Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Magical Virtual Blog Tour, Or Something

A couple of weeks ago, I was recruited to participate in the Virtual Blog Tour that's been making the rounds on the interwebs in which i was to answer four questions.  Here's my contribution:

1. What are you currently working on?

I am doing a full revision on my sixth novel, Little Fire, which I thought I would have done a year ago.  I never could get it exactly the way I was hearing it in my own head and so I kept rewriting it until finally I think it does what I want it to do.  This is the most rewrites I've ever done on a novel, I believe, but probably because it's hugely thematic and covers a pretty big canvas although it takes place over a relatively short period of time (about two years).  It has three very distinct settings:  Middle Tennessee during the devastating 2010 flood, a road trip across the modern American South--a place of truck stops and dying towns, busy interstate exits and long stretches of nothing but hardcore gospel on the radio, of roadside memorials and old motels, of peaches stands and pinewoods--and finally, Key West, Florida.  It's a novel about parenthood, brotherhood, belief, doubt, equality, the way our nation can simultaneously evolve very quickly and very slowly on the same issue.  I am hoping it will be published in the next year or so.  I also have another novel all mapped out in my head.  It is actually set in New York City during WWI.  That may sound like a real departure for me but it's about a subject that is very near and dear to my heart and the characters are very similar in spirit and ways of being to the strong females in my early novels.  I'm also finishing up an Appalachian retelling of James Joyce's "The Dead" and working on a couple essays.  I always keep lots of different projects going at once.  I like to imagine my writing like a stove with four or five different things cooking and/or baking at once so that I'm moving from a skillet to a kettle, then checking the oven, then back to another pot that is boiling over.  This is probably why I never really experience writer's block.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm.  As for Little Fire, I think the main thing is that it is experimental in its language in a way that is new for me.  I'm playing with language and structure and memory a lot during the course of the novel.  My goal is to not only immerse you in the worlds of this novel through sense of place and characters but also by creating a feeling that you have when you hold the book in your hands.  And I'm mostly accomplishing that through language.  I think.  I hope.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I write to preserve ways of life and ways of being and to comment on all the wild, sweet, holy world around us in all of its ugliness and beauty.

4. How does your writing process work?

I think about projects for years before I ever put any real amount of words on the page.  During that thinking period I spend a lot of time getting to know all of my characters and looking at the world through their eyes.  I especially spend a lot of time with my main characters and experience things from their perspective.  For instance, if I'm writing a book in which a man kidnaps his own child then for a couple years I am on the lookout for a police officer to come into a restaurant where I'm eating, or I'm always thinking like someone who is on the run, I'm looking at the world through that lens.  When I begin to put words on the page I usually start out pretty sporadically and then at a certain point I set a firm deadline for myself and write at least three or four hours a day.  The book dictates when.  Some books like to be written late at night and some early in the morning.  I know that sounds crazy but for me the book dictates the best writing time for itself.  When I'm in the heat of writing I go on a lot of walks.  I spend a lot more time alone.  I never, ever read anything similar to what I'm writing but I do watch films that might be on a similar subject, and I actively seek out music and artwork and photographs that help me to create the world of the novel at hand. I think we must do everything in our power to make the novel happen. For me, other forms of art are integral to that.  So is nature.  I need woods when I'm writing.  I need creeks and birds and sky.  

The key to this blog tour is to keep it going, so here are the three writers I'm tagging:

Amy Greene is the author of the bestselling novels Bloodroot and Long Man.  She's also one of the best readers and writers I know.  

Cyn Kitchen was not only one of my students but is also one of my favorite short story writers.  She's the author of the lovely collection Ten Tongues.  

Graham Shelby writes beautiful personal essays and articles that I always love to read.  He's also a gifted storyteller and journalist.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why I'll Take "Happy Valley" over "True Detective" Any Day

Several trusted friends were adamant that I watch HBO’s series “True Detective” and I did, finding myself immediately pulled in by its atmospheric sense of place, lyrical writing, and powerful performances.  Much of “True Detective” was absolutely heart-pounding to watch, driven by haunting performances and nail-biting suspense.  I greatly appreciated the way it showcases rural people as being intelligent and possessing a strong work ethic (almost anytime a rural character is shown they are working, whether it be sweeping a porch or pulling in fishing nets—this in stark contrast to the way country people are usually shown on television, as shiftless and lazy). 

I loved watching it but I found myself increasingly troubled by some aspects of it throughout. I felt the show sometimes bordered on misogyny.  All of the women were either whores or saints (in fairness, the only real leading female character—whose role can be boiled down to “the wife”—eventually becomes a sort of combination of those two things, but that’s still only two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional) and sex scenes were often filmed in a way that gazed upon fresh-from-the-gym female bodies while largely scanning past male nudity and negating the fact that normal (read:  real) female bodies exist. 
By the end of the series I also found myself frustrated by how many of the plot twists never paid off.  One of the most mysterious and interesting strands of the show was that one of the detectives’ daughters seemed to have been exposed to sinister behavior (she poses her Barbies in situations similar to violent scenes we’ve witnessed in the show, etc.)  and the entire show we’re waiting to see how this plays a part.  But that is conveniently dropped.  In fact, the show is one false start after another that series creators wave away as maguffins, which are par for the course in mysteries.  However, when a mystery is just a series of plot devices leading nowhere then those maguffins quickly just become easy ways to purposely mislead the viewer with no pay-off.  There are many examples of this throughout the show.  And while the two male leads are endlessly fascinating and multi-layered, there’s that nagging problem with the female characters.  
            Ultimately, I left “True Detective” being incredibly impressed by the moodiness, the sense of place, the unforgettable imagery, the undeniably great performances, the truth about rural life, and the vivid, risk-taking writing.  “True Detective” achieves two things that very few shows can:  it is unforgettable and mesmerizing, leaving the viewer breathless.  The images and mythology stick with you and move you.  The problem is that I felt a little bit dirty and a whole lot cheated. 
            But there’s a new show on Netflix that possesses all the great qualities without the major problems of “True Detective”.  Happy Valley” is never titillating, gratuitous, or misogyinistic.  And all of the plot strands in “Happy Valley” come together to serve the whole. 
            Much has been made of the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in "True Detective" but they can't come anywhere close to the amazing Sarah Lancashire as the troubled cop Catherine in the lead of “Happy Valley”.  She is a marvel.  If you’re lucky you already know Lancashire from her roles in the wonderful British dramedy “Last Tango in Halifax” (also now available on Netflix after a run on PBS) and “The Paradise” (also available on PBS) or as the narrator of my all-time favorite show, “Lark Rise to Candleford”.  Hopefully “Happy Valley” will nab her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and get her the much deserved attention for which she is long overdue.
In a scene where Lancashire’s character is addled and coming out of anesthesia is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, equal parts funny and heartbreaking and—best of all—absolutely, completely real.  In fact, all of the performances are top-notch.  Siobhan Finneran (formerly the devious maid Mrs. O’Brien on “Downton Abbey”) is perfect as Catherine’s loving, recovering-heroin-addict sister.  James Norton’s psychopathic villain manages to give true complexity to a character that could have easily been played as simply mean and crazy.  There’s George Costigan as a father tortured by his daughter’s kidnapping, Charlie Murphy as the kidnapped daughter, and many, many others.  All of the characters are complex and memorable and richly-drawn. 
The fifth episode of the series showcases one of the most suspensefuly tense scenes I’ve ever seen on television—easily as remarkable as the much-celebrated long-shot drug-raid sequence on “True Detective”—with loads more compassionate emotion at play. As an American, it's especially compelling to watch a television show in which no one--not even the police officers--have guns.  Juxtapose that against scenes in "True Detective" where people are riddled with bullets and it's jarring.  In fact, in England, "Happy Valley" has been criticized for how violent it is.  The show certainly is gritty but when you compare it to American detective shows you see just how gratuitous American shows can be.  The violence in our shows is often almost erotic.  And that's gross.    
“Happy Valley”, like “True Detective” is also shot on location and uses its locale brilliantly.  The drug-ravaged beauty of the Yorkshire in Northern England’s “Happy Valley” is every bit as complicated and rich as the serial-killer-haunted swamps and small towns of southern Louisiana showcased in “True Detective,” but with “Happy Valley” we get inside the culture in a way that few shows are able to do.  We know its trailer parks and police department and restaurants and homes both rich and poor.  We get to know its minor characters and are told their stories through subtle, perfectly chosen details, such as when a rapist’s mother flinches when he makes a loud noise, letting us know that she has been one of his victims.  She is only on screen about five minutes total in the entire first season but we come to know her, care for her, and be angry at her and for her.   
            So why bother to compare these two? In many ways they're very different shows.  But in many others ways they are similar:  detectives who want to bring a mad man to justice, a vivid sense of place, perfect theme songs (Jake Bugg's "Trouble Town" on "Happy Valley" and the Handsome Family contributing "Far From Any Road" for "True Detective"), and rich characters. 

Throughout “Happy Valley” I’ve been reminded of “True Detective” because I think the former delivers on everything the latter promised but failed to do.  And because throughout I’ve been reminded of how much hype “True Detective” got for the very things that “Happy Valley” is actually doing correctly, but even better.  With “Happy Valley” we have a lead character that is ten times more interesting and complex than the two male leads of “True Detective” combined.  I’m not giving anything away to tell you that in the first three minutes of the show we learn that she has a dead daughter, a son who barely speaks to her, a grandchild she’s raising, an addict-sister who lives with her, and a high-stress job that she handles with grace and toughness.  That’s more characterization than we get in entire series with a lot of other shows and actually much more than we know about either of the main characters on “True Detective”.  We care about her in a way that we can never really come to feel for those two men on “True Detective”.  She’s tough as a pine knot without ever having to take on any kind of machismo.  She imperfect without ever being distasteful or hateable.  Although she has plenty of faults and makes huge mistakes, she doesn’t have to resort to being an anti-hero to avoid sentimentality because the writing is good enough to rise above all of that without a second thought.  In short, “Happy Valley” is smarter than “True Detective” but I don’t think it will ever receive the same recognition because it is not sensational enough for American taste.  It’s not titillating or gratuitous enough.  “True Detective” is brilliant; it’s just smart enough to make us feel smart, too.  But in the end it’s not as clever as it convinces us that it is.  “Happy Valley”, however, is.   The entire show’s plot strands come together beautifully.  It all adds up.  We’re not left with the dozens of questions that “True Detective” left us holding.
            In the end, I’m writing all of this not to put down “True Detective”—despite its faults I found it hugely entertaining but in retrospect I feel a little manipulated by it—but simply to encourage you to watch “Happy Valley” and to help the show and its amazing cast, certainly Sarah Lancashire, get the attention they so richly deserve for what has become one of my all-time favorite shows.