Sunday, January 17, 2010

Filia ex Musae

In writing about the past, you inevitably end up writing about people that pass on, be they emperors sitting upon gem-encrusted thrones, or lowly feudal peasants who laboured hard all their lives under their overlord's boot. Today I feel as though my words are as sawdust, insignificant and without richness as I utter them. But I must write, for I wish to speak of the passing of a friend and mentor, a true poet: Leila Pepper.
Leila, or Danny as she was known to her friends, passed from this world on New Year's eve at the age of 96 and the world of words is the poorer for it, as are the lives of those with whom she connected, including myself. Danny was my friend and one of the only mentors I have had. Her own mentors included W.O. Mitchell and Alistair MacLeod when she studied writing at the University of Windsor. I remember the first time I met Danny. I was back home from St. Andrews, Scotland , visiting family. My mother and I were walking in the shopping mall and we ran into my mother's friend and her own mother. We sat for coffee and perhaps at first I would rather have been doing something else but that sentiment lasted but a second. The lady with my mother's friend enveloped us in kindness as soon as we sat down and words started bouncing back and forth like orbs in a pinball machine, bright and quick.
This was no 'old lady', for such a term is a true injustice. This was a force of nature, of emotion. "You know," my mother said, "Danny is a writer too." I looked at Danny where she sat smiling. "You know, Danny," my mother pushed on as mothers do, "Adam is writing a book." Danny's eyes suddenly fixed upon me. "Oh really!" And that was it. We were locked in conversation for another hour and a half as though we were old friends. I quickly discovered that Danny was not one to be locked within the confines of age for she was as young and spritely as a seventeen-year-old. At the same time however, her experiences told of a life of great joy and of pain that can come only with years. She had lived through WWII and the uncertainty of awaiting her beloved Howard of whom she spoke often while I was in her company. Her eyes danced when I told her of my own experiences abroad, of green glens and desert sands. For a moment or two she would close her eyes while listening, as though remembering the feeling of a far away breeze upon her face, perhaps something she had shared with Howard. She asked about my book and said she wanted to read some. One might have thought that perhaps she was being nice but she truly meant it, her interest ever so sincere.
After more than an hour we stopped talking briefly, perhaps to sip the coffee-gone-cold, to see my mother and Danny's daughter staring at us smiling. I think we might have looked guilty, like two kids that had escaped their parents at the playground in order to take a few more turns down the slide or flights on the swing. But Danny was the parent here and we spoke a bit longer for good measure to the amusement of our observers. "Isn't she a great lady?" my mother said in the car on the way back home. And I said yes, "Awesome."
Danny did come over to my folks' house to read over my work, the first draft of Children of Apollo. I was nervous handing the pages to her but she put me at ease, smiled as though she looked forward to reading it over and did so with quick eyes, a chuckle here, a serious nod there. After about thirty pages or so, she leaned back on the sofa and told me how she liked it, the story, the environment and some of the characters. She also didn't hold back when she told me what I needed to change and I am glad she didn't. She said that I wasn't writing a history book, that it was a story and that I should focus on that. Also, as I was not writing a history book she said I should not italicize the Latin words as that slows the prose down, jolts the reader with a different font when those words should become a part of that world. She also pointed out how some of the characters and their speech were stunted and not realistic. "These are soldiers!" Danny said. "Make them talk like soldiers. Get them dirty! I want to see the sweat as they march, taste the sand in their mouths." Needless to say, I was grateful for her sound advice.
That day seems like yesterday when it has in fact been many years. There are probably many people who likely can say more than I about Danny, and that more eloquently. It would not do however, for me to remain silent now, especially after the passing of a lady whose advice to me was, "Just write it down! Write, write and keep writing". I feel sure that in whichever Elysium Danny now finds herself, she is writing, perhaps with her Howard next to her. She is certainly smiling, remembering a life well-lived and well-written. A true daughter of the Muses.
Here is one of the poems that Danny wrote:
A dizzy head
spins me tonight
whirls my thoughts
like autumn leaves
mixing all the days
I am tired yet
wakeful and confused
I see faces I once knew
wonderfully unchanged
still so young
I half-believe
the phone will ring and
I will hear their voices
answering questions
I still ask
whose arms do I desire
whose absence
brings most pain?
- Leila Pepper
(from a thousand yellow leaves, Cranberry Tree Press, 2004)
Thank you, Danny, for your advice, for your example and for your friendship.
Photo: file photo, The Windsor Star

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Hundredth Book about Caesar?

Just picture it, a misty morning in northern Italy with the sun beginning to cut through. Birdsong comes to a halt as the sound of stomping caligae and jingling pots and horse harness break into the morning. Gaius Julius himself, flanked perhaps by Mark Antony, rides at the head of his veteran army. Caesar reins in at the edge of a small river to pause before his next act. Maybe Antony nods to him, or maybe Caesar smiles ominously? Next, he is moving across the river Rubicon, troops in tow and the rest, as they say, is history.

What fan of history and historical fiction does not know the rest of the story from this point on, for so long has this song been sung that it has been engrained in our imaginations for over two thousand years. In novels, plays, poetry, films and other media, the story of Caesar has been told. And why not? It has all the makings of a bestseller: love, blood, passion, betrayal, action and adventure. Perfect. But can we have too much of a good thing?

Something has sparked this train of thought. I’m not going crazy. I just heard from a fellow writer who is part of a historical fiction/fantasy writers’ group I belong to (I know, this is like admitting to being a member of the chess club or something but let me assure you, coolness and creativity abound!). At any rate, this writer, like so many debut authors, is currently in search of literary representation as this is a must these days. Just as agents have their share of horrible or hilarious queries, so do authors have their share of cake-taking stories. This member of our group has written a book set in the later Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Maximian (A.D. 286-305).

He (the writer, not Maximian) has finished his manuscript after several drafts and has begun the task of finding representation. He gets the usual form rejection letters that are an unfortunate necessity for submission-inundated agencies. These are part of the process. Yesterday, a big New York agent that our hero queried took time out of his busy schedule to answer via e-mail and had some interesting, if not disheartening, feedback. The agent said something to the extent that it was a great story with good writing but that people would rather read the hundredth book about Julius Caesar than the first book about an emperor nobody knew much about.

Well, we discussed this ad nauseum during our meeting this evening. The surprising thing was that the agent took the time to give this feedback and indicated that the story and the writing were good. I had to play devil’s advocate a bit, which almost got me ostracized from the group, but I had to point out that this was understandable in a way with the current market and economic situation globally. No matter how sad the statement, I can see the agent's point of view.

However, apart from the obvious view to entertain by way of a good yarn, should not the goal of good historical fiction or historical fantasy be to broaden the picture of history and to help the reader gain a fuller understanding of the past?

The history of the Roman Empire is much more than Julius Caesar and though his actions effected change in the Roman world and on history, his imperium lasted but a few years out of hundreds of Roman supremacy. We have to ask ourselves what good it does to tell the same story over and over again when there are so many interesting tales centered on strong personages in ancient and medieval history. Why limit readers’ access to new horizons? Indeed why should writers limit themselves?

I understand the need for commercial appeal and good old Julius has loads of it. On the other hand, you may remember a certain movie called Gladiator that came out back in 2001 which of course was a big commercial hit that went on to win the Oscar and which sparked a rise in student enrolment in classical history at numerous universities around the world. Book stores also began stocking and selling non-fiction books on ancient Rome and selling more fiction set in the ancient world (I know this because I worked as a bookseller at the time at a major chain). Gladiator was not set in the time of Julius Caesar but rather the reign of Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus both of whom, you can bet your denarii, were little known to the average reader or movie goer out there.

While the hesitancy of publishers, agents and indeed many writers to take on a project that involves lesser known characters is, as I have said, understandable to an extent, the literary world should perhaps start braving the unknown, untapped realms that exist. A bestseller need not necessarily feature Gaius Julius Caesar to make a splash, for if you are setting a novel in the Roman Empire you can pretty much guarantee that you’re in for a ripping good story. It’s all in the words one chooses to tell it. It helps too that human beings are, and always will be, beautiful and terrible all at once and so deliciously flawed that it almost always makes for fantastic fiction.