“We should be called homo narrans, Storytelling Man, not homo sapiens. We spend our lives spinning narratives about everything, from how the universe began to why we were late for work. We make sense out of the reality we live in by making stories about it. Mind, I didn’t write “making up” but “making.” A narrative is not by definition a fiction, though we love that kind of story as well.
“We’re so immersed in our story-telling, we rarely acknowledge our dependence on it, or we think we use it just as a convenience. But despite our insistence that we are a reasoning creature, it is narrative we rely on to make sense out of virtually everything, even our most abstract scientific ideas….”
My latest in Eclectica. Read more: http://www.eclectica.org/v22n1/hubschman_salon.html
This blog was originally intended to keep readers posted on my books both published and in progress. But I have an ADD-class tendency to get distracted by other matters like politics, religion and life itself. Maybe not such a bad thing, but I realized today I haven’t posted an update on my writing activities for some time. Not that the world has ground to a halt on this account. On the other hand, there have been developments, and I would like to share then with you, perhaps over a series of blog entries if you can stand them.
Big Picture: I now have five novels and a short story collection in print or pixels or both, plus three science fiction novels. In addition to Billy Boy and Look at Me Now — both already written about in this blog (see the tabs at the top of this page) — there are also My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird and Father Walther’s Temptation plus The Jew’s Wife and Other Stories.
I’d like to discuss the short story collection first, because it encompasses just about all the subject matter I usually write about in both my short and longer fiction. The Jew’s Wife is titled after my most successful published story (“successful” meaning best-liked), partly for that reason and partly because it just struck me as a good title. The story itself, though still available online, was published in the most obscure of magazines, a publication that lasted, I think, just two issues, an irony that was not lost on me, of course.
By contrast, another story in the collection was broadcast on the BBC World Service and reached an audience of about 1 million listeners worldwide (out of a weekly listenership at the time of 34 million; the story was broadcast three times). It’s called “The World,” a woman’s retrospective of a failed marriage and her somewhat ungrateful son, both considered against the backdrop of a moment in her religious education that takes on an unintended meaning twenty-some years later.
Perhaps if I had submitted “The Jew’s Wife” to the BBC instead of “The World” I would have had an audience of 1 million for that story instead of its being virtually buried buried in the deep bowels of the Internet. Those two stories also represent opposite ends of whatever spectrum represents the range of my short stories (“The Jew’s Wife” is about a tobacco farmer, an immigrant who works for another immigrant, a Jew from the same part of the world as himself where their roles, the farmer realizes bitterly, would have been reversed).
My influences, as best I can tell, have been Anton Chekhov, Eudora Welty and a handful of other writers who principally or exclusively wrote short stories. This was because I never intended to write anything but short stories, considering novels a lesser art form, just as ballads are inferior to lyric poems. At one point I thought I would support my short story-writing by producing mass-market science fiction novels, which worked for a while, a very short while, then failed when my publisher was sold to an owner who stopped publishing sf altogether and I wasn’t able to connect with another.
Meanwhile, my head down over my last and well out of the mainstream of the literary influences of the day, I missed the postmodern movement and all the other lit-fads entirely, having opted many years earlier not to get a Masters of Fine Arts, though I was accepted at the University of Iowa back when that program was one of the few offering an MFA and was full of people who went on to have big careers. I didn’t believe there was anything to be gained for a writer in an academic setting. In fact, I was a bit ashamed of myself for not dropping out of college once I had made my mind up to spend the rest of my life writing fiction.
I was wrong about one aspect of that decision. Had I obtained a masters degree from Iowa I would have graduated armed with a Rolodex full of invaluable professional contacts, much like someone graduating from Harvard law or business schools. I never did learn the business of writing as opposed to the craft. And writing is like every other activity people engage in. It ain’t just about talent. It’s not even principally about talent. But I underestimated how much business savvy a writer, or any artist, needs to develop if he or she is to succeed in the sense most people understand the word “success.”
Still, I like to think my ignorance also saved me from the contagion of those literary fetishes, mostly cooked up in universities, as well as from the opinions of other people generally. I might have been as susceptible as so many American writers have who soared for a while and then self-destructed or ended up trying to please the professors and their acolytes in the upscale review venues rather than what used to be called the “common reader.”
Lack of success is painful, even debilitating, but it can also be liberating if you don’t let it cause you to eat your heart out. I have written the stories and, I confess, eventually the novels, I wanted to write in the way I wanted to write them. That’s cold consolation some days, but I think it amounts to something more than self-delusion, much as I still wished I had learned how to play the game of writing better.
But, as usual, I’ve gotten sidetracked from my original purpose in writing this blog entry. Lest I risk losing you entirely (I assume I haven’t if you’ve read this far), let me stop here and continue in a few days with more talk about my newer titles along with, no doubt, more deviations despite the best, or at least, entirely innocent, of intentions.
For them what cares, all my published work is available at Amazon — still the largest pool of potential readers despite their increasingly autocratic ways — Barnes & Noble and, most recently, Smashwords (.com), the latter being the new good guy on the block, at least for the present. Samples of each book are available at each of those venues. The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories is currently free at Smashwords.com (available in eight different formats).
Till next time, happy reading.
My new novel, Song of the Mockingbird, is now available as an ebook at Amazon.com. Soon it will also be available for Nook and at Smashwords for all other platforms. It will be out in paperback via my publisher Savvy Press early next year.
You can read the first three chapters here.
From the “dust jacket”:
“SONG OF THE MOCKINGBIRD is the story of a mature woman’s self-discovery. Five years widowed but still bound to the man to whom she was married for thirty years, Doris gradually comes to discover her life not only is not over but is just beginning in a way she had never imagined possible. In the process, she also discovers a good deal about her marriage that contradicts the ideal image of it she has nurtured all her adult life.
Meanwhile, her daughter’s own marriage is breaking up. After her father’s death Evelyn willingly took over his role as her mother’s guardian. Strong-willed by nature, she is nevertheless at a loss when she is no longer able to control her husband’s will. Alone with a small child, she comes to discover that the mother she has treated almost as a second child is a source of strength where she had least expected one.
Doris’s odyssey includes close friendships with two women who despise each other, a love affair which awakens her to a sense of her own sexuality she had never thought possible, and a new relationship with the daughter she has previously seen as merely a female clone of her late husband.”
This is one of my longer (78,000 words) novels. Usually I write that many words and then cut about 20,000. This time, even after the edit, the book is still hefty by my standards. That’s partly because I follow two story lines instead of one–the mother’s as well as the daughter’s–intimately connected, as you can see from the synopsis, but each treated fully as its own narrative. I typically don’t concentrate on more than one main character, but this time the material and my state of mind (on which I’ll elaborate shortly) were such that I felt like taking a shot at a more traditional novel form. It doesn’t quite match the four or five plot lines of a Dickens or Trollope, but following two characters in detail rather than one meant for me keeping a couple more balls up in the air than I typically do.
Now, to my state of mind while writing this book…
I think of this book as my “second symphony,” not because it was the second novel I wrote–I had written several before it–but because I wrote it in the kind of mood that I hear in Brahms’s second symphony and Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto.
Brahms labored long and hard on his first symphony, always hearing Beethoven’s 9th thundering behind him. When that first symphony, a great masterpiece in its own right, was finally out of the way, he seemed to revel in the sheer joy of creative freedom evident in his second. It seems to sing for the pure pleasure of singing. It’s as if it was written while the composer was on a well-deserved vacation, which he may well have been.
I hear a similar delight in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, the one so rarely performed, though his first is a war-horse of every symphonic orchestra, or used to be. In this case it’s not so much a question of Tchaikovsky’s getting out from under the deep shadow of the greatness that preceded him as his finally finding full confidence in his own massive talent and allowing himself to enjoy it.
I remember writing some chapters of Song of the Mockingbird in Prospect Park seated at one of the deserted picnic benches near the children’s playground. It was autumn, this time of year, chilly but sunny and pleasant to be out of doors. I too was in a relaxed, happy frame of mind, as sure of my story-telling abilities as I am ever likely to be and delighting in the pure pleasure of recording each new line of narrative or dialogue in longhand on yellow legal-size paper. Something must have happened to give me that wonderful mental freedom and creative confidence–it may have been the period when I had an agent enthusiastically shopping around the novel I had completed before this one. I don’t really recall. What I do remember is the sense of working at the very top of my abilities and enjoying every minute of it.
Which is not to say this book is the best thing I have written, or to make any judgment of what I did or did not achieve with it. I can’t make that call, and in any case authors always think their last book, in my case My Bess (which also has a middle-aged woman as the main character, come to think of it), though my readers seem to prefer Look at Me Now, if sales are any indication. After a book is done, the author is just another reader, after all. What’s special to me about Song of the Mockingbird, though (all an author’s works are special to her/him in some sense, just as, to restate the cliche, each child is special to a parent), is that sense I had for the first time of being up to the challenge of writing a “real,” i.e. old-fashioned, multi-plot narrative like the Big Boys and Girls did back when the novel was the world’s greatest and most popular art form. That and the way the writing flowed as easily as the pencil did across the lined yellow paper as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground around me.
Two hawks, a married couple, are circling the tall trees above a big stretch of greenery to the south.
A flock of ducks just flew by, really low, as if avoiding somebody’s radar, their necks stiff as a water spaniel’s.
A big white seabird with a tail that looks totally cosmetic but is otherwise a dead ringer for the erstwhile supersonic Concorde is overdue for an appearance. It always heads east. I have no idea how it gets back to wherever it goes to on the mainland. And there’s little likelihood there’s more than one of them. The newspapers run stories every summer about how rare that bird, a tropical species, is to these parts. He’s (I assume it’s a “he” by what follows) apparently a tourist looking for a mate, the females in his usual locale all spoken for.
This is my view, along with more mundane sights that would only spoil the effect. As would the fact that I’m not actually in a treehut qua treehut. But I really am 50 feet off the ground, and that’s not counting the 150 feet above sea level beneath my perch. Use your imagination. That’s what I do. That’s why I write fiction–novels, short stories (click on one of the book covers to read a free sample). We all have our treehuts, “laughing places,” like Brer Fox in the Uncle Remus tale.
Those hawks and ducks and whatever that exotic white creature is called, not to mention the trees, the gargantuan trees, are all necessary to my peace of mind. But the real treehut I live in is the one between my ears. In there, in here, I can be wherever I want, whoever I want. No-good boyo who lives just for the day and his next high (Billy Boy); plucky though terrified young woman trying to extricate herself from an abusive marriage (Look at Me Now); or any of the characters in my short story collection–a Jewish girl with a father who delights in upending the pretentiousness of his neighbors, an elderly nun with more than a spiritual fondness for a dying monsignor, a Park Slope yuppie accused of molesting a Sunday-morning jogger.
Writing fiction is just daydreaming with a pencil in your hand. We all do it. Some of those who do it best never share what they create with the rest of us, never even realize how good they are at it. Thank God. There’s enough competition already from those who think they have something worth sharing.
Have a look around and see if my own daydreams are of any interest. I’ll keep you posted when I come up with new ones, and let you know the latest on those already in print and/or pixels.
And, please, let me hear from you. Daydreaming, at least when you do it as a profession, can be a very lonely business.
The big news this month is that my novel Billy Boy has gone digital…at an introductory price of just 99 cents. Click on the Billy Boy image for more info, plus an extended excerpt from the book.
Also making the Treehut headlines (squirrels take note), Look at Me Now is catching on finally after many months of flat sales. Word of mouth? The right alignment of the planets? Who knows.
So, stay tuned, and I look forward to hearing from you.
-Tom Hubschman (pronounced hup-shmin, if it matters)