Friday, July 6, 2012

Deconstructed Apple Pie

Okay, I admit it, the apple pie isn't really an appropriate jumping off point for this post. But, hey, I baked a pie, and, hey, it didn't suck! I think the art of pie making (and by pie, I mean pie crust) requires gentle guiding, the way one might hold a butterfly in one's hand, rather than strong steering, the way one might hold a Killer Terminator Razor-Wing Butterfly in one's hand. I also think my hands are too warm, and they melt the butter. At any rate, I was given a fool-proof recipe*, and I stopped working the dough when the butter chunks were pea-sized, and it came out well. And, I used two kinds of apples. TWO! Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.

I wasn't really cutting like that. This is a pose.

The skillet was all I had. We make do.

Speaking of apple pies, I'm working on a book called The Pagani Project, and I'm continuing to analyze it as a pre-step toward more drastic revisions in the hopes that I'll make a better book. At the moment, I'm dealing with big picture stuff, and I feel like I have to try and articulate the main "life perspective" behind the book, even if my answer will possibly change later.

I don't completely know what I mean by life perspective except that I think it has something to do with whether or not a book is character driven, or plot driven, or chaos driven--which I've talked about before and will talk about again.

There aren't, of course, any clear cut lines between these different types of books. I'm sure it's fairly arbitrary. But, for me, it comes down to the question of what makes a book "work." And, often, a great character can make a book work, just as a great plot can, and just as a broader view of life can. I'll not talk about plot-driven books here, only because I can't think of any that I'm familiar with. For me, I can think of plenty of books that have great characters. Whenever I stumble upon one, I'm so delighted. There's Brod from Everything is Illuminated, Joachim Mahlke from Cat and Mouse, and Patience Quince from The Last Guest. There's all the characters from Anna Karenina! For me, part of what makes these jump-off-the-page characters so impressive is that I've never managed to construct anyone like this. (I'll say I came close with a character called King in my first novel.) Whenever I write a story, rarely do I remember to construct a great character. Maybe that sounds stupid, but!

Then I'm reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri or Cormac McCarthy, both of who have written beautiful books with characters I can't recall for the life of me. I'd argue that, for them, the characters take a back seat to a perspective that's more fixated on what I called before HTU, or How Things Unfold. Lahiri's stories like "Nobody's Perfect" (which, okay, has a decent character) and "Hell-Heaven" and "Only Goodness," for me, don't transfer themselves into brilliant works until near the last paragraph or the last line, when the story I've been reading is suddenly elevated from something singular to something universal. I remember being quite disappointed by "Only Goodness" until I read the very last line. That last line somehow multiplied the story by 6.8 billion for me.

I'm not making a value judgement here. I end up writing more of this HTU stuff instead of character driven stuff, I think, based on how I view the world. Mostly, I see people as the same. We all have similar biochemical components. I don't believe in a soul, so I attribute most emotion of chemistry--which is kind of depressing! So, what makes us individual has a lot to do with the environment, or life, the impact of How Things Unfold all around us. Yes, this is completely simplistic. I'm not saying there's anything right about this; it's just my mindset. And, I wonder if it explains my general shyness. I like to sit off to the side and watch instead of participate. Maybe the participators write plot-drive work, and maybe the people who like to make good friends write character driven work. And, maybe, people look like their dogs. That would explain why I'm so cute.

So, enough about that. All I'm saying is that it rarely occurs to me to write a good character or a good plot. Whenever I try to do that (and I do) it takes force. My more natural tendency is to write about more universal things, somehow. And, to take it one step forward, something I'm realizing, partly as a result of finishing The Pagani Project, is that I believe the world to be completely random. If ever there is a message in my work, I think that message should be that the world is random. I'm not sure I've ever understood that until a few weeks ago. That's where I am now in my life. It's nihilist.

I do see a problem with my nihilist fiction. I think, in general, nihilists aren't that fun to hang out with. So, for me, I need to bring in other components to complicate this attitude. I try to tap into what perplexes me. Because I want to live. Some force is making me want to live. Lonesome George spent a hundred years walking around and eating stuff because of something. That's a fascinating thing to me, and I think if I communicate that clearly it would be fascinating for other people. So, that's probably where I need to get. I need to be clear on this conflict between the nothingness and the driving force to live. That's something that I didn't get until after I finished TPP, and I'm wondering if that's better left for my next book or if I should work to make that clearer in this one.

And how does this affect the end of a book? If things really are random, then the story should be able to end anywhere, right? And, yet, I tell myself that there must be more of a shape, a build up leading to a climax. To me, my most successful endings are those for my short stories "Red Man, Blue Man" and "The Wild Grass." In both of those, somehow, I feel like I hit a balance between stopping anywhere and creating the sense of meaning and completeness.

Okay, I'll stop now, because it's my blog.

What's Peanut eating? The cardboard booties that were protecting our new fan.

*Fool proof pie crust from It's even easy to memorize!

1 cup butter
2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt


  1. I use a pie crust similar to that, but I add milk into the cold water, along with an ice cube. And I use shortening instead of butter. And I don't think mine has sugar. Okay, mine is different than that one. :)

    I don't set out to write memorable characters, or important characters, or plot even. I just want to explore something specific. Everything else just comes into play after that, I guess. I always love your endings. I think Bread is my favorite ending. Not sure why. :)

  2. Your description of your pie crust recipe made me laugh. No, they don't seem too similar!

    I'm really surprised that Bread is your favorite ending. That's probably the only story where I was writing toward an ending, so maybe that actually comes through. I wasn't just groping along in the dark. Either that, or you just like to read about people eating people.

  3. Michelle only reads "Bread" when she's hungry.

    Mighty Reader uses shortening in her pie crust, too. But no milk.

    Today I am confused about endings, so I'll be no help here. I just wrote what might be the ending to Go Home, Miss America. I don't know if it feels like an ending. I was writing along, fighting panic because I didn't know where I was going, and at one point I looked at what was on the page and I thought, "Okay, that's probably enough." And about three minutes later I added another sentence. I think I'm done. I'm excited about having finished but confused about what I've actually written. Is that a legitimate state of mind to find myself in? I really really really (really) don't know. I thought there was going to be a long series of passages invoking beautiful landscapes and a sense of longing, but now I don't think there will.

    What kind of a name is "Patience Quince," anyway?

  4. The thing with using shortening is that it makes it less of a butter crust. See? C?

    Scott, while you were commenting on my post, I think I was reading your post, so I knew what you were going to say even before I saw you say it. That's some Friday magic! Congratulations again! And, as for Patience Quince, I do admit that it makes me think of a piece of fruit twiddling its thumbs on the counter, waiting for the mail or something.

  5. I don't know, Davin. That pie looks like more than crust. I might have to discreetly spoon the apple part to the side of my plate and hope you understand!

    What do you think about "Dolores" in all of this? Because to me, that is a pretty perfect telling, with a very memorable character and a definite arc/ending. It floats enough for us to wonder and wish, and but the edges are solid enough for us to understand and sort of mourn.

    I don't really have a point here. I've just sent my edits to my editor, and I am quietly hoping no one expects me to be all that coherent today!

  6. Okay, fine, I exaggerated my crust to apple ratio just to please you, but, really, the apple layer ended up being pretty flat. And I spoon most of it away myself too.

    "Dolores" has always been an odd story for me, partly because I did it as an exercise, so my heart isn't as invested in that story. It is indeed character-driven for me, though. The Dolores character was very strong in my head, and she made the narrator's personality more clear in contrast. It's probably one of the most focused stories I've written, and I should probably be getting back to that sort of focus!