Artists and Writers, working together

The first time the poet Robert Lax saw his work compiled in a stand-alone format (according to Lax’s biography Pure Act, by Michael McGregor)  was shortly after he met the artist and designer Emil Antonucci. Antonucci had just acquired an old-fashioned hand-press, and together they created an elegant, hand-crafted volume of Lax’s poems on trees. Antonucci says: “I realized there was a relationship between the fine arts and books…it was a dream.”

I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more collaboration between writers and artists these days. It could be—speaking for writers—we get so caught up in our own visions and ideas that it doesn’t occur to us to look for hints of them in someone else’s work. We can’t imagine anyone can capture the magic of our priceless prose! Yet when it works, it’s sublime, an enhanced experience for enlightened readers. But in traditional publishing, this is often impossible: Trad publishers don’t want to deal with the additional costs of acquiring worthy art or working with a talented designer, and/or paying rights fees; and there’s been a dispiriting trend toward text-only covers.

Yet, when you self-publish—which, happily, seems to have become a mainstream thing now–covers are always difficult. How do you make them stand out, without looking weird or amateurish? Many independents turn to professional book-cover designers, but their rates are very steep. And you may not get that much bang for your buck. When I studied hundreds of mystery titles on Amazon, all the covers had a distressing sameness to them: Big dramatic type over a dark-ish altered photo. Or, for the cozy mysteries, cute girly typefaces over bland computer-drawn pictures. Somehow my mystery set in the Appalachian mountains didn’t seem suited to either of those treatments. And as a reader, I was not lured into wanting to read any of them, either.

But browsing Facebook one morning, I saw that a very dear friend, Will Harmuth, a professional, regional artist, had posted a particularly wonderful painting that was just perfect. He had painted it after a trip to the Shenandoah mountains  (close enough!) The thing that drew me in was the sky, the way he had  stretched it over the mountains: Deeply blue, but complex, unsettled with patchy clouds and even a hint of distant storminess. We associate blue skies with ease and happiness, but this sky seemed the perfect metaphor for my mystery, a bit of darkness and uncertainty hidden behind a seemingly pleasant scene.

Though Will has been a close friend for decades, I wasn’t sure how to approach him about using the painting. So I went up to visit him, bringing a tray of brownies, and talked it out. In the end, I ended up buying the painting outright (with an old-friend’s discount), and you will see it when my book appears later this year. I’m just over the moon about it. And since I’m hoping this book will become a series, I’m thinking about approaching other artists for future covers (it’s likely some work by my own artist-husband will turn up eventually: He has designed most of my covers so far, but has yet to do a full-scale painting from scratch).

Collaboration can be a tricky business. And it’s not for everyone. The writer has to have some kind of art sense, and a strong feeling for what will connect with their writing. And in some cases, you may have to convince the artist that your work is worthy of their art.  I think a lot of independent writers will think, Are you crazy, I can’t afford to buy art for my covers! Well, probably not on commission, which not all artists like to do anyway. You might be surprised at how reasonable a piece of art can be. But if you’re willing to spend a few grand on an unknown book packager mentioned in some dubious self-publishing website…I’d say you might save yourself a lot of money and grief by simply going with a good piece of art.

It doesn’t hurt to hit the galleries and weekend art shows, or even go online, and see what appeals, and figure out your own art sense. You don’t have to approach the famous or popular guys, just go with your gut. Look for undiscovered gems. And it never hurts to talk. Talk with the artist and see what you can work out. Offer to let them read the book, to see if they agree with your assessment. Certainly let them know that if your book becomes popular, it’s valuable exposure for them as well. But don’t use this to try and get a lower price: They deserve to get what they feel their art is worth. I guess the key is strong mutual respect for each other’s vision, and that’s what made the Lax-Antonucci venture so successful.

Artists, keep on painting and creating! Writers, search and take notice. Eventually you might make a match made in heaven…

Catholics at the Met

My readers know I’m inclined to write about my faith frequently, and guess what, all of a sudden it’s cool and trendy to be Catholic. I know this, because I watched a clip on last night’s evening news about the celebrity-studded gala at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, celebrating the opening of its show on Catholic influence on fashion.  I understand the Vatican is a willing participant in this, contributing some forty or so treasures to the exhibit. I’ll reserve my opinion on the exhibition until I have a chance to see it. I consider myself on the ‘progressive,’ liberal-leaning end of the spectrum (edging dangerously close to agnosticism), but I have to admit, seeing the glitterati out there on the red carpet mockingly parading about in ecclesiastic-themed fashion made me feel as outraged as any rosary-carrying Latin-loving hard-core traditionalist.

I guess that’s the heart of it: Fashion is an ugly business. And combining it with publicity and self-promotion makes it positively Faustian.  I worked briefly in fashion publishing, down on Sixth Avenue, when I was an editorial coordinator for Vogue/Butterick years and years ago. It was a shallow, nasty, competitive and soulless business then, and it still is now. It did not leave me uncorrupted—I still possess an unfortunate weakness for  professionally designed clothing, elegant tailoring, and tasteful details. However, I feel that in popularizing liturgical garments  and putting them on the red carpet, high-fashion is also mocking us, making fun, and that’s never cool. It ignores the point of Catholicism completely, in that our religion is an abstract, spiritual endeavor which is not defined by its architecture and garments. Also, many of the vestments and artifacts displayed were used only by a very few practitioners, those rich, wealthy powerful members of the upper Church hierarchy, and they’re not the real Church either: The Church is, simply, its people, its community, with love, or charity, at the centerpiece. Everything else is background noise.

Or, culture. My own faith is a woefully complicated thing, equal parts belief, theological education (thanks to attending a Catholic college, though with a strong Franciscan bias), school-of-hard-knocks in trying to realistically practice it, and my own passion for history and esthetic appreciation of  Church culture through the ages. But more to the point, my connection to the church is mostly through family members I cherish and love, the people who raised me, the people who educated me; and also, poignantly, along with my husband of 37 years (this month!), who seems to be at the exact same stage of Catholic life that I am—sometimes skeptical and questioning, other times wholeheartedly believing, but also intrigued and informed by the Church’s 2,000-year history and culture.

I understand that some of my fellow Catholics are just thrilled about this media attention, but really, do we need to worry about our Church being popular and well-liked? It doesn’t need a million ‘likes’ on Facebook. It simply is, and will continue to be. If anything, I hope the attention will help erase some of the anti-Catholic, and anti-spiritual, sentiment that has infected literature, art, book publishing and popular culture in general, much of which, alas, may have been prompted by the dreadful pedophile scandals of the recent past. Obviously I feel the answer is to keep moving the Church forward in a realistic and compassionate way, without dismissing entirely its rich and storied past. But before I write anything else, I suppose I should go and see that show…then I can write Part 2 to this post.

Back to the red-pencil brigade

Like most writers, I can’t live off doing what I love, so I am always looking for other forms of income that complement my writing, but don’t impede it too much. I had hoped at this stage in my life to be writing full-time, but alas, the economic reality is that I’ll keep chasing after gainful employment the rest of my life. If I have any regrets, it’s that I did not ignore my overbearing father and study English Literature in college, instead of Journalism, and then go into academia, which would have been much more suitable to my temperament, as well as a kind  of economic backbone. Instead I worked for years as a New York City editorial drone, who got to write an occasional blurb or headline. It took a few decades, but eventually I was able to segue into freelance editing, which kept me afloat while I wrote my fiction. But then the recession and big downturn in the publishing industry made this kind of work impossible to find, even in the NYC area. So I tried a different tack: the commercial teaching of English.

I began my teaching career in the notorious field of SAT tutoring, and I have nothing good to say about that industry, which pays its teachers pathetically low salaries for the thankless job of getting some precious child into a “good” college, using abominably bad syllabi and materials (Yeah, pretty much impossible). From there I moved on to working with immigrant children, which was more rewarding, if not better paying; and then on to teaching adults business English, which again, not as well paying as it should be. The sad truth about monolithic corporate educational endeavors is that you will never be paid enough to live on; you’re better off setting up shop on your own. But now I’m coming to the end of my relatively brief teaching career, and will be returning to freelance editing, because, surprise, there are paying jobs available again. Not only that, I am being offered work out of the blue, so I guess it’s time to make the move—not up or down, but a little backwards.

I have to admit, I’m not crazy about the editing process, which can be lonely, tedious and a constant reminder of your own writing, laying there, waiting. I really enjoyed teaching, I liked the idea that it got me away from the computer, and that I was connecting in a meaningful way with other human beings. But beyond financial issues, there were geographical problems to contend with:  It’s pretty likely we will move out of New Jersey at some point in the near future. And this final position involved a great deal of commuting to odd corners of the state: Frankly, I am sick of all that driving, which around here, is not so much fun. I kept hearing the siren call of my next novel as I tried to concentrate on the highway and traffic. And I also admit, I’ve gotten way too attached to the shiny new office complex where I teach, with its spiffy cafeterias continually offering specialty teas and coffees, and elegant lounges. But go I must. I can only hope my students forgive me, for leaving them. If I do teach English again, it will be on a purely volunteer basis, and not for money.

So, on to the red-pencil brigade, although nowadays editing is mostly done on Microsoft Word with digital sticky notes. I do have a least one client who likes old fashioned paper and ink, however. But first will come a bit of a summer travel break: Back down Pensacola way, to see mom and that dad who strong-armed me into journalism; then back to the Enchanted Mountains (pictured above; that photo is, precisely, Merton’s Heart, just south of Allegany, NY). And then later in the summer, a journey to the setting of my new mystery novel—which is not set in New Jersey. Where? That’s a mystery for now…

The Gospel of Details

Continuing with my self-imposed Mystery 101 course with Prof. Chesterton, I’ve been reading and re-reading many of his stories, and what amazes me is the sheer amount of detail, much of which is essential to the solution of the mystery. I’m also charmed with his formatting—a mediocre mystery, I realize, is one that simply keeps dropping clues until the climax, or resolution, is finally reached at the end. Chesterton, on the other hand uses all kinds of plot devices and distractions and never really follows a straight line from A to Z. Sometimes the culprit is revealed well before the end, and we’re left pondering the mystery of how it was all achieved. Without the many voluminous details he gives us—some of which are unimportant but others crucial in figuring out the solution, this kind of ziggy-zag plotting would never really work.

Now I certainly think Chesterton is an acquired taste, especially these days. Some readers (like myself) happily wallow in myriad details, storing them and sorting them all out as we go along; but others find them tedious or overwhelming. It’s a lot like decorating a house: Some of us are minimalists, others of us want to cover every inch of wall space. But most of us, I think, fall somewhere in the middle, which is what I’m aiming for in my mystery novel.

Details are an important tool for a mystery writer, and perform several different functions. The first, as I mentioned, helps flesh out the plot and give credence to the solution (“Oh yeah, that dark stain on the library floor…”). Details, particularly physical detail about a person’s appearance, are also a kind of shorthand, so instead of writing paragraphs full of description, you can just use a few strong details, concentrating on what is most noteworthy about the person: Is he missing an eye? Is she quick to anger, or wearing too much makeup? That sort of thing, and let the reader judge from there. And lastly, detail adds authenticity, real-ness, but it has to be presented in a unique, not boring and hackneyed way, i.e., “He had deep blue eyes,” or “She wore a red felt hat.” They are like little points of light, or illumination. Not all of it has to relate to the conclusion of the story, but some of the details must.

This is all what I call tapestry writing, and maybe mysteries make the most vivid tapestries of all. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, you have to look close at all the little scenes and people, and then step back to appreciate the work as a whole. So this should give you some clue as to where I’m going with my own book. I may be writing to market, in an established genre that won’t be considered literary. But I’m not writing anymore for attention, reputation and acclaim, but just for fun—and to keep the arteries in my brain from shutting down!

Mystery of the mystery

This week, I attended a fascinating program at Seton Hall University based on G.K. Chesterton’s beloved ‘Father Brown’ character (thanks to ‘Graceful Grammarian’ Maura Harrington Logue, for alerting me!). It included a staged  reading of ‘The Invisible Man,’ with commentary following by two Chesterton experts. It sent me right home to reacquaint myself with Mr. Chesterton, who I had not read since I was in college. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I am dipping a toe into the mystery genre, but found myself daunted at the prospect of facing a whole new type of audience, probably less forgiving than the one I have now. An audience who, I was sure, would see my attempts as amateurish, feeble or just muddled and uninteresting.  I worried that my plot was too artificial, or too easy to unravel, but how complex and layered does a plot have to be? There were also style considerations: I may be writing for genre, but I want the language to be sound; I want the book to flow naturally, and the characters to be vivid, the setting colorful, but not too distracting.

Fortunately, Chesterton provides much guidance for the would-be mystery writer, not only through the many outstanding stories he produced himself, which are so entertaining you forget the craft behind them, but also in little primers he wrote about the art of mystery and detective writing. In these I’ve found much support and encouragement. In “How to Write a Detective Story” (from his Weekly, Oct. 17, 1925) he outlines several basic principles to begin with: “The first and fundamental principal is that the aim of a mystery story…is not darkness, but light,” as he compares the resolution, or climax, of the story to the breaking of the dawn. In other words, you are working toward the reader’s epiphany,  by intentionally leaving him or her in the dark in the pages preceding. From darkness to dawn: That alone seems the simplest, yet most  effective plan for creating a mystery.

But…don’t go overboard. “The second great principal…is not complexity, but simplicity. The secret may appear complex (my italics, not his) but it must be simple; and in this also is a symbol of higher mysteries.”  Moreover, when the secret or mystery is finally revealed, it should be perfectly obvious, and not require all kinds of explanation, as seems so common on television mysteries I’ve seen. It’s as if you don’t trust the reader or viewer to completely figure it out on their own; you deny them their moment of epiphany, or sunrise.

Thirdly, the culprit (or criminal) should be in the foreground, “not in the capacity of a criminal but in some other capacity which nevertheless gives him the natural right to be in the foreground.” Well, of course! But sometimes a culprit is brought in halfway through (which immediately makes them suspect), or even toward the end; and sometimes he or she is so obviously the culprit there’s no point in continuing.

One of the interesting aspects of the Father Brown series (the stories and books, not the TV series, which I find lacking) is that “higher mystery” that Chesterton alludes to. When you introduce the idea of ethics and morality, it adds an interesting layer to the narrative, the characters and even adds to the suspense: Does the “good” character have a dark side, or does the bad guy surprisingly have a conscience? One of the things pointed out at the Chesterton presentation was that Father Brown rarely turns to government or police authorities for aid, and doesn’t necessarily turn his culprits in for civil punishment. A story might close with him talking to the murderer or criminal, perhaps offering consolation and illumination. Very interesting…

Talk about food for thought. Chesterton has given me a banquet, which I intend to consume over the next few week, in small but steady bites…

Moving on…

In the third month of 2018, my “new narrative” has already gotten bogged down, eclipsed by events both delightful and miserable. I was deeply distracted by my alma mater’s improbable rise to national prominence, which, alas, ended last night in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Those events provided some invaluable pre-publicity for my upcoming book on Father Irenaeus and the St. Bonaventure campus; but it kept me from getting a lot of work done. And we have been negatively impacted, along with the rest of the entire Northeastern United States, by the relentless series of ‘nor’easters’ that continue to dump thick wet snow on everything in sight. St. Patrick’s Day was usually the day I’d plant my peas, but there’s still a good eight or ten inches of snow sitting on my garden bed right now, so that’s not happening anytime soon.

Our downsizing plans have taken a hit too, but for good reasons: My husband has been getting some local short-term work, which makes moving out west a bit impractical right now. So we are simply moving those plans ahead to the latter part of the year, or maybe to next year, who knows? Go with the flow, as they say. Preparing our home for resale, it turns out, is a chore of epic proportions and it may take until next year to get it into presentable shape. For us, sometimes, nothing is easy. But we must keep moving on…and so, even this turn of events leads to another opportunity.

I said I would not write another book just yet, but it turns out I was fibbing. I have started another book, mostly to amuse myself. It’s not only fiction, but it’s genre fiction! Yes, I have succumbed to non-literary temptation. I have always, secretly, loved mystery novels, the more complex the better, and so decided to try my hand at it. I’m finding it absolutely irresistible, like putting together one of those 1200-piece jigsaw puzzles, struggling to fit everything satisfyingly in place.  I’m even wondering if it will evolve into a series,  though I  thought my next book would be another serious non-fiction work. And of course I’m going to self-publish it, because I already know exactly what I want the cover to look like, and how to market it effectively. I’m planning to release it under a pen name—not because I’m embarrassed about it, but because I think mysteries sell better under androgynous names, where you don’t know the gender of the author. It also creates a little mystery of its own, although my most loyal readers will probably figure out very quickly that it’s me.

I had carried around the idea for this book for almost a year, all through the writing of the biography, but kept pushing it to the back of my brain. I actually had the entire thing plotted out in my head by the end of February and then decided, what the hell, might as well pour it into the laptop. In two weeks, I’ve written over 17,000 words (17,835 to be exact) so I guess it’s a reality now. But I do find myself thinking a lot about the genre in general now—and all the crazy arcane classifications and subheadings for it these days—trying to figure out precisely where my little book will fit in. Also working hard to put some of my best writing into it as well; although plot takes primacy here, there’s no reason there can’t be a little pretty language thrown in as well.

Meanwhile, there’s another nor’easter predicted for next week, so I should have plenty of time to work on it…

March madness: The man who was a fan

One of the most gratifying things about writing Called to Serve, my biography of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, was being able to document his friendship and spiritual influence on the writers Thomas Merton and Robert Lax. The man who had been a high-school drop-out and shipyard worker from Camden, NJ, became a great scholar and historian in his own right. But he was also a crazy, almost fanatic, college basketball fan, which I think is one of the most endearing, and human, things about him.

You would not think a man who created a 43-volume bibliography of the Franciscan Order would have much time to follow basketball, but I remember seeing him at the games, when I was a student. He would be standing by the either the front or back entrance of St. Bonaventure’s Reilly Center, close to the court, dressed in his brown Franciscan robes, his arms tightly folded, watching the game with intense, almost grim interest. When he got older, he would leave at the half, and listen to the rest of the game on the radio, claiming a too-close game was hard on his heart. I didn’t realize how much the team meant to him until I went through his letters and a small diary he kept, when he traveled through Europe for several months in the 1960’s—during the basketball season. The diary is filled with events both charming and moving (Visiting Rome and the Vatican, his birthplace in Alsace, then cold-war Berlin) but through the whole thing, he frets about not being able to “get the scores” of his college’s team. The diary actually closes–after a rather poetic description of riding the night train through the darkness of rural Pennsylvania–with this aside: “Finally got the score on that Niagara game from Joe Magnano.”

His letters to the poet Lax, living on an isle in Greece, are peppered with references to the Bonnie’s team, rivals and games: In one of his responses, Lax writes as a postscript: “Too bad about the ECAC,” which refers to the old East Coast Athletic Conference, perhaps a tournament game that was lost badly.  To Merton, Father restrains himself and doesn’t mention the team much until one letter, written in the 1960s, when he describes in considerable detail the construction of the new gym and basketball court to be named Reilly Center, something he was obviously quite excited about. Merton graciously replies that he might no longer recognize the campus if he were to return.

I think the most poignant story was from at the very end of his life: He worked every day until the day he died, showing up at his office in the library to work on his vast correspondence. In a letter he wrote to a friend and library philanthropist, Samuel Lasser, on January 27, 1981—written the day before he died, and perhaps the last letter he ever wrote—he joyfully mentions, after a discussion of a lost invoice, the Bonnie’s triumphant victory at home the night before over long-time upstate New York rival Syracuse.

As I was writing this part of the book in late 2017, the Bonnies had just defeated Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and the commentators made much of the fact that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had once vowed never to return and play the Bonnies at Reilly Center, after a particularly humiliating loss. I looked up the date of the game, and sure enough…it was the very game Father Irenaeus had been talking  about in his final letter to Sam Lasser.  Hmmmm….coincidence? Or as Father himself would say, the Divine Hand of Providence? (the deity, not the city or college basketball team)  Still, I can’t help but imagine his spirit imbuing the Bonnie’s rather meteoric season this year, which Father must be utterly thrilled about, wherever in the cosmos he is now. Should the Bonnie make the Final Four, perhaps we can post it as Father’s first miracle toward canonization…

Postscript, 3/11/17: Well, the Bonnies did get into the Big Dance this year, just barely, and somewhere Father Irenaeus is smiling. A little: he’s not really happy about the play-in nonsense or the seeding…