What's written is the novel, A Gift for the Sultan. (For more on that, scroll down to the entry for 1/18. I'll be reading two chapters at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange this Saturday.) I may have trouble selling it, due to (as one reader put it) "the plethora of unfamiliar proper nouns (from the archaic to the simply exotic)." The novel is set in 1402, in the waning days of the Byzantine empire, which was a long time ago and pretty far away, so I have to decide whether archaic and exotic are assets or defects in the telling. My aim was to make the story authentic, meaning as true as possible to the way these characters would have experienced the world. And their world is pretty strange to us. Submitting a couple of chapters to an audience this Saturday will be an important test.
The thing that's been sold (to W. W. Norton) is the book Latin American Architecture and Urbanism, which I'm co-writing with Susana Torre. She's made more progress than I, and deadline is looming, so I have to get cracking. Right now I'm focusing on the pre-colonial period, especially the Andean architecture of the Incas and the Meso-American of the Mexicas and Mayas. And now, to work.
21 Jan 2003 p. 15
Crispin Hull, 'The surprising dividend to be found among the ashes'
'Canberra has the best infrastructure of any city in Australia. It is the best planned city in Australia. Yet the bushfire at the weekend claimed hundreds of homes and let a community stunned.
'Why? The key lies in the word itself - bushfire.
'In Australia, bushfires often claim the odd rural dwelling or a few houses when they reach the edge of a town or city.
'But Canberra is different. It is known as the Bush Capital. And if your city is bush, then it will be subject to bushfire in a way that other conurbations will not.
'In other places, the fire hits the edge of town and stops. In Canberra at
the weekend, the very fact that the city has been so beautifully planned was its nemesis. The flames did not meet a fire-resistant slab of urban development - of tar, cement and bricks. Instead they met trees.
Big anti-war demo in San FranciscoThis is a photo-free weblog. Not because I like it that way especially, but because I haven't learned how to load photos. But do go see this handsome composition, Everything is at Stake, and other photos taken by Daniel del Solar at Saturday's big demo in San Francisco.
Another NWU colleague writes:
When first investigating an unknown publisher or agent, always check at
least these three places:
It also wouldn't hurt to plug the name into the Google search engine, both for the web and for groups, especially groups, to see if there are any bad reports.
Another good place to check and to post a query is the sff.net newsgroup, sffNet WebNews.
I feel a special connection to those people. I interviewed Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas (the long-time co-anchors) for my book, Hispanic Nation, and I still occasionally exchange an e-mail or two with Jorge. (I got to know Blanca Rosa V�lchez, their NYC Bureau Chief -- or actually, the entire bureau -- much better, but she wasn't featured on last night's show.) I was looking forward to hearing more stories of the problems Jorge and María Elena had had to deal with on the job. But Cristina's aim was to produce "un programa motivacional" -- uplifting, I suppose you would say. She repeated that odd word, "motivacional," several times, so you can guess what kind of self-help books she has been reading. So she spent most of her program interviewing Teresa Rodríguez, whose great dramatic story is that her husband (a Univisión executive) died suddenly a few months ago, and another couple -- corpulent Fernando something the sportscaster and his thin blonde wife (does some kind of goofy interview show I never watch) whose "motivational" story was that they'd just adopted a cute Russian infant. Nice, but not very enlightening. As for Jorge Ramos, he wisely avoided talking about the kinds of serious professional challenges he and I discussed when I interviewed him (take a look at that chapter in my book), but mentioned that once in Afghanistan a guerrilla chieftain pointed a gun at his head and would have blown him away if he hadn't forked over the $15 in singles he had in his pocket. That's it? Hell, scarier things have happened to me! And probably to most of the people in his audience. And María Elena, who could also have told a dramatic professional story (again, see the book), recalled having to go on the air in Texas right after she'd learned that a hurricane had blown away her house in Florida. Well, yes, that's dramatic, but it's not particular to people working in the media.
Cristina Saralegui's aim was to show that the glamorous people on camera are just ordinary people like you and me. See? They're as mediocre as you are, so maybe you too can imagine yourself as glamorous. It just ain't true. Professionals are professionals, and they are where they are because they worked to get there (or had some extraordinary luck).
The program motivated me to continue avoiding "Cristina."
Recent research findingsThe equality of the sexes has been much exaggerated. I have had a woman under close observation for over 25 years. Prior to that, I had occasion to examine closely several other specimens, some in brief laboratory encounters and others in prolonged investigations extending to weeks, months, even (on two occasions) years. I can confidently report that women in general are not naturally competent to load a dishwasher.
As a byproduct of this research, I can also confirm today's reports of scientific findings that love-making is more effective than chocolate for producing a sense of well-being. It is of course also less fattening.
Greenhouse in the skyA Certain Person (of whom you have seen mention here before) has been most annoyed by the biased reporting and lack of architectural acumen regarding projects for rebuilding at the World Trade Center site. Most recent annoyance was today's NYT editorial, which inspired her to fire off this guided missive to the Editor:
Re: Next Steps for Ground Zero
Crucial decisions will be made about schemes for Ground Zero without a considered public discussion about the context for the memorial, the public space at street level and the proposal�s contribution to the skyline. For example: in looking at Daniel Libeskind�s scheme, could someone please explain why the memorial should share its site with the rattling trains and rather large PATH station, why should it be entered from a museum hovering overhead, and why New York City needs a 40 story high decorative greenhouse that will require substantial admission fees, and skyscrapers whose tops ape Johnson/Burgee�s 1976 Pennzoil Place in Houston, TX?
New York, January 21,2003
I'm sure there are literary historians who could tell you. I suppose the novel made a big impression because it highlights the gory, ugly details of combat, de-glorifying the heroic gilded myth of America's greatest conflict. The protagonist panics in his first skirmish and runs for his life, fantasizing various means of desertion. He only accidently finds himself in battle again, and his mad rush toward the enemy is presented as a kind of delirium rather than sober heroism. All the details of mud and blood and confusion at the battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863) came from attentive research, imagined by a writer who had never been to war. (For a clear account of the reception and background of the novel, see this unsigned three-part essay from the University or Virginia.
So I must admit: it is an important book, and my disappointment with it was strictly personal: I didn't find in it what I had hoped to, which was story-telling technique I could use. It's overloaded with adjectives, the subjects of many of the sentences are inanimate things or abstractions, and it's got more atmosphere than story. Not the sort of thing I want to emulate.
In the first volume of his memoirs, Vivir para contarla (2002), Gabriel García Márquez writes (this is my translation),
my library has never been much more than a working tool, where I can consult instantly a chapter of Dostoyevski, or verify a fact about Julius Caesar's epilepsy or about the mechanism of an automobile carburetor. I even have a manual for commiting perfect murders, in case one of my poor characters ever needs one.He also says of the North American novelists he was reading while writing his first novel, La hojarasca (1955; translated as "Leafstorm"), that he read them with "insatiable curiosity" to discover how they were written. He read them first "right side up, then backwards, and I submitted them to a kind of surgical disemboweling until I uncovered the most deeply hidden mysteries of their structure."
I think any serious fiction writer reads other fiction he or she admires that way. That was the way I treated García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude when I had to "disembowel" it for a Monarch Note. Red Badge of Courage doesn't invite that kind of operation. It's not complicated enough.
The store owner, seeing he wasn't making a sale, switched to asking where she was from. "Argentina," she said. "Oh, Argentina! Then, look!" And he bent down to the bottom shelf of his display case and pulled out the cheapest of his merchandise, chintzy statuettes for two or three dollars.
When she told us this story, María Cristina had to laugh to keep from crying.
The nation's consumer reputation has plummeted, but at least one of its citizens is gonna go down in style. She taught us to tango, and for a change of pace, milonga. Muchas gracias, Cristina. ¡Qué vuelvas pronto!
I thought I could go back and correct it, and it looked like I could. "Blogger" let me open the old note, edit it and republish. But when I looked in the archive, it was still the original text, with its glaring error. I'm glad. Otherwise, we could be going back and back, never admitting to any error. It would be tempting to go back and insert prophecies of things that had already happened.
Speaking of prophecies, Andreas Ramos predicts that the attack on Iraq will come on the night of February 1, regardless of anything the UN or Saddam might do. The reason: It will be the first available moonless night, closely following Bush's Jan. 27 speech, and the air force will prefer bombing on a moonless night. GWB won't want to wait for the next one, March 3, because the desert will be too warm and the issue might be too cold. (Andreas has been fooling around with his astronomy software. He's also been looking at the weather reports in Dante's Inferno, to see if conditions were really as he reported them on those dates. So far, he says, they check out.)
About this time, it must have been just a few months before the Washington march, I met Reuther. I was dating a girl from Boston whose parents were friends (and I think financial supporters) of his, and he dropped by their apartment one evening when I also happened to be there. I was a Harvard senior, studied in nonchalance, and also president of the Harvard Socialist Club, inclined to dismiss a "labor bureaucrat" like Reuther as a mere "liberal." Prematurely jaded though I was, he really impressed me. He was a man who transmitted energy and gave the impression that he was intensely interested in knowing you. (I had a similar impression when I got into a nose-to-nose chat with Hugo Chávez last year. Am I just impressionable? No, I think there is something to the notion of "charisma," and it has to do with that keen, energetic focus.)
Here's my proposed jacket copy for the novel:
In the summer of 1402, Constantinople, the greatest city in the Christian world, is betrayed to the Islamic horde at its gates, but a young princess vows to save it while other nobles, merchants, clergy, aristocrats, juvenile street fighters and foreign mercenaries prepare to profit, yield for a price, fight, or die in its defense. The fate of the city and its civilization depends on all of them and on the Turkish frontier raider who has sworn to deliver the city and the princess to his sultan, in time to prevent a fateful clash with an even more terrible Muslim challenger from the East.This all came together in my head on the plane trip back to New York from Istanbul, after three weeks in Turkey, in 1996. I had to write this story. The city, Constantinople/Istanbul, and our sojourn through central Turkey had filled me with colors, gestures, and evidences of ancient pasts that had to be told. I had known almost nothing about the Ottomans beyond what I'd read in T. E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), who projected his sadomasochistic desires onto them, and less than that about the people we call the Byzantines (Rumaoi, in their own parlance; they regarded themselves as the true Romans).
Two bits of history determined that my novel's critical moment had be July 28, 1402, the Battle of Ankara, when Timur ("Tamerlane") defeated the Ottoman sultan "Thunderbolt" Bayezid, and thereby saved Christian rule of the city for 51 years. The first historical bit was that, before the battle, Emperor John VII had secretly sent ambassadors with the key to the city to surrender to sultan Bayezid; the surrender was aborted by Timur's victory, which destroyed the entire Ottoman horde. The second historical bit was that on several occasions, Orthodox Christian emperors had sent their daughters to be married to Muslim emirs.
But why write about something that I knew so little about? Why not stick to the Latin American topics I knew well, and where I could read the relevant languages? The research alone, I knew, was going to be an enormous job.
Hard to say why. Part of the reason must have been that I was enchanted by the city of Istanbul, especially, and all of Turkey that we saw. Those ancient walls, the Hagia Sophia turned mosque turned museum, the whole urban palimpsest. Another part was that I had written my sixth book on Latin America and it was time for a change. Going to Turkey had been the Accomplice's idea (she especially wanted to see Hagia Sophia), and I had been so focused on final editing of Hispanic Nation that I hadn't even read a guide book. I'd presented HN at a conference in Mexico just a week before I arrived in Istanbul, and I was ready for a break from social analysis and from things Latin American.
There's another, deeper part of the answer. I had to prove myself, to myself, as a writer of long fiction. It's been something I've been trying to do for a very long time.
I'd written two earlier novels, neither of them published, both on Latin American themes. The first was very ambitious and experimental -- I'd been reading Pynchon and Barth, among others -- with a complex structure of two parallel stories. I called it "The Liberators." One of the stories was a fictional version of myself, a young American social worker in a Caracas barrio in the 1960s; the other was of another young man the same age, but a mulatto working-class Communist in the same barrio. I finished it on schedule, on my 40th birthday, in 1981 (I tend to literalize the concept of "deadline"). Some established writer friends who read it admired it. However, the agents said such things as "It's too Latin American" or "I don't like experimental fiction." I was very disappointed, though I was able to recycle several pieces from the novel as short stories. Some are in my collection Welcome to My Contri, and two others appeared in the now-defunct, once lovely journal Yellow Silk: Erotic Arts and Letters.
Welcome to My Contri got such a rave review in The New York Times that I felt sure I would be able to sell The Liberators. Didn't happen. I tried other things, and then wrote another, much shorter and simply structured adventure novel, Gerry and the Contras. It's very violent and angry, based on real atrocities of the Nicaraguan "Contras," but told from the point of view of a New York-reared Latino street tough who gets recruited into Contra ranks. I thought of him, Gerry (Gerardo), as "Huck Finn as a terrorist." I did have an agent interested in this novel, the same agent who sold Hispanic Nation for me, but she wasn't successful in selling it.
So I was ready for something completely different. I think the work is very good, better than I sometimes had expected. I really have a lot riding on it. Not just the six years it took me to write it (and learn everything I could about Constantinopolitan urban culture, Ottoman military practices, Turkish shamanism, women's roles in both cultures, and how much weight a camel could carry) but the effort in learning how to structure a very complex story, with half a dozen ethnic groups (English Varangian guards, a Frankish knight, several Serbians, a Russian slave, an Armenian merchant, Muslim and shamanist Turks, etc.). And my whole life's project.
So I hope many people will be there Saturday night, Jan. 25, to hear the first two chapters. You will be my first test audience.