Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Archer at Large

Next to the tatty collection of James Bonds, after the Saint, the Toff and the Baron, and a Maigret, on that disgustingly dusty top shelf, last night I found a Ross Macdonald.
Maybe it's the time of year that sends me to mayhem and murder.
The New York Times Book Review describes the Lew Archer novels as "the finest series of detective novels every written by an American."
Now that's a heavy, heavy blurb.
This time through I read the Foreword.
Discovered that Macdonald ( alias Kenneth Millar) - though born in Los Gatos, California - was brought up in Ontario, near Kitchener.
That he attributes a speech by Lord Tweedsmuir (Canada's Governor-General at the time, alias John Buchan), winning a typewriter in a radio quiz show, and the economics of a prospective hospital bill for his pregnant wife as the "mundane sources of inspiration."
His wife became a full-fledged novelist, he left his Canadian high-school teaching job and went to the University of Michigan on a fellowship.
In this Foreword, he makes a number of observations:

"The inner shape of a man's life, if he is a man of action, plots the curve of his movements. If he is a writer, it is what he writes from and about. But it remains as personal and hidden as his skeleton, just as intricate, almost as unchangeable...One of the things that supported me through my long Canadian childhood was the knowledge, which my mother insisted on, that I was an American citizen by birth. But for good or ill my early days made a Canadian out of me as well...My sense of self and my sense of territory were both askew..." Later he says, "...a sense of displacement, a feeling that, no matter where we were, we were on the alien side of some border."

I wondered , as I read this last evening curled complacently against a wad of pillows, if all writers feel that way, even without the specific and actual incidence of nationality.
This sense of exile, of etrange, of the forever voyager, as Rachmaninoff suggested "... a sojourner, as all my father's were..."
Does our writing investigate and describe the details of this foreign landscape, the diaspora of our lives?
Is our writing the identity card, the passport produced for the border guards at a personal frontier?
If we are denied the official stamp on our pages, if the barriers do not lift, are we constrained to wander in no man's land all our lives?
Hermits in the Waste, Outliers, always - to use a localism - "from away?"

Before the wind: well-placed, prospering, fortunate; coll. from about 1840; orig. nautical.
Beforehand with the world: having a reserve of money; from about 1640; coll; standard English in 19th c.
Beg ( a person) for a fool, an idiot or an innocent: to consider, set down as a fool; from about 1580; colloquial >, about 1700, standard; in 19th-20 c., archaic.


Sandra Ruttan said...

When I studied communication theory, one of the texts was a book called No Sense of Place. There's a completely fascinating history to concepts and word development - stemming back to what they referred to as "frontstage" and "backstage" regions for people, how we used to not know so much about other cultures or the opposite gender because there were defined role boundaries.

And then how languages evolved based on need and survival and environment - like the fact that the Inuit people have so many more words for snow than we do, because the exact precise kind of snow or ice could make the difference between life and death. Precision was demanded.

This "no man's land" is something I experienced living in Europe, and then when I returned to Canada, it was like everything had come into focus, all the things I hadn't seen before. I was no longer comfortably complacent, believing in the superiority of my own country. I'd really thought that at times too - when I crossed the border into Northern Ireland, for example. That made Checkpoint Charlie seem like a stroll in the park, which it still wasn't back then.

I spent the first 21 years of my life in Ontario, and that year overseas, and since then I've spent the rest living in BC or Alberta. And within BC, three years on a Gulf Island (talk about culture shock) a year on Vancouver Island, two years in the GVA...

Each place has it's own character and yes, I feel the sense of being in the "no man's land" still at times. Though I feel as much at home when I go to BC as I do anywhere.

But there's such an inherent advantage to being able to step back from something and analyze it because you can see what makes it different. As a writer, that's critical.

In some ways, with the meshing of culture and with tv, we've lost that sense of place within society - is there less that separates our town, our district, our province, our country, from all the others? Some would say yes.

Tsavo Leone said...

I won't go into too much details here, other than to say that I have always felt like an outsider looking in. Whether that informs my writing or not I couldn't say, though others might now sit back and go "Ah! That makes sense..."

Bernita: For the record, it wasn't I who killed the fox. I think you can lay the blame squarely upon one of the shoulders of the baker's dozen.

Bernita said...

My first experience with one kind of "cultural shock" was moving from a small city - with the country not far away - to a big city.
Beyond objectivity, the result can be empathy and understanding of many kinds of exile, whether deliberate or forced.
And fear as well - that by the time you've learned the new rules that govern that far country, they will have changed.
I often think of TV and the internet as an alternate country, a new country, perhaps a holiday country, a part-time place, but not the home country.

Bernita said...

The Devil's Dozen, my cousin?
That's evasion, milor' Puppeteer...

Bernita said...

BTW, I've read that the claim that the Inuit have 40-70-100 different words for snow is in fact, merely an urban legend - though the main point is accurate.
Language reflects both past and lost meanings.
The simple word "axe" for example means something more physical to a countryman or a firefighter than it does to a down-sized executive.

Carla said...

Interesting thought. Writing is certainly a way to explore other cultures/places, and people may be more inclined to do that if they don't feel rooted in one of their own. I've always felt like an outsider looking in, wherever I've lived.

Bernita said...

To explore diclocation further, beyond any innate sense of "alien", the effect may be increased if the unchanging landscape of childhood has changed, if the house you were born in is gone, the fields paved, and the people you knew either dead or so ritualized in their predicatable patterns, all forseen, that you are the vagabond in truth, the Visitor.

Dennie McDonald said...

too deep w/o having had coffee....!!! =)

That's kinda funny though, I was born in Alaska, moved to Texas before I knew anything but never felt "connected" to here. Don't know how that affects me writing wise. There is a theme that resounds in all my books - but I think that has more to do with my "issues" than anything else!

Rick said...

It isn't necessary to cross national boundaries. When I went to the US East Coast for Navy training, it was like a semiforeign country. The two things that stood out most were related: the absence of Spanish place names, and the impossibility (in the 1970s) of finding a Mexican restaurant.

As to writers being always strangers, I wonder if a preference for either mainstream or "the genres" amounts to two alternative strategies for finding a homeland: either burrowing into the soul of your real surroundings, or creating an imaginary homeland of your own.

On "Inuit words for snow," apparently it is an urban legend (though I agree with Bernita that it reflects underlying truth, which is likely why it has caught on). It has been discussed on the Language Log blog - well worth visiting for many other reasons. Being too lazy to link, cut and paste:


Bernita, your mention of "axe" reminds me of an unpleasant way that time has carried us into another country. In Catherine of Lyonesse I have a number of references to beheading. When I wrote the original draft in the 90s, mentions of "the headsman" or "the scaffold" were safely remote from the real world. Now, anyone sufficiently morbid can download videos of actual beheadings.

Ric said...

I think there is a sense of being 'different'. Different from the people you meet every day.

When you realize that not everyone can put words together - do the things you can do, you understand you're different, maybe unique. That puts you on an 'alien' plane.

I've always felt that writers think differently than other people. The thought process is not the same. The motivation is oddly skewed.

Damn, Bernita, it's too early in the morning for this....

Bernita said...

Macdonald relates this book to his father "issues", Dennie.

Rick, that is most acute.
Thank you.
I was thinking in terms of the less abstract simple "tool", and you've reminded us of its > double function of "weapon" as well.

Ric, this morning a roaring, boisterous, tearing wind invited last year's leaves to one last dance, the spruce bows clapped from the sidelines, and the copper windchimes cascaded into music and laughter, what was I to do?

alexandra said...

Illuminating and wonderfully written Bernita.
It's like being a humming bird coming to sip at the nectar of words.

I have been a displaced person my entire life and yes, I find this affects and influences all my writing whether implied or accidental. I cannot help having at least one reflective character who, by the time I'm finished writing, I recognize and am left scratching my head wondering. How did they slip passed me? But naturally, they are a result of my own personal life experiences.

All our writing is based on what we know and, how we react to it, the great writer though goes beyond their own personal experiences, beyond their own feelings to find voices they hear in their head, and bring them to life in a way that make us stop, read and, hopefully, react.

Isn't that what we all strive to do, as writers? Go beyond the horizon, to new vistas. Indeed, Bernita, the Far Country. ;-)

ivan said...

Much of this is fully rendered in a thriller of thrillers, Smila's Sense of Snow, which is almost a blueprint for the kind of book most of us want to write. I didn't see the film, but Mr. Hoeg's writing left me so amazed and stunned that I almost gave up writing. How a 45-year old Dane can out-Canada us in fiction featuring an aboriginal heoine is beyond me. All these stories of young girls growing up in small communities, all the Aliases seem pale compared to one great Dane's small but brilliant oeuvre.
Yes, yes, alienation, garrison mentality, crappy Ontario films.
Peter Hoeg has outdone us all.
And offered up a blueprint as to how a great Canadian novel should be written, thriller or no.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Alexandra.
You are most eloquent.
For some I think it is an endless Frontier, for other's Sanctuary.
Seeker. Pilgrim. Wanderer.
Odd how the simple question of habitation and place brings all these to mind.

Thank you, Ivan.
I am curious here about cause, not effect or result or ambition.
With the possible universality of this loneliness.
I wonder if our writing is our "soul stone" - and that's another tangent.

Ric said...

Ric, this morning a roaring, boisterous, tearing wind invited last year's leaves to one last dance, the spruce bows clapped from the sidelines, and the copper windchimes cascaded into music and laughter, what was I to do?

What a wonderful evocation of the day!!

Savannah Jordan said...

Completely disregarding physical, or temporal borders, and given that, as a writer, I spend the greater portion of my time in my own mind *beyond this place there be monsters* I must admit that I oft times feel like a stranger in the real world. I feel sometimes like an island unto myself, for no one knows what goes on in my mind, and for me the images are sometimes to intent to fully turn from.

With that said, I am ever thankful for the writer community that I have found here, to know that in some measure, I am not really alone.

Bernita said...

Glad you liked it, Ric.

And am very glad of that, Savannah, thank you.
We can hold hands, at least.

Robyn said...

I'm going to have to bring up the ubiquitous reason I loved reading all my life: we never went anywhere. I've only been to a few states beyond my own, but through books I could go anywhere, anytime, and wonder is it really like that?

I am of two minds about my homepeople; I never felt truly one of them. I could literally write a book with the cringe-worthy differences. But let someone from a different place sneer or jeer, and I boil. And if I read a book set in my place, about my people, the author had better get their facts straight. I guess it's one of those 'I can insult them but you can't' kind of things.

Bernita said...

Think that was a part of the enticement, thrall and thrill for me too, Robyn,as well as a yearning to learn, to know.

"Far away places, with strange sounding names?"

Gabriele C. said...

I'm another of those homeless writers. A German writing in English. A European anchored only in the history of a continent. A "refugee from the east" as those are called whose families had possessions in what is now Poland. My parents still know what home means, I don't because wherever we lived, it was a place to live, not home. The only point for my parents was the German language. I made the next logical step by living in Scandinavia for several years. For me, not even language matters since I discovered Italian opera could make sense some years before I started to learn English at school. To write in a language that is not my native one is not something I give a second thought about (as long as people don't ask and make me think).

I also was ever an outsider. Different tastes, different interests, impossible to put in a drawer, a loner by choice. A reader since I figured out the letters at the age of 5. A traveler in virtual and real worlds. A writer.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yea, Bernita...we had some of that roaring, boisterous wind this morning...it knocked out the power for 2500 people! Just getting it back together now!

I never felt alienated until I became a writer...LOL

Now that I'm part of the online writing community, I feel more comfortable, but to the people in the real world that I live in...I'm still an alien! They have no clue about the subjects I try to discuss with them!(Especially when I'm talking about Bernita...LOL)

Bernita said...

Beginning to wonder if we were all dropped on our heads at some point...sometimes it's a slow thing, this recognition of being out of synchronization, syncopation with the others.

Dicussion, Bonnie? We give them equal time, but sometimes there is no reciprocation. But..."Bernita?"...can't say I blame them there.

ali said...

I'll be different to everyone else...

Despite the fact that I haven't lived there for years, Scotland feels like home to me. The accents, the words, the places - they all feel comfortable. I feel like an outsider here, in England, but that's because I am.

So I'd have to disagree with Ric about writers being different. I think everyone has something that other people wouldn't understand, whether it's sports, or music, or maths. Which is what makes getting to know other people such fun!