Over the weekend of the 9th and 10th of May 2009 John Baker stopped at Asynchronous Process as part of his book blog tour for his novel Winged with Death. He had asked me if I'd like to read it and without any strict guidlines or required style, number of words etc would I write my thoughts down. What follows are my thoughts and a series of questions that arose from my reading of the book and of thoughts of the writing process in general from another novelist. John I know would be happy to answer further questions about the book from his readers so if you leave a comment here I will make sure he sees it.
Thoughts on Winged with Death
History is fable agreed upon, said Voltaire. Fable is allegory left for interpretation, says Daisy-Winifred.
Fable is one of those words often used with little thought to its meaning and more often linked with children’s tales both created by and for them. But a fable can be a serious adult entity when created by skilled hands whose full stops are open windows for others to climb through.
Yes, a fable is a tale, a story but a fable is more; it can be a metaphor, a symbol left for a traveller as a way mark or signpost to add to their personal map; a parable for heart as well as mind which echoes in each foot step taken past that discovered way mark or signpost.
This fable, this metaphor, this symbol can also be a gripping, multilayered, engrossing, challenging, ripping good yarn. A story of human frailty and magnificence wrapped in poetry formed of prose found between the paper covers of a book.
Is ‘Winged with Death’ this kind of book. I could simply say yes and leave it at that. No damning with false praise or denunciation through disdain just a bald yes but then, fable is allegory left for interpretation.
If you are reading this in hope of discovering plot lines, major and minor characters, what does happen in the final chapter, my advice, stop now, go to the nearest bookshop buy a copy and read it. Visit some of the previous stops on John Bakers virtual book tour.
That phrase ‘the facts are true but the names of the characters have been changed to protect them’ comes to mind because in this case my interpretation will almost certainly come along with the caveat ‘the names of the characters have not been changed but the facts are my truth’.
First let me say Winged with Death is a highly readable yarn, a story of pace, light and shadow. Full of people not only recognisable but real in ways that finds breath held as you watch their lives unfold. Taken as ‘just’ a story this is good, it makes you turn the page then the next and the next without being formulaic.
The people who populate this novel have lives I became interested in hearing about, reflecting upon their separate but connected journey not because hugely momentous things happen, though they do, not because the narrator is shining knight and dark villain, which he may be, but because their ordinary daily lives are beautifully and skilfully portrayed in all their glorious extra-ordinary simplicity with depth, layer and allusion that made this reader smile as I discovered again and again time being depicted so well as moment now and moment gone but never lost on the walk through a life, on the walk through a tango, on a walk through identity and loss of identity.
This is a real book in sense that like a moment, like a life, there is not just one narrative or even two there are many interwoven in the moment and a life. The book could easily be said to be split between two narratives one based in Montevideo, Uruguay the other in York, England which intersect and split apart throughout the novel but that would debase the whole and certainly lose any sense of the complication that is human life and living, which John Baker, the author, skilfully manages not just to allude to but confronts the reader with, without alienating them from the compelling page turner that this novel is.
I felt the main character in the book is time and place, time historically place geographically yes, but in the continuing and constant of the Tango throughout the whole text I found another time and place, the intimacy of mind and body, obvious in the rhythm, moves and philosophy of this dance that washed over Fredrick Boyle / Ramon Bolio, which certainly made him a master of the dance but underlined and highlighted in stark juxtaposition how removed he was from this time and place when the relationship with his self is concerned.
In the time of ‘the disappeared’ his youth, cultural difference etc could be put forward as reason for this schism between the internal and external, place and time but the author doesn’t take this easy option rather he allows the reader to discover as Ramon discovers, in the moment.
I have a little experience of living through a time of revolution, of war in a geographical place far from where I was born or educated as a child, where my first language, the way I stood, viewed and was viewed by the society I lived in were always as outsider but know to my self I was not an outsider, that my youth and cultural reference points did not estrange but rather encouraged me to embrace the differences and accept rather than keep a ‘safe’ distance from my self and others.
The character of Ramon appears to go through this process too however the complications of a life always bring along with them at least one but.
Winged with Death is scattered with ‘buts’ , the fallible fragile kind that make up all human beings and their lives.
Very early on in the book there is a passage where Ramon says this about himself –
“During that first year in Montevideo I would come awake in my bed at night and wonder how I had managed to leave my home so far behind. Now, of course, I know that we are not born in our native land and as long as we hang on to that quaint concept we remain in the mists of childhood. The process of maturing is the slow realization that we are born in the world, that we belong as much to the stars in the heavens as we do to the herbs and grasses that populate the limited space we are taught to call home.
Where we belong is not a place that gives rise to emotions like affection. On the contrary our birthplace is a vast and complicated structure that defies definition. It is an infinitude of contradictions, visible and invisible, tactile and intangible, neither friend nor foe. Finally it’s a prison and our task is to loosen its hold on us so that we can enjoy a few brief moments of freedom.”
And near the end of the book he says this about his brother Stephen –
“Stephen’s smiling face turned to look up at us. He was really very happy. The happiest he had been for a long time. For a moment he had lost all sense of his destiny, his fate, he believed himself to be free in space and had forgotten that he was a prisoner of time”
For me these two excerpts are the story, they are the meaning of this book, for a moment. On second and further reading I expect to find more and suspect I will not be disappointed, which is another reason to recommend reading it and underlining my discovered truth about this book, it's good, very good writing that technically achieves something difficult without the reader ever being aware of that until they finally close the book and consider just where the author has taken them both in heart and mind.
Time and place when they collide can fracture, become so fragmented that human frailty and fallibility trying to put them back together is reason enough to stand well away and watch what follows with a sense it could be the tale of impending doom or delighted discovery that may unfold before your eyes.
Like a mesmerised rabbit’s fascination with headlights blinds it to the danger and imminent death approaching, the act of remembering, as told in Winged with Death, leaves both reader and narrator waiting but which is holding their breath at the last full stop I leave for others to discover for themselves.
As I reached the end of the book I was not surprised, disappointed or perplexed as I understand some other readers may have been. I have a pencilled note that tells me it was page 133 and a two word sentence at the end of a paragraph when I thought what the final chapter would be and why. I’m not completely sure why I grasped that then but there it was.
I would have found the book unfinished without the final chapter or more accurately for me less the unfinished moment in time that the rest of the book so skilfully unfolded through words that do in deed, as I said in the previous post about reading this book, make love to each other.
As I closed my eyes to digest the final chapter, André Breton held up a note in my brain which, for me, is what Winged with Death expresses so eloquently, skilfully and with page turning impetus. Yes, the descriptions of obsession to a cause, to the dance, to something called freedom, of passion torture and pain are all in this book but it is something else I found that leads me easily to say, read it!
Any novel I read and can say I enjoy has to be robust enough for me to crawl between the lines as well as rest easy on top of them. I don’t read novels to be purely entertained I can watch the dogs playing in the garden for that. I read novels to learn about myself, where better than in the mirrors held up by creative minds with skills and bravery enough to share their words, which allow me to hear the kiss as words connect and understand with Breton “It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere”
Below you will find the comment thread 'conversation'.
D-W I know you have said the setting for the book you found in a dream but I’m interested in how in the reality of your day to day you hang on to that dream and transform it in to a reality readers can not only accept but get caught up in.
Do you have a structured time to write each day, place, favourite pen/mug/cushion :0) Do you have charts and post it notes plotting each twist and turn each full stop or is it blank pages, six drafts and many edits.
J.B Many, many edits is the succinct answer. I don't plot. I begin with an empty screen and plug away with whatever makes sense, or with whatever doesn't make sense but it might make sense later.
In the beginning I'm looking for a voice. The novel can't really begin until that voice materializes. I don't know exactly what it is I'm looking for, but it is a voice that is of sufficient depth and interest to me that I feel I can live with it for the duration of the novel, in this case three years.
It can't be a superficial voice - I have to believe in it, I have to believe there is a being behind it, that it is coming out of lived experience.
This isn't something I can measure - I am in the realm of feelings at this stage, it's a voice beginning to come through and if feels as though it may have something to say. It doesn't sound like anyone else. It is an original voice.
I let it ramble on for a while, until it goes somewhere or says something that I can empathise with and then I coax it to elaborate, to experiment, to sing.
Introducing further, subsidiary characters is not quite so difficult. The novel is going to revolve around the minority of one, and other characters are easy because they, too, like me, are relating to the central character
I write in the morning. It's the best time of the day, I'm fresh from sleep and I don't answer the phone or the door or move away from the computer until I've got something down. Could be some pages, could be some words, could be I'll throw it all away tomorrow, but I never regard anything as waster, whatever I produce that doesn't find an actual place in the finished manuscript has, in some way, added to the totality.
I have no time for mugs, cushions, post-its; I don't listen to music while I work, but I do have a window in the room and a mildly interesting view.
Basically it's morning, and I'm alone and I have the language in my head and I'm ready and willing for a miracle to happen.
D-W One of the characters in the book in particular reminded me of people I have met ‘manning the barricades’, be that in Canning Town or Kandahar, and made me smile and wince in equal measure as in life.
This character shines a light on what might be happening in Uruguay as well as Fredrick who he even offers new name and identity to. But, to me, he seems to be a cipher – code / code breaker and in many ways a non-entity, actually like many of the other characters really, but much bolder in his obvious presentation.
I am talking about Julio but felt throughout the book all the characters were there as much to break a code I as reader needed to understand as characters without this association. Was this an intended or is this one of your readers taking your book to places you didn’t see.
Oh, and what DID Julio mean when he said “When the chips are down, the buffalo is empty” :0)
J.B Julio as a cipher?
I can see what you mean. And I also had some intimation of this when I was writing the book. As a guide for Ramon in his new life in Montevideo, Julio also serves as a guide for the reader to the kind of life that Ramon is carving out for himself in Uruguay.
For me, however, he was not only a cipher and I enjoyed his company from time to time. Though not deep, he is a complex character, capable of humour and personal kindness as well as a staunch supporter of a political agenda. Certainly Ramon and Fanny would not have survived without his help.
I'm still wondering about that quote: when the chips are down the buffalo is empty.
I've thought and thought about it, but I dunno.
D-W Throughout the book I found many echoes of Surrealist thought and ideas as well as the obvious you drew on of Anarchic/Marxist/Communist dialectic so beloved of those engaged in violent struggle. This may be just my way of interpreting most everything but I wonder did you draw on the Surrealists.
J.B. Did I draw on the Surrealists?
Not directly. But I have long been interested in all aspects of Modernism, especially Expressionism and Futurism, and, as you well know, there are many crossover points.
The father of Surrealism was Dada; and those connections with Freud, with Dream, with Social Revolution and anarchism were always present.
The initial draft of the chapter in which Ramon dances with bloody feet was fashioned on the kind of automatic writing Breton, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault experimented with in Paris
D-W The lyricism of your writing could easily lead your reader to believe the characters in this book are flawed yes but poetic, insightful and rather more than the reality of the tale should allow, was this deliberate, another confusion of time and place etc.
J.B. The lyricism of the writing and the poetical nature of the characters.
I'm not really interested in realism. I'm interested primarily in language and the way it plays out on the page.
As a reader I'm willing to go along with almost anything if it has something of the ring of truth about it. I can easily accept Marquez's depiction of Remedios the Beauty being carried off into the sky, while in the midst of folding a sheet. This does not seem to be miraculous or out-of-the-way to me, or if it does, then it does so in a justifiable way.
So my characters will always be flawed, and whenever possible they will walk on water or hover above the earth. Our religions, our culture, even our institutions of entertainment (circus, music hall, etc.) all indulge our appetite for this kind of thing, and art, literature in particular, has never flinched from presenting the impossible, simply because it was impossible.
This is what allows us to keep our feet on the ground.
D-W Yes, this is why I liked your book quite as much as I did. A novel is place where I want to be able to walk on water, or hover above the earth as you put it or at least get an idea of how I might manage that. I am so glad your characters will always be flawed, human it's only then that the impossible can find wing on language as long as the 'juggler' is skilled and aware that the only justification to be found or needed is in every line written:0)
D-W When a book gets ‘out there’ have you already sailed away from those people and place so distant memories are needed to be dredged to respond to readers or is there a time period when even though you are working on discovering new people and place for the next book you are still very much in touch with the characters etc of the latest published book.
J.B Have I forgotten the book and immersed myself into a new project?
I think the answer to this one depends on the book.
Winged with Death is still very much with me. I have finished with it, and have no thoughts of a sequel or anything like that. But the thematic content of the novel are issues that have been of concern to me for a long time, and having written about them in the novel, has not lessened my interest.
Also, I'm very interested in the parts of the novel of which I was only half-conscious when writing, and which have since been elaborated on by readers.
D-W Thank you for answering my questions so fully, here are some more posted by Caroline Smailes who hasn't read your book yet but read my thoughts and says this -
I find it hard to think of questions regarding a book that I haven't read, but would say that I am now intrigued and look forward to the read. Instead, I'll ask a few questions abotu the actual writing process, for John to possibly answer...
Where and when did the seed for this story appear? Can you identify a specific moment?
And, from that seed to the final draft, how long did the process take?
And, because I am really curious and feel very safe on this blog, do you prefer to write longhand or shorthand?
J-B Hi Caroline,
The simple question first. I don't write longhand or shorthand. I write directly onto a keyboard; in the old days with a typewriter and nowadays to a computer screen. I do have a notebook but find it almost impossible to read my own writing, so only use it in dire emergencies - like the middle of the night - although even then I tend to get out of bed, get dressed and go to the coal-face rather than the unfathomable scribbles.
Where do stories come from? I don't think there was a seed in the case of this book. The seed and the tree growing out of it is a useful metaphor but often isn't sufficient as a description for the creative process. Sometimes the seed falls on stony ground and it needs a bird to come along and eat it and deposit it somewhere else.
I have long been fascinated by the concept of time, and once could see that as a seed. But I have also wanted to use dance as a metaphor for a long time, and perhaps that could be seen as a seed as well.
Then I had a dream of Montevideo, set in the past, a tumultuous dream with colours and scents and all the background sounds of the city, though I had never been there in real life, and perhaps that was the final seed? I don't know, I didn't immediately tie up the connection with time or with the dance, but only suddenly found myself searching for a voice, a narrator, who could relate something about the reality of the this dreamland.
When the voice came it bgan to occur to me that the narrator could also be a dancer, though the character himself, at this early stage of the story did not know that was to be his destiny.
So perhaps the answer is that there were many seeds, some of them managed to convert and grow, while others withered and died. But it was in the way that the survivors managed to combine with each other that the story, the novel, found its fulfilment.
The novel occupied me for perhaps three years, sometimes streaking away so that I could barely keep up the pace, and other times lying flat and barely moving, inching forward at a snailspace.
D-W I hope your fellow novel writer finds those answers as interesting as I do. I'm a pen woman by choice really, though anything but a fountain pen or cartridge pen lets my writing slide in to code written by another person, something like you:0)
J.B I still have to thank you, though, for your careful and sympathetic reading of the text of Winged with Death. Your quoting of the passage about birth and the place of our birth reached for the central theme of the book and identified it as well as I might have done myself.
Because the moment is a deep place, a complicated environment in which we are never free and where freedom in an absolute sense is always possible. Perhaps that is why we find it so difficult to grasp?
The other thing that comes to mind about writing Winged with Death, is that, from time to time, it was an enormously enjoyable experience. (Sometimes it was Hell, of course.) But, especially in the editing process I remember moments when my own connection with the text and with the ongoing narrative and language came together in a remarkable and memorable way. Something one does not always experience with the writing of a novel, or at least not to the same extent.
And I feel that this shows from time to time, in the relationships between some of the characters, or perhaps in moments of quietness and contemplation. Of course, as the author of the piece, I am always aware of the limitations and omissions, so it is good to remind myself of the places where it comes close to delivering the promise.
D-W Thank you John but it's been a pleasure.
I have found it facinating to hear a little of the process that you engaged in to create Winged with Death and to understand a little more about the charecters. There were parts of the text which were so'in the moment' that their feeling, texture, impact, was truly viseral. So powerful, instinctive and gut touching that any thought to try and look at that was lost in a gasp. As far as I'm concerned that's a huge plus for the book as a whole and one of the reasons a second full read is on the way.
I'm fascinated with the editing process - you are I am sure aware I have trouble spelling that word let alone operating it:0) However I do understand that feeling when you are drawn further in to your own writing and arms length become heart beat and the connection becomes a blossom you had not until that moment realised you had grown.
Yes that is what I was trying to say when I mentioned the cipher thought. I may have used the wrong word as I'm still grappling with the strength of thought and ideas that your book illicited from me. The charecters were definitely there as themselves but that without the time place and other charecters feeding in to their selves the sense of non-entity was there but that is as in 'real' life as far as I can tell. Yes the quietness, even stillness between the charecters is where this is most powerful but it is never silent.
If you were ever to produce that perfect work - no ommissions or limitations, I have to say I'd say it wouuld probably be crap. Your writing for me is about the human condition, whatever that overblown phrase means, but for me it surely means omissions and limitations and frankly they've made a rather fine novel:0)
J-B I had a really good time on this board, yesterday and today. Have to go back to my own site now, but I'll be back frequently. Thanks for the hospitality, the cakes, the chocolate and the warm-tasting tots that kept turning up in the coffee.
I can't think of anywhere nicer.
D-W Safe journey home, don't forget your doggy bag...oh may be not it looks like it might be inside said doggy:0) Glad you enjoyed your sojourn and Gladys didn't mind at all dangling her toes in your coffee such a sweet four year old :0)
**Note to reader - Only virtual dog and child were ever involved of course**