The ProsenPeople

I’ll Have the Burger, Hold the Exposition: On Research for Fiction Writers

Thursday, September 21, 2017 | Permalink

Allan Appel is the author of The Book of Norman, out September 26th from Mandel Vilar Press. Earlier this week, he wrote about the careful balance fiction writers must strike between truth and story. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Interior, Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah"

A friend of mine, a high school history teacher old enough to have learned to drive in the stick shift era, once described his preparation for teaching a course as something akin to gunning the engine and then pulling back on the choke.

By that, he meant his approach was to learn everything he could about the subject, stuffing himself with wonderful and interesting information. However, when, at the first session, the students looked up at him glassy-eyed, he started to back up; he slowed down; he offered salient points and context and sine qua nons of all the knowledge he had obtained. In other words, he refrained from, as editors warn reporters, dumping the whole notebook.

Novel writing, and specifically my experience in researching The Book of Norman, very much followed that kind of arc of erudition. When my characters began to lead me to their growing concerns about the afterlife, both the Jewish and Mormon versions, my first stop was the Mormons and I began with biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the group’s history.

I think some not-so-latent prejudice was at work in that I didn’t want to pick up a book devoted to straight Mormon theology. Why? Having in the course of a normal life cruised by Mormon visitor centers in New York and elsewhere, having looked in the window at their mannequin-evocations of the Angel Moroni and other celestial figures, I concluded there was not much here of intellectual richness.

Wrong! That was my point of view. Not the characters’.

My characters were deeply interested in the stuff, and if they were, I had to be. I found Mormonism for Dummies (yes, that yellow-and-black cover series from Wiley Publishing Company that—please don’t titter—is really immensely helpful). My Jonathan character, the younger of my two brothers, would be going, as an enthusiastic potential convert, to classes where he learned Mormonism 101, and so would I.

So I learned the distinctions between celestial, telestial, and other levels of Mormonism’s elaborate heavenly architecture. I learned that Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father propagate souls on a distant planet called Kolob. Mormonism for Dummies itself is a little embarrassed about these interplanetary, science-fiction origins and it comes through in the little jokes the authors seem to make about such aspects of Mormon theophanies.

But there it was. I gathered the kinds of Mormon afterlife information I needed to be conversant in, and then not snobbery but ignorance kicked in when it came time for me to learn something of Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.

My experience growing up in a Conservative Jewish community in L.A. was such that the afterlife hadn’t played much of a part in our education or concerns. When it came down to it, I knew very little. My Norman, who was to become a reluctant defender of the faith against his brother’s increasingly sophisticated queries on Jewish afterlife beliefs, drove me to the Jewish library this time. 

I read Abba Hillel Silver’s Where Judaism Differs; I re-read Milton Steinberg’s As A Driven Leaf. I was studying with a Chasidic rabbi in Brooklyn at the time, DovBer Pinson, and I read his book on the afterlife as well as several by Conservative-trained rabbis. I got much better stuff about dybbuks and ibburs and other emanations of the Jewish soul, lots of folk beliefs, from DovBer than from the superstition-cleaned theology presented by the more “respectable” seminary trained writers. My old 1919 Kaufman Kohler-edited Jewish encyclopedia had extensive articles on Jewish angelology; who knew such things existed even where I grew up, in the City of the Angels?

So now I knew stuff and I could stuff my stuff into my characters to prove that they knew it too. Novel writers, heed the warning! Mistake. After having thrown out a first draft because I knew I was too close to the origins of the story and it went emotionally all wrong, I wrote another draft or two that were emotionally much closer to the truth, but they were obscured because I had too many Planet Kolobs and/or one too many references to how the rabbis told us to distinguish an angel—they apparently have no Adam’s apple.

My erudition was necessary but not sufficient to make the characters real. In the early drafts, they were in too many places talking heads for the author, and so I edited away and edited away. I lost interchanges that included many witty moments of intellectual dueling between nascent Mormon Jonathan and seminary dropout Norman. As the playwriting teacher tells the student, "You must learn to throw away your babies."

In short, knowledge and information are critical, but beware of using too much of it. This becomes a particular danger if you yourself grow interested in the material, as I did. I’m old enough to be thinking about the afterlife, if there is one, far more than I did when I wrote my first novels decades ago. So to the same extent that you attach to the material, you have to find it in yourself to detach in order for it to be there for the characters.

If you don’t let the research become exposition, it turns into a kind of energy that fuels the novel and it becomes a resource so the novel can slow down, or accelerate, to get back to our initial motor vehicle metaphor, or sputter, and then, with a jolt of surprise, take off. Just like life itself.

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. 

Too Close for (Fictional) Comfort

Tuesday, September 19, 2017 | Permalink

Allan Appel is the author of The Book of Norman, out September 26th from Mandel Vilar Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Like so many of the dusty, venerable clichés about writing, one of the most stalwart, “To write what you know,” is sharply double-edged when it comes to fiction.

Here’s the problem: If all you write is a transcription of what you know, however moving or harrowing, you’re not going to come up with something that has verve or magic or that extra boost that is the sine qua non of fiction and that separates it from creative nonfiction, or even heartfelt journalism.

However, if in fear of staying too close to the nonfiction reportage, as it were, of what you know and experiencedif you filter or transform or invent too muchthere’s a danger of creating something that loses the emotional heart of your story.

In writing The Book of Norman I found this a particularly nettlesome problem to negotiate. In my first of what have to have been seven drafts of the novel, which I began writing that many years ago, I have two brothers and their families gathered at a house they are jointly renting on Cape Cod for a week in the summer. There one evening, shortly after the families watch a Masterpiece Theater version of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda on TV, out comes one brother, the Mormon convert, brandishing a piece of paper and asks the still-Jewish brother to look it over. The paper turns out to be an ordinance, an important Mormon document usually requiring a blood relative’s signature or okay to initiate the proxy baptism of the dead.

Well, that interchange pretty much happened in our real lives together in that summer house. I remember, writing that first draft, I was still seething with emotion. I was (am) the Jewish brother, and my Mormon older brother who had converted in our twenties, several decades before, was the presenter of the ordinance.

We had a huge blowup, our children had to restrain voices, and, like a kid having a tantrum, I had to have my daughter and wife sit beside me in the bedroom where I felt my heart beating double-time as I raged for hours. All that entered the draft as well, powerful for me to write at the time because it was raw.

After fifty pages of my first draft, a story too close to the actual events except for silly name changes, I knew I was in trouble. It didn’t feel quite right, but I thought I could write my way out. So I kept writing for another twenty or thirty pages. At close to a hundred pages I ran out of gas. After I had more or less transcribed the events, my characters had nothing else to do. I had created them, or rather non-created them, so close to the bone of what actually had occurred, they did not have sufficient life to make choices, to go in directions that I could not anticipate. Another old writing saw became true again: Follow the characters, back off, let them lead.

Here's the thing: If you don’t create characters with sufficient life of their own, they are going to die on the page. One of the harder things to learn is to recognize they are dying and let them go, take a deep breath, have a beer, meditate, wait some time, and go at it again.

When I did, some months later, I resolved to keep the struggle over a dead father, the emotional heart of the story, but I now knew I should insert some changes that by their nature would force true fictionalization. In my first draft, the two characters were in age just like me and my brother, I younger and he older. This time I rendered myself older, and allegedly wiser, and this made the character begin to operate more independently.

A second critical change was that I yanked the events out of the present of the actual incident and catapulted them way back into the past, in the late 1960s, roughly around the time of my brother’s conversion. That of necessity also prompted fictionalization; because I remembered little, I had to invent much.

I also deliberately created a fantasy mother. My real mom was a shy, self-effacing temple lady who went to the oneg Shabbats and swiped a lot of the brownies and danishes and other goodies to bring home to us. She rarely wore makeup. She was sweet but frowsy, very far from the independent, witty, film noir-esque deli waitress I made her in the novel. Like a true character, she started to do things that I never planned, like organize one of my favorite scenes in the novel, the Sabbath dinner.

When the characters surprise, you are on the right track, but you’re there because you’ve deliberately inserted devices to remove the story from its factual origin while retaining the emotional heart. That’s one of the true magic tricks of fiction. It doesn’t guarantee a great story, but it does guarantee story, which is the fundamental job of a fiction writer to create. It also is important, in such delicate matters as religion, conversion, and love, to have this distance if you’re sensitive to those whose encounters with you are the source of the material.

At this writing I have not yet heard how my brother or other members of his family, all still devout Mormons, responded to The Book of Norman. I hope they’ll like it and tell me so. Even better, I hope my brother will say he likes the story and add “But that didn’t happen.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.