Monday, October 10, 2011

Book #57: Writing Memory

"His skin was warm-toned and Mediterranean and he made her think of Paris when she was twenty-one.  Her honeymoon with Marty, and it was Marty she was thinking about, really, and she didn't want to be thinking about him.  Marty had remarried and had a child on the way and he called her every night when his wife conked out with exhaustion."               -Lisa Moore, Alligator

A few years ago, I took a creative writing seminar and I recall the instructor talking about how important it is for a young writer to read and learn from the early works of the writers she admires.  "Pay attention to how the sentences move," I recall her saying.  "Passages that you find moving you should copy out by hand and always use a pen you really like writing with.  I recommend fountain pen."

In recent days, as I've been pressing on with writing my historical novel, approaching page 130, as of this morning, I've found myself reading and rereading Lisa Moore.  I loved her second novel February when I read it last year (and blogged about it here), so I eagerly went out to buy her first novel Alligator, which I've been luxuriating over for the past couple weeks.  This novel is peculiarly structured for a novel; it reads more like a set of interweaving short stories, where there are no minor characters.  Every character - from Frank, the hot dog vendor, to Colleen, the teenage delinquent and environmental activist - is compellingly rendered and given a unique interior voice and past.  And Moore's imagery is nothing short of stunning, even, especially, in rendering the minute details of everyday life: "The egg white stretched itself into opaque skeins and transparent veils and broke away from the yolk and frothed over the sides of the pot and settled back down."  But more than the sheer lyricism of her images, it's the way that her characters relate to these lyrical moments that makes her writing so memorable and true to life.  Their awareness of the sensuous details of the world around them are constantly taking them on detours into memory, unearthing before the reader all kinds of idiosyncratic facets of their pasts.  

In this respect, Madeleine, the aging film director, is perhaps the character who speaks to me most vividly.  Her aspiration to make an historical film about Archbishop Fleming becomes the driving force of her life.  Although it's never all that clear what the film is about, it's clear that Madeleine envisions her film as something far greater than a local colour documentary about her hometown, St. John's, Newfoundland (Moore's hometown and the setting of her novel).  In Madeleine's mind, "The film was about the desolate, violent landscape and human triumph over nature, but it was also, in a much quieter, private way, about evil.  A community in the grip of some religious fervour that had sprung out of the tyranny of mild, constant hunger and giving over."  But the irony of Madeleine's grand gesture is that her emotions are constantly pulling her away from her historical project and into the recesses of her own memory.  In the end, her film fades into the background compared to her continual reliving of the wreckage of her marriage to Marty and her endless, ineluctable struggle to recapture the early days of their passionate affair, in Paris, at twenty-one.  While her film may never see the light of day, her own life and the intimate details of all the characters whose lives revolve around the making of her film are elevated to near cinematic proportions.  And yet, they always remain wonderfully prosaic and down to earth.

If Alligator is in some ways a novel about the impossibility of telling a straight story about history, in favour of indulging in the digressive pleasures of storytelling and memory, it certainly sparked some thoughts in my mind about how not to write an historical novel.

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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.