I’m aware of the official male position on shopping. We hate it. It is unmanly to enjoy browsing through any emporia of consumer goods and to delight in their variety, to revel in their diverse appeal, to admit their temptation to our sundry appetites and vanities. It’s a lie, of course. Everybody likes shopping for something. I know guys who can wander through Home Depot for hours, who leer at a belt sander or table saw with the same unbridled lust with which some women gaze upon the latest from Manolo Blahnik. And I don’t mind wandering through a mall. The shopping discord in our household is about degree, not kind. My wife can wander into a store, almost any store, and stay for hours. I prefer a more nomadic approach, flitting in and out of this store and that, stopping only rarely. I want a quickie, she wants a relationship. I do have to say, though, that I liked malls better when they had bookstores in them.
An aside. The superstore model that Border’s started? The stand-alone building that had to be a destination unto itself? That’s great usually. You go to one place and there’s a whole shitload of books. But back in the day, our local mall used to have three smaller bookstores in it. When I first started buying my own books, that’s usually where I bought them. I’d be in the mall anyway, I’d wander in, something would catch my eye. By the time those mall stores had all closed, by the time book buying had become destination shopping, I was already a book junkie, so it didn’t matter. But what if I was a kid now? What if books weren’t in my face? Would I have sought them out anyway? I like to think so, but who can say?
But shopping. In my writer life the last couple of weeks, I’ve been shopping.
I thought I knew what my next major project was. I was well into it. It was a departure for me, a different genre, and for a while that was fun. But more and more I found myself fighting the book. Now, there’s always a little bloodshed, always those days when the battle to get the words down is hand to hand. But not everyday and not usually all day. For me at least, if things are ugly, they’re ugly when I first sit down. I have trouble getting back into the flow. I can’t find those ephemeral reins by which just the day before I had so easily bent the beast to my will. But in a bit I do. In a few minutes sometimes, in an hour or so at worst. And that’s how it went for the first third of this project. But then it was an hour every day. And then two. And then all day. Something wasn’t right and I couldn’t figure out what, still can’t. But I needed to do something else, at least for a while. I hope to come back to this draft someday, though. It’s a hard thing to walk away from 30K words, a harder thing to walk away from an idea I truly love.
But what to do now? Go shopping, that’s what.
I’ve been reading a bit more than usual, and reading more outside my usual genre. And not just my genre, but also my preferred style. Personally, I don’t need breakneck pacing in a book. In fact, the plot matters less to me than the characters and the language, the sense of the thing. The gestalt. I don’t want to be entertained so much as transported. Which may sound all highfalutin coming from a genre guy, but compare something like John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy or James Lee Burke’s Rain Gods to escapist crap by, say, Vince Flynn and you’ll know what I mean. It’s the difference between erotica and porn.
Maybe I love that atmospheric stuff too much, though. Some of the feedback I’ve been getting from the various editors who have rejected the novels that crime uber agent Stacia Decker is diligently shopping around for me seems to say so. They like my writing more than they like my stories. It may just be that I am out of step with the times. Le Carre was bigger a couple decades ago. Burke has been a consistent success, but never a top seller. I think of Len Deighton and his Bernard Sampson novels – a triptych of trilogies with a separate novel of back story thrown in, ten novels covering the ground that, today, a lot of writers would cover in one – and I wonder how well the introspective characters, the plots that were driven by thoughts and loyalties and philosophies as much as action, the patient writing that spent the time it takes to let a scene or a feeling steep, to gain strength like well-brewed tea, but that also requires patient reading, I wonder what the editorial reaction to books like that would be today. But I loved them.
Yesterday, I received a long-awaited package in the mail. Some weeks back, I’d ordered three books, The Next One to Fall by Hilary Davidson, Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm, and Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. The first of those is solidly in my usual reading wheelhouse, but the other two are not. I don’t read much horror, much of anything with a supernatural element, and yet both those books feature just that. Trick was deciding which to read first. I couldn’t decide, so I set all three on the desk and flipped a card up on each one of them. Dead Harvest got the Two of Hearts. Sorry, Chris, but appropriate in a way, because Chris and the charming Kat Holms are the nicest couple you’d ever want to meet. The Next One to Fall got the Queen of Hearts (which also, come to think of it, suits Hilary perfectly). I figured we had a winner. But then I turned up the card for Blackbirds. The Ace of Spades. A book about somebody who can foresee your death and it gets the Ace of Spades? Well, of course.
I ripped through better than half of Blackbirds last night, got a little wrinkly. (Faithful followers will know I tend to read in the tub, and I was in there longer than usual.) In many ways, Blackbirds is the exact opposite of what I like, of Le Carre or Deighton. Chuck’s attitude toward patience seems to be to cleave its head with an axe, run it through a wood chipper, dump the slurry in a hole and then piss on it for good measure. And yet I was transported, I do know Miriam. It’s just that she’s, well, busier than the characters I usually consort with.
Books can have action and atmosphere.
It’s funny, though. Because as I read the book I was also thinking of the book I would have written starting with the same idea – a woman who is cursed with visions of a person’s death the first time her flesh touches theirs. Chuck’s Miriam reacts with a kind of unfocused nomadic rage, seems to want to avoid the emotional toll of her gift by becoming rootless, by ensuring that what deaths she sees will be the deaths of strangers, by trying to disconnect from the world. She can’t, of course. No one can. And thus the narrative arc of the story is born.
But I couldn’t help but ask myself what Miriam I would write. And I end up with a psychic Emily Dickinson, a woman trying to avoid the world not by moving through it too quickly to be touched, but by withdrawing from it entirely. A woman damned not to touch or be touched by anyone, ever.
Not much of a story there, though, except the story in her own head. The thing is, done right, that’s a story I would read.
The other thing is this. The story I am reading? The rootless enraged Miriam of Blackbirds? I’m enjoying the hell of it, too. And perhaps there is a lesson in that for me, both as a reader and as a writer.