I’ve been out of touch for a hella long time now, up in Leipzig too full of teaching (much more time-consuming than some may have you believe—particularly if you’re raising a 2-year-old at the same time) to write anything here, much less write a word of my next novel. Now, though, in Budapest for the holiday and with a few minutes to spare, I wanted to finally deliver that long-overdue report on how things are going at the University of Leipzig.
Despite some adjustment difficulties, Leipzig has turned out to be a lovely city—a wonderful walkable center, ideal public transport, polite, clean, and chock-full-of culture. I wish I had the time to get to know it better. And the teaching has been going very well. I now see why so many writers do it. That weekly connection to a room full of people carries with it a social exhilaration that the novelist’s life rarely affords. It doesn’t hurt that my students are by and large terrific, and interested in what we’re studying.
The Spy Novel has been interesting. I entered the classroom with pretty much no idea how to communicate my love for these books, but figured that it would become clear soon enough. I was right and wrong. After a few classes varying from successful to, at one point, a dismal failure full of long dreaded silences, a student raised her hand and asked if I’d be open to taking some pointers. Of course I would—anything, please. After class, seven students hung around and shared their wisdom.
The problem, particularly with that failed session, was that I’d assumed the book we’d read was so hot, so entertaining and thought-provoking, that everyone would have something to say (it is, after all, a seminar—not a lecture). The book was Greene’s The Quiet American, and I was completely wrong. The students found it slow and not very entertaining at all. Turns out none of them saw the humor in what I think is a book full of laugh-out-loud lines. Thanks to the students who stayed behind to lecture me, I learned that part of the problem was background—they just didn’t know what was going on when the book was taking place, and I hadn’t bothered to tell them. Whoops. Also, they suggested simple things, like using the board (oh, so that’s the big thing behind me) to write up characters’ names and themes and perhaps even plot outlines.
It wasn’t a long list of suggestions, just a few basics, but I’ve found they make all the difference. Even while reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—a longtime fave of mine that, again, just baffled/bored them (only two out of 35 actually finished it)—I was able to use this small tool-set to work through the entire story, chapter-by-chapter, and (hopefully) shed some light on it.
By far the most appreciated book, interestingly enough, has been Charles McCarry’s brilliant The Miernik Dossier. It’s such a good novel, and it provoked some real discussion and excitement. Right now we’re halfway through Deighton’s Berlin Game, and in January and the first week of February we’ll look at Alan Furst’s Kingdom of Shadows and someone else’s The Tourist. Now, it wasn’t my plan to teach my own book, but on the first day the students told me it was a little disappointing that I wasn’t going to be discussing my own work, so I redrafted the syllabus—kicking out poor Ian Fleming and his From Russia With Love to make room for me and my ego.
The Collaborative Novel has been an entirely different beast. We have a much smaller group—10 students—and from the first day we began to write. Though I have tried a couple times, I don’t really lecture on aspects of writing—I would, but there’s no time. We meet once a week for 90 minutes—in that time we’re supposed to critique 3 chapters and then outline the three next chapters (now we’re up to 6 chapters or more at a time) while pitching ideas for the direction of the whole story. In fact, we’re usually critiquing until nearly the end of class and have no time to plan out the next chapters.
This, again, is my fault for not running things with an iron fist and a stopwatch, but it’s also a reflection of how the students have quickly become engaged in the project. Opinions lead to discussions which sometimes lead to arguments—all this because there’s a certain level of passion in this class, the understanding that this group endeavor means something to them. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. I hope they’re getting something out of it.
It’s not easy, of course. Getting ten people to agree on anything is a hassle, and we often resort to a quick vote to make decisions. Ten people means ten ideas of what a good story is and what good writing is. In this latter issue I try to be the tyrant, marking up first drafts with my militant “show don’t tell” and “don’t tell us what the reader already knows” rules. But there’s a deeper issue at work—the fact that a work of art is largely defined by a single person’s view of the world, something we can’t really do in our situation.
The story itself? Well, as I am with my own work, I’ll leave it a secret until it’s done. But it’s an interesting tale that has gradually moved into the realm of mystery/spy fiction (without my prodding, I swear!). We’re deep in the second act now, juggling five POVs (I sort of wish I’d put my foot down at the beginning and insisted on 1 or 2 POVs, but there you go), and with a lot of inconsistencies and loose ends we’re going to be hard-pressed to get straight before the end of the semester (the first week of February)—but I have a sneaking suspicion we’re going to make it.
Some other things have been happening since I last posted in September—I lost the Silver Dagger Award in London (among film & TV stars galore! what a way to lose), got myself a Kindle (which I’m quite digging), and dealt with the copyedits and page proofs of my next book, The Nearest Exit. Busy, busy. If I get a chance I’ll post some words on these other things, but in the meantime I hope you’re all getting revved up for a lovely holiday.