Friday, December 14, 2018

Writing "A Christmas Carol"

It’s a common belief that every author at times suffers from writers’ block. In extreme cases, this inability to write supposedly drags on for years. The helpless sufferer stares at a blank page, unable to set pen to paper (these days, fingers to computer keyboard). Meanwhile, publishing contracts and the demands of eager readers go unmet as the author wrestles with inner demons.

In my experience, this view is a myth. Writers’ block does exist, but for me it indicates one of two things: either I’m trying to force a character to do something that’s convenient for me but wrong for that character, or I’m persisting with a story that doesn’t have enough depth or drama to carry a novel. Ideas, for me, are seldom the problem; they pour in regardless. But not all my ideas are equally good, and some lead me down rabbit holes or into deep woods, where my story becomes entangled in the branches.

In either case, the solution is simple: back off and give my subconscious permission to do its job. Sometimes it will throw up a great solution, and I’ll wonder how I could have been so blind. Sometimes I can prime the pump by writing whatever comes into my head until it stops looking like a swirl of mismatched threads and I start to see the underlying patterns. Sometimes it just takes a while for a character to reveal him- or herself. Sometimes I have to accept the inevitable, let go, and wait to discover a story that has more potential—or allow the existing one to sit for a while, until I understand what the book needs.

For other writers, as in Samantha Silva’s novel about Charles Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol, intervention requires an outside force. Her Charles Dickens isn’t suffering from writers’ block so much as a massive disinclination to turn his attention from the book of his heart—which, for the first time in his charmed authorial life, is failing to win the hearts and minds of his public—to the Christmas story that his publisher is urging him to write. Well, not urging so much as threatening to sink Dickens’ already shaky economic ship if Dickens refuses to comply. Harsh reality, needy relatives, and the specter of failure combine to send Dickens’ Christmas spirit—and soon, Dickens’ family—into flight, further complicating his efforts to juggle his own needs and the task imposed on him.

In our interview, Samantha Silva and I discuss the power of present and past loves, the tug between the real woman an author has married and the literary muse of his imagination, the effects of a traumatic childhood, the competing pressures of fame and the writer’s need for privacy, poverty and generosity and the difficulty caused by living beyond one’s means. Most of all, we talk about creating a beloved classic and finding the meaning of Christmas while doing so.

We don’t talk about writers’ block in so many words, because discussing how Silva’s fictional Dickens overcame his problem would spoil the plot of her light-hearted and imaginative exploration of the process by which Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future came into existence. But we dance around the topic throughout the interview, and Samantha has many fascinating things to say about Dickens himself, his books, and the psychology of authors. Definitely give it a listen as you dash from store to store. It will remind you of what the winter holidays are meant to be.

Last week I promised news about the New Books Network, but I didn’t expect how personal that news would turn out to be. The NBN has paired with the Literary Hub (LitHub), which will be listing selected NBN interviews as a Friday Feature. And the interview chosen to kick off the new partnership is—drum roll, please—this one! Which is especially appropriate when we consider that the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol’s publication is right around the corner: December 19, 2018. Dickens would, I’m sure, rejoice to see the extraordinary popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime extend into the technologies of the modern age.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Christmas is not looking bright for Charles Dickens. His latest novel has proven a massive flop, and that upstart William Thackeray doesn’t miss an opportunity to crow. Bills are rolling in, every relative in creation has his or her hand out, the kids (number steadily increasing) have their hearts set on expensive toys, and Mrs. Dickens has already started making plans for the most elaborate holiday party yet. Oh yes, and Dickens’ publisher is begging him to write a Christmas book when the spirit of Christmas seems to have packed up and moved to Scotland together with Dickens’ exasperated family.

Determined not to give in, Dickens moves to a cheap hotel, rents a room under the name Ebenezer Scrooge, dons the disguise of an old man, and roams the streets of London in pursuit of a mysterious young woman in a purple cloak. And surprise, by the time December 25 rolls around, Dickens has not only recovered his joie de vivre but penned what may be the world’s most beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.

In Mr. Dickens and His Carol, Samantha Silva takes events we all know from childhood and, through the application of a light touch and a gifted imagination, turns them into a story at once comfortably familiar and delightfully different.

Images: Charles Dickens in 1842 and the original frontispiece and title page of A Christmas Carol (1843) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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