Monday, August 13, 2012

Traveling With a Gun: Janyce Stefan-Cole on Writing

Janyce Stefan-Cole

As a kid I already knew something was up. I was a little different from the others in my family. I remember being relieved when my mother showed us a portfolio of her paintings on paper – most in bright colors. When I was older I was able to see she had flair. She was also known for writing good letters, and at one point she studied French which for some reason excited me and I began wearing a beret around the house. I knew the French to be artists; I was in love with Paris – from photos and movies. But before all that I’d begun creating little worlds on paper: figurative drawings that I would then tell stories about in my head. So I’ve been a narrator with a visual bent since I can remember.
Artistic endeavors were not encouraged in my family and I kept my creations secret. I have a sense my mother had a voice that never found its form. That seems to me a crime against human expression, like a limb allowed to rot, infecting the whole tree. I guess I was louder in voice than she, or more willing to take a chance. I had a terrific teacher in high school, Mr. T., who wanted me to go to art school, but I contracted mono and jaundice from drinking out of another kid’s cup at a party (he got hepatitis so I was lucky) and I missed the first semester of my senior year, and had to have a tutor at home. Art portfolios were due in November so I never had a chance to apply. I did have a story published in our school journal which was my one claim to fame in an otherwise lackluster academic performance.
I studied philosophy and religion at Boston University – subjects also not encouraged by my businessman father. I was painfully sincere at the time and discovered books in a personal way and began devouring them, everything from the Brontës to the Russians – Dostoevsky was a hero – to Camus and Kierkegaard. The book that launched my consciousness as an artist was James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In particular the relationship to one’s name. I understood others had hidden questions of identity too, and difficulty naming themselves, as in, who am I? In a subtle way I think A Portrait influenced my recent novel, Hollywood Boulevard, about a successful actress, Ardennes Thrush, who quits in spite of her very public achievements.
After graduating I was at a crossroads and briefly went to art school, immersing myself in Boston’s many museums. Then I took off with a guy. We spent an entire summer crisscrossing Canada and the U.S. in a converted Hostess Twinkie van. I made drawings as we traveled; they became a kind of glue as I moved farther from anything familiar. The journey ended in San Francisco and after a year or so there, we went south to Mexico where I painted, studied and taught. I was living by my wits; looking back I think I was pretty brave. I did learn how to travel. The problem was I didn’t have a plan and I took the road into visual arts somewhat haphazardly. Having written stories in college, with one or two things published, I could have gone either way: visual or literary. Two and a half years later I left Mexico alone and returned to New York where I began to try to show my work. I did show, but I didn’t feel satisfaction. My paintings became increasingly narrative but it wasn’t enough. The road I’d not taken re-emerged when I decided to paint my studio and came across those college stories hidden in a folder. I sat on the floor to read them and knew I wanted to finish the group. I felt instantly in my right skin. I never did paint the studio and I’ve never looked back.
Thus began my second apprenticeship. I wrote stories about what happened along the way, creating characters that were amalgams of people I’ve known. I’d met a lot of people on the road. Coming up with ideas is tough if you look too hard. I don’t think good fiction comes from dogma, but a writer’s ideas should inform the story. I would say ideas generally find me. With Hollywood Boulevard, Ardennes Thrush came to me unsolicited with a very strong voice. I was in Hollywood at the time (my husband Brandon was at work on an independent feature film he co-wrote and was co-producing) and it made sense to place Ardennes’s story there, and for her be an actress. The idea of quitting ties into the idea of identity, a la Stephen Dedalus, and I followed the thread into researching personality disorders.
A good story is one that draws the reader into a world. This means, in addition to creating a sense of place, taking a character’s journey with her. I’ll follow a good character almost anywhere. Plot for me surrounds the protagonist’s internal dilemma. My writing may not appeal to readers looking to escape or be titillated. I’ll introduce sex – organically – and guns that go off, and I have nothing against a book being entertaining, but I get antsy if that’s all that’s going on. I think I ‘play’ each of my characters; I need to know them very well. I’ll shamelessly steal from all aspects of my own life. Writers are spies, and sponges; not much slips past me. Everything is game once it finds its way into the text, while of course protecting the innocent, or unsuspecting. I create from what I know: people, places and events, but – for good or ill – my characters are all my own inventions. If I am very lucky my writing takes me into a kind of parallel universe where the characters are with me at all times whispering, telling me who they are, to the point where real life begins to interfere: the phone, emails, emergencies, dinner . . . It’s an enchanted place and painful to leave once a book ends. Family and friends know by now I’ll get back to them when I disappear into my work.
I don’t know that I consciously have a message or philosophy for readers to take away from my work, but I do return to the idea of looking within. This would be along the lines of the unexamined life as not worth living – or, perhaps, that God is within – though there’s plenty of distracting candy out there to suggest the opposite. I would encourage readers to take my character’s journey with them; their trip from the inside as the plot unfolds, perhaps leading to greater awareness of the reader’s own journey. Mostly I just want people to read.
I’m in awe of great writing. Not self-conscious pyrotechnics but subtlety, having my breath taken away by an author’s voice and choice of words, characterizations. When I write well I marvel at it later but cannot retrace my steps to see how I arrived there. The opposite has occurred often enough, recoiling over my own bad writing. A book takes so long because each sentence must be gone over many times. Syntax matters. Normal Mailer once said when he can read his manuscript without wincing it’s done.
My writing day begins at my desk by 9am, like any other job. If I am not in control of my time I grab a minute when I can. If ten minutes is all I can sneak in, I’ve learned to take them and write. Ideally I’m alone when I work, with distracting sounds and rhythms at a minimum. In the city I like big fat snowstorms when all the hyper-activity is muffled and hushed. In the summer we go to New Hampshire where the interruptions are few: a snake in the cellar, a porcupine waddling along an evening path, deer grazing, maybe the resident bear showing up. “Conversation With a Tree” was written in New Hampshire. I’m not at liberty to say if the tree spoke or not, but, like the local creatures, the tree doesn’t know or care what a writer is or does: Perfect. I know writers who work in cafes. The author alone is supposed to be passé, and we’re expected to be available to tweet everything from sex to shampoo in so many characters or less. I try to reach people through my writing. I don’t see how I can do that if I’m tooting, hooting and honking all day. It takes up so much time, time being equal parts friend and enemy.
I don’t think in terms of genre as I write, I guess that is the job of publishers and publicists, how to package a book. Hollywood Boulevard has been called a psychological thriller with a noir tone. Psychological works for me because my protagonist’s mind, his or her journey from the inside, is what drives me as I write. To the degree that there is intrigue, characters finding themselves in harm’s way, thriller applies. I enjoy the old fictional noir detectives – detectives in general, perhaps because, like writers, they are always searching for clues. The noir tone appeals, the un-heroic hero, the fumbling protagonist who manages to do the right thing in spite being flawed. It’s fair to say I’ve fumbled a fair amount through my own life, sans outline, following clues.
Jean Rhys of Good Morning Midnight is a writer I admire. An emotionally unafraid writer, personally troubled by demon alcohol, she looked truthfully into her characters’ eyes, and was ahead of her time with an unflinchingly present voice. I saw a sign in a country shop recently: “Well-behaved women don’t make history.” That’s Jean Rhys. I like that. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is a wow, a genuinely sensual book with a spare style, not a wasted beat. Monica Ali in Alentejo Blue creates a rich tapestry of types. I admire almost any Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, E. Annie Proulx (The Shipping News in particular), writers I would be proud to keep company with who have perhaps influenced me, though I take no responsibility for comparisons. I recently read Padgett Powell’s coming of age, Edisto, a book where nearly nothing happens, and only the boy’s voice takes the reader along to an unvarnished humanity. This summer I read Edward Falco’s reluctant male of his novel Wolf Point, and Emily St. John Mandel’s mesmerizing, The Lola Quartet. I’m not drawn to wordy books, believing if there is a simpler way to say something without sacrificing meaning that is the way to go. I suppose Hemmingway comes to mind. I just read Varley O’Connor’s under-rated biographical novel, The Master’s Muse.
Several years ago I was at an art colony with the poet C.D. Wright. I read a short piece one evening and the next morning at breakfast she told me about Michael Ondaatje’s novel Coming Through Slaughter, saying what I’d read reminded her of his writing. I was badly hung over because I’d drunk wine to find the courage to read in front of writers like her and Louis Nordan, and then more wine to get over the nerves. I asked her to repeat the title three times. A few of us had stayed up most of the night, deep into the Virginia countryside full of crickets chirping under a star ceiling, and life seemed good and scary and full of crazy hope. When I looked up Ondaatje I was astounded at any comparison with his poignant, pared-down prose poem style in Coming Through Slaughter, and was probably shamed into wanting to be a better writer.
My aim is to write, to keep at it, and die in the saddle. As long as characters present themselves and tell me their stories I’ll write. Read, certainly, and travel some more. Travel shakes out the cobwebs with new sensations and unexpected turns. The world is still a richly wonderful place, problems and all; greed and power aren’t all people are about, though lately it looks that way. My next novel involves an NYPD detective in Brooklyn. It’s a character driven search; there are foreigners, a real estate bubble forming, and there is a gun.
Visit Janyce’s website and buy her book.
Copyright 2012 by Janyce Stefan-Cole