At the end of April my husband and I attended a book reading and signing by one of my favorite writers, Ben Percy. In a cozy setting at St. Paul’s Common Good Books, Ben offered free beer and some reflection on the books that made him want to write: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Patrick Rothfuss‘s The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear (among many others). My fantasy/sci-fi/Western-reading husband listened raptly as Ben–in his best basso profondo voice–read passages like this from The Dead Lands:
Sometimes she dreams the child is not a child. It is a grub, fat and white and segmented, with black eyes. It is a beast with tiny yellow fangs and tiny yellow claws, its body covered in fur sleek as an otter’s. Or maybe it is a nothing, a dark spirit, a possessed vapor, and her body the house it haunts.
Please note that my dear husband has been thoroughly schooled (by me!) in all things Ben Percy. He has heard, countless times, of my absolute respect for Ben’s writing and teaching career: his prize-winning short stories (my favorite of which is “Refresh, Refresh” and if you haven’t read it, stop right here and do so); his spell-binding first novels, The Wilding and Red Moon; the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop in which Ben was my workshop leader and where I learned so much; Ben’s kind, expert and frank additional review of my ten or twelve short stories–which I cheekily titled Everything I’ve Got, and he equally cheekily designated “not a collection.” My husband knows all of this, plus my high regard (as well as the Star Tribune‘s, and many other’s) for his Stephen King-esque work ethic.
Any yet, when presenting our two purchased books for signing, my husband nonetheless said to Ben something like, “This stuff is great! It’s what I read, not what my wife reads!”
Here’s the truth: I do not generally read some of the kinds of things Ben Percy writes. Red Moon, for example, is the only werewolf epic I have ever enjoyed. Nonetheless I do read Ben Percy. Avidly. With utmost respect. I’ll read everything he writes until my dying day, and here’s why: Ben is a talented, eloquent writer AND an expert storyteller. They don’t always go together, and I love that he challenges their (especially currently) estrangement. I love it that he’s cheeky enough to ask: Which do you want to be? A writer, or a storyteller?
I think I’ve always been a writer. But I really want to be a storyteller. To do so, I learned early on that I need to study and, I hope, one day master plot, suspense, the meting out of information that makes a reader anxious (in all ways) to turn the page.
Mine has been a somewhat deferred entry into this writer and/or storyteller world. Jonathan O’Dell opens an article for Buzzfeed, “Too Old to Write a Novel? 7 Tips for the Late Beginner:” I came to writing late in life. I was 45 before I wrote my first line of fiction. Me, too. And yet I am cheeky enough (see many references above) to suggest that Mr. O’Dell missed a tip for the late beginner: Find a writer who does what you can’t do, or what you do poorly, and make it your business to learn from them.
Expert storytelling is one of the many reasons I read Ben Percy’s work, and why I really loved The Dead Lands. It’s a 400-page book I consumed in three sittings. On many occasions I had to actively prohibit myself from scanning down the page to see: Who is behind that door? What creature makes that kind of noise? Next up are the questions it takes a hundred pages to answer: When will character A reveal what s/he knows to character B? How do people and their relationships evolve under harsher and harsher conditions? And then there are those it takes a lifetime to even begin to consider: Will the party get where they are so desperate to go? What will they find when they do?
What’s more, there’s another amazingly wonderful surprise about The Dead Lands–don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler. There are MANY strong, quirky, un-Barbie-doll-like female characters. Not just Mina Clark, red-headed and hard-drinking and, in many regards, thoroughly unlikeable. Hooray! And with not one reference to the size of her chest. There’s another character, Lewis Meriweather’s museum assistant, Ella. She’s just a kid but let me tell you, she is one tough cookie. And how about the search party’s guide, Gawea? She may be the strongest, asking–not calling–all sorts of elements of the natural world to assist her as she keeps the biggest secret of all. And it just keeps going: when you come upon a potentially treacherous outpost–guess what? They’re all women! Surviving out in the middle of the dead lands just fine by themselves, thank you very much. The two characters at the end who blow up a bridge? Two women. And post-menopausal ones, at that.
There’s been a lot of buzz lately, especially in YA fiction, about putting children of color at the center of the action. Of course, I was with it in spirit–but truthfully, until I saw all these strong women in action in The Dead Lands, I didn’t really know what a difference it could make to a person’s reading experience. I can’t tell you how much I liked those two older women at the end.
So: if you like a good story, particularly well-written, read The Dead Lands. If you’re a writer who wants to better understand plot and all of it’s manifestations, read The Dead Lands. And if you are a woman who is tired–OH SO TIRED–of female characters who are victims, or eye candy, or not allowed to be despicable, well, I’ve got a book for you: The Dead Lands.
One more thing: that MFA I don’t have? I’m not all that convinced it would help, not more than reading Ben Percy, that is. For whatever reasons, plot and story appear to have taken a hit, lately, in literary fiction. I think that’s changing, which is great, but a friend of mine who graduated from a very reputable MFA program not long ago told me that, late in the years of her study, a few brave writing instructors came around and clandestinely told anyone who would listen, “You know, it’s OK to talk about plot.”
Here’s one thing I’m not cheeky about: no one writes well without reading well. Well and copiously. I read a lot of fiction (although never enough, and often not well enough) and I try to read the best that’s out there. That includes The Dead Lands, in my not-so-humble–in fact, often cheeky–opinion.