What was Kafka’s idea of a good book?
October 8, 2018
Caleb Pirtle III
We need to write stories that deeply affect people, whether it’s with humor, love, mystery, the unknown, or grief.
I have never thought much about the kind of book I write. Maybe I should.
It seems that so many of the legendary writers we read and revere studied, examined, and analyzed their novels, tore them apart scene by scene and often character by character, carefully putting them back together again in order to maintain a book that reflected their style and their identity.
I always thought I wrote mysteries.
And occasionally I wrote a thriller.
At least that was my intent.
I don’t think I have studied, examined, or analyzed my craft or my novels nearly enough.
I was comfortable with the top layer.
I didn’t peel back enough bottom layers.
I didn’t dig deeply enough.
I had never thought much about it until I recently read a quote by Franz Kafka. His thoughts were tucked away in a letter he wrote to a school friend in 1904. He said: I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
That’s pretty strong stuff.
But he’s right. It’s not necessary to write novels as dark as those penned by Kafka, but writers do need to write stories that deeply affect people, whether it’s with humor, love, mystery, the unknown, or grief.
Sherwood Anderson taught Hemingway that it was all right to write about common, ordinary people. I think my goal in a book is to take common, ordinary people and throw them in uncommon, unordinary circumstances, stir the pot and see who wins or loses.
For me, it’s all about the backstory. What is happening at the moment revolves strictly around the secrets that have shrouded my character’s past: the pain, the grief, the mistakes, the faults, his loves, his loves lost, his loves thrown away, his compulsions, his obsessions, and his memories, both good and bad. They all dictate what he does next: when he runs, when he fights, and why he tries to love and finds it so hard to love and winds up alone again. He hates being alone, but it is an old familiar feeling he well understands.
For example, in Back Side of a Blue Moon, here is the backstory of Doc Bannister as told by his old mentor and partner, Waskom Brown:
Doc was twenty-five years old before he crossed paths with Waskom in a Hot Springs house of ill repute, and Doc would be dead as hell if Waskom hadn’t come along when he did.
A man peddling doodlebugs to farmers, who prayed for oil now that the water had dried up, needed a partner if only to drive the getaway car, and getaway cars were not always plentiful when the doodlebug exploded and sprayed sand instead of oil across the stunted cotton stalks. If that black doodlebug box, filled with wires, dials, lights, buzzers, and whistles, could have found oil, then Doc would have been a rich man instead of a wanted man, and those who wanted him were usually dead set on killing him. They had burned or buried a lot of his doodlebugs along the way and were always within an eyelash of burying Doc.
Instead, he was on the run, traveling from one con to the next scam, and the back roads could run out pretty fast for a man during the troublesome patchwork years of the 1930s. He could find only two things at the bottom of a hole in those days, oil or worms.
I would like to write more humor. I have always said that writing humor is exactly the same as writing horror. The build-up is identical. You simply change the punch line.
I’ve tried. My punch line is always dark.
I would like to write about romance. But I don’t understand it. Never have. I’ve been in love with the same woman for fifty years. I understand us. I always have problems tossing a little romance into my character’s miserable life.
My hero meets girls. He wines and dines girls. He protects girls. He feels responsible for girls. He will even kill for them. But, usually, when the novel ends, she’s not with him anymore.
I’ve tried to change that in Back Side of a Blue Moon. For once, when I wrote down the final sentence – the love interest, Eudora Durant, had refused to leave.
I’ve been waiting for the right girl.
Maybe that’s Eudora.
I am now finishing the sequel to Back Side, and she’s still in love and still in the novel.
I keep waiting for her to leave.
She’s shown no signs of saying goodbye.
What have I done wrong?
Then again, what have I done right for a change?
Please click HERE to find Back Side of a Blue Moon on Amazon.