Revising and rewriting old books

Looking at the older drafts of my book and short story manuscripts is similar to going down into the Grand Canyon and seeing the strata of past eras stacked up like cord wood.

Every revision of a book came at a different era of my life, eras that no longer represent the focus of my thinking in the present. Same story, of course, just as I’m still the “me” of ten or twenty years ago. But the ambiance is different. The emotions change, too, depending on whether I was angry about something similar to an event in the novel or, some years later, felt more mellow about it.

oldbookI’m reworking an old novel now that has gone out of print. I’m surprised by some of the things I find: (a) Wow, did I write that? (b) Crap, why the hell did I say that? (c) I don’t remember this scene at all.

I try never to change the basic story, but tend to polish a little here and clarify the meaning a little there. Of course, Amazon keeps everything, including books that came and went years ago and haven’t been in print for years. So, if I get this book fixed up the way I want it, there will be an author’s note at the beginning that tells readers the names of previous versions. (I’m not into the romance authors’ ploy of releasing old stories with new names and/or new covers so that readers buy them without realizing they read the things 20 years ago.)

Self discovery

A writer’s journey down into the depths of his older work shows him (hopefully) that he’s writing better stories today than he wrote when he first started out. Most of my really old stuff never gets revised! The work also shows him where he might have slipped in recent years as though he forgot about some of his better techniques. He sees changes in himself as well, for the work–as Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”

If you’ve ever come across a diary you kept years ago or the saved letters you wrote to an old friend or family member who’s since passed on, you know what I’m talking about. No matter how careful or flippant or circumspect you were, your secrets are still there–the secrets about yourself as you were then, whenever you wrote what you wrote. What a strange and eerie way to re-discover the selves we thought we’d outgrown and buried in the past.

I see all this when revise or rewrite old books. In some ways it’s a blessing, and it some way’s it’s not.

–Malcolm

If you love magical realism, Florida, conjure or a bit of mystery, I invite you to discover my two folk magic novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”¬†

 

 

Returning to Sunetra Gupta’s ‘Memories of Rain’

memoriesofrainIt’s been 24 years since I first read Memories of Rain by Calcutta-born Sunetra Gupta who, when not writing fiction and translating Tagore Poetry, works as a Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. It’s one of my “go to” books whenever I run out of factory fresh books. I’ve read it numerous times and find the prose fresh and new every time I return to it.

Moni, who is Bengali, marries an Englishman who, in those early days that began on a rainy day, ignited her passions and promised her everything. Years after that day, Moni is planning to leave him because he not only has another woman, he has brought her into their home in what he sees as a perfect love triangle. Flashbacks tell much of the story.

When the book was released, Kirkus reviews said: “A stunning, luminous debut set in Calcutta and London by a young, true heir to Virginia Woolf. The forward action of Gupta’s hypnotic novel takes place during a single weekend: Calcutta-born Moni, despondent over her English husband’s infidelity, secretly plans to take their daughter and return to India on the child’s sixth birthday. But the stream- of-consciousness narrative weaves together memories and images, providing not just the history of a fragile love but of a woman’s psychology and soul.”

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, so I was stunned to see such adulation on the back cover of the novel. It turned out to be true, though I wonder how Gupta survived it and was able to write four novels after that one without losing her nerve or her voice. Her most recent is So Good in Black (2011).

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, though you can still find used copies available on Amazon. Several reader reviews on Amazon’s US and UK sites are less than kind, proving my thesis that if you don’t normally read a book in a certain genre, you shouldn’t be writing a review. Such reviewers lambaste the style which is essential to the kind of book it is.

The Independent said, “Do not be put off by this (Kirkus’ viewpoint) – the comparison might have been provoked by the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but Ms Gupta has a refined sensibility and a graceful style all her own. She shows an intelligence, wisdom, and judgement astonishing in so young a writer – she is only 27.”

Ms. Gupta and I have corresponded by e-mail from time to time, and when she came to Georgia for a medical conference several years ago, we planned to meet for a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the conference schedule changed, and we couldn’t make our schedules match. I was one of the early reviewers of So Good in Black and had despaired that it took so long for a U. S. publisher to discover and publish the book, so I expect we might have talked about the book.

Her research of infectious diseases has brought her awards. I marvel at how she juggles two loves, science and art, biology and fiction, and novels that immerse readers in other worlds while she is otherwise focused on the health of this one. Is she Woolf’s heir? Yes and no. If she wrote more fiction, then yes. But since she doesn’t, then probably not. Either way, I think Woolf would appreciate her work.

Perhaps I should hold a seance and talk to Ms. Woolf. Who knows what she would say. Or, if Ms. Gupta comes to Georgia again, perhaps our schedules will match. Meanwhile, I read and re-read Memories of Rain and continue to wonder at its words.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and fantasy, including Conjure Woman’s Cat.

 

Review: ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll hear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.”

halfformedRiverrun of words, past church and family and worse, from swerve of hope to bend of knee, you might think you’re reading “Finnegan” again as you start Eimear McBride’s streamOFconsciousness novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. James Joyce leaves early on, though when you reach the novel’s final words, you might agree this story is a wake.

It’s also a mental letter of sorts, an interior monologue, from a rebellious sister to a brother with a brain tumor, within.the.tight.confines of a dysfunctional household, abuse and other perversions, rape and WorseThanRape, and the protagonist’s desperately destructive behavior. We are INside her head. Too much for simple¬†syntax there, though sin is a constant theme, and prayers, too, so when James Joyce leaves the book by the back door, Virginia Woolf arrives at the front door. Figuratively speaking. You should be afraid, for this book will wreck you as though you yourself are violating the protagonist page by heartbreaking page, you bastard.

It’s also a raw poem, laced with the worst muck of life, the flotsam any free-flowing river carries along with sunlit ripples of lyr(within lyrics)ics more beautiful than anyone other than the doomed brother deserves to hear. The flow of words, blood, semen, vomit and other prayers are dAZZling to experience. The book’s un-named characters lead sad lives that would be sad if McBride had told the story through a conventional approach. Yet the fractured prose fits all that’s broken in the story and the poetry of the riverrun of words accentuates every vile UNformed and 1/2Formed thing.

Mammy is a single parent who is randomly holy.past.all.understanding, loving, vicious, and blind to everything but her son in her unkempt house in this small Irish town. Daddy is absent, resting in hell or elsewhere. Uncle is perverted. Schoolkids are cruel. Men have one thing on their minds. Brother is slow. Sister is wantonly searching for herself. And fate is relentless. Life inside this story, and inside the protagonist’s head, is difficult, difficult to read in half-formed thoughts, and impossible to set aside.

You won’t forget this story even though you will try.

–Malcolm