JENNI'S OFF-GRID NEWSLETTER, NO. 21 (FEBRUARY, 2017)
February 27, 2017A Dull Life
In mid-February I phoned our son, Joachim, for a catchup. After hearing about his busy life and exciting preparations for a new position he is about to take on at the tertiary education college where he works, I told him our news. Something like this.
Visitors have all left now, so I’m writing and swimming every day. The Nespresso customer service woman called me the other day —I recently got a Nespresso machine but sadly with no George Clooney attached—and this means one becomes a member of their coffee club! And they call you and ask if there is anything (other than selling you another 200 coffee capsules with free postage) they can help you with (eg: which button should I push, the right or left one?). I wanted to end this call so I said ‘No’ and then said, “Unless you can tell me how I can froth the milk without getting so much froth?”
“Of course,” she said. “I can help you with that. You just take off the little spring on the bottom of the bit of plastic that spins around and froths it.”
This worked, and I’ve told all my friends (well, two members of my family) who have been having the same problem for years. There is nothing about this in the fancy Nespresso literature. Our coffee is now perfect, even without George.
So Joachim listened to this story and then said “Well, if having too much froth on your coffee is all you have to worry about, you must be doing OK!”
Others in NZ and around the world are not so fortunate. The Christchurch fires came way too close to daughter Josie and family’s property and they were on alert to evacuate. After five plus years of dealing with earthquakes, Christchurch does not need this. On Great Barrier Island we have also had an exceptionally dry few months; always adds a tension as a large fire in our highly flammable Kanuka and Manuka bush could be difficult to contain. So much of the country is rugged and with no road access. So everyone was relieved when we finally had two days of solid rain, and since have had a few more nights with some rain. The grass turned green overnight, the water tanks filled up and the estuary entrance on our beach which had been blocked by sand cleared out. The rest of the world continues with floods and avalanches and America—the land of democracy and climate-warming-is-a-hoax apology for a president.
As my mother would have said 60 years ago, “What is the world coming to?”
I have a goal of writing 1000 words a day on my current novel (with one day off, perhaps, unless it is raining). I have a word target button on Scrivener, the computer program I use for writing, that tells me if I have reached my daily target, and the complete word count of my manuscript so far. It has nice green and red bars to help me understand this in case comprehending the actual word count is beyond me. Every day it resets itself so if one fails one day the slate is clean again the next. At my age why do I need this? Strange how motivating it is…
On a higher level, I am very involved with my characters; they have become as real to me as John (well, not quite; they are useless at fishing!) This novel (the one that is going to ‘break out’) is set mainly in Australia (and NZ and UK, and possibly US!) and extends from 1960 to the year 2000, but at one part also flashes back to WWII and the Japanese Prisoner of War camps in Sumatra. The early years of the main story includes the anti-Vietnam War protests and also the 1975 ‘Operation Babylift,’ where immediately before the fall of Saigon, US and Australian planes evacuated thouands of babies and children (‘orphans,’ although many were not) to the US and Australia for adoption. I remember this; we lived in Australia at that time, and we knew some people involved in the adoptions of these children. They helped us a year later when we adopted our youngest son from Sri Lanka (the aforementioned Joachim). Adopting from third world countries, whether from Vietnam or Sri Lanka, shared many of the same ups and downs, so I suppose there is a vaguely autobiographical element in my novel at this point. Last September when we were in Mexico, we met a very nice young man (well, he was 45 but seemed very young); an ‘Amerasian’ (with American and Asian parents, the American usually a US serviceman) who had been a US Babylift baby. His story was incredible and had me in tears. He was about five at the time and was separated from his sister on arrival in the US, and didn’t find her or his mother, left in Saigon, until 35 years later.
These aspects of my novel involve me in days of research, reading numerous books, often published so long ago they are difficult to get, and articles and reports on the trusty internet. In fact these ‘issues’ are only a small part of the ‘tapestry’ that makes up my novel, and 99% of the research I do will never appear. I love this part of writing; learning and sometimes re-living events from the past. Becoming familiar with the events that my characters lived through or struggled to comprehend is the reason my characters become so real to me.
I am not a writer who writes furiously without concern for grammar, word choice or finesse but just “gets it down” then revises it numerous times later. It must be my academic training perhaps that motivates me to try to get it right as I write. The day after I complete a chapter I go over it making changes, and then again a few days later I go over it again before I revise the next chapter. When it is complete there will of course be more revisions, but if the story proves to be OK, then hopefully they won’t take too long. Of course if an editor wants significant structural or developmental changes, back to the drawing board.
As of this minute I have written 49,272 words of the planned 85,000 words… I plan to complete it to a state I believe good enough to send to my agent and editor in June. Barring fires or earthquakes. (Now I have to touch wood.) And we do have to go to WOMAD, visit all three of our NZ-based children scattered from North of Auckland to Christchurch, and spend a week in Queenstown with friends, go to the May Auckland Writers’ Festival, and fly to Moreton Island in Australia for a spot of whale watching before that word count is reached in June. Just so you know I’m not slacking.
Stoner: A Novel by John Williams
This is one of those books from the past that I missed entirely. The US author, John Williams , was born in 1922 and died in 1994. He was an academic and taught literature and writing craft at the University of Denver. He published two books of poetry and four novels. He won the US National Book Award for his novel “Augustus” in 1973.
Stoner is the story of William Stoner, the only child of humble farmers. In 1910 at the age of nineteen Stoner enrolled in an agricultural program at the University of Missouri (where John Williams studied for his PhD), but was inspired by a caustic lecturer, Archer Sloane, who taught the required English Literature course, to change to English Literature. He became friends (in a low-key sort of way) with two fellow students who both went to war when WWI came along. Stoner decided to remain at the University and finish his PhD. One of his friends was killed, the other returned to the university and quickly rose in the ranks, although he was not particularly bright.
Stoner fell in love with a young woman of higher means who agreed to marry him but was afraid of sex and life. He continued to do his best to make her happy, but his best failed. They had a daughter, whereupon his wife rejected him completely, stayed in her room, and left the bringing up of their daughter to Stoner. Stoner’s teaching at the university felt to him, uninspired, in spite of his internal passion for the literature he was attempting to explain. Yet he did inspire some students, and grew a dedicated following. He also inspired another senior student, and their love affair changed him, and showed him what life could be if shared with one’s soul mate. But he’d made an enemy of the Chairman of the Department of English, Hollis Lomax, when he had refused to pass one of Lomax’s favorite PhD students. Lomax ferreted out his affair and used it to blackmail him. The affair ended, his lover leaving town, never to communicate with him again.
Stoner’s only bright spot now, apart from his love of literature, was his daughter, who his wife had now monopolized, destroying her spirit. He continued on day after day, feeling a failure as a husband and father. As a teacher he did not fail, and subverted the teaching system forced on him by Lomax by teaching the way he wanted to teach, at a level far higher than was approved. Not until the end of his life, with a diagnosis of terminal cancer to cope with, was he ‘promoted’ to ‘Professor Emeritus’ by Lomax—on the day of his retirement.
Anyone who has taught in a university in the years before universities became businesses will recognise many of the descriptions in this beautifully written masterpiece. The story is quiet, the protagonist the sort of man one feels one might find old fashioned (even for the times) and rather uninspiring, yet beneath the surface lies passion. Stoner is the kind of university teacher who the brightest and most dedicated students want to follow, but who leaves less intelligent or less interested students bored and dismissive. It is the portraits of the main characters as well as the minor characters that make this such an engaging read, and the final chapter where Stoner experiences his own quiet death is the most moving (and positive) depiction of dying I have ever read.
A Drop in the Oceanhas been shortlisted for the Sarton Women’s Book Award in Contemporary Fiction. http://www.storycircle.org/SartonLiteraryAward/pressrelease_shortlist_2017.shtml
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