11.6.08 – Building a Book
So I’m back in Helena, Montana for one last week at my parents home before flying off to new places in the world. First stop: Cancun, Mexico. And not for partying! I have a gallery show at the Museo Pelopidas on the 18th of November. To be honest, it’s going to be a little nerve-wracking as the tentative schedule calls for my flying out of the US on the 17th and then doing a show on my first night of arrival. Also, somewhere in that time, I’m going to have to build three frames for a couple of the extra photo prints that were pre-shipped down to Cancun. The whole thing, sadly, is a little bit of a mess – but will lead me to my second stop: New Zealand!
It’s been almost three months since I’ve been back, so hopefully I’ll be able to get a little surfing in as well as finally buy a nice desk to continue working on the book. As an update (because I think that we’ve moved out of vague, bush-whackin’ territory), the tentative title of the book is “Double Take” and we’ll be looking to have about half of the rough manuscript cranked out by Christmas.
One of the first things that I had to do over the past few weeks was develop a reference base. This consisted largely of reading memoir-genre books to get an idea of what sort of structure or tone that I wanted to build the text around. One of the reference points that I used early on (at the recommendation of my editor) was The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. A fantastic read, and an excellent example of how she uses an impartial (some have said childlike) tone to make the hardships she experienced as a child seem much more intense.
As an aside, the book is a really fantastic look into the different qualities we deem ‘interesting’ or ‘attractive’ in different literary characters based on the positions they are said to hold in society. Example: Jeanette’s parents are exceedingly flighty and very Kerouac-ian in both their actions and beliefs, often moving from town to town to avoid bills, stagnation, and responsibility – something that is deemed by many to be attractive or interesting about Jack’s recorded exploits.
But – these are people who have kids. Kids who have needs of their own and throughout the duration of this book – go sadly neglected. And while the neglect is not malicious (Jeannette repeatedly talks about the admirable qualities of her parents), there is a general absentmindedness about her parents that causes the children (Jeannette included) extreme hardship.
I don’t doubt that Jack put people through such hardships, but because it was his narrative voice that carried the reader through his exploits, the tone was always sympathetic to his cause or wants. Not so in The Glass Castle, in which Jeanette tells the events from the point-of-view of a child, showing in stark reality the cause-effect relationship that Kerouac-ian parents have on their kids.
And while the book is a good read, it’s not that great of a reference for what I’m hoping mine to be.
The Glass Castle is chronologically based around the family’s move around the country over the duration of 30 years or so. And while beautifully written, the book fails to do much more than chronicle the events of her life with her family. The plot of the book is meandering (with an exception being the first chapter in which Jeannette visits her mother as an adult) and ultimately, the protagonist is very passive. Granted, a child-like narrative voice doesn’t lend itself to being assertive, but she still fails to provide insight or discussion about her parent’s motives or desires outside of the surface accounts.
My contrast to this – and the reference I’m using – is Steven Rinella’s book “The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine.” It’s a fantastic read, and if you are into cooking, hunting, France, or humor – then you should definitely pick it up.
Steven frames his book around a 12 month period in which he sets out to make a 45-course dinner, with each recipe taken from a well-known French chef of the early 1900’s. The catch is that he does just that – single-handedly catches (shoots, traps, grabs, and snags) each type of meat required to create the meal. This includes carp, manta-ray, mountain goat, elk, antelope, and baby pigeons known as “squab”.
Plot-wise, that is what happens, but that’s not what the book is about. While each chapter usually begins and ends with him undertaking some part of his quest, he often delves in other issues that are much more meaty and important to him. Conservation and sustainable hunting are obviously big issues, but he also deals with his dying father, vegetarian girlfriend, and gaggle of hunting buddies and how they affect each others’ lives.
So, what Steven manages to do is create an identity/memoir book – “this is who I am, what I do, and here are the people/characters that matter to me” – that also keeps itself proactive and allows him to continue working as a writer and put out new material (which he is already doing).
I got to meet Steve last week in Missoula, MT where he was sitting on a publishing panel during Missoula’s Annual book fair. He told me early on that being “that hunter guy” before being thought of as a writer was his biggest concern. He was juggling two platforms, essentially. He was selling himself as a commodity (I’m a uniquely avid hunter; this is what I do and this is the crazy mission that I’m going to undertake), and as a writer (these are the ideas about conservation and cooking that I want to express). And it was ultimately his ability to juggle those two platforms successfully (getting to continue writing = success) that made me really think about how I’m going to go about my own book.
So, what is this book? Is it a memoir about a legless kid growing up and overcoming obstacles and hard ships? No. I’ve been approached to be the feature of a cable television series. I’ve been approached to have a book written about my home life. And I’ve been offered fair chunks of change to write a straight up autobiography.
The problem with projects that peal open your life completely, is that they leave you with nothing to work with later in your career. You’ve tipped your hand totally about your identity and where you’ve come from. Furthermore, you’ve reduced your accomplishments to the abstract, chronicled tone that sucks any thrill right out of what happened.
So – to transpose structure (and forgive the rambling because I’m trying to synthesize a bunch of poorly drawn diagrams from my room into a blog post) of Rinella’s book onto mine is going to require taking The Rolling Exhibition and using its execution period (18 months of conceptualizing, shooting, and presenting the series) as the chronological framework for the book. In between will be some material regarding the family, school, and adaptations made early on to help with my photography and travel. So, there’s the plot of the book. Now what the hell is it going to be about? Ask me at Christmas.