Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Biography of a Novel—Part 3

Welcome back to my exploration of the biography of the novel I’m publishing in the next few weeks. In two earlier postings, I explained that the genesis of the book was my daily walk in a cemetery. There, I began to speak aloud one day. The words seemed to answer the question: “Who is he for you?”

Recognizing that the person being described was Jesus of Nazareth, I reread the four Christian Gospels. There I discovered twenty-seven people whose lives interested me. Asking each the cemetery question, I wrote twenty-seven monologues as answers. Friends who read these monologues encouraged me to publish them as a devotional book.

However, the crisis of faith I was then experiencing did not seem conducive to following through on that suggestion. Moreover, I’d always wanted to write a novel, and I found myself intrigued by what some of these characters had said about Jesus and about their own lives. I didn’t know exactly what to make of all the words that had come.

Then the lightbulb came on.

Someone was asking the question: “Who is he for you?”

That someone could also be a character who could hold the book together.

Given the times—the first-century of the Common Era in Palestine—only a man would be culturally able to travel around the country meeting people and asking that question. So I needed a man who had the time and leisure to do so. Thus, he couldn’t be tied down to a job. Also, he would need the money/means to travel and stay at inns and buy food and papyrus or parchment for writing. He would need to know how to write Hebrew or Aramaic—the languages of the people in Palestine. Given all this, I thought he’d need to have some wealth.

Ta-Dah! The character of Jonathan, a wealthy Judaean aristocrat, emerged and began a dialogue with the characters, asking them to describe their experience of Jesus. In this way, the monologues of Draft 1 became the ribs of Draft 2. The description of Jonathan’s journey to the Galilee to conduct these interviews became the musculature holding those ribs together.

For an hour each weekday throughout the next year, I researched ancient Palestine: where the characters might live, their clothing, their occupations, their tools, their homes and food, the flora and fauna of their region, their Hebrew names. That is, I researched the setting of the novel.

Using this research, I wove the monologues into dialogues between Jonathan and the characters he met as he journeyed throughout the Galilee and Judaea asking his question.

Two friends— Lea Ann Gregerson and Al Rashid—came up with the title for this second version: The Jesus Interviews. Using that title, I sent out query letters to several editors to see if anyone was wanted to read the manuscript. Only one responded.

She praised the writing of the second version, but turned it down. “It’s too predictable,” she said. “Most people already know what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. There’s no suspense. No tension. To create suspense, focus on Jonathan. He’s a wholly fictitious character. Do something with him beyond having him simply interview other people. Give him a life!”  

So that’s what happened next: I began to come up with a background for Jonathan and his life. That led to a third draft of the novel. However, when I asked a biblical professor at a local college to read it, he found much detail that wasn’t accurate. Moreover, both characters and culture weren’t authentic. Clearly, if I wanted a novel, I needed to do more research.

That’s next week’s posting!


Map of the Galilee, circa 50 CE, from Wikipedia

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Biography of a Novel: Part 2

Last week, I began a series of postings on the biography of my historical novel, The Reluctant Spy. In Part 1 of that series, I described the genesis of the book. (In her comment last week, Joanne used that word, and I so like it! Thank you.)

Briefly, while I walked in the Stillwater cemetery back in 1997, two biblical characters began speaking through me. I realized they were responding to a question: “Who is he for you?” Knowing they were both from the faith document called the Gospel of Luke, I began to reread that Christian testament.

Now let’s began Part 2 of the series: the development of the first version of the novel.

Entitled Who Is He for You? the first version was a series of monologues spoken by the characters who peopled the four gospels of the Christian Testament. I spent several weeks—one hour each morning because I was still working full time—reading the gospels and thinking about how each character I met in them might respond to the question, “Who is Jesus for you?”

After rereading, I made a list of twenty-seven characters who might have a response to the question: Who is he for you? For each, I wrote a monologue. After completing these testaments of faith or disbelief, I asked several friends to read the manuscript. I wasn’t sure what I had—what I would call the monologues. They clearly weren’t a novel. But what were they?

Friends described them as “spiritual reflections” or a “devotional” book. One reader called it my “love letter to Jesus.”

I had no desire to write spiritual reflections or daily devotions. Why? Because at that time, I was going through my third crisis of faith. I’d gone through one when I was seventeen and another when I walked away from Catholicism in the 1970s. In 1997, I was struggling with whether I could believe in a Supreme Being. The struggle was a virulent one.

Often during my daily walks in the cemetery, I found myself arguing with the God in whom I’d believed for some sixty-two years. In the silence amidst the gravestones, I’d shout my frustration. My fear. My disdain. My sorrow. My loneliness. My disbelief.
For me, those days were like the struggle of Jacob with the angels in the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible. After their struggle, Jacob was left with a limp and a blessing.

For me, perhaps, the limp has been my inability to believe in my writing. The blessing, perhaps, is the novel that will soon be published. There is no doubt that in working on it, off and on for twenty-two years, I’ve developed a spirituality that enriches my life.

Now back to 1999: In two years, I had produced hundreds of words spoken by characters in the Christian Bible. I didn’t feel or think that I was a Christian any longer. I still deeply believed that a man names Jesus had lived and roamed the hills and valleys of Palestine back in the first century of the Common Era. 

I still knew that he was my dearest friend. That he had influenced my life as no other person, not even my mother, had. That his words about justice and compassion, inclusion and forgiveness had become a philosophy that guided my life.

But how could I write about him when my belief in his divinity was also being affected by my crisis of faith?

What was I to do with those twenty-seven interviews? And that, my friends, is what I’ll write about next week in Part 3 of this series.


Painting by Delacroix from Wikipedia.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Biography of a Novel—Part 1

Except for one posting on the death of my friend Pat Lassonde, I haven’t posted for five months. Vision and health problems, as well as the death of another close friend, filled those days.

Also, I’ve been preparing to publish a historical novel—The Reluctant Spy. I spent April completing the final draft and July proofreading the pdf.  I probably won’t be done with that task until mid-August. My hope is to announce the novel’s publication through a posting sometime in late August or early September.

Today I’m starting a series of postings on what I call the “biography” of the novel on which I’ve worked, off and on, for twenty-two years. That’s a long time to spend with characters in another country and another time. I’ve come to know them as I do my friends—their likes and dislikes, their foibles, their dark nights of depression and they brilliant days of realizing possibilities.

I’d like to share with you my journey with the novel’s main characters: Jonathan and Daniel; Chaviva and Davi; Yeshua and Benjamin; Rebecca and Miriam; Judas and John. I want also to share how the the storyline changed over time and how various characters entered the story as the plot revealed itself to me.

Let’s begin the bio today with an explanation of when the idea first came to me to write something about Yeshua, whom most of you know as Jesus of Nazareth. It all began with exercise. That is, while living in Stillwater, Minnesota, I exercised fairly regularly. For several years I rode my bicycle for 10 miles out into the country each weekday morning; on the weekends, I biked 15 miles. Then I had a rather serious accident that demolished the bicycle and landed me in the hospital for a few days.

Lacking nerve, I gave up biking and began to walk. In the beginning, I walked on the streets of what is known as the South Hill of Stillwater. Ultimately, I walked an hour a day, five days a week. Given the stumbling blocks of curbs and dogs, I soon realized that walking in the nearby cemetery—Fairview—would be safer and quieter as I listened to novels on my Walkman. 

It was in that cemetery that The Reluctant Spy was born.

Here’s what happened: During the early evening of a July day in 1997, I was walking in Fairview when suddenly I began to talk out loud. Sentences just came forth. Not willed; spontaneously. Freely given for me to accept—or not. I listened to those words and realized that the speaker was Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist in the Christian faith documents. He was saying who Yeshua was for him.

Not really understanding what all this meant—I wasn’t envisioning twenty-two years of sporadic writing—I still returned home to my computer and typed what I remembered.

The same thing happened the next day as I walked, only this time John the Baptist was talking about who Yeshua was for him. Once again, I returned home, typed the monologue, and saved it. 

I knew that both speakers were part of Luke’s Gospel in the Christian Testament, so I began to reread that gospel. In it, I met many people whose lives were touched by Yeshua. I began to wonder how they must have felt about him. That was the beginning.

Next week, I’ll discuss the storyline that became the first draft of the novel.

Painting from Wikipedia: 
The Preaching of John the Baptist
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566

Sunday, June 9, 2019

So Fragile and So Fearless

Hello All,
I’ve been away from blogging and posting for over three months. I spent March marketing my new feline gift book—The Gift of Nine Lives. Then I spent April and early May completing the historical novel on which I’d worked, off and on, for twenty-two years. The Reluctant Spy is now being formatting for publication sometime this summer.

Since then I’ve dwelt often in the deep center of myself where my love for friends resides. There, I’ve grieved. In mid-May one of my dearest and oldest friends died suddenly and unexpectedly. Pat and I met when we were in our early forties, so we’d known one another for more than forty years.

I’m finding this death hard; in the past weeks I’ve spoken with her husband several times, cried with him, and continued to grieve a friend who so often helped me when my thoughts became muddled. With her incisive questions and wisdom, Pat brought clarity to my confusion.

Living far from her home, I hadn’t seen her for six years. But we spoke on the phone regularly. So it’s not her actual tangible presence that tells me she is gone. In my mind—which is having a hard time accepting the new reality—she is still just a phone call away.

As I watched the season’s final episode of “Call the Midwife,” I found myself thinking, “I wonder what Pat will say about this when we talk.”

As I read the latest Jacqueline Winspear novel The American Agent, I found myself wondering if Pat, too, was thinking this might be the author’s last book in the series.

Always, while watching the PBS television programs we most enjoyed or reading the novels by authors that one or the other of us had discovered and shared, I find myself thinking of Pat. Where does she think the series—television or book—is going next? What other program did we see this English actor in?

Over the forty years of our friendship, Pat and I shared many interests. Here are just a few:
·      a great love of animals and a concern over their treatment;
·      a delight in reading well-written mystery novels;
·      a love of correct grammar and good writing;
·      a commitment to social justice, inclusion, equality, voting rights, and women’s rights;
·      a vow to resist bullies and those who fail to embrace the differences that might enrich our culture;
·      a resolve to try to find, embrace, and live the consequences of the ties that bind us as global citizens;
·      and a sense of humor—oh, I miss her laughter and her chuckle.

After living in Stillwater, Minnesota, for thirty-seven years, I moved here to Missouri ten years ago. In the intervening years, nine of my friends have died. Pat is just the latest, but our friendship had grown so deep that my grief has been a little overwhelming.

What always helps me is being grateful that she chose me as a friend all those years ago. I feel deep, enriching gratitude for her friendship. For her faithfulness. For her love.

And I realize again and yes again as I learn of the death of friends in Minnesota that growing older is a matter of letting go again and yes again. Letting go.

I am reminded of the last words from a poem I memorized when I was twenty-one. It is from a book of poetry by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Blow through me, Life, pared down at last to bone.
So fragile and so fearless have I grown.

Pat had become fragile as she aged. She was always fearless. And she was always a friend.

Photographs from Wikipedia