The Long Ships, by Frans Bengtsson (New York Review of Books, 2010): This is one of the books by my bed that I’ve just finished. I loved this book. I’ve left it by my bed because I’m hoping that while I sleep, some of Bengtsson’s wit and prose style will seep into my brain.
Bengtsson’s novel begins in Scandinavia in the 10th Century and follows the adventures of Red Orm, a Viking warrior who is also a bit of a hypochondriac and occasional versifier. The story is told with considerable humor, even the accounts of the many bloody battles. The first part of the novel was published in Sweden in 1941, the second part in 1945, and then in English translation in 1954. My edition comes with an intro by Michael Chabon. I started reading The Long Ships as I’m trying to write an historical novel and I’ve embarked on an historical novel binge. Next up is Jane Smiley’s Greenlanders, which I first read many years ago. Greenlanders, of course, means still more Scandinavians.
Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel, by Fred Setterberg (Heyday, 2011): Speaking of Scandinavians, I’m also rereading Lunch Bucket Paradise. It’s fiction, but closely based on Fred’s childhood in post-war San Leandro, California, thus the subtitle: A True-Life Novel. I first read it a few months ago, after attending a reading Fred gave. I’m re-reading it now as I plan to do a Q&A with Fred for this site. Fred doesn’t know this yet….
I mention Scandinavians in this context, because Fred’s father, like mine, was the son of immigrants and grew up speaking Norwegian at home. And Fred’s father, like mine, had TB as a young man. Fred’s father, like mine, became an avid reader while locked up for months in a TB ward. Fred and I both grew up in homes full of books. Fred’s father, like mine, fought in WWII. Fred and I essentially grew up in identical neighborhoods, not far from one another. It could be Fred and I even competed against one another in cross-country, as our high schools were in the same athletic conference. And Fred and I share an interest in the martial arts. The similarities stop there, though. I was a geek in high school who spent all his time reading science fiction; thus I couldn’t get a date. Fred was in a rock band and could. Lunch Bucket Paradise could well have been about my childhood, but for the band part, and the dates….
Anyway, a terrific read.
The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV, by David Corbett (Penguin, 2013): I picked up The Art of Character after attending David’s reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Character is full of practical advice, and exercises to help put that advice into action. In the first chapter, David asks the question, are characters created or discovered? The answer? A bit of both. “Only by diligent and often frustrating effort,” David writes, “working out the specifics of a character’s history, circumstances, and situation, can we supply the unconscious with the raw material it needs, raw material it will fashion into something less clumsy and deliberate, more organic—like the intuition we carry about another person.”
The rest of the book expands on this insight, how to work out the specifics, and how to let the discovery take place. The book is full of other insights like this one, for example what David calls “the five cornerstones of dramatic characterization,” that is writing a character that comes alive, rather than what is called in the film trade — Corbett is a novelist and screen writer — a “plot puppet.” They are: The character needs or wants something. The character is having trouble getting what she needs or wants. She exhibits a seeming contradiction. Something unexpected happens, which renders her vulnerable. And she has a secret; there’s more to her than meets the eye.
I love stuff like this. Maybe you know it already, but it really helps to be reminded. And if you don’t know it, it’s good to hear.
One of the many interesting exercises Corbett suggests is changing the sex of a character you’ve already created, to see what happens. I actually did this once, before I met David or started his book. I was describing one of the main characters of my historical novel, mentioned above, to my daughter-in-law. This character was a guy, and not very interesting. My daughter-in-law asked me why I didn’t change him into a woman. Good question. So I did, at first just for fun, an exercise, a bit of exploration or discovery. I started out by simply changing all the pronouns, but pretty soon, I was adding new descriptions and new actions and the character began to take on an inner life that had been missing previously, including plenty of thwarted needs and desires. Don’t worry, though, there’re no Scandinavians in the novel. But come to think of it….
By the bed to be read is one of David’s novels, Done for a Dime. He’s another Bay Area writer; I love mysteries and crime novels; we had to meet. When we did, I pumped him for info about his background as a private eye. Talk about MATERIAL!
Ever read a character whose life uncannily parallels yours?