Archive for December, 2011
Assuming I don’t do any New Year’s Eve drunk-blogging. Not necessarily a safe assumption.
The end of the year finds me sicking out of work (for reasons of actual sickness) and reading The Golden Bough. Now I remember why in college I thought this book was the key to everything: because it is literally the key to everything. I mean, there’s actually a chapter called “Magicians as Kings.” Why did I not read that before I wrote The Magician King? I could have saved so much time.
[In case nobody flogged you through the annotations to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in college, The Golden Bough is an amazing work of 19th century comparative mythology that basically tried to organize and cross-reference all religions and myths everywhere, teasing out their shared patterns, much as the magicians did at Murs in The Magician King. A lot of modernist writers were influenced by it. By which I mean they stole from it with both hands.]
It’s full of throwaway gems — like this one from Chapter XXIV, “The Killing of the Divine King”:
In answer to the enquiries of Colonel Dodge, a North American Indian stated that the world was made by the Great Spirit. Being asked which Great Spirit he meant, the good one or the bad one, “Oh, neither of them,” replied he, “the Great Spirit that made the world is dead long ago. He could not possibly have lived as long as this.”
It goes on to provide what amounts to a practical guide to when and how to kill a god. And I’m just reading the one-volume version. I actually own the completely insane 12-volume version — I inherited it from my dad — but I think we all know I’m not ready for that.
I’m partly reading it as research for what I’m calling, at least for now, The Magician’s Land. (For background on this, read — and/or subscribe to! — the Brakebills Alumni Associaion Newsletter. We’re almost at 1,000 subscribers; thousandth subscriber wins…a subscription to The Brakebills Alumni Association Newsletter. And a Brakebills t-shirt.)
It also feels vaguely appropriate for the approach of New Year’s Eve — themes of death, renewal, ritual drunkenness, etc. NYE is the one holiday of the year that I wholeheartedly embrace. This is because I’m an atheist and not very comfortable with organized religion in general, plus I need an excuse to buy a scary-expensive bottle of vintage champagne and stay up all night drinking it.
I shouldn’t need an excuse for that, but I do.
p.s. Ever wondered what the deal is with vintage champagne? Here’s the deal. Most champagne producers try to maintain total consistency year over year: they blend grapes and vintages and tweak the results so that every bottle tastes exactly the same. That’s why your basic bottle of Veuve Clicquot never changes, year after year. But when there’s an especially awesome year, they’ll bottle a champagne made from grapes that are all from that year. Those champagnes are called “vintage,” and they have more markedly distinctive characteristics than non-vintage champagnes. #themoreyouknow #winepedant
p.p.s. Herewith, an archive of the Brakebills Alumni Newsletter. I have just figured out how to do this.
The people have spoken! And they all disagree with each other!
Which is as it should be. But you’ve narrowed down the list considerably, while still leaving some discretion to the author (me). Thank you.
Of the finalists, I was sorely tempted by Ogden, since it has nice associations (Ogden Nash) and a perfect etymology (the Internet seems to think it’s an English name that originally meant ‘oak valley’). But would anybody really name a child Julia Ogden? It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue. I always get stuck in the middle — those adjoining vowels, with a glottal stop (or whatever it is) in between them.
Julia Pierce got several votes, but it’s just a little too … Brosnany for me. Dryden is nice, but I agree with whoever pointed out that it’s too close to ‘dryad.’ Barbour — also nice, but it’s an Iconic British Lifestyle Brand, and I have a coat by them, and I can’t name Julia after a coat. Reese: that’s my accountant’s name. See above.
Bottom line, I’m going with Wicker. Short, sweet, euphonious, distinctive, natural but not too dryad-y. I know no coats or accountants named Wicker. Yes, there’s the association with The Wicker Man, now permanently tainted by the wickedy-wack Nicholas Cage remake, but I can get past that. Julia Wicker.
Let’s say Ogden’s her middle name. It’s a family name. Thank God that’s settled. Julia Ogden Wicker.
I have no other news to relate. The Magician King appeared on some year-end best-of lists, which made me very happy. I gave some interviews. I’m spending a lot of time plotting out the last Magicians book, scene by scene. I’m about 3/4 of the way there — I want to have a really solid plan in place by the end of the year, so I can then go to Australia and write the hell out of the thing. (That’s not a figure of speech. I’m really going to Australia. It’s summer there.)
It sounds kind of prosaic, but outlining is a big part of the process for me. I’m not an improviser: I like to have a lot of the structural interconnections in a book mapped out before I start writing. Then I can switch them around and add more as I go — it’s like the book is a brain, and it’s forming little neuronal pathways (neurologists, feel free to write in with everything that’s wrong with that analogy). That’s part of the point of novels for me: they’re little worlds where everything is woven together with everything else, everything is linked, and everything pays off.
Except a few things that are artfully placed to remind us that in real life, hardly anything pays off.
The other day on Twitter a reader — whom the court will refer to as @FredaLisgaras, since that is in fact her name — asked if Julia had a last name. And of course she does. But I don’t know what it is, because it’s not in the book.
It’s funny about characters’ names: you know they have them, but unless the narrator supplies them, or somebody for some reason says them out loud, which is surprisingly rare, (see p. 20 of The Magicians, or p. 118 of The Magician King) they don’t tend to come out.
(My narrators tend not to say the characters’ last names because I write in what people sometimes call “close” third-person narration, which means that even though theoretically they’re different people, the narrator’s persona and point of view are closely identified with those of the character whose story they’re telling. And people don’t tend to think about their own last names, or the last names of people they know well. Henry James called this narrative technique “focalization.” I don’t know why I know that.)
Anyway, for whatever reason Julia’s name has never come up, so I suggested that people submit nominations via Twitter. Here’s what came in, in no particular order:
If you’ve got a preference (or another nomination), cause it to be known in the comments. Let’s make some canon!
Next time: the verdict.
p.s. Apropos of nothing, I have to take a second to mention John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I’m almost done reading. (I sometimes get advance copies of books; it’s one of the things that makes my life good.) The other day I posted on Time.com about seven books I’m looking forward to in 2012, and I didn’t mention Green’s book, because I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’d heard his stuff was good, but I’d never read it myself, and because I’m a suspicious and distrusting person, I didn’t take its goodness on faith. Then I picked up The Fault in Our Stars. I am totally devastated by this book. I cried when I read it, and I never cry. You don’t want to throw around phrases like “instant classic,” but I can see this book sitting next to The Catcher in the Rye. It’s that good.
When I was in college I already knew I wanted to be a writer. After kicking around in my brain for a few years, that idea finally gelled for me one evening, with no warning, as I was crossing the street to get to the dining hall. I don’t know why, but that’s how it happened.
But I had a lot of funny ideas about what becoming a writer involved. There are a lot of practical things I wish people had told me back then, so I could have avoided the Trail of Tears that was the process of my actually getting published. But I also wish somebody had told me that I wasn’t the only one who had no idea what they were doing.
(This post was inspired in part by another, better essay by Jonath Lethem in The Ecstasy of Influence. Lethem went to Bennington, where his classmates included Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis.)
I went to Harvard, and there were in fact some future published writers in my year. Colson Whitehead was one. I think Ben Mezrich (who wrote the book The Social Network was based on, among other things) was in my class too, and possibly the poet Kevin Young? Unlike Lethem I didn’t know them, probably because Harvard is much larger than Bennington, and I am much smaller than Jonathan Lethem. (I did know my brother Austin, who is very much a published writer. There are probably other writers from my year who I’m forgetting or not-knowing about — sorry!)
As I said, I already knew at that point that I wanted to write novels. I wanted it very badly indeed. I was also pretty sure I never would.
Not that I wasn’t insufferably pretentious about my literary aspirations, mind you. I was! (People I knew in college, who sometimes comment here, can attest to that.) But I was also convinced that my work was crap, and would always be crap, because I had no talent.
There was some basis for this. There were other people in my year who also wanted to be writers, and they were producing some amazing stuff. Way better than my stuff. I still remember lines from their short stories. I was and am easily intimidated, and — through no fault of theirs — I was incredibly intimidated by these people. They were talented. They were confident. They were, for lack of a better word, glowy: they had that aura, the aura of genius in its youth, the aura of embryonic literary celebrity. I knew, to a certainty, that when we graduated and were weighed upon the great scales of the world, they would be blessed, and I would be damned. I would be the guy who appeared in the corner of the photograph in their biographies, making a weird face, who is denoted in the caption by “unidentified.”
And in the short term, that’s what happened. I didn’t win any prizes for my writing in college. (OK, sophomore year I came in second in a short story contest. That was it though.) I did get published in the campus literary magazine, but not before setting an unofficial record for rejected manuscripts first. When I graduated, I didn’t win any fellowships. I didn’t even get into any MFA programs. I didn’t publish a word of fiction for six years.
A rational being, assessing my chances of ever getting anywhere as a writer, would have assessed them as quite low.
The weird thing is, though, that I did eventually get somewhere. Because it turns out that talent, whatever that is, and that glowy aura, are only part of the picture. Once I graduated, other less glamrous skills came into play. Such as: the ability to stay focused on writing when nobody’s giving you encouragement. Related skill: the ability to fail to get a job that’s more interesting than working on your novel-in-progress (check, and double-check!)
Also: the ability to take a beating. I got a lot of rejections during those first, oh, dozen years or so. Enough that a more reasonable person would have given up. But for some reason my lizard hind-brain wasn’t going to let me quit. And after I spent a day/month/year sulking over those rejections, I actually looked at them and thought about why they weren’t acceptances, and fed the conclusions back into my working drafts. That turned out to be a very important skill. Not glamorous or fun, but absolutely necessary.
So what I wish someone had said to me in college was this: don’t let the world convince you that you can’t write. That may ultimately be true, who knows, but it’s way too early to tell. You’re playing the long game, and in the meantime don’t take any guff from those swine. Maybe you don’t look or act or talk like the chosen one. That’s all right. Because in the end writers aren’t chosen. You choose yourself.