Playing Famous Author

Despite a few minor downturns, for the most part, my life lately has been truly a gift. I am having an incredible time housesitting — I have the opportunity to try on other people’s lives for a few days, which is an awesome adventure. And last night I got to play “famous author.” Well, maybe not “famous.” Maybe just “author,” but it was a fantastic experience for all that.

A local book club chose my novel Daughter Am I for this past month’s read, and they invited me to the discussion. I was afraid the discussion would be stilted because if they didn’t like the book, who would have the courage to admit it with the author sitting right there? But they all liked it for their own reasons.

One fellow seemed a bit tepid at first. He thought it a fun read that didn’t put him to sleep, which in itself is balm to a writer’s ears, but he got enthusiastic about the book when it dawned on him the story was a take-off on The Wizard of Oz. When he said as much, I couldn’t help emitting a triumphant, “Yes!” Although the book wasn’t specifically a take-off on The Wizard of Oz, it was a retelling of “The Hero’s Journey” as described by Joseph Campbell. (Actually, it was more a retelling of the retelling since I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey rather than Joseph Campbell’s tome.) And the mythic structure of “The Hero’s Journey” underlies many familiar tales. Not just The Wizard of Oz, but also such stories as Star Wars and King Arthur.

The other fellow in the group didn’t seem all that impressed with the structure or the fun of the story — he was caught up in the conspiracy aspect and his own search for my “truth.” He wanted to know what truth I was trying to illuminate. He thought it was both “Truth” with a capital “T,” and the specific truth that nothing is as it seems — although good is good and bad is bad, good can also be bad and bad can also be good. Again, I was impressed. Because yes, that is basically the truth of this particular book. Or one of them. If characters are true to themselves, then ideally readers can find whatever truth they need from the story, and all those truths are equally relevant.

The women in the group invariably were reminded of relatives or places they grew up, making the book personal to them.

It was a thrill and a true honor to sit around the table, eating delicious snacks and discussing my book. I never imagined such a gathering, never imagined what a privilege it would be to hear what the book meant to readers, never knew how gratifying it would be when people saw what my intentions were in writing the story. I wanted to write books that were simple to read, but had a subtle complexity that those of a more thoughtful bent could find. And apparently I did.

I’m so used to not seeing myself as an author, or as anything special when I do see myself as such because my online community consists primarily of authors. And when everyone is an author, well . . . no one is special. But last night I did feel special. As if I had done something incredible by writing the book.

I had an interesting insight when the topic strayed to other books they had read with despicable characters — I will never be a world famous author or a household name because none of my POV characters are ever despicable. They are kind folk who are nice to each other. The stories are never about their interpersonal conflicts, but their joint conflict with an outside antagonist.

And that is okay. Those are the types of characters (and people!) I want to spent time with.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Daughter Am I and The Hero’s Journey

DAIthumbI fell in love with the concept of the mythic quest when I read Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, so much so that I knew I had to write my own quest story. I’m not one for fantasy, either in real life or genre fiction, so I decided to use the hero’s journey structure for Daughter Am I, my contemporary novel of a young woman — Mary Stuart — who goes on a journey to learn about her recently murdered grandparents. Accompanying her are six old rogues — gangsters and con men in their eighties —  and one used-to-be nightclub dancer.

Developing so many characters at one time is difficult under normal circumstances, but the mythic journey archetypes helped me create the characters and keep them focused on their roles. Whether gangster or wizard, hit man or Darth Vader, the archetypes — and the power of the archetypes — are the same.

The hero is the one who grows the most in the story, who gains knowledge and wisdom. Heroism, in the mythic journey sense, is connected to self-sacrifice, risk, and responsibility. The hero must perform the decisive act of the story, though at the beginning, before their transformation, heroes often need to be goaded into action. Mary starts out only wanting to learn about her grandparents, and ends up becoming intensely loyal to the elders in her charge, which changes all of their lives.

A herald gets the hero started on the journey. Kid Rags, a dapper forger forced into retirement by computer technology, eggs Mary on, challenges her to find out more about her grandparents. Kid Rags is also a mentor, giving guidance and gifts, a role he shares with Teach. Teach is a con man who believes everything is a con, and he is not hesitant about sharing his vision.

Every mythic journey needs a trickster, a character who embodies the energies of mischief and a desire for change, and who provides comic relief. The trickster in Daughter Am I is played by Happy, an ex-wheelman for the mob. Happy wants to be on the move, is always urging action, and he peppers his talk with morose and unanswerable pronouncements about death. Did I mention that he carries a gun, but that his hands shake too much to be able to aim it properly? Poor sad Happy.

The shapeshifter is Tim Olson, Mary’s romantic interest. He doesn’t actually change shape, but he appears to change constantly from Mary’s point of view. He tempts, dazzles, confuses her, and makes her question his loyalty.

The shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the villain, and in the case of Daughter Am I, the villain truly is a shadow — Mary and her band of feisty octogenarians never even get a glimpse of him until the very end. Iron Sam, a dying hitman, is also a shadow. Although he is not a villain who has to be vanquished, he represents the dark side of Mary, a sinister balance to her guilelessness.

The story of Daughter Am I lightly follows the stages of the mythic journey, from a glimpse into Mary’s ordinary world, to the call for adventure (her own curiosity as to who her grandparents were and why they were murdered), her reluctance to commit to the journey, meeting her mentors, deciding to take a chance and just head out to talk to others who might have known her grandparents, undergoing tests and ordeals, and ultimately returning home, knowing who she is and what she wants to do.

Although Daughter Am I takes the same “hero’s path” that worked for such disparate stories as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Tin Cup, the journey is Mary’s own, not a rehash of any of any other quest story.  That is the beauty of the hero’s journey — the structure is infinitely malleable, giving any story a mythic undertone without overshadowing the story itself or confining it into a strict formula.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Pat Bertram and Malcolm R. Campbell Discuss the Writer’s Journey

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.

See Also:
The Writer’s Journey
Celebrating Five Years of The Sun Singer

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