Hmmm

“Thierry,” I said, following the cat into the kitchen through the side door, like always. “We have to talk about Chapter Eight.”

Thierry looked up from where he was doing the dishes and raised an eyebrow. “Hi. We do?”

The cat, frustrated by my obstructing his path to the food dish, butted against my legs and I stepped aside.

“Yeah,” I said, waving my manuscript at Thierry. “Yeah, we do. I mean…you can’t say things like this. You can’t talk about….well, first of all, we can’t say ‘les peaux rouges,’ because that’s not, uh, it’s not acceptable terminology. You can’t call people ‘redskins.’ It’s not okay.”

Thierry shrugged.

“I’m not calling people anything,” he said.

“Yes, you are.” I pointed at the place on the page where I’d underlined pretty much every second line in thick red marker. “Right here, it says-!”

“I’m not,” repeated Thierry firmly, “calling them redskins. It’s a chapter about Jeanot’s mother using food dye on him to make his skin red to look like an Indian. The term applies.”

“We don’t,” I repeated, “call people-!”

“Yes you do.” Thierry shook his head at me. “The Washington football team is called ‘The Redskins.’”

I opened my mouth, realized I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and shut it again. Then I took a deep breath.

“Thierry,” I insisted, the voice of reason, “the terminology is only part of the problem. The chapter content itself is kind of an issue. I mean, this is super offensive stuff we’re dealing with,  here. Dying your skin a certain color to portray a character of another race or ethnic background is considered absolutely taboo. Have you ever heard of blackface?”

Thierry gave me a disgusted look.

“Yeah okay, so you’ve heard of it,” I went on quickly. “Right, and you know how offensive that is to African American people…or to African people, or, actually, to anyone who has naturally dark skin. You can’t dye your skin a  certain color to make fun of someone.”

“No one is making fun of anyone in this chapter.” Thierry shrugged again. “Jeanot has endless respect for the Indians-!”

“Native Americans,” I muttered, “or at least American Indians, okay?”

“For the Indians,” insisted Thierry. “That is what he would have called them, Indians. He holds them in such high regard that he wants to stay red for the rest of his life. He’s not trying to insult them.”

“That,” I began, “doesn’t make it any better!”

“Why not?” Thierry was watching me now, much calmer and more in control than I was. I was getting frustrated and annoyed and trying not to raise my voice. Why couldn’t he understand that this sort of thing just wasn’t going to work?

“I…I don’t know,” I muttered, shaking my head. “I don’t know, it’s just…”

I waved my hands around a little bit, an expressive gesture meaning that I couldn’t figure out how to express what I was trying to say.

I wanted to explain to him that we were hurting people by writing this stuff, and that by using words and terms and even by showing actions that someone, somewhere had used to marginalize people, we were doing wrong. We were reminding people  of a lack of respect they’d faced and were probably still facing. We were making it obvious how much white privilege we have and how we’re free to use it whenever we want. As a white woman doing my best to be an ally in a world where darker-skinned people get shot down by police for nothing at all, or beaten up on the metro, I was trying to navigate a conversation that I knew was important but that I wasn’t sure how to have.

“Arielle.” Thierry dropped a final dish into the dishwasher, dried his hands on a towel and came to me, getting a little more French as he did so, even in the way he pronounced my name. “The story takes place in France, in the 1950s. This is what happened. Back then, people weren’t interested in being politically correct or sensitive to cultural issues. I remember this play; I remember what it was like to be a peaux rouge.

I glared, but he ignored me.

“This is a true story,” he said. “I’m not going to change the events of history because you’re uncomfortable with how it feels. We cannot retroactively erase racism by simply pretending it never happened and refusing to write about it. That won’t fix anything, crois moi, chérie.” He paused and smiled.  “Now, can you stay for a little while? Would you like something to drink? I bought more orange juice.”

I spent the next few minutes gazing helplessly at Chapter Eight over my glass of juice and doubting my own convictions, for a change.

Books, Finished and Not

There are four finished books. One is L’Amérique. Arielle has been working on it for three months and she and I have essentially rewritten it from page one.  It’s a good book, a better book than it was in May of this year.

There’s Montparnasse, a novel set in Paris between the two great wars and featuring a great cast of artists, writers, composers and other romantics, and one serial killer, Honoré Landru.  That one took me three years to write, and I suspect Arielle will have at it soon.  Soon, that is, if she doesn’t opt instead to edit Lurid Tales, Desperate People,  a pretty lightweight little novel  based on the lives of very blonde women and their families who live in McLean.

Then there’s Dope, a sequel to Thirst, a book published last year that earns me about seven dollars in monthly royalties.

There are three other novels in various stages of undress, or incompletion, including Montmartre, a sequel to Montparnasse, and The Cancer Club, a book a good friend told me he would never read because of its title. I may or may not finish these efforts eventually.  Then there’s what I’m currently writing, and I could not tell you under duress where that’s going, if anywhere. I think it has legs, but I’m not sure. Usually, it takes me about 150 pages to know if there’s a book there, or simply a bunch of random and often uninteresting conjectures.

I think in a lifetime I must have written an avalanche of words, a veritable Amazon River of sentences and paragraphs, thousands upon thousands of pages I felt had a degree of importance. Some got published, most did not; some were read by others who in turn got in touch with me to say (1) it was entertaining; (2) it was somewhat original; and (3) “I have no idea what you’re writing about.”  One reader of Thirst asked for her money back, which I considered somewhat cheeky since she’d gotten a review copy.

I’ve always believed writers carry history on their backs. In 2013, some 305,000 new and revised books were published in the United States alone. In my native France, by comparison, 42,000 books were published in 2011, which is less than Iran but more than Australia. I suspect most  of these books were not widely read, since so few publications are, and I wonder if their authors felt elation at being published and the attendant dejection of being routinely rejected.

Me? I think it’s worth it. I remember dancing in the street—quite literally—when my first book contract came through.

L’ Amérique is finished and looking for a good home.  I’m hoping I’ll dance again soon.

 

A Most Humble Rebuttal

In a blog posted mere hours ago, Arielle claims I have been dragging my feet regarding finishing the second edit of my book, L’Amérique.

Dragging my feet? Risible.

She also states I have a passably respectable work ethic. I will not dignify this lamentable aspersion with a response because, you see, Arielle does not sleep. She does yawn from time to time (well, pretty often, actually, and she assures me it’s not the company); she stays out late at karaoke and blows out her voice and then says her vocal ills are my fault because she has to yell at me; she spends twenty hours a day online with her 2,287 friends, and otherwise works diligently on one project or another (see below).  Arielle, you see, originated the 32-hour day.

But let us return to her regrettable claim that I am laggard.

Let me explain. Yes, we are mere pages from la fin. The last few scenes we’ve worked on were drafted recently when we projected that the rewrite of the original book would run to fewer than 200 pages.  That’s a novella, not a novel.  So we decided to append the sequel that I have been working on, to the back of the original book. We also had to insert new chapters to fill in gaps, and a lot of the book’s final pages were created very recently. I haven’t had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on these last words.

Arielle has edited this book in a bit more than three months. It took me almost a decade to write it. She is a fast-moving creature by nature, albeit a careful one, most of the time.  I am a cautious being who watches my step and three times looks both ways before I cross a one-way street—be it literal or fictive.  Think older turtle, younger hare. Arielle has approximately 212 projects going on simultaneously, of which our book is merely one, even if, I am told, it is a very important one.  I have three projects, maybe four, and two of those are dormant.

Here is another thing that happened. Upon rereading the book in its entirety, I got pretty emotional. In fact, I broke down in tears a couple of times when I realized that, in the end, what I thought I had written was not at all what was on the page. I had wanted to chronicle the happy story of a little kid in Paris whose family decides to move to America.  What is really there, after the rewrite, are the memoires of a child desperately trying to hold his family together in a brand new country, the language of which he doesn’t speak.

Am I going to be careful before finishing this thing? Damned straight. This is probably the most important writing I’ve authored.

Where Arielle is completely right is in illustrating the difference between writing and theatre. I would add that the plays her company produces take four or five months from inception to last curtain call, and this is accomplished with a whole bunch of people pitching in. Britches and Hose presents four plays a year, and hosts a one-act-plays presentation as well. If I’m lucky, in a three-month period, I will write a finished 100 pages of prose.  I’ll sell a few free-lance articles and see a couple of my short stories published.

Arielle says, “There will always be another play/another book/another artistic endeavor.”

Honestly, the only thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that it’s unlikely I will ever again write a book this personal. So yes, I’m going to take my time. I will drag feet and elbows and knees and whatever appendage is necessary to make sure we do this totally right.

And as a last word, let me say Arielle is a truly phenomenal editor, the best with whom it has been my privilege to be associated. I love working with her.  That’s never been in question.

Plus, she almost never drags her feet.

Collaboration and the Last Ten Pages

We are still not quite finished with the book. In fact, there are exactly ten pages left before we complete the second edit.

Thierry is dragging his feet, which is unusual for him. He’s got what I consider to be a passably respectable work ethic, which means that he works slightly more than 200 percent of the time. In this case, it’s not that he’s not willing to put the work in, it’s just that he’s reticent to finish the book. He tells me that when it’s over, he’ll have lost something; there will be something we can’t get back.

On one hand, I understand that. On the other hand, I’m very used to it. I think that’s one of the real, significant differences between theater people and writing people; in the theater, everything is always over, and over quickly. We spend months perfecting a show, we perform three times, maybe six, and then it’s gone forever, with no finished product left behind for us to nostalgize over in the future (Thierry challenged me, this morning, to make up a word, so there it is.)

Yeah, that can be a sad, stressful experience. I once wrote a story about it, and the story was actually published, which for me is rare and lovely. The point, though, is that my experiences in theater have sort of hardened my heart to what happens at “the end.” It’s gonna be over, so let it be over. There will always be another play/another book/another artistic endeavor, assuming we keep to the passably respectable work schedule.

A few weeks ago, I posted back-to-back excerpts for you from the beginning of the book. I showed you the old version of the chapter, and then the new, updated version.

Today I’d like to post a very brief excerpt that appears towards end of the book. This is one that Thierry and I essentially wrote together; it’s new content that didn’t exist in the original version of the novel.

I waffled a bit about which excerpt to post. Part of me wanted to show you the big, climactic moment at the end of Chapter 37, but that would spoil things a little too much, don’t you think? You’ll just have to read the novel if you want the best stuff.

Instead, here’s a scary story for your Sunday morning. Our protagonist has just moved into a new house, and he has invited his two best friends to play.

ghosts

KC and Robert came over often and had sleepovers. Jeanot’s room was large enough that they could all sleep on the floor on rubber air mattresses, and they stayed up with flashlights, telling each other scary stories. KC had the best ones, almost always involving a strong and lovely girl surrounded by boorish boys. The girl would be rescued by ghosts summoned from the nether worlds, mean ghosts who took no pity on the wailings of their boy victims.

“The ghosts have claws,” KC said. “They rip your throat and your stomach, and leave the guts behind.”

Jeanot and Robert looked at each other.

After a moment’s thought, KC added, “Actually, they rip out the stomachs first and leave the intestines all over the place, so that they can still hear their victims screaming before the throats come out. Then, the ghosts eat the boys’ hearts.”

Jeanot asked, “Do ghosts eat hearts?”

Robert nodded. “In Indonesia, they have ghosts in the jungle. They look like large brown monkeys.”

Jeanot thought KC’s gut-ripping ghosts were a lot more interesting than Robert’s ghost monkeys, but he didn’t say so.

Not to be outdone, Jeanot said, “In Paris, the ghosts are called fan-“

“I wasn’t finished,” interrupted KC, glaring. Her face looked even more beautifully terrible in the dim flashlight glow.

Jeanot sighed and subsided.

KC continued. “Then the ghosts draped the boys’ guts over the trees in their backyard, and wild dogs came and ate them.” Smiling, she stopped and looked at Jeanot and Robert, who were now both staring, completely aghast. “And those trees,” she hissed, “were the exact same trees in YOUR BACKYARD, JEANOT!”

Robert squeaked.

“Fuck,” exhaled Jeanot.

KC raised an eyebrow at him. “You kiss your Maman with that mouth?”

***

Note: KC is my favorite character.