Malcolm: I’ve always liked the concept of life as a journey in which each of us walks as a seeker and/or a hero on a winding route to places we don’t yet know or understand. So, I appreciate the invitation to stop by your blog and talk about the writer’s journey.
Bertram: The mythic journey concept has infinite possibilities, both as a story structure and a metaphor for one’s life as an author. Do you make use of the mythic journey structure in your writing?
Malcolm: There are mythic qualities in THE SUN SINGER (2004) which is based on the hero’s path or the mythic journey as you call it. Ditto for the as-yet unpublished GARDEN OF HEAVEN. The upcoming JOCK STEWART AND THE MISSING SEA OF FIRE is unrelated to the others and is sort of a mystery/humor novel about a newspaper reporter.
Bertram: I like your image of writers as seekers walking a winding route to places we don’t yet know or understand. I often mention how hard writing is for me, but that’s because I don’t know how to write the books I want to write. I have to learn how to write each one separately as I’m writing them, and each takes me on a different journey.
Malcolm: My long-time mantra comes from author and teacher Richard M. Eastman’s book Style: Writing as the Discovery of Outlook (3rd edition, 1984):
“You don’t begin to write with a complete message or experience already imagined, which is then to be wrapped in language as a means of sending it to your readers. Writing isn’t so much communication as creation. In a real sense, you don’t have an outlook on anything without first having written on it. This outlook comes into being through the dozens of tests, choices, and unexpected chances which turn up as you write on some engaging topic; and most writers agree that the final creation isn’t anything you could have precisely anticipated when you first set pen to paper.”
Bertram: That makes sense. For me, blogging especially is a way of discovering my outlook on whatever it is that I’m writing about.
Malcolm: This has been true for me whether I was writing a national register application, applying for a grant, writing a feature article or working on my novels, The Sun Singer (2004) or Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire (coming soon). In each case, I began with a body of knowledge and an opinion that were very different by the time I finished writing.
In terms of subject matter, do you find this to be true with your novels? I’m guessing that regardless of what you knew about pandemics, your understanding of them and their potential impact was much different after you wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire than it was when you were first thinking about writing the novel.
Bertram: My research into pandemics was actually quite extensive, and so was my research into the government’s response to such an emergency (I based my fictional response on actual executive orders that Clinton signed), so there wasn’t much difference in my understanding during the course of the book, but there was a big difference in my thoughts about what they want us to know and what they don’t. When I learned about Pingfan, the Japanese biological warfare installation where they did horrendous experiments on POW’s and nearby villagers, I thought I’d stumbled onto something really explosive. Yet, as happened to a character in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the very next novel I picked up used Pingfan as a setting. It got me to thinking about the nature of cover-ups, and many of the discussions in the last half of the book took place while I was writing the book.
Malcolm: We often hear that the writer’s journey has an inner and outer aspect. I see the outer aspect plot as it unfolds with a variety of characters, locations, and challenges. You chose Denver and pandemics for A Spark of Heavenly Fire and I chose the Montana Rockies of an alternate universe for The Sun Singer. Thinking of stories based on the hero’s path schema, from Star Wars to The Matrix to Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, the emotional, psychological changes and spiritual growth of the protagonist are viewed as more central and important than his thoughts, words and deeds. In mythic terms, the hero undergoes a transformation by undergoing the trials and tribulations of the outer journey. Robert Adams undergoes a transformation in The Sun Singer just as Jock Stewart is changed by the events in Sea of Fire. Do you feel this way about Kate Cummings and Greg Pullman?
Bertram: All the characters in A Spark of Heavenly Fire undergo transformation, especially the women. I always liked Washington Irving’s quote, and wrote the book using it as the theme: “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”
Malcolm: In my life, the deepest part of the writer’s journey comes from how the writing changes me. The Sun Singer and the darker, as-yet unpublished Garden of Heaven were each written over a twenty-year period because, other than the plot and theme the reader sees, these novels dealt with integral issues within my own life. I had a lot to work out!
Bertram: I’m beginning to see that what I write is what I happen to be living. My first four books explored the theme of public lies and hidden truths because that’s what I was studying at the time. My current work supposedly explores the theme of safety vs. freedom, but it’s really about change, and there is a lot of change in my life right now.
You have a book that’s going to be published this summer. You once mentioned that you wrote it differently from the first two.
Malcolm: In Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire, I opened the floodgates and let the words flow. I wrote quickly and it felt like play because I had turned my wisecracking alter ego loose with no chains or boundaries. When I finished writing and editing the material in less than two months, I felt the good kind of tired one feels after an afternoon at a carnival or a day at the beach. This was energizing because, well, I was still capable of play and the benefits of play. Do you feel this “play value” from certain chapters of your novels or from your short stories?
Bertram: I start out playing with ideas and characters, and then when I start writing and trying to make all the pieces come together, I lose that feeling of play. One of the things I am looking for on my journey as a writer is more playfulness. I don’t know if you can you choose where you want to go on the journey, or if the journey takes you where it wishes, but I would like to experience what you did — opening the floodgates and letting the story flow.
Malcolm: I’m curious about your novel in progress.
Bertram: So am I! For a long time I had no real idea what I was writing — I thought I was writing a whimsically ironic apocalyptic fantasy — then all of a sudden one day it dawned on me I’m writing another story of a mythic journey. As my hero tries to find his place in a world that changes by the minute — cities becoming prairie, oceans appearing out of nowhere — he follows the hero’s path, and becomes transformed.
My third book, which is going to be published in a couple of months, was my first mythical journey story. It’s about a young woman who discovers that her grandparents were recently murdered which came as a shock to her because her father claimed they had died before she was born. She goes on a journey to discover who her grandparents were, why someone wanted them dead, and why her father lied to her. I purposely used the mythic template for the book (wanted an excuse to use it, actually), though her mentors and allies aren’t the typical alien or fantasy characters such as wizards, but are aged gangsters and conmen.
Malcolm: My father’s brother was murdered in Fort Collins before I was born. The case was never solved. From time to time, I wonder what happened. Time and distance are part of the challenge of finding details. It would be a journey to dig into it as your character will do in Daughter Am I. I love the concept of going back to figure out the real story.
Bertram: I do, too. All of my books follow the same underlying story: who are we, really? And how do our experiences change us? Which brings me to another question I want to discuss: does a person write a book or does the book write a person?
Malcolm: Your question reminds me of the difference between a layperson’s view of a complex and a Jungian analyst’s view of a complex. People sometimes admit that they have one complex or another. Jungians see it the other way around, saying that the complex has you.
Perhaps the relationship between author and book is the same for many authors, with the book holding a much greater sway over the author’s life than s/he–and especially his readers–may believe. At best, it’s like a marriage, author and book, and the better the book is, the better that marriage has been.
Bertram: That makes sense. I am at a crossroads in my writing life. I’ve used up the theme that haunted me for many years — public lies and hidden truths. Because of my stories, I seem to have come to an accommodation with the reality, and so I no longer have any desire to write about such things. So now I’m waiting for some other . . . passion, perhaps. Or a transformation. Because it does seem as if writing transforms us.
Malcolm: People often talk about defining moments, good and bad. Afterwards, they see themselves and the world differently. Plunging into the deep waters of a work of fiction in progress is also a defining moment. Writers experience what their characters experience whether it’s the horrors of Pingfan or the joy of my protagonist in The Sun Singer when he reaches the summit of a mountain of visions. We polish these scenes until the horror and the joy are shown to the reader in ways that cause the greatest impact. Doing this, I think, changes a writer just as much as a “real life” experience.
Bertram: In The Writers Journey, Christopher Vogler talks about writing as a perilous journey to probe the depths of our souls, and that the struggles we undergo to write, to sell our work, to deal with rejection seem to kill us, but we are resurrected to write again. And to go on another journey. Best of luck with your next journey, Malcolm.
Malcolm: This has been fun, Pat. Of course, I’m not the same person here at the end of the post that I was when we started. But that’s what it’s like being on the path.
The Writer’s Journey
Celebrating Five Years of The Sun Singer
June 23, 2009 at 7:06 am
I enjoyed the discussion . As a budding writer with the first book only weeks away from publishing I am constantly overcome by waves of confusion regarding my Identity as a writer, the path i should follow and so forth..Someone once said : I take the view that if you cannot say what you are going to say in twenty minutes you ought to go away and write a book about it.
I guess that’s as good of a start as any…
June 23, 2009 at 8:39 am
Best of luck with that first book, Adina. Identity is a bit of the challenge. In groups of people, the writer is the one who gets the strange looks and the odd questions, not the insurance agent or the pharmacist. So, before I can answer questions about what I do and how I think stuff up, I’m off to a new writing project and turn into somebody else. Do you have a release date for your book, Adina–and a title?
June 23, 2009 at 9:30 am
You are absolutely right, the mere presence of writers in a gathering raises at least a couple of eyebrows..But honestly, I’d rather raise an eyebrow because folks are curious than have them roll their eyes in utter boredom because of all the “exiting “ tales stemming out of the accounting underworld….
My book is called Ghost Words and other Echoes (http://www.site.adinapelle.com/ ) and it’s a collection of short stories, parables and other whimsy bits and pieces. It’s at the printer as we speak for the ARC edition, so I am expecting the first copies in one or two weeks… . The main, public release is scheduled for October 6th.
June 23, 2009 at 9:48 am
Oh, right, we certainly don’t want to see any boredom! Two weeks: that’s exciting. Nothing beats holding an ARC of your book in your hand.
June 23, 2009 at 10:25 am
Loved the dialogue! Wish I’d been able to be sitting in the “circle” when this conversation took place. Malcolm, the book I’m writing now, “Cheers!” is flowing as you described. I am so enthused about the subject matter and when I begin to write it just “gushes forth.” “Coming Together”, the new novel, flowed, but not like you were speaking of.
Again, enjoyed the comments of both you and Pat!
June 23, 2009 at 10:46 am
If the Georgia weather weren’t already so hot, it would be nice to sit around a campfire. Isn’t great, Joyce, with a manuscript like “Cheers” when the words flow like a rushing river. Sometimes it takes a leap of faith to allow the words to rush onto the page like that–kind of a stepping out of the way. Best of luck with the work.
June 23, 2009 at 10:59 am
Hi Malcolm and Pat,
Your discussion drew on deep insights that perhaps many of us don’t probe that far. OR maybe I’m blocking the reflective experience within the process. I’m feeling empty right now, for reasons beyond writing, but reading your discussion does help me to reconnect to my muse within.
In writing my first novel, I dreaded facing some of the horror one of my main characters–a journalist–was experiencing, but once I forced myself to see what she saw I was amazed at how close I could come to the scene without shattering to pieces. And then in the midst of experiencing her capture, the meaning of why a war correspondent does what she/he does revealed itself. Her anguish surfaced. After going through this experience with my character, I sent on a magazine assignment to cover the relief effort to the refugees bordering Rwanda just after the genocide in 1994. The experience writing the novel prepared me — no, it protected me. While other journalists — and many seemed like first timers because North American newspapers and magazines at the time didn’t hold this story in high priority to send their vets — were unprepared for the trauma they witnessed, I had worked through these feelings while writing my novel and could handle it with more empathy rather than be paralyzed by shock, I was also amazed to learn that what I imagined was in fact true and realistic.
June 23, 2009 at 11:36 am
Yes, life is a journey as you have mentioned. My first book, “To Beirut and Back” was an entrepreneurial journey that took me to Beirut, and then back again, to continue that journey. There have been many detours along the way, and the final destination has not yet been reached. Writing has been a continuation of my life’s journey. Seldom does anyone travel the exact same road or use the same vehicle. Finding a place to rest/chat with fellow travelers is great. Authors have the ability to create a venue where people can travel to worlds unknown. Malcolm has done that superbly with the Sun Singer.
June 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm
I, too, have difficulty with some of that I “must” write about my characters. It’s almost as though I must go through what my character is going through in order to truly tell the story. Your experience in 1994 was undoubtedly different than those who had never jumped deep into their own souls to write about such things–you experienced some of it in advance. I imagine the memories became different, once you could compare and contrast them with that you’d imagined. If you can bring that experience into your writing and make it real, you might well heal yourself and provide a very good perspective for your readers at the same time.
June 23, 2009 at 1:23 pm
Oh wow. What a neat discussion. Thanks for letting us listen in.
June 23, 2009 at 1:48 pm
I can see with your writing, Abe, how what you put down on paper extends or completes what you have done over the years. In “Journey Into the Past,” for example, it was difficult trying to imagine anyone other than you having written it. Of course, I say that, already knowing there are similarities between your experiences and those of Hans in the German wine country.
June 23, 2009 at 1:49 pm
Thanks for stopping by. Are you in the middle of a writing project right now?
June 23, 2009 at 3:49 pm
I’m not exactly keeping up my end of the conversation here, but Malcolm is doing a great job of responding to all your comments.
Many people start writing to try to make sense of their lives, and in so doing, end up creating a new life for themselves. Or, like in Bonnie’s case, many people write to make sense of world events and atrocities. The journey is different for every writer, and yet there is that one similarity: it changes us.
June 23, 2009 at 4:31 pm
Pat/Malcolm. Great interview and interaction. I liked the in depth exploration of a writer, and what makes a person a writer. I expecially like the quote from Washington Irving.
Enjoyed this very much.
June 23, 2009 at 4:37 pm
Amen, Pat and Malcolm. Thank you for opening our minds to more possibilities while finding the thread that binds us even closer.
June 23, 2009 at 7:29 pm
Sharon, I like that quote, too, though I had never come across it before reading “A Spark of Heavenly Fire.”
Pat, the making sense of world events is a strong point. As writers, were free to stick with facts or create fictionalized worlds that stray from actual details. Rachel Kushner’s “Telex from Cuba” is, in addition to a very fine debut novel, an attempt to make sense of the well-off Americans who lived and worked in the nickel and sugarcane interests in Cuba during the years prior to Castro. Some Amazon reviewers disliked Kushner’s multiple points of view and her non linear plot. She chose to write literary fiction rather than commercial fiction in that regard, and the result which I liked a lot probably resolved a lot of her questions about the Cuba her family was involved in probably before she was born.
I like that “binds us even closer,” Bonnie. Nice thought.
June 24, 2009 at 5:47 am
Whats interesting to learn is how people become writers, is it inborn or something that can be learned and taught. What instincts a good writer must have?
June 24, 2009 at 6:31 am
In my case, my father was a writer–articles, book reviews, textbooks–and that led me to consider writing before I was even in high school. For others, perhaps they’re drawn to the drama of storytelling or they have interesting experiences that lend themselves to being told in print. My instincts always lead me–for humor, especially–to seeing the odd outcomes normal occurrences might lead to when taken to really far-out, illogical conclusions. I’m always asking “What if?”
I’m sure everyone who has left a comment here will have a different answer.
June 24, 2009 at 11:37 am
Mona, writing can be taught and learned, but the desire to write and to express oneself is inborn. I don’t think you can convince yourself you want to write if you don’t, and you need that desire to fuel your work, to give it energy.
June 24, 2009 at 3:41 pm
Hi Malcolm, I enjoyed your talk and ideas on writing journies, one I am travelling on yet!
June 24, 2009 at 6:34 pm
Your journey is producing some wonderful poetry and photography, Aine. Who knows what might be next? Have a nice trip and thanks for stopping by here en route to the great unknowns.
June 25, 2009 at 10:56 am
Such a wonderful interview, Pat. Very intelligent and helpful. You’ve got me rethinking my experiences while I’m writing. My characters become so important during our journey. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for any writer to quit a story before it’s finished. It must take a lot of courage to know when to give up.
June 25, 2009 at 2:45 pm
My characters, who often exert a lot of “control” over the story, become just as real in my memory as people I’ve known. (No offense intended to real people!) The characters, in a sense, change my thinking while I’m writing about them. Yes, it is hard to stop and say, “right now, for me, this story isn’t working.’ Thanks for stopping by, Joylene.
June 28, 2009 at 2:56 pm
Interesting analogies and insights.
All the best!
June 29, 2009 at 3:54 pm
Great discussion particularly about writing as a journey. Malcolm – I particularly liked your candor about how you worked out larger issues in life through your writing. Few writers will come clean about this, but I think of writing as a kind of therapy so this must be true. 🙂
July 3, 2009 at 8:25 pm
Many of us find ways to work things out. Some lose themselves in music or the wilderness or a church or a library. Others think while painting or carving or working in a garden.
It’s difficult for me to imagine writing anything without there being more going on inside my head than appears on the page. At times it’s therapy. It can be like meditation or exploration. It’s so much second nature for me to see it this way, I didn’t realize I was saying anything candid. 🙂