I watched Drake Doremus’ 2013 film Breath In last night. I always enjoy seeing Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, both of whom seem to be everywhere these days. I wondered what would draw them both into what seemed to be a tiny film. I was not disappointed.
The story is essentially a British forbidden love novel with all the right beats and few of the traps that D. H. Lawrence would have merrily strewn through it. The actors were well chosen, and every effort was made to restrain what could easily have been a tawdry, melodramatic and self-righteous tale. Doremus, who also wrote the film, made sure that every character had a firm perspective and the romance was attributed at least in part to events in their lives at that moment. What happened could simply not have been avoided by real people, which should be said of all stories.
Good stories have clear characterization, character being defines as desire, drive, ability, compassion and perspective all of which change over a lifetime. Here’s a simple example of those changes from my own family history. I’ve been thinking about this lately as I ponder my upcoming knee replacement.
Philo Howard, my mother’s brother, was a frank, funny, energetic man. At sixteen, he ran away to Canada from his home in Houston. There, he lied about his age and joined the Canadian Royal Air Force to fight in WWII, which the US had not yet entered. His whereabouts were determined by my dad’s mother who read an article in the Houston paper listing Texas volunteers. Uncle Philo was returned to the bosom of his family forthwith. Several years later he enlisted in the American Air Corps and flew P-51s over Europe.
My family had a party in Houston in 2003 to celebrate what would have been my late father’s 100th birthday. My uncle, who recently had his pacemaker replaced, couldn’t make the party. He emailed me this tribute to be read at the celebration. My dad, Judge Wilmer Hunt, was nearly twenty-years his senior. To his great sorrow he was denied military service due to his age, very flat feet and a knee injured by my mother. (That’s another story.) The setting of Philo’s account is the rich farmland of eastern Texas in the 50’s. By prison, my uncle was referring to a pea farm, as they were called back then. They were minimum security prisons where inmates grew food for the prison system.
Wilmer was my favorite, because he liked to fish and many times took me along. One time he took me to Kemah and we got in a small skiff and towed [it] out to the middle of the bay for four hours. I was always a little hyper, and I almost jumped out of the boat after about an hour. Wilmer seeing this, started telling me stories. As I remember, this calmed me down a bit and I caught some fish.
Being a Judge he had access to a prison and one near Brazoria had a great fishing pond. He and I went there about three times. It seemed I always ended up having to carry a small Outboard motor from the parking lot to the lake each time. I asked him why, and he said “when you are my age you will understand.”
The Story of Blondel the Minstrel and King Richard the Lionheart
There is a legend that when King Richard the Lionheart disappeared a faithful squire named Blondel the Minstrel went in search of him. As a wandering minstrel Blondel travelled for months over central Europe, vainly seeking for news of his friend, the King of England. At last one day, while singing one of Richard’s favorite songs near the walls of the castle where the king was confined, Blondel heard the song repeated from a window. Blondel the Minstrel recognized the voice of King Richard. From the window Richard told him to let the English people and the people of Europe know where he was confined, and Blondel the minstrel immediately went upon his mission.
Europe was astounded to learn that the brave King Richard of England, the great champion of Christendom, was imprisoned. The story of Blondel the Minstrel might not be true, but what is true is that England offered to ransom Richard, that the Pope interceded for him and that finally it was agreed that King Richard should be given up on the payment of a very large sum of money in the form of a ransom.
Many of the nobles and knights in Queen Eleanor’s Duchy of Aquitaine were troubadours. Queens Eleanor of Aquitaine ( Richard’s mother )and Queen Berengaria (Richard’s wife ) raised the ransom. King Richard came home in 1194, after a year and a half of captivity. His grateful thanks were given to his faithful friend Blondel the Minstrel.
I struggle with the complexity of the stories and the accessibility of language in my two novels. Will a young reader stumble on a word more common in the books of my own childhood than in hers? Will she finish a book with so many characters and twists?
The point I’ve come to is that while I certainly do not wish to confuse, bore or frustrate readers, I do hope to pass on some of the richness of detail I was fortunate enough to be exposed to not only in my early readings, but in my own childhood. My father, a character himself, devoured sea stories, and could quote Shakespeare and Walter Scott at the drop of the hat. My mother, a painter and poet, quoted the Romantic poets almost daily. My big sister Lalu is a marvelous storyteller herself and read me Thurber with a wicked giggle. My late sister Robin McCorquodale published several acclaimed books and sang mezzo soprano in New York. My brother Grainger Hunt sang rock-and-roll and played Henry IV on stage. My own literary influences were Shakespeare, Homer, Twain, Verne, Stevenson, Doyle, Wells, Hammett, Hellman, O’Brian, Chandler and McMurtry. I read them still.
Everybody has an interesting story, but it’s generally not the one they’ll tell you first. How Bob kicked the winning field goal in the last high school game is interesting to Bob. It’s the story that makes Bob feel giddy as he anticipates excitement rising in your expression. To get a grand sense of this, read William Shatner’s or Donald Trump’s autobiographies. They’re stuffed with vignettes that portray them as brave, smart and very cool. (I actually enjoyed Shatner’s.) They’re the same stories you’ve been button-holed in the corner at a cocktail party to hear. There are one or two in this blog to be honest.
The good stories are the ones you pull out of yourself like arrowheads. They make you squirm. They’re embarrassing or shameful – so much so they’re likely to be embedded in fiction, or told as though they happened to someone else.
Those are the ones I want to hear, and write. Most of us, I suspect, have several. But, like I say, they’re hard to tell.
*The painting is Leonardo DaVinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474.
I’m at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR this weekend pitching my new book. I must say the more editors I know, the more I like them. Publishers, bless them all, love numbers. Editors love words. They are the gardeners of books.
*Painting by Maurice de Vlaminck.
One of my favorite blues songs is Boz Scagg’s “Loan Me a Dime.” My favorite version – and there are many fine ones – is the one he recorded with the Allman Brothers in Muscle Shoals in 1969.
A decade later, I played along with the song a hundred times on my Strat in my Mill Valley basement studio . At each drop of the needle, I waited patiently for the vocal to end, so I could I could play along with Duane’s passionate but nuanced solo. Among the finest blues guitarists ever, Duane had that rare combination of flash and reserve I so admire. And this song is arguably one of his best solos.
Many, many years have passed. Now, when I play this same cut in my Seattle basement studio, I listen carefully to Boz’s heartfelt vocal. When Duane comes in, I often find myself starting the song over. Maybe it’s that I’ve heard the lead so many times, that it no longer holds my attention so closely. Perhaps it’s that I hardly touch that old Strat of mine anymore. I’m much more about my acoustics. Or maybe it’s because I understand more clearly what the singer means when he says, “Somebody loan me a dime. I’ve got to call my old time used-to-be.”