“Self Analysis, Intent, and the Writer; or, my Fight with Vanya.”
By Edward Eaton
I’ve written a novel. I think that’s exciting. To me, it’s every bit as exciting as the novel itself should be to those of you clever enough to read it. It’s called Rosi’s Castle.
The blurb I came up with is: “When Rosi Carol moved to New Richmond, she learned that it was haunted – by her!”
My wife’s friend Vanya was furious when I read her the blurb and then showed her the trailer on YouTube.
“I don’t need to finish it now,” she decided.
So far, Rosi’s Castle hasn’t made the NYT bestsellers list. I cannot afford to lose a reader. Okay, so I will still get the royalty from Vanya’s copy, but I need some word of mouth. “Why not?” I asked.
“Because you told me the ending,” she said.
“I most certainly did not.”
“Yes, you did” she insisted. “You told me Rosi was dead.”
Had I? I was pretty sure I had not, so I said so.
“You said that she was haunting New Richmond.”
“That means that she is dead.” Vanya crowed triumphantly. “You can’t haunt anything if you aren’t dead. I know the ending. I don’t need to finish it.”
“Why not? Everyone knows that the Titanic sank, but lots of people still saw the movie.” I was going to win this one.
“Ted!” she shrieked. “My husband was going to take me to see Titanic this weekend!”
I like Vanya, so I resisted the urge to throttle her. “Anyway, Rosi’s not dead, yet.” I felt like I was in a Monty Python sketch. “It’s a teaser.”
“Then you’re lying to me?”
Maybe I was not going to win this one.
“When you say,” Vanya pointed out. “That Rosi is haunting someplace, she’s dead. That’s what you mean!”
“Don’t tell me what I mean!”
* * *
Rosi’s Castle was published right at the end of last year. Since then, I have been trying to market the book. I should have done more, but I not only had to pay the bills, I also had to finish writing books two and three in the Rosi’s Doors series. Now that those are with my publisher, I can focus on selling the thing.
This is tough. If I had a few million dollars and a publicist, it would not be quite as hard. I don’t like the hard sell. I feel awkward asking people to review my book or interview me. I love giving the interviews, though. I spend days and days on the written ones. I did a television interview as well, which was a hoot. But this Internet medium is neat. On television, I only had five minutes. On a website, I can write forever. It doesn’t take up all that much space.
Besides, I like writing about myself. I like writing about Rosi’s Castle. It’s hard not to give away spoilers. Part of this is the way the book was written.
The series was originally written as one book. My publisher thought it might work better as a short series. The original book was called, Rosi’s Doors: The Battle for New Richmond. The classic structure of any work of literature is fairly simple: beginning, middle, and end. This goes back to Aristotle, and I have just saved you a lot of money on books about writing (you can send me 10% of what you just saved). Back when it was one volume, there were three distinct parts to it: 1, Rosi goes to New Richmond and learns her family secret; 2, she proceeds to use the secret to screw everything up; 3, she resolves the problem. Nice and simple. I could talk fairly openly about the secret of New Richmond and why people there treat Rosi like a freak because the big mystery is revealed about a third of the way into the book. It was not about Rosi finding out her family’s secret. Rosi’s Doors: The Battle for New Richmond was about how Rosi resolves the mess she creates when she figures out the secret. I suppose it would be a little like J. K. Rowling explaining that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a book about a boy who learns that he is a wizard. The book is not about Harry Potter learning he is a wizard. He finds that out just a few chapters in. It is about Harry dealing with this turn of events and growing up. If Rowling went on the interview circuit and said, “my book is about a boy named Harry who lives with his aunt and uncle, who are mean to him. There is a snake. Harry gets some mail,” I suspect that she would still be living on the dole.
In the Rosi’s Doors series, the big reveal happens near the end of the first book, Rosi’s Castle. Now, if I explain Rosi’s secret, I would be like M. Night Shyamalan going around telling people that The Sixth Sense was about a man who was dead but did not yet know it.
Dividing the original book into three books changed the genre of the first book, though not the second or the third. Rosi’s Doors: The Battle for New Richmond was historical fiction. Rosi’s Time and Rosi’s Company are historical/science fiction. Rosi’s Castle is a mix of paranormal and science fiction.
I cannot discuss too much of Rosi’s Castle—at least until fall, when Rosi’s Time comes out. I do not want to give away the ending. I want people to buy and read the book.
Perhaps Vanya was right. If I give away the secret of the ending, then no one will want to read the book. Or was she? Titanic made its money through repeat viewings. Do people think Rose will move over and give Jack some room the second time around? Perhaps the old woman will decide to give her family several generations of financial security and not toss the “Heart of the Ocean” overboard.
I will spoil the story enough to say that in Rosi’s Castle Rosi is not dead. I’m not going to drop any more spoilers here, or in interviews.
I also hesitate to try and explain what I am saying in my book or in any of my poetry. More years ago than I care to remember, a play of mine was produced. The audience thought it was hilarious. The late great Ernest Shier said that I had the wit of an American Noel Coward. I have to admit that I reveled in the praise. I also have to admit that I had not written a comedy. I had bled years of pain and personal agony into that play. Noel Coward indeed! Fortunately, for one of the few times in my life, I kept my mouth shut and simply let everyone think I had written a comedy.
Some years ago, two scholars—William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley—came up with a concept called “The Intentional Fallacy.” In short, this is the idea that when an artist is talking about his own work, his understanding of it and his interpretation of it are subject to the same sort of scrutiny that anyone else’s are. If I want to interpret my work, then I have to prove it. The only way to prove it, say those who see art the way Wimsatt and Beardsley did (they are called New Critics) is to look at, and only at, the work of art. My play was either a failed tragedy or a successful comedy—or the audience was simply cruel and heartless. So Vanya might well be right to some degree. I might not know what I mean.
I do, however, have the facts right. Rosi is not dead.
I asked Vanya where she was in the book. “Chapter seven,” she said proudly. For the life of me, I could not tell you right now what happened in chapter seven of my book. Is chapter seven when she’s in jail? Is it when she is chased through the country club by the tribe of headhunters? Is it the car chase? Is it when she spends the night in the woods with—wait! That’s book three! I know there’s a chapter seven in Rosi’s Castle, because there are fifteen chapters in the book. I wrote it. Does that mean I need to be able to quote it chapter and verse? People who spend their time memorizing huge swaths of The Bible or Shakespeare or the Romantic poets are annoying enough. People who quote themselves are simply conceited.
I also want to be careful about interpreting my book. What if I say that Rosi Carol is an ardent Republican? I could lose readers who are Democrats. You might think this sounds silly, but I have met many people who would let that affect what they read (I’ll touch on this later). I could also be wrong. Rosi could be a Democrat. Look at the way she treats people and what she says. It is all written down. Throughout most of history, writers were generally content to let their works speak for themselves. Shakespeare did not include commentary with his plays or his poems. He gave us the plays and poems. Homer did not write a footnote saying that Achilles was angry. He wrote The Iliad.
More recently, writers (and other artists as well) have started adding their own commentary and expecting people to consider their analyses to be canonical. Arthur Miller famously wrote an essay called “Tragedy and the Common Man” in which he argued that Willy Loman was a tragic figure, and, thus, Death of a Salesman was a tragedy. Miller may have been a great playwright, but a theatre historian he was not. I am one, by the way. Aristotle gives us a fairly clear definition of ‘tragedy,’ and Death of a Salesman does not fit it by a long shot. Miller wanted his play to be a tragedy because the label would give it a certain gravitas. Me? I think “It’s Death of a Salesman!” Plays don’t get much better than that. Insisting it is a tragedy is kind of like insisting your Ferrari is a Rolls Royce. It isn’t one—it’s a Ferrari. You would think that Arthur Miller, who not only wrote Death of a Salesman but also won a Pulitzer Prize and married Marilyn Monroe, wouldn’t be so needy.
A few years ago, Rowling outed Dumbledore. A lot of people, agenda’d people, jumped for joy and immediately welcomed Dumbledore with open arms. Few of them really looked at the character or tried to see if Rowling was right. She wrote Harry Potter, they said. Certainly she knows the characters. I have my reservations. I have no objection to Dumbledore being gay. There is certainly a lot of latent homosexuality in the Harry-Ron relationship. Can anyone think of anything interesting about the character Ginny Weasley other than that she probably resembles Ron to some degree (see the Harry Potter Puppet Pals segment “Ginny”)? There is simply no evidence in the books that Dumbledore is sexual in any way. The teenagers spend most of the last few books snogging each other. Snape falls in love with Harry’s mother. Ron’s parents have seven children. Most of the adults, however, have no romantic or sexual lives at all in the books. Notes, early drafts, interviews, and movies are might be interesting, but they are not canon. Only the published books are.
On a certain level, it would be presumptuous of me to tell readers how they are supposed to interpret my work. If I had an agenda when I wrote the books, then it should be evident in them. If I have to tell you what it is, then perhaps I am either saying that you are too stupid to get it (which would be untrue since only smart people read my books—which in turn can make you smarter) or that I am not talented enough to get the point across (which is certainly not true). My characters are not Republicans or Democrats, since contemporary politics are not an issue in the books. They take no stand on hotbed issues. My main characters are fairly bright, so they are not outraged when someone disagrees with them. There may be a bit of background color to characters and their relationships that does not show, but then it is not important to the reader.
* * *
A lot of people read interviews because they think they will get some insight to the book from learning about the writer’s life.
I run into all sorts of people who make decisions about what movies to like because of this or that actor’s stance on whatever political issue is hot at the moment. I like Alec Baldwin, though he did try to use his celebrity and popularity to influence electoral politics: he threatened to leave the country if ‘W’ were elected; Barbra Streisand did the same. Shouldn’t they be required to leave? I realize that Jack Donaghy and Denny Crane were supposed to be satires, but they have been just about the only characters on television so far this century who have had a clue. I do not know what William Shatner’s politics are and am not sure I want to know.
A lot of gay writers write about gay issues.. Most gay writers, though, do not dwell on homosexuality—no more than gay actors always play gay characters. If that were the case, then it there wouldn’t be many straight romance films out there. It is interesting to note that they are gay (or democrat or polygamist or studied accounting in college), but does sexual orientation necessarily inform one’s craft? If so, does it mean we have to reevaluate the work of the recently deceased Maurice Sendack? Are we to find homoeroticism in Where the Wild Things Are or pedophilia in In The Night Kitchen?
Often, however, we do not have much to go on when we want to define an author’s life. Some scholars mine the body of work and use it to define who the writer was and what he believed. There is some debate over whether or not Shakespeare was Catholic. In real terms, this debate has about as much validity as the authorship debate, perhaps even less. At least the authorship question (based for the most part on academic snobbery and sour grapes) is vaguely (though not cinematographically) interesting. And really what does it matter? We are told that Shakespeare applauded loyalty, appreciated beauty, valued honesty, and espoused mercy because some characters somewhere said something to those effects. Remember, as someone (probably Marlowe—there was a second knifeman behind the arras) said, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. Also remember that Shakespeare, like God, often stands up for bastards: Richard III, Macbeth, and Edmund are some of Shakespeare’s more fascinating, well-rounded, and logical characters. Most actors will tell you that Tybalt, a real SOB, is much more fun to play than that sniveling Romeo. Does this make Shakespeare evil, a villain, a senile old fool, or a rapist? Naturally, the lives scholars make up can flesh out biographies that might be otherwise fairly slim. Was Homer blind? Was (s)he a woman? Your guess is as good as mine since we know almost nothing about Homer—even if he, or she, really existed.
Remember, scholars have agenda. They do not really care what the truth is about their favorite artists. They also pick and choose whom to admire or revile without a great deal of consistency. If we were to reject the writings of people who did horrible things, then we would reject the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Some people might be willing to overlook that he was a slave owner, but does anyone really think that Sally Hemmings’ consent was ever a consideration.
Great writings have been used to justify just about everything. The Bible, Homer, Plato, and Shakespeare have all been used to support fascism, communism, Republicans, Democrats, war, peace, homophobia, gay rights, women’s rights, euthanasia, capital punishment, and just about every other cause or hot topic you can think of.
Some writers are clearly writing about specific people and relationships from their lives. Eugene O’Neill is a good example of this. It doesn’t take an expert to see his family in most of his books. O’Neill is particularly critical of his father, the cold, stingy, sellout. O’Neill’s brilliant plays are driven by pessimistic recollections of his traumatic youth. Even biographers tend to gloss over the fact that James O’Neill sent his son to private schools, Princeton (Eugene was thrown out, but that was hardly his father’s fault), paid his medical bills when he was suffering from TB, and otherwise supported his son (and even supported his son’s theatre troupe) until he died. Had it not been for James’ influence and connections, Eugene O’Neill would most likely have ended his days as a booze-addled syphilitic in some portside doss house.
Believe it or not, Uncle Richard, a major character in Rosi’s Castle, was modeled on a professor of mine from graduate school. I hated him. To be fair, he hated me, too. Uncle Richard is not a bad man, but he is stern, pompous, and humorless. Whatever else he may be, I see this particular professor. Should I name him? Of course not. At this stage in my literary career, no one would really care. If I become the next sensation, then my bad opinion of this man could affect—perhaps even ruin—his reputation (Rowling did that to her high school chemistry teacher).
Should I expose Kirk’s model as the bully he was? I knew a lot of bullies when I was growing up. I was bullied by many of them. A few of them are, I’m sure, still jerks. At least one of them is a judge. One of them is a preacher. They have kids and wives. They have friends. They might have made parts of my life a living hell. My parents told me that the bullies were jealous of me; I didn’t wait long to tell the bullies that. Bullying is, of course, unforgiveable. Often, though, it is a confusing issue. 30 Rock might be satire, but the episode “Reunion” (where Liz Lemon goes to her high-school reunion) suggests that sometimes the proactive anti-social poseurs all the bullies are jealous of sometimes might be just as much a part of the problem as the others.
My memories and the people from my past are important to me and strongly influence the way I view characters and relationships. If I expose them to the world, then it is only fair that they have the chance to respond. What if many of my childhood memories are confabulated, like Lemon’s? The professor I hated was also a respected academician and scholar who taught thousands of people successfully. I know that the character Andy in Rosi’s Castle is based on a specific person. My wife says that I am wrong; the character is clearly my father. How can I be wrong? I see Andy in my mind. I know what he looks like; I know what he sounds like; I know who he is. I won’t go into details, but my wife’s argument is compelling, and Vanya might have a point.
What if I were to name Rosi’s models? I’ll happily tell the story about how I named her after my niece—she knows it; her father doesn’t mind me telling it. But there are other women out there who have spent some time in Rosi’s shoes, and they might well not know it. I never told them. I certainly did not ask them. I simply used their faces.
That is really just about all any writer can use of someone else. I do not know what that professor or that actress or my niece would say in any given situation. I might be able to make an educated guess (well, other people might be able to make educated guesses. I have trouble remembering people’s names from one meeting to the next. I certainly don’t pay enough attention to most people I know to be able to anticipate their opinions and words.). My characters might have certain vocal patterns that are reminiscent of someone I know or know of, but their words and the ways they think are mine. Uncle Richard might sound like my old professor, but he says what I want him to say.
I write what I know. The only thing I know is what I think. I’m not a celebrity (yet). No one is rushing to write a dissertation on the effects of my childhood on my body of work. I am pleased when people I know—even those I know not all that well—tell me that they can see me in my writing. For the time being, you will simply have to trust me if I tell you a character is based on someone or means something specific or is referring to something. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you what I mean.
* * *
Even if you trust that I know what I mean, should you trust me to tell you the truth?
I used to know a man who refused to read fiction because it was not true. He was hardly the first person to argue this. Critics of literature and theatre used to use the “It’s a lie!” argument all the time. Until the poet Coleridge came up with the whole “willing suspension of disbelief” thing that most people, including your literature professor in high school and college, overcomplicate.
The very nature of trailers, blurbs, blogs, and interviews is to tease and flirt with a potential audience. I don’t need to be terribly honest, as long as I am not out-right lying. Rosi Carol does not exactly haunt New Richmond. The townspeople treat her with a certain fearful deference, and quite a few are openly scared of her. Part of this could well be because she’s an outsider. New Richmond is a small town, after all, and small towns are often very insular. It would not have been much of a trailer had it said, “When Rosi Carol moved to New Richmond, people treated her like an outsider!”
Indeed (spoilers), the whole paranormal aspect of the book is misdirection. At one point in the book, Uncle Richard tells Rosi that there are no ghosts in New Richmond. Of course, he could be wrong, and I could be lying.
Rosi sees a lot of strange things in Rosi’s Castle. Many of them are explained in the book, like who the Widows of Widows Island are. Some will be explained later in the series, like who Jesse is. Some might never be explained, like who the Girl in Black is (though you can figure it out) and how she got there.
A lot of what you read in Rosi’s Castle is like a lot of what you read in mystery novels—red herrings. Agatha Christie wouldn’t be much fun if Hercule Poirot walked into the room, looked around, and decided that (spoilers) Dr. Sheppard had killed Roger Ackroyd. Uncle Richard could sit down and explain why Rosi has been sent to New Richmond and what she is supposed to do about it on the ride from the train station, but then Rosi would never meet Angie and Andy, the bully Kirk, his dreamy brother Dan, or the creepily attractive Jesse. Tolkien could have had Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond ride along on a convocation of eagles carrying Frodo to Mordor where they could have dropped the ring into the lava. That would have been fast and we could have avoided watching Sam and Frodo becoming so annoying and the death of Boromir (the only really interesting member of the Fellowship). But we would have missed out on a lot of fun, and the hobbits would not have had to go back and save the Shire, which was the point of the whole thing anyway (Yes, Peter Jackson, “The Scouring of the Shire” was the point!). The chase is a big part of the fun
So, I’m not completely forthcoming to my readers. On purpose. But Vanya’s wrong. I’m not lying. Besides, I happen to know that her children still believe in Santa Claus.
* * *
Anyway, I wrote a book. It is either about a young woman who moves to a new town and discovers that it is haunted—by her. Or, it is about a young woman who moves to a new town and meets some people there, makes some friends, and learns that her family has a secret.
I’ll tell you the important parts you need to know: what happens.
I’m not sure I want to tell you my agenda—if I have one. Figuring that out should be part of the fun. Don’t worry too much about what the writers think their works mean. They might not know. And your interpretation, if it fits, might be a lot more fun than what they say or even what stodgy English professors say (and yes, I’m one of those, too).
The Lord of the Rings happens in a world where the heroic elves, dwarves, hobbits, and men are so technologically stagnant that they are able to fight a war using the same weapons that they used 3,000 years before. For us, this would be about the time David became king of the Israelites and the Iron Age began.
The people in the wizarding world have been unable to figure out the ballpoint pen. They think owls are a more efficient form of communication than email and telephones. The combustion engine confuses them. They practice slavery (remember, Harry does not free Kreature; I guess only elves you like deserve fundamental rights).
In the Buffyverse, even the strongest woman eventually needs a man to fix everything.
Tolkien, Rowling, and Joss Whedon might object, but I’ve read all the books and seen every episode. Those are on my side.
Maybe Rosi is dead. I don’t think so, but I could be wrong.