Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Getting it Right

The gate to Pitgaveny, the house near Elgin owned by John Brander's father 
  © Copyright Des Colhoun and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
All families have apocryphal stories that are told and retold at family gatherings and handed down through the generations. As in a game of “telephone” or “Chinese whispers,” they often get altered with each telling until the final version is very different from the original incident that was the germ of the tale.

My own family has anecdotes like that, many passed down through my paternal grandmother who was the world’s greatest storyteller. This kind of story is important because it takes on the imprimatur of each generation that passes it along. This makes it “true” in the sense of being faithful to the evolution and spirit of the family in question.

However, it does not necessarily make it accurate.

Historical scholarship is all about finding out what actually happened. This means uncovering every last scrap of documentary material that has survived and then coming to conclusions on the basis of that evidence. There will always be gaps in that body of material of course, and no historian or biographer would suggest otherwise. But every story told must have its foundation in the evidence. Wishful thinking has no place in historical research.

Here’s an example. For years, I have been trying to authenticate a wonderful story about John Brander (Princess Titaua’s first Scottish husband) that someone once told me but for which he was unable to give me a source.

The story is that young John Brander, born the illegitimate son of a Scottish laird, saved his much older half-brother – the legitimate heir to Pitgaveny – from drowning. In gratitude, the older brother is said to have given John a reward of £400, which John used to finance his emigration to California where he is supposed to have made his first fortune selling equipment to the Gold Rush miners.

It’s a great story – encompassing drama, heroism, adventure, and success – so I’d love to include it in Children of Eden. But is it true?

Not one word of it, at least as far as I’ve been able to discover.

To my great disappointment, I’ve been unable to find a single shred of evidence to substantiate the saved from drowning part. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen - just that, until I can find an account in a contemporary newspaper or letter, I cannot be sure that this incident is anything more than a Scottish urban legend.  

As for the part about Brander’s half-brother giving him the money, I’ve found nothing to validate that either. What I do know is that John Brander’s natural father left him £1,000 in his will when he died in 1826. In modern terms, that would be around £50,000 or $78,700 – in other words, plenty of cash with which to start a new life anywhere in the world.

And it also seems unlikely that John Brander ever set himself up in business in California. According to shipping records, he arrived in Sydney in July 1840 from Liverpool at the age of 23 and began trading in various goods, first with European settlements in New Zealand and then gradually extending his range to Tahiti. It is true that later his schooners made regular visits to the port of San Francisco with shipments of Brander’s oranges, pearl shell, and copra but not until after the Gold Rush is generally thought to have burned itself out.  

It may not be as good as the rescue from drowning story but it’s the truth - or at least the extent of the truth as can be unearthed from the surviving records. And that’s what I’m committed to telling in Children of Eden. But I also fully acknowledge the importance of those family anecdotes that morph and meld their way into myths to be carried forward through the generations. Stories are essential to the human spirit however they manifest themselves.


Friday, May 11, 2012

The Habit of Art

Raymond Carver at work

A very good writer friend of mine recently resolved to find the time to write 300 words a day. Regardless of how busy she was with work, travelling, exercising, house guests, or social events, she was determined to make it happen. And she has. I cannot tell you how much I admire her for it.

Right now, she says she doesn’t know if what she’s writing will amount to anything, but she believes that the habit itself is important. Like playing scales on the piano, it keeps the writing mind supple and exercised and open to inspiration. And every day my friend spends time on the story that’s still emerging in her head, the characters develop a little further and the arc becomes a little clearer.

This reminds me of a time many years ago when I went to hear the short story writer Raymond Carver speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Carver was a big, shy man with cropped hair, wearing a large white shirt that hung loose over his waistband. He seemed uneasy about being in the spotlight and spoke so quietly it verged on mumbling. He’d had a famously difficult childhood in Washington State, married at 19 and father of two children by the age of 20. To support his family, he worked as a janitor, sawmill laborer, and delivery man, while studying creative writing with the novelist John Gardner at Chico State University in California.

At the ICA event, he told us how his life in those days was so crammed with work and family that the only time he could find time to write was in his car late at nights, using the steering wheel as a desk. And he described how a friend of his used to sit for ten minutes every day with his fingers on the typewriter keys - “to encourage the habit of art if you will.” Those words resonated with me so much that I wrote them down and so was able to find them in my journal 27 years later.

I agree absolutely that the daily “habit of art” is essential to any writer, and yet somehow I’ve never managed to do it myself. Instead I wait for chunks of time to open up – the occasional day free of commitments, a week between editing jobs, a weekend writing retreat – but, as in most lives, these are not frequent occurrences. I tell myself it’s hard for me to commit to writing every day because my work schedule is so variable but that’s just a way to rationalize my lack of courage and discipline. I need to stop making excuses and – like my friend – just do it. And I need to do it sooner rather than later.

Raymond Carver died of lung cancer in 1988 at the age of only 50. We never know how much time we have so we need to use it well – even the odd half hours between errands and working, even the hours late at night or early in the morning when it feels like your brain isn’t capable of producing a coherent sentence. It’s all time we won’t get back. As Jay McInerney wrote in an appreciation of Carver in the New York Times the year after he died, “Whatever dark mysteries lurk at the heart of the writing process, he insisted on a single trade secret: that you had to survive, find some quiet, and work hard every day.”
Let's see if I can pull that off.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Runaway Train

Dorence Atwater, friend of Clara Barton and husband of Moetia Salmon
A few years ago when I was researching the life of Dorence Atwater for an article I wrote for America's Civil War Magazine, I became intrigued by the nature of Dorence's relationship with Clara Barton. I've written about Atwater in this blog before because, after being appointed American consul in Tahiti in 1871, he met and married Moetia Salmon. A decade before he arrived in Tahiti, while just a teenager, he had associated with Clara Barton in marking the graves of 13,000 dead Union soldiers at the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia where Dorence himself had been imprisoned and almost died.

Thus began a lifelong friendship between Clara and the young man over 20 years her junior, but in reading between the lines of their letters, I thought I detected hints of feelings rather stronger than friendship. Realizing I would probably never be able to unearth enough documentary evidence to prove this theory of mine, I decided to try writing the story of Clara and Dorence as a novel - as if I didn't already have enough other writing projects in the works. I wrote a chapter or two but soon abandoned the attempt precisely because I had other fish to fry. And I still do. But I sometimes hanker to return to telling the story of the love affair that history may have forgotten.

Here is a scene from the opening chapter:

Trains. How many has she ridden in her lifetime? More than hundreds. She almost lost her life on a train, she and Dorr together, outside Jacksonville, Illinois on one of their grueling cross-country lecture tours.

She’d been nodding off to sleep over her notes as the train rattled across the prairie. Opposite her, he sat upright on the horsehair bench, staring out of the dim carriage window. Night had fallen so there was nothing to see but the ghost of his own reflection. At times like these when he pulled away into silence, Clara always wondered if he was thinking of his lost life before the war with his mother and father still alive, and perhaps of some girl he’d known before he enlisted, some sweet 15 year old with tightly braided hair and down on her upper lip. Though he’d never mentioned such a girl, in Clara’s mind she was a full-blooded, firm-fleshed presence, impossible to ignore.   

Through half-closed eyes, Clara watched Dorr’s face. His long chin rested on his fist. Strands of his fine brown hair had strayed down over his forehead. Such soft hair. Clara allowed herself to imagine leaning forward and brushing the lock aside with one finger and how that silkiness would feel against her skin.

The train slowed to a crawl. Clara cupped her hand against the window, trying to see out. In the faint illumination cast by the gaslight from the train windows, all she could see were the stones of the rail bed and the ragged edge of a sorghum field.

It was at that moment that the train bucked and heaved, throwing her back from the window and sending the foot warmers skittering across the floor. The lights flared and then died with a pop. The carriage lurched violently to the left, and, with an almost human groan, slowly began to topple. Clara felt herself sliding, and she reached out wildly, reaching for Dorr, reaching for an anchor. Her flailing hands struck cloth, skin, metal but they all slid away from under her fingers. Weightless and blinded, she hung in space till, with a jarring that seemed to rearrange her bones, she landed chin first on Dorr’s shoulder. She tasted blood in her mouth and felt Dorr’s leg across her thighs, and then his hands were holding her face in the darkness, feeling for damage, feeling for life. As she felt the warmth of her own breath against his palm, she heard him say “Thank god” and then his hands were in her hair and she felt the roughness of his unshaven face against hers.

Somewhere there was screaming. Clara struggled to take a breath and in panic beat against the imprisoning tent of her upturned skirt. She felt Dorr throw back the heavy fabric and she could breathe again, and her heart pounded with relief. Then there were voices calling, and she saw a wavering of light high above them through the shattered carriage window open to the night. She fought free of Dorr’s hands and called up to where faces peered down.

            “We’re alive. I’m a nurse. Let me help.”

She reached up her hands, and the rescuers heaved her up through the sharded glass onto the roof of the train. Only when she was down on the trackside in the teeth of an icy wind did Clara start to feel the angry burn on the back of her legs where the carriage stove had fallen and seared itself onto her flesh.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Darling Buds of May

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

William Shakespeare