Sunday, September 20, 2009

Destiny and Its Branches

Destiny and Its Branches

I recently came across an old photograph of one of my brothers, now dead, among his classmates and couldn’t stop wondering about these children who are now nameless. It is typical of photographs of schoolchildren, in which they are invariably lined up, admonished to stop wiggling, and told to smile. Most of them manage, looking more mystified than vain or eager to have their photo taken. But none of that is what fascinates me. What grabs me is the story I see unfolding. If you line up any dozen children from a grade-school class, each and every one looks like he or she has the same potential, the same opportunity, the same future as any other. They are bright-eyed, tidy for the most part (it’s usually before recess for this kind of portrait), and about the same size. And yet, in each one are the seeds of a unique and striking life—with at least one tragedy and, one hopes, at least one great joy.

The thought about children hiding their futures behind bright smiles and curious eyes came to the fore again recently when someone I grew up with was arrested for a violent crime. I was stunned—and still am. It got me thinking about other people I have known since childhood or college and what has happened to them in the intervening years—which number more than I care to think about. A dear college friend committed suicide, leaving behind a loving husband and two brilliant children; a relative died the same way, unable to come to grips with the sorrows of his life; one of the nicest, most popular guys in grade school chose drugs and motorcycles; and a happy-go-lucky prep school student has been struggling with mental illness for thirty years. These are the lives that throw into relief the quiet ones that are lived in the suburbs with summer vacations spent white-water rafting or hiking, or rewriting for the tenth time the novel they started in college or during a brief period of unemployment.

 This recurring wonder is probably what’s behind some of my drive to write. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect my characters to emerge so violently from my own life. It’s one thing to interview a criminal, to learn how he or she thinks, or to go into social services and count in a client list a few ex-felons, men or women guilty of robbery or kidnapping. We keep them at a respectful distance according to the dictates and professional requirements of our job. And no matter how much we might come to respect, like, even admire them for the changes they bring about in their lives, it’s not the same as looking back at your childhood and discovering that an old friend is now charged with a serious crime.

 The only way for me to deal with this turn of events is to put the character into a novel, so this story about a childhood friend will probably show up in a future Mellingham. I want to understand how this life happened, how it evolved and took the turns that led to that startling newspaper report. Only by experiencing such a life through my imagination will I understand it on a deeper level, and set aside the facile explanations or even condemnations.

 That’s how I cope—I write about it, whatever it is. When I visit a new place, I see it as a setting for a novel or short story; if I meet an interesting character, I want that person in a book. I improve people’s speeches in my head while they are talking to me, rewrite their personal histories, and re-imagine their fate. Eudora Welty had it about right when she said in One Writer’s Beginnings, “Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime, and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.” Writing is for me the best way to make sense of life.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Guest Clea Simon on Anthony Trollope

This week I welcome Clea Simon to my writing world. After I wrote my last piece, on Graham Greene, it occurred to me this might be a good opportunity to find out about my fellow writers’ favorite books. Since I’m always look for more titles to read, I asked Clea Simon about her favorite writer, and she sent me this.


Clea Simon on Anthony Trollope



A few years ago, when PBS adapted The Way We Live Now for television, I had a mixed reaction. On one hand, I was thrilled that my husband got to learn about the sleazy financier Melmotte and his Madoff-like shenanigans. On the other, so did millions of other viewers—and suddenly my secret was out. Anthony Trollope was in the public eye. I no longer had Mr. T to myself.

            Okay, so it’s pretty silly to feel like I ever had any ownership over Trollope. The 19th Century Brit was one of his century’s most successful novelists and while his fame may have faded a bit in this era of fast-paced thrillers, there have always been readers who have loved his cynical, funny social satires and convoluted family sagas, books like Can You Forgive Her? and The Prime Minister.

            Trollope wrote novels the old-fashioned way, letting us get to know his characters—and their numerous flaws—before rushing them off into action, usually in the marital or social markets, occasionally in the personality-driven politics of the day. In two of my favorites, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, he follows one particular young man through most of his adult life, from early ambition and thwarted love to a mellower, and somewhat wiser maturity. He takes his time—these are books to curl up with—and he always delivers. Sometimes arch, always funny, and often wise, Trollope is a writer I often re-read. When I think of his wit and sharp eyes, I think I’d have loved to meet him.  He’s a writerly writer, not in a pained, self-conscious way (yes, he’s lighter than Henry James), but in the sense of being an assured wordsmith.

            Perhaps it makes sense that I have a sister copy editor to thank for introducing me to him. Several years ago, when we both worked at the Boston Globe, a Living/Arts desk colleague loaned me the use of her lakeside Maine cabin for a weeklong vacation. She had a canoe, an outdoor shower, a lovely dock. Everything one would need for a restful week. Except the weather didn’t comply. After only one day of swimming and sunning, the rain closed in, and the book I’d brought to read myself to sleep was soon exhausted. Poking about in her shelves, I found a well-worn paperback copy of The Eustace Diamonds, and I was hooked. The middle of The Palliser novels, this 1871 picaresque features a slick anti-heroine, very much in the mode of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair). Just insecure enough to be sympathetic, she leads the bon ton a merry chase as she hangs on to her late husband’s family jewels beyond all reason—and all profit to herself. It’s a great fun soap for the pre-TV age, and one I re-read fairly regularly.

            I admit, these books may not be for everyone. I’ve always been a fan of long, gossipy novels. The Gothic adventures of the 1790s have inspired my new mystery, Shades of Grey, and I’d just as soon tuck myself up with a Henry Fielding or a Thackeray as watch most dramas on TV. But Trollope is easier reading than even these, fast and funny and full of well-drawn characters. These aren’t necessarily qualifications that critics look for these days. There may be a reason that Trollope is best known at present as the source of TV drama; fiction critics tend to favor action-packed thrillers or navel-gazing meditations to a well-written story line.  But these are still my models for what a good novel should be, and what I aspire to write like. They are certainly the kind of book I love to read, over and over again.


Clea Simon is the author of five mysteries and three nonfiction books. She can be reached at