Monday, May 7, 2012

Melvyn Chase Reviews His New Novel, September Songs

(Is That Legal?)

An author reviewing his own book? Get real! Isn't that just a sneaky way for me to publicize my work?

Yes and No.

I won't deny that I want to stimulate interest in my new novel. But, as most authors will tell you, once he or she has written and revised and re-rewritten a short story--a novel--or a play--the umbilical cord is truly severed. This is especially true when that work has been published--in print and/or online. Like a child who has grown up and left home for good, the story--the novel--the play--has become a separate entity, leading its own life, meeting new people.

Usually, it leaves behind fond memories of its childhood--and, hopefully, it helps pay the mortgage by sending royalty checks to Mom or Dad.

My book now belongs to its readers and not to me. As one of those readers, I've begun to view September Songs in a more objective way. I find myself reacting to a turn of phrase or a scene, as if I weren't the author who created that phrase or that scene. So I guess I'm ready to write that review.

In September Songs, we meet David Berger in the autumn of his life. It is the season of his discontent. He's retired from a financially rewarding, but unfulfilling career. He is estranged from his wife, whom he still loves--and from his son, who is manipulated by a greedy, possessive wife.

But David hasn't lost his sense of humor or his humanity. After all, he is finally a published author--a lifelong dream--although he good-naturedly admits that literary fame has eluded him. And he continues to hope that he can reignite his romance with his wife and reestablish his relationship with their son.

The key to turning his autumn into spring is a new friend, a fascinating, successful, unpredictable lesbian author, who insists on playing his Muse. With her prodding encouragement, David's latest work-in-progress--a novel--takes him on an emotional journey through the sometimes funny, sometimes poignant memories of his life toward a better understanding of himself and the people he loves.

Each of us is really the sum of his or her memories--memories that help us interpret our past and, in doing so, shape our future.

The future of my youngest child, September Songs, is now in your hands. I'd love to know what you think of it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Character Development: Villains versus Heroes

When you read Paradise Lost, John Milton's epic poem about the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, who are you rooting for? The poet was certainly on the side of the Angels. And we should be, too. But despite Milton's best efforts, the most memorable character in the story--the one who commands your attention--who fascinates you--isn't Adam or Eve or the Messiah. It's the Devil, the Fallen Angel.
At first, he's the star of the show in Heaven--the light-bearer--Lucifer. However, he has a dark side--too much pride. And when he leads a rebellion against God, he is banished forever to Hell. He has become Satan, the personification of evil.
And what does he say about his new home? "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."
In another classic work, Moby Dick, it's hard to decide whether Captain Ahab is the hero of the novel, or the villain. Like Lucifer, Ahab is driven by pride to rebel against Fate, against God--in the monstrous form of the White Whale. Ahab seems to be saying, "Better to reign on the Pequod than serve in Heaven." And isn't he the most fascinating character in the book? (Unless you're really into whales.)
Why is it that we are often attracted to the villains in books, movies, plays, although we don't like to admit it? And more important, as an author of fiction, how should you take advantage of that tendency?
The fact is, most of us aren't heroes--pure, noble and brave. So it's a lot easier for us to identify with a character like us, who has flaws, weaknesses, issues. When Satan says he'd rather start a business of his own than take orders from someone else, we get the message. We know the feeling. When Ahab defies his Fate, we can share his anger, if not his ecological recklessness. Our lives may not be as difficult as his, but we've got problems of our own.
When you're working on a short story or a novel, keep that in mind. Your characters will be more believable--more human--if they are a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak, angel and devil. Because that's true of all of us. The real world is complicated. Morality isn't a straitjacket: it's a day-to-day struggle. You win some, you lose some. Your characters--heroes, villains and everyone in between--should reflect that reality.
The French author, Albert Camus, used the ancient Greek "Myth of Sisyphus" to describe the constant struggle to live a good, meaningful life. After his death, Sisyphus, a greedy king, was condemned to push a huge boulder up a steep hill in Hades. Every time he reached the top of the hill, the boulder rolled back to the bottom and he had to start over. Eternal frustration? Not to Camus. He believed that as we try to live a meaningful life, we may never arrive at the top of the hill--the perfect answer--but it's the unyielding effort--the search itself--that gives the true meaning to our lives.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

LIterary Fiction? Are You Serious?

When someone asks me what I write, my answer is, "Fiction." The inevitable follow-up question is, "What kind of fiction?" If I could say, "Mysteries," or "Sci-fi", or "Horror," that would be the end of it. What I'd really like to say is, "Literary fiction," but that sounds awfully snooty, doesn't it? It's as if I'm looking down my nose and saying, "Serious fiction. Fiction that matters." That isn't what I mean. Although, in a way, it is. Let me explain.
I was an English Lit major long, long ago. In that era in Academia, Literary Fiction was the stuff you studied. In contrast, Genre Fiction--mysteries, sci-fi, horror, romance--was the stuff you just read.
That distinction soaked into my soul. I built a magical castle in the clouds and invited Jane Austen and Herman Melville to join me there--along with Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway--Theodore Dreiser and John Updike--and all of the other serious authors. They were special. And if I intended to be an author, I wanted to be special, too. Way up there in the clouds with them. Above the fray.
Other writers wanted to be popular and make money. I didn't blame them. But they were, in my view, marching to the beat of a lesser drummer.
Not long after I left Academia, I, too, began marching to the beat of that lesser drummer. Because I wanted to make money. (I was getting married, and that's quite a serious matter, too.) Writing fiction was too chancy, so I got steadier work as an editor. And then, as my family grew, I became a speechwriter, weaving fiction of the corporate variety.
I never regretted my decision. Yet I often dreamed of that magical castle and my old pals--Jane, Charles, Ernest--the whole serious gang. Perhaps someday I would be able to join them again.
That day did come. When I retired from corporate life, I returned to my magical castle. I began to write fiction. My first book--a collection of short stories, The Terminal Project and Other Voyages of Discovery (Sunstone Press)--was published in 2005. It was finalist in the science fiction category of the New Mexico Book Awards. But, in truth, it wasn't a sci-fi collection, although the majority of stories were science fiction. But several of the pieces were contemporary, realistic. One was a fantasy. One was what I would call a historical detective story. And that made the book a difficult item to categorize. And to sell. The target audience was too diverse.
But all the stories did have one thing in common. Although I hesitate to say it, they were all Literary Fiction.
Let me define what that means to me. Of course, an author of literary fiction, like every author, wants to be popular. He (or she) wants to be loved. He wants to be read by as many people as possible. He wants to entertain. He hopes to make as much money as possible. He tries to write as skillfully as he can. He yearns for both popular and critical acclaim.
What, then, distinguishes literary fiction from other forms of fiction? The difference is: in one way or another, literary fiction is about you, the reader. It resonates with you. It speaks to you about your own life. It stimulates reflection. Because whatever form or genre literary fiction adopts, it always offers the reader something more than a compelling story and interesting characters. It is an attempt to provide insight, expand understanding--of a society, or a time in history. It analyses social or sexual or emotional relationships. It conveys a sense of the ways of the world, or of our place in that world.
Does my definition work for you? I'd like to know what you think about it.