Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Successful Novel

I had never heard of Tonga until one of my school friends ended up going there for the Peace Corps. Even then, I didn't learn much beyond the bits and pieces that filtered back from his remote location – like "South Pacific paradise" and "he might marry a Tongan woman and stay" – snippets that evoked exotic images of coconut palms, languid beaches, and our buddy gone native.

He didn't end up staying, but I ended up with a sense of mystique about the place. That only deepened -- though maybe in a different way -- when I heard reports of a rare and gruesome murder within Peace Corps ranks in Tonga at around that same time.

I'm not sure whether my friend was in Tonga at the time of the murder, but Jan Worth was there, and close enough to those involved to be deeply affected. Her resulting autobiographical novel Night Blind gives a remarkable account of Peace Corps life in Tonga in the late 1970s. As happened in real life, in this fictional account the lead character's coming of age gets complicated when a horrible murder shocks her Tongan island community and leaves her reeling.

Night Blind is a rare find: a literary novel that's also a page turner. Crafted with scathing honesty, it is in turns funny, touching, shocking, entertaining, and deeply compelling.

Jan is a gifted storyteller, one of those writers so facile with words that she makes a novelist's work look easy. In reality, though, it's not so easy, and when Jan came last week to Finlandia University to present a Writer's Journey seminar, she delivered that message in person.

On the way to publishing Night Blind, she said, she slogged through multiple drafts, many years, an agent or two, and 40 rejections. "I turned into an old woman, writing this novel about a young woman," she told us.

Especially after reading the book and seeing how good it is, this was a potent reminder for me of how random success as a writer -- and especially success as a novelist -- can be. (I've even heard publishing professionals cite studies that demonstrate this.) Rejections notwithstanding, once Jan decided to take charge of publishing her novel by going through iUniverse, the book went on to become a finalist for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year Award in Literary Fiction.

iUniverse is one of the newer web-based publishing options that provides editorial, printing, and on-line sales support for self-publishing. The process is more financially risky for authors but provides a lot more control. Jan reported that, by using iUniverse, she has sold more copies of her novel than many colleagues who've published through university presses.

I was sold on the book by seeing her in person. Her engaging wit had us chuckling in the chapel; given the surroundings, some of us were attempting to respectfully stifle guffaws but Jan still had us laughing out loud. Here, for instance, is part of what she read from her novel:

When [the Peace Corps' Tonga] Group 17 first heard the [Tongan] language spoken – in late August, in the California Hotel in San Francisco during staging – titters erupted when Pulu, who met us there, announced with a straight face, "Volunteers, the word for beautiful is faka'ofa'ofa." The word for respect -- a key concept in the soberly formal culture – was faka'apa'apa. Doing things the Tongan way was fakatonga. Even the word murder, which we learned first as merely a curiosity, never dreaming of its hard attack into our lives, was fakapo -- literally, of the dark. Pulu had no particular explanation. He swore it had no connection with, well, that English word, which out of Tongan courtesy he would not say. Faka was just a linguistic quirk, a coincidence. No wonder everybody got horny. I especially enjoyed hearing it come from the mouths of the pious American do-gooders – our trainer Liz, for example, or Evelyn Henry, the sanctimonious country director. If they wanted to communicate, they had to force their lips and tongues to form the "F" word. Even to say please required fakamolemole.

For me, in 1976, it felt right, fuck being a totemic word in my personal lexicon. For me as a preacher's daughter, swearing carried particular power.... So I was greatly amused when, in the fall of 1976 for hours every morning, I was repeating one word after another that sounded like fuck. The weather was faka'ofa'ofa. The discussions were fakafiefia, enjoyable, and when I began to get better at it, I tried to fakakata, or make people laugh.

Jan's humor, depth of insight, full-bodied engagement with the world, and love of language emanate not just from her novel but also from her poems and other writings. You can sample her poetry at her website, and read the first two chapters of her novel online. You can also buy Night Blind locally at North Wind Books, or online at iUniverse. I recommend it!

Thanks once more to Karen Johnson of Finlandia University for these photos of Jan Worth at the Writer's Journey seminar.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fear of the Dark

Arrayed across a card table in my living room sit three hefty stacks of paper I think of as Fat, Fatter, and Fattest. They are three incomplete drafts of a novel I'm writing. It's not the "Great American Novel" and was never meant to be, but it might be a decent story if I could ever bring myself to finish it.

I write and publish nonfiction, but also have a few poems and short stories out there in forgotten semi-literary corners. Psychologically, I find publishing fiction and poetry much harder than nonfiction: it's so much more personal, and thus so much more scary. A novel, the longest form of fiction, seems scariest of all.

These thoughts came up as I listened to Suzanne Van Dam speak a couple weeks ago at Finlandia University's Writer's Journey seminar. Suzanne talked about writing novels and read from her very interesting and entertaining work-in-progress, Camp Atonement, about Northwoods volunteers helping the post-Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans.

At one point, Suzanne offered a quote something like this: "Writing a novel is like driving cross-country at night. You can only see as far as the end of your headlight beams, but if you keep going, you'll reach your destination."

Like putting one foot in front of the other or taking things a day at a time, it's a useful metaphor (despite the fact it's about driving, ahem!). A novel is a huge project, requiring many days, many steps, the traveling of many miles; the process is so easily sidetracked by fears. Like, what if it's no good? What if I spend years of my life creating something no one else likes? On the other hand, what if they DO like it? Will they expect MORE good books? Will I disappoint them? And what if they make me appear on Oprah?

All these possibilities are out there in the dark, beyond the headlight beams. They are big, pesky distractions from why, in the first place, I write. I write because writing makes a difference for me, as mentioned in a previous post, and it can make a difference in the world. I also write because there is something about the process that draws me in, that I need like food and water. I write because in some glorious moments I can reach a place where that process becomes exhilarating, outside of time.

Those are moments when I can fully enjoy the part of my path that is lit, and forget all about my fear of the dark. They are moments worth cultivating, and I think the metaphor Suzanne offers can help with that. Because really, we have to focus on what's within the headlight beams, or we won't make it to the end of the journey. Thanks, Suzanne, for that reminder.

Photos of Suzanne Van Dam presenting a Writer's Journey seminar are courtesy of Karen Johnson, Finlandia University. Thanks, Karen!

COMING: a post about Jan Worth and her excellent novel Night Blind.