Tag Archives: Novel

Working from Old Letters

The young artist in Sweden at age 22. Photo by Toni Ottosson

From the time I was sixteen years old and went to sea as a third cook on a Norwegian coal freighter, I have written journals, saved letters, and tried to recover the letters that I sent during my post graduate years in Europe and my Vietnam War-era years in the army.  Over a period of nearly fifty years, the six-foot deep file of letters, notebooks, and journals has been preserved for a writer’s day of reckoning.  In November 2011, the reckoning began as the basis for my 21st novel.

My first intention was to write an epistolary autobiography.  The rare genre had appeal, but the materials—even at a random sampling—proved to be both incomplete and unbridgeable due to surprising gaps in memory.  For example, there were individuals mentioned in the letters who were total strangers in the recall department.  A few of them were women I had evidently loved.  Then, too, as a well-meaning literary friend pointed out, I was not well known enough to merit interest in my autobiography.

The solution between desire and practicality was to use the most dramatic periods in my young adulthood as background for a coming-of-age-as-an-artist novel.  And right away, I realized that there would be a narrator as biographer and a subject character that would stand in for my alter ego, and somewhere in the telling of a fictional story, the one would become obsessed with the ghost of the other.  The working title thus became:  Portrait of the Artist‘s Ghost.

I must warn you that reading your own letters and journals, written mostly in your early twenties, is a humbling experience.  Then, as a novelist, you must make editorial decisions about what to use and what to discard as non-essential to the structure of the novel and its fictional plot.  As it turns out, the glue of the novel is not the story that you tell in your personal letters and journals but the fiction that you invent to make it compelling.  This kind of literary insight probably comes only with maturity.

But if I am to be a candid mentor, I have to urge you to keep personal journals of significant events and to write letters to individuals who will correspond with you in important ways.  Save every outward expression of your inner life and document your activities, attitudes, and relationships as thoughtfully as you are able.  Think of your posterity and how your life will be rendered as a creative person.  You are the documentarian of your generation, and your acceptance of this responsibility is evidenced by every word that you use and every word that you leave behind.

If you are indeed a writer, you must write with intent and purpose nearly every day of your life.

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Cannibalism: No Fit Subject for a Novel?

I think that a writer has to follow what is presented to him or her and then follow their curiosity to where it leads. I had read the best selling book ALIVE when it was published in 1974.  It was a fascinating true account of how the people of an airliner crash, high in the remote Andes Mountains, had survived for weeks by cannibalizing their fellow deceased passengers.  The concept was gruesome, but the elements of heroism were also plainly evident.

Nothing would have warranted me to think more on that horrific subject had I not come across a small newspaper article no more than one column by three inches that probably appeared in the New York Times.  The report stated that the survivors of the Andes crash had experienced remarkable health following their rescue from the crash site.  Although they had suffered much, individuals who had allergies, arthritis, and other nagging conditions prior to the accident were free of symptoms for periods of six to eight weeks afterwards.

My imagination then leaped to the unstated conclusion that the human flesh diet had somehow transferred health benefits to those survivors. It was an outrageous idea, but how might the crash survivors respond to their experiences of the health benefits?  Might they want to investigate it?  Research it?  And where would that lead them when such a taboo study had to be done in secret?  I sought to develop answers to these questions.

A writer’s curiosity should propel him or her into the research mode, and so for several years I read everything that I could find on cannibalism.  I was interested in fact, not fiction, and so I read the psychological and anthropological science on the subject.  At the end of that study, I felt that I knew as much about anthropophagy as any graduate student in the world, and I felt confident that I could combine the research with creative imagination to write a very original and unusual novel.

Flesh was my second novel, written about 1980.  I sent the manuscript to a classmate from our days together at UVA—Bob Friedman, who was to become the subsequent publisher of my four Booker Series novels.  Bob had been a first reader of my short fiction and first novel, but he was usually slow and brief on the comeback.  I might wait for months for him to say “nice job.” His reaction to Flesh was very different and immediate.

“You kept me up all night!” he said as the opening line in his telephone call.  Bob had read Flesh in one sitting.  Bob’s conclusion about Flesh proved to be prophetic.

“This book will be bigger than Jaws, or no publisher will touch it,” he said.  And Bob was right for nearly 30 years. Based on my synopsis of Flesh, no agent or publisher wanted to read it.  If they expressed themselves at all, their tones rang of disgust.  My defense of the novel as an allegory was useless.  The subject, as far as they were concerned, was too taboo.

Well, in 30 years, the appetites of readers (pun intended) and media viewers have changed. Human dissection is common on the forensic crime shows on television.  Hit vampire novels, television shows, and movies show copious blood gushing.  And zombies?  The onslaught of body-devouring zombies is as ghoulish as a slaughterhouse.

In writing Flesh, I did what every writer should do. I pursued what was presented to me, supported my curiosity with solid research, and then completed the novel that had propelled my imagination.  Now we get to see if Bob was right.  We’ve overcome the cautions of previous-day publishers by the wonderful vehicle of e-books.  What remains to be seen is if Flesh becomes bigger than Jaws—the book and the movie.

Don’t be afraid.  You will laugh at some scenes in Flesh.  The verisimilitude, however, is creepy.  My wife Pat worries that after Flesh, no one will ever again come to our house for dinner.  If you think that I am daring you to read Flesh, I guess that I am.  After 30 years of suppression, Flesh is out of the closet.


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