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Essay by Allen Ballard
The very first lesson I learned about the writing of fiction was the necessity to suppress approaches to writing developed over years of academic training and teaching as a political scientist and historian. From my childhood, I had always loved to read fiction, sometimes taking home from the library with me five novels a week. Ivanhoe, Captain Blood, The Three Musketeers, Mutiny on the Bounty, the Last of the Mohicans, Tom Sawyer, The Call of the Wild--all were cherished friends of my youth. By adolescence, I was reading DuMaurier, and Frank Yerby. And in my college years at Kenyon and subsequent residence in France as a Fulbright and then in military service in Paris, I was introduced--always reading in French--to Moliere, Colette, Gide, De Maupaussant, Hugo, Balzac, Mauriac, and Maurois. Then I entered the field of Russian Studies at Harvard and became a Sovietologist, falling under the lasting influence of Michael Karpovich--among others --whose courses in Russian history were heavily informed by his great love and mastery of Russian literature. He himself frequently reread Tolstoy to prime himself for teaching, and remarked to us that every time he did so, he gained fresh insights into the history of his native land. And during my years at Harvard, I was literally immersed in the writings of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekov, Turgenev, Ilf and Petrov, Gorky, Paustovsky, Sholokhov, and the incomparable Babel--especially Babel.
As an African-American, I donít believe I let one book of black fiction slip by me. I read Wright, Baldwin, Himes, Ellison, and Killens, and had the distinct privilege of sitting at the same table at the Cafe de Tournon in Paris with the first three of the aforementioned gentlemen, hearing them discuss literary techniques, but mostly the racial situation in America. At the same time, I must say that the book that made the greatest impression on me as far as race was concerned was Howard Fast's great work on the Reconstruction--Freedom Road. This novel about a strong black man in that pivotal period in our history has never left my memory. It was the first time--in fiction--that I'd been introduced to such a character, and it was by a white author. I read and re-read that book!
There was one final influence on me and that was my love for cowboy and Indian novels. They never came out the way I wanted them to--I have Cherokee and Delaware blood in me--but I loved the action and the ability to portray adventure of writers such as Zane Gray, Louis L'Amour, and Paul Horgan.
I give my literary pedigree not to impress the reader with the number of books that I've read, but to show the reader the background that led to my woefully mistaken belief that a lifetime love affair with fiction would prepare me to write it. Unfortunately, this wrong-headed presumption was fed by the reception of my book, One More Day's Journey, (1984, McGraw-Hill) a history of the migration to Philadelphia from South Carolina. Many of the reviews and lots of personal comments remarked on the felicity of my prose style.
Now, even prior to the writing of Journey, I had picked up--just in browsing through a bookstore--Isabelle Ziegler's The Creative Writer's Handbook, and every now and then I would take a peek at it, maybe browse through it a bit. The temptation was rising. Could I do this thing? I also began to believe that the best way to reach the masses of black people would be not only through history, well and simply told, but also with historical fiction. For, with the exception of such works as Jubilee, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, African-Americans have been by and large deprived of the kind of historical fiction about their past that is readily available about general American history in most any bookstore.
After reading Zieglerís book, I mistakenly believed that Iíd be able to write fiction. I thought that my first book should be topical rather than historical thus permitting me to concentrate on developing fiction writing skills rather than combining history with fiction. So I launched into the writing of my first novel--Amanda!--a story of the South African struggle. It tells how a politically uninvolved American black sailor on a round-the-world trip becomes involved in the South African struggle because of his love for a South African woman. Several leading historians and political scientists to whom I showed the novel loved it, as did many of my friends. Friends always love your novels--thatís what theyíre for. So did my then agent. Well, that novel received at least fourteen rejections, and now lies at the bottom of a drawer in my office. All the responses said that I had great analytical powers and that the work was very topical, but that the author (thatís how they referred to poor me in those letters) had no idea of how fiction worked. Their letters were full of such terms as wooden dialogue, lack of pacing, inconsistent characterization, cardboard figures, and most of all, a lack of objectivity on the part of the author--preaching. Thus did they label my righteous indignation about the South African situation that I let show through on virtually every page.
I was flabbergasted, mainly because of the favorable comments I had received from the other quarters. It was then that--ever so slowly--something began to percolate in my head, i.e. that editors at publishing houses and one's colleagues and friends are different breeds of cats. Itís my belief and experience that most publishing house editors of fiction are English majors or post-graduate students and their first concern is for the writing, always the writing. The content is secondary, even if excellent. I believe that this often causes them to miss potential bestsellers, as I still believe was the case with Amanda!, but these are the rules of their trade. One breaks them or ignores them at one's peril, particularly if one is a relatively unknown first time novelist
I learned something, however, from the fate of my first work--that is the necessity to respect the craft of fiction writing, and to understand that one has to crawl before one can walk. Frequently when I tell people that I write fiction, they say that they have led very interesting lives and that they intend to write a novel soon. This, without any training whatsoever. Well good luck! Tolstoy once said that this happened to him frequently, and that such people would never dare to walk up to a violin player and say, "Let me have your violin, I want to play it."
The uniformity of those negative editorial responses meant that I had to bend to the task of becoming a craftsman of fiction, so indeed I took the next step and decided to purchase the Sol Stein software course on writing fiction before starting on my next work. It helped a great deal, for my next novel, Carried By Six, a book about a black family fighting the drug dealers, to be published this year by the Charity Press, was far better than Amanda!. How else can I explain the extremely flattering letters of rejection that I received including one that said, ""Carried By Six is a powerful novel. You have skillfully created vibrant and appealing characters struggling through difficult and disturbing, often terrifying situations. The quick pace of the novel is effective--one's attention does not stray."
It's my belief that a possible reason for the rejection of this novel by the big publishers (about eight of them) was the fact that it too strongly and openly depicted police abuse, in a fashion that would not be too palatable to either a mainstream audience or editor.
Yet, candor forces me to admit that the manuscript as presented to them still had areas of technical weakness (subsequently corrected) which--on top of its controversial subject matter--would have given an editor reason to reject it on literary grounds.
It is not my intention here to bore the reader with further tales of my publishing trials and tribulations, but I simply wish to make the point that historians and social scientists are trained to explain things, to pile up facts and let the evidence speak for itself. In addition, professors are always repeating themselves in lectures, convinced that this is the only way to get through to those sleepy undergraduates. But the primary thing any novelist must do is to make the reader feel something--touch that person's emotions, not explain things to them. This is what the great ones have done--Flaubert, Tolstoy, Jane Austen. As with a wondrous scalpel, they carve and chisel verse, creating a total universe for their reader in which they can wander to their soul's content. The historian's impulse is to show how much one knows about the subject, how much one has mastered the area. The result in all too many cases where historians attempt to write fiction is too much history, and not enough story.
After my sometimes painful and decidedly chastening ten years apprenticeship in the writing of fiction, I am now in the final stages of the revision of a novel on the Civil War, called Where Iím Bound, about a black regiment in Mississippi. I believe I've learned my fiction writing lessons well, for at the very outset of the planning of the novel, I determined that it would be a piece of fiction set in the Civil War, not a novel about the Civil War. I also believe that by now I have served my apprenticeship in the craft of writing novels, and am ready to apply for membership in the guild. Oh, I still have flaws, but now I know, as I did not know when I set out to write Amanda!, what an omniscient voice is, what point of view means and entails, the different ways to break up dialogue, methods of drawing characters so that the reader can feel them and see them. It is truly gratifying to be able to look back over my own work and see where I have made errors. Now I also read biographies and letters of the great masters and am amazed to see that they too had problems with mastering some of these techniques. I love the daily learning involved in the writing of fiction, and have come to have great respect for the craft of fiction. I hope to keep on learning in the years to come, and feel blessed that at this juncture in my life , I'm bringing together both my academic training and my newly acquired skills as a novelist in a manuscript that will depict the African-American experience in the Civil War.