Francois Marcantel Immigrates to America

Okay, so this isn’t strictly speaking a piece about writing and/or books, but I am a Southerner with a legacy of literary compatriots (Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Lee (a couple of those), Capote, etc.; and you all have read them–right?), so this puts the topic at hand in the ballpark, more or less.  You see, we folks from the steamy environs of Dixie are nothing if not obsessed with our roots and all the various branches on our family trees, probably because said origins tend to be “lost within the very bogs of time” (to quote Florence King, another Southerner).

At any rate, on the “I am a Marcantel” page on Facebook (trust me, it does exist, closed membership and all that), there’s a Marcantels-in-America/Louisiana discussion that’s been doing the back-and-forth thing for the past few days.  The current topic focuses on whither Marcantels, Italy (Marcontelli?) or France (Marcantel?).

Here’s the story I know about my family, and every word is true.  Honest.

The first Marcantel in the New World was one François Marcantel, a French soldier who in 1752 “volunteered” to relocate to the then-colony of Louisiana as a militiaman-settler.  He came from Chambery in the foothills of the French Alps, at the time the capital of the Duchy of Savoy and now a ski resort.  Clear, clean air.  Snow-topped mountains.  Lush summer meadows.  Four distinct seasons.

I suspect that his arrival in Louisiana went something like this:

Welcome to the subtropics, François.  Let me tell you about your new home.  It features alligator-infested swamps, mosquitoes the size of your thumb, 200% year-round humidity so thick that you can see the air move, abundant wildlife, much of it carnivorous, and two lovely seasons: hot-and-wet and cold-and-wet.  And the good news is that hot-and-wet lasts twice as long as cold-and-wet.

Any questions?

At this point something along the lines of “Oh, merde!” must have belched into François’ head like one of those heavy Louisiana bullfrogs. (And if you don’t know what that word means, you need to Netflix a couple of French movies.  Or just one.)

UPDATED: I’m an inveterate editor and can’t leave anything alone.  Perfectionism is my cross to bear.

Francois Immigrates to America Part Deux, or Frankie, Jr.

Continuing the family saga from a couple of days ago:

François Marcantel stayed in Louisiana (he didn’t have much choice; see here) and married and, as usually happens, in the fullness of time had children.  The oldest son also was named François.  We in the family know him as Frankie, Jr.

Along about 1788, Frankie, Jr. became involved with his wife’s sister, and not in a brotherly-in-law kind of way either.  She was married, too, to the Worst Man in Town™, a wife-beating lush who loved to pick fights at the local tavern and owed  money far and wide, which meant of course that everybody quite naturally hated him.  Frankie, Jr., on the other hand, possessed all of the charm and bonhomie common to the Marcantels <ahem>, and so was generally well-regarded.  (I’m kind of making this up as I go along, but then, I’m a writer and all writers are fundamentally liars.  So sue me.)

Anyway, the Worst Man in Town somehow contrived to get himself murdered shortly after he forbade his wife from “walking” with Frankie, Jr., and to emphasize the seriousness of his request, beat pummeled slapped … lovingly caressed her and spoke to her with soft, reasonable words.  Although almost everyone in the surrounding area had a reason to despise him, thereby ensuring their membership on the roster of potential suspects, only one person was seriously considered for arrest in connection with his slaying.

Now, at this point I get a clear metaphorical image of the situation in my head.  Imagine that a pie goes missing, and the nearest authority figure confronts a group of angelic-looking-but-perhaps-guilty kids, one of whom has a circle of whipped cream and chocolate ringing his mouth.

“Frankie, Jr., did you take that pie?”

“Pie?  What pie?” he asks, carefully sweeping his tongue across his upper lip in a transparent attempt to hide evidence of the pie’s fate.

No doubt because they considered the community well-rid of a wife-beating, drunken, deadbeat bully, the authorities clearly didn’t much care whether the killer was Frankie, Jr., little green men from Mars, or the Easter Rabbit.   So, despite his almost certain … involvement in TWMIT’s murder, Frankie, Jr. was never charged with anything, much less hanged.   If he had been, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be reading this 100% accurate account of what happened.

On the other side of my family was a guy who certainly was a lothario and may or may not have been a pirate with Jean Lafitte.  But that’s another story.

P.S.  Details of l’affaire Frankie, Jr. can be found in this legal document, starting on p. 8.  I might have embellished the story just a tad.  (Did I mention that all writers are liars?)

Joan of Arc at 600

Joan of Arc, Philadelphia, PA – after the original at the Place des Pyramides, Paris

Today, January 6, is the officially recognized birthday of Jehanne Darc (more commonly known as Joan of Arc), the 15th century peasant girl who led the armies of Charles VII of France to a string of victories against the English and subsequently was burned at the stake after being convicted of heresy.

Born on this date in 1412 (or thereabouts), she came out of nowhere to rouse a listless Dauphin and his dejected knights to a renewed confidence in France’s national destiny, a faith that they had relinquished many years earlier after a series of defeats at the hands of the English.  Martyrdom at the age of nineteen guaranteed her an historical immortality. 

Over the past six centuries countless books, poems, operas and movies have been dedicated to telling Joan of Arc’s story, including my own An Army of Angels in 1997.  Artists, it seems, cannot get enough of her.  No doubt she would have found that unbelievable.  Even more astonishing, the notion that people in 2012, living in countries that didn’t exist when she was alive, would still remember her.  But we do.

Happy Birthday, Jehanne La Pucelle.

V-Squad in the Media

In time for Halloween, UVA Today, an in-house publication from the University of Virginia News office, will publish an article about me and my vampire novel, V-Squad, on Friday, October 28. Although the novel doesn’t fall into the horror genre per se, its denouement does take place on Halloween, so in that sense the timing is appropriate. I’ll send a link to the actual article when it’s released.

Accompanying the article will be a one-minute soundbite from UVA Today’s interview with me on WTJU, the University’s radio station, on Wednesday at 11:55 a.m. (EDT) and again on Friday at 3:55 p.m. (EDT). You can access the station’s broadcast through your computer. Quite apart from my mini-blurb, WTJU is very much worth a listen. They play a lot of great music and have interesting discussion programs.

UPDATE: Okay, the article has been published. You can find it here.

Fiction, Literary Criticism, and the Writing Thereof

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a literature professor about writing in which he maintained that literary criticism is every bit as “creative” as the crafting of fiction.   I understood his point.   To take a text and tease meaning from it that perhaps no one else has gleaned, and then shape a well-conceived argument supported by threads of evidence not only from the text itself but also from related works, does require a certain talent for inventive thought.   Having written literary criticism myself (though it’s been many years since I did so), I understand first-hand the almost mathematical deductive aptitude and gift for intellectual organization required for that kind of writing.  There’s no question in my mind that the writing of literary criticism is a creative act.

However. . .

If there’s any kind of writing that falls into the category of undiluted creativity, i.e. the making of something from nothing but the writer’s inner landscape and imagination, fiction gets my vote.

Here’s why:  Essay writing, criticism, and non-fiction works all derive from something that already exists; an idea, ideology, or socio-cultural trope, a piece of art, literature or music.  Something must have been put in place before the essayist, critic or non-fiction writer can comment upon it.  That kind of writing therefore is dependent upon historical forces or inspired works that came before it, the latter often though not always the handiwork of the creative writer.  However much ingenuity necessarily goes into fashioning non-fiction, criticism or otherwise, it is not purely creative.  That is the realm of the craftsman and of the artist.

Literary criticism and other non-fiction writing also differ from fiction writing in the ways in which the writers structure their creative ideas.  Because their foundational purpose is to persuade the reader to a point-of-view, to see a work of fiction or a slice of the world through a particular lens, criticism must be intellectually precise and detailed in every respect, from conception to execution.  Its appeal, however complex the edifice, is always to the audience’s reason.  If his points are to convince, the critic has to look logically at his subject from every possible angle, anticipate arguments and counter-arguments and address them accordingly.  Well-executed works of expository writing often are breathtaking in their formulation and implementation.

Fiction writers execute their craft differently.  Logic is important here, too, but good fiction can make the reader feel in the same way that all art does, within both the heart and the soul of the reader.   The best fiction not only tells a story but engages the reader below the level of conscious thought so that she picks up the writer’s underlying meaning without her necessarily being aware of it in an intellectual sense.

The reader of a novel or short story must be able to identify implicitly with the protagonist’s humanity.  By definition then, the appeal is not only to the audience’s reason — the story and the characters who inhabit it must make sense within context —  but to their emotions.  That is accomplished both by what the author writes and perhaps more importantly what he does not write, in the spaces between the words where the deepest meaning often is found.  It is within those spaces, where the human mind processes information and comprehends subliminally, that art functions in ways which transcend reason.   Fiction writers therefore have to create simultaneously on more than one level, both explicitly with regards to story and within those hidden, empty spaces between the words.  And before they even set pen to paper, they must be able to think in two (or more) dimensions at the same time; in the realm of day and of night, of waking consciousness and of dreamtime. 

Fiction is the work of the shaman as well as the craftsman, and there’s no creativity more pristine than magic.

Painting With Words

Many years ago when I was a university undergraduate, one of my roommates happened to be an art student.  Living in an apartment littered with paintbrushes, canvasses and other paraphenalia gave me an up-close appreciation of how an artist actually works, that was miles apart from the detached overview of humanity’s long progression through the visual arts that I learned from my art history classes.

One important, foundational idea that I soon recognized as relevant to my creative writing, was that not all of an artist’s subjects require the same approach and tools, but are dependent upon what meaning she is trying to communicate.   Sometimes she uses oils, sometimes acrylics or chalk or charcoal.   A complex subject might require a lot of detail and color, while something simple can be depicted with a few judiciously applied strokes.   The artist’s creative vision, what he intends to convey to the viewer, and how effectively that is achieved, are subject to the style he uses and the tools he implements.

Fiction is like that, too.  Just as all stories are different — some are innately novels, others short stories or novellas, still others screenplays — their successful executions require techniques specifically tailored to their uniquely individual natures.

For example, my novel about Joan of Arc, An Army of Angels, is a vast, sweeping epic filled with color and elaborate detail, a real cast-of-thousands historical novel on the scale of a vintage Cecil B. deMille movie.  The subject required nothing less, so that was the approach I took.  On the other hand, V-Squad, a character-driven vampire adventure set during World War II, is lighter in tone, evocative rather than painstakingly detailed, and much, much shorter.  Given its setting in the recent past and the relative familiarity of that time to the contemporary reader, it wasn’t necessary for me to apply a lot of text toward immersing my audience in that world. 

So, using the visual arts analogy, if An Army of Angels is comparable in size and tone to one of those busy, wall-sized 19th century paintings that you might find in the Louvre or Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art — say, something like this —V-Squad‘s narrative is simpler, more stylized, and employs cleaner lines, like this.

As a novelist, I always try to stretch myself and write something unlike anything I’ve attempted before.  Currently in front of me are six short stories related to and featuring characters from V-Squad.  Their common source notwithstanding, every one is different from both the novel and each other. 

The story I’ve been working on for about four months now consists of a spare narrative that suggests physical context without a reliance on extended description.  There’s very little internal monologue on the part of the protagonist; his psyche and emotional reactions to the world around him are reflected via his experiences and interactions with others, and not the other way around.  If this were visual art, it would be done in charcoal using simple line drawings.

Each of the other stories is equally unique and written according to its individual character.  One is broad farce; another, somber and emotionally moving; yet another, erotic.  And for the first time (which is saying something, given that I’ve been writing on and off for almost fifty years), I’m trying my hand at an out-and-out horror story reminiscent of a tale from The Twilight Zone

As I have found over time, every story worth telling has its own color, tone, and style.  So when I dip into my metaphorical toolbox, I always look forward to learning something new about the writer’s craft.  For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than painting with words.

My Hometown

A few days ago two young women who grew up Kinder, the small town in southwestern Louisiana where I also was born and spent my childhood, decided to create a Facebook page dedicated to former and current citizens’ memories of the place.  As of this writing, more than eight hundred have joined the group and contributed well over two thousand posts, not counting associated comments.  The numbers reflect how beloved Kinder is to those who at one time or another in their lives, called it home. 

Many of the stories which people have told are laugh-out-loud funny.  Some are poignant, others moving or sad.  For those of us who knew that place in a particular time, the experience has been akin to attending a family reunion.  Through our reminiscences we have brought back from the dead parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends.  We have conjured a Kinder that itself has been irrevocably changed by the passage of time.  By the disappearance of the American railroad as a major form of transportation and by the Interstate highway system that in part replaced it.  Speaking only for myself, participation in the Facebook group has been like jumping into a time machine and returning to a town and an era that our younger citizens sadly can scarcely imagine.

For many years I have thought about writing a novel about Kinder as it was in the 1950s and 1960s when I knew it best.  In those days, not all of the roads were paved, few people had air-conditioning, the older folks still spoke French, and kids could roam all over town on their bicycles without fear.  Saturday afternoon double-features at the local movie theater were 15¢ for children under twelve, and teenagers sat in the back rows so they could make out.  The whole town turned out for high school sporting events, football in particular.   No novel, no movie or TV show has ever depicted life in small-town Louisiana as it actually was, and is.

But that’s a book that in all likelihood I’ll never write.   To Kill a Mockingbird initiated the Southern childhood nostalgia literary sub-genre in 1960, and when I read the book soon thereafter at the age of twelve, it already reminded me of Kinder despite the fact that the story took place some thirty years earlier and in a culture that bore only a remote similarity to my hometown.  Over the years other writers have contributed their own memoirs to the genre, in many cases enriching it, though no one has done it better or to greater universal acclaim.   It’s a quirk of mine, I suppose, but in my own writing I try to avoid treading into the territory of a master at the craft and in this particular case believe that I would find myself under a very large shadow indeed.

No matter.  I have my memories and am privileged to share them with some of the very best, salt-of-the-earth people you could ever find anywhere.  Not only is that enough, it’s everything.

UPDATE:  Based on anecdotal evidence, groups like Kinder’s have proliferated across Facebook over the past few weeks.  My old prep school (class of `67), The Academy of the Sacred Heart at Grand Coteau, Louisiana, now has two Facebook groups dedicated to alumnae reminiscences.  I must say, though, that personally the Kinder group remains the most fun, engaging, and emotionally moving.  And yes, it’s still going strong.

Bulwer-Lytton Contest 2011

For fans of really bad writing:  Every year since 1982, the faculty of the Department of English at San Jose State University in California have sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, you might recall, was the author of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford, which gave the world the famous (or infamous) opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Anyway, the contest challenges writers to come up with a deliberately inept opening sentence of a phony novel in the style of Paul Clifford. The best, i.e. most effective, piece of bad writing earns immortality on the BLFC’s web site. Here are the “winners” and runners-up for 2011.

Blank Spaces Between the Words

Every time I sit down to work on my fiction, I learn something about the craft of writing.  Some years back, a pleasing thought occurred to me in one of those lightbulb-in-the-head moments: that there are blank spaces between the words in prose fiction, gaps that the human mind automatically rushes to fill.  Recently a friend complimented me for something I’d written by exclaiming, “You described it so well that I felt that I was actually there!”  That made me smile, because my more recent writing tends to be somewhat lean.  I pointed out that there really was very little description in what she’d read, but that her mind had seized upon key words to create the images that were not in fact in the text.  Those images that lay in the blank spaces between the words.

So, What Is It?

Every once in a while, I rouse myself to expand my options from the indie scene that I currently inhabit by a return to traditional publishing, so I send off another couple of query letters to literary agents on behalf of V-Squad. So far, no takers. Most haven’t responded at all (something I have no problem with, since I’m aware that that is standard policy when an agent just isn’t interested; I’m also aware of the current turmoil in the publishing industry), but one or two have praised the writing while still declining my queries. I suspect that their hesitance is due to the book’s hard-to-classify nature, a condition that perhaps makes it all the more difficult to pitch to the traditional houses.

It’s easier to talk about what it isn’t than what it is. It isn’t Steampunk. It isn’t Horror. It isn’t Romance. It isn’t High Fantasy, or Sci-Fi. It’s not a Graphic Novel (though it would make a good one). It’s not, strictly speaking, Historical Fiction, since I have taken some liberties with real history, especially in the flashback scenes that go to the heart of the protagonist’s motivations. I suppose that you could make a case for Action-Adventure except that it contains passages of quiet character development that you don’t usually find in that genre. It has elements of Literary Fiction, given that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, but purists no doubt would dispute that, too.

It just is what it is. Hard to define though it may be, readers apparently like it, and that is gratifying indeed.

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