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Posted November 26, 2015

On reading Modiano's Rue des Boutiques Obscures

I just finished reading Patrick Modiano’s Rue des Boutiques Obscures, one of nine novels and a memoir in a fat, densely packed collection of his work entitled Romans (Novels).   It’s one of the most beautifully written novels I have read in years.  I have a particular interest in Modiano, because he focuses on some of the same themes as I do, and I see some stylistic similarities between his work and mine—above all in my more recent work, Ivory Black, for which I will soon be seeking a publisher, and Missing Person, my novel-in-progress. 

After I finished reading Rue des Boutiques Obscures, I wanted to recommend a translation to friends, but I didn’t think there was one.  That’s because I looked for a literal translation—Street of Obscure (or dark) Shops.  I later discovered a translation does exist—under the title, Missing Person.  I found it somehow appropriate that the translated title of Modiano’s novel is the same as my novel-in-progress.  If I were a character in a novel, this might be a moment of discovery. 

A translator translates a text from one culture to another.  When I think of our shopping malls and broad city streets filled with sunlight, on the one hand, and, on the other, of a narrow, cobble-stoned street in an European city, with slanted shafts of sunlight, deep shadows, and rows of shops, some of them almost concealed in those shadows, I understand why the translator came up with the title, Missing Person.  The French title creates an atmosphere and a mood that an American reader might not get; the translated title announces a theme and evokes a genre—the detective novel—that the American reader will get right away. 

Dick Rayburn, the main character in my novel, Ivory Black, and Maria, his girlfriend, are crossing a boulevard in Paris, when Maria pulls to a stop in front of a movie theater, stares at a poster for The Deer Hunter, with a picture of Robert de Niro and a handgun held to his head, and asks Dick how the French title for the film, Voyage au bout de l’enfer (“Voyage to the End of Hell”), can translate the American title.  Dick doesn’t know and doesn’t care, he just wants to be alone with Maria. 

There are several reasons for which I put that moment into the book, but only one of them is relevant to my comments here.  I suspect the reason the American title was not translated literally, Le Chasseur de cerf, is because there is no deer-hunting culture in France, certainly not like there is in the United States.  But why Voyage au bout de l’enfer?  The translation repeats almost word for word Voyage au bout de la nuit (Voyage to the End of the Night), the title of a novel that nearly every French person would have read, often as a high-school assignment, the title of the first novel by Céline, one of the greatest French writers of the last century.  There are similarities in mood and atmosphere between the voyages of the characters in Michael Cimino’s film and in Céline’s novel that make the French title work for a French audience.  However—and this brings me full circle—in a recent interview, Patrick Modiano mentioned that one of the major influences on his work was Celine, who was also one of the major influences on my work.  When you continue to bump into somebody, there’s usually a reason. 

November 26, 2015

What happened to “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry”?

If you have read earlier posts, you probably noticed the one for July 27, 2010, in which I exclaim that the day before I finished the first draft of a novel entitled, “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”  And I asked you to tip a glass for me.  But after 2011, I never mention this title again.  So, what happened?  I decided to delve a little more deeply into the life of one of those characters, Dick Rayburn, and that exploratory process led to the creation of “Ivory Black,” the novel for which I will soon be seeking a publisher.  There are still two to three hundred pages of material narrating the stories of Tom Faust and Henry (Harry) Merchant, to which I will return some day, but not until after I have finished my new novel-in-progress, “Missing Person.” 

Posted: June 10, 2012

The art of disappearing II

When I am writing, I feel that I become a distinctly different person, detached from the person who says "I" and who walks around in the world representing me. I can attribute all kinds of attributes to that person, based on his behavior: he can be kind, considerate, flamboyant, loquacious, honest, dishonest, sullen, taciturn, manipulative, and a total jerk. He can possess all these characteristics and many more. In my everyday life, I identify totally with this person.

But when I am writing-when I disappear into that person who writes-I sense the same distance between me and my other self, or selves, that I have with my characters. I feel I could take that everyday person, put him in a short story or a novel, and treat him as I would any other character.

I am reading Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence and with great delight discovered Paumk uses himself-or someone with the same name-as a character in the novel. The main character, Kemal, is wandering among the guests at his engagement party, when he notices the "fidgety Pamuk family . . . Like so many other formerly rich families that had squandered their fortunes, the Pamuks had turned in on themselves and found it upsetting to come face-to-face with new money. Sitting with his beautiful mother, his father, his elder brother, his uncle, and his cousins was the chain-smoking twenty-three-year-old Orhan, nothing special about him beyond his propensity to act nervous and impatient, affecting a mocking smile" (Vintage International paperback edition, pages 116 - 117).

I don't know if Pamuk's description of the character in the novel bears any resemblance to Pamuk the author, whom other people in his everyday life might recognize. What I find interesting and amusing is that Pamuk invites the reader to contemplate the difference between the writer and a character with the same name as the writer.

There's nothing new or revolutionary about this distinction between the person who writes and the character that he or she is in every day life. Writers have been exploring and articulating these distinctions over the last hundred and fifty years. "Je est un autre," wrote Rimbaud. And Proust demonstrated with extraordinary brilliance the degree of otherness within the subject that says-or writes-"I."

So why dwell on something that isn't in any way a revelation? Because feeling this distinction, working with it, exploring the creative possibilities inherent in it-all this is quite different from recognizing the distinction at a purely intellectual level. I wonder, should I put a Brian Duren in "Every Tom, Dick, and Harry"? And if so, which one? Or maybe I should develop a new work of fiction and people it with several Brian Duren's. That could be a lot of fun.



 Posted: March 10, 2012

The art of disappearing

There are very few Radiohead songs that I love more than  "How to Disappear Completely."  It's intensely beautiful and eerie.  Disappearing completely-ceasing to be me-is one of the greatest pleasures I know.

As a teenager and a young man, I was-as the French say-mal dans ma peau.  Uncomfortable, or unhappy, in my skin.  Like, if I could just get out of my skin and not be me-maybe get into someone else's skin and be that person, or maybe just disappear altogether, become invisible-I would be so much happier.   I did what a lot of children, teens, and adults in their early twenties do to get out of their skin: I lived in a world of books and wrote poetry.

When I was a senior in high school, I discovered acting.  Not the acting of every day life, which I already knew, but acting in a theatrical production.  The school's annual play that year was a particularly hammy melodrama, and I played the hero.  How hammy?  In one scene I swept the heroine off her feet and carried her off stage.  I can't remember what motivated me to audition for the play.  I suspect it had to do with the extraordinary amount of coaxing and encouragement I was receiving from a number of teachers who feared I was hell-bent on self-destruction and were determined to save me.

There was no way a kid as insecure-as mal dans ma peau-as I could have walked out on that stage, in front of at least two hundred people, and delivered my lines, if I'd felt I was still in my own skin.  Acting gave me the opportunity of discovering the happiness and security of disappearing.  I only acted in one more play-an MFA student's production of Strindberg's The Father, at the University of Minnesota, when I was a sophomore.  

For a number of reasons, I chose an academic career, became a professor of French and comparative literature, and experienced a fair amount of success and a huge amount of unhappiness, until I started writing fiction and left academe.  Once again I started disappearing in my work.  I'd like to disappear completely in all of my characters.

I wrote most of this post this morning at my partner's house, while she was preparing breakfast.  On the way home in the car, I listened to an interview with Anthony Hopkins on NPR.  Hopkins talked about how, when he was a teenager, he loved to disappear in the act of creating art and composing music.  What a coincidence!  Over the next several decades he developed the art of disappearing in his theatrical roles and attained, I suspect, great happiness.  The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra recently recorded the music that he composed in those early years of disappearing and released it on an album entitled Composer.  We need a phrase to describe this kind of accomplishment-perhaps, the return of the disappeared (analogous-but in a positive way-to the return of the repressed). 

When I got home, I listened online to the interview with Hopkins and the excerpts from Composer, and then listened to Radiohead's "How to disappear completely."   And I started writing again, disappearing in my novel-in-progress, "Every Tom, Dick and Harry."


Posted: April 15, 2011

Certain principles inform my writing. For example--and this is just an example: never forget the madeleines and the rosebuds, these metaphors in Proust and Welles that carry so much with them--the craving for love, the fear of never obtaining it, the anxiety of losing it, the rage for having lost it or been denied it, the compulsive pursuit of it. These emotions are forces that drive all of my characters, that frequently overwhelm their judgement and compel them to make irrational and sometimes self-destructive decisions, or to believe things that are patently untrue. The plot reveals these forces as they play out in time through the characters' actions. Plot is an effect, a consequence, perhaps just a symptom.


Posted: April 6, 2011
After completing the first draft of "Every Tom, Dick, and Harry" (ETDH) in July of 2010, I decided to reverse the order of Part I and Part II (the novel has four parts, each of which contains several chapters). I had to write some new material to make that reversal work. By the end of this month, I will have completed all of the new writing and will begin focusing again on rewriting the text, layering the characters, cutting and condensing. I am still on schedule to have a draft of about 450 pages ready to market to agents and publishers by June of 2012. I have a long list of readers who are awaiting the publication of ETDH. I cannot let them down.


Posted: July 27, 2010
I completed the first draft of "Every Tom, Dick, and Harry" Monday afternoon, July 26, 2010, during a vacation on the North Shore, just outside Tofte, Minnesota. Tip a glass for me!

Now that I have finished this draft, I can focus my revisions on layering the characters--adding time and depth.


Tallying the awards: Whiteout won the Independent Publisher Gold Medal for Midwestern Fiction and the Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award for Midwestern Literature; it finished a finalist (second place) in judging for the National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Fiction. Judges reviewing entries for the Ben Franklin Award for Popular Fiction ranked Whiteout fourth. The novel finished a finalist in judging for the Midwest Independent Publishing Association's Midwest Book Award for two- and three-color cover design.


Posted: March 21, 2010

Whiteout won the Reader Views 2010 Reviewers Choice Award for Midwestern Literature. (See The 2010 Reader Views awards recognize outstanding books published in 2009.   I thank the reviewers for recognizing the quality of Whiteout.

I also want to thank my readers for inviting me to their book-club meetings and including me in their discussions of Whiteout. I have found you to be smart, perceptive, and funny. (I will never forget the reader who took Whiteout to a session with her psychiatrist and, opening the book to specific passages, said, it's all right here in the book!)   The tenacity with which you have focused on significant issues in the book has deeply moved me and reminded me that novels should always take readers on a voyage and never bring them back to the point of departure.


Posted: January 17, 2010

I have heard that some readers and editors disapprove of the use of dreams in literature. The complaint seems to be that dreams are just a gimmick for advancing the plot.

I use a few dreams in Whiteout, primarily to lengthen Paul's shadow in time and/or to represent an underlying emotional state.

The second chapter in Whiteout includes Paul's dream of a boy walking on a plane of snow to the crest of a hill, peering down into a deep, long valley, and then having the sensation of flying above the surface of the snow. The dream haunts Paul, casts its shadow across the entire book, and foreshadows discoveries that Paul will make. It also lengthens his shadow in time, suggests (with much ambiguity) his complex emotional state, and contributes to his depth.

I would love to know what my readers think of the use of dreams in Whiteout. Are the dreams just gimmicks, or do they work? Send me an email at


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I occasionally receive emails from readers telling me how much they loved Whiteout. One of those emails, in which the author talks about the experience of reading my novel bringing her back to look at her childhood again, reminded me that as writers we are trying to do much more than just entertain.




Posted: December 7, 2009 (Pearl Harbor Day!)

Readers talk about characters having depth. What does it mean to have depth?

When we talk about depth, I think we are using space as a metaphor for time. The history of literature is full of examples of writers who have used spatial metaphors to talk about time. (Proust and Freud come to mind.) A character can have depth only if he or she has time. One of the writer's challenges is to find imaginative ways of imbuing his characters with time.

I cannot recall anyone ever talking about child characters having depth. If they have somehow experience that goes beyond their years, then they are weird, like the children in The Turn of the Screw, or perhaps "preternatural," the adjective that the narrator in Moby Dick uses to describe Pip. 




Coming Soon

Posted: Apr 07 2014.
When I feel the urge, I will turn to this page to write about writing. Tune in.

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