Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: A Dictionary of Maqiao

Several times a year, I seek out translated literary fiction. It's like taking a vacation from genre fiction. Other cultures have different rules about writing than we do. This time, my girlfriend shared a book I'd never heard of and would never have looked for. A Dictionary of Maqiao is an artifact novel. By that, I mean the author, Han Shaogong, pretends to write a linguistic dictionary of a small village in rural China and in so doing tells the history of the village and its people.

A Dictionary tells us a story of this village. It doesn't show us the story. Right there, it violates what we writers have pounded into our heads. The Western reader wants dialogue and action to forward the plot. Han Shaogong has little dialogue, perhaps as little plot, and very little action, yet the work is compelling.

There is no hook, no conflict. Nothing to compel the reader to continue, except what is told, how it is told. I was "hooked" because I didn't think anyone could pull of writing a novel and pretending it was a dictionary. Like, get totally real.

Each "chapter" sets up as a word in English, followed by the Chinese characters, and a passage that relates the word to the village or to its people. Along the way, the author muses on all sorts of philosophical subjects. On writing he says, "Anything left out of traditional fiction is normally something of 'no significance.' But when religious authority is all-important, science has no significance. When politics is all-important, love has no significance...I suspect the myriad things in this world are in fact all of equal importance; the only reason why sometimes one set of things seems to have 'no significance' is because they've been filtered out by the writer's view of what has significance."

Think about your own work. If you had a deeply philosophical character, could you get away with such a monologue? My guess is, an editor would want it removed. Maybe not, but more than likely.

Throughout the novel, Han Shaogong introduces to character after character, from the People's cadre leader to an Enlightened Youth to the peasant who has no dragon (you'll have to read the book to get the reference) to Three Ears to Yanzao's wife. Word play translates well into English, for one term in the Maqiao dialect can have multiple, contradictory meanings in English and in Chinese.

Winner of the China Times Prize for best novel, the Shanghai Literary Prize and one of the top 100 works of Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction from Asia Weekly, A Dictionary of Maqiao is a tour de force. If you want a different reading experience, check this out.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Interview with Michael Murphy, Author of Goodbye Emily

I had the pleasure recently of interviewing Michael Murphy, author of Scorpion Bay and the upcoming Goodbye Emily. If you don't know Michael's work, this should entice you to read him. If you already know his material, this lets you know about his next novel, which will be published in January.

Some of the readers of this blog may not know your works. Would you like to introduce yourself?
I’m a full time writer and part time urban chicken rancher in Arizona. I write mostly mystery/suspense novels and have had seven published to date. I’m really excited because Goodbye Emily, my return to Woodstock novel, will be released by Koehler Books January 20, 2012. I’d love for readers to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Goodreads.

Before we learn about your book, can you tell us the last exciting place you visited? Why did you pick these destination?
My wife and I spent several days in Puerto Vallarta after I won two free tickets. I’m sure we enjoyed the sun and the beach. I remember a short pleasure cruise to an island nearby for a sunset cookout and a trip into the mountains that took us back a century, but our main memories focus on there being a major airport mix-up regarding the free tickets, which almost kept us from returning to the US. 

Can you tell us a little about how you became a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, since elementary and high school when I wrote for the school newspapers and I majored in journalism at Arizona State University, but I didn’t get serious about writing until 1999 when I attended a seminar on establishing long term goals. At the end of the seminar each attendee was required to pick a goal that would take a year or more to complete. I picked writing a novel.

Goodbye Emily is your latest book. Why did you select the theme?
Goodbye Emily is more than a return to Woodstock novel. It’s about a man whose not only suffering through the loss of his wife, but he’s been laid off from the career he loves. Four days after my sixtieth birthday, I was laid off from a job I loved, so I took that experience and novelized it.  The novel is a lot more fun and upbeat than my personal recovery from losing my job.

Readers who might want a bit of Woodstock history and trivia can follow my Goodbye Emily blog.

I like the way you balance sorrow with humor. Do you find it difficult to write both?
Drama and comedy are based on conflict, so I find it easy to incorporate humor into my novels. I usually have at least one character who looks at life through a humorous lens, often complimenting the main character. Goodbye Emily includes some serious and tragic situations, but there’s also plenty of scenes that will make readers laugh. 

 I see the book is will be available through Amazon in print and paper. Can you tell us more about the publication schedule?
Goodbye Emily is now available for pre-order through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell Books, Books A Million and through independent bookstores. The official release date is January 20, 2013.

You can help your fellow writers with this question. What are you doing yourself to promote Goodbye Emily?
I’ve been more aggressive promoting Emily than my other novels. It’s been my honor to have two Woodstock icons, Country Joe McDonald and Wavy Gravy provide back cover blurbs, but the novel is more than a return to Woodstock. The three main characters are baby boomers who, like those of us in this category, face the challenges of aging. They do so with optimism toward the future and humor, so my primary focus is to reach out to this age group and present a novel that will appeal to not just nostalgia, but to a sense that Goodbye Emily is about everyone who is about to or has reached the age of sixty.

You wrote Scorpion Bay a couple of years ago. Can you tell us about it?
Scorpion Bay is an action/suspense novel and a mystery with a twist at the end. It takes place in Arizona, where I live. Writing about real locations rather than a fictitious setting can create challenges, but it’s a fun read. There’s a series about these characters in me, but I haven’t started book two yet.

What do you have planned next? Any other books in the works?
I’m really excited about my first post Goodbye Emily novel.  It’s called The Yankee Club and I’m returning to my mystery/suspense roots. Inspired by The Thin Man film series, it takes place in 1933 New York City and follows a writer, Jake Donovan, and actress, Laura Wilson, who can’t seem to avoid getting involved in a mystery. There’s romance and humor and I get to use the word dame a lot. Famous people from that era drop by from time to time, Cole Porter, Babe Ruth and Dashiell Hammett are just a few.

Like The Thin Man movies, this will be a series. I’m busy writing the second in the series, All That Glitters, with Jake and Laura in Hollywood.

Thank you, Michael, for sharing your life and new novel with us. I was pleased to find we have several things in common. Both post-60. Both got laid off and used that event to begin the transformation into careers as writers. And we are both Pacific Athletic Conference grads. You from Arizona State, so you're a Pac-10er. Me from UCLA and USC, when it was PAC 8.

Friday, August 10, 2012

More on My Writing Life

On my last post, I left with a teaser. Why would a book inspire me to devote a dozen years to learning a new craft? Because Abigail Trafford told me that I could do anything I wanted in the decades after turning 50. (Actually this works for those who are under 50 but who want to change their lives and follow their dreams.)

 Trafford's thesis is that you can do whatever you want as long as you define that desire. And as long as you have the health and means to accomplish that goal. If you're 55 and want to be an astronaut, probably not going to happen. But if you're 55 and want to start a career, she encourages you to research what it would take to enter that career. She sites an example of an oil woman who went back to school after 55 and became a nurse. My cousin, who has been a psychotherapist for 20 years, decided to finish her doctorate. So, Dr. Vail is now practicing in Vermont. Her significant other went back to school at the same time, and he is now a nurse.

I believed Trafford's message. I knew I wanted to write. I ground out literally thousands of pages, most of them dreadful. Several friends offered books on the craft of writing. Imagine my surprise there was a craft of writing! I devoured the books and began putting much of the information in practice. I ground out more pages, many of them actually better, but not good enough.

I played around with a couple of writing groups in northern Virginia but didn't find one that fit. I tried a writing partner who didn't know much more than I did. That didn't work. Then, I moved to my permanent home at Smith Mountain Lake, found Lake Writers, found Valley Writers in Roanoke, and found writing partners who were not afraid to tell me what I had was all right but needed a lot of work. And so my transformation began.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Writing Life -- Mine

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Do you have a novel in you screaming to get out? I'd like to say I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't. Oh, I played with writing from grade school onward, but not seriously.

My first adventure into writing fiction was part of a third-grade assignment to write my autobiography. For crying out loud, I was eight. I hadn't had a life to write about, so I made one up. It was pretty good, as I remember. I also remember two other things about that assignment: my first and only F, and my mother saying that if I was going to lie, I should consider being a novelist.

In college, I wrote my first novel. On my trusty Underwood upright, no less. I wrote a science fantasy novel. Yes, on a manual typewriter. I couldn't afford the latest IBM Selectric, so it was manual or handwritten. I was enthralled by Ray Bradbury and a guy I was dating. It seemed so easy to write science fantasy. All you had to do was let your imagination go. I did. I spent a summer after sophomore year pounding away on the keyboard, piling up a huge stack of pages. I reached "The End" and pronounced I had written a novel.

My mother asked to read it. She actually finished it. She never said it was dreadful, but she suggested I continue with my education. Mind you, I wasn't in a creative writing program. I read the story. I cannot describe how dreadful it was. I mean, redefined dumb. Redefined purple prose. Redefined "don't quit your day job." I fed every page into the fireplace.

In grad school, I decided I had more to say so I started writing poetry. Pure, unadulterated doggerel. I really hated reading poetry. What made me think I could write something I didn't like reading? At least with the science fantasy, I read and loved Bradbury.

I piddled around with writing off and on for years. I wrote several novels, all of which are gathering cyber dust. I ground out pages, pages and more pages. I was hooked. I didn't know what I didn't know about writing. I knew I was possessed to write.

And then I bought a book called My Time: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life by Abigail Trafford. Her book changed my outlook on life. Seriously.

To know what she wrote that was so profound and why it hit me will have to wait until the next post.