Hello readers and welcome to installment number five of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After taking on All Quiet on the Western Front I decided to pivot to a Minnesota author who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine: Tim O’Brien. In this case I chose his landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.
While I’m not sure it’s quite as brilliant as The Things They Carried, this book is without a doubt an incredible piece of fiction masquerading as fact. The story, about a Minnesota politician residing in a remote cabin with his wife after being soundly defeated in a primary, is deceptively simple, but O’Brien weaves his narrator through the pieces of the puzzle, offering explanations as to what may have happened. The chief characters are John Wade and his wife Kathy, but we meet a dozen others through the course of their lives, and also as pieces of “evidence” the narrator has assembled for our viewing. The story is intricately told and kept me riveted until the end. But more on all these themes in the lessons I took away from this monumental work:
If you can’t tell from my effusive praise, I very much enjoyed reading this novel, and would highly recommend it. There is a reason O’Brien is consistently cited as one of the best wranglers of the written word over the past few decades, and has miles to teach within his books. I hope to be able to visit all of his works over the coming years.
Up next, I’m going to take a bit of a break before I dive into what will be my summer read: Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. I hope to also hit a short story collection or two, and get some of my own written. Have a safe and fun season everyone, and thanks for reading!
Hello readers, and welcome to the fourth installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After previously suffering through John Grisham’s The Firm, I moved backward in time to what is generally considered the greatest book about war ever put to paper: Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
First, I would absolutely agree with the critical consensus. I’ve finally gotten to a fair amount of phenomenal war novels in the last few years (Catch-22, Slaughterhouse V, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Got His Gun) and this was the best one I’ve read. I believe I understand the reason as one of the major lessons to draw from this impactful work. And so:
I’ll conclude this with a hearty recommendation for anyone who enjoys great literature to pick this one up. It’s important to recall this war happened only a century ago, and to ponder its lessons for today.
Coming up next in AYOF: I will be taking on (Minnesota author) Tim O’Brien’s landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods. Thanks for reading!
My first novel was published by North Star Press nearly three years ago. 2014 seems like a long time ago: Obama was still POTUS, and nobody even considered the upcoming election much yet. I was preoccupied with a lot that year, including getting the book, Our Senior Year, finished and the cover ready to go for my events. For those of you who haven’t read it, the book is essentially a fictionalized account of my time at a small high school in Iowa. I named the town Clarmont, a pastiche combining another nearby town, and patched together a few of my best friends at the time as characters. I also split my personality in half and had them be best friends, a decision I’m not quite sure worked very well but was useful in telling the story from two different (albeit similar) perspectives.
I’d recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of the first “horror” novels (depending on your time frame) of the modern era, and one told entirely through epistolary forms of the time: monographs recorded for others to listen, letters, and diary entries. This got me considering a journal entry to tell one character’s side of the story. This journal is located by the other main character at the beginning of the tale, and he uses it to tell the story in what ends up being the actual book. There are some plot twists based on my experience at that town over four years, including an amalgamation of some car wrecks, and a suicide.
The friends were based on people I got to know quite well during my senior year there, as I had run with a different group of people aimlessly (and neurotically, though I wasn’t aware at the time) up to that point. I realized the people in my own grade were having an awesome time, and that it was time to start seeing what they were into. I have since come to understand our activities as pretty stupid, but no too much outside the norm for kids of any era. But all of this did not bode well with my parents, who raised me on a farm outside the town based on pretty strict religious structure. This is reflected in the character’s attending a youth group night at a local church.
This entire novel was really a reaction against my upbringing. Circa 2013, when I was finishing the last drafts, I was coming off an important conversation with my parents a year earlier regarding my breaking away from their Christian faith. I would end up telling them parts of what the story would entail, and tried to make sure they were aware that the parent characters are not really them. One is an alcoholic, and my father doesn’t touch the stuff, and my mother was not overbearing and mean like in the novel. Still, I had conceived the novel in my high school days as being against this type of strict upbringing.
Yet I couldn’t view this work through any other lens than a strictly religious conflict up until now. I’ve recently had some powerful emotional breakthroughs regarding all of it (the ignorance coupled with the extreme fundamentalism) and have come to some much better ground surrounding it. I’m not so angry any longer, and it feels better. I thought it would be as good a time as any to revisit what was driving this first novel.
A lot of it was driven by anger, and fear. Since our initial discussion I had since come to see how I was raised through a mostly negative light, and struggled to distance myself from it through this novel. There is a discussion in the book dealing with a documentary I watched in real life produced by PBS describing a lot of the fallacies in where the Bible comes from. After, the father and son discuss why they don’t believe in this stuff anymore, but must for the sake of their mother. This was one of my first clumsy attempts at inserting commentary I’d arrived at much later into a fictional time zone where part of me existed. I was also at the time afraid my parents would know more about what I thought. I thought this passage in the novel would be enough to cover some of this. It never was.
But that’s another great revelation to hit as a writer: I’m not who I thought I was. That’s right, I can evolve, both through life and in my work. My marriage has taught me a lot about the life part, now it’s time to tackle the writing bit.
The person who finally finished that book in 2013-14 is not the person sitting here writing this today. I have a new, and different outlook on religion and all of its various manifestations through society. And instead of forgetting about it, like it’s not a part of me, I have come to the conclusion that I can only incorporate it into my writing. I have seen so much of it used in the wrong way, in ways that will affect me for the rest of my life. But instead of the anger, I have to approach it with the opposite. Compassion, understanding, but also ruthless interrogation. What causes humans to believe such things? Where does it come from, and where is it going?
I have no idea, and things are only getting more confused with the technological revolution of recent years. AI appears to be the closest thing we might get to a “god” on this planet, so what does that mean for religion? These are all things I didn’t realize I wanted to write about until they wouldn’t go away and kept turning into a huge idea. Therefore, I am going to begin drafting a new book, involving ideas about the future, climate change, technology, and seeing where it leads. I’m also going to continue re-writing Observe and Detach so it’s ready for an agent, but I can’t suppress this any longer. It’s time to start harnessing the tide of creative growth that comes from a healthy examination of one’s path.
That’s my main point for you aspiring writers out there. Look at where you come from, gaze at what you wrote, but don’t let it define you. You are never who you thought you were. I wish there was some other better way to figure this out besides time travel or something. But as I near the midpoint of my thirties, I’ve come to understand that if you can learn from your mistakes, and where you come from, you’ll go a long way toward finding out where you’re going.
(Also when I first started thinking about this essay, I couldn’t help get this infamous YouTube video out of my head. Denny Green was a perennial character in my parent's’ living room as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings a million years ago…)
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.