Tag Archives: David Abrams

Why Back Stories Matter (part 2)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Part One of Why Back Stories Matter appeared on the 366Writing blog. In part two, we look at the specific reasons people love to hear the stories behind the story – and I share a few as well from my newest collection of essays and poetry, Backroad Melodies, which will be released on Summer Solstice, June 21.)

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

WHEN WRITING BOOKS, authors spend months or even years pulling together backstory. Novelists must know the ins and outs of their characters, and their characters’ lives, loves and tendencies, before committing the first sentence to paper (or screen). Non-fiction authors must track down all available background information on their human subjects or central topics in order to present their material. In both cases, extensive research precedes any writing. It’s quite normal for an author to pore through hundreds of source materials (books, articles, papers, videos, transcripts, etc.) before writing a manuscript.On top of that, fiction writers invariably pull nuggets of experience or perception from their own lives, and weave them into their characters, plots, or subtext.

The final books that reach bookshelves, online stores, and our admiring eyes compare favorably to icebergs: ten percent of the research and raw material makes it into print. Maybe ten percent of that is character, subject or topical backstory woven into the fabric of the narrative.

As for the other ninety percent? Many writers like to entomb their source and research material into cardboard file boxes or backup drives, never to see the light of day again. As for me? I want to know the backstories, and I want to share them. For instance, in my novel Voice Lessons, I wove nearly a hundred personal anecdotes into the characters, events, lyrics, concerts, plot and subtext – not to mention the prose that took flame from research that included more than two hundred books and articles, two hundred CDs and another hundred DVDs. Will you know which anecdotes are from my life? Not unless you know me, well. Or unless I tell you. Behind each anecdote is another story, the agglomeration of experiences that created it. We could go on forever.

Which is the point: to give readers the experiences that shaped the wonderful experience they just had in reading a book. That’s why fan clubs exist. That’s why we comb through materials in all shapes and forms to find interviews, histories, biographies and reminiscences that add context, shape and perspective to what we just read. When we learn these back or side stories, lights switch on in our heads. Recognition parts our consciousness like Moses finding his groove on the Red Sea. “A-ha!” moments of realization break into smiles across our faces, accompanied by a warm, tingling feeling inside. Suddenly, we know more about what makes the author tick, what prompted him or her to write that passage in that way, or to drop in that particularly amazing detail. We feel good because we know more. Acquired and perceived knowledge always feels good.

51kzcyubVNL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_51S4MUUXEQL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_  Two of the best novels I’ve read in recent years – which I happened to read back-to-back in Spring 2013 – were Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. These two men were among four panelists at a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books discussion entitled, “Fiction at a Sideways Glance.” Well, as this piece might indicate, I’m going to be the moth drawn to any writing forum that looks at the craft from a different angle. Both men were engaging and insightful, their shared experiences delighting the capacity crowd. It so happens, too, that Fobbit and Beautiful Ruins are two of the most talked about novels of 2013.

Each book offers a fiesta for backstory seekers: Fobbit draws from a journal Abrams kept while serving as a public affairs specialist in Iraq, thus offering both a comedic (sometimes hilarious) look at the war and a troubling, in-the-trenches perspective we saw or read about nightly during Vietnam – the tragedy and heartache that happens before medals are pinned on our great servicemen and women – but which was expunged from our awareness by the 21st century Pentagon. Dark comedy? Fobbit is one of the best. You won’t think the same about the war in Iraq, or war itself, after reading it. (We will have the pleasure of hearing from Abrams later this month in a Word Journeys Blog interview).

Beautiful Ruins is an exquisite story of a romantic spark between two people that stretches across fifty years of life, in all its ups and downs, set against three backdrops that the author painted with a combination of personal observation, experience and research: the early production Italian set of the epic Cleopatra (or, to be more specific, what went on between Liz and Dick); a tiny hamlet with Italy’s majestic Cinqueterre coast; and the playground of golden dreams and brass-knuckle realities known as Hollywood.

I am a glutton for good stories, and all great books are loaded with creation points that spider outward as far as you can follow. They are all truly silken threads.

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

BACK TO THE BACKROADS. The roads listed earlier anchor the overall backstory of Backroad Melodies. Many of the poems were written about or on them. Since I’ve opened a can of worms, and encouraged everyone to either seek out or share the stories behind the stories, here are a few from this collection:

• “A Day on the Rake”:  I took a day of silence during a long meditation retreat in Northern California (on MacNab Cypress Road), grabbed a rake, and spent an entire day working on a mile of paths that wound between hundreds of plant species and statues of deities representing all the world’s major religions. Truly energizing.

• “Birthing a New Day”: An experience from the inception of my relationship with Martha, at the base of Mount Palomar, in her backyard on Ushla Way, twenty miles from the nearest town. Years later, I can gladly report that very day feels like this poem.

• “Fossil Light”: Standing outside on a crystal clear midnight in February, temperature three degrees above zero, viewing the stars through the prism of their original conception. What we see twinkling today is the way they existed before modern civilization, before humanity … even before dinosaurs. Fossil light.

• “The Way Stones Tell Stories”: Sitting in the San Luis Rey riverbed during dry season, holding a stone, admiring its age and stoic presence. Every sentient being has its storytelling style; our job is to know how to listen, and what to listen for.

• “Morning Prayer”: Driving through Capitol Reef in Eastern Utah just as dawn erupted on the cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges of this monocline, known to geologists as the Waterpocket Fold. I feel Native American spirit and energy most profoundly in the Four Corners region … as on this morning.

• “Ghost Riding”: This could be subtitled, “the songs of trees on back roads.” When wires, lights and busy minds aren’t present, wind feels and sounds like ghosts while whispering through trees.

• “Tea Time”: Over a three-year period, I had the profound pleasure of walking next door occasionally and drinking tea with my friend and favorite poet, Gary Snyder. Few people are more conversant on so many different topics.

• “Four Pool Quartet”: On a hot, late September day in the Sierra Nevada foothills, one of my students asked if we could hold an outdoor class. You don’t have to ask me that question twice. We loaded up cars, and I took them to an out-of-the-way spot on the Yuba River, reachable only by driving a road you don’t want to think about in icy or snowy weather, then hiking down a trail steep enough to tax a bighorn sheep. We sat on giant flatrock, deposited when the Sierra Nevada range was formed five million years ago, and wrote and swam for two hours. (“Did you know this snow-fed, rock-strewn river has five or six different currents,” I told them, “only three of which you see above the surface?”) This poem was one of my two contributions for the day, written behind a back road, while sitting in a river pool.

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Two Weeks of Creative Madness … And a Lot of Fun

The Memorial Day Weekend is finally here! One more day of yet another crazy cycle of writing, editing and consulting, and then it’s up the coast to Ventura to run in the Mountains to Beaches Half-Marathon – my favorite distance. This is a lick-your-chops race – slight net downhill, mostly flat, starts at 6 a.m., weather 55 degrees and low clouds, finishes on the beach promenade … everyone out there who races knows the right word for these conditions: Perfect.

But now, a recap of the past two weeks, which will also serve as a commercial for the incredible authors with whom I have the pleasure of working (this work is labor intensive, but is it ever fun!):

Ray Manzarek performing in Milan, 2012

Ray Manzarek performing in Milan, 2012

• First of all, thanks for the music to Ray Manzarek and Trevor Bolder, both of whom passed away from cancer this week. I am a huge Doors fan, and have been since “Light My Fire” first hit radio in 1967. Their music and Jim Morrison’s poetry influenced me greatly, and Manzarek paved the way for rock keyboardists everywhere. He also produced the “Los Angeles” album for X, whose bass player/singer, John Doe, was featured in the spring issue of The Hummingbird Review. Meanwhile, Bolder was the bass player on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album, and, for the past 30 years, with Uriah Heep. My friend Robert Munger and I saw Trevor play with Uriah Heep two summers ago. I mean, we saw him. We stood five feet away and had low-tone deafness for a couple days as a result. The great rock band in heaven just became stronger.

• Just got added to the faculty of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference, which will be held June 14-16 at L.A. Valley la writers conferenceCollege. It will feature workshops and panels for four levels of writers – aspiring, active, professional, and screenplay. A half dozen literary agents, editors and plenty of writers will be on hand for this informational and networking fiesta. I’ll be sitting on panels for Ghostwriting, Beyond the First Draft, and Rewriting. Will be selling my books Shades of Green, The Write Time, The Champion’s Way, and the latest edition of The Hummingbird Review as well. Really stoked to be part of this conference. If you’re not busy, do come up – prices are very reasonable, and the schedule of events is awesome.

• Speaking of which, I’ll have two new books coming out this summer through Tuscany Publishing: The Best of Word Journeys Blogs, Vol. 1; and my newest poetry-essay collection, Backroad Melodies. Will keep you posted.

clay-marzo-011609• I’ve reached terms with Houghton Mifflin on Just Add Water, a combination memoir/biography of freestyle surfing great Clay Marzo and his life with Asperger syndrome. The book is tentatively scheduled for a Summer 2014 release, and offers a deep profile from inside the skin of Asperger, and how Clay has become one of the very best surfers in the world. Fun “creation” story to this one: my good friend, Mitch Varnes, ran the idea of this biography by me a few months ago. It sounded like a sure winner. It was. The last time Mitch and I brainstormed a publication, in 1993, we emerged with One Giant Leap for Mankind, the 25th anniversary tribute to the Apollo 11 mission and all the astronauts on the Apollo missions. There’s a lesson here: need to connect with Mitch on book ideas more than once every 20 years!

• I’m assisting musician-producer Stevie Salas with his memoir, When We Were The Boys, remembering his days as lead 376462_204666292995418_1130802602_nguitarist on Rod Stewart’s Out of Order Tour – and how they shaped and influenced his remarkable 25-year career that followed. I first knew Stevie in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, when he played for one of North San Diego County’s hottest cover bands, This Kids. Now, he plays and hangs with the stars (wait: Stevie is a star), having just spent a few days with his boys, the Rolling Stones, while in Southern California. Stevie’s collaborations include work with: Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake, Daughtry, Terence Trent d’Arby, Bootsy Collins, Miles Davis, Sass Jordan, Bernard Fowler, Glenn Hughes, Matt Sorum … if you know pop and rock music, you know these names. While backstage with the Stones, Stevie dished up a special request for me – a photo of he and Stones backing singer Lisa Fischer, one of the most powerful and sultry singers anywhere. Stevie is not only a great songwriter who has sold more than 2 million solo albums, but a lively prose writer, too, as you will see next year. I’m licking my chops over working on this book, which is about to be shopped by my agent, Dana Newman.

lynne-portrait-for proposal• Just finished editing Home Free, which will be one of the most highly anticipated and well-marketed travel narratives of 2014. It is also one of my favorite editing jobs ever. Author Lynne Martin is going to win over the world with her book, in which she shares she and her husband Tim’s hopscotch life in various global destinations, with all the sights, sounds and travel tidbits you’d expect in a good travel story. However, there’s more: her personality. Get ready to buckle your seat belt for a full-on, humor-filled romp, mixed with outstanding travel writing and enough tense, serious moments to remind us that Lynne and Tim are making their homes in these places, not just going in and out as tourists. Sourcebooks has moved up the release date to April 1, 2014, to capitalize on media coverage and national talk shows – on which Lynne will surely shine.

• Also wrapped the first issue of Innovation & Technology Today, an edgy, front-line digital magazine on the latest technological additions to our world, and the people envisioning and creating these products and services. We focused on smart homes for this issue, while our summer issue will be right up my alley – sports & medical technology. Besides editing the magazine, I also write the Education column – another pet topic. Digital magazines are a blast, for many reasons … that will be the subject of a future blog. The issue will be available through Zinio and Apple digital newsstands June 5.

• Keeping this busy month of words going, also just finished working on Gary Deason’s fine novel, The Columbian Prophecy, which answers the question: what would happen if an extreme, crazed cell of the Catholic Church tied Columbus’ voyages to America to the re-discovery of the Garden of Eden – and determined that to be the End of Days and their time to take over? This is a great story that interweaves Columbian history as you haven’t seen it before, the battles indigenous South American peoples have faced for 500+ years, and the trouble a father and his two daughters get into for stumbling onto the hornets’ nest occupied by these crazed monks. Enough said. Deason is working on agent representation now, so you’ll see this book in the not-too-distant future.

'A Taste of Eternity' author Martha Halda

‘A Taste of Eternity’ author Martha Halda

• Finally, it seems the author interviews on this blog are proving to be a big hit. My recent interviews with Losing My Religion author Jide Familoni, It’s Monday Only In Your Mind author Michael Cupo, A Taste of Eternity author (and my sweetheart) Martha Halda, and Island Fever and Storm Chasers author Stephen Gladish resulted in the greatest number of daily reads in the 5 ½-year history of this blog. (Side note: Storm Chasers was set in Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley; how apropo is that novel today??) So, to follow: Guests in June will include David Abrams, author of the bestselling novel Fobbit; 2013 International Book Award recipient Matthew Pallamary; Sword & Satchel trilogy author Claudette Marco; and Australian therapist Leo Willcocks, author of De-Stress to Impress, one of the most in-depth and proactive books on dealing with and rising above stress I’ve ever seen (and I’ve read a lot of them).

So that’s the past two weeks. I wish you all a fun Memorial Day weekend, remember what we’re celebrating and who we’re honoring, and make it a point to write or do something creative. Outside as well as inside. The next two-week cycle starts Tuesday …

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Looking at Writing with a Sideways Glance

festival of booksblog 1 (This is the second of two blogs on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books)

What happens when you put four novelists in a room and ask them for their take on the world? Chances are, you’ll get four very different impressions – eloquently stated, of course. Unless one is Ernest Hemingway. He’ll get it done in eight words or less – noun, verb, predicate. Time to go fishing.

For some reason, this crossed my mind as I entered the “Sideways Glance” panel discussion at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The name caught my eye and lured me in (score a point for good branding and titling); it didn’t sound like the usual conversation about plot points or how good someone’s sales are going.  “You come at the truth from a sideways angle through the words you choose or images you create,” moderator Chris Daley, the fiction reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, said. “There’s a surprising inevitability at the end.”

Given that definition, event organizers picked the right cast. These authors shared very, very different takes on the worlds they create and how they create them.

Other Blogs on LA Times Festival of Books

A Taste of Eternity

Crime Fiction Collective

Independent Writers Network

The panelists included Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins), Diana Wagman (Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets), Fiona Maazel (Woke Up Lonely) and David Abrams (Fobbit). All four books are available on Amazon.com and through bookstores. This quartet could not be more different, in appearance, personal background, hometown, or literary preferences, all of which created what had to be one of the top discussions at the two-day festival.

To state the case, here are one-sentence descriptions of their newest books:

• Beautiful Ruins: A funny, romantic tale of a near-affair in Hollywood that rekindles 50 years later. Says the Washington Post of Walter, “As talented a natural storyteller as is working in American fiction these days.”

• Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets: A woman learns how to deal with the deranged iguana owner who kidnapped her.

• Woke Up Lonely: A wild ride through North Korea and the vice section of Cincinnati with the leader of a cult and a covert agent.

• Fobbit: A stunning behind-the-lines war story that takes place at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Iraq. Stunning not only for its poignant scenes, but also for its humor.

If you’re a writer trying to sell your novel to an agent or publisher, here is the first thing to take away from this cross-section of books: the storylines are unique, distinctive, and quirky in their own ways. In all four cases, the authors tossed aside others’ notions of what readers would buy, and wrote their stories. Their styles couldn’t be more different: Walter is sweet and funny; Wagman hilarious in a dark, twisted sort of way but also a laser with character development; Maazel a dazzling wordsmith and purveyor of the richly textured multi-plot; and Abrams a former soldier who writes between-combat scenes with the depth of Tim O’Brien, the humor of Elmore Leonard and the emotional richness of Joyce Carol Oates. He kept a daily journal while in Iraq, then grew a book out of it.

As for Wagman, who also won the 2001 PEN Award for new fiction and wrote the screenplay for Delivering Milo, the movie starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney? Trust me on this: looks are deceiving. I was all set to listen to a prim, proper, bespectacled, short-haired Midwestern professor expound on fiction. Instead, she sent the capacity crowd into hysterics time and again with her twisted, raw humor, leaving the youngest and wildest looking author – Maazel – in stitches and saying, “I’m a wuss compared to you when it comes to sex scenes and blood and gore.” As it turns out, Maazel is the professor – she teaches at Columbia, Princeton and NYU. And she’s in her 30s. How’s that for a great mind?

How different from “what sells”, as we often read in magazines or are told, are these books? While writing, all four authors admitted to seriously doubting their stories would sell, no matter their publishing pasts, because they were so far removed from typical mainstream fiction. But guess what? They sold – and all four books are being hailed as among the top books of the past year. In Maazel’s case, it earned her a spot in the “Top 5 Under 35” as one of the nation’s best young novelists.

It goes to show you: there’s no cookie cutter formula to writing, selling and buying great novels. All of them hold true and fast to the famous quote by southern novelist Flannery O’Connor: “To the hard of hearing, you shout, and to the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

During the panel discussion, each of the four made numerous comments that bear repeating. Rather than take the rest of the morning to build a story around it, one way too long for a single blog, I thought I’d leave you with some highlights:

David Abrams: “There is no real truth. To immortalize your experience you have to manipulate it to some degree. To tell anyone a truth, you have to tell a story, and if you tell a story, you quit telling the actual truth, because you’re always moving facts and memories around.”

Diana Wagman: “I love it when life surprises you, or I hear something that just takes everything I think I know and believe and sends it flying. I’m always looking for what makes people laugh and cry, or what makes them change … and then I add my own little twists and things I would do to people who kidnapped me …”

Jess Walter: “Each of my books tends to drive the thematic interest of whatever I’m carrying around at the time (of writing). That’s what is on top of me, ready to come out, so I find characters and time periods to match.”

Fiona Maazel: “Good writing, really good writing, is a matter of getting at things through the back door. We can all go through the front door, but what happens when you peek in, sneak in, creep in? Like, how would you describe desire in a way no one else has tried, in a way that messes with your comfort zone? I like to write stories that tell the same truths over and over again from new angles that make you see them fresh.”

Ready to take these words into your writing or reading week? I sure am.

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