It’s a Mullaqat thing

by | Aug 12, 2022

(From my Aug. 7th newsletter. To subscribe, click here. dc)

Not my usual newsletter

Today is Lughnasadh (on my calendar, at least), and time for another newsletter. But since there’s no interesting news on the publishing and promotion fronts here at The Manor, I’m going to to change gears and talk about the challenge that this next book is presenting me.

This will be the ninth book I’ve published as either Dan Conover or DC McElroy, so it’s certainly not my first word-rodeo. Yet I’ve never written this slowly before. As of this morning, my official word count for Book Five, City of the Dead, exceeds 27k. My unofficial wordcount — the stuff I’ve written and discarded, or removed but preserved for reference — is closer to 50k. For some writers, that’s probably decent production. For me, it’s about half my usual rate.

What accounts for this apparent sloth? Several things, starting with my insistence that every book in Trilogy Two…

  • Must be told from a different character’s perspective;
  • Must be capable of standing alone as a single novel;
  • Must have its own distinct sub-genre vibe;
  • Must contribute to both the trilogy arc and the series arc; and
  • Must offer a viable entry-point to the series (unlike Llyr and Gwynyr)

Some of those goals present challenges, yet none of them slowed me down when I was writing Ta Nupa. So what’s the holdup now?

Well, it’s my protagonist, Keenit. She’s forcing me to use sets of creative muscles I’ve too long neglected.

External vs. Internal

My previous novels are generally plot-dependent. Yes, they’re character driven, but here’s how I make the distinction: In those previous books, action reveals character as it simultaneously advances the plot.

That’s because those previous books are essentially quest stories featuring protagonists with very Western internal conflicts and goals: Bonnie Wright (Bokur) is a bougie empty-nester at a middle-aged crossroads. Chene Viqar must choose between competing concepts of ethics without the benefit of knowing her own history. And Antin Hrabar is a fraud who desperately wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t have a clue what the right thing might be. Much to-ing and fro-ing ensues.

Compare that to this: In City of the Dead, the main story takes place in a single location —  an unusual archaeological expedition located on a barren plain between Gwynyr and Bal’a’Blos. And once our Mullaqat protagonist, Keenit, reaches that dig site, she remains there until the climax.

There are mysteries and dangers and risks, but petite archaeologist Keenit is no typical questing hero. Neither does she suffer from typical Western problems, or process her emotions in typical Western ways. Other than a recently broken heart, there’s not even anything particularly wrong with her. She’s a well-adjusted, talented 26-year-old who is generally adored by the people in her life. Her only significant internal conflict is the gap between her traditional Mullaqat outlook and a professional career choice that precludes a strictly nomadic lifestyle.

Then she meets Chene and Thamas’ brilliant, rebellious, pansexual teenage son Niall, and everything that felt simple about Keenit’s life becomes complicated.

I’ve never written anything like that. What on earth was I thinking?

Well, I was thinking that this might be an interesting question: What does it feel like to live a life that isn’t grounded in attachment?

Which leads to these questions: Does attachment invariably lead to suffering? Is it possible to avoid suffering? Is a life without suffering even desirable? And at what cost — to ourselves and others — do we avoid it?

You could tell a story like that in all sorts of ways. But the way I’ve chosen to tell it grounds the story less in dramatic external events, and more in the way Keenit thinks about those events.

Writer, director, actor

I don’t know how other people do it, but I’ve noticed while writing the first four books in this series that when I’m working at my best, I become less of a writer and more like a collaboration between multiple actors and a single writer-director.

My best characters become recognizable voices in my head. I can channel Chene at different points in her life, for instance. Bink and Shyree write all their own dialog. Poor Antin struggles to find his own voice, which sometimes makes it difficult to coach his performance. But Boksin Stavator, Brother Suderas, General Bartelmus and Neva Marisch show up every morning ready to get work.

That’s when the writer takes the day off and I become a director. And in one instance, I mean that almost literally.

The night before I sat down to write Serbotus Bartelmus’ one chapter in Ta Nupa, I imagined that I’d hired actor Mark Rylance to play the part, and that in our only previous conservation, I’d asked him to read Gore Vidal’s novel Burr and pay attention to his unusual characterization of Thomas Jefferson.

The next morning I woke up, sat down at my computer, and more or less transcribed Rylance’s chapter-long performance in a single take.

Niall Dannan and I are acquainted. I wouldn’t say that we’ve established a rapport just yet, but I suspect I understand the conflicting motivations he experiences better than he does. He’s got everything he needs except an adult’s emotional vocabulary, and he’s going to be a difficult person to work with until he acquires it.

But Keenit? Like Adjabi and everyone else in Sa’Urtha, I’m quite fond of her. What’s not to like?

But what does life look like through her eyes? When she speaks, from where do the words arise? What does she fear? For what does she really hope? These are standard questions, but in her case, there are no standard answers.

Acting lessons

Last week I watched The Last Movie Stars, an unusually conceived documentary on HBO Max. On the most obvious level, it’s a biography of actors Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, who excelled at their craft while constructing one of Hollywood’s most celebrated marriages.

There is, however, another level to the documentary. A previous biographer of the Newman-Woodward partnership recorded thousands of hours of interviews with the couple and other contemporary sources. Those tapes were later destroyed — leaving only written transcripts behind. When actor/director Ethan Hawke accepted the job of directing this docuseries, he came up with the idea of hiring Hollywood actors to perform clips from those transcripts.

Much of the series (filmed during the pandemic) revolves around those contemporary actors meeting on Zoom to discuss Newman and Woodward, but also acting itself. Actor Laura Linney, for instance, portrays Woodward in her transcript voiceovers. But it also turns out that Woodward mentored Linney as a young actor, and her insights into both the person and their shared profession exemplifies the documentary’s meta-reality.

On that meta level, The Last Movie Stars becomes the story of one actor-director’s creative attempt at directing living actors playing dead actors caught in the act of talking about their acting and directing careers. Whew!

But those discussions reminded me that great acting is founded in questions — not just about creating characters, but about the craft itself. Is an actor  creating, or revealing? Working from observation or experience? And someone,made this point, which I am now paraphrasing: Good acting is less about portraying emotion than it is about experiencing emotion through another person’s perspective.

And  that’s what I’m trying to do as Keenit. Not just to “find her voice,” but to learn what she would do, as an authentic person, and why. I already know the situations she’s going to face, and where everyone winds up. But that’s not enough for this one. City of the Dead is about why Keenit does what she does. And like a good actor, there are moments when I need to pull the writer aside during a break in rehearsal and say “I don’t think Keenit would do that.”

So this is the story of my summer: Can a 6-foot-3, 59-year-old, 21st-century American White guy trade his perspective for the internal experience of an imaginary 4-foot-10 (and a half!) 26-year-old Mullaqat woman?

I’ll just say this about that: As much as I love Keenit, she’s not a perspective I enjoy inhabiting. It makes me anxious. It makes me squirmy.

It’s a Mullaqat thing

What have I learned from attempting this? No. 1, it’s not particularly hard to imagine life as a woman, because I’ve got plenty of women in my life to draw from. It’s not hard to imagine life as a younger person, either. Because I have memories.

It’s not even that difficult to imagine what the world must look like to a petite person. We’ve all experienced some version of feeling small and vulnerable.

But to inhabit the perspective of people who own no property? Who have no desire for wealth and luxury? People who share everything? Who embrace the tension between non-attachment and desire? People who describe falling in love as “being lifted for suffering?”

Now that’s a challenge.

In summary

Will City of the Dead live up to the previous books in the series? There’s no telling. But I suspect that this is the kind of challenge I need if I’m going to get better.

Wish me luck,