The Cat Sat on the Mat – John le Carré on Plotting

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, the British author of espionage novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Russia House; The Tailor of Panama; The Constant Gardener, and many others.

He worked briefly for British intelligence, MI5 and MI6, in the 1950s and 1960s. As he tells on his website: “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.”

From a 1997 interview with Cornwell in the Paris Review with George Plimpton, the author said that after teaching (at Eton):

In all I don’t suppose that I spooked around for more than seven or eight years . . . but that was my little university for the purposes that I needed later to write. I think that if I’d gone to sea at that time I would have written about the sea. If I’d gone into advertising or stockbroking, that would have been my stuff.

It was from there that I began abstracting and peopling my other world, my alternative, private world, which became my patch, and it became a Tolkien-like operation, except that none of my characters have hair between their toes.

He says he starts a book with character:

I’ve never been able to write a book without one very strong character in my rucksack.

The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.

What happens next? Plimpton asked.

The process is empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within.

They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict.

“The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.

In another interview with Cornwell/John le Carré in the New York Times, the interviewer asked:

Q. Is it true that you once compared writing your novels to making a jam roll? You open the pastry out, spread the jam and then roll it up.

A. . . . I think as a rough principle I always begin with one character and then perhaps two, and they seem to be in conflict with each other. . . . “The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat”  is a story.

And I have a sense of atmosphere, the environment in which I want to set them, and a sense of how the ending will be. From there the story takes over by itself.

But the layer cake you refer to – yes, I like to lead the story forward . . . on a whole variety of levels, and try to make all these levels then converge and pay off at the end.

A central character, a conflict over who’s sitting on whose mat, and a jelly roll/layer cake of a story . . . it’s a recipe for great fiction.

The Wonderfully Eccentric Characters of Charles Dickens

Don’t know about you, but I’ve been enjoying Little Dorrit on PBS the last few weeks.

Reminded me of some lines from G.K. Chesterton (Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1874–1936, author of the Father Brown mysteries, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, and The Everlasting Man, which had a big influence on C.S. Lewis, among others). Among Chesterton’s many works:  Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906).

Here are a few bits by Chesterton (from Chapter 10) on the eccentric, outlandish, quirky characters of Dickens:

The humble characters of Dickens do not amuse each other with epigrams; they amuse each other with themselves. The present that each man brings in hand is his own incredible personality. In the most sacred sense, and in the most literal sense of the phrase, he “gives himself away.”

. . . Now, the man who gives himself away does the last act of generosity; he is like a martyr, a lover, or a monk. But he is also almost certainly what we commonly call a fool.

The key of the great characters of Dickens is that they are all great fools.
. . .
It is impossible to do justice to these figures because the essential of them is their multiplicity. The whole point of Dickens is that he not only made them, but made them by myriads; that he stamped his foot, and armies came out of the earth.
. . .
It may be noticed that the great artists always choose great fools rather than great intellectuals to embody humanity. Hamlet does express the æsthetic dreams and the bewilderments of the intellect; but Bottom the Weaver expresses them much better.
. . .
There is an apostolic injunction to suffer fools gladly. We always lay the stress on the word “suffer,” and interpret the passage as one urging resignation. It might be better, perhaps, to lay the stress upon the word “gladly,” and make our familiarity with fools a delight, and almost a dissipation.

[Found the entire text of Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: A Critical Study on a few web pages created by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan.]

As you may know, I’m a proponent of the quirky character (here’s a recent article, “In Praise of Eccentricity,” from my newsletter).

Indeed, let’s “make our familiarity with fools a delight”! And who better to learn from than the great Mr. Dickens?

Sense of Place: The Setting for Desire

There are several things that drive a novel’s fictional story from the first pages. Think of a story as a kind of journey, something with forward motion. If you think of the metaphor of an automobile, the plot of a story might be considered the engine, the motive power.

But something is needed to propel a car: fuel. For a story, that should be the deep desires of the characters.

You can have a perfectly decent story (a nice car). But it you don’t have the fuel of desire, it doesn’t really go anywhere. No means of propulsion. If the plot moves forward, it will seem forced, like people running out of gas and having to push their car down the road. Or calling for a tow truck. The story moves (sort of), but not in a fluid, compelling way.

The other thing that’s needed for a good story’s journey is the reality of the road. In fiction, you need a plausibly tangible “road” going through an imaginary (but clearly imaginable!) landscape. This is the story’s setting . . . or more powerfully, its sense of place (a deeper, more emotion-rich version).

If you don’t have a well-developed landscape (or any at all), the journey of this car (your story) will be somewhat generic, floating in the fog of banality or nothingness. You need the reality of place – the hum of wheels on dry pavement, the bumps, the times of rain or sun, the delight of things seen out the window – to make the journey come to life.

Let’s look at an example that combines desire and place:

Here’s a bit from Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel, Bel Canto (PEN Faulkner Award). It’s an amazing work; I read it in a few wonderful evenings. A beautiful piece of writing, a mix of suspense and romance . . . with lots of unspoken advice for other writers in its pages.

The novel relies on a clear and definite “sense of place.” From the first paragraph, it is bound (except for a few memories of the characters that take them elsewhere) to a single location: a mansion in a South American county. After the set-up scene, a grand dinner party (visiting opera star, international businessmen, diplomats), a band of gun-wielding terrorists take over and all hell breaks loose. Then, remarkably, as they settle down for a long hostage situation, unexpected human emotions begin to emerge: empathy, romance, passion, love.

Here is one passage that sold me on the story in the first five pages (note Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages rules). On page four, a central character, Katsumi Hosokawa, recalls a memory of going to his first opera in Japan as an 11-year-old child, with his father. For the performance of Rigoletto, “They did not have especially good seats, but their view was unobstructed.”

They climbed the long set of stairs to their row, careful not to look down into the dizzying void beneath them. They bowed and begged to be excused by every person who stood to let them pass into their seats, and then they unfolded their seats and slipped inside.

[Nice motion, entering a place . . . encountering it for the first time.]

They were early, but other people were earlier, as part of the luxury that came with the ticket price was the right to sit quietly in this beautiful place and wait. They waited, father and son, without speaking, until finally the darkness fell and the first breath of music stirred from someplace far below.

[Time passing . . . anticipation . . . then, a beginning of something.]

Tiny people, insects, really, slipped out from behind the curtains, opened their mouths, and with their voices gilded the walls with their yearning, their grief, their boundless, reckless love that would lead each one to separate ruin.

[Patchett is cleverly laying down the central themes of the novel: the mystery and danger of love.]

A few lines later:

It was early in the second act, when Rigoletto and Gilda sang together, their voices twining, leaping, that he reached out for his father’s hand. He had no idea what they were saying . . . he only knew that he needed to hold to something. The pull they had on him was so strong he could feel himself falling forward out of the high and distant seats.

The small gesture of a moment – and the whole brief memory with its powerful sense of place – sets the stage [pun unavoided] for a lyrical and suspenseful novel, full of fascinating characters and their passions.

With her mastery, Patchett has used a small “sense of place” scene (a brief memory by a main character of a place so meaningful to him) to establish a theme of deep and nonverbal desire (the power of music, the drive of deep emotions beyond language). This novel, that returns immediately to the main setting of the novel, the South American mansion, will careen forward like a finely-tuned (and expertly driven) race-car with the powerful drive that comes from the deepest desires of the key characters.

All set in a specific place, one that comes to be familiar, like a second home for the reader. At least it was for me, as I picked up the novel each evening and returned to that mansion.

Bel Canto is a novel that presents place as a setting for desire.

Four walls. Within them, all the world.

Women’s Soccer and Stereotypes

Hats off to the U.S. women’s soccer team that just pulled off an amazing 1-0 victory over Brazil to win gold in the Olympics!

(And in the heart-stopping extra 30 minutes of overtime, no less.)

Somehow, the Americans’ gutsy, swarming defense managed to thwart the powerful Brazilians, led by Marta whose control of the ball was very scary to watch if you were rooting for the U.S. I was afraid the Americans would get worn out chasing Marta and others whose seemed to be able to thread in and out of traffic with impunity.

Brazil was on attack and kept the ball in the U.S. half of the field most of the game. It reminded me (though not quite as bad) as a match I watched a few years ago: Brazil v. Iceland. Poor Icelanders. The ball was in the Icelandic half maybe 89 of the 90 minutes. Seriously, they could have sold seats for a few hundred people to sit in folding chairs on the Brazilian half of the field and would not have interfered with the game.

Today, the U.S. spent most of the game chasing golden-jerseyed first-name-only Brazilians like Marta, Renata, and Erika, and got only two or three real shots of their own, but managed to drill one past Barbara, the diving, outstretched Brazilian goalie, to score the only goal. Wow!

For writers . . . (oh, right, the focus of this blog) . . . the Olympic final I was watching (in Spanish on Telemundo) was called Final Futbol Femenino.

Feminine football?

In the English language, while women’s refers to the gender, feminine traditionally refers to a special attitude (often assumed inescapable), an evolved, deep-seated pattern of acting differently from men.

How many of us unconsciously always adopt that assumption when creating female characters? Do we expect our best women characters to act differently . . . more emotional, romantic, weaker, indirect, indecisive? And if they act otherwise, are they assumed to be not-so-positive characters? Indeed, that’s often the case . . . in novels.

But what if the real world is changing? And what if we allowed women in novels to be like women in soccer: strong, confident, focused, playing by the same rules as the men?

What if their behavior was just situational, that they employed strategies of “feminine wiles” only when they wanted to (not because it was somehow bred in the bone)?

Of course, age, culture, upbringing, and past experiences play a role. And we’ll want to create strong and successful women characters, yet also others that try and fail, and others more weak and flawed.

But in the end, if you want to craft some powerful women characters, I’d suggest you get out and watch a women’s soccer match. Then go write . . . with a broader vision of what it means to be feminine.