Sunday, January 5, 2014

Among The Angels’ Hierarchies: The Novel (Part I)

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ 
hierarchies? And even if one of them pressed me
 suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
 in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
 but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to 
 and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
 to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

                                                (Duino Elegies, Rilke
                                                 Trans. Stephen Mitchell)

1. The Submarine Life

It has been a year and a half since I’ve ventured near this blog. Back in May of 2012, I plunged into a re-write of a novel that I’d been struggling with – on and off - since the summer of 2007, and once I got going, it occupied all of my time. 

The only verb I can think of to describe the process of writing that last draft would be submerged. I was down in dark waters, swimming with dark angels. You know the kind of angels I’m talking about, the ones you find near the bottom of the sea, with large jaws, tiny eyes, and strange fleshy phosphorescent lamps dangling from their lure their prey close...

                                                                                                Every angel is terrifying.

The irony of being deeply submerged in a work of the imagination is that it is one of the ways of being truly engaged with the world. Fiction – or the fiction that I mostly read...and attempt to write – is not a form of escape, but an exploration into the complexities of truth. The novel I’ve been working on – a speculative story set in a dystopian near-future – was my attempt to look straight into the yawning black mouth of our collapsing, broken world.

What broken world, you may ask? (if you’ve been living inside Fox News Headquarters or stuck in a basement endlessly playing “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.”)

To summarize: According to the UN Environment Programme scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. Remember hurricanes Sandy and Irene? Typhoon Haiyan? In the US, Wall Street business is booming while Congress ruthlessly cuts unemployment benefits . Meanwhile, according to a study conducted in late April (2013) by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read – that’s fourteen percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of all high school graduates can't read at all (which leads to the question “Why bother writing a novel in this day and age?” But that’s a subject for another blog.). There are 610,042 people on the street, without a home, on any given night in the US, and of that number 222,197 are families. Climate refugees are increasing around the globe; and GMO corporations like Monsanto basically control the world’s food supplies. Shall I continue?

You know the drill. You’re living it. The water levels are rising….

2. The Novel Begins: In a Barn in Wisconsin with Rolling Puppet Heads 

In the spring of ’07 my wife (poet/novelist Michaela Kahn) and I quit our jobs, sold most of our stuff, and left Santa Fe, New Mexico, heading out on a journey of discovery, trying to find the story that would help us understand this brave new world we found ourselves in.
We thought we’d be gone a year, two at the most. It ended up being seven: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington DC, Iowa, Mexico, Wales, New York again, then, finally, just this past fall, we returned to Santa Fe.

We started the first year of the journey doing several artist residencies and house-sits. 

The first artist residency was on an organic farm in Wisconsin, Wormfarm, about an hour’s drive north of Madison. We chose the residency because we wanted to learn a bit about the operation of an organic farm.

 We worked for two or three hours in the market garden every morning and then had the rest of the day to write. We lived and worked in rooms built into the upper loft of  an old barn. At the time, Wormfarm sponsored a puppet-making week and parade in Reedsburg, a nearby town, and so there were huge puppet heads sitting on a stage at one end of the barn’s loft, leftover from parades of the years past. There were also heads sitting on the roof of the rooms where the artists lived. During thunderstorms, the wind would tear through the barn and the massive puppet heads would roll back and forth above us, rumbling, rumbling, trying to speak.  


So, rolling puppet heads, starling and swallow nests, skittering mice, a ram who lived behind the barn and grumbled in his sleep all night long, and a barn cat that woke me at 3am every night to show me her latest kill, insisting on praise and petting before chomping her prey down in three or four quick bites. I was in heaven. What more could you possibly want for inspiration?  (One of the few things that put me off, though, were the spiders that appeared around nine at night, like clockwork, in the room where I wrote. I am a fan of spiders, for the most part, but these were huge, with the accompanying myriad black glistening eyes, and they came in waves – across the walls, ceiling, floor...) 

 Although the puppet heads did not make it into the novel (there were enough puppets and doll-heads in my last novel), the barn became a late night haunt for one of the main characters. And Itchy, the barn cat, has a few guest appearances. Never forget the barn cat, I always say. A good dystopian novel always needs a barn cat. You know, for balance...

After Wormfarm, we attended another artist residency in Pennsylvania, living in an old white church in the Endless Mountains, just south of the New York state line, in the Susquehanna River Valley.  The same area where the novelist John Gardner (best known as the author of Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues)  wrote his last novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts. There were late night spider issues there as well...

Two Months Writing a Novel in an Empty Church


      A creature haunts the cold cellar,
releases spiders through the floorboards at night.
      The table lamp casts
                 long shadows across the wall.

    A local school board allowed Creationism
         to be taught (God made the earth
     6000 years ago, in 6 days?).

               There was a lawsuit, thank god.

               If I could crawl inside
   the milkweed pod next to the mailbox across the road
   when the seeds take on the colors of the setting sun…


       Down the road
The strange porch to nowhere at the church
a man sits on a mower in his front yard, hooked
     to an oxygen tank, .22 pistol
                          wedged in his belt.
Wife left. Daughter far away. Two heart attacks.

   Two squash-faced dogs
wait under the apple tree all day, every day,
 for the same tractor (the only tractor) to pass.

At dusk they leap up, baying, disappear
     into the tractor’s road dust.
 And every sunset, hundreds of geese,
           heading south,
  white feathers tainted red.

               A map in the blood.

                                   (previously published in Mudlark)

3. What a long strange trip it’s been...

After our stint in the church, we spent the next two years on the move, rootless, living a bit hand-to-mouth, scrounging for work. Once you leave the world of work for longer than six months, the wage-slave machinery becomes somewhat unforgiving:

“What were you doing during this time...during this gap in your employment history?” 
“I was writing a novel.”
 “A novel?” 
“You know, a long story, bound into what is called ‘a book’.”
“Hmmmn, I, what does excellent customer service mean to you?”
“Let’s see...doing the humility shuffle day after day, week after week, year after year...wait, did I just say that out loud?”

From Woodstock, New York, to Bethesda, Maryland; from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to Des Moines, Iowa; from Longmont, Colorado to Los Angeles, California; from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Swansea, Wales;  then on to Cardiff , the Gower peninsula, and finally back to Woodstock again. All the while the novel revealed itself slowly, oh so slowly. 

Cave, Gower Peninsula, Wales

My own view of writing is that it’s like an archaeological dig. The story, or the poem, is already there, somewhere below the surface, and it’s my  job to slowly bring all the pieces to the surface and put them together into it's original form. Sometimes this is simple – the first couple of spadefuls and the story is revealed, intact.That happened with my first novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind. The new novel was not like that. I had to keep digging and digging. And digging. Over time I began to recognize that it was about having the understanding and patience to actually see the pattern in front of me. Nothing was actually hidden – it was just that I couldn’t see it...not until I was ready. An old Zen saying: "When you're ready, the teacher will appear." In this case: "When you're ready, the true story will appear."

Wyrm's Head, Gower, Wales
During my two years in Wales, I left the manuscript alone, thinking it was done (oh sad, poor ignorant mortal) and concentrated on a long poem about mass extinction, unemployment, the US war economy, language, and the body – all centered around Swansea Bay (called Tidal Flats). I was under the spell of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts during that period and wrote very little fiction. But writing this long poem helped me focus in a more coherent way on many of the themes that were in the novel. So when I returned to the US, I hauled the manuscript out of mothballs to attempt a final (no, really) rewrite. I foolishly thought: “Oh, this’ll take about three, four months.”

It took another year and a half...

Next, Part II: Abandon all Hope Ye Who Enter Here 


  1. So glad you're back in blogland, Christien! I love what you wrote here about the novel as archaeological dig, and being ready/able to see the pattern, nothing's really hidden. Amen to that. Thanks for the sustenance as I slog onward in novelland...

  2. I have really missed your blog posts. They always stretch the boundaries of my imagination. And, unlike much of what is on the shelves in our local bookstores, I must read your posts (as well as your poetry, your novel) slowly, with thought, savoring the taste and texture of your words and the worlds they capture or create. Looking forward to more. Thanks!

  3. Jennifer Sanquer-MasonJanuary 7, 2014 at 12:11 PM

    Can't wait for Part 2!