Monday, October 17, 2011

Just Add 1 Part Reader, and Stir

3 parts author, 1 part agent,1 part editor and1 part reader.

I'm not big on formulas, but if I were to do a general breakdown for the recipe for the reading experience, it would look something like that (with slight variations from book to book).

It's the part of the reading experience that is completely out of the author's control. Each reader brings their own experience to the reading experience, and each reader will view a text through the lens of their experience and knowledge.

When I was a teenager, I spent time living in Europe. During that time, I had some unbelievable experiences. I was there when the Iron Curtain collapsed, and have pictures of people cutting up the Berlin Wall. I crossed into East Germany at Checkpoint Charlie. I was also in Seville when they found over 4 tons of explosives set to blow the Semana Santa processions sky-high.

It's still surreal to think that I witnessed such historic events from such a close vantage point.

There were other things I experienced that year as well, and a lot of my strongest impressions are from my time spent in Ireland.

I have an unlikely confluence of Irish ancestry at work in me. My grandfather was an Orangeman (and my dad as well). My grandmother: Irish Catholic. Even as a teenager who was fascinated by history and culture, I had no real sense of what that meant.

Not until I spent some time in Ireland. After meandering around Continental Europe for the better part of a year, I'd grown accustomed to hanging around train stations, and even sleeping on my backpack between connections.

Five minutes after my train unloaded in Dublin, I was still in the station. As a result, I was questioned by police. Let's just say I didn't really understand the realities of the situation in Ireland, or living under terrorist threat.

It got worse. My ride to Northern Ireland arrived, and off we went. We just happened to be crossing the border by car on the day the Queen Mum was visiting in Northern Ireland. Even when I crossed between armed guards into East Germany, I'd never come close to experiencing what it was like to cross the border into Northern Ireland. The stretch of road wound its way through hills on both sides, and the family I was with pointed out to me all the snipers positioned in those hills.

Guns trained on the cars on the road. One false move…

And my day got better still. In Belfast, we ended up driving beside a military vehicle. Those boys don't play. Guns were pointed at us the entire time, until our vehicles went in different directions.

Let's just say this was completely unlike anything I'd ever experienced in Canada.

A few days later, I had to travel back down along the coast of Ireland. A week later, the road I'd been on was blown up.

When I returned to Canada a few months later, I was catching up on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and one episode in particular really rattled me. It wasn't an episode that anyone was voting as one of the ten greatest to date (even though the series was only partway through its run then). In some respects, it was a quiet little episode, called The High Ground.

In the episode, a group of terrorists need medical help, and they kidnap the doctor from Enterprise, believing she'll be the best to help them with their problem. The realities of being kidnapped, and being under pressure to help terrorists who've killed a lot of people conflict with the doctor's instincts to help those in need. She's at war within herself, but the leader of the terrorists isn't like she expected.

And while there's some hope underscoring the ending, it's not a feel-good episode that tries give pat answers to a complex problem.

Heck, I can't remember half of what I watched last week without applying myself, but I can still remember lines from The High Ground, although I haven't seen it in years.

You see, the story meshed with my recent experiences, and had a more significant impact on me than it had on some other viewers, and that's something the writers could never count on when they drafted the script.

We never know what the reader will bring to the reading experience, either.

Over the years since, my experiences with terrorism have been distinct but more removed. The train station in Madrid was bombed a few years after I was there. And the nightclub in Bali that I walked by countless times, beside stores I shopped in, was where the Bali bombing attack occurred. Tourists were sleeping on the beach because they were afraid to go to their hotels… the beach I walked on every day when I was there.

Removed, yet connected.

That's the experience I brought to the table when I sat down with Ian Rankin's latest offering, The Impossible Dead. Rankin's second title featuring DI Malcolm Fox, since sending Rebus to pasture, The Impossible Dead starts with the unlikely task of investigating officers who may have been a little dodgy, covering for a colleague who's been found guilty of sexual harassment and abusing his badge on the job.

I use the word unlikely, because it isn't often that detective fiction starts with anything other than the dropping of a body, yet Rankin takes his time before shedding blood on the page, and when he does, the investigation shifts into unpredictable directions that may have been hinted at in the early pages, but take the reader far into the past and the heart of Scotland's quest for independence, as well as the varied opinions of Scotland's current government.

As a Canadian teenager, my experiences in Ireland were enough to put me into shock. It was completely outside the realm of my experience. With 9/11, North Americans lost their innocence. We're all more aware of terrorism, and what it means to live with a pervasive terrorist threat.

I think that's going to serve readers well. Rankin's wheelhouse is politics, and The Impossible Dead features a complex plot that plays to his strengths in storytelling.

Or it could be that when my personal experiences mixed with the reading, they heightened my sense of connection to the events and the story, and the subject of terrorism. It could be that the book resonates more with me than it will with someone else who hasn't had those same experiences.

What that means is that, at the end of the day, one person's experience reading a book isn't right or wrong. It's simply different. It's the reader's ingredients that are outside the author's control, and why each time a person sits down with our books, part of us holds our breath, because even if we've done our job, told the story well, written well and fine-tuned the book during editing, the positive response of a reader to our book is never guaranteed.


Jay Stringer said...

Great post.

It was a tense time to be growing up. Some things which i'm sure will work out into my fiction at some point.

And the Berlin Wall is one of my fondest memories. It was on a TV screen, from the middle of britain, but it felt like something fundamental to all of us. I was talking to someone in the generation above me once, and she thought it was sad that she'd gotten the moon landing and what did my generation have? They can keep man walking on a bit of rock, I got to see the Wall come down.

Al Tucher said...

I appreciate a book that respects my intelligence and attention span enough to take its own time. The rule of thumb that the body has to appear in the first chapter always did drive me nuts.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Jay, I think it adds a dimension to our writing when things we've experienced can bleed through.

Al, I completely agree. It's pretty refreshing to read something that doesn't just connect the dots.