I know, I shouldn’t get distracted, thinking about war. I should hunker down and write that novel, like my four writing partners are doing right this moment. Because the deadline is looming larger by the week, by the day and yes, by the hour.
Easier said than done. The upcoming Remembrance Day always makes me think about my dad. About stories of his long march back home from the Russian front at the end of World War II in a uniform he hated to wear. A uniform torn and soiled like the country that forced it on him. His stories of unimaginable misery gets me thinking about books written about war. Not historical accounts, but novels that show me, through the eyes of the characters, the insanity of this most inhuman of all human creations. I recall some novels that I cherished and still remember, and as a writer, I try to pinpoint why. What tools did the authors use, what etched their stories in my mind and made it so rewarding? Why am I still thinking about some books for weeks, even years, after I finished reading?
Sure, we expect to be entertained (Author’s First Commandment), but a good book needs to do more. It has to touch a raw nerve. We identify with the characters and their actions. We share their hopes, desires, fears and shame. The story resonates with us as individuals, with our values and the way we lead our lives.
Maybe we don’t remember the entire plot and names of characters, or beautiful prose (although it helps), but something that just hangs there in our brain, a scene, a detail, a fleeting moment. Something that connects us personally to a story long after “The End”.
I believe a skilled author hooks readers with symbolic details that reinforce the plot and give it longevity. One such memorable book for me is The Stone Carvers by Canadian author Jane Urquhart. This beautiful novel spans three decades, moving from a German-settled village in Ontario to Europe after the Great War. It’s the story about the carvers of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial against the backdrop of war. What makes the book so powerful are the exquisite details, the settings, and the characters, far larger than life. I read the book when it came out ten years ago. I still see the image of the scarlet cloth, from which Klara Becker tailored a magnificent waistcoat for her ill-fated lover Eamon. She was bewildered by his choice of colour, but Eamon insisted on bright red. ‘A bolt of fine red worsted material’, shipped from Montreal. A foreboding on the eve of the war. A warning that blood will be spilled.
It’s often these small details that empower a story and bring the plot into focus. Details coaxed to life with the author’s superb prose. A magnifying lens to plant us in the scene with all our senses. Like my dad’s story of the grenade exploding in his bunker, shattering his ankle. How the eerie sound and the echo that followed still gave him nightmares fifty years after the war had ended.
Or take John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. If you have read the book, which scene is still vivid in your mind? I bet it’s when the diminutive Owen arranges to saw off a finger of his friend Johnny Wheelwright so he won’t have to go to Vietnam. That’s what I remember best of the 600 page tome. It was the summer of 1963, Irving tells us, “when the Buddhists in Vietnam were torching themselves, and time was running out on the Kennedys.” Johnny didn’t know what Owen had in mind, until he reluctantly puts his finger under the saw. The actual deed, worth quoting:
“I think it ought to be the right index finger. I mean, officially, we’re talking about your trigger finger… Don’t look at the blade, and don’t look at your finger, look right at me…. Don’t shut your eyes – that might make you dizzy. By the time you feel anything, it will be over.” As he lowered the diamond wheel in the gantry, I tried to put the sound of it out of my mind. Before I felt anything, I saw the blood spatter the lenses of the safety goggles, through which his eyes never blinked.
“Just think of this as my little gift to you”, said Owen Meany.
This scene is more suspenseful and chilling than scores of thrillers I have read. Novels where corpses litter pages drenched in blood and where the shooting and stabbing hardly stops. Where the plot is about serial killers, torture, or murders of characters I don’t have a connection to and therefore don’t care. These are books of which I remember little or nothing, even if I’ve read them recently.
Except for those where the author has skillfully drawn me into the characters’ life and woven in some small details that have stuck to my mind like Crazy Glue. Where one bullet, masterfully aimed at characters I have come to love is so much more powerful than whole arsenals emptied.
Often, these details are symbolic, a sub-text to the story that reveals itself bit by bit. The colour of Eamon’s waistcoat, the blood of Johnny’s finger. Both ominous symbols foreboding the terrors of war.
Now in case you think I am writing literary fiction, I must set you straight. Sadly, my writing skills are not in that league. I will try to use some of these tools in my own writing, even modestly. We writers are told there is no such thing as true originality. Every talented writer has stood on the shoulders of a previous great author. For example, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a homage to Günter Grass‘ famous novel The Tin Drum. Not plagiarism, but learning. Using tools that have worked well for others, to the benefit of us, the readers. Each excellent book holds the promise to beget another.
Just to sprinkle a little optimism among our ‘5 writers’ group. ‘Yes we can’.