Author Interview: Jack Remick on Turning History into Story, Part 1

“It’s really not worthwhile to write if you don’t write a myth.” – Jack Remick

Jack Remick

Photo by Jerry Jaz

Jack Remick is a poet, short story writer, novelist and teacher. More than twenty years ago, he and Robert J. Ray started a writing practice group that still meets every Tuesday and Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Louisa’s Café in Seattle. I’ve been going to Louisa’s for three years now and wrote the first draft of my novel there with lots of help from Jack, Bob, and many other talented writers.

Jack and I talked on April 25th, 2013 about two of his four published novels, Blood and Gabriela and the Widow. We talked about his writing process and about the history that informed his work. My conversation with Jack is a sample of the kind of coaching that goes on at Louisa’s, an open and welcoming place for writers in and around Seattle.

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First, I’d like you to explain the concept of story spine because we will be referencing it in our conversation.

Let me kick back a little bit and tell you how Bob and I became aware of the notion of a spine. We used to talk about the armature of a story, but we really didn’t know what it was until we were teaching in the screenwriting program at the University of Washington and Sydney Pollack visited our class. He talked about the spine of a movie and he said that he didn’t know what the spine of Out of Africa was until he was filming his third reel. Then he realized that the spine was based on the notion of possession. What that meant was that the notion of possession showed up in a number of metaphors or images in the screenplay. In the beginning, for example, the female protagonist owns all this land and all this property and in the end she’s selling off everything and losing the land. She also loses her lover, who refuses to be possessed. So this opened up a whole panorama of ideas of what we as novelists could do to take advantage of that notion of spine.

So I started working at it and I came up with the idea that the spine is a statistical measure. In other words, if you write and write and write, and then you go back and look at the metaphors that you used, the one that has the most transformations is probably an example of the spine. You read Claude Lévi-Strauss, so you know that he tells us that myths are constructed from a set of polarities – plus and minus – that are mediated by a third element, which then introduces another set of polarities that has to be mediated. So, if the spine in Out of Africa is possession, then, of course, the polarity of that is dispossession or no possession.

The advantage of learning what the spine is early on is that you don’t have to wait until Act III to do your writing about the writing. The most clear and complete working out that I have done occurs in Gabriela and the Widow  when I discovered that the spine was thick/thin. What you have there is a whole series of metaphors linking or linked to Gabriela. The first time you see her, she has no breasts, she’s skinny, and through time she changes, gradually. Her story is a thickening of herself. Look at La Viuda. She is in fact very thick. She’s rich and she lives in a big house, she has all these possessions. She’s starting to thin up. So you get this crossing of thick and thin, and it became clear to me—well, I did a lot of writing first—what the spine in Gabriela was.

We were primed and ready for this notion of spine, but we didn’t know it until we met Sydney Pollack.

So how do you define spine?

The spine is a system of metaphors dictated by the predominance of a single polarity and its transformations (because this ties into linguistics). The spine is determined by that polarity that has the highest number of transformations.

What’s the difference between change and transformation?

Change is a kind of transformation, yes, but it refers to characters and not to language. Gabriela’s character changes thoughout the story, she evolves as she acts on her character arc. But a transformation has to do with the images and metaphors used in the writing of that story. Let’s look for example at the way the spine thick/thin works in Gabriela. The first time you see her, she’s wearing a peasant skirt. You see her again in a servant’s dress, then you see her again in a yellow dress, then you see her again in a pair of Levi’s. You see her again later putting on a sable coat, then you see her again blossoming into a woman and putting on a red dress. These are all transformations of a single polarity, thick/thin.

Now harken back to Blood, which you have read. Mitch changes as he learns the truth about his family and about the reasons for the war he had been a soldier in. That’s change. But there’s also a large number of transformations of the notion of blade, or knife, or cutting. Mitch uses the knife, he uses the fan blade to make the knife, he uses a button, he uses a zipper, he uses a hardback book as a slicing device, and in the end he actually bites off an ear, so that’s another transformation of the cutting/biting metaphor. That’s pattern and transformation of one notion. If you don’t have that kind of transformation, you have to find it. Otherwise your writing wanders in all directions.

Jack's favorite Salvador Dali painting, Morphological Echo (1936) that illustrates well the concept of transformation of a metaphor

Jack’s favorite Salvador Dali painting, Morphological Echo (1936), which illustrates well the concept of transformation of a metaphor

What is the spine in Blood? In my opinion, it has to do with the sinner/saint polarity or innocence/corruption.

Because of the looping structure of Blood, and because of the structure of the space, I think the spine is inside/outside. There is an inner-story (Mitch’s bloody years) and the outer-story, his time in prison.

I think that sinner/saint is a strong polarity with lots of transforms and mediations. It may be that the innocence/corruption polarity is the spine of the inner story, but it shows up in the outer one as well: Mitch/Squeaky. I am inclined to think that the inner/outer pattern is the more potent one though. The way I see that novel is as two stories: the one Mitch writes, “The Patron Saint of Blood,” and the outer one of his changes as he understands what he has done. That’s the innocent/corrupt polarity. You can see that one working out in the arc of the guard Mitch corrupts into killing his brother-in-law, using Geraldine as bait.

The resource bases in Blood and Gabriela are different, but the war depicted in the two stories is always about maintaining the power structure within the indigenous community and about grabbing the resources by outside interest groups. Can you talk about the fight to control the resource base in these two novels?

That’s right. In Blood that’s very, very clear. Everything that takes place in Blood is about controlling the resource base and power structure.

In Gabriela, the resource base is and has always been not the objects, not the gold, but the mythology of womanhood. Access to the myths. When Gabriela comes into the story, she has no access to the myths. She doesn’t know who or what she is. Gradually, La Viuda teaches her all the myths. She brings them from around the world. I think you noticed that in your review of Gabriela. In a way, La Viuda is the resource base because she contains the knowledge and what she does is give this knowledge to Gabriela. The objects are an index to mythology. For instance, when she teaches Gabriela the mythology of stones. The objects are just placeholders as she reveals to Gabriela the true myth base which is the mythology of being a woman.

In a way the resource base is culture, but it’s universal, and Gabriela is absolutely innocent when it comes to that. And then gradually she remembers stories that old women would tell sitting around the campfire. In the end she becomes the embodiment of a certain aspect of the mythology. She is Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of motherhood and fertility. She’s also the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, the revenging goddess of death, because what she does in the end is that she stacks up all the bones of her dead. If you look at Coatlicue, she is in fact a serpent goddess covered with skulls.

There are all these mythological aspects to the story. It’s really not worthwhile to write if you don’t write a myth. And that’s where my allegiance and respect for Claude Lévi-Strauss come in.

Part II: Jack Remick on the real-world history he used to build the spine and to create the competition for the resource base in his two novels.

8 thoughts on “Author Interview: Jack Remick on Turning History into Story, Part 1

  1. Roxana,
    Your posts just get better and better. What I especially appreciated was how you had the author break down his method. Small lines about how objects are indexes to myth will stick with me for some time.
    Thanks for posting!

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