For the past two years I've been putting my MFA in Creative Writing to use by working on a novel which is called (tentatively) "Iasmina and the Thief." This blog has become a little neglected because between working on this novel and that blog that people actually read (Optical Atlas) has left me with very little spare time (or eyesight) to watch a lot of movies or subsequently write about them. This may change in the coming month, however, as the UW-Cinematheque starts up its spring semester with a series of Jacques Rivette films, beginning with Celine and Julie Go Boating (which I've already written about), and I'm pretty excited about that; I also want to do a post about the Christopher Lee Dracula films, which is my junk food of the moment. I recently cancelled cable TV, an act which has generously given me a large allotment of time, and I've been responding by voraciously reading and writing. This is where the loss of eyesight comes in. I also have difficulty sleeping when I write a great deal, because I tend to write in the evenings, leaving my brain so active that it can't easily shut off when I go to bed. As a result, I get no sleep, work for eight hours while staring at a computer, go home, read, write at another computer, get no more sleep. I feel completely drained right now. My wife Anne has been begging me for more chapters, as she's been reading this book as I've been writing it, and it's been fun to play with her expectations of what's going to happen next (it's as much a serialized novel as I've ever written), but it also gives me a push to keep going and, more importantly, get a move-on with this book that I've for too long set aside to concentrate on Optical Atlas and movie-going.
Writing "Iasmina and the Thief" is, in a way, an act of liberation from grad school and all those years of creative writing classes. Shortly after I graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle, I went ahead and finished up what had been my thesis, an unfinished satirical novel called "Redshifted Bodies," but I also started reading a lot of the things I read as a middle-school kid: Conan comics, Philip K. Dick novels. I wanted to rediscover stories. A grad class on "Orientalism" brought about the closest I've ever come to a complete religious conversion, only my religion into which I was reborn was the Arabian Nights, and I fell to my knees before Scheherazade. Since then I've obsessed over the Nights, and collected different translations, pastiches, and related films, and even recently jumped at the chance to see a UW MFA-Drama production (which was great). The thing about creative writing classes is that all they teach you is style. You pick apart sentences, but you don't really look at storytelling. To read the Arabian Nights was to immerse myself in endless storytelling that stretched in all directions, and I became addicted to that landscape. While I struggled to sell "Redshifted Bodies" to an agent (no one was interested in reading it), I tried to get a few concepts for a new novel off the ground, but couldn't get past the first or second chapters. I wanted to try my hand at a fantasy novel, but I also wanted it to be completely original and avoid the usual tropes and cliches--something I'd pick up if I were in a bookstore, and owing nothing to Tolkien (whom I love) or Dungeons & Dragons (which I don't). Nothing worked. But one morning I had a very strange erotic dream about a bedsheet that made love to a woman every night, and then attacked her husband when he discovered the affair. If I thought of this idea in the middle of the day, I probably wouldn't bother writing it down, but in the mornings one tends to get a little more intensely interested in underdeveloped thoughts. Within a few hours I finished a short story which I called, at first, "The Don Juan of Escalaba," and then, "Momish Berries." It was a comic/erotic ghost story about a young Don Juan in an imaginary island kingdom who sleeps with every woman in the city, until he finally seduces a lady of the highest court. When he's killed by imperial assassins, he becomes the ghost who haunts the bedsheet. There's more, which also reveals a dirty joke in the "Momish Berries" title, but never mind; when I finished writing it, and then had Anne read it and gauged her reaction, it seemed to me that it read like the first chapter of a novel. And then I decided that I might finally have an entry-point to that Arabian Nights pastiche that I'd been toying with writing. In fact, "Iasmina and the Thief" incorporates a number of different kinds of stories, from horror to romance to the comic and the epic--there's even a pirate adventure. Actually a closer model than Arabian Nights is "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa" by Jan Potocki, which is one of my favorite novels; it, too, links together a multitude of stories with a framing-narrative in which the storytellers are involved, and at many points there are stories told within other stories, as with parts of the Nights. My goal with IATT is to write a modern version, with a greater variety of genres, drawing from a wider range of folklore, and to push the "stories within stories" idea as far as it can go while still, ideally, holding the reader's interest in the framing story. IATT is a book about storytelling and reinforces the notion that we build our own histories in the storytelling form--essentially we are telling a story about ourselves, hoping to shape it--just as we tell stories on a regular basis as a method of describing to other people, say, some funny thing that happened to you the other day, or something you heard on the news. In the world of IATT, stories become so important to the characters that, at times, they forget who they are, and become lost within the stories they've been told. One of the pivotal characters is in fact trapped within a book.
So this has taken a lot of time away, and I don't know why I'm wasting my time writing this now, except that today is my much-needed "break" from the book, after pushing myself just a little too far in the past couple of days. My goal since Christmas has been to finish my African-styled epic, which has rapidly absorbed 120 pages or so of the book--and it was meant to be a very short story, begun when I didn't know what it would ultimately be about. That story is about twins, living in the mountains of a continent similar to Africa; one of them kills their mother, and the other vows revenge, but he's told by a seer that if he doesn't catch his brother before he leaves the mountains, he'll never find satisfaction, all the days of his life. He doesn't catch his brother in time, but spends years pursuing him, in the process acquiring a jade gem which allows him to communicate with animals and command them--meanwhile, his brother journeys into a hidden kingdom similar to Egypt, and has an adventure there that takes over many more pages than I thought it would, and when the two brothers finally meet--finally!--there is a big "war of the animals" and some tragedy and lots of creation myths, and monsters, and on and on, until at last you get to the end, and it sort of explains a great deal about where you were when you started, except that you can barely remember where you started. And that's sort of how I've felt lately. So I apologize, you non-existent reader of this blog, for not writing so much here lately.
But if you do want a film recommendation, I urge you to see the latest Zhang Yimou action epic, "Curse of the Golden Flower." It's the third in his trilogy that began with "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," and I enjoyed it the most. The first half is basically the ultimate Zhang Yimou/Gong Li costume drama (this is his long-awaited reunion with the actress with whom he's most closely associated), and the second half is like a Peter Jackson action sequence, but directed with broad, fairy-tale strokes. It's very underappreciated at the moment, so go in with an open mind and you'll get a great big-screen experience. "Children of Men," by Alfonso Cuaron, is also wonderful. Both films have one thing in common: they're "downers" that manage to be exhilarating because of the level of cinematic craftsmanship, and the brilliant clarity of the storytelling.
Talk to you soon about Dracula...