people practically re-writing the Gospels for their own convenience.  Their smug stupidity about what constitutes culpability, sin, and their mirroring of Christians as a whole, drove me to madness.

Now their idiocy does come by honestly.  After climbing the 463 steps of the Duomo, the signature cathedral in Florence, Italy, this summer, the misinformation that has been passed down the chains of Christianity was painted as a huge billboard in the dome of the main sanctuary.  A twenty foot devil devoured naked, lustful sinners:  what a sight for illiterate parishioners seeking salvation.  The only problem with this horrifying warning of the consequences of carnal sin is that it is an illustration of fiction.  Presumably Dante’s visions, emblazoned on the ceiling by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, are nowhere in the Bible.  As I traveled from Rome, then Florence and finally Venice, I could see through the paintings, the sculpture and general iconography that the birthplace of the Church was gilded with false depictions of God.  Is there a church on the planet that has shed itself from this errant path?  I do not know.

We, as Christians, spend a lot of time talking about sex.  Church leaders across denominations deliberate on sexual sins:  what’s OK, what’s not, with whom and when.  Jesus does have some strong words about adultery in Matthew 5:27-32, but I’m going to say that sex was not his main issue.  What was?  Money.  Forget the kum-ba-ya Jesus you were taught in Sunday School.  The real deal threw tantrums and flipped tables – Jesus had a clearly defined who-what-when-where-how platform on how to handle finances.

So when the characters of Heading Out to Wonderful  shun Charlie for seducing a young, unfortunately married young woman, I became physically ill.  Here is a young woman, a child, who was by all accounts bought into slavery by the repulsive Boaty, and all the town does is snicker.  When she dabbles outside this sham marriage (both questionably legal and definitely immoral) union, the town shakes a finger, then later abandons her lover when her situation and immaturity take over her reason.  The townspeople fail to recognize that they are collectively responsible for a much greater sin:  turning a blind eye to the evils of misspent money.

Now I’m sure Goolrick wasn’t intending to write a novel indicting Christian judgment.  Rather, his purpose was probably more to take an idyllic small town and juxtapose its simple beauty against the horrific ugliness of human behavior – and this he accomplishes with artistic mastery.  Nonetheless, my first reaction was to pause and reflect on what we all know already:  much more harm is possible with money than could ever be done by touch.

Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill