That one special scene

In my talk to those wonderful sixth-graders I discussed why I wrote The Portal.  It wasn’t because of the science-fictiony adventure story; the reason I wanted to write it was the encounter between the protagonist (Larry) and another version of his family, one struggling to stay alive in wartime in the alternative universe he is trapped in.  And I read them my favorite scene from the novel, where Larry has to view his own grave.  In this world, he died as an infant and was buried behind the family farmhouse:

Mom got down from the wagon and led us into the woods. We came to a small clearing after a while, and in the middle of the clearing a few crosses stuck up through the snow. My head started spinning as I stared at those crosses. Kevin gripped my arm. Mom pointed to a spot in the snow. “Cassie needs to go here,” she said. “Beside her brother.”

I looked at the cross next to where she was pointing. Two words were crudely carved on it:

Lawrence Barnes

I was staring at my own grave.

“That’s the boy who would have been just about your age,” my mother was saying to me. “My baby.”

I think maybe I forgot to breathe for a while. “It’s okay, Larry,” Kevin whispered to me. “Take it easy.”

Kevin and I’d had talked about what would happen if we ran into our other selves in this world. Would we both explode, or destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum or something? Stupid. We never talked about this.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I was as spooked as I could possibly be. But I didn’t do anything. I just stood there in the snow. I was alive, the earth kept spinning, and that other me—the baby who didn’t make it—was still at rest in the cold ground.

And now we had to lay his sister—my sister—to rest, too.

We took turns using the pick and shovel to dig the hole in the frozen, rocky soil. I did most of the work, though—Kevin still didn’t have all his strength back, and it wasn’t the sort of task Stinky enjoyed. It seemed to take forever. It grew dark, and my muscles were screaming with pain after a while—the most digging I’d ever done was a little bit of snow shoveling, and I’d usually complain about having to do that. But we kept at it, and at last the time had come. We lifted Cassie’s body out of the wagon, then slid her down into the ground and covered her up. After that we stood around the grave as darkness fell and said some prayers, while I felt sorry for every mean thing I’d said to her in every conceivable universe.

That scene wasn’t in my original conception for the novel.  But when I thought of it, I couldn’t wait to write it.  It took a while, though; it occurs about two-thirds of the way into novel, and I write my novels straight through from the beginning to the end.

So anyway, here I am writing the third book about Larry and the portal, and today I finished the equivalent chapter in Barbarica–65,000 words in, I finally get to the scene I’ve wanted to write from the very beginning.  Of course, the wise folks in my writing group may tell me that it doesn’t work at all and I should drop it.  Still, I very much enjoyed writing it.

By the way, sixth-graders don’t have a very good sense of how many words there are in a novel (maybe few people have this sense).  Their guesses about the length of The Portal ranged from two thousand words to two million.  It actually contains 103,678 words, according to Microsoft Word.

Sequels and sixth-graders

So I walked into the auditorium for my talk to a bunch of sixth-graders, and one of them is helping to set up the AV.  I tell him my name, and he says, “You wrote The Portal?”

“Yep.”

“I loved that book!  Have you written a sequel?”

“Well, it just so happens…”  And I pull a copy of Terra out of my briefcase.

“Cool!”

By the end of my talk, though, I was beginning to worry a bit about getting these kids to read the sequel.  The protagonist of The Portal is in the seventh grade, and he’s already interested in girls.  In Terra, he’s heading in to the eighth grade, and things are heating up a bit.  He meets a girl.  They are thrown together in a bunch of adventures.  He kisses her.  He sleeps with her snuggled up against him.  He sees her naked.  He has… reactions.  Who am I to say if this is appropriate fare for a sixth-grader?

And, I have to say, those particular sixth-graders looked awfully young.  The teacher told me that each class has a personality, and this year’s group was on the immature side.  He didn’t seem worried about pushing them a bit towards maturity.  But I sure don’t want to have to explain myself to their parents if they find any of this stuff objectionable.

It’s tough being a writer.

Sixth-graders are the best people in the world!

I posted this photo on Facebook already, but here it is again for my blog.  I was invited to give a talk about The Portal to the sixth-graders of the Gateway Regional Middle School in western Massachusetts — maybe about 60 kids in total.  A bunch of them had already read the book, and were really enthusiastic.  Yikes, I have some fans in western Massachusetts!  Here are a few of them after the talk, along with some of my show-and-tell items:

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They were all great — funny, curious, and friendly.  I was going back to a classroom after the talk, and those two girls on the right offered to carry my books for me!  I was honored.  I’m always a little skeptical about people asking for my autograph–who, me?–but these kids honestly seemed happy to have me sign a scrap of paper for them.  Glad to oblige!

Here, by the way, are their current learning objectives:

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How would you do on those?  Maybe I could write a persuasive five-paragraph essay, but I’d probably be pretty cranky about it.  I’ve got nothing on brook trout.  I can’t do those conversions, but I know how to get Siri to do them for me.  And that last one–create a replica of a famous monument–would make me hang my head in despair.

Still, I’d happily be part of that class.

Moral choices in the time of Trump

The new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly, is by any standard an estimable figure — a distinguished retired Marine general whose Marine son died in Afghanistan.  He was widely regarded as one of Trump’s best cabinet picks.  His life story is mildly interesting to me because he’s the same age as me and from the same town (Brighton, Mass.).  It’s entirely possible we went to grammar school together, although I have no memory of him.

Now his agency is at the center of a firestorm of criticism over the enforcement of Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees.  Apparently he wasn’t consulted about the executive order before it was signed.  OK, fine.  But he’s going to enforce it, because good military men follow orders.

And now what?  I wonder if he’s pondering the fact that he is in the process of permanently tainting his life story.  That forever more, instead of puff pieces like the one I linked to above, stories about him are going to start by talking about how he was running DHS that time when families were ripped apart, when people who had helped the American military were placed in handcuffs at airports, when scientists coming to this country to help cure diseases were sent back to where they came from…. and he did nothing but follow orders.

I wonder if he’s worried that his grandchildren might possibly end up being ashamed of him.

If he’s not worried about this, I kinda think he should be.

What “A Theory of Justice” needs is a little “Slaves of the Volcano God”

I am following through on my resolution to read John Rawls’s magisterial A Theory of Justice.  But I’ve gotta say that it doesn’t have a lot of laughs.  Approximately zero laughs so far.  Nowhere near as many, in other words, as you’ll find in my friend Craig Shaw Gardner’s Slaves of the Volcano God.  I’m even using my valuable Slaves of the Volcano God bookmark to mark my place in A Theory of Justice, in hopes that some of Gardner’s humor will rub off.  No such luck.  (Of course, if what you’re looking for is political philosophy, I’m pretty sure you won’t find much in Slaves of the Volcano God.)

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By the way, something else that could have used a few laughs is Manchester By The Sea.  Casey Affleck is good in it, I guess, but mostly what he does is mope.  Maybe he’ll get an Oscar for moping.  (His big scene with Michelle Williams, though, is epically good.)

If you’ve already read Slaves of the Volcano God and still need some laughs (don’t we all?), you should try Gardner’s new novel, Temporary Monsters

Naming names

I was too annoyed with Western civilization last month to write the usual recap of my year’s reading.  But the best novel I read was The Sympathizer, which my son recommended to me.  It’s a novel about the Vietnam war, and life in America, and Apocalypse Now, and sundry other things, written from the point of view of a nameless Vietnamese double-agent.  For my son, this was pre-history; for me, it was stuff I had vaguely experienced, second-hand, told from a completely different perspective.

It was brilliant, but the author made a couple of choices that I found odd.  I liked that the narrator was nameless, but I was puzzled that many other characters–but not all–were also nameless.  The narrator’s boss is referred to only as The General, but the boss’s daughter has a name.  One character he has to deal with is called “the crapulent major”, while a comparable character is named Sonny.  (Spoiler alert: the narrator ends up murdering both of them.)

I have trouble deciding ahead of time whether minor people and places deserve a name.  In the novel I’m writing now, I have already had to retrospectively name a couple of places that turned out to be more important than I originally expected.  But this is standard fiction writing: characters and places, if they become important enough, get a name; otherwise, it’s hard to keep track of them  Nguyen is obviously trying to distance us from some of his characters; I’m not sure why.

Another distancing effect: he doesn’t use quotation marks.  My son didn’t even notice this, but it annoyed me.  It seemed like an affectation.  Punctuation helps the reader, and sometimes we need all the help we can get.