In April 2010, I took a six-week class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle called Rewriting the Manuscript. The instructor drew diagrams on the whiteboard, asked us to circle our strong verbs and concrete nouns in colored ink, and took notes while we enacted scenes from each other’s novels in class. Then he showed us how to improve those scenes. I had been looking for that kind of guidance and support for years—so, during the last class, I was sad to see it ending. Until the instructor, Robert J. Ray, invited us all to writing practice at Louisa’s Café on Eastlake. So I went. I’ve been going since. There, with guidance and support from many wonderful writers, I started—and finished—the first draft of a novel, one writing practice at a time.
And here is Robert J. Ray, author of eight novels (including the Matt Murdock murder mystery series) and the popular Weekend Novelist writing series, discussing myth, story, and history—the kind of conversation we’ve had many times after writing practice at Louisa’s.
Welcome to Rewriting History, Bob.
How do you start writing a novel? Do you make an outline? Do research? Write backstory for the characters?
I write 100 pages, that’s a good initial investment—if you stop at page 101, you’ve wasted time. These first pages go for opening scenes—where does the book open? They go for character work—age, income, needs, wants, who’s got the resource base, back story, hunting for trauma. There are markers: if I don’t have a killer by page 25, I dig deep, searching for evil. I shift the POV to First Person: My name is… I am the killer. I made my first kill at the age of…
Early in the process, I sit the killer down for an interview. The interview might get in the book, it might not. Dialogue is handy because it’s back and forth, two voices force the writer to work. Dialogue is a power-trip, where the killer seeks control.
You mentioned resource base. Would you please define it?
Resource base is a visible goal for the characters—what they will kill for, fight for, die for. The resource base in the movie Waterworld is dirt. The map on the little girl’s back shows the way to an island, a place of precious dirt. The resource base in Moby-Dick is blubber—transformed to lamp oil, and used to light up homes, schools, places of business, handy real world stuff.
You teach that novelists should identify and work on their story spine, and that the spine doesn’t usually reveal itself until the rewriting phase. Would you please explain the concept of story spine?
The spine is a set of polarities that you can use to sharpen your dialogue when you rewrite. Jack Remick and I discovered the spine when Sidney Pollack, the Hollywood producer, told us about filming Out of Africa—he gave us examples of possession in the dialogue. In the movie, Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep) says: “I want my Kikuyu to learn to read.” And Denys Finch-Hatton (played by Robert Redford) says: “My Kikuyu, my Limoges, my farm—it’s a lot to own.” And then she stiffens, saying she has paid plenty for what she owns. And then he says: “We’re not owners here. We’re just passing through.”
So the polarities are owning/not owning. You can see these polarities at work in the film. Finch-Hatton owns his clothes and an airplane. Karen Blixen owns a house, a coffee farm—like any archetypal colonial, she considers the Kikuyu her children, her possessions. Because she has clean thoughts, she is blind to the spine, which creates drama in her story.
What is the spine in your latest book, Murdock Tackles Taos? What’s the resource base being disputed?
There are two resource bases in Murdock Tackles Taos. The one on display is Angel’s Nest, the headquarters hangout of the bad guy, Theo Ulster, and financed by the money of Drusilla Dorn, an obvious resource. The secret resource base is the tender flesh of young females, who get slaughtered, then cooked, and served as a naughty delicacy to rich people who need thrills in their lives.
To answer your question about the spine of Murdock Tackles Taos, here’s a dinner party dialogue. The setting is Drusilla Dorn’s dining room. The guests are enjoying their food chatting about anthropology. Let’s identify the speakers: Marie-Claire and Sonja are professional tennis players. Drusilla is the hostess. Murdock is the sleuth. Sammy, the chief of police, is in cahoots with Theo, the bad guy. They are talking about the Anasazi, cliff-dwellers who ran out of water. The spine words are in italics:
Oh, I know—that anthropologist, what’s his name? The one that said the Toltec cannibalized the poor Anasazi?
His name is Turner. He has been discredited.
Are you an anthropologist, Miss Vasic?
My tennis pays for my school. I am most interested in the intersection of physical anthropology and evolutionary biology.
Senora, I’m out of food. Would you mind?
Samuel, your appetite does me proud.
Gotta tell you, no venison I ate ever tasted like this.
You guessed it. The spine of Murdock Tackles Taos is eat/be eaten.
Murdock is the hero of your detective series. He is a Vietnam War veteran and he sometimes stays awake at night, unable to sleep, remembering the swamp, the ambushes, the dead. Some of the other characters share a past with Murdock from those times. When you first created Murdock, why did you put the war in his past and how did you research this aspect of his life? How did the war influence Murdock’s path in life, throughout your novels?
Murdock’s military service is a believable way to explain his expertise with weapons. He was the right age for Vietnam. I researched the war by reading thick books like A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, and have maximum admiration for the writers and the soldiers they write about.
Murdock started out in a Ranger unit—so that he could go to school, get trained—and then he shifted over to the Army CID, another school and more training. CID is short for Criminal Investigation Command, and it gave Murdock a pathway to his cop career in Southern California. Having a military past makes it easy to haul characters out of the past, like Sammy Savage in the Taos book, and Blazer Blaisdell in the Christmas book. The war links them together, but I have to audition them in three or four scenes before I see how they can help the story.
You and Jack Remick taught writing classes at the University of Washington and also collaborated on The Weekend Novelist series. You both stress the importance of archetype, ritual, and myth in the subtext and subplots of novels. What’s Murdock’s archetype, what rituals define him, what myths he reenacts?
Murdock starts out a Grail Quester. He’s a cowboy, a knight in armor, a loner. He’s the stranger who comes to town, all he wants is a shot of whiskey at the bar, and here comes trouble. When the evil piles up, he becomes an Avenging Angel, back from the dead, here to right the wrongs of the world. There’s a dressing scene in the first book where Murdock is arming himself in front of a mirror. That’s the ritual that defines him, weapons, girding for battle.
Myth is a system of cross-cultural polarities. In Levi-Strauss, the big polarities are life and death, upper and lower, light and dark. And there are all these famous characters making the downward trip:
- Dante goes down with Virgil
- Faust goes down with Mephistopheles
- Dionysus goes down in search of Semele
- Orpheus goes down after Eurydice
- Izanagi and Izanami go down to Yomi, the Japanese land of the dead
- Emperor Yudhisthira descends into Naraka, the Hindu land of the dead
Myth is big-picture simplistic: life and death, descent and ascent, Quester and Grail, Knight and Dragon. Action in myth coughs up recognizable stories: Cinderella rises up from the ashes to marry a prince. Tess in Working Girl ascends from the secretarial pool into her own corner office—she is a contemporary Cinderella. When you know the myth, you retell the story using your set of metaphors—there are over 4,000 versions of the Cinderella tale. Parsifal sets out to find the Holy Grail. Ahab sets out to find the white whale. Count Almasy in The English Patient sets out to find the Cave of Swimmers.
Is there a character in your novels that you relate the most to or share common history with?
John D. MacDonald, who authored the Travis McGee series, had a sidekick named Meyer, a professor and economist. I gave Murdock a sidekick named Wally, also a professor. Meyer and Wally had the same role—they supplied the voice of the Greek Chorus. In this new book, Helene Steinbeck shoves Wally offstage. She’s better looking, good in bed, and she can shoot.
Your novels follow the current history of the United States, from meth dealers, to corporate corruption and an impending student loan crisis. Are you, through your books, an advocate for tackling such problems in today’s America?
History says that The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, got Teddy Roosevelt riled enough to send inspectors to Chicago. They got riled enough to engineer the Meat Inspection Act, which, some say, led to the FDA.
Art can change an individual—you read a great novel, you decide to become a novelist—but one dreamer does not create the critical mass needed for big social change. And the novel itself is reactive, not pro-active. And except for a handful of crazies—novelists are a conservative lot—the majority of today’s novels still ape Dickens, not James Joyce.
Is your next Murdock novel set Paris? Are there going to be any European historical aspects present in your book?
I jotted some notes for a Paris novel starring Murdock and Helene. I was there, in Paris, three blocks from the Tour Eiffel, and I tried to capture a sense of place—so they ride the bus a lot. I’ve got a femme fatale on paper; Murdock and his new billionaire buddy meet her in French class. But I’m on the third draft of the Sedona book, cutting, squeezing, splicing—and I’m too old to work on two books at once.
When you read a novel, what do you look for?
I look for an open door, a welcome mat, an easy entry. I want time and place. Where are we? What’s the year? What’s the day of the week? What’s the hour? What’s the temperature? How are the characters dressed? What objects are onstage? Who’s telling the story? Is the writer setting us up for a shift in the POV? Who can I trust? Which character is not seeing straight? If the prose is muddled, are we seeing an accident (the writer forgot to check the prose) or a clever technique that will advance the novel as a form? I also want to see if the writer has a grasp of dramatic structure: Where are the plot points? How good is the approach to climax? Where is the triad?
Can you provide an example of a triad?
I’ll try. A triad is a cluster of three linked characters, they want their slice of the resource base. In The English Patient there are two triads, one from Almasy’s copy of the Histories, by Herodotus—Queen Omphale, King Candaules, and Gyges the soldier—which mirrors the triad in the desert: Catherine Clifton, her husband Geoffrey, and Count Almasy (played by Ralph Fiennes). Omphale is married to Candaules, the intruder is Gyges, a spear-carrier. Gyges resolves the triad by killing the king and marrying the queen.
In The English Patient, Catherine is married to Geoffrey. The intruder is Count Almasy. The triad is resolved when the husband, Geoffrey Clifton, crashes his yellow plane in the desert, killing his wife and himself. In The English Patient, Ondaatje used the Clifton-Almasy triad (Sahara Desert in the 1930s) to mirror the Candaules-Gyges-Omphale triad in the Kingdom of Lydia (Turkey in 718 B.C.).
The triad is off-balance, two against one, so the characters are busy recruiting. Character A competes with B, she needs the help of Character C. That competition is an engine for drama. You resolve the triad by killing off one character. Triads are everywhere in art, literature, politics, life. The triad in Paolo Uccello’s painting Saint George and the Dragon is Hero-Princess-Dragon. The drama comes from the imbalance in the triad: does the Princess lead the Dragon away or does she deliver the Dragon to the spear? There are two key objects: the lance and the leash.
What kind of books do you read for fun?
My favorite cop-writer is John Sandford, author of the Prey series. He never misses, his cops are funny, they make great man-jokes, and their male camaraderie gives me hope for mankind. I’ve read all of Robert B. Parker (his Spenser detective made it to the screen; Tom Selleck has taken over the Jesse Stone series), and am envious of his dialogue.
I learned to write—cadence and detail and the long sentence—teaching All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, maybe thirty times. I still yearn to write my own Pale Fire, Nabokov’s sumptuous satire after Lolita. I just discovered a writer named James Salter—Harper’s did a long essay on his work. He’s got this gift for lean narrative. I’m trying to steal the gift. I read Don DeLillo’s Falling Man twice because he’s doing some intricate twisty things with sentences—and I still don’t have his secret.
Thank you, Bob, for taking the time to answer these questions.
Thanks for taking the time to ask good questions. It was fun poking at answers.