Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On to the next novel, with different doubts plus help from David Mitchell

So I've started, or re-started, my second novel. The actual start date is hard to pin down, since like the previous novel it's based on a short story I wrote several years ago. Also when I abandoned my first novel last summer, I wrote about thirty rough pages of this one, in a kind of panic--by god, I have to produce some kind of novel after all this effort. But a wise friend told me I really needed to finish the first one, and now I see why.

The prolific, acclaimed, and yet apparently extremely nice writer David Mitchell says in this NYT profile that the experience of writing the first one is crucial--even if the book never sees the light of day. An agent had told him "in no uncertain terms to drop" his first novel.

“I had doubts about its quality,” Mitchell told me. “But it had taught me the doubts. What writing it had taught me was that it’s not that great a novel after all.” And it taught him something more: “I had been trying to prove to myself that I could get over this incredible obstacle, this unscalable cliff face of—am I the sort of person who can get a novel written or not? Until you’ve written one, it’s just . . . wow. A feat that humans not like you achieve.”

Now, I am not nearly ready to give up on my only (nearly) finished novel. I haven't even tried to sell it as yet. But regardless of what happens, it is the thing that turned me into a person who can get a novel written. Now that I've had the many and varied experiences of writing one, I am not nearly as flummoxed by this new one. The fact that I don't know exactly the right direction for the plot to take is OK--I know it will take some wrong turns, and that the path will become clear only gradually. Every setback does not mean I cannot write a novel. Setbacks are part of the process. Knowing the process won't be smooth helps make it smoother. I can forge ahead.

That said, the new novel is very different from the last in ways that unsettle me. It appears that it's going to be centered on a grisly murder, which means I'm going to have a fairly hard time making it funny. Already I'm delving into "true crime" tales, especially the Sam Sheppard case, which I see has been deployed to excellent effect in the new novel Mr. Peanut. It is a fascinating story, which is why in over fifty years it hasn't left us. But do I really want to spend, say, two years of my life absorbed in the details of murder? Up until now I've always avoided stories like this. I don't read crime novels, do not want to watch Dexter, and sort of deplore the whole "whodunnit" mindset that turns grief and horror into entertainment. (Strangest of all, I think, are the Miss Marple-style "cozies," which...I mean...murder is cozy?) This novel is supposed to question that mindset, but will no doubt participate in it also.

While frustrating, writing the first novel was fun, and I can see that this one won't be. It will rattle me, and for no certain reward--for me or anyone else. And yet the thing seems to be chugging right along. Maybe I don't want to think what that says about me.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to be disturbing (part two)

There are only two types of stories: person goes on a journey, or stranger comes to town. (Someone told me that.) Dracula is both. In the beginning of the novel, Jonathan goes on a journey to Dracula's castle. But soon the trajectory shifts, and Dracula comes to England, Jonathan's home. Of course we could turn the whole scheme inside out and see it from the Count's point of view--Jonathan is the stranger who comes to town, and then Dracula goes on a journey. But Dracula's is one point of view we don't get in the novel. Maybe we should consider that in another post.

The approach of Dracula unsettles the coastal town where Jonathan's fiancee Mina is staying with her sensitive friend Lucy. A colossal storm brews. Lucy begins sleepwalking, as a mental patient, Renfield, steps up his unfortunate eating habits. An old man Mina has befriended buttonholes her on the beach:

"Some day soon the Angel of Death will sound his trumpet for me. But don't ye dooal an' greet, my deary!"--for he saw that I was crying--"if he should come this very night I'd not refuse to answer his call. For life be, after all, only a waitin' for somethin' else than what we're doin', and death be all that we can rightly depend on. But I'm content, for it's comin' to me, my deary, and comin' quick. It may be comin' while we be lookin' and wonderin'. Maybe it's in that wind out over the sea that's bringin' with it loss and wreck, and sore distress, and sad hearts. Look! Look!" he cried suddenly. "There's something in that wind and in the hoast beyont that sounds, and looks, and tastes, and smells like death. It's in the air. I feel it comin'. Lord, make me answer cheerful, when my call comes!"
And sure enough:

I was glad when the coastguard came along, with his spyglass under his arm. He stopped to talk with me, as he always does, but all the time kept looking at a strange ship.

"I can't make her out," he said. "She's a Russian, by the look of her. But she's knocking about in the queerest way. She doesn't know her mind a bit. She seems to see the storm coming, but can't decide whether to run up north in the open, or to put in here. Look there again! She is steered mighty strangely, for she doesn't mind the hand on the wheel, changes about with every puff of wind. We'll hear more of her before this time tomorrow."

What makes Dracula's approach so ominous is the number of levels on which it disturbs the world. Certain especially sensitive people can feel him coming, and begin to prepare themselves, each in his or her own way. The sea and sky are perturbed. The old man insists the very scent of death is in the air, which is an especially frightening image. Smell is an animal's way of experiencing the world, and in a short time the animal nature of many characters (human and otherwise) will come to the fore.

I especially like the coastguard's description of the oncoming ship "knocking about in the queerest way." More than the coming storm, it seems to me, this image suggests a loss of balance, discombobulation. I've mentioned this strategy of "weirding" the familiar a few times before--in posts on The Secret Agent and Moby Dick--and there is nothing like it for giving your reader the creeps. The ship is recognizable, though foreign, but its gait is "off" in a way the coastguard can't quite figure out.

I'm suggesting here that if you want to be disturbing in your fiction (and who doesn't?), you can create a complex texture of disturbance. On scales ranging from the very small (an old man's sense of smell) to the very large ("All is vastness, the clouds are piled up like giant rocks), the world is ruffled.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiction over 40: Is it possible?

I am not sure what to be more depressed about: the fact that the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list contains so many people who are more accomplished than I will probably ever be, or that Sam Tanenhaus thinks most people over 40 can't write. In Sunday's NYT Book Review, Tanenhaus lists all the great authors who did their best work--or what "history" has deemed their best work--before the age of 40. Well, the list, though impressive, isn't that long, really--when you think of all the great authors past and present. And he does give some exceptions--Virginia Woolf, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth--to give some of us on the downhill slope of artistic possibility the faintest glimmer of hope. (Or maybe that's just the abyss, which glimmers too.)

I would point out that many of the examples of those who peaked before 40 lived in the olden days. Like, before 1950, or even 1900. Might this early peaking be attributable to historical or sociological factors, rather than something innate? Tanenhaus seems to think not:

Not every major fiction writer is a natural, but each begins with a storehouse of material and memories that often attenuate over time. Writers in their youth generally have more direct access to childhood, with its freshets of sensation and revelation. What comes later — technical refinement, command of the literary tradition, deeper understanding of the human condition — may yield different results but not always richer or more artful ones.

Look, I'm more than happy to sink into despair at the slightest hint that I may not be up to achieving my dream. Give up? Give me a reason. But I don't think Tanenhaus has.

More direct access to childhood? So the best authors are, what, twelve? Sixteen? Four? Let's get those nursery school kids into critique groups, pronto! And do we really only want stories about kids, or people who think like kids? I'm all for freshets of sensation and revelation, but are these experiences really only possible for children? I would suggest that more than a few young people spend their days avoiding freshets and revelations of all kinds, and only later, with the perspective that comes with few forehead wrinkles, are able to open up to the world.

I mean, are all those books on finding your inner child just psychic snake oil? OK, yes. But it is entirely possible, as well as desirable, to find new ways to see the world afresh--at all stages of one's life. THAT IS WHAT ART IS FOR, FOR CHRISSAKE. Who are all these brilliant young writers writing for anyway? Themselves? If so, they would not be brilliant.

So if your life is short of freshets lately, even if you are really freakin old and should just give up, here are a few things to try before you do that:

* Art. Look at it. Read it. Listen to it. Feel it. Taste it. Talk about it. etc.
* Astronomy. Look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope. Now look at, I dunno, anything. Changes your perspective, right?
* Water. Spend some time near it or in it.
* Meditation.
* Remembering your dreams.
* Taking a photo a day and writing a description of it.
* Look through the wrong end of the binoculars.
* Get away from the computer.
* And so forth.

None of these suggestions is particularly new, and some veer into "inner child" territory that I would rather avoid. (My inner child is a brat, turns out.) I'm just saying, we can train ourselves to observe, and to feel wonder. We can work on our memories. So if that's the only reason older people supposedly can't write--because their memories of childhood are too foggy--that is just no reason at all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Does Dracula have a psychology?

A few months ago, Carrie Kei Heim Binas wrote a great post about monster psychology. Basically, a monster should have one. Monsters are characters, and just like other characters, they grow more interesting as they reveal levels of complexity.

So, what can we learn about monster psychology from Dracula? Is Dracula complex? Does he have motivations, other than mere bloodsucking*? Does he have a history? Is he at war with himself?

In the first several chapters, Dracula:
  • Disguises himself as a coachman to pick up Jonathan at the crossroads
  • Cooks Jonathan several meals and cleans up after him
  • Lunges at Jonathan's throat when he sees that Jonathan has cut himself shaving, and then smashes the shaving mirror (but not before Jonathan observes that Dracula casts no reflection)
  • Questions Jonathan extensively on the duties of solicitors in England
  • Locks Jonathan in the castle
  • Climbs down an outer wall, headfirst, wearing Jonathan's clothes
  • Kills a baby and feeds it to his wives and sets a pack of wolves on the baby's mother
  • Grins malignantly at Jonathan from his coffin, when Jonathan attempts to bash him in the face with a shovel.
So Dracula's monstrosity is pretty well established: he is powerful, smart, and slippery. He is also a nobleman, whose line--possibly through some fault of his own--has seen better days. Though it's not quite presented this way, there's something amusing and a little pathetic about Jonathan's discovery that Dracula does all his own housework--though he falls down on dusting, like many of us--because he has no (more) servants. Even his wives (daughters?) don't help him, which is rather gratifying. When Jonathan first arrives, he still attempts little touches of nobility, such as serving his guest dinner on gold plates, and leaving him nice notes with his breakfast:

I slept till late in the day, and awoke of my own accord. When I had dressed myself I went into the room where we had supped, and found a cold breakfast laid out, with coffee kept hot by the pot being placed on the hearth. There was a card on the table, on which was written--"I have to be absent for a while. Do not wait for me. D."
I just love that "D."

Anyway, is this ruined but insistent nobility a veneer, a ruse for drawing in innocent victims? Is it a political comment by Stoker? Answer to both questions: yes. But does it also constitute a psychology--a way for readers to understand and maybe slightly identify with D.?

Having discovered that he is a prisoner in the castle, Jonathan attempts to get Dracula talking, to see what he can find out about his situation. Dracula does like to talk, especially about the past. And he has some grudges:

Midnight.--I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvania history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a Boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said "we", and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country. He grew excited as he spoke, and walked about the room pulling his great white moustache and grasping anything on which he laid his hands as though he would crush it by main strength. One thing he said which I shall put down as nearly as I can, for it tells in its way the story of his race.

"We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?" He held up his arms. "Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race, that we were proud, that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back? Is it strange that when Arpad and his legions swept through the Hungarian fatherland he found us here when he reached the frontier, that the Honfoglalas was completed there? And when the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious Magyars, and to us for centuries was trusted the guarding of the frontier of Turkeyland. Aye, and more than that, endless duty of the frontier guard, for as the Turks say, 'water sleeps, and the enemy is sleepless.' Who more gladly than we throughout the Four Nations received the 'bloody sword,' or at its warlike call flocked quicker to the standard of the King? When was redeemed that great shame of my nation, the shame of Cassova, when the flags of the Wallach and the Magyar went down beneath the Crescent? Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed! Woe was it that his own unworthy brother, when he had fallen, sold his people to the Turk and brought the shame of slavery on them! Was it not this Dracula, indeed, who inspired that other of his race who in a later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkeyland, who, when he was beaten back, came again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody field where his troops were being slaughtered, since he knew that he alone could ultimately triumph! They said that he thought only of himself. Bah! What good are peasants without a leader? Where ends the war without a brain and heart to conduct it? Again, when, after the battle of Mohacs, we threw off the Hungarian yoke, we of the Dracula blood were amongst their leaders, for our spirit would not brook that we were not free. Ah, young sir, the Szekelys, and the Dracula as their heart's blood, their brains, and their swords, can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace, and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told."

Dracula's story is the story of a people. Not of a good people or a nice people--indeed, they seem to be a seriously fascist people. But their glories are all in the past, and Dracula, clearly, has not moved on. When Jonathan discovers Dracula in his coffin, he sees in the count's eyes "such a look of hate, though unconscious of me or my presence, that I fled from the place..." In other words, the count is not simply a killing machine, although he is that; he is motivated by revenge for a deep, historical humiliation. One gathers he witnessed these historical humiliations personally, which must make them sting all the more.

Does this history make Dracula sympathetic? Definitely not. Understandable? More intriguing? I think so. The history gives him dimension. It also moves the story beyond a horror that befalls some unlucky people in Transylvania and England. Dracula embodies history, and is embedded in it. Peel back history, or lift its coffin lid, and we find this guy staring up at us. Since we're all part of history, we can't escape, not completely.

To the extent that Stoker wants to make Dracula complex, I think he succeeds. The count is at least as multidimensional as any of the other characters in the story. After all, the main purpose of this story is to scare us, not to set us to contemplating the nuances of human interactions as inflected by class and ethnicity. But the fact that Dracula still has a foot in the human realm, and in human motivations (base though they may be), makes him harder for readers to dismiss once the book is closed.

*By "mere," I do not wish to imply that bloodsucking is a trivial matter. It is a big deal.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Once more with compassion

I am reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. Michiko Kakutani's review of this book prompted a rant from me awhile back, which I will now revisit, having a better idea now what I am talking about.

To recap: characters are not people (I ranted), and reviews that rate books based on the "likability" of the characters are...just...silly. But then I got hung up, as always, on exactly what it means when someone "likes" or "loves" a character, as opposed to, say, an actual person. And I did concede that opening oneself to feeling compassion or "mercy" for a character allows you to see more aspects of that character. I am coming more and more to that conclusion. In other words, as a fiction writer, I have developed a utilitarian view of compassion. It is worth trying to love your characters, but not because they are people or near-people, or because this somehow gives you practice in loving actual people. Rather, compassion demands that you notice details. If you are in a forgiving, open frame of mind, you naturally look for redeeming qualities even in the most villainous of villains. You also allow yourself to see foibles in your "good" characters, because you know these foibles don't make your characters worthless, but merely human. In other words, this openness in you, as the writer, makes your characters complex and interesting--likable because they are compelling, not because they are squeaky-clean good.

Now, about Chronic City. I can see why Kakutani found the long-winded Perkus and his acolytes frustrating. They do natter on. Basically the book (so far, I have not finished it yet) is mostly about going over to Perkus's apartment, getting stoned, and talking. There's also some sex, a loose tiger (apparently mechanical) tearing up the city, and an astronaut--the narrator's fiancee--stranded on a space station called Northern Lights.

Lethem is definitely taking some risks here. As reviewers other than Kakutani suggested, he intentionally--I believe--makes these conversations overly long and somewhat pointless; he also makes his narrator intentionally vague and distant, going so far as to name him Chase Insteadman. We are meant to understand, I think, that all this verbiage is a screen against powerful emotion, a way of diluting it, and also a way of life for a great many people. There's a reason the astronaut's letters back to earth contain the most emotion-laden language in the book. Dying of cancer and stranded, she is emotion, in some sense. And perhaps it is not all bad that she is far away. It is not at all clear, at least thus far, that "getting in touch" with their emotions would help any of these people, or the book itself.

The question this book raises for me, because it has direct relevance to my own work, is how realistic can characters be when their milieu is partly unrealistic? Like the characters in DeLillo's White Noise, the people in Chronic City are a little abstract. They are largely composed of their own voices, appearing only as their points of view in conversations. They represent positions. This is not to say that one cannot feel for them. But perhaps they are spread a little thin, as it were, to accommodate the wider boundaries of their world--a world in which a tunneling tiger destroys city blocks routinely, in which there are more frequent hints of magic, both good and bad, than in our own. Could you successfully create less abstract, more human characters and still have them inhabit such a world?

My suspicion (and worry) is, perhaps not. I tend to think we are very much products of our environments. So we can't quite know what a product of an environment that does not, and cannot, actually exist would be like. In this case it might make more sense to have the characters float above that world somewhat, commenting on it from some distance rather than thrashing around inside it. Because in the latter case, your real characters start to make your unreal world look like a contrivance.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to be disturbing (part one)

In the early going, Dracula appears to be chock full of lessons for fiction writers. We are riding along with Jonathan Harker as he cheerily makes his way to Castle Dracula, devouring paprika-laden meals--which make him thirsty--and learning a ton about what writers can do with landscape. Perhaps this notion has occurred to me because I acquired my copy of Dracula from a table of books a professor was purging from her office; and said professor has helpfully annotated the first section with repeated iterations of the word "landscape." But what a landscape it is!

If you haven't read this book recently, you might assume Jonathan's journey occurs entirely at night, in a thunderstorm, with black, frothing horses, a mysterious coachman, and weird little fires in the distance. There will be plenty of that sort of thing, but what you need to make it work is contrast. So here's how Stoker sets it up:

They were evidently talking of me, for every now and then they looked at me, and some of the people who were sitting on the bench outside the door--came and listened, and then looked at me, most of them pityingly. I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for there were many nationalities in the crowd, so I quietly got my polyglot dictionary from my bag and looked them out.

I must say they were not cheering to me, for amongst them were "Ordog"--Satan, "Pokol"--hell, "stregoica"--witch, "vrolok" and "vlkoslak"--both mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either werewolf or vampire. (Mem., I must ask the Count about these superstitions.)

When we started, the crowd round the inn door, which had by this time swelled to a considerable size, all made the sign of the cross and pointed two fingers towards me.

With some difficulty, I got a fellow passenger to tell me what they meant. He would not answer at first, but on learning that I was English, he explained that it was a charm or guard against the evil eye.

This was not very pleasant for me, just starting for an unknown place to meet an unknown man. But everyone seemed so kind-hearted, and so sorrowful, and so sympathetic that I could not but be touched.

I shall never forget the last glimpse which I had of the inn yard and its crowd of picturesque figures, all crossing themselves, as they stood round the wide archway, with its background of rich foliage of oleander and orange trees in green tubs clustered in the centre of the yard.

There's nothing like a Slavic language for conveying spookiness, and these early diary entries are sprinkled with amusing "mems" to "ask the Count" about local customs and superstitions. Jonathan even wants to ask him for a recipe. Now that's dramatic irony. But in the midst of all this foreboding and foreshadowing, notice the "rich foliage of oleander and orange trees in green tubs." To Jonathan, it's this lushness surrounding the terrified figures that makes the scene unforgettable.

Then the lushness really burgeons:

I soon lost sight and recollection of ghostly fears in the beauty of the scene as we drove along, although had I known the language, or rather languages, which my fellow-passengers were speaking, I might not have been able to throw them off so easily. Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road. There was everywhere a bewildering mass of fruit blossom--apple, plum, pear, cherry. And as we drove by I could see the green grass under the trees spangled with the fallen petals. In and out amongst these green hills of what they call here the "Mittel Land" ran the road, losing itself as it swept round the grassy curve, or was shut out by the straggling ends of pine woods, which here and there ran down the hillsides like tongues of flame. The road was rugged, but still we seemed to fly over it with a feverish haste. I could not understand then what the haste meant, but the driver was evidently bent on losing no time in reaching Borgo Prund. I was told that this road is in summertime excellent, but that it had not yet been put in order after the winter snows. In this respect it is different from the general run of roads in the Carpathians, for it is an old tradition that they are not to be kept in too good order. Of old the Hospadars would not repair them, lest the Turk should think that they were preparing to bring in foreign troops, and so hasten the war which was always really at loading point.

Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water. One of my companions touched my arm as we swept round the base of a hill and opened up the lofty, snow-covered peak of a mountain, which seemed, as we wound on our serpentine way, to be right before us.

"Look! Isten szek!"--"God's seat!"--and he crossed himself reverently.

We ride through what ought to be a soothing, pastoral scene. But there are a few undercurrents--the mysterious mutterings of the other passengers, the possibility of war with "the Turk." Also the land, bursting forth with Nature's beauty, is just a little too. The peaks are a little too high and pointy, the blossoms too massive, the colors too strong. The effect is queasy and erotic in equal parts (the word "feverish" is one place where the currents meet). Stoker, as we will see, is particularly good at this balancing act. Also we've just seen villagers crossing themselves for protection from Ordog et al, and now a passenger crosses himself in reverence for "God's seat"--which makes God himself part of this unsettling landscape, rather than a benevolent figure who watches over it from outside. He is going to be no help.

Is this not extremely creepy? As Stephen King once said, true horror happens in broad daylight. We've seen this technique before--taking objects or scenes that should be soothing, in either their ordinariness or their beauty, and giving them a little twist so that they become uncanny.

And then the sun goes down...

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Dracula and the novel form

Today we begin a new book in the Borrowed Fire series, Bram Stoker's Dracula. As we make our way through the novel, discovering writing lessons we can borrow for our own work, let us have modest expectations. Let us not assume that these little writing seminars will qualify us to write the next Twilight series and become billionaires. Let us instead plan to write something like The Passage, because we are all literary novelists who would never be seduced by the lure of unimaginable wealth and movie deals. We would only write about vampires if they served our artistic purposes. We'll see if we can make them do that.

I have already written about the ethnography at the beginning of Dracula, which definitely seems like a cool way to set up a book about "otherness." So for my official first post in this series, I'll talk about the novel's form. It is composed of diary entries, letters, and even a "phonograph diary" by various characters (although not, sadly, the Count himself). What do these particular forms of writing allow an author to do? Well, clearly you can switch point of view easily, without having to create a more complex artistic apparatus for doing so: just label each new section Jonathan Harker's Journal, Lucy Westenra's Diary, etc. These formats also contain dates and locations as a matter of course, so that (again) you don't need to worry about more subtle ways to show the passage of time or movements from place to place.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the sense that these forms of writing are more private than other types of fictional narration. They are supposedly intended for a specific and relatively small audience--possibly even no audience, other than oneself. In the case of a novel posing as a bunch of journal entries, that conceit is of course more complicated. And perhaps those of us who keep journals expect them eventually to be published among our "papers." (Those of us who blog aren't waiting for that day.) In other words, the author of Dracula is winking at the notion of private communications at the same time as he's presenting them to us, a mass, faceless audience.

Still, the promise of privacy, the sense of a particular as opposed to a general audience, creates intimacy. One could imagine that Mina, for instance, writes her diary with her beloved Jonathan in mind--even if he isn't going to read it one day, she wants to tell him these things, and so she records her observations with a mental image of him as the listener or reader. Writing teachers often give students the exercise of writing a story in the form of a letter to a specific person, and inevitably the writing becomes more detailed and emotionally charged. The idea is to learn to write that way always. This intimacy would seem especially powerful in a story about a creature who gets a little too intimate. By writing, these characters might be trying to preserve the boundaries of their own selves as the Count seeps through the cracks.

But we have also seen the downside of the diary / letter form for stories involving almost any form of action. In Pamela, the 18th century epistolary novel foisted on so many innocent students of English, the letters occasionally go something like, Here comes my rapacious employer yet again! It is really hard to write with him climbing all over me... (OK, it's been awhile since I read it, but this is the kind of thing I remember.) More recently, watching The Blair Witch Project, some audience members may have laughed as the plucky, dwindling film crew managed to grab up all their recording equipment and turn it on before running like hell from the Evil. (I didn't laugh. Not at the time. That movie scared me.) We will come across the problem of "writing in haste" with this novel as well.

A reflective novel, such as Gilead, is far easier to write in diary or letter form. But let's see how Stoker handles the opportunities and pitfalls.