Tuesday, July 28, 2015

My Life as a Beckett Play, or, A Lesson in Perseverance

My current work in progress is a revision of an earlier manuscript that failed to find a home with my current publisher. I considered publishing it myself, but decided instead to revise it. In the process I have pulled out one short story about sailing and am now rewriting the novel.

At first the prospect seemed daunting, but, as often happens, it put me in mind of an earlier challenge. Some years ago I had a problem with a project and wandered out back to run an idea by my husband. Husband was digging a hole in the ground. My in-laws did this often, so I didn't think much of it. I continued to describe my problem, got the appropriate grunts and hmms to indicate some attention from Husband, and returned to my desk.

My first problem was solved but another one came along. I went out back to speak to Husband, who was now deeper into his hole. Curious about why the driveway drain was in the spot it was in, he had decided to dig down and see what was there. My problem also seemed to be growing, so I found a folding chair in the garage and sat down in the driveway to describe my dilemma while he continued to dig. This intermittent digging and consulting in the driveway went on throughout the summer. The hole got deeper and my problems more complicated.

But the hole also produced some surprises. Like a good first draft, the hole was more than a hole.
Apparently Husband had found the old cesspool, abandoned when the city laid town sewer services, and the old service had been made of fine New England granite. When he was into his hole up to his waist, he threw out the first stone. I admired it and went on describing my current problem.

Throughout that summer, almost twenty years ago, Husband dug and Wife talked while sitting in the shade along the driveway. Stones large and small flew out of the hole as Husband disappeared up to his shoulders. When his head was no longer visible, the rocks were noticeably heavier and some, too big to toss, had to be shoved onto the nearby lawn. But they kept coming.

As Wife came to the end of her first draft and related problems, Husband was no longer in sight, and the pile of rocks on the lawn was large enough to give one pause. What on earth were we going to do with them? They weren't exactly like an extra character that could be killed off in a story.

The last rock was gigantic and its extraction required mechanical assistance. Husband hitched up his little sports car and we pulled the last rock from the hole. We still didn't know what to do with them. Husband and Wife are practical sorts, and one of us said, We could build a stone wall. Now, Wife was not familiar with this sort of labor, but then, neither was Husband. We set about manhandling the rocks of all sizes into some sort of order, which seemed preferable to leaving them spread all over the back lawn. The end result was as much of a surprise as the initial discovery, but much nicer.


This is where I expected to extol the virtues of perseverance, but perhaps better would be to point out the importance of curiosity. We have a lovely stone wall, the envy of a few of our neighbors who have paid dearly for theirs, and all the result of my husband's curiosity about an old drain in the driveway.

And my manuscript? That was the summer when Anita Ray came to light, to appear several years later as an Indian American photographer living at her aunt's tourist hotel, light of her life and bane of her existence.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

BlogHop :: International Authors' Day

I rarely get an opportunity to showcase some of the less well known writers I enjoy, but as part of International Authors Day (which is actually four days), arranged by Debdatta Dasgupta Sahay, I'll share some of the authors I've found during my visits to South India. Several of these writers are known in the United States, but I found the books noted here first in India.

As a member of the Nehru family, Nayantara Sahgal was expected to succeed in whatever she chose to do in life. She chose to write, and has produced a number of novels and memoirs. My favorite is a short novel titled MISTAKEN IDENTITY, set in 1929 about the son of a minor raja caught up in the Quit India movement, arrested and carted off to prison.

The struggle for dignity and independence is explored by another writer, Sarah Thomas. In DAIVAMAKKAL, or Children of God, a dalit woman is determined to claim a better life for her son through education. "Children of God" is the name Mahatma Gandhi gave to the Untouchables of India, and Thomas succeeds in bringing the struggles and achievements of this community to life through the story of Kunjikannan.

Sarah Joseph explores questions of faith in OTHAPPU, or The Scent of the Other Side. The novel is a critique of Christianity and what the author regards as the distorted forms it has taken in South India.

Thrity Umrigar captures the chasms that open between women of different castes, no matter how closely intertwined their lives, in THE SPACE BETWEEN US. In the rarefied world of the Bombay upper classes, Sera leans on her maidservant, Bhima, a woman of no power who can do little to protect her own family when the time comes.

Not nearly as well known in the United States as she should be is Anita Nair. Her recent mystery, CUT LIKE WOUND, suggests a new direction in her work. Inspector Borei Gowda is faced with the confounding deaths of a number of young male prostitutes. Taking place in Bangalore over little more than a month, the novel plays on all the tropes of crime fiction with a few Indian twists added to the form. Nair's novel MISTRESS tells a love story through the nine basic emotions of the traditional dance-drama art form called Kathakali.

Another favorite writer for me and many others is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Perhaps best known for her novel HEAT AND DUST and as a screenwriter in a team with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Jhabvala wrote dozens of books, essays, reviews, screenplays, and stories. I came across a collection in India, A LOVESONG FOR INDIA: TALES FROM EAST AND WEST, with illustrations by her architect husband C.S.H. Jhabvala. These stories have such perfect detail and delicacy that I was convinced they were memoirs.

As part of the BlogHop for International Authors' Day I'm giving away a paperback of the first novel in the Anita Ray series, UNDER THE EYE OF KALI, to someone who comments, chosen at random.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Summer on the New England Seacoast

Last night I left the public library after an enjoyable and productive meeting, on my way to an after-meeting dinner. When I left the building, I found my colleagues gathered in the parking lot, fretting over the fate of a young gull that had fallen from its nest. Residents of nearby apartments stopped to offer comments, and passers-by also contributed to the conversation.

This is July on Cape Ann, where gulls are squawking protectively over their nests and dive-bombing any human or other prospective predator who might come near. The problem here, however, is that the fledgling, even too young to be a fledgling, has fallen out of the protective nest. But this fledgling is only one of several that we and others will encounter on sidewalks, back yards, tops of cars, and parking lots.

We humans gathered and fretted and discussed, and this is what we came up with. Do not touch the bird. (We already knew that.) Unfortunately, a little girl didn't know this and a few days earlier picked one up, put it in her purse, and took it home. The bird will die. A neighbor who came out to offer advice pointed out that fledglings, and even younger ones, will survive this danger of being ground-bound as long as the parents can feed it and drive off predators. Considering the location, the brick walk by a library, in a city with a leash law and bird-rescue volunteers, the young bird could very well survive.

Reluctant, but with increasing confidence, we scattered to our cars and headed out. On my way home after supper the stranded baby gull got me thinking of the various birds I've encountered in India, and, of course, one thought led to another, and I now have a burgeoning story about Anita Ray and a fortune-telling parrot.

I also have a clearer conscience because I emailed a bird rehabber about the gull, and if anything can be done, she will do it. Stories and their inspiration came from all sorts of experiences. The key is to be ready for them.