This blog has been dormant for a while and Spring, the season of renewal, seems the perfect time to bring it back to life. In preparing to do that, I looked through some previous posts and came across this review that I wrote of ROOM by Emma Donoghue several years ago. At the time I had no idea that the book would be made into a movie – a very successful movie. (Yay! Love it when good storytelling is acknowledged and rewarded.) Here’s what I had to say:
ROOM is the story of a young woman kidnapped and held captive in a small space for years. The premise itself isn’t that original; in fact, it seems lifted straight from the evening news, but Donoghue’s treatment is fresh and her characters so real they leap off the page.
I won’t spoil it by going into a lot of plot details. As I said, the plot itself is not unique. What sets the book apart is the point of view. We experience the story through the eyes of Jack, the child born to the kidnap victim, fathered by her captor, a shadowy figure known to him as Old Nick.
It begins on the morning of Jack’s fifth birthday:
“Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.”
Who could resist an opening like that?
Donoghue has taken a nightmare scenario and created a surprisingly uplifting story. It’s a story of unconditional love, of resilience and the will to survive, a story of civilization in primitive conditions. The only person Jack has ever known is his mother, whose love for him is achingly real. He has never known meanness or hatred. He is a precocious little boy, happy most of the time with life in his 11 x 11 world. He doesn’t know enough to be dissatisfied with the little he has.
Among the few possessions Jack and his mother can claim are a few books. She has taught him to read and given him a love of stories. She has also devised a daily routine filled with a variety of activities. They sing and play games of their own invention. They do have a TV, but Ma only allows it to be turned on for a short time each day, because, as she has taught Jack, too much TV will rot their brains. They exercise every day, doing laps in their small space, sometimes jumping from one piece of furniture to another (Jack’s favorite). They do crafts, using materials they salvage from the meager supplies that Old Nick brings to them. One of Jack’s playmates is a snake who lives under the bed, constructed from egg shells and other bits and pieces that he and Ma have gleaned from things most of us consider trash.
Jack thinks there are “thousands of things to do”. We know that for his mother it is a very different story. Though the story never shifts to her point of view, we understand the significance of her moods in a way that the innocent child telling the story cannot. We feel her desperation and her sense that time is running out and appreciate all the more the remarkable job she has done in making life bearable for Jack and her attempts to give him the skills he will need if they should ever be freed.
Donoghue has established a unique voice for Jack and, in doing so, has created a provocative novel..
If you’ve read the book, seen the movie, or (most likely) both, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the story.
The Grand Canyon is a sight that overwhelms, nature’s handiwork on a scale that defies comprehension. The canyon is at some points over eighteen miles wide and a mile deep. It is, in the words of Naturalist John Muir, “. . .a gigantic statement for even nature to make.” It’s hard to believe that it was created by the ordinary interaction between sand and water. Grain by grain. Drop by drop. Wind, too, played its part. And time. Lots and lots of time.
Looking at the pictures, I thought of a little poem I learned from my grandmother:
Tiny drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean,
And form this pleasant land.
(That may not be exactly right; it was, after all, a long time ago.)
I still like that little verse. When I was small, I responded to the sound of it, the way the words flowed with kind of a seesaw rhythm. I liked the fact that it was short and, probably most of all, I loved sitting in Gram’s lap while the two of us recited the words together. Back then, I’m pretty sure I didn’t comprehend the implications of those few short lines. Now, as an adult who is, to put it kindly, discipline challenged, I read a lot into them. They remind me of the power of persistence, of what can be achieved by simply chipping away at a monumental task, ticking off one small item at a time until the job is done.
As a writer, that little rhyme tells me not to listen to the niggling voice that asks: Do you really think you can do this? Writing a book, a whole book, is a huge task. I’ve learned (actually am learning would be more accurate) to forget about the huge task and focus on one thing at a time. Stop worrying about the whole book. Just write the next word. Trust that another will flow from that. That’s how stories are made. Even great stories, the ones we call classics. Yes, but–the niggling voice answers back–those books were written by geniuses. That’s probably true, but not a reason to quit. Genius would be nice but, since we don’t get to pick that card, I’ll settle for persistence. Even the books that make the most gigantic statements were made one word at a time.
A word. A sentence. A paragraph. These are the sand, the water, and the wind that shape our stories. And time. Sometimes lots and lots of time.
For a change of pace from my usual posts and guest spots, I’m pointing to another blog – http://kannonsgarden.blogspot.ca/2015/10/the-write-spot-sandra-carey-cody.html
Cheryl Cooke Harrington invited me to be a guest on The Write Spot and share a little corner of my world. Follow the link above to see where I sit to daydream and make up stories. Looking at it with an objective eye, I realize that it’s pretty utilitarian, but it’s MINE. Stop by if you have time and are so inclined.
While you’re there, why not scroll down and see other Write Spots. It’s kind of fun to see where authors birth their novels.
Enjoy your day!
Her Twin Lakes mystery series includes A MURDERER AMONG US and MURDER IN THE AIR.
MURDER A LA CHRISTIE and MURDER THE TEY WAY are the first two books in her Golden Age of Mystery Book Club Mystery series.
Some of her books for young readers include AND DON’T BRING JEREMY, which was a nominee for six state awards, NO BOYS ALLOWED, and RUFUS AND MAGIC RUN AMOK, an International Reading Association-Children’s Book Council “Children’s Choice.”
She likes traveling, foreign films, reading, knitting, Sudoku, dining out, and talking to her granddaughter Olivia on Face Time. She lives on Long Island.
Her latest book, THE DEVIL’S PAWN, was released on September 28.
I met Marilyn last spring when we both attended Domestic Malice. We shared a lovely dinner and had some great conversation. I knew immediately that I wanted her to write something for Birth of a Novel. Happily, she agreed. Here’s what she has to say about writing for kids:
Why I Write About Magic and Horror in my Kids’ Books
We Earthlings love stories. Stories explain great events. They draw on our emotions. As far back as we can remember, our stories are filled with other-than-human characters, both good and bad. In Beowulf, possibly the oldest Old English epic poem, the hero defeats a monster named Grendel and later on a dragon. Our folklore abounds with elves and fairies, dragons and trolls, zombies and werewolves—creatures we’ve never seen with our eyes except on the screen. Yet they’re as real to our inner lives as the flesh-and-blood neighbors who live on our streets.
Kids love to read about monsters. They also love to read about humans with magical or super powers. Superman, Wonder Woman and Spider Man are just a few of the well-loved icons of our society. These characters have special powers that enable them in their fight to defend the weak and downtrodden against the evil In the world. Each of our superheroes has an Achilles heel that make them vulnerable to their enemies. A struggle is expected, but good will always triumph, leaving kids hopeful that they too will triumph over bullies and the problems in their lives.
Rufus Breckenridge, the protagonist in my young YA Rufus and Magic Run Amok, an International Reading Association-Children’s Book Council “Children’s Choice”, is an ordinary boy until he discovers he has magical powers like his mother, grandmother, and aunt. Rufus is ambivalent about his newfound powers. Having them means he’ll have to take lessons to keep them under control. Even worse, he’s supposed to use his powers to help others and perform good deeds. Not exactly what a ten-year-old kid wants to do.
Rufus discovers that having magic is fun! Magic is power! He likes upsetting Big Douggie, his nemesis, who used to chase him home from school every day. He enjoys moving objects around. But as his power grows stronger, the objects move too fast and too far, wreaking damage and landing him in trouble. When magic runs amok, Rufus wishes he knew how to control it so it doesn’t control him.
In Rufus and the Witch’s Slave, Rufus and his friends discover that an evil witch is draining the magical powers of a young girl named Violette, and using them for her own illegal purposes. Rufus must convince Violette to stand up for herself and not go along with the old witch’s plans. That having magical powers is not something shameful, as she’d been taught, but a means of doing good in the world.
In The Devil’s Pawn, Simon Porte must develop his special powers in order to save his own life and stop the slaughter of innocent young girls. Evil lurks in the heart of his uncle, Raymond Davenport, the most powerful man in Buckley, NY. Like all Davenports Raymond has magical powers, but they cannot prevent him from dying. Draining the life force of nine-year-old girls only helps him temporarily, and so he tracks down his brother’s family and brings Simon, his fifteen-year-old nephew, to live with him. Raymond hypnotizes Simon repeatedly, each time implanting his memories, values, and abilities into his nephew’s mind. When all is ready, he will live on in Simon’s healthy body.
Locked into a situation that’s threatens his very existence, Simon must develop his powers to defeat his uncle. Knowing nothing about his father’s family, Simon relies on his instincts and smarts to do what he can to avoid becoming his uncle’s pawn. Help comes along in the form of his dotty great-aunt Lucinda, who teaches him how to develop his extraordinary abilities and block his uncle’s assault on his mind. With Lucinda, an odd pair of twins and his younger sister Lucy, Simon takes down Raymond and his cronies.
Children love reading about young heroes who, despite great odds, defeat evil uncles and bullies. Even if they can’t retaliate against a bully in real life, reading about a character that can empowers young readers and shows them it can be done. Rufus doesn’t use magic to defeat Big Douggie, but his own personal strengths, strengths he doesn’t realize he has at the start of the novel.
Simon’s adversary is older and more experienced than he. What’s more, Uncle Raymond is a respected member of the community with henchmen committing crimes on his behalf. The odds are daunting, which makes the story more exciting for young readers. Young people like to read about protagonists forced to fight huge battles, usually more dangerous battles than they encounter in their own lives. They cheer the hero on at the same time they identify with him. The elements of magic and horror drive up the stakes and make for a more exciting adventure. At the same time, readers have nothing to worry about. Deep down, doesn’t everyone know that magic and horror are only make believe and that good will triumph in the end?
In both The Witch’s Slave and The Devil’s Pawn, children are victimized by adults. A scary topic, but one familiar to children. They’re familiar with the bullying older brother, the sarcastic teacher, the too-strict parent. We try to shield our children from the evil in the world but they encounter it every day—in school, on the school bus, even at home. Reading about the trials and tribulations fiction characters must endure helps kids realize that they are not the only ones with problems. The magical and horror elements are far enough removed from real life to help them understand: “This is a story. It’s not real. At least I don’t have to deal with a wicked witch or an evil uncle like Raymond.”
Wise words, Marilyn. Kids need all the help they can get learning to deal with the problems in their lives. Fiction is the perfect way to do this. Thanks for sharing your insights with us.
To learn more about Marilyn Levinson and her books:
I’m delighted to welcome Maia Chance to Birth of a Novel. Maia writes historical mystery novels that are rife with absurd predicaments and romantic adventure. She is the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal and The Discreet Retrieval Agency series. Her first mystery, Snow White Red-Handed, was a national bestseller. Her latest releases are Cinderella Six Feet Under and Come Hell or Highball.
And now, here’s Maia:
The name of this blog—Birth of a Novel—got me thinking about all of the things that go into producing and promoting a book. Self-discipline, organization, stamina, social skills, good research habits, and beefy thesauruses all play a part. Yet the bottom line is, book-birthing is a creative enterprise, and so I spend oodles of time trying to figure out how to encourage that special, juicy, synthesizing state.
Here are three of the trusty standbys in my creativity tool belt:
- Read Weird Stuff. I love cozy mysteries, which is why I write them, but I don’t read very many of them. I read other stuff, because I need to keep replenishing my well. Believe it or not, I get ideas for my novels when I read critical theory and history for my academic work, and biographies on Wikipedia. Truth will always be stranger than fiction, and there is a limitless crop of ideas just ripe for the picking in those biographies and history books.
- Be a Health Nut. When I was a teenager and writing my first (luckily never published) novels, I had heard that some famous authors—Ernest Hemingway?—wrote drunk. So I tried it. That lasted about 10 minutes before I went to bed.* Over the years I have become, increasingly, a health nut and one of the huge driving forces behind this is I really, really, really want to be able to think clearly. Being creative means making snappy connections. Being creative means being able to dip your cup deeply into that well of ideas/feelings/memories/words inside of you. Being an efficient writer means being able to zoom in and out from the micro (comma!) to the macro (plot arc!) and back again. Over and over. Sadly, I have discovered that I can’t do that while eating chocolate chip cookies, or without having worked out.
*As a former musician, I do get that creative people need ways to turn off the inner critic. I wish I had an amazing tool for that. Right now my tactic is: “give your inner critic the finger and keeping plowing forward on all sixes.” It works okay.
- Follow Your Most Bizarre Ideas. They say “follow your dreams”; I say, “go with the idea that sounds too outrageous to work.” Because do you know why it sounds too outrageous to work? Because you haven’t seen it done before. Some of the parts of my books that turned out the best were the ideas that, at first, made me throw back my head and laugh with disbelieving, quasi-diabolical glee.
There is nothing new under the sun, sure, but there are infinite new combinations of ideas. My goal is to bring familiar ideas and settings to the cozy mystery genre, where they haven’t been done before. My Fairy Tale Fatal series, for instance, explores classic fairy tales within the structure of adventurous whodunit plots. And my Discreet Retrieval Agency presents F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish, jazz-age motifs within the structure of humorous mystery capers. I also enjoy bringing Hollywood devices—like the “chase in the marketplace with overturned fruit carts”—to the cozy mystery. These devices are simply recognizable chunks of “story” that are available to writers as they assemble their own, unique mosaics.
Stoke the fire, replenish the well, gas your guzzler, feed the chickens, and happy reading and writing!
Thank you, Maia, for sharing some of your writing secrets with the readers of Birth of a Novel. Love the sound of your books – fun titles and intriguing covers.
Readers, you may visit Maia on the web at:
The ebook version of Lethal Journal, a Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor mystery, is on sale now. Here’s the first chapter for anyone who might be interested.
Jennie Connors stood for a moment at the turning of the corridor, assessing the activity in the large open area that served as a lounge. Voices hummed in an easygoing camaraderie, providing soundtrack for a series of tableaux that, for Jennie, defined the retirement community known as Riverview Manor.
In one corner, a few of the more serious residents stared at the TV, their expressions bemused and skeptical, while a political know-it-all held forth on the all-news station. At a round table near the window, the tea ladies had their heads together, no doubt plotting something Jennie would, at some point, be asked to subvert. In another corner, a foursome studied the Scrabble tiles in front of them with calculating solemnity. Near the window, with the sun shining on him like a spotlight, Nathanial Pynchon strutted back and forth, declaiming eloquently: “Wherein I spake of most disastrous–”
“I wish you’d go ‘spake’ somewhere else,” one of the TV watchers called out.
Nate rolled his eyes and lowered his voice, but only minimally.
The TV watcher held out the remote and clicked the volume up a notch. His action was, in its own way, as dramatic as Nate’s theatrics.
Everyone else ignored the old actor.
Jennie smiled. Each scene hinted at mild conflict, but taken together, they reinforced her feeling that all was well in Riverview’s world. Not quite all. Where’s Jake? She looked away from the lounge, slightly to her left, down the long hallway that housed residents’ bedrooms. At ten thirty on this Tuesday morning, most doors were open. At the far end of the hall, a glassed-in area looked out over a construction site. Beyond the glass, giant yellow machines were gouging holes in the earth, preparing a foundation for the new activity center that was being added in conjunction with repair work necessitated by a recent fire.
In front of the window, half a dozen low chairs were mounted on swivel bases so they could be turned outward to watch the construction or pivoted toward each other in a manner more conducive to conversation. Only one chair was occupied. Not surprising. Noise from the construction site made conversation impossible and most of Riverview’s residents were of a sociable nature.
Jake Appleton was the exception. He sat alone, with his chair turned toward the window, holding a pair of binoculars against his chest with one hand and scribbling in a spiral notebook with the other. Viewing him in profile, Jennie saw that his lips were moving and knew from his expression that he was dissatisfied about something. “Sour Appleton”, the nickname given him by Nate, sprang to mind.
“Morning, Jennie,” Georgie called to her from the tea ladies’ table.
Doreen pivoted her wheelchair a quarter turn and waved. “Care to join us?”
“Wish I could,” Jennie called back, “but I have a couple of things to do first.” She headed down the hall toward Jake. As Activities Director, it was her job to keep residents busy and engaged in Riverview’s social life–a job that would soon belong to someone else. Jennie had just been named Assistant to Executive Director Leda Barrons, and would assume her new duties as soon as her replacement was hired. Jake Appleton was a relative newcomer and a real challenge–the one resident Jennie hadn’t been able to integrate into Riverview’s social fabric. She stopped when she reached his chair. “Morning, Jake. Anything I can do for you?”
“Doubt it.” He spoke in his customary brusque manner, keeping his eyes on the notebook and not bothering to look at Jennie even when she stepped around the chair so they were face to face. He moved his hand so that his fingers hid the words on the page.
She ignored the rebuff and tried again. This was a nut she was determined to crack and she was running out of time. “Why don’t you join the Scrabble tournament in the lounge? They could use a little new blood down there.”
“Blood! That’s what you’re going to see if somebody doesn’t start paying attention.”
Jennie pushed to the back of her mind the thousand and one things she had on her plate and pulled up a chair beside the old man. “I’m paying attention.”
If that response had come from any other resident, she would have been discouraged but, from Riverview’s resident grouch, it was actually encouraging. At least he was willing to acknowledge her presence. She pasted on her best smile and asked, “Still think the construction company’s cheating us?”
“No doubt about it.”
He closed the notebook and waved it in the direction of the window. “World’s full of crooks.”
There was no doubting his conviction. Jennie looked out the window, trying to gauge what had prompted it. To her, it looked like any construction site. Cumbersome machines made jerky progress amid clouds of dust. Workman dodged around the equipment. Everything and everyone was in motion. She glanced back at Jake. His eyes seemed focused on some point beyond the activity. She looked outside. A flash of heat lightening illuminated the sky.
She said, “Maybe we’ll finally get that rain they’ve been promising.” No response. Maybe he hadn’t heard her. She tried again. “Hope so. We sure could use it.”
Finally, he brushed his fingertips over the notebook. “It’s all in here.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
After a few seconds, he squared his shoulders and looked at her. “Some other time maybe.”
Jennie waved to the source of the recurring booms. “Lot of racket out here,” she said. “How about your room? Later this afternoon?”
“Well, I–”He stopped abruptly and looked over her head.
She turned to see what had distracted him.
Lizzie Stafford and Bruce Appleton, Jake’s children, along with an older man she didn’t recognize, were standing in the hall a few yards from her. She’d been so intent on wooing Jake that she hadn’t heard their footsteps.
“Hi.” She smiled at Lizzie and Bruce. “Nice to see you.” She extended her hand to the older man. “I’m Jennie Connors. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
He grasped her hand and gave it a firm shake. “Bob Walthman. Jake’s brother-in-law.” Walthman was a handsome man with an easygoing, hale-fellow-well-met manner. He directed an engaging smile at Jennie.
The smile set off an itch in her memory. She’d seen him before. Where?
Before she had a chance to pursue the thought, Lizzie said, “Uncle Bob, Jennie’s the woman I told you about. She’s been wonderful to Dad.”
“Good,” Walthman said with another huge smile. “Appreciate that.”
Jennie returned the smile, uncomfortable that the family was addressing her instead of Jake, who hadn’t said a word to any of them yet, nor they to him. Instead, he sat ramrod straight in his chair, scowling out the window and grasping the notebook in both hands.
Hoping her departure would lighten the mood, Jennie said, “Sorry, Jake, I don’t mean to steal your family’s attention. We’ll talk later. Say about three o’clock?”
Jake nodded and tilted his head down the hall. “My room. No privacy out here.”
Jennie said, “Fantastic. I’ll be there.”
The whole time they were speaking, intermittent booms intruded from the work site. An unusually loud blast stopped conversation. A whirl of dust rose to engulf one of the yellow giants. About ten yards from the work area, flames licked at the top edge of a metal drum used to burn trash.
Jennie leaned closer to the window, examining the area around the base of the drum and was relieved to see that it was clear. The last thing Riverview needed was another fire. August in Memphis was always hot and frequently dry, but this year threatened to set a record on both counts. She sent up a silent prayer that the weather gurus had it right and the area would get rain overnight. The sky looked promising. To the west, a bank of clouds hovered above the river. Jennie studied the darkening billows. She loved watching the many moods of the river, but there wasn’t time for that now. She smiled at Jake, patted his arm and said, “See you later,” then headed down the hall.
Nate, grinning his most wicked grin, waylaid her. “Dragon Lady’s looking for you.”
Painfully aware that she was poised to become Assistant Dragon Lady, Jennie swallowed the first response that threatened to spill out.
The rat-a-tat of stiletto heels approached.
Jennie stood a little straighter and pushed back an errant curl. Despite the fact that she was pudgy and not much taller than a ten-year-old, Riverview’s Executive Director inspired best-foot-forward demeanor. Every day. Every encounter.
Nate scurried off in the opposite direction as fast as his arthritic knees would allow.
Leda reached Jennie just as another boom sounded. She waited for the echo to subside before she spoke. “Jennifer.” She pronounced the name in three perfectly-enunciated syllables as she always did and paused, making sure she had Jennie’s full attention. “We need to work on finding your replacement. I’ve set up an interview for Thursday afternoon. One thirty. I want you to look this over.” She waved a crisp sheet that Jennie realized with a heavy heart was a resume.
It was almost three thirty by the time Jennie made it back to Jake’s room. The door was firmly closed. She grasped the doorknob, but knocked before she turned it.
She tried again.
She figured he was angry at being kept waiting and prepared to humble herself. She tested the knob. It turned easily so she pushed the door open a couple of inches and called out. “Sorry I’m late. I got here as soon as I could.”
Still no answer.
“Jake?” She pushed the door another six inches and knocked again. “You decent? Okay if I come in?” She listened, heard only the radio, tuned to a station that played oldies–real oldies–big band music and the sweet love songs of the forties. She listened a little longer, reflecting on the inconsistency of his taste in music with his cynical outlook. Another tap on the door, this time louder. When he still didn’t answer, she had no choice but to go in. As much as she hated to violate a resident’s space, especially one who guarded his privacy as jealously as this one, in a retirement community, safety concerns trump modesty.
She called out, “Coming in,” and pushed again. The door moved another couple of inches, then refused to budge. She leaned into it. It still didn’t give, but something on the floor did. She glanced down. A shoe-clad foot. Omigod! He’s fallen. No wonder he didn’t answer the door. Jennie squeezed through the narrow opening. And froze in her tracks. Jake Appleton lay on his back. His face and head . . . She averted her eyes, unable to look. The floor in the area surrounding Jake was dark red. One silver curl stretched like a question mark in a pool that had to be blood.
Jennie’s scream merged with a boom from the construction site.
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