Blog posts tagged in Magnolia City

I found the Field of Dreams!

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I just returned from my book tour of Texas and had the most miraculous experience while there. I had promised my wife that she would see huge fields of bluebonnets in bloom, but everywhere we went, we only saw patches of them beside the road. There’s been a drought in parts of the Lone Star State that has affected the germination of wildflowers.

Bluebonnets can only be found in Texas in the whole world. They are site specific and need just the right conditions in order to grow. Members of the lupine family, they are pollinated in a rather magical manner:  the petals open when the bee alights on them, then the top turns from white to magenta to show that its pollen is no longer fertile. Livestock and even deer won't eat them because the lupine alkaloids are toxic to them, so the flowers flourish unmolested for weeks in April. The Texas writer, J. Frank Dobie, had this to say about them: "No other flower --- for me at least --- brings such upsurging of the spirit and at the same time such restfulness."

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Magnolia Cité

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I was in Paris in March and visited one of my favorite places in the world, Shakespeare and Company, the famous English-language bookstore on the Rive Gauche, the Left Bank. It sits right opposite Notre Dame and has a priceless view of the île de la Cité. Inside, you will find “a winding, twisting, climbing labyrinth of books,” as the new owner Sylvia Whitman describes it, “a refuge for book lovers, a shelter for writers.” Sylvia is the daughter of George Whitman, who opened the store in 1951. This has always been the expat heart of Paris, and still gives you a musty whiff of its long literary history. The original Shakespeare and Company, in a different location, was the hangout for the Lost Generation: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot. There, James Joyce’s Ulysses was published, there many writers lived and worked.

While I was in Paris, I made several visits to the store, bought lots of books, got to know some of the staff, and had an interview with the man in charge of “acquisitions.” I presented him with a copy of Magnolia City. He took one look at the cover, said it was “very well done,” and asked what distributors my publisher used in Europe. A few days later I got an email affirming that he had decided to add Magnolia City to his shelves in May.

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The metaphor unlocks the meaning

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Is it a butterfly landing on a branch? Or a flower blowing in the breeze? Is it a baboon?  Or an orchid with the face of baboon? Nature is full of these correspondences, and a good writer will dig deep to find the metaphors that lie at the root of his story. Aristotle thought highly of this skill, saying in his Poetics:  “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.”


But exactly what is a metaphor? More than just a figure of speech, a metaphor is a comparison by which the writer uncovers a hitherto-unseen resemblance between two unrelated objects. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor describes the mother as having “a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” This is a skillful metaphor because a face and a cabbage are entirely different objects, but how brilliantly the comparison illuminates the theme of rural gullibility that drives the story to its tragic climax.

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In the last twenty years, there’s been a movement toward revisionist Texas history. As cited in articles such as “Forget the Alamo” from Texas Monthly Magazine, a young breed of scholars is changing the way natives look at the Lone Star State. These social historians try to recreate the details of everyday life, rather than celebrate the traditional heroic myths.

I’ve tried to do the same thing with my hometown of Houston. In place of the honky tonks of Urban Cowboy and the tough ranchers of Giant, I present to you the denizens of Courtlandt Place. They practiced a more formal, Edwardian style of southern etiquette, which lingered until World War II. Within the gates of their “private place,” there was an elaborate ritual for meals, including formal dinner dress and a butler who waited behind a screen to be summoned for service. Think of it as “Downton Abbey meets Dallas.” These were sophisticated people, cotton and lumber barons who summered in places like Newport and often took the Grand Tour of Europe.

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What style shall I write in?

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I ran a creative writing workshop for ten years called the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio. That’s where my novel Magnolia City was developed. The feedback of other writers is invaluable when you are working on a manuscript. It really helps you self-correct as you go along. Just as you can’t see your own face unless you look into a mirror, so you can’t perceive the “persona” of your own writing unless it’s mirrored back to you by other writers.

One of the questions my students invariably asked me was, “How do I know what style I should write in?” Often their work was derivative as they attempted to copy the expressive content of their favorite authors. They talked about style as if it were something they could go out and purchase, like a set of new clothes. What they didn’t understand is that style is not something that can be added to a piece of work. It is the work.

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I owned a piece of Hemingway!

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duncan-aldersonI did a rather drastic thing in my forties. I walked out on a teaching career to become a writer. “Leap and the net will appear” was my slogan. After twelve years teaching English at the Toronto Waldorf School, I decided to move downtown and take up the bohemian life. When I spoke to my real estate agent, he said, “Well, Hemingway’s apartment is for sale.”

To make a long story short, I ended up purchasing this piece of literary history!  What better place to start my career as full-time writer? There was even a plaque on the building which read: “American-born Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), internationally renowned author, lived in this apartment building, 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, in 1923-24, while working as a journalist for the Toronto Star.” His apartment (and mine) was the penthouse in the left tower, as he said he could look out over the Cedarvale Ravine where he enjoyed riding on horseback. He wrote to Gertrude Stein, describing it as “a corker of an apartment.” And it was. There was a lovely sunporch off the master bedroom that looked down on the trees. As I renovated the space, I fantasized finding a faded typewritten manuscript hidden in the walls because this was the period when he started writing short stories. As I sanded down the woodwork, I imagined that Hemingway’s very sweat was mingled in the dust.

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houston-flapperOne of the first questions people always ask me is, “What inspired you to write this book?” A Mona Lisa smile appears on my face, and I shift into my enigmatic mode. I usually say, “Why, from Bestsubjectsfornovels.com. It’s a great website. And quite reasonable. They even have a three-for-the-price-of-one special on trilogies.”

The truth is closer to what Flaubert said: “We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.” A novelist doesn’t have to search for a subject. It already exists. Inside him or her. To be “original” means to go back to your “origins.” What Henry James liked to call the donnée, from the French for “given.” What has life given you to write about? Go there. Find that inner core, that donnée, and work outward from there.

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When a writer becomes entitled

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b2ap3_thumbnail_549070_562643820442674_785402469_n.jpgFinding the right name for your novel can be tricky. It’s really part of the text and can be just as important as that first sentence. In my last blog, I suggested that every novelist must find what Henry James liked to call the donnée, from the French for “given,” what life has implanted in you. It lies inside. The same is true of the title. The concept of your book carries within it the right name. It is often hidden inside the manuscript, in a phrase or clause, and can be winnowed out by a good editor.

People wonder why Magnolia City was on my list of possible titles for a book about Houston, Texas. It makes them think of the Deep South. But as I delved into the history of my hometown, I discovered many surprises. The biggest one was that Houston’s historic nickname was “the Magnolia City.” This may seem odd until you realize that during the period my novel is set, the 1920s, Houston was still a gracious bayou town, steaming at the edge of the Old South but awash in the new money of Spindletop oil. The city didn’t get varnished with the Western Myth until the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off in 1932. Before that, there were no cowboys or Indians in Houston’s history.

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