Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Fail better..? A meditation

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Failing well...

Mistakes: failures are your teachers

Once you hear Beckett’s non-advice, you never forget it:

Fair. Fail again. Fail better.

For me, it is a call to endure, to be resilient. It has a subtle comic charge too: a writer shouldn’t take him or herself seriously. Beckett was deadly serious of course, but he knew better than most that how the serious and the comic share the same space. So for me, ‘failure’ is the engine of writing - just as I'd say it is the raw material of Darwin’s revolutionary theory.

The trouble with this 'failure' thing is that it can become a prescription. The mind sabotages itself very well, in what’s called the ironic effect. Having kids who are now passed through their teens, I know more about that topic than I did.

Failures got me started in writing mysteries – other people’s failures. It started with reading a well-known-mystery author’s latest. I was bored, then bewildered, and then annoyed.

‘How the hell could this be published,’ I asked Hanna. ‘Who would buy this? And how can he get away with writing this dreck, even?’

The result of this much-praised author’s colossal failure to entertain me stung me into writing one myself. ‘That’ll show him!’ et cetera. It was all very righteous, this annoyance. But then I had to write another, and another … I have learned and relearned failure many times since.

I was made very uncomfortably aware of failures and failings while I read last night. I’m reading ‘A Good Man,’ and I’m trying to resist seeing failure in this book. I try to get by it. As the eponymous Irishman said about his fierce loyalty to ‘his’ side in the Irish Civil War, ‘I’d rather be wrong with Mick Collins than right with that goddamned Devalera!’

That is my take on the writings of Guy Vanderhaege. It's the same as other writers I have committed to, like Colin Thubron and the Martin Amis. I have to admit that this loyalty extends pretty much to worship.

Here's the rub: I don’t care how bad their writing gets. Book X has shown what they can do.

For Vanderhaege, it’s his novels ‘The Englishman’s Boy’ and ‘The Last Crossing.’ For Thubron, it’s his travel writing (‘In Siberia’ got me hooked for life). That said, I avoid Thubron's fiction. As for Martin Amis, I instantly forgave (forgave..!) him his smarminess and terminal glibness when I began to read ‘Experience,’ and then saw a real writer step into the light when he wrote about Bellow.

So what is this failure than I am trying to avoid while I read a writer whom I love...?

Well, there are failures and there are whoppers. A huge whopper is the advice I hear to write what you know. There is nothing less helpful than that. If you knew something, you wouldn’t be writing. Writing is discovering. Writers don't really know anything until they write. Writing is not summarizing, or reporting, or (God help us all) adding decorative details to something we all think we know.... which, of course, we don't.

Another whopper is a practice that I have tried to stop, but am not there yet: copying down words, phrases, sentences and even paragraphs from books I am reading.

This affliction is guaranteed to strike with huge force when I read Colin Thubron, or reading a great biographer like Holroyd (his Dickens and Shaw biographies). It is nothing so crass as amassing a list of, er, beautiful language 'darlings' to insert in my own efforts. It's the hope that by reading them and thinking about them that, magically, I’ll be able to write as well.

The failure here is in the forgetting that words are only the doors that must be opened in order to enter the world of the story. They had better not be something that stops you dead on the threshold to stare in wonder at how beautiful the door is...

Back to my night-time reading, and the source of this denial. This failure in 'A Good Man' I’m thinking of (and trying not to think of!) is grevious enough: it’s a breach of ‘Show, Don’t Tell.’ It’s the error of explaining, or letting loose its poor relation, describing. Whether a character is talking about why Southerners (i.e. Confederates) are in a hotel in Toronto and what the political context is, or it is stated by the omniscient author – no matter how decorously - it hits a bum note right away.

The opportunities for breaches like this are very high in historical fiction. I am finding out the hard way. I am holding fire on returning to a long story that starts in Babylon during the Judean Exile and wends its way to Ireland in 1938. It is exactly the type of thing a man of certain years should be very, very wary of – a soul and time-devouring trek into the wilderness of historical fiction.

Call it historical friction, call it hubris, whatever. The urge to accuracy and detail rush in to fill the void when aiming for realism, for grasping the reader, for that suspension of disbelief. I have found myself (lost myself actually) for days, trying to source detail on the following:

- Jewish settlements in the Lake Van area of Armenia in or about 500 BCE

- merchant practices and accoutrements on a caravan that could hypothetically have bypassed Palmyra

- toys, ditties and games that a Judean girl of 10 would have used in her home in Babylon

- (this one to my flaming embarrassment) menstruation customs and practices amongst different social classes in city and rural life in the Middle East

.... Vanderhaege always rides to the rescue however. His brush/word portraits of the landscape, of animals and physical movement, and his sudden seizure of my attention with a single phrase, are utterly, utterly marvelous. Like Thubron, he has mastered the art of allowing the setting to speak. He has safely crossed the rapids to depicting, to expressing, and is not stuck on the far bank still describing.

This is not the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of the Romantics, or the bitter pastoralism of a Russian classic. It is more a reminder that characters move as figures across a ground. That the reader needs to step back, so to speak, to attend to something quite beyond the doings of mere mortals.

The nearest I can think of at the moment to this is in those transcendent moments when a filmmaker has the confidence and the skill to simply pan across a setting – all the better if the only sound to be heard is a breeze in the leaves. In ‘A Good Man,’ my provisional thought is that the wealth of historical detail that Vanderhaege has left in is there because he, or the editors, believe that the reader is ignorant of that epoch. They may be right, but that is not going to help.

A final thought on failure – ‘page-turners.’ A story should be easy and natural to read, but that has nothing to do with the kind of excitement I get from a piece of good writing. If someone describes a book to me that is a page-turner, a book that you can’t put it down, I think they have it exactly wrong. Putting downness is very appealing to me. Not racing to turn pages is just as appealing. I re-read a paragraph, a phrase, and even the physical appearance of the text and spaces, in a book. I'll put down the book to savour what I read. What’s more, I'll purposely delay my reading in order not to finish a book too soon.

‘Too soon?’ Now that is a clue that links 'failures' with what success should look like in writing. To me, printed words are tricks to tease a reader into becoming rapt in a continuing conversation – ‘narrative’ has too much academic and po-mo baggage for me to use without sniggering. Much like the songs and music in Ireland, the words may change, but the ‘air’ is unmistakable. I love picking up another book by someone I like mostly because I are resuming from I you left off. It doesn’t matter that this book is about China where the previous was about, say Damascus.

So, what matters above all, I have found, is the voice. That sees me through many mistakes and failures, my own and others.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page