Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: Matt Bondurant's 'The Night Swimmer' #nightswimmer

I've never been to Ireland, but I've always imagined it as a magical land of green hills, men in kilts and quaint little pubs, ready to satisfy my thirst for good ale, my love of tales of lore and a rousing game of darts.  And because of this romantic ideal, I have to admit that in The Night Swimmer, novelist Matt Bondurant had me at the first line: "It began with a dart, a pint, and a poem, three elements that seemed to demonstrate the imprecise nature of fate."  However, from that point, Bondurant took me on a journey to 'another' Ireland, to an isolated small town frequented by birdwatchers and fishermen and a mysterious island where non-natives are shunned.  He held me there with his lyrical prose, his attention to detail and a story filled with mystery and tension.
After winning title and deed to an Irish pub, Fred and Elly Bulkington travel from Vermont to the southern coast of Ireland to begin their new life as the owners of the Nightjar.  A chance at a simpler existence and a dream, where Elly can open water swim in the North Atlantic and Fred can work on that novel he's always wanted to write.  As Fred tries to get the pub in order for the seasonal traffic that promises to keep the Nightjar afloat, Elly swims the waters around Cape Clear, an island southwest of Baltimore.  It is here that the couple become tangled in a web of mystery and intrigue, and begin to drift apart.

Matt Bondurant
Elly has a skin condition that allows her to stay in cold waters for extended periods of time.  She becomes fascinated with a lighthouse on Fastnet Rock, four miles southwest of Cape Clear and is determined to swim to it against the warning of unpredictable waters and dangers that can't be explained.  As Elly says, "Fastnet drew me on, as if it was attached somewhere to part of me I didn't understand or couldn't locate."  Some of the most powerful scenes are the times of thoughtful isolation that Elly experiences while swimming, which is not surprising since Bondurant is himself a competitive long distance swimmer.

While Elly is drawn to Fastnet and to the history and intrigue of Cape Clear and its residents, Fred is working the pub in Baltimore and 'working on his novel', which appears to be random thoughts written on bits of paper. One of my favorite scenes,  a foreshadowing to their unraveling relationship, is of Elly and Fred swimming naked at night at Cape Clear.  Fred wants to dive into the cold water from twenty feet up, and as Elly instructs, they will have to make a huge reach to clear a few feet of rocks below.    "We counted down and launched ourselves into the air, still holding hands at the peak of our flight.  We didn't let go until we began to fall."

There are also things about Cape Clear that "cannot be explained."  The island hides ancient secrets and is victim to a mysterious tragedy that grips the residents.  Additionally, Elly and Fred are caught up in a struggle between the all-powerful Corrigan family and Highgate, an old, blind, goat farmer.  The Corrigans are not above violence and murder to maintain their hold on Cape Clear.  Highgate is fighting to protect his livelihood with the help of a small group of foreign volunteers.

 Setting is a character itself.  Bondurant's attention to detail brings the land to life, alternating between the beautiful and the ominous: a land of curious wildlife and breath-taking scenery, of high winds, menacing storms and perilous ocean swells.  You can almost taste the salty air, feel the cold gusts and hear the waves crashing against the rocks. 
Amidst the changing relationship between Elly and Fred, the dark and somewhat mystical secrets of Cape Clear and the conflict between the Corrigans and Highgate, The Night Swimmer is powerful, emotional and captivating…even if there are no men in kilts. 
I couldn't resist...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mirror, Mirror-Character Description

Every time a character looks in a mirror or sees their reflection in a lake and describes what they see, I cringe just a little.  It's boring. It's not very realistic. It's cheating.

When I look in the mirror, I don't notice hair the color of an Indian moon AND eyes that match my mother's jade pearls AND large, pouty lips AND cheek bones that...whatever, I don't think I've ever noticed my cheek bones.  No, when I look in the mirror, all I notice is that one wrinkle on my forehead that has now gotten bigger and if I don't smile, I can barely see it at all.  So, if a real person doesn't do this naturally, why would your character?

I know.  She is, after all, the protagonist, and you would like for your reader to get a visual early on.  But, as writers, can't we be a bit more creative and describe them in more interesting ways?  I think so. 

First: I suggest, don't give it to me all at once.  A bit here, a bit there, let the image come to me slowly and naturally, instead of giving it to me.  In fact, leave something for my imagination.  As a reader, I think I have a pretty good one, and enjoy combining the writers words and my own interpretation to come up with a visual that suits my idea of the character.
Second: Ask yourself what characteristics are even important.  Do her cheek bones mean anything to me?  I can't imagine how they would, and I'm certain I could read an entire trilogy without knowing that a particular character has perfect cheek bones.
Third:  Action speaks louder than words. Is there a way to 'show' a physical attribute through action or dialogue?  Of course there is, so use it.


The Mirror Trick:
 I met Jim at the junkyard, anxious to see what he had found.  I caught my reflection in a discarded mirror and stopped.  My black hair complemented my blue eyes, and had a way of distracting from the scar on my chin.  I looked harder and shook my head. Even my face is fat.  (So boring, I almost fell asleep writing it)
Description through dialogue and action:

I met Jim at the junkyard, anxious to see what he had found. 
Jim laughed. "When did you dye your hair black?"  I glared at him, hoping my stare burned through him like a blue flame.
He waved his hand toward a drainage pipe, no more than three foot in diameter.  "Come on, it's in here."  I traced the scar on my chin with my forefinger.  "You know there's no way I can squeeze through that." 
Jim shrugged. "Oh, well, at least you have nice cheek bones." (Sorry, couldn't resist)

Of course, there are a zillion ways to describe a character without using the Mirror Trick and these are but a few suggestions.  What are some other ways to avoid mirrors?  

Saturday, February 11, 2012

First Valentine

 I have a picture that was taken when I was six years old.  I remember the day, at least in the way anyone can remember forty years past.  My dad had just taught me my very first song, ‘Lovesick Blues’ by Hank Williams, and told me if I kept practicing, I could be a professional yodeler someday.  In the picture, he is sitting in a chair and I have my arms around his neck.  He always had a way of making me feel special.

I have another, taken when I was twenty.  There was a party going on, I don’t remember the occasion, but he and I had ended up in the kitchen, away from the crowd, having a drink and telling each other jokes.  He made fun of my boyish haircut.  I called him Sonny Bono.  He’s sitting in a chair and I have my arms around his neck.  He always had a way of letting me know that he loved me.

The night before he died, he told me how proud he was that I had grown into a good mother. A good woman.  I put my arms around his neck.  I remember it well.  I don’t need a picture.

It has been twelve years and Valentine’s Day has never been the same.  It was his birthday and this year would have been his seventy-fourth.  If he were still here, we'd have a drink and tell a few jokes.  He would make me yodel for him and I would make fun of him for being so old.  Then I would walk up behind him and wrap my arms around his neck.

I still think of him every single day.  My father, my daddy, my friend...

My first valentine.

Friday, February 3, 2012

And They Call Me Crazy

Almost two years ago, I sat in a workshop given by the amazing Joyce Maynard.  I had just finished her book Labor Day (and loved it) and so of course my ears perked up when she started talking about the process of writing that particular novel.  Afterall, I was in the middle of writing Ragtown, and wanted to know everything I could about the process that others, read as, 'great' writers go through, hoping to find some similarity, something that might ease my mind about the blood I was sweating over my keyboard.  Then she hit me; a slap wouldn't have produced such a sting.  Eleven days.  It took her eleven days to finish the rough draft of Labor Day.

I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly, and verified this with her later in the day.  Slap, slap. Yes. Eleven days.

It took me two years to finish Ragtown.  Granted, it is my first major piece of work, and there was a lot of historical research involved.  But two years versus eleven days?  I'm not worthy.

Every November, National Novel Writing Month, better known as NanoWriMo, comes around.  It encourages writers to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days and offers peer support and encouragement along the way.  I've never participated, basically because I didn't see how it could possibly be done.  I know people do it, but me? Never.

A friend of mine, Leif G.S. Notae, finished his 50,000 words in three days.  Then wrote an article titled "How I Wrote 50,000 Words in Three Days (And You Can Too)".  I read it and thought, no, I can't. 

One of my favorite authors of late is Russell Blake.  I've been devouring his books and one of my favorites is King of Swords, which was followed by the prequel, Night of the Assassin.  Then I read an interview with Russell---King of Swords, fourteen days.  Night of the Assassin---eleven. 

Granted, the novels I've mentioned above and the time it took to write them are pre-editing, but still, two weeks? Eleven days? THREE days?  No way. NO (insert your favorite curse word) WAY! At least not for me.

On January 10, I pulled out a very short story I had written last year, thinking I would pretty it up and send it off to some journals.  I sent it to a good friend, Darren Leo, for editing.  I also mentioned the possibility that I would, one day, write a novel and use this piece as the first chapter.  One of his comments really caught my eye. "I would definitely like to hear more about these characters."

I knew where I wanted to go with this piece.  I thought about Joyce and Leif and Russell and all the NanoWriMo-er's, and again thought--- No. I can't. 

Then on January 11, I wrote five thousand words.  By the end of the day, I was starting to say, 'well, maybe I can.'

Three days and 20,000 words later, I realized: Yes, I can.  And even better: Yes, I will.  My mojo was working overtime, my muse was on speed dial and I knew my story.  I couldn't type fast enough to get it all down.   

And I did it.  55,362 words. 16 days. THE END.
Sure, it's rough, and I'll be revising and editing for several months, but I did something I had thought was out of my reach, something I thought was only reserved for really 'great' writers, something I thought I could never do.  All I had to do was find my story and start typing; and like the little engine that could, start saying 'I can' instead of  'I can't'.

I recently talked to Joyce Maynard, two years after that workshop.  This time, instead of feeling that sting, I found myself nodding my head when she said "all of my books have been written in short, intense bursts...But I believe in getting in the zone and staying there."  

And now I get it. Story. Zone. Butt to chair. Fingers to keyboard. Yes, I can.
Yes, I did.

For more about And They Call Me Crazy, check out my 'Work in Progress' tab above.