thoughts from my new home

Monday, June 15, 2009

Reading and writing

I have been reading a lot. And I have been thinking about each book I read and about how it is structured. I feel as though I have entered a whole new world with my writing, one that is influenced and encouraged by each of the stories I read. Recently I finished Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, a present from my sister. It has such a strong atmosphere, one of smokey country villages and low cloud hanging over farmland. Of horses and steam and fire. Of eating in diners, playing cards for money in desert trailers and waiting for news that never comes. And it is structured in such a way that each of the characters' stories - whole, but told separately - seems just as important and exciting as the last. You never miss a character when you are done with them, despite how in love you were with the last voice.

Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon takes a different angle to story telling. Like The Lovely Bones and I hear also like her book Lucky, the main subject and action of the story comes first. With that out of the way, she delves backwards to tell how the characters came to be in this situation, as well as forwards to show the repercussions. This is very effective, but I wonder if it removes the suspense somewhat.

Below is an excerpt from a scene I decided was needed in my book after I read a Vancouver author called Elizabeth Woods' book Beyond the Pale. In her very formulaic but readable novel, a hugely suspenseful and violent scene happens right near the end, allowing the character to complete her development and reach a conclusion. This is Creative Writing 101, the story arc incarnate, but it works. So I decided to give it a go. This is out of context, so it might not make any sense, but I hope it has some sense of urgency in it.

Excerpt from Freida's final chapter:

In the garden I threw the bags over the fence to Jonno, who was waiting to catch them. The driveway still seemed too dangerous, despite nobody being at the house.

“Tai’s still sleeping,” he whispered as he helped me down from the tree.

“Good,” I said. We crept back up towards the car and packed the things away. Jonno took the driver’s seat so I walked around to the passenger door and got in. We looked at each other, the whites of our eyes glowing in the darkness.

“Ready?” he asked. I nodded. He hesitated before turning the ignition, and just as the engine came to life, we heard a sound that threw us both into panic. Sirens, far away now but getting closer and louder with every second. Jonno threw the car into reverse and launched it onto the road. The sirens sounded like they were coming from Coromandel; he took the chance and headed in the opposite direction, headlights off and speed well beyond the legal limit. I clung to the handle on the inside of the door. Tai was screaming in fright but neither of us could begin to placate him. We swung around corner after corner, until eventually we headed down the hill towards the Thames Coast road. Tai didn’t stop crying, his wails echoing the sirens, which had faded and eventually, all but disappeared. We had gotten away, but that didn’t stop Jonno, who was still driving far too fast for the blind corners, kicking up dust as we screeched around the waterfront. I put out a hand and touched him gently on the wrist. He shot a look my way and nodded, turning the headlights on at last. But he didn’t slow down.

“Driven these roads so many times,” he said. But it didn’t make me feel better at all.

Eventually we found ourselves at Tapu, about halfway around the coast road to Thames. Jonno took a left and started up the road to Coroglen. The road was rough and unpaved but still he didn’t slow until we had reached the other side, a good hour later, by which time Tai was silent. I looked back at him as we rolled past the Coroglen Tavern. He was still awake and his eyes looked huge and sad in the moonlight. I felt tears rolling down my face and Jonno reached a hand over and touched my knee, squeezing it gently. Finally, he pulled over into a picnic area next to a narrow river and turned the car off. I exhaled. We sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the watery sounds of the river.

“What now?” I said.

“We should lay low I guess.” He got out of the car and walked away into the darkness. I leaned back against my seat, eyes closed, and waited for the tears to stop coming. When I had finally composed myself I took off my seatbelt and turned around to look at Tai again. He was staring out the window, a wild look on his face. His little hands were clutching the sides of his car seat. I reached over and stroked the fingers of his right hand. He regarded me thoughtfully, then looked down at my fingers. We waited like that in silence until Jonno came back. He opened the car door and got in.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“There’s a little bay further up that way, you can get to it along the side of the river. I saw a bach there and it looks like it’s empty.”

“What if it’s not?”

“It is; I looked in the windows. There are no cars anywhere nearby and the place is deserted. The bathroom window has louvers; I can easily get them out, then Ill open the door.”

I didn’t like the idea but I didn’t know what else to do. We had already broken so many laws it seemed fruitless to stop now. And we needed somewhere to put Tai down for the night, somewhere inconspicuous and safe. Sleeping in the car didn’t seem like a good option. Jonno turned the car back on and drove across the grass, parking it close to the hedge that grew alongside the footpath. Anyone walking down the road would not be able to see it and it was blocked from view by anyone driving by too, but if they pulled into the picnic spot it would be obvious. Jonno assured me that this wasn’t a main road, so picnickers were unlikely, at least until the weekend.

We took Tai and the bags and walked along the banks of the river. I could hear small waves breaking in the distance. When we reached the beach, the tide was out and my nostrills filled with the smells of seaweed and dead shellfish. But as promised, the little bach was empty. It was small and perched on the scrubby grass above the sand. Behind it was a clutch of trees, so we wouldn’t easily be seen from the road. It was a good hiding place, but as Jonno pointed out, the owners could arrive at any time. We had to be prepared to make a quick getaway, again.

After Jonno had broken us in, I put Tai to bed in the bedroom, tucking him in with his blanket and cat and singing him a hurried lullaby that I could see even he knew was futile. Jonno was sitting in a ragged armchair when I got back. The bach was made up of three rooms: the bedroom, the open-plan living space and kitchen, and a tiny bathroom that seemed to have been tacked on as an afterthought, probably when the owners got sick of hiking to the outhouse at the back of the property, which was still there but had half fallen down. I sat in the other chair, a threadbare Lazyboy covered in a rough, green fabric that itched my skin through my trousers. My entire body felt drained; my legs ached. I groaned, pulling the fingers of both hands through my hair and rubbing my skull. It had been a long day. Jonno didn’t react; his unblinking gaze concentrated towards the windows, where we could see the sun beginning to rise over the water. It was actually quite beautiful, but I didn’t have the energy to appreciate it. As if reading my thoughts, Jonno got up and pulled the curtains over the windows, muttering to himself. Without saying anything to him, I slumped to the bedroom, and was falling into unconsciousness within seconds, one arm tucked around Tai's small, warm waist.