"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, September 28, 2012

Eng. 151H: Pollan, Foer, and the Complications of Food

This is one of those days where I should not be awake, let alone functional.  I got next to no sleep last night, the alarm went off at 5:00, and I haven't had as much caffeine as I expected to by this point in the morning.  But I am not one to question such blessed energy, so off we go into the wonderful world of Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer on this glorious September Friday.

We have been reading our way through Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, spending the first part of the week talking about corn and industrial corn production, which has been quite the experience for my students.  This is the end of our second week in Writing Project 2, on food systems, and today, the first interview they're doing for this project is due (I haven't seen them yet, but I'm pretty excited).  Some of them went to the Farmer's Market down in the Haymarket last week (I hope they go tomorrow as well) and I get paid this weekend, which means the food budget is replenished, which means I can go too without torturing myself.

Today's section of Omnivore's Dilemma was about pastoral grass and Joel Salatin's farm--but the sad part of the day is that we didn't get as much time to spend on it as I wanted to, since I wanted to spend a good chunk of our time on Foer, as a new voice and a new perspective in this ongoing exploration of complications.  I waved around the book, Eating Animals, where I took the portions about storytelling and gave it to my students for today.  I talked about what Foer was doing as a Writer (which is not to say that Pollan is not a writer, but the differences between their styles and execution are marked) and what it would be like to apply Noah Lukeman to both of these texts to discern what their sentences are doing.  I talked about the use of his pages, manipulating the page to also do what he wants it to do.  I love writers who do that.

Then, free writing:

  • How does JSF complicate what we've been talking about?  Where did you highlight, underline, comment?  What do you still think about after you've put it down?
  • What new ideas and perspectives does he bring to this conversation?
  • How does he bring us back to the micro level that our class is themed around?
  • If you can, interpret what we've been talking about through the lens of your major.  There are pre-med, political science, etc. majors--what perspective does that offer?  If you can't filter this topic through your major or intended major, think about it through your own personal history.
  • How did your interview complicate this topic?
We talked about storytelling, how pretty much everything Foer is doing in these pages is a variation on storytelling, changing a story, and what it means to do either.  My students pointed out where Foer specifically mentions Pollan and we talked a little bit about the dialogue that is going on in Foer's book.

We ran out of time to discuss Pollan's section in depth, but we'll get to it next week.  At the end of class, one of my students brought up a really good question (about "why does it matter, if the animal is dead?)--which I would like to say is typical of this particular class.  This class asks truly excellent, difficult questions.  These are questions that seem simplistic or antagonistic or "duh" questions on first glance, but the reality is they are incredibly important questions.  Asking "why does it matter?" is a valid question.  I have one particular student who is really, really good at forming these kind of under-the-surface-complex questions, something that was often brought up in the Natural Disasters 150 I taught in the spring.  If farming was so tough during the Dust Bowl, why did people stay?  Why didn't they go somewhere else?  That's not a dumb question--that's a truly excellent question.  What would have prevented them from going somewhere else, doing something different?

And then, as I was riding the elevator back to my office, I have that moment that most teachers do:  I really hope this class is going as well as I think it is...because this is awesome.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Eng. 180: Rebecca, Gender and Power

Lots to catch up on!  First, the Chronicle posted an great article on teaching true crime, so the conversation on teaching in this genre/subgenre is definitely happening--and it's definitely a conversation we need to have.  Obviously, I feel very strongly about the need to teach crime literature, the need to explore it from a critical perspective, and the need to engage those authors who are writing those texts right now.

Today, I started off 180 with a clip from Hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, the scene where the narrator (so gloriously unnamed) comes down the stairs to the costume ball in her dress, the horror of Maxim's reaction, and in the movie, the narrator flees upstairs and confronts Mrs. Danvers about the plot--and it's there that Mrs. Danvers has her speech...and then tries to convince the narrator to jump out the window and commit suicide.  It's only the fireworks that signal a ship has run aground save the narrator, who does look like she's going to jump.  Of the chapters we read for today, I said shit happens...and then more shit happens, which made them laugh.

On Monday, I had them read Nicky Hallett's article "did Mrs. Danvers warm Rebecca's pearls? significant exchanges and the extension of lesbian space and time in literature" and we talked specifically about gender and sexuality, especially in terms of place.  I was a little leery of this risk, knowing this is conservative Nebraska, but my students seemed game.  I divided them into their small groups, something I just need to keep doing and not think that my large group discussions are going to get anywhere.  This class is incredibly shy and quiet and they will talk in their small groups where they don't in the large group.  As a result, I've been trying to figure out more small group activities that are more than me coming to class with questions for them to answer and then we talk about those answers in the large group.  

Friday's exercise was "Dear Diary," which, at the time, I didn't think went that well, but several students mentioned it as helpful and interesting in their Think Pieces that they turned in on Monday, so maybe I'm a poor judge of what works and what doesn't.  The idea came from Longman's website:  Have students role play as characters in the story. They respond to events of the story from their perspective. Each diary entry begins with a quote from the story; the students then write 100 words minimum per entry from the character's perspective concerning this quote. The diary can have as many entries as necessary—for example: 4 quotes concerning rising action, 1 quote concerning the climax, and 1 quote concerning falling action.  I only had them write from one quote.

Monday's exercise was to talk through the issues we were focusing on for the day--gender and sexuality--and I had them start with a free write.  This class definitely does better if they have some time and space to think through their pens.  

  • What kind of spaces have we been exposed to?  Built spaces?  Natural spaces?
  • What kinds of actions take place in which spaces?  Where do various plot points happen?
  • How are these spaces gendered in a particular way (Hallett’s article:  the ball is gendered heterosexual, male-female dancing, etc.)

And then, in their groups, I had them talk through what they wrote and from there, I asked them to create a question that they would give to the next group to answer.  Here are the questions they came up with:

  • Group 1:  How does Mrs. Danvers and the narrator’s relationship compare/contrast to that of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers?
  • Group 2:  What are the main examples of power and space that have led to the building of suspense in this novel?
  • Group 3:  In terms of setting and place, where does the narrator feel most safe?  Where does she feel threatened?  Why does she feel those emotions in those places?
  • Group 4:  When looking at the spaces of and around Manderley, where have you noticed different expressions of power?  Who has the power in those spaces—and where does that power come from? 
  • Group 5:  How would you describe the struggle of power within nature, specifically how the natural world is used within the plot of the story?
  • Group 6:  All of the spaces in Manderley and its environs belong to either Maxim or Rebecca.  How does place define their identities?  And how did they come to “own” those spaces in the first place?

Each group took their new question and answered it--and of course we ran out of time (my pedagogy has a real problem with these 50 minute classes)--and some of the depth we got to was really great.  I tried to bring back some of these in today's class, but we got very wrapped up in the actual plot of what was happening.

But it was worth mentioning that though we were in small groups today--and I did ask them to consider the specific gender and power issues in the exchange where Maxim tells the narrator the truth about himself and Rebecca after her boat has been found--that I brought up Jerome Stern and his book Making Shapely Fiction.  One of my favorite moments in that book comes when he is discussing scene--when you're a kid and you want an adult's attention, what do you do?  You throw a tantrum and make a scene.  As a fiction writer, if you want a reader's attention, you make a scene.  Why is the narrator's exchange with Mrs. Danvers important?  Why spent seven pages on it?  Why is it important to spend an excruciating number of pages on the lunch scene?  Why does du Maurier want our attention there?  Also, from the fiction writer's toolbox, if dialogue is what characters do to each other--why are these exchanges important?  It was neat to see new wheels turning in their heads in terms of what du Maurier as a fiction writer was bringing to her page.  It's more than just telling a story in which shit happens and more shit happens.

I did close out today's class by having them free write how du Maurier fits into this world of crime literature we've been reading.  This is the first real example we've had of crime literature that is not a detective story.  What did she learn from her predecessors?  What new angle is she bringing?  For myself, I want to explore what I was thinking today of the eco-gothic, that it's not Manderley or a human, really, that's holding the secrets that threaten to destroy the characters--it's the sea that holds those secrets.

But another thought for another day.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Interview with Ken Bruen

Over the course of a couple of days (21-23 Sept. 2012), I had a delightful email exchange with the Irish noir novelist Ken Bruen about his work, his craft, and the ways that place moves on his page.   Some really cool moments here, for anyone interested in either side of the page, the writer's perspective and the reader's perspective, the place of crime literature in the world of Literature, love of cities, love of bookstores.  

Ken Bruen is a prolific novelist of crime and noir fiction, with nearly three dozen novels to his name.  I first became interested in his work not just because he was writing Irish thrillers, which was electrifying to myself as a reader and myself as a teacher, but also because his Jack Taylor novels are set in Galway.  I started researching Irish noir (I really hate the term "Emerald Noir"), got deep into some cool scholarship, and then the expected happened:  I pulled out a blank syllabus on my computer, started putting a class together.  Then a Call for Papers from Eire-Ireland on Irish crime comes across my inbox.  A paper on Irish crime lit?  Yes, please.  So the next logical thing to do was strike up a conversation with this writer that is occupying so much of my thoughts and bookshelf.  In some places I changed punctuation to clarify, but in other places, I left his words as he wrote them, because the voice evoked is just awesome.

Lots to talk about here--enjoy!


What is your process like as a writer?  Do you write everyday?  What is your drafting process like?  Do you write longhand, with a computer, a combination of both?  

I write everyday, same time and so it's built in like ritual.  For certain projects, I write longhand to really get the feel, the frisson, the direct flow.  The laptop for speed and ease. 

What is your revising process like?

I read in to a recorder every night and if the music isn’t there, the beat to count cadence, I bin it. 

I'd like to follow up on you reading your work aloud.  It's something that I do as a writer--nothing gets sent out without me having read it aloud--and it's something that I recommend to my students, no matter if they're first-year composition students or creative writing students.  Reading it into a recorder, however, is a step I've never taken myself.  So, for practical purposes, the work takes on a doubling:  you're not only hearing the work as you physically speak it aloud, but you're also listening to it when you play it back?  How did you develop that strategy?

It's the failed actor in me and also, I used it a lot in my days as a teacher. It really helps develop how to write in different accents and tones. Walter Mosley does it also.

Are you conscious of how you structure these novels?  I've noticed a trend for your Taylor books to end at a place that the reader wishes for another hundred pages--yet it ends right in the middle of the action, a very important action.  What are your thoughts on your narrative structure?  

There is a point in my read, like a piece of Irish traditional music when the next move is a vacuum so you are done, it can be jarring but if you read the narrative again, like real life, this is where it cuts off, rather, get's cut off. 

What you said about ending a narrative at what might seem like a jarring point--but it's like real life, where it gets cut off.  Do you consider this a function of the genre in which you've chosen to write, this emphasis towards realism that noir prides itself on?  What do you consider the functional craft-of-fiction difference between realism and what is realistic?

If this doesn't sound too lame, the characters dictate the timing, as in, say a Jack Taylor, he literally won't talk to me any more, he's told me and that's it, no frills. In my life, realism is confined to the books I read, realistic is what confronts me every day I venture out and let the world have a shot.

Declan Kiberd famously wondered where the literature of the Celtic Tiger was, something that Andrew Kincaid in his essay "Down These Mean Streets: The City and Critique in Contemporary Irish Noir" argues that was being written, but not in the capital-L Literature that Kiberd seemed to be looking for.  The literature filling that need was appearing in this particular sub genre.  What are your thoughts about how stories always seem to fill the void and the need of society?  Just in terms of the crime-literature world, from Poe to Conan Doyle to Christie to Chandler to du Maurier to Mosley to Lehane to Paretsky and on and on (I realize my list is very Brit-American-centric), each of those new modes of telling the crime tale was in response to a very specific societal fear--and the storytelling easily adapted itself to it.  How do you see your work fitting into this societal fear and need?

I don't. I rarely fit the requirements of the analysts and thank fook for that. Crime fiction is pouring out of Ireland now, be it literature or not, who cares, I think for young writers, crime fiction is like the Punk movement, a chance to say screw you to the Custodians of The precious Irish Lit heritage and the rarefied few who wish to keep the jackals, and guttersnipes ( as I've been called) from their ownership of Joyce et al.  I read religiously (pun intended) and almost fervently the lit posturings and lit mags and want to shout, 'for fooksake, who cares, the barbarians are indeed at he gates and don't give a toss about your supercilious posturing.' 

What have you read lately that’s set your world on fire?  One thing I’ve read about you is that you and Jack Taylor share your love of books—what are you reading right now?

A slew of biographies, the dark ones, what made they so dark and how did that fire their art , followed by the Anne Sexton's poems then a motley crew of philosophers, throw in some Crews, Tom Waits and my head is ready to jolt.

On a similar note, I’ve read interviews where you’ve mentioned you share your love of books with Jack (which is, for me as a reader, one of the only things that redeems that character and keeps me reading until the next book--well done)—but I’m curious about where and how your experiences of the city match or do not match Jack’s.

Jack spends much of his energy on the past, me, not so much.  Jack doesn't do progress, me I try, a bit. 

Interesting what you said about "Jack doesn't do progress"--considering the movement of progress (and the movement backward, as well) and "obliterating" the cultural tropes that seem to still linger.  I read quite a bit of memoir as I worked on my comprehensive exams for my program and I started to wonder if the Miserable Irish Childhood Memoir is the literary antidote to that romanticism (something noir also offers) because it offers the consequences to the romantic tropes:  if the romantic view of Ireland is one of drinking and dancing and singing and such, these miserable Irish childhood works show that drink costs money and how rampant the poverty was, that sexy accents do not make for a good marriage and bad matches (and the gender roles and expectations enforced by society and the Catholic Church) cannot be reversed.  (As an essayist, I have issues with the memoir genre, but that's a different conversation--I much prefer Tim Robinson and Chris Arthur…)  Thoughts?

The Misery memoir industry continues to thrive here and I'm constantly being attacked due to my belief in Nature over nurture. I know close wonderful people who've had the most horrendous childhoods and are the best in the world and others who ‘Had it all’; and are the scum of the earth. True evil which is my main preoccupation is in my opinion something that begins at birth and peaks.  I correspond a lot with Andrew Vachss and it's worth your time to google him.

Are you aware or conscious of Galway as being as much of a character as Jack Taylor?  How do you, as a writer, construct the city to be more than setting?

The city is the fourth main character, shapes, coddles, beguiles and seduces and to do this, it has to be  ever present, like a banshee, just slightly in the mist, keening.

How do you notice that Galway has changed over your lifetime?  Physical changes to the city and the landscape, mental/emotional changes?  What have you noticed that is the most dramatic or the most interesting?  What specific changes do you think are the most visible tracks of the Celtic Tiger, both for good and ill?

Prosperity brought drugs, greed, obesity and the developers brought ugliness, luxury apartment buildings on site of lovely old homes. The very air is now one of....... money............ the stench of it, once it were the aroma of home stew and hope.  Now, we're like a dead end suburb of bum fuck nowhere in Des Moines.

How much of Galway is your own inherent knowledge of the place and how much is research specific to the book?  I mean, when you put Jack on a specific street at a specific time of day, do you walk it yourself?

I walk it every day, feed the swans, let my dog run in the Claddagh, light a candle in the churchs that don't have electronic one's, so I can use a taper and match and not electronic like a celestial vegas.  I get me books in Charlie Byrnes, have a pint in Garavans, and side skip the road kill of the literary bullshite they pedal. 

I'd like to hear about your affection for Charlie Byrne's, as a place.  How did you first come to it?  Why do you return?  I always feel like the best bookstores--and I prefer used bookstores to ones that sell new ones--always seem to give you the book you never knew you couldn't live without.  My sister once sent me a postcard from San Francisco that closed with the line "I'd like to travel by bookstore."  It was at Charlie Byrne's that I first found Synge's The Aran Islands, back when I was in college, and reading that book out there still remains one of the incredible moments of my reading life, that chemistry of reading a book in its setting.  Do you have other bookstores that hold a similar place in your imagination?

Vinny and Charly who own the shop began with a market stall over 20 years ago as my first novel had just come out, they thought I was a shady character, with a pea jacket and always travelling. Each year, I'd have a new book and they'd move to a premises then a bigger one so we kind of grew together which is a brilliant opportunity for a writer to literally grow with bookstore, like Larry Mc Murty in reverse.

My fav bookstore was The Black Orchid in NY
I did readings there with Ed McBain. 
The romance of Sylvia Beach and her Parisian store, and stores like the famous one in Charing Cross Road make me yearn.

What is it like to write Galway?  Is there a difference between writing a city and writing about a city?  I’ve read interviews where your purpose with Jack’s character—and, for that matter, Galway’s character—is to obliterate the tropes and assumptions about Irish men and their mothers, for instance.  The dark rendering of Galway (and Ireland in general) certainly seems to serve that purpose as well.

I want to obliterate the Ireland of The Quiet Man and merry priest and lovable Mum's and all that horseshite we lay under for generations, to have a cool unique city that young people can feel is theirs and not some relic from the years of grinding poverty.

As for the "cool unique city," can you point to any specifics that you see are leading to this?  I laughed a little at your comment about "a dead end suburb of bumfuck nowhere in des moines," simply because one of my favorite opening lines of all time belongs to the travel writer Bill Bryson, who wrote an essay titled "Fat Girls in Des Moines," which begins with "I come from Des Moines.  Somebody had to."  Because I'm interested in place, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that suburbia is The Great Unplaced, because suburbs are basically indistinguishable from another.  What do you see as the unique aspects that Galway has to offer, that makes it different from any other place?

Nice serendipity. I was a huge fan of Bryson and John Cheever. I quite madly think Mad Men owes a lot to Cheever!  My favourite cities have a vibe, it's in the very air like a charge, a jolt, an electrical frisson that is almost impossible to articulate and my cities are
Assisi ( a village in truth)
New York
Hong Kong
Kyoto.............purely because I had my first young brush with fame there when I walked right into David Bowie who said

The test of a great city is if you wake in the wee hours and think, Thank fook I'm in this place.  “A Movable Feast” seems to me to convey that extraodinary sense of place that is unique to some cities. Too, Galway has a sense of irony and that is rare to rarest found and even better, the city would deny any such high falutin claim.

To apply the sublime test, on leaving a city, does it, like a great love affair, break your heart in smithereens and the dread you will never return. I'm haunted always by Macavafy's poem on Alexandria and Thompson's Hound of Heaven, they are part of my constant hand luggage.

I've read a 100 tomes on writing and the best advice to writers for me was from Paul Theroux who said
'Leave home'

Love that.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Eng. 151H: Mixing it Up

Today is one of those days when the work that's not due for a couple of weeks is much more attractive than the work you have to do right now, for tomorrow.  Today is my writing day and I need to get moving on the essays that will make up my dissertation (on the city of Galway), but I keep getting distracted.  I have books to read that look like more fun (like Declan Burke's Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century which arrived this week)--and that particular distraction got worse this morning by a call for papers from Eire-Ireland that's looking for work on Irish crime for a special issue in 2014.  This, of course, sends me into a tailspin of wanting to take the previous informal writings I've done on the subject (here and here and here) and see what I can come up with.  Which makes me jot down notes to bring up when I meet with the vice-chair of the department on Friday to ask some questions about various things.  And then I get nervous because I haven't written the paper I'm giving at the American Conference of Irish Studies in less than a month.  One thought leads to another.  And this is not productive for the writing I actually have to do.

Because I'm reading at the No Name Reading Series on Friday the 28th and I want to read something new.

So, naturally, I feel the need to work on something else--like reflect on what's going on in my 151H class.

My 151H turned in their final drafts of their Silent Spring rhetorical analysis on Monday and we transitioned to the second Writing Project by watching the apple section of the documentary The Botany of Desire (which is instant on Netflix if you'd like to check it out).  The book (by Michael Pollan) is better, but this was a good way to give my students a little break in the brain area while still getting them to think in this new direction, to see how what we've been doing in the last few weeks transitions into what we will be doing in the next few weeks.  I've got a fondness for apples--published an essay called "The Inheritance of Apples" a few years ago in Silk Road Literary Review.  And I found out that yesterday, my sisters were going to pick up Gram from her assisted living, bring her back to their house, and make pies.  (Also found out that because Gram--who is 89--couldn't really do any of the tasks anymore, that made her extremely critical of everything--the apples were cut too thick, the pastry cutter wasn't as good as using a knife and fork, and more.)  I adore my grandmother.  She's a hoot.  And a champion pie baker.  So I get excited about apples.

The purpose of the project is to investigate food systems and for my students to consider the choices they are making and how the complications are related to what we're talking about in the class.  We talked about how the rhetoric of apples changed from the demon fruit that was getting America drunk to An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.  I also brought up something I'd seen on the LIncoln Journal-Star that morning, about BPI (makers of pink slime) suing ABC news for defamation--and this was something that will get brought up when we watch Food, Inc. in a couple of weeks (I had no idea these veggies libel laws existed)--so what we're doing is incredibly current.  The point of the project is to become aware of the rhetoric used by all of these different groups, to explore why this idea of food systems is not as simple as either/or.

We had read the introduction to The Omnivore's Dilemma (which is our text for this project) for the day and I gave them a couple writing prompts to get the class started:  I pulled out a few quotes from the first couple of pages about the rules and traditions and such that govern how we eat, not just what we eat.  So I had them write about what rules governed their food lives.  Then I asked them to consider what issues and complications that Pollan brings up in this introduction that we should be aware of as we proceed.  This seemed to be a good way to start things off, to give them space to think through their pens.

We talked through what they had written and they brought up meals with their families, we talked about holiday meals and what rules governed those traditions.  They spoke of their holiday meals coming mostly out of cans, some meals were completely from scratch, one of my students said that her family actually goes out and shoots a turkey themselves.  One of my student's family has lutefisk as their tradition, which brought up "what is lutefisk?"  So he and I got to share that mental image of fish jello with the rest of the class--but the larger issue we connected to there was what that food (if one can actually call it food) represented.  It represented the food that was available, it represented a culture that needed to preserve food for the winter so they didn't starve.  Ah, they said.  I got to tell them the story of the Hunter's Suppers we had at my church when I was growing up, the lutefisk, the lefse, the meatballs and potatoes, the whole shebang.  That too, was part of a tradition.  The food system we are a part of is pretty complicated.

After Monday's viewing of the apples, we pulled out some of the complications--we talked about the role of business (small vs. large growers), we talked about culture and tradition and how that shifts and changes, we talked about how apples were part of how the continent was settled.  On Friday (tomorrow), they will have read the potatoes chapter of The Botany of Desire, so I'm excited to talk to them about what they find there.

Especially as I plan to mash some Yukon gold potatoes with butter and milk for my lunch.  Mjolk och potatis, to raise a fork to my Swedish grandmother.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Eng. 180: Monty Python Does Agatha Christie

Yesterday was the final act of "The Mousetrap," which I thought went very well in my class.  As I mentioned last week, I've determined that this particular class does much better when it's in small groups--much less intimidating to speak up--and so we spent yesterday in small groups.  There are six groups (they're divided up into groups for their author presentations, so I used those groups yesterday, so they'd get used to working with each other--also, one of my students had written in a Think Piece how much he enjoyed working with his small group and hoped we could do more of it).

But we started with Monty Python's Agatha Christie sketch.  It's Friday, after all, and there was actually serious reasons why I wanted to bring in the genius of Monty Python.  I wasn't surprised that few of my students had heard of Monty Python, but I've about given up asking such questions, because they just haven't and it makes me feel old.  Anyway.  I prepped them for this sketch by asking them to make note of what seems familiar and not just what they're making fun of, but why it's funny.

After it finished, I asked what sounded familiar and we talked about the locked door murder mystery, the bumbling policeman, assuming people are who they say they are, and more.  And then we talked through how the cast is making fun of those fairly stock elements in Agatha Christie.  My students may have been mystfied by the genius that is Monty Python, but I had fun with it and I think it loosened up my students on a sleepy Friday morning.

Mostly, I think any class that I can use Monty Python in is a success of critical thinking on the teacher's part.

And then we got into Act 2 of "The Mousetrap" and it was fantastic.  I'm a little sad to be leaving Dame Agatha behind, but it's hard to be too sad when next week means the Hard-Boileds and Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks' 1946 film The Big Sleep.  This also means that there's a lot of reading I get to justify this weekend as "class prep."  I love my life.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Eng. 180: Creating Suspense

It's that weird week of Labor Day Week when Wednesday feels like Monday and everybody is scrambling to figure out what day it is.  I'm pleading extra ignorance today, with the second nasty headache of the week--and I'm blaming it on atmospheric cranky-ness and allergy hell.  Mostly, I always expect that when the calendar turns to September, it's going to magically be fall and sixty degrees.  But it's still in the nineties here in Nebraska and something isn't working with the AC in Andrews Hall, so weather-wise, it's just all uncomfortable.

We finished up Arthur Conan Doyle last Friday in my Intro to Lit class and it was great, for a few reasons.  The first is that it was the end of the second week and we, as a class, were starting to form some common vocabulary for what we're reading, what we're noticing.  We're getting enough reading material under our mental belts to be able to make connections between different writers, between different eras--and this is the exciting part of teaching literature.  Yesterday, we had our first day of Agatha Christie and "The Mousetrap."

I saw "The Mousetrap" in London with my family in 2000 and I'd actually forgotten whodunit (which was kind of surprising to me)--and I'd also forgotten that she'd asked that the story (not the play) not be published while the play was running, and it's been running continuously since 1952.  It's not been published in the UK, though it has been published in the U.S.  I'm not going to give away the murderer here, to honor her wishes (as the cast always asks the audience not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it).

My students also turned in their Week 3 Think Piece (actually the second one they've done) and as I graded them yesterday, I was really surprised that so many of them had never even heard of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie.  I wasn't surprised that they'd never read them (or just assumed that because they were old, they'd be boring), but I was surprised that they'd never heard of them.  I mean, it's one thing when you realize that as a teacher, you can't make Friends references like you did at the beginning of your teaching career, but to have never heard of Conan Doyle or Christie?  Boggles my mind.  And it teaches me something very important about assumptions.  For the most part, my students loved Conan Doyle--and that makes my little teacher heart go pitty-pat.  I have a few that are still stuck in the "like-don't like" stage of thinking about what we're reading, but most of them were floored that they enjoyed Sherlock Holmes and were able to articulate (at least a little) why that was, noticing things that they'd never have noticed on their own (which, of course, is the whole point of taking classes in college, right?).  

Yesterday, we started Agatha Christie, moving from Conan Doyle into the Golden Age/inter-war period of crime fiction.  My first group of students did a great job on their author presentation, which gave us background on Christie, the time period and culture, background on "The Mousetrap," and her position in the crime literature genre.  The Queen of Crime, after all.  Then I moved into a mini lecture that basically picked up where they left off, with the function of the English Country House sub genre of mysteries, the locked door/puzzle mystery, the rules of Fair Play, and such.

The success of a whodunit lies in our assumptions as readers.  What do we assume about the characters?  What do we assume about the plot?  What do we assume about the ending?  Well, we assume that the characters are who they say they are, for one.  We assume that given the rules of Fair Play (in this era, for this sub genre) we will be able to solve the puzzle, given all the clues.  We assume that the murderer will be caught and brought to justice by the end of the text.  Lots of assumptions--and the creation of suspense lies in those assumptions being wrong, in the ability of the writer to use block elements well.  We studied an article about those block elements (too little information, too much information (red herrings, etc.), contradictions, and false gestalt)--and for myself, I think they're fascinating.  Especially as Christie is brilliant at using them.

So, what is required to create suspense? 

Reader’s Assumptions:  How does the author set up the characters and the scenario so that we, as the readers think we know what is going on?  To what extent do we trust the author?  To what extent do we trust the characters?  What do we think we know--and how and why do we think we know it?  If there’s no trust to be broken, there’s no room for suspense. To consider:  Christie’s timing in the Golden Age, the rules of Fair Play, the rules of the Locked Door/Puzzle mystery.  What do we assume about Monkswell Manor?  What do we assume about the people who are gathered at Monkswell Manor?  What do we assume about our hosts?  What do we assume about Sergeant Trotter?  What do we assume about the murder of Mrs. Maureen Lyon?

What is at Stake?  If we don’t care about the characters, if we don’t care about what is happening or what might happen, there’s no possibility for suspense.  The first thing that happens is the wireless announcement of Maureen Lyons' death--so immediately that sets up life and death as what is at stake.  If crime literature is the literature of social order, what has been broken (or will be broken) and what must be restored to order?  What is the time period of the story?  The class structure of the characters?  Our assumptions about what those classes represent?

Control of the Clock:  There must be a time frame established, that if the murderer (or criminal of whatever variety) isn’t caught, then catastrophe will happen.  How many ways can this ticking clock be established?  How does “Three Blind Mice” function as the clock?  (Link to And Then There Were None and other stories that use nursery rhymes as a narrative structure?)

Reader’s Knowledge:  What do we know about our characters?  How do we know it?  How are we fed little pieces of information that don’t seem important at the time, but add up to everything we need to know--and should have been able to figure out?  What happens when we, as readers, know more about what is going on than the characters?  How does this create tension and suspense?

The Role of Place and Setting:  How does the physical world--both the built and natural environment function to create tension? The natural environment?  How does the weather function in the plot?  Either preventing or facilitating the movement of the story?  The built environment?  What role does the house play?

Breaking the Reader’s Trust:  In what ways is our trust broken?  How do we start to question who people are, what they represent? How does introducing doubt lead to tension and suspense?  Is there such a thing as coincidence?  The Christie Twist:  wondering if we can take the information and people at face value, wondering if it's a double-blind, wondering if it's a triple-blind?  And that's how she gets us to close our minds.

We only talked through Act One yesterday, ending with the murder of one of the characters (I'm not spoiling it for you if you haven't read it).  So, tomorrow, we'll finish the play and talk through Act Two.  I'm loving how many of them were really getting into it yesterday--not only a new author, but a new genre entirely (a play, after all).   Can't wait to talk about how our ideas of the genre change as the medium changes.  Can't wait!