Tag: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Literary luminaries on their Atlantic crossings

I recently returned from a trip across the Atlantic on the only true ocean liner sailing today, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. The trip from Southampton to New York was nothing short of magical, however (isn’t there always a however?) we did pass through strong storms for a good portion of the voyage. I am prone to exaggerate for the sake of a good tale, but even the captain declared them strong and the Beaufort scale set the winds at Force 11, violent storms. That’s proof enough for me!  While crossing I came across three other Cunard passengers of historical interest. Each was a literary luminary of his era and each had a slightly different view of the crossing. During my trip, I had moments of agreeing with all three although I had no complaints with the ship, which was glorious, they’ve come a long way since poor Charles Dickens suffered. “She stops,” wrote Dickens about his crossing, “and staggers and shivers as though stunned and then, with a violent throbbing in her heart darts forward like a monster goaded into madness, to be beaten down and battered, and crushed and leaped on by that angry sea.” He spent ten days of his 1842 Atlantic crossing on the Britannia in a seasick coma. This was his first experience of the new steamship and after a journey fraught with seasickness, hallucinations, and a constant terror of fire, he decided to return by the more traditional sailing ship.  He declared that his cabin had a bed resembling a “muffin beaten flat,” with pillows “no thicker than crumpets” and the mattress “spread like a surgical plaster on a most inaccessible shelf.”  His second trip to the United States was in 1867 on the Russia. Although a pleasanter crossing than his first, he did declare his fellow passengers “Jackasses.”   Henry James had a very different memory of his time on the Servia in 1883. “She was slow, but she was spacious and comfortable and there was a kind of motherly decency in her long, nursing rock and her rustling old fashioned gait. It was as if she wished not to present herself in port with the splashed eagerness of a young creature. I had never liked the sea so much before, indeed I have never liked it at all, but now I had a revelation of how, in a midsummer mood, it could please. It was darkly and magnificently blue and imperturbably quiet – save for the great regular swell of its heartbeats, the pulse of its life and there grew to be something agreeable in the sense of floating there in infinite isolation and leisure that it was a positive satisfaction that the ship was not a racer.”  Mark Twain was an experienced sailor having served as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. After traveling as a passenger on the Batavia in 1872 he wrote to the Royal Humane Society to commend the captain and crew in rescuing survivors from a shipwreck.  “Our boat had a hard fight, for the waves and wind beat it constantly back. I do not know when anything has alternatively so stirred me through and through and then disheartened me, as it did to see the [other, wrecked] boat every little while, get almost close enough, and then be hurled three lengths away again by a prodigious wave, and the darkness settling down all the time.” On my voyage last week, as we crossed the Atlantic the captain announced the moment we passed within fifty or so nautical miles of the place where the Titanic struck an iceberg.  This was a moment to remember the role of Cunard’s Carpathia in rescuing the survivors of that terrible tragedy.  I set foot on shore in New York delighted to have crossed in such a fashion, but didn’t have the courage to pass through customs and immigration with words first said by Oscar Wilde upon arrival in New York 1882: “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”  

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The Business Part

While I can’t vouch for its veracity, the story that Charles Dickens invented the book tour when he started reading–performing–A Christmas Carol in 1853 is a nice one. According to lore, no other major author had read his or her own work to an audience before. I don’t know about you, but that seems like entrepreneurial spirit to me. Over a century later, most of the English-speaking world can’t imagine December without his ghost story. It  is undoubtedly a great tale filled with iconic characters and important questions about life choices. Maybe we’d all be reading A Christmas Carol even if Dickens hadn’t stepped onto the stage of City Hall in Birmingham . . . and maybe not. Once you’ve got your galleys and/or ARCS, you’ve got your pub date, and you’re waiting for the actual books to be printed, what are you supposed to be doing? I’m sure with a little googling and some emails,you could secure a stage in Birmingham, but if that’s not your scene, what do you do?  Work on your next book! (Yes, Paula, I hear your voice in my head.) Take my–and your–agent’s advice and keep writing the next book, but you aren’t done when the last book is out of your hands. As much as many writers wish that a writing career were just writing, there is that pesky “career” part, too. Like with the writing bit, everyone approaches the career bit in his or her own way, but approach it one must.  Glenn J. Miller posted some great advice on the Career Authors website yesterday. (Yes, yesterday. There must be something in the air.) His advice is actually so good, I’m going to suggest that you check it for yourself. Miller advises writers to do three things to get their career going: (1) Create an author platform where people can find you, (2) Write three compelling, related books, and (3) Find fans who love the work you do and delight them.  These three simple steps are an ideal way to organize your thinking, but flexible enough to accommodate whatever works best for you. Step two is all about the writing, but steps one and three aren’t. Since my own first book is scheduled to be released this August, I’m hardly one to be doling out advice on the topic, so I won’t. I do know that there isn’t just one way to create an author platform any more than there is one way to write a compelling book or find readers who will love your work. So, I’m spending real time now devoted to finding my way to meet these goals. I’m not quite sure how, yet, but I can tell you I have ruled out reading on a stage in Birmingham.    

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What We'd Do With Captive Authors

Michele: Here was my question of the week for my fellow Miss Demeanors:   You get to have the author of your choice, dead or alive, all to yourself for a couple of hours. Who is that author, what three questions would you ask him or her, and what setting would you choose for the meeting?    I know, it’s more than one question and it’s fun. I’m taking Jane Austen for a mani/pedi. No doubt she could use one after walking around the grounds of Pemberly in those dreadful shoes and doing all that needlework, let alone writing by hand with a quill pen.Here’s what I’d ask her:1. Do you intentionally write funny material or does the comedy seep in through the stories you tell?2. How did your own relationships with men influence your portrayal of them in your books?3. How do you view the status of women in the world today compared to the era during which you lived and wrote?  Paula: So many writers, so many choices! I could watch a rehearsal of Hamlet at the Globe Theater with William Shakespeare, attend a Regency ball with Jane Austen, or sail down the Nile with Agatha Christie. But since nobody said anything about time travel, and in the spirit of the season, I’d risk the strike of lightning and go to church and Sunday luncheon with Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist whose Gilead trilogy is my current literary obsession. I’d ask her: 1) How does she take complicated matters of faith and humanity and make them so accessible?2) To what does she attribute her ability to create such living, breathing, heartbreaking characters?3) How does her writing process facilitate the creation of such fully imagined and fully realized fiction?  Tracee: My answer sprang to mind! William Shakespeare. This was triggered by, of all things, the new biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I purchased it as a Christmas gift and promptly spent some time gently skimming (really being careful to not give it that gently used look!). I was struck by how much we know about da Vinci and by the breadth of his creativity beyond the visual arts, medical studies and scientific inventions (who knew that he wrote plays?). This is a long way of getting to Shakespeare. Such an icon of English literature and yet we know very little, or possibly nothing about him – depending on which side of the fence you are on about current scholarship. I would like to watch Hamlet with him, then have the chance to ask the basics about his life and writing. Shakespeare’s life is such a tabula rasa that anything he said would be a gem. Would it be fair to ask how it feels to be a genius for the ages? (I would have to judge his temperament first….)    Susan:   Charles Dickens. I would love to have gone to one of his public readings of A Christmas Carol.  He was said to be a great reader and acted out all the parts. I can just about hear him reciting the last lines, about Scrooge: “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” As to questions:1. I would love to go on a tour of London with him and ask him how he sees everything so clearly?2. How does he make me feel emotions so strongly?3. How does he transform grief into something so beautiful?  Robin: My first thought was to go to Disneyland with JD Salinger just because of the juxtaposition of being at the “happiest place on Earth” with the creator of a misanthropic icon. But the hands’ down winner is mimosas with Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin, where I pay my respects every time I’m in NYC. I would have only one question: what are your thoughts on the current state of the world? There have been so many cultural advances and yet so many current parallels, it would be fascinating – and I suspect hilarious – to hear the perspective of a woman who was ahead of her time. What surprises her? What doesn’t surprise her at all? How many mimosas can we put away in 2 hours? I guess I do have multiple questions 🙂  Cate: Since so many picked past greats, I am going to go contemporary. I’d like to have a drink with Trevor Noah. I am listening to his audio book Born A Crime (AMAZING!). I would ask:1. Your life was like a thriller plot (real father not in his life because a white man having a romantic relationship, let alone a child, with a black woman was illegal under Apartheid. His abusive stepfather then shot his mother and got a slap on the wrist for her attempted murder). How do you infuse so much love and humor into painful stories?2. How do you strike a balance between talking about race and acknowledging prejudice in your stories without losing the ability to connect with people and being overtly political?3. Which is a better way to handle traumatic past experiences? Compartmentalization or exploration?   Alison:Such a good question, and such a difficult one. I thought about having a cocktail party with a guest list of about fifty, but decided that wouldn’t be playing fair. I vacillated between funny (David Sedaris) and intellectually rigorous (Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse) before deciding to toss a coin between two other favorites. Heads went to Hemingway. I read The Sun Also Rises on a flight to Madrid and was lucky enough to stay at the Palace Hotel. I would meet him at the hotel bar for a drink (or two or three) and ask: (1) How do you write with such spare and understated style yet still convey so much emotion? (2) How do you engage serious philosophical topics with a breeziness that makes ideas accessible to everyone, and (3) What writer would you meet for a drink and where would he meet him or her? Alexia: I’m still trying to decide who I want to hang with and what my 2nd and 3rd questions would be. But I want to go to The Flying Fish in Little Rock, AR and my first question is,  “Hush puppies or French fries? “I’m inviting Keith Laumer, the late science fiction author and creator of one of my literary crushes, Jame Retief. After we settled the hush puppy/french fry issue, I’d ask him–How did you translate your experiences as a diplomat with the US Foreign Service into a satirical sci-fi series?–Will humans ever travel to other planets in real life? And you, dear readers, how would you answer these questions?    

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Descriptions. What's your preference?

My neighbor is a big reader and we had an interesting conversation over the fence this lovely spring weekend. He doesn’t like to read elaborate descriptions. To him, an elaborate description is the gun on the tabletop in scene one that never gets discharged. He gave an example: in the thriller he is currently reading there is a scene where the protagonist walks down a long corridor. The scene is complete with a detailed description of the doors the protagonist passes, what he sees at the other end, etc. In the end, the man gets to the end of the hall and goes into a room. My neighbor read the passage carefully, sure that the careful attention to detail meant that there were important clues in the text – or at a minimum something would happen behind one of those doors. He felt that the description made it difficult to separate important detail from general atmosphere.  This is a problem for writers. First of all, no two readers are the same, so you can’t satisfy everyone. Some people like to use their imagination to fill in most of the details of places and people. A long narrow corridor. A tall dark stranger. Good enough. They’ve got the idea and the tall dark stranger gets filled in with their ideal, not the writer’s. Same thing with places. My long narrow corridor may look different from everyone else’s, but does it matter if there is crown molding or not?  I believe that there should be enough detail to get close to what the author imagined, but I can sympathize with the notion that too many details are information overload for a reader. This came up in my conversation with my neighbor. Afterwards it struck me that the average reader’s access to information has altered what we want. Think of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo. These men were literary giants in their day, hugely popular in every sense of the word. They set a scene that was possibly unimaginable to their readers – a glimpse of the darkest side of industrial England’s workhouses and slums and law courts. The vast battle fields of Russia and the gaiety of aristocratic balls. The dark currents of Paris, including those running under the streets. These scenes were so finely wrought that they are useful to historians today. Modern society has access to images on television, at the movie theater and on-line. Take Industrial England. Google it and you are overwhelmed by images and descriptions (not all accurate, but that’s a separate issue). No longer are novels the main form of exposing people to faraway places or ideas. As a result, we have adapted as readers and therefore as writers.  Or have we? Description still plays a vital role in a novel. I read to remember places I’ve been, and to dream about places I’ll never go. For me, it remains a balance. I want to see into the mind of the author, all the while knowing I’ll continue to fill in details from my own imagination. That’s also my goal as a writer.  I’m curious, though, what do others want? Plenty of description or spare spare spare? There is definitely room for both. 

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