When I’m in the middle of writing a novel – as I am now – I generally stay away from reading other people’s fiction. Sometimes if I start to read some really good writer – like Alice Munro or David Foster Wallace – I have to quit because their styles are so good, so accomplished that I wind up thinking, “That’s an interesting word,” or “Nice effect!” until it’s “I really gotta steal that,” and finally “I should give this up this writing thing, and go someplace and sell furniture.”
So I generally stick to research that helps me with my fiction. Currently I’m reading RESTLESS GIANT by James T. Patterson, a history of the modern U.S. from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. (It’s from the wonderful publishing series The Oxford History of the United States from Oxford University Press.) Usually when I read history, it’s about some distant past. This is a book about an era I’ve lived through. But that is a cliché about history: it is often remarked that the history we know least well is the history of our own time. I’m trying to remedy that as I write this next novel. I want to understand more … so I can be smarter for this book.
But sometimes I just need fiction. Sometimes I have to take a mental dip in someone else’s fresh water. So just recently I read THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler. Chandler is one of my favorite writers for a lot of reasons: first of all, he’s so much damn fun to read; his books are enjoyable. I’m not a big mystery reader (unlike my wife – the Tiny Goddess – who devours them on her Kindle), but I have read the key Dashiell Hammetts and some Dick Francis books and some Sue Graftons. But I’m in no way a “mystery person.” I’m more of the Edmund Wilson “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” school.
No, what I love in Chandler is the writing. His observations about my adopted city – Los Angeles – are pure pleasure. And his similes!! His turns-of-phrase!!! Just listen —
“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.”
“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”
“The big foreign car drove itself, but I held the wheel for the sake of appearances.”
“On the dance floor half a dozen couples were throwing themselves around with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis “
“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts “
“I hung up. It was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t go far enough. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk.”
“There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”
“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.”
“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.”
Then imagine reading all this to yourself in the voice of Humphrey Bogart, mentally driving around the LA roads you drive on … and you see why I just sometimes need some Chandler.
But for now back to reading non-fiction … and trying to write my own novel and forget (but secretly remember) about the shamus.