The Mountain of Writing

A week ago, I had occasion to travel over the mountains to Bend, OR and meet with RG Coleman, a wonderful person who has written about AIRSTREAMING for me, and who is a writer herself. She told me that people have been dissuading her from writing a novel, and that it wasn’t something that she was comfortable with. I told her to write, write the novel, and don’t let anyone tell you not to.

To me, the act of writing is an act of discovery on so many levels.

When I was young, I used to climb mountains like a mountain goat: fast, with a lack of trepidation, and a need to get there in a hurry. I was unburdened by pain, shortened breath, or a heavy pack. I just climbed mountains out of a need to get to the top, take a look around and then spy the next one that needed conquering. I was no mountaineer, mind you, but enjoyed what hiking brought me in the form of solitude, the chance to think, and the need for perseverance.

Writing a novel is much like climbing a mountain. It’s like putting one foot in front of the other to get to the top, taking a look around/or at yourself, and then going back down the mountain until you are finished, spent and worn out, but changed by the experience.

The first novel I wrote, my writing sessions wore on deep into the night and early mornings. I worked in utter darkness; my Macintosh SE screen the only thing lighting the room. I wanted that claustrophobic feeling that permeated the book, and the darkness worked. Trusting the body to bounce back in the morning for my regular job was not an issue. I was young. Four years seemed like nothing. And it took me 3.75 percent of those years to get to the mountaintop to figure out the ending of the book, and only another .25 percent to finish it.

First books are like your first trip up a mountain. Your need of conquering it, of proving to yourself that you CAN do it overwhelms the experience of actually hiking it.

The second book’s genesis was relatively shorter at two years. But I wrote furiously because I was writing about death, and about its transcendence, and thinking about all the friends, lovers and family that HIV/AIDS affected. It had to be a shorter period of time to live in that space because it was so entirely dark, and a hard place to be. I lived like a monk in those two years. No dates, no sex, no interaction with potential lovers and people. I only ventured out with a few friends, and I kept people at bay as best I could despite still having to work. The metaphor of the mountain works here too, if you want to spread it on thick: the vast openness of land, the space between civilization and nothingness, the claustrophobia of trees and granite’s destitution.

The time it took to write THE NARROWS, MILES DEEP was like a sprint comparatively. But reaching the top was fraught with torn-up chapters, deleted scenes and characters, an entirely thrown out manuscript. Getting to the top was an emotional journey deepened with depression. All around me friends were dying, and their ghosts fueled the hours of writing the book. But once it was finished, I put it away. No one read it. I was too raw from writing furiously, and didn’t want people to see my darkness. I’ve always felt the book was of a time, but now it seems relevant again if only because I’m getting older, and people are dying again from all sorts of things and leaving me behind.

If the first two books seemed like weekend hiking adventures, or even a day hike, by comparison, AIRSTREAMING was like a 10-year trek across the Himalayas. It took that long. The act of writing this book needed the time, and the experiences I had during that time to resonate with me. I started the book as you would climbing up the mountain: fresh, invigorated by a new challenge, and a different path. But I was older now, and after the first quarter of the novel, I ran out of breath. I’m not sure why, but looking back, I believe that I wasn’t sure about what to say. My memories had dried up. And, more importantly, I wanted to tell a story that was outside of myself, which was my main focus.

Over the years, there were fits and starts up the mountain. I returned to the manuscript and finished a chapter, the switchbacks got steeper and seemed endless. Life got messy. The story was always churning around in the back of my mind, however, and so I’d go to the manuscript every so often and write a sentence or two. Then my life got to a point where I was either going to finish or abandon the work altogether. Luckily, I’m not the type to abandon projects. I’m older now and shorter of breath, but I can still do some heavy lifting. And the strange thing that happened was that AIRSTREAMING ended up being about me on some important levels.

To Rhonda I say this with all the hope in the world:

Writing a novel is putting one sentence in front of the other. It’s as simple as that, and as difficult. Reaching the summit of your dreams, and giving yourself over to the downslope of getting them on paper is hard. Letting go of a novel into the ether is harder still. But there is another mountain ahead, and it’s getting near time to lace up my boots.

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The Palisades – The Landscape of Big Sur

I’ve spent many days in Big Sur. I’ve been drawn to it for years given its many moods and changing landscapes due to the weather. No other place exists in my mind where the landscape is as disarming and mysterious when the fog rolls in. Landscape plays a big role in the characters of my novel, The Palisades. The fog permeates the book just as rain permeates the series, The Killing. Setting a mood and tone for a book or television series is much the same – people reflect the places they live in – some in mercurial ways, some in placid, more passive ways.

In using fog as much as I do in The Palisades, I wanted the reader to begin to feel claustrophobic in the lives of the characters. In essence, to wrap them in their stories and not let them out until each of them make their final decisions. I wanted the reader to feel the fog lift and dissipate when the characters worked out what they needed to do and it was fun to work in that mode. I remember vividly the act of writing much of The Palisades late into the night – working after hours in darkness to get at that feeling of closeness and only being aware of the small space surrounding me.

When I went to revise the book after many years after working with my terrific editor, Amberly Finarelli, I paid particular attention to character’s motivations as it related to what was happening in and around them weather-wise. But I also didn’t want to overdo it and found myself removing sentences and descriptions that went too far. It’s important to ground the reader in the character’s existence but not to drown them in detail. It’s a fine line, and I fight the urge to overdo description constantly.

If I’ve done it right, however, then landscape becomes a sort of character unto itself, and it informs the novel and its characters, and it enhances meaning, which is the most important thing writing description, in my mind, can do.

The pleasure of remembering those days in Big Sur, where my skin sparkled with dense fog, and the landscape changed in an instant when the fog rolled away or swept over the hills remains vivid. I think this book is finding an audience as it’s continuing to sell well despite a definite lack of marketing effort on my part. But I do love this book – it meant a great deal to me as I wrote it, and it gains more meaning as time passes.

A note: The cover photograph of the novel was taken nearly 30 years ago on a camping trip with my friend, Sean Galland, a fellow photographer. I had it drum-scanned to digital for safe keeping over the years and finally put it to good use since it fit the mood of the book so nicely!

Airstreaming and The Palisades are now available on Nook

For all you Barnes and Noble¬†NOOK ¬†owners, and I hope you’re legion, both of my novels, AIRSTREAMING and THE PALISADES are now available on NOOK. I didn’t realize how easy it was to put them up there, but there they are.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/airstreaming-tom-schabarum/1108841305?ean=2940014323697&itm=7&usri=airstreaming

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/palisades-thomas-schabarum/1102517438?ean=9780615347899&itm=3&usri=the+palisades