Sunday, September 21, 2014

One Book, Two Takes: Gone Girl

A few weeks back, my friend and fellow writer Wendy Ledger mentioned that she was about to read Gone Girl, a blockbuster novel that’s about to be made into a movie. I was looking for something to read too, and I had an idea: What if we both read Gone Girl, and then each wrote a short, personal review of it? And what if I posted both reviews together on my blog right here? So we did it—without having any idea what the other was writing, or whether she even liked the book. Let’s see how the experiment works.

Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
432 pages
Broadway Books, 2012

Too Cool for School?
Reviewed by Wendy Ledger

If I were to teach a class on novel writing, I would want Gone Girl to be included in the syllabus. You could discuss structure. This book is told from two points of view: the husband and the wife. It plays with time. The book starts with the husband shortly before his wife’s disappearance. Then the wife submits her point of view through past diary entries. In this way, we learn some of the back story of this couple’s relationship. So, we not only have two different voices at two different times but also through two different means of communication. How is a story different when the narrator tells it to you directly and when we read written entries? At a point in the novel, the diary is abandoned, and the wife tells her story in present time, and more is revealed. The voices are distinct and intense. Reliability is an issue. I was immediately hooked by the structure of this book.
      However, I had trouble with the characterizations. While I was reading Gone Girl, I felt like a floating head. My heart and soul were not engaged. I still compulsively turned the pages, but I ultimately did not care about any of the characters. In this story of high drama, where a person is missing and there are accusations of foul play, I found that I didn’t care about any of the characters. I also questioned the investigation. I felt that certain things would have been discovered by the authorities in a much faster time.
      There were moments when I could imagine that I could empathize with these characters, particularly with the wife, Amy. I was fascinated by the account of her childhood. What would be it like to have parents who used your life as fodder for their livelihood? How would it feel to have a character named after you and whose books followed you through your life experiences? That intrigued me, and yet I remained put off.
      In the novel, Amy talked about how, when she met her husband, she pretended that she was cool, and she felt that he fell in love with that veneer. I ended up feeling that way about Gone Girl. It is slick. It is well worth a read, particularly if you are interested in the craft of writing, but I would not speak of it with any fondness. However, I am looking forward to the movie. I feel like the ultimate chump in admitting that, but it’s true. Why do I want to see it? First of all, I can completely imagine Ben Affleck as Nick, the disappointing husband. He seems perfect for that role. I also want to see if I feel the same way about the characters when I see them on the big screen. I know that, when I have seen Anne Tyler’s novels translated into film, the characters have seemed different to me. Their lovable quirks that worked so well on the printed page did not seem as endearing in their celluloid counterparts. Will the cinematic adaptation of Gone Girl make me feel differently about these characters? I want to know. In addition, I want to see how they handle the structure in the movie. Will they have so many time changes? Earlier this year, I read that Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, changed the ending in the screenplay. Recently, I heard that the ending isn’t that different. Is this yet another manipulation? I have to find out what’s true.

Wendy Ledger is a writer, editor, and transcriptionist who lives in Ben Lomond, California. She writes about The Good Wife here

Be Gone, Girl
Reviewed by Amy Miller

First, I have to say that if I hadn’t committed to reviewing this book, I would have stopped after 50 pages and tossed it on the Goodwill pile. (Note to future rash reviewer self!) I hated the wife, and with the author’s device of both spouses telling the story in alternating chapters, there was way too much of her early on. She was such a snarky, cooler-than-thou entitled hipster that I couldn’t figure out what her husband ever saw in her.
      But that two-narrator structure ended up saving the book. It kept creating questions that intrigued me: Where will these two stories, told in different time frames, collide? Which of these people is lying? And Flynn’s ploy of cliffhanger chapter endings, even if it felt cheap at times, also kept me turning the pages. Gone Girl is pretty much a textbook on how to keep a reader hooked.
      Flynn strikes a tricky balance between suspense and literary fiction: The twists and machinations are all thriller, while the rich backstory and character development lean toward literary fiction. For the most part that balance worked, but for me, it fell apart at the ending, which veered way off in the literary direction, for reasons I won’t get into. After all that tilt-a-whirl plotting, revenge, and deception, I wanted a good suspense-novel smack at the end.
      Knowing that the movie version of this is about to come out, I kept imagining actors in various roles (though, alas, none of these people were actually cast). Cherry Jones is clearly the world-wise detective, and I wish Jason Robards were still with us to play the half-crazy dad. For the rest, I plunked the American Hustle cast in there: Amy Adams as the icy wife, Christian Bale the hapless husband, Jennifer Lawrence the ditzy homewrecker, Bradley Cooper the overfed celebrity lawyer. It will be a terrible date movie, though; Gone Girl is, as much as anything, the story of a marriage—a really f***ed-up one. 
      One thing the book does well is take us inside one of those lurid media-soaked murder cases where a pretty, white, pregnant wife in some small town is killed and the husband is accused. This one looks a lot like the very sad Laci Peterson case, which turned the sleepy community of Modesto, California, upside down ten years ago. Gone Girl hits all those notes—the paparazzi camped outside the husband’s house, the muckraking cable news host fanning the flames, the slick high-profile lawyer, trending and Twitter and the endless true-crime newsfeed that passes as entertainment in our country. In fact, the story may feel dated in a few years, it’s so much a product of our times.*
      The plotting gets a little lumpy late in the book, with some minor characters surfacing and then disappearing when their story-moving part was done. And that ending sort of gave me hives. When it was over, I felt relieved to get away from these people who schemed so ferociously to screw each other over. But you know, it was fun to get my head spun for a while. I was just happy to get off the ride.

* Speaking of our times, I’ve got to take my hat off to any author whose book has more than 22,000 reader reviews on Amazon.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

My Tupelo 30/30 writing comrade Amy Schreibman Walter has invited me to join the “My Writing Process Blog Tour,” where bloggers answer four (kinda hard) questions about their writing, then tag other bloggers to do the same. You can read how Amy answered these same four questions on her blog right here. While you’re out and about, have a look at here/there:poetry, the beautiful U.K.–based journal that she co-edits. Thanks, Amy!

Question #1: What are you working on?
I almost backed out of doing this, just for this question alone. I’m like one of those weekend handypeople with messy, unfinished projects strewn around the house. Let’s see...I’m working on: a) A new chapbook called In the Hand, using Amazon’s CreateSpace, for a book show and class I’m teaching on CreateSpace in two weeks. Just approved the proof—woo-hoo! b) A cycle of poems about Wolf OR-7 that I started during the 30/30 marathon. c) A series of poems all called “Poplar,” about my soon-to-be-cut-down poplar tree. Which sounds like a stupid idea when I say it that way. [Breathe...follow where it goes...] d) Tinkering with another chapbook manuscript that’s turning out to be an odd duck. e) Fretting over my full-length manuscript, retooling and freshening with some new material. f) A freelance job, reading and commenting on a friend’s full-length manuscript. g) Writing a short, personal review of Gone Girl that I’ll post on my blog soon, alongside a writer friend’s short, personal review of the same book. An experiment in blog collaboration. h) And I’m writing this here blog post right now!

Question #2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I think it’s different because it’s in my voice. It represents a painting of some part of my brain that was in that particular configuration when I wrote that particular poem. Those cells have now died and others have taken their place and shifted around, so that part of my brain doesn’t look like that anymore. But now I have new brain parts that are completely unique, and that will generate poems that no one else writes. I never get tired of thinking of that. We all have brains like that. So do cats and whales and marmots.
  I suppose my work’s unique flavor, if it has one, comes from the fact that I like to mix a lot—sadness and humor, irony and the ecstatic, surprising language and the workaday. Mix, mix, mix—forms, voices, subject matter.

Question #3: Why do you write what you do?
With poetry, the trigger is usually an idea that holds at least two emotions or mental states at once: This event was both exciting and dangerous, or my devotion to this person or thing is also tinged with doubt. So, again, it’s mixture and complexity that intrigues me.
  With nonfiction, I generally am looking for a deep well of that same complexity. But for an essay, it needs more story, a little more of this happened and then that happened. For a magazine article, I like to find something I haven’t seen a lot of articles about, an article that I would like to read. And once in a while, somebody casually says, “You should write about blah blah blah.” I try to pay attention to that, because sometimes those are great ideas.

Question #4: How does your writing process work?
I’m going to answer this twice, because, for me, poetry and nonfiction are completely different processes.
  Writing a poem is like laying an egg—when the idea comes, it has to be birthed right then. There’s a feeling of recognition—this line or image or two-sided emotion feels fertile, like it has the strength to carry a poem. I grab a pen and paper, wherever I am, and work on it. The best ones tend to come very late at night or very early in the morning, near sleep; the subconscious has way better ideas than the conscious does. But I don’t have a set time for writing poetry. My revision process is similarly haphazard; I’ll do a flood of revisions when I’m in a brutal, slash-and-burn, clean-the-closet state of mind. If I’m not in that mood, I can’t make those merciless cuts that poems sometimes need.
  Writing nonfiction, on the other hand, is like building a house. I just start hammering it together—a frame, rough walls that will get prettied up later. It’s a linear process, and I don’t have to be inspired—I can sit my butt down any time of day or night and just get to work. I go through many drafts—I finish a draft, make a copy of it, start at the beginning, and go through the whole thing again. Early drafts are “meatball surgery,” big additions and deletions; later ones are about smoothing transitions and punching up every sentence. I read a lot out loud at every stage. Prose, for me, is all about revision—that’s the ingredient that takes adequate writing and makes it good.
  With prose, inspiration tends to strike during the revision stage, sort of like that last set of tennis (to throw in yet another simile), when you’re good and sweaty and just allowing your body to do what it knows how to do, and it surprises you by being graceful and clever. But with poetry, inspiration is usually the starting point—some sort of alchemical spark that’s much harder to plan for.

                                                           *        *        *        *        *

Okay—next up on the blog tour are Michael Allyn Wells and Cathy Barber. Their “My Writing Process” posts will appear next Thursday (September 18th). A little about Michael and Cathy:

Michael Allyn Wells has lived all his life in Missouri, but he is totally in love with the San Francisco area. He views baseball as poetry on a living scale, and he may be the most dedicated SF Giants fan outside the Bay Area.
     For 27 years he has worked in a mental health–related field. After serving in a leadership role in a major political party for 14 years, he rekindled his interest in baseball and began writing. He has authored some historical baseball essays, but the bulk of his writing and passion has been for poetry. He enjoys classical, rock, pop and smooth jazz. Loves the saxophone, photography and painting, and is especially a fan of the abstract. Prefers his wine white and coffee black.
     Michael’s work has appeared in many journals and online venues including Boston Literary Magazine, The Annual Rockhurst Fine Arts Review, Punchnel’s Magazine, Rose & Thorn Review, Montucky Review, and Right Hand Pointing. Michael has blogged since 2003 on poetry, art, culture and occasionally social issues at
     Michael is the father of four grown children. He currently makes his home in a suburban community in the Kansas City, Missouri area along with his wife, two rescue dogs and a cat.

Cathy Barber is a poet living in San Mateo, California. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA from California State University, East Bay. She teaches poetry to young people through California Poets in the Schools, which is tons of fun and about as rewarding as work can get. And she occasionally writes a humor blog, Is It Just Me, where she rants about life’s indignities, especially those indignities that affect her personally, because it is, after all, her blog. You can read her poetry in many online journals, including most recently West Trestle Review and Red Booth Review.