Just got my newest edition of the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS and there is a piece in it about one Jim Grant, now more commonly known to his book fans as Lee Childs, creator of the Jack Reacher series. I’ve not read any of his stuff, but I have certainly seen the covers and I believe, and, perhaps, a movie with the character. Don’t remember the film at all, which means there was no reason to. Or I’m just old. Prolly both.
I’m in the middle wading the river of two manuscripts at the moment, which grow in burps and slides and stumbles and such, one them the 11the Grady Service Title and the other a piece set in England in WW 2. The first will no doubt find print. The second? We shall see.
Names seems to capture readers’ attention and I am almost always challenged by readers at various group gropes and reading soirees. When I tell them that the vast majority of the names come directly from UP phone books, their eyes glaze over – yet it’s true. Couple of times a year I get emails from readers asking if a character with the name of X is from X because their uncle/grandfather/brother/whatever was of that name and from that place. What they want to know is if I am writing about their relative and family. I have to tell them nope, came from a phone book from a different town. This always seems to disappoint. Life, English.
Names though, have a special place in the writer’s zoo verba.
Take, for example, one Jim Grant, “who was a technical director at Granada TV in England, and went to a store in Manchester and bought three A4 pads (the tall ones) and a pencil. This was 1994. He was almost 40 and about to lose his job, thanks to corporate restructuring, which he’d spent two years fighting as a union shop steward. He lost and made a plan to make a living as a novelist, using for models Alistair MacLean the Travis McGee series by John MacDonald. He named his protagonist Franklin, but apparently the name didn’t really take hold in his mind. Thus, came a day in a store as he stretched to a high shelf for an item, and his wife remarked, “If writing doesn’t work out, you can always find work as a ‘reacher.’ Bingo! Jack Franklin became Jack Reacher.
But wait, that’s not all! At same time Mr. Grant was having doubts about his character name, he also had doubts about his own moniker and a family joke got him thinking. Some years earlier he had chanced to meet a Texan who drove a Renault 5, a model marketed in the U.S. as Le Car, and which the Texan referred to as Lee Car. There after the family used to joke about passing “lee salt” or “lee pepper,” etc, and about looking after “lee child,” and another Bingo moment Jack Reacher and Lee Child were “born!”
Such stories seem archetypal, but there are so many like it from many authors that I have no doubt. Back when The Berkut was in production and nearing publication (my second book) my editor at Random House called and in his most patrician voice declared. We have a problem.”
I sort of felt like an astronaut hearing from Houston. “What?” I asked.
“Yah, what ABOUT my name?”
“Random House does NOT publish. JOE’S.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. “Fox pick out whatever name you want. I couldn’t care less. Up till then I had published as Joe T. Heywood. That day I became Joseph NMI Heywood and have remained so ever since. Once considered publishing under my Irish grandmother Mary’s maiden name, Hamill, but decided not to. Someday perhaps.
There’s no question that names are important to stories and life itself, and I’ve no doubt that many authors swimming in the Maximo Flatulenti in the sharp-elbow corners of the Big-L Upper Lit-Ra-Chuh ice sheet give long and deep thought to selecting just the right one. Me, I take what pops into my head, or which my hand finds at random in the phone rag. Sometimes I make up names, but these occasions are fairly rare. I feel sorry for anyone who is not familiar with Russian or Slave names when they are reading THE BERKUT, and THE DOMINO CONSPIRACY, , but I use only legitimate names in those stories, so it is what it is.
And it’s not just what I think of as quasi-exotics that seem to throw folks. Last month I got an email from a fellow who didn’t identify where he was from. His note read as follows: “Enjoy reading your books. Lots of different characters to try to remember. Only one thing I don’t like: Difficult to pronounce names: Zulderveen, Allerdyce, Pyykkonen, Macofome, Pracie, Scaffidi, etc. Makes it even more difficult to keep track of them. Why so many difficult-to-pronounce names? They don’t seem difficult to me or to most Yoopers, so I had a hard time answering the inquiry.
As you may surmise, I am fascinated by names, and to this end I also keep a growing list of the longest names I encounter in my various reading endeavors. A retired reporter friend of me even gave me four pages of names collected from his career, names that had caught his attention, for various reasons (largely prurient).
Here’s a short list of the long names on my list:
- Bibhutibhuswan Bannerjee (Indian author);
- Florentio V Macadandan (from something I read in the Kalamazoo Gazette long ago);
- Mihaly Csikszent Mihaly (nickname “Six-Card Mihaly);
- A gent by the name of Mike Tyson Schwarzenegger Prodelle.
- A Brazilian plumber with the long handle of Errol Flynn PaixzoCharlingtonglarvionbeechaknavare dos anjos mendona (chacha).
- There is Te Rangimario Ngarimu, a female hit-woman (assassin) in Niger;
- And, Kumkum Sangari, author of The POLITICS OF THE POSSIBLE, and finally,
- Wanorievyston Carl or Marllon Brnadon Bruno Paully Nelly Mell Oliveira Pereera (or as his friends and intimates call him, a.k.a Peteroswickonicovick. Wah, and Whew (not names…yet).
And MY names are weird? One name I’ve found sort of alluring recently is that of Calliope Wong, a transgender student refused entrance by the very liberal Smith College. My head swims at the possibilities.
I’d characterize all this as food for thought, knowing full well it’s sure just some Pablum.
As a note on name collecting, I love Olympic years when team rosters are published for many countries, I love sports roundups, obits, and any sort of news or mag item that features a lot of names. Cemeteries are excellently name collection points. Or randomly open a book or magazine and start writing down the names. And of course the phone book (which they still exist: how long till they got the way of rotary phones?
Let me close on a technicality – (technical fishing translates to flinging a size 26 fly on 7X tippet at a target the size of a FOREVER stamp). This technicality concerns ambiguity in writing, ambiguity being defined as uncertainty or inexactness of meaning in language.
As a generality a writer usually seeks to eliminate ambiguity, that is, we want what we are writing to come through to the reader exactly (or as close to exactly) as we conceive it, with the same result and reaction if triggers in us. But ambiguity, like all things human, is not so simple or straightforward. There are times when a writer may want something to be ambiguous and there are lots of possible reasons for this.
But let us concentrate now solely on ambiguity as it can get in the way of understanding. Critic-poet William Empson speaks of Seven types of Ambiguity which can retard or kerfluffle the chemistry between the printed word and the reader. Here’s Mr. Empson’s list:
- Metaphor, two things said to be alike, but with different properties;
- Two or more meanings resolved into one, mostly from trying to use two different metaphors simultaneously;
- Two ideas connected through context but given in one word simultaneously;
- Two or more meanings that do not agree but combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author. (I might have said in the character, too, but this is Empson’s list, not mine);
- When the author discovers his idea in the act of writing. (This probably happens to some extent with all of us who make a living with the pen). Here Empson describes a simile that lies halfway between the two statements made by the author;
- When a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author. (I understand Empson’s point here, but it seems to me you can leave a blank that requires some sort of effort from the reader, perhaps in physical descriptions so that they are putting some sweat equity into the effort and in the process buying in and becoming part of the active process. More on this some other day. Just not that if you look at my main characters you will find almost not detailed descriptions because I want them to look how you want them to in your mind, not see what I see in mine. See, what the character says and does should help you draw him, rather than me providing a word photo. Lots of authors would and do disagree with my approach here); and,
- Two words that within context are opposites that expose a fundamental division in the author’s mind.]
Empson published these thoughts in 1930 (13 years before I was born) and provided some of the key spade-work in the formation of the New Criticism school, whose emphasize explication, or “close reading,” of “the work itself.” This approach rejects old historicism’s attention to biographical and sociological matters. Instead, the objective determination as to “how a piece works” can be found through close focus and analysis, rather than through extraneous and erudite special knowledge. This bears on the fact that the art product is not the artist, but something separate and to try to read biography into what you read or see is a slippery slope to oblivion (wherein dwells eternal confusion).
Sometimes in groups I’ll ask how many there read and relate to the Bible? Always get several hands. I ask, “Do you believe it, get into it, find it compelling? Nods all around. “Do you know the authors? This always draws blank faces. The authors, of course, are long dead (and the thought-to-be-authors may in some cases not even be the de facto authors) but the point is that the work works. Doesn’t matter who wrote it or why, or even it they knew why they were doing it, only that it obviously worked in some way for them and continues to resonates in some way with readers a couple of millennia later. All that matters between author and reader is what’s on paper. All the rest ranks somewhere between irrelevant and idle baloney, between Entertainment Tonight and This Is Your Life, both rubbish.
Back when I was in J-School at Michigan State we all had to take an Advertising course and in that course we were all given access to something called the “Eureka Process,” which taught us how to prepare and plumb our brains for creative ideas. It was one of the most valuable things I learned in school, and it carried into every career and environment I fell into. More recently (last week) I read Maria Konnikova’s MASTERMIND; HOW TO THINK LIKE SHERLOCK HOLMES. (Viking, 2013). Granted, it’s a hokey kind of title, but it does get one’s attention, which is its intent. Konnikova writes the “Literally Psyched” Column for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. The book is well worth your time and continued thought.
The process she describes so well is a richer and somewhat deep version of the Eureka process and in my opinion a must-read for all writers, teachers, cops, soldiers, engineers, whatever, anyone involved in analysis of problems and trying to find solutions. The author uses author Doyle and characters Holmes and Watson to illustrate her points. For me it’s useful not just for my own use in seeking information and finding ways to handle it, but for how my characters can go right or wrong in handling information. Interesting read, well worthy my time.
Enough Saturday morning blarney. Lonnie and sister Mary went to see mom Georgie in Niles yesterday and got to see six Blooeys (bluebirds). (Not to be confused with Bloobs– blueberries.)
Here’s a thought offered by Francis Bacon’s translator back around the time that William Shakespeare was about to check out life and, for a couple of centuries anyone’s attention, too. “ Nullem momentum aut temporis segmentum perire et intercidere passus est.” Which is to say, “He suffered no moment, nor fragment of time to pass away unprofitably.” The man didn’t waste time and his friends and associates knew this and appreciated it. Bacon Accomplished a squat-load in his life and his ethic on time- used is fine guidon for us to heel to.
By the way, I was an AWFUL Latin student and once desperately changed an F to a B on my report card and got caught. The old man didn’t kick my ass. Thought I wished he had on that occasion. Oh well. It took four or five more decades to come to love the language, which one historian described as, “Although modern translations do their best to make it all sound fairly lucid, the original Latin wording is often clear from that, the absence of nouns and differentiated pronouns can make it almost impossible to know who is doing what to whom. I like knowing that still believe that Romans had a knack for pithiness and continue to believe I am very, very lucky to be able to create and write in the English vernacular.
Over. Go Denver. 50 Superbowls? Wow. I still remember the first one, Green Bay 35, K.C. 10. Sorry Rootie.