Tag Archives: fiction

Jodi Picoult’s Occult Mystery

Occult: adj: “of involving, or relating to supernatural, mystical, or magical powers or phenomena.”

 

Jodi Picoult’s 23rd novel Leaving Time, is surprisingly so much more than a moving saga about grief, loss of a mother, and the wonderful world of elephants. I just finished reading this nearly over-whelming book, even as her next block buster debut’s this week. Leaving Time has haunted me for a week since I completed it. Not just because it confirms what I’ve always considered: that elephants live more dignified, loving lives within families who protect and support one another. Or that love lasts beyond time and space, so when we lose someone we love, the love survives. But what intrigues me most, as a writer, is how Jodi interweaved the occult within the fabric of this mystery in a way that slips the unassuming reader—the reader who would not normally read a book with paranormal aspects—into the thick of the drama. Not until the very end do we learn that two of the main characters are, in fact, dead and were the entire manuscript. We are left questioning the dimension in which they lived, one where the dead continue living a bustling life which contains a world with school, family, binging, boozy nights, dating, money problems, work issues, rent to be paid, etc. It’s a dimension where it’s possible they (and everyone within it) don’t realize they are dead, and they don’t have all the answers, nor the ability to find the people they love. The notion that we die and all the answers are revealed, is turned on its head. The common held belief that our dead loved ones are a thought away, is also dismissed, as 13-year-old Jenna, the main character, searches for her mother Alice Metcalf, a scientist who studies elephant behavior. Jenna hires a broke, formerly-famous psychic named Serenity, and a washed-up, pessimistic, alcoholic detective, Virgil, to help her find Alice. In the end, we learn that Virgil and Jenna are both dead (as well as everyone else they connected with, such as Jenna’s grandmother, a policeman, a lab assistant). Yet, they all seemed to lead vibrant lives with other people in them, bars to go to, cars to drive, policemen to talk with, school teachers, clients, landlords, etc. But apparently their world must lie on another plane of reality, like fine line of ice below the surface of our perception, that somehow, Serenity can see. But even Serenity doesn’t realize Jenna and Virgil aren’t alive, until the very end.

 

Most of Jodi’s interviews about Leaving Time concern the plight of elephants, how they grieve, and how wonderful a metaphor their ability to grieve, is, to her then first empty nest at home. She doesn’t say what motivated her to create such a walloping metaphysical surprise at the end. Stories of the elephants are woven into the book via Alice Metcalf’s notes, that Jenna reads. Alice is a researcher who has lived in Africa, as well as on a New England sanctuary with her husband and then three-year-old daughter Jenna, when she disappeared after a tragic accident leaving one person dead and one mentally insane. Jenna, who was three at the time of the accident, can’t remember what happened and had to be raised by her stoic grandmother. This story alone, is compelling enough to be a best-seller with all the ups and downs of who actually got killed and who slipped away and why. And the glimpse into the world of the elephants and how they are tragically being hurt by poachers, is critical for the world to understand. See this video for example.

What I find ultimately puzzling, is how Jodi manages to pull together so many subplots and themes into one novel, without losing me at any turn. She tackles the occult and afterlife, the plight of elephants, a murder, mental illness, spousal abuse, infidelity, suicide, mother-daughter and grandmother friction, the struggle to follow ones dreams as a mother, and a daughter’s unfailing love for her mother, and the huge emotional and unbearable loss a child endures when a parent abandons them.

It’s a beautiful novel. It’s powerful. It’s unlike any other I have read. Jodi Picoult is only getting better with each novel. You need to read it.

And with a side note to my fellow writers, isn’t it remarkable to think that Jodi Picoult, New York Times best selling author (whose last nine novels debuted number one on this prestigious list) was rejected by 100 agents before one believed in her?

Keep going my friends. And read her book for inspiration!

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Creating Powerful Characters

So I’m writing my next novel right now. And it’s what agents would call plot heavy. Anyone who loves a good mystery or action story, doesn’t mind that. Yet all the agents I’ve been talking with say they are seeking that magical character.

“I want to connect deeply with the main characters,” one said. Another said, when describing why she turned down a well-written manuscript: “I loved the detail and plot, but I just didn’t bond with the main characters like I wanted to.”

So, what makes people bond/connect with main characters? Think about the characters that you have fallen in love with over the years. What was it about them? Why did you keep reading and then miss them after the novel was over? I’m on a journey to discover what makes us bond with a character. As I was listening to my 16-year-old get ready for school at 6 a.m. this morning, it dawned on me: we all want to hang out with someone who makes us laugh, is entertaining, lightens us up, yet is still tackling major life issues. My 16-year-old, who happens to be sick, still woke up, like he always does, humming. He puts on a playlist, of a lot of 70s music, country, rap, 80s, you name it, and jammed as he prepared for another day. He always has a girl friend offer to pick him up and take him to school. Why? Because he’s the kind of guy who will make you laugh, says insightful things, is smart without being snarky or stuck up and is charming. He’s the kind of guy that will start your day off well and who puts you in a better frame of mind. And he’s constantly joking around, giving ridiculous birthday gifts to friends, like a bidet (french water spout toilet seat) that he gave to a friend who is anal and part Japanese (as Japanese love bidets). He’s silly, yet insanely smart, confident: plays violin and soccer and could care less what ‘hip’ kids think of that. And he’s stylish in his own way, not following surfer trends here in Southern California, but more dapper, like a Londoner or New Yorker. He stands out. Yet he misses his dad insanely and doesn’t understand why he left nine years ago or why his dad lives abroad and chooses to be out of touch, not engaged in William’s day-to-day life. Yet William chooses to be happy, while also not partying or throwing himself into drugs or alcohol, as he’s determined to get a scholarship to college. Maybe, just maybe, my son would make for a great main character—someone the reader would want to pick up and have ride with them on their way to work, so to speak.

I’m re-reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, such a great writing advice book that is insanely funny and helping me to not take my writing life, and the tedious task of getting published traditionally, so seriously. She compared the creation of a good character to that of picking a good friend. With good friends, you’d “ride with them to the dump just to be with them.” Boring friends, on the other hand, (I’m paraphrasing here) could offer to take you to a show and a five-star restaurant, and you’d rather stay home and wash your cat.

And that’s it. Plot really doesn’t matter so much, which is putting me in a quandary with Orbiting Jupiter, my next novel. It is a mystery and is plot heavy and I’m not sure my main character is someone I would ride to the dump with, just to keep talking to. I mean, she’s going through a lot and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown that any woman who has been cheated on repeatedly can relate with. She’s also lovable and kind and artistic, but these are attributes that feel like labels on a name tag. I mean, can she make me laugh? Does she laugh at herself? Is there some quality about her that is so priceless and unique that her friends would be shattered by a life without her? If I’m honest, not yet. She needs to marinate more.

With the development of compelling characters, Anne Lamott says to look at the closest people in your life, or the ones that draw you in, and observe what it is about them that attracts you or is lovable. For me, someone has to make me laugh, help me not take myself so seriously, (while also not poo-pooing my feelings). A person who is tackling their own demons with dignity, or who, upon closer inspection, is more conscious and aware then people would assume, as he/she is humble and not self righteous, pious, or one of those over-the-top spiritual people who seem like they are trying to impersonate Buddha or Jesus himself.

It’s laughter and the ability to be aware and conscious, yet also see through bullshit that usually pulls me in. I once had a lover look at my new tattoo, for instance, and ask what it meant (It’s Japanese). I said “Don’t give up on Life” in a serious, quiet voice. He replied, “It probably means ‘I shop at Vons’ but you just don’t know it.” I laughed so hard at myself afterwards and wanted to see him again. See what I mean?

My sister Sarah is another person that I love with an intensity that I can’t explain rationally. She is insanely lovable to many people, yet can’t see her own light as she battles many demons. I used to wonder why she always attracts men like flies to honey (I know, a competitive little sister thought) but even now, at 53, she has 25-year-olds asking her out! She always has, even when she finds herself in the darkest of places. I think it’s because of her raw honestly, combined with an ability to laugh at herself and others—and her surprising kindness, that can make a person stop and fall to their knees feeling unworthy or ashamed of their own selfishness. With half moon dimples, crystal blue eyes, a horsish, rough chuckle that erupts into a brook that bubbles over, Sarah is just plain fun to be around. She is humming, singing all the time, even when sad, usually Janis Joplin or older country that only she can land perfectly. She also creates art that is breathtaking with sea shells or tiles, like tile sunflowers that somehow seem to move in the light. And when she’s not laughing, or singing at a club with either or the two bands she is in, or playing piano or creating art, she’s able to listen to a friend in need and convince them to back off the mental ledge they are getting ready to jump off of. Sarah is someone people trust—she sees issues with clarity, calls people on their shit in a funny way, and then will be there for any of her friends anytime. She’s just plain fun to be around. I recently heard her answer her phone, laugh to a young man who comes to her shows, and say: “I’m onto you buddy. Listen, you just want what you want when you want it and are trying to make me feel like I’m lucky to have you because I’m older. But you’re the one calling me. Hey, you want to hear a line from the song I’m writing?”

Once when I was with her, on a particularly hard day, (as she is struggling financially and recovering from addiction and depression), she walked up to a homeless woman who had two children beside her and gave this woman a big hug. “You needed that didn’t you?” she said laughing and looking directly into her eyes before giving this woman $5. Sarah bent down and looked at the art the children were making and asked what they were drawing and if they needed more crayons.

As we walked back to the car Sarah said, “I fucking hate people who walk by homeless women like they are lazy or don’t exist. How can people be so cold?”

That’s Sarah. And that’s why the more you get to know her, the more you want to know her, as she inspires you to be more compassionate, thoughtful, creative, and to be honest about your own bullshit and to laugh a little about it. She’s one of the best people I know on this Earth. If she doesn’t succeed in fighting her demons a part of me will die. And that’s the truth.

None of my characters are as compelling as Sarah or William. I’m not planning on putting them into my novels, but they serve as examples of people/characters readers would follow anywhere—even to the dump.

Now Lucy, my main character of Orbiting Jupiter, the novel I’m working on, is not quite there. I’m on the fence about her, which has me stuck in the process of continuing with the novel. Lucy needs to percolate more. I need to see more of what makes her tick and why I should give a shit that her husband cheated. Sorrow and pain and sympathy aren’t enough reasons to fall in love with a person. And maybe that’s why Lucy snaps and takes on another persona? Her alter ego is someone who can make any man stand up, pay attention, laugh and fawn after. I just need to be sure I can captivate the readers long enough with Lucy, until she turns into the more provocative and entertaining Jupiter. There are a lot of pages to read before she makes this transition, and if readers don’t like Lucy, they won’t want to trudge along with her, even throughout the gorgeous backdrop of Hawaii.

So I’m going back to the drawing board, back to the beginning, to discover and develop any qualities in Lucy that would make her feel like the type of friend I would feel lucky to follow anywhere.

Fellow writers, any of you go through this? I’m on the verge of starting this novel over, or throwing it out! I won’t trash it just yet, but am on the verge, lol.

 

 

Can a Childhood Decision Shape Your Life? Anne Tyler Thinks So.

annetyler

Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, recently revealed that her next book Clock Dance, is based on her theory that a person’s entire life and identity can be shaped by a single decision made in early childhood. As early as seven years of age, Tyler says a child can know exactly who they want to be and what type of temperament they want to have. For instance, Tyler said in her published Note prefacing Clock Dance:
“I believe that our entire lives can be shaped by a single decision that we make during childhood as to who, exactly, we should be. As to how we should be, what kind of people we want to become. ”

She provides a few examples of decisions she made when seven years of age, after studying the two grown ups in her life. Upon comparison of her parents, Tyler decided that she’d rather be like the steady, gentle, patient one, instead of the sharp tempered and erratic one. And that being the case, she knew she’d have to not marry anyone patient, as clearly, there “is only a certain amount of patience to be had, and you don’t want it all to go to the other person.”

She leads readers to surmise that one decision to be the patient one, basically formed her life and became the catalyst for her next best selling novel.

Do you agree with her theory? Can we decide as early as seven who we will become? What our personality traits will be? Maybe. But then again, don’t we always have the opportunity for reflection and to change, to grow? Or maybe we just humor ourselves with the idea that we can or will change, yet underlying personality traits of either being hyper, dramatic, patient, shy, short-tempered, etc. are embedded into our soul like a watermark that never leaves. So are we born with any genetic predispositions, or do we choose all of our personality traits based on our environments and what we choose to become?

What do you think?

Sneak Peak of my next novel: Between Thoughts of You

I am infinitely curious about love. What defines love? Is it a feeling? Is it action? Can it truly last a lifetime? Why do some with a lukewarm type of love stay together for a  lifetime—yet others, who seem to have a more passionate love—fall apart? And can someone truly love another, yet lie and belittle that person at the same time? What kind of love is that? If behavior is hurtful or disrespectful, how can love still exist? How can we trust that the person we choose to love, we choose to be faithful to and to build a life with, really loves us in the same manner—or will continue to choose to love us during hard times?

People who rush into marriage say silly things like, “I just knew!” But for those of us who ‘knew’—and years later were cheated on, lied to, disrespected—we come out of it on very shaky ground. Can we really trust our intuition and gut feelings about another person again? How do we know our next partner will keep his/her promises? How do we know we can trust what we think is real? Maybe it’s all a sham, in the end. When reality suddenly shifts dramatically, it’s hard to trust. When lie upon lie upon is revealed, the person who lied and cheated may feel relief to no longer be living a lie, yet the person cheated on sinks into a despair, questioning everything. “Was he really on the phone with his dad when we were lying in bed after making love?” … “He said he loved me every fucking morning before work. It’s such bullshit. Our whole life was bull shit.”
Questions and maddening thoughts swirl. After the questions fade, a deep malaise can settle in.

That’s where the main character of my next novel, Between Thoughts of You, is when the novel begins. She is numb. She feels hopeless. And she has no idea that her life is about to change forever by an old man—by the secrets kept by an old man. His trust in her—his choice to let her be the only one to hear his deepest secrets kept from friends and family for more than 55 years—will literally transform her.

But first, let me introduce Lulua ‘ina, aka Lulu, to you in this mini sneak peak of the novel I’m writing. I’m obsessed with Lulu. I hope you will be, too. 🙂 This tiny scene is told through the eyes of the old man she takes care of. Six months earlier in Honolulu, her baby suddenly died. Three months after, her husband left her for her best friend. To say she is disillusioned and heart broken is an understatement. Lulu fled Oahu at her first opportunity. It was also her first time leaving Hawaiian soil. She felt as if she had nothing to live for, so taking the job as the sole hospice nurse of an old man wasn’t a hard decision. She has no resentment for the round-the-clock care she now gives, because she no longer has any needs or expectations for her life. Right now, she wants to fulfill an old man’s wish to die on Tuscan soil. That’s what she thinks. Little does she know, that his dying wish is really to find the one person he can tell his deepest secrets to.

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“The old man leaned onto his left shoulder, as if sizing her up with a better view. Lulu had a round, pale and yellowish face with eyes that were both almond shaped and long, slim at the same time. These were her genetic features given to her by her mother who was half Japanese and half Hawaiian.

With moss green eyes, a tall forehead, a pointy chin and freckles she was named for, Lulu was clearly a genetic mutt. The day she was born, her grandfather named her “Lulua`ina [loo loo (w)ah’ ee nah] which means freckles. Lulu grew to have long, thin black hair (also like her mother) but was tall, angular and boney, unlike the rest of her Hawaiian family. These traits, she was told, were thanks to her German father, whom she never met.

Her appearance fascinated the old man. The moment he saw her picture on her application, he demanded that his sons fly her out so he could meet her. Her resume wasn’t terribly impressive, they argued. She’d get homesick and want to run back to Hawaii. Their arguments fell flat. It didn’t matter that there were nurses in Italy, he had to meet her. And when she walked into his bedroom that afternoon, with all his boys sitting around his bed, the old man knew she was the one. She was who he wanted to die with. She was the one he would tell. Just like that, he knew. Partly because of her Asian traits. And partly because he sensed the sadness beneath her calm demeanor, like a storm that needed to brew. And the old man loved brewing storms. He loved drama of any kind. And he especially loved beautiful women who needed to be rescued.

“You’re heart-broken,” he spat out. “Anyone can see that.”

She blinked in response.

“Dreams will come back to you, when you start to heal. Then, you’ll be ready for their messages.” He rose an eyebrow before saying, “You know what I mean?” His signature catch phrase.