Category Archives: Classic Novels/Mysteries

In Search of Messy, Overwritten Beauty

tender-is-the-night-original-dustjacketYesterday I was reading Ali Smith’s book Artful, a form-challenging mash-up of an essay collection and a novel, and as a part of a section about form, Smith quotes Katherine Mansfield, a modernist whose stories I deeply admire.  Inside a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, Mansfield writes: “There are certain things in this book I do not like.  But they are not important, or really part of it.  They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a leaf … and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as from a kind of silliness.  But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig.  All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.”

This quotation resonates with me.  So often I feel this way about books I love.  Yes, they may be by today’s standards overwritten, overly “encrusted,” but ultimately the beauty of them, the energy of the story, of the characters, “feeds me.”  To often—and this is true of a lot of writers who are also reviewers—we judge a book by its editing, not its narrative life-force.  We use descriptors like “clean” and “diamond-hard” or “muscular” to describe fiction, which in my mind is describing editing and perhaps style, not necessarily the full, breathing machinery of fiction.

For this reason, I’ve always preferred Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night over The Great Gatsby.  As a novel it’s messier, more experimental, darker.  For that reason, although at times a little overwritten, it speaks to me on a deeper level, perhaps even because of its messiness, if that’s really a fair word for it.  One mistake book reviewers, often reviewers who are also writers, make is to review a book’s editing, or at least to preference the editing, over the substance or the energy of story.  I’m curious how many of you, out there, have a book which you thought overwritten or messy, but spoke to you despite (or even because of ) the quality of the prose.  I’d love any suggestions … or thoughts.

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Making Summer Reading Lists

As the school year comes to a close, I begin looking forward to the summer by crafting a reading list.  I know, I know, this sounds like it’s making work out of fun, but there’s an art to the reading, particularly the different types of reading, I want to do over the summer.  I want the ebb and flow of challenging books and light reading, fiction and nonfiction, and genre and literary.

Also, I like what creating a reading list tells me about my own tastes, and how those tastes reflect back on the choices I make as a writer. If my novel were sitting on my shelf, would I be reaching for it? (I hope so … but it’s a good question to ask.)

I also like it as a log of my development as a reader and a way to reflect on the influences on my writing.  Over the years, I’ve read books—The Blind Assassin, The Big Sleep, etc.—that have had powerful impact on my work; however, it’s only been since I’ve consciously curated my reading that I’ve started to understand my tastes better: fiction with female protagonists; stories with a historical milieu; morally ambiguous characters; dark emotional terrain; rich, at times lyrical description, but not as the expense of plot—and never sentimental.  Unsurprisingly, my writing embodies my reading tastes.

However—and what interests me the most—are the outlier books, works that don’t easily fit in.  For instance, I placed Ali Smith’s Artful on my summer reading list, a genre-bending book, part novel, part collection of essays.  Am I curious even now why I was initially attracted to this book?  In part, it’s because of its lovely cover (no joke) and in part its because I’ve heard so many intriguing things about Smith’s writing.

Most of all, my reading list is a declaration to myself that I’m free to read what I want (for the most part) after a year of reading for school.  As much as writing, it’s a form of self-expression and requires that freedom to survive.

So, here it is .. and of course it can (and will) change.  (If you have any suggestions, respond to this blog or be my friend of Goodreads.)

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“The Next Big Thing” Interview Project: John Copenhaver

Me in hat“The Next Big Thing” book interview project asks writers to answer a series of questions about their recent or forthcoming book, post it on their blog/web-space, and tag others for the next week.  Thanks to poet Chloe Yelena Miller for tagging me last week!

What is the title of the book?

Dodging and Burning.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My inspiration came from two separate but connected events:  My reading of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of photography, and my decision to come out of the closet as a gay man.  Benjamin argues that photographs distort reality and only can be given value if paired with the right caption.  Being in the closet is like being a photo without a caption.  The only way to correct that distortion is to tell the story behind the façade.  Dodging and Burning is the mystery behind a crime scene photograph, but more accurately it’s an exploration of the way photos can twist our understanding of others and ourselves if their captions remain unwritten, their stories untold.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary Mystery.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I love this question, because I think about it a lot.  Sadly, most of the actors I’d cast are dead.  One of my main characters, Bunny Prescott, is based on Gene Tierney; in fact, other characters tell her that she resembles Tierney.  But, to play fair, I’d cast Elle Fanning as Ceola (my earnest teenager), who has both gravitas and levity, Saoirse Ronan as Bunny (my love-confused debutant), who can be chilly and vulnerable, and Andrew Garfield (my wounded gay war photographer), who is wonderful at playing pained but not self-indulgent characters.  I loved him in Never Let Me Go.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Two young women attempt to solve the mystery of the photograph of beautiful corpse only to discover that the true mystery lies in the heart of the photographer.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three-years.  Keep in mind of course I was working full time as an English teacher.  It took several more years to whip it into shape.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?


It began at Bread Loaf English of English when I took a course called “Photography and Modernity.”  It changed the way I looked at photography and, eventually, all visual media.  Also, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a genre-bending novel, a masterpiece that skillfully weaves together low and high forms.  And of course, my own personal journey out of the closet.  My theme, as I see it,  is the need for narrative.  Images without narrative (or worse images with a false narrative) can twist our understanding of reality, pushing us further from empathy and deeper into darkness.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by the fabulous Annie Bomke of ABLiteary and currently in search of a publisher.

Look for these writers’ Next Big Thing interviews:

Kate Hattemer

Andy Peters

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What the hell is it? Mystery fiction? Literary Fiction? (And Does It Matter?)

A genre war has been going on inside me for some time.

I love the structure of the mystery story, how it attempts to rectify the past and the present of its fictional world, a gesture that, to varying degrees, we are all asked to make in our lives.  Some of my favorite literary books—Atwood’s Blind Assassin, Byatt’s Possession, and Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea—address this theme in rich and compelling ways, and blatantly steal structural techniques from the mystery or thriller genre.  Also, well-written detective stories tend to ride a fine line between romanticism and realism.  Some of the greats of American hard-boiled detective fiction come to mind: Chandler and Cain.  The tension between the beauty of a dream and the sting of reality is a deeply American concern, one that dominates one of the most famous of texts of American literature, The Great Gatsby (which by some has been classified as crime fiction).  It’s also a theme which is alive and well in our culture.  Think: Reality TV, celebrity culture, and political spin doctoring—or even more insidious, the 2008 banking collapse and recession.

If taken at face value, my novel Dodging and Burning, as well as my newest project, are mystery novels.  However, my principle concern is character, not plot, so they don’t fit neatly into the mystery genre, although if the blessed day arrives, I don’t have a problem with them being marketed as such.  My fantastic agent, Annie Bomke, will certainly guide me in this.

For now, I’m comfortable walking the line between mystery and literary fiction.  (Maybe that makes me more marketable, I don’t know.  Tana French, Benjamin Black, among others are doing it and doing it well.)  Wilkie Collins, in his 1868 preface to The Moonstone, the granddaddy of detective novels, stated his objective in the novel was to trace the influence of character on circumstances.  It seems to me, even in detective fiction, plot should be a result of character, especially a character who is trying to resolve discrepancies between his past and present, between his romantic ideals and the hard truth.  For that reason, I do embrace the notion that, although we may have different categories for types of fiction, the basic foundations should be the same.

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“Sleep No More”: More Than Voyeurism; Artful Seduction

Several weeks ago, my partner Jeff and I went to NYC to see the Punchdrunk Theater Company’s production of Sleep No More, a site-specific, immersive theatrical experience, housed in three abandoned warehouses on West 27th Street, based loosely on Macbeth and set in a creepy 1930s hotel.  To say the least, it was an atypical night at the theater, more akin to wandering through a haunted house than watching a Broadway show—and it was absolutely riveting.

At the door, you are given a playing card and asked to wait in a speakeasy-inspired lounge.  After a drink or two, your card is called.  You are instructed to wear a Venetian-style carnival mask (à la Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), to not touch the actors, and to remain silent for the duration of the experience.  An elevator transports you to the floors of the McKittrick Hotel, and once you step out of it, what part of the show you experience is entirely up to you.  You may wander from room to room, exploring the décor, searching for clues, and soaking in the brooding atmosphere.  Eventually, you’ll stumble across a scene being silently (but muscularly) acted out, at times overtly erotic and violent, at times quiet and sad, always fascinating.  When the scene ends, you may choose to follow one of the other characters to another narrative moment.  Several times, the actors draw you into a group scene, and again offer you many choices to make and directions to go.

Eventually I stumbled on a scene that approximated Act II, scene ii of Macbeth and could easily identify Lady Macbeth as a character.  Finding my footing in a narrative arch that I knew, I decided to follow her to see how Punchdrunk interpreted her story.  Eventually, she began to repeat her actions—as if she were on a video loop.  To see the scene reset was a singularly haunting experience; this repetition along with the silent actors, the deary nostalgia of the McKittrick hotel, and the swelling Bernard Herrmann score, all suggested to me that what we were seeing wasn’t something that was really happening before us, but a memory, a pantomime of the past, ghosts endlessly retracing their steps in limbo.

To further this effect, the fragmented experience of wandering in and out of scenes that you vaguely recognize but struggle to place is dreamlike.  When I exited and removed my mask, the irony of the show’s title occurred me, because for the past two and a half hours, I felt as though I’d been sleeping, having a remarkably complex dream—the sort that teases you with signs and symbols but rarely yields an absolute truth.  I also felt that I’d seen something completely fresh—and something that implicated the audience in a new way.  But, as much skin and blood as you see in some of those scenes, the experience didn’t strike me as voyeuristic.

Voyeurism is about the viewer’s control over or objectification of the viewed (“the object of the gaze”).  In this case, the audience is doing the looking safely behind our masks, but from what I could tell, it’s the creators of Sleep No More who are masterfully manipulating the viewers, not the other way around.  Ultimately, it’s a sort of seduction—all good art is a seduction of some sort—not voyeurism.  When you enter the McKittrick, you are on their terms, and you buy into it—or at least I did—and in return, they offer an experience that sparks the dark corners of your imagination.  It produced a great sense of mystery in me, not the guilt of seeing something lurid and forbidden which I had anticipated.  Of all the twists and turns I experienced that night, that was the most surprising.

If anyone reading this entry has seen the show, I’d love you to post your impressions as well.  I intend on returning to the show if I get the chance.

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Video games—Are they the future of storytelling?

For my birthday, I received a present that would make any teenage boy jump for joy—an XBOX 360 gaming system.  Yep, that’s right, this English teacher, this lover of fiction and fine art, of theater and music, this man who as a boy gave away his Nintendo because his friends paid it more attention than they did him (true story)—now owns an XBOX.  When I told my advisees (all rising seniors) about the gift, they thought it was very funny—and rightly so.  Teachers aren’t supposed to approve of computer games.  They kidded me about becoming a gaming addict:  “Sorry, kids, I didn’t get a chance to read your essays, I was up until 3:00 AM trying to beat the boss at the end of level 5!”

The reason why I intimated that I wanted an XBOX (I was too ashamed to openly ask—Thank you, Jeff, for knowing me so well!) was because of a game called L.A. Noire.  For the past two years, I’ve taught a senior seminar about crime fiction and film adaptations of crime fiction.  In the class, we focus on hard-boiled crime novels and film noir, and their social, historical, and aesthetic implications.  Obviously, the crime story, whether in film or in print, is a particular type of narrative that I find compelling.  A reviewer at VG Lounge describes the game: “Every single nuance that you can imagine from human conversation is faithfully recaptured in various scenes throughout L.A. Noire, which give interactions in the game an almost hyper-realistic quality. The technology is just icing on a well-layered cake though because the story in L.A. Noire is packed with twists, turns, and a lot of “oh $#*t” moments.”  The meticulous style and realism of the game as well as its focus on storytelling caught my attention.

All of this leads me to a bigger question about the future of how narratives are conveyed.  Although I believe that we will always need stories rich in character and complexity, stories that challenge us and our beliefs, stories that attempt to tell the truth about our lives, I’m less certain about the forms those stories will take.  Film and television took on storytelling in the 20th century, but both have their limitations.  Deeper, more resonant character building is difficult to achieve in one-hour or two-hour time frames, although serialized cable television shows, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad (Thank you, AMC!), are offering us more novelistic character arcs.

So, I’m curious:  Do video games have the potential to provide us with rich storytelling experiences?  I’m not sure, but there are some exciting possibilities, especially in exploring how readers (or players, in this case) complete a narrative experience.  At this point, most video games seem like purely escapist, button-pushing experiences, but it seems that narrative is becoming a more important element in some of them.  EW reviewer Darren Franich writes: “At first, L.A. Noire seems to largely capture the tone of [hard-boiled novels and films] without quite grasping their deeper meaning … The streets of Noire‘s ’40s Los Angeles look great, the dialogue has a pleasantly no-bull cynicism, and the gameplay has a nice diversity …  But great noir is about more than just tough guys and boozy broads, and after a few hours of playing the game, I sort of felt like it was the videogame translation of Sin City: All the affections of noir with none of the soul.”

As I start exploring this game, I may find it more a pleasant and, at this time of year, much needed distraction than anything especially new, but I’m intrigued by its potential:  What happens when the reader begins to interact with the characters?  What happens when the narrative window becomes a door that we can step through?  What happens when we can choose our way through a narrative—what if we’re placed in the position of making difficult emotional decisions, however virtual they may be?  Who knows, but I wonder …

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Will reading a great book change you?

Kierkegaard

As an English teacher, my first and most immediate response is: “No.”  Now, that may sound surprising (and I’m sure it sounds cynical), but I believe that change is entirely up to the individual.  Experience—those potent and indelible moments in our lives—are much more likely to change us than a great book.  Of course, even then, we don’t have to change because of what happens to us.

But books CAN change us if we permit them to.  However, it’s difficult to be truly open to change; we crave certainty too much.  Many times we read not to be challenged or to explore a new perspective, but to confirm what we already believe to be true.  Often when my students read a text, they want it to resonate with their particular outlook on life.  They want a book to comfort them, to shore up their egos.  I understand and sympathize—I’ve often wanted the same thing.

But if you find a book comforting, then it’s not changing you.

Is finding a book comforting bad?  Well, no—but it’s also not good.  It’s about affirming the status quo.  It’s a neutral event.  If we were only to read these sorts of books—and they are the most popular books, those which first call out to us from the front tables of chain book stores—then reading is nothing more than a pleasurable distraction.  And although I have nothing against escaping reality from time to time (in fact, we all should!), when it comes to choosing a book to study and, even more so, to teach, I want something which will challenge me, because it is only such a text that has the potential to change us, should we be open to it.

In an educational setting, we should always be choosing challenging texts.  My best teaching experiences have happened when the text I’ve selected strikes my students as unfamiliar at first: “But, Mr. Copenhaver, I have no idea what he’s saying … I’m sooo confused.”  Then, I’m able to help them through it, to lift the veil a little and reveal that it does have something to do with them.  I truly believe that working through a difficult text, wrestling with complex sentence structure or complicated symbols or even thematically abstract subject matter, if you’re open to it, can refine your heart and your mind.

Of course, many individuals reject challenging texts and scoff at them, labeling them elitist or unnecessary.  Although there are books which deliberately obfuscate to seem intellectual or mystical, there are many which are difficult because the ideas they are addressing require them to be.  More often than not, what we have come to think of as the classics—from Wordsworth’s poems to Virginia Woolf’s prose—yield true and mysterious fruit, if you’re willing to take the time with them.  (There are also great contemporary texts, such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which if mined, can offer similar truths.)

When I was in college, I took a course titled “Sin and Redemption in Christian Thought” and my professor made us outline everything we read.  Yes, everything.  We finished the course with Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, a complex philosophical text, which seriously baffled me at first, but with my professor’s guidance and my endless outlining, I found my way through it.  In the Preface, Kierkgaard even addresses the difficulty of his own exposition, explaining that its rigor is necessary to truly edify the reader.  After that experience, I understand why.  I’ve carried what I learned from The Sickness Unto Death through my life; it has altered me.

A text which challenges, it seems to me, is more likely to work its DNA into ours as we struggle with it, our ideas coupling with new ideas and evolving our sense of self.  As a teacher, I will continue to bring these sorts of books into my classroom, because I want to offer the opportunity for my students to change.

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