Art Has No Rules
Answering readers' questions
Thanks to everyone who posted a review of Under a Poacher’s Moon on Amazon. In the first six weeks the book shot past forty reader reviews, a fantastic start! At that level it’s now eligible for all kinds of sales and promotions. The more reviews, the better. I sincerely appreciate the time and thought that went into so many of them.
To answer a couple of questions that have popped up about Amazon reviews: (1) You can give the book “stars” without writing anything; (2) You don’t have to put your real name on a review if you don’t want to; you can submit an anonymous review with a username of your choice.
Audiobook - an amazing voiceover artist, Sammi Price, recently finished a recording of Under a Poacher’s Moon. It will be available as an Audiobook soon.
UK and Europe - I am working on the possibility of getting the book published in the UK and the major markets of Europe. I don’t yet know if it will happen, but it’s exciting to think about the book being introduced to other countries and even translated into foreign languages.
Article - On a slightly different note, I recently published an article about “mask pollution” on Grist, a popular environmental website. The article (“Yes, Disposable Masks Are Made of Plastic. And that’s a Problem”) is available here.
Answering Reader Questions
I’ve gotten a lot of other questions about substantive aspects of the book: plot, characters, the ending, etc.
I have a couple of short answers that I like to recite (to myself, at least) in response to many of these questions.
To queries about why I made this or that choice in the book, some of which were perhaps unusual or unexpected, one possible response is, “I contain multitudes.” (You’ll get that reference if you’ve read the book).
Another short answer is, Art Has No Rules. The point of any art, in my view, is to make people think and feel. That’s it. Everything I did in the book was in service of those two goals.
The extraordinary 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre (the whole movie is two guys having a long, interesting, and rather crazy conversation over dinner) explores many aspects of the human condition, including the boredom of modern life in industrialized society, and the fact that so many of us are going through our routines like “unconscious machines.” Art is something that can wake us up, put us in touch with something real. Nature can do that, too. My book was about using the art of writing, and depictions of nature, to stimulate readers to think in new ways and feel authentic emotions about some of the defining issues in the world right now (I was pleased when Kirkus called it “exciting” and “thought-provoking,” referring to both of my goals.)
I happened into a Barnes & Noble the other day, my first foray into a big box bookstore in ages, and in all the brightly colored covers staring at me from well-organized shelves, I could see that stimulating readers to think new thoughts and feel authentic emotions are not necessarily the primary goals of many books on the market. The foremost goals appear to be entertainment and making sales, accomplished by delivering a story that fits neatly into a pre-existing commercial category. Commercial entertainment is usually about turning the brain off, rather than turning it on—anesthetizing rather than stimulating the mind, like what happens when we watch TV—a process that My Dinner with Andre suggests makes us good consumers: “A person who is asleep can’t say no.”
In the world of online commerce, we see that movies, art, music, and literature are “content,” i.e. interchangeable, instantly downloadable commercial products.
In my writing, I like to play around with ingrained commercial patterns and expectations, and see if it’s possible to do things differently. Good art should be more than a product for sale. It shouldn’t necessarily fit neatly into any particular category, although that’s okay, too. (I think it might help that I did not formally study creative writing, and instead approach the process with “Beginner’s Mind,” a concept from Buddhism).
The characters in my book are all composites. For each, I combined characteristics of at least 3-4 people, plus pure imagination. In some cases I took one or two superficial physical characteristics from a real person—physical traits, or mannerisms of speech that have a dramatic quality to them—and combined them with characteristics of other people I’ve encountered over the years, or even with other fictional characters I’m familiar with. I then infused each character with a lot of my own thoughts and ideas.
The characters and the plot were designed to fit into the mythic structure of The Hero’s Journey. Anna is the Heroine, Chris is the Guide, and so forth. (Anna’s voice as narrator was inspired, in part, by the book Mating by Norman Rush, an award-winning novel of thirty years ago about an American woman in Africa.) Here’s a summary of the Hero’s Journey:
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back . . . .The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, and eradicate them . . .
My big, ambitious idea when I sat down to write this book was that I wanted to write a story that functioned on one level as an exciting tale with action and romance etc., and on another level as a compelling myth, or allegory, about the human condition at this point in time.
A defining feature of our time is the ongoing extinction of much of life on Earth, an event that’s being driven mostly by unconscious and unintentional human behavior. This is the Anthropocene, or the Sixth Mass Extinction, in world history. 70% of the world’s wildlife have been lost in the last 50 years alone, and this is just the beginning. The possible demise of Africa’s charismatic megafauna, like rhinos and elephants, is a highly dramatic example, one that is representative of a planet-wide phenomenon that defines our “era” (in the geologic, deep-time sense). The loss of wildlife is a worldwide issue that is intertwined with so many others—inequality, race, the global economy, international finance, government corruption, corporate greed, media propaganda—but ultimately relates to the personal, intimate details of how we live our lives.
We need myths—stories—to help us make sense of all this.
Which brings me back to the purpose of art more generally: to make us think and feel.
To be living at a time when we homo sapiens are inadvertently destroying life on this planet and undermining our own long-term well being (a process that’s already well underway, if the last few years are any indication) has major implications for what we think, and how we feel, about ourselves and our place in the world. Or at least, it should.
Who are we, where are we going? What are we trying to accomplish, exactly, as we pulverize our own planet, perhaps eventually ourselves, as billions of us go about our daily routines? Why are we doing this? Who profits? Who pays the price? Is anyone responsible, is no one? Will future generations do better, or worse? These should be major subjects of our culture’s art, but I don’t really see these themes reflected in the music, movies, and literature that we are presented with in the commercial marketplace, at least not usually. (Remember that not thinking and feeling makes us good consumers).
So I sat down to write my own story about these things. And I didn’t want to provide any simple or easy answers, or peddle quick-fix “solutions” that fit certain political or ideological agendas, as environmental organizations and politicians and entertainers tend to do. I wanted to explore these ideas honestly, non-ideologically, in a way that sheds light on the human condition at this point in time.
And this is what I’ll continue writing about . . .