Scene from the era of the supposed Death of Reading

Apparently someone forgot to inform my neighborhood that reading is dying. On my way home tonight, I came upon a small crowd that had assembled to dig through the library’s recycling.

“Are those novels?” the woman walking next to me asked, her voice rising excitedly, as she stopped to pick through the books herself.

Now I’m sitting in my apartment, looking at stacks and stacks of unread galleys — about two hundred arrive in the mail every month nowadays — and wondering if the people are still out there on the sidewalk, searching for something to read.

The mystery of the Newtons, including my father

I’m not sure what it means when I fixate on genealogical research, as I have been recently, but I have learned to recognize flare-ups of obsession as a warning sign.

Normal people are not awake after midnight, scouring the 1800 U.S. Census for clues about one Jesse Newton, born in North Carolina, who later bought land in Drew County, Arkansas, and was “granted a license to retail spirituous and vinous liquors.” Especially if they’re not even sure that Jesse Newton is their ancestor.
Worse, although I thought I was done feeling anything in particular about my dad, I’ve been Googling him. As my sister points out, combing the Internet for information about your estranged father from your day job desk at 7:30 p.m. is a sure sign that you are not over it.

Apparently he bought a house for $2.6 million the day after my birthday. Probably the timing was a coincidence. Like the having a wife with my name, and the now-dead-girlfriend with my sister’s.

I was surprised at how much seeing his McMansion, complete with poolside statuary (pictured above), hurt. Although I’ve never been a beneficiary of his fortune, I knew he’d been amassing one. Accumulating wealth was his greatest priority throughout my childhood, back when he used to spray the toaster with Raid before making my breakfast, when he relied on my grandmother to cover my doctor bills, when he promised to pay for all of my law school education if I attended the cheaper, less well-regarded state school, instead of the private one, and then reneged after I did it. Etc.

Do you think he’ll give his new kids different names, or just stick with the ones he knows?
I’ll try to refocus soon. Meanwhile, here’s a post I wrote years ago about my dad and the house where we used to live: Unpleasant (and disjointed) recollections of my father.

On the melding of fact and invention in fiction II

In A.S. Byatt’s forthcoming novel, The Children’s Book, a children’s author visiting a museum in search of inspiration for a magical story she’s writing hears a great anecdote but has “the feeling writers often have when told perfect tales for fictions, that there was too much fact, too little space for the necessary insertion of inventions, which would here appear to be lies… ‘It is so strong as it is,’ she explained. ‘It has no need of my imagination.’”

Byatt herself has recently raised similar concerns, voicing opposition — see, e.g., her discussion with Kera Bolonik in Bookforum — to the use of “a real person as the single original for a character.”

I wouldn’t adopt Byatt’s prohibition as a hard-and-fast rule, personally. But I have found that when my own fiction is inspired by actual people and events, as it almost always has been to one degree or another, it needs the space to become its own thing, and this is largely a matter of letting the characters and events morph, in incremental but ultimately fundamental ways, into ones that wind up being very different from those I had in mind when I started writing.

The most exasperating thing about this process is that it is absolutely essential but can’t be forced or hurried; the story will take as long as it will take, even when I put in time daily. No doubt every approach to writing has its drawbacks, but it seems like it’d be so much more expeditious to concoct stories purely from imagination, not at all tethered to the raw material of my experience. Maybe one day my brain will decide to cooperate.

See also Welty v. Maxwell on autobiography in fiction; On the importance of what is culled; and On the melding of fact and invention in fiction.

Hectic summertime

The heat of August is upon us, but none of the languor for me. I’m buried in deadlines, my stepdaughter, A., is visiting, and she, Max, and I head to Tampa tomorrow for a quick visit with my father-in-law, who’ll soon be undergoing another cycle of chemo.

A., brilliant as ever, is almost sixteen now, so we’re sharing more books. Yesterday she read Laurie Sandell’s The Impostor’s Daughter in one sitting, just as I did a few weeks ago.

And on Monday night, we went through Shelf Discovery, comparing notes on all the YA novels we both loved, and agreeing that it’s total crap in Little Women when Marmee tells Jo not to let the sun go down on her anger after Jo’s vain, spoiled, and theatrical little sister Amy throws her manuscript on the fire.

I hope to be back here next week. Till then I’m still posting quick links at Twitter. A recent favorite: the fascinating article about Hamilton Cain’s son, who has been paralyzed basically all his short life, and, until the age of six, was presumed unable to communicate, and possibly to understand.

Then someone gave him a felt-tip pen, and he started writing.