Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. Last time I pondered the various meanings of White Noise. After the intensity of that novel, I decided to pivot toward some “lighter” fair, picking up an author who I hadn’t read in ages - Nick Hornby and his 1995 debut novel High Fidelity.
I’ve wanted to read this one since I saw Stephen Frears’ film of the same name years ago. I must say the book is many times better, and I found myself questioning why the movie took the story to America, because the humor does not translate as well. The story is about Rob, a middling, 35-year old record store owner in the UK who ultimately comes to realize his fear of death makes him jump in and out of relationships over the whims of a song, or a person’s reaction, or just because of his “itchy feet.” As I am turning that age this year, the book made me feel glad that my life has settled down and I have moved beyond the things that hold Rob back in the story. I want to take a look at some of the lessons writers can gain from a book like this.
Use of humor. This is arguably the novel’s strongest suit, and once again I felt this aspect didn’t make it into the film version (which is funny in its own, depressing Americanized way). Hornby deftly wields the voice of Rob, and interjects tons of statement that indicate the author himself sees this character as the pathetic shell of a man he is. There is a ton of self-deprecating humor that deals with the various situations, and I thought Hornby was quite spot-on regarding the man-child aspects of our modern age.
Switching up the narrative. This is something the film also tried capturing (to better effect IMO), the long monologues in which Rob is speaking to the reader/audience and pleading his case. At some points he even addresses the reader during a conversation with another character. Done right, this can be a very interesting way to tell a story from various angles/perspectives.
Overall while I did enjoy the work, I don’t think I will be revisiting Hornby for a while. Reading the travails of a thirty-something Brit who hasn’t gotten any part of his life figured out may have resonated with me back in my twenties, but as a married (for almost eight years) man it struck me as a gigantic excuse for men to act their boorish selves way past that era of their lives and to expect women to pick up the pieces. In the age of #MeToo, this message doesn’t resonate as it once may have. But, if you’re looking for an easy read, Hornby does the job, and you’ll have a few good laughs along the way.
Up next, I’m diving back into the female author recommendations, this time one who is very established by this point but I have never read: Joyce Carol Oates and her masterful 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys. Stay tuned for more updates as the Reading List progresses through the year!
Mary and I met at Target in 2008, a year after we had both moved to Minneapolis (she’s from the Iron Range and I’m from *ahem* Iowa). A year later, we began dating. I still remember one of the first times we hung out. I drank some fake Absinthe and ended up crying because I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. Oh yeah, in her bedroom. Still not quite sure why she didn’t just leave me high and dry back then.
I was a drunk. Thankfully I had the good sense to make the right decision. Haven’t had much taste for alcohol since.
For most of my life I didn’t know how to express or show emotion. Coming from a very cloistered, cultish and indoctrinating family I learned to substitute ritual and superficiality for actual feelings. This led to some early calamities. I almost broke up with her in New York City, for goodness sake. I was a moron, and wasn’t even aware of what I had.
Each time, I knew deep down inside that this woman was the one for me. I had to trust that instinct each time, and it always worked out for the best.
We moved in together in 2010, got married the next year. A small ceremony attended by a few members of each our families. Reception at Bunny’s in St. Louis Park.
Challenges since then. She has bipolar disorder. She chose to take her medication, feeling I was worth it. She helped me finally break free of the influence of my family. Helped me see my former job was making me miserable.
So many memories. The Law & Order weekend, and the food poisoning weekend. Going to dinner at that terrible Italian restaurant near 50th and France. Watching your reactions to certain movies, like in Ted when the bear starts getting ripped in half at the end. Seeing you struggle with that Kirby game, and with your addiction to cheese. And the heartbreak you’ve had in dealing with your (new) egg allergy. There are so many things with eggs in them! It’s not fair. You love our cats, Marble and Morrison with a passion I at first did not understand. That was until we had to say goodbye to Scout last year, and I realized I was really going to miss that feline.
Seeing you fully as a person who is special enough to contain such a wide range of emotional territory.
Mary’s birthday has been a challenge for me, as I’ve been pathetic at picking out gifts. Now I recognize it’s more in the spirit of what she means to me.
This marriage goes so far beyond that. She is the real gift.
She is an amazing, loving, caring woman who also happens to have a mental illness. I made the decision that the only way to handle it was to just love her unconditionally. No matter what.
Happy birthday, baby. I look forward to many years of happiness with you. I love you.
(Long time readers may consider this a companion piece to a previous note I wrote to Mary four years ago.)
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…)
I want to write today about an important facet of the writer’s life: being alone with your thoughts enough to compose something on the page. While some of you out there may be lucky enough to write by yourself or in a separate room, odds are most people have to deal with this situation simply by dint of having a relationship with another human being.
My wife and I lived in a very cramped apartment for the first five years of our marriage. This led to numerous issues regarding space, and while a lot of it got rectified when we moved a bigger place last year, we still could not avoid the fact that we are occupying much of the same area together, almost all of the time. How can we as writers learn to deal with such a situation? How can we with partners in our lives learn to be alone, together?
First I’d like to address the simple matter of how to write even when there is somebody in the same area doing something completely different like watching television. Headphones can be invaluable to cut off the noise, and to place you in the right mindset for writing. For me that’s a heavy dose of classical and/or ambient music. But more to the point, we as writers need to find the proper mindset for working on our craft even in a fairly cramped environment. My wife has her own concept of “alone time,” which she needs just as much as me. Even in a one-bedroom apartment we find our ways of separating, whether that’s moving to the bedroom to read or putting on my headphones and jamming out on a story. While we do have to occupy the same space, we manage to live in our own worlds at certain times. I think this is an important concept for anyone who lives in close quarters with another human being: make sure they too have the space they need from you, when they need it. This can be tough to understand and acknowledge, but believe me, if you can find an arrangement that works out for the both of you, it will do wonders for the entire relationship.
But I want to go deeper than that. What does it truly mean to be alone, together? We as writers are basically unable to do our jobs unless we can be solitary and cultivate our thoughts. How is this possible in our world full of distraction and people? Those who work with me have probably come to know me by turns inherently taciturn and, as I’ve been described by too many people to count, “quiet.” This was especially apparent in my previous job, in which personal connections broke down and I became utterly consumed with keeping to myself. While this led to some humorous anecdotes in my current manuscript concerning neurotic behaviour in the white-collar workplace, it did not lead to me connecting very well with my co-workers. I find myself currently employed in a bookstore, surrounded by some of my favorite works but also by people who do a lot more thinking before they speak (not a huge concern of the office-dweller, in general terms). And yet even here I find myself not speaking much more, often because I have a lot of ponderous thoughts about my books going on in my brain. While part of me keeps trying to make myself interact more with my fellow booksellers, many of whom are very deep people with interesting stories to tell, I must remind myself that the work is residing up there in my cranium, and to make sure I allow myself the time needed to grapple with it. Those of us who deign to use the written word to tell a story need not be so afraid of living a withdrawn life. I cannot stress enough how important it is to retain the singular lifestyle required of the writer in various circumstances. I am lucky enough to have a job in which that isn’t too difficult, but I would highly recommend this to any aspiring writer: find ways to keep within yourself and your thoughts as much as you can.
That’s not to say you should be inwardly focused all the time, but you will never reach your full potential as a writer unless you can be alone with your thoughts. Whether that’s being home alone, together with your significant other or alone among others in your workplace, it’s imperative to cultivate that mindset as often as you can stand it. On this I can only offer my considerations as I ponder the direction of my writing career. While the first draft of my third novel resides on my hard drive, I have for the past few years been chewing over the direction of my fourth one, and how it can reflect reality. This began as the seed of an idea as I was waiting for the bus some afternoons after the office job, and continued into a bigger notion the more I was able to contemplate it, either when others were present or own my own. The important thing to note here is that I would not have been able to get this far without being able to honestly and deeply appraise my own thoughts. Make sure you are giving yourself the same amount of space.
This ties in with what I hope will be my final essay on the writing process this year, which is a doozy: What exactly is a writer for? That is, what are we as purveyors of the written word attempting to do with our careers? I’ll be the first to admit I have expressed utter cluelessness on this score for a long time, but as this year has progressed I have come as close to an answer to that question as I’ve gotten yet. I hope to get that essay out of my brain before this horrendous year has passed.
And of course, stay tuned to this space for the final few updates in my year-long experiment in reading fiction, the incredible results of which have guaranteed its continuation into the next year (more on that next month).
Thanks for reading, and as always feel free to add your own reactions to these ideas in the comments. Happy holidays, everyone!
It’s been almost a year since I lost my previous office job, spent a month in the wilderness of unemployment, and found a much better position working at a used book store. In that time I have come to know some important lessons about life and writing that I’d like to share. I did something similar at the end of last year, but this list is a more thorough compilation. In the interest of keeping the list manageable, I’ve attempted to keep it as pithy as possible. And if any of you out there have your own lessons to add, feel free to do so in the comments. Thanks for reading!
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.