The Divining Wand

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Guest Tanya Egan Gibson on Unknowable

August 31, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Guest Posts

[How well do you know your friends? Do you know them as well as favorite fictional characters? In today’s guest post Tanya Egan Gibson (How to Buy a Love of Reading) reflects on how by reading and knowing characters, we’re motivated to close the human “gap” of getting to know and understand the truth of real-life people. ]

Unknowable

At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says he wishes for “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” He’s had enough of confidences from people he barely knows; he doesn’t want emotional involvement with strangers. But F. Scott Fitzgerald did, I believe. I suppose every writer of fiction does.

I write because other people are a paradox—essentially like me (human), yet essentially unknowable. I stare at strangers on line in the grocery store and want to know their stories. Does that T-shirt with the dancing cat on it mean something to her, or is it something she threw on? Is that last-minute candy bar purchase a happy treat or a guilty pleasure? Is she glancing at her cell-phone to check the time or to wish a call into happening? Her doctor? Her boss? Her child? Her lover?

Does she love someone? What does love feel like for her? We all want to be loved. But loved how? What feels like love to someone else doesn’t necessarily feel like love to me. I want to know what her love feels like. This is where and why the storytelling starts for me, this what if?-ing. To bridge the gap between myself and other people, I make them up in my head.

There’s always distance between people, even those we know well. I imagine a Zeno’s Paradox of Relationships where the space between us and those we care about is halved with every interaction, every effort, every disclosure–a gap that shrinks but never quite disappears. Most of the characters in my novel, How To Buy a Love of Reading, suffer from loneliness because they give up on other people, believing that nobody can ever understand them. (A little gap seems just as daunting to them as a big one.)

It isn’t just other people’s unknowability that plagues them; it is their own fear of being unknown. Hunter Cay, a sixteen-year-old bibliophile and substance abuser, is desperate to be seen for who he is–to be read accurately. He looks like he has everything–he’s handsome, wealthy, and idolized by his friends and his friends’ parents alike. But he makes it impossible for anybody but his overweight, unpopular, book-hating best friend, Carley, to crack open his “cover” to read his true “text” (and accept the unexpected story she discovers therein). He chooses the fiction he reads and the fictions he constructs about himself over real life because in the world of pretend there is no gap. You can be the character.

As much as I adore fiction, and as much as I turn to it to make sense of life, and to be entertained, and not infrequently to be comforted, I don’t think the real-life gap between real-life people is a bad thing. The mystery of other people draws me to them; the slow unveiling of another human being is a beautiful, mesmerizing dance.

In the end, I care about people more than characters–even my own. It’s easy to fall in love with characters, especially those of your own creation–they do what you want them to, they lay their souls bare, and (you can imagine) they understand you completely. The unreal is addictive because bonding with characters requires no emotional risks. (Hunter fantasizes about the authors of the books in which he buries himself, making up scenarios in which they befriend him in bookstores and bars, but when he is confronted with two real authors who want to help him, he is unable to be real.) Characters are easy; real people are hard. And what is easy is rarely most worthwhile.

I can’t imagine a life without stories. But fiction, I think, is a means, not an end; a prescription, not a cure. It suggests that peering closer to people is a good thing. It promises that we are not alone, that the universality of the “gap” can, paradoxically, bring us together. It is a “privileged [glimpse] into the human heart” that inspires us to read real people more closely, more thoughtfully, and–I hope–with more care.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Katharine Davis’s A Slender Thread in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Katharine Davis and A Slender Thread. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

Guest Allie Larkin’s Messy Friends & Messy Characters

June 02, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Guest Posts

[Today’s guest post features Allie Larkin debut author of Stay coming out next Thursday, June 10, 2010.

The book has earned both literary praise:

“A charming debut…. Smart and with emotional depth, this is a cut above.” Kirkus Reviews

“Larkin debuts with a funny and touching story about love, loss, and dog ownership.” Publishers Weekly

And commercial recognition:

“Feel-good debut novel…” People Magazine

For Stay, as Allie explains, is about unconditional love at its messiest best.]

My friend Lady is my messy friend. She is the person I can call when I’m laughing or crying so hard that no one on the planet would ever be able to understand a single word coming out of my mouth. She’s the friend I can have over without vacuuming and shoving dirty laundry into closets first. She’s seen me when I’m crabby, she’s seen me when I’m sick, she’s talked me through broken hearts, failure, and self-doubt, and she’s celebrated with me through new love, great successes, and total joy. I’ve done the same for her.

Everyone is messy. The type of mess can vary greatly from person to person, but somewhere in every person lurks a big old tangled mess of something. Some people’s internal mess keeps them obsessed about external perfection. If you compulsively need to vacuum your house three times a day, your house might be spotless, but your need to vacuum is your mess. Some people hide it better than others, but hiding the mess comes at the cost of intimacy and connection.

I love Lady even more because of the messy times. I love her because I’ve seen her at her best and at her not so best. I know the nuances of her little quirks and flaws, the same way she knows mine. There’s an intimacy to that kind of honesty in friendship.

I love that kind of honesty in characters, too. Pippi Longstocking is headstrong and sloppy, and has little regard for social convention. Anne from Green Gables was stubborn and had a habit of saying things she should have confined to her thoughts. Bridget Jones won our sympathies over diet failures and costume mishaps. I think these characters stay in our hearts because they are flawed like real people, and they’d make excellent messy friends. Pippi would not be concerned about the dog hair on your couch. Anne would get worked up with you about your latest injustice. And Bridget would cry along, if your heart were breaking. We wouldn’t feel the same way about them if they were perfect girls with perfect houses and perfect clothes and hair that didn’t even frizz in the middle of a monsoon. If Pippi were a well-behaved child who always followed rules and remembered to say please and thank you, there wouldn’t even be a story, and there certainly wouldn’t be a horse on the front porch.

When I wrote STAY, I knew I didn’t want Van to be a perfect girl. I wanted readers to see her disorganized home, her less than stellar eating habits, and the way she runs her mouth a little too much. I didn’t want her to be someone you wished you were. I wanted her to be someone you felt like you were friends with. She’ll let you put your feet on the furniture. She won’t think any less of you for eating an entire carton of ice cream by yourself. She doesn’t have the energy to notice if your shirt has clues as to what you had for lunch down the front of it, because she’s too busy worrying if you’ll notice the coffee stains on her jeans. And she won’t judge you for your drunken indiscretion with that guy you met at that bar, as long as you don’t judge her for accidentally buying a 100 pound German Shepherd from Slovakia off the Internet.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of Allison Winn Scotch’s The One That I Want in a random drawing to anyone who comments only on this specific post, Allison Winn Scotch and The One That I Want. Comments left on other posts during the week are not entered into the contest. The deadline is tonight, June 2, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winner to be announced here in tomorrow’s post. If you enter, please return tomorrow to possibly claim your book.