Is love complicated or is it simple?
In The Third Angel, set in three sections in the 90's, the 60s, and the 50s, all in the same London hotel, it can be both at the same time.
I didn't realize until after I was through writing, that the novel could be read backwards or forwards and that a reader's understanding and knowledge of the story and the characters would be hugely different depending on what he or she knew or didn't know about the past.
In the first section of the novel, a writer named Allie Heller writes a book for children that can be read forwards or backwards. Every family has a family mythology --- Allie's story is one that her mother told her and her sister when they were children. In it a heron has two wives --- one on earth, the other in the sky. He doesn't mean to betray either, but in the end, he will.
How does he choose between them? Who does he love? It all depends on how you read the story. Allie's book isn't in the novel, and hasn't existed until now, but I don't think she'd mind if I shared it with you. After all, if you've read The Third Angel you know everything about her already.
A few nights ago, a night heron woke me in the dark, crying outside my bedroom. I can tell you for certain, his cries were some of the most human sounds I have ever heard.
The Heron's Wife
Out of Nowhere
She was standing in the marsh and everything was blue. Water, clouds, reeds. He was a heron in the sky, then he fell to earth and was human. They believed love could be simpler than it seemed.
Out of the Darkest Night
When he was in her house everything outside was hazy. Snow, fences trees. His broken wing had become a broken arm. His life in the sky had become tea, biscuits, a bed with blue sheets. There was a past, but it was far away. They believed love could be too strong to fight.
Out of the Blue
She was high above them so she could see everything clearly. House, laundry on the line, pillowcases, sheets, shirts that were his size. When a heron cries the salt falls to the earth below. The world of the air meant nothing to her. She couldn't taste anything but her own blood. She tried to be human, pulling out her feathers, but there were too many and she was unchanged. She believed love was everlasting.
Out of Mind
He saw the feathers on the ground. Blood, bone, blue. He remembered things that the fall to earth had shaken out of his mind. He thought of nests, heartbeats, wind, her body beside his. He believed he had made a promise, but to whom had it been spoken?
Out of Honor
He couldn't ignore the before just to get to the after. He had seen a trail of blood, feathers plucked from her own chest. He cast off his cloak and became who he'd been before. The earth became distant, but he could hear it calling him back. He believed he could leave and never look back, even though he saw it spinning, so beautiful and blue, whenever he closed his eyes.
Out of Hope
She waited every day. She waded far out in the water. Crabs, shadows, songbirds. She took the feathers she found on the ground and sewed them to her dress. She pinned them to her shoes, her hair, her coat. She climbed into the highest tree, where the branches shook in the wind. She looked like blue leaves about to rise. She looked like heartbreak, faith, desire. Why wouldn't he love her, come back to her? Why couldn't she fly away? She believed she could find him, but more than that, she believed in fate.
Out of Ashes
They both saw him, his wife on the earth and his wife beside him, and then they didn't. He was between them and then he wasn't. Hunters shot him as though he were a crow, as though no one had ever loved him, yearned for him, mourned him. The sky looked smaller than it ever had. A cloud stretched across the earth. They had believed love would keep him safe.
Out of Somewhere
They were standing in the marsh and everything was blue. Water, clouds, reeds. They did this every day. His wife on earth and his heron wife. They never spoke. They didn't have to. They believed love was more complicated than it seemed.
The Third Angel Arrives on Tuesday April 8th, 2008.
A novel is formed in so many ways, from so many pieces of a writer's life and consciousness, but The Third Angel began in a hotel in London in the summer of 2004. My UK publisher put me up in a hotel in Knightsbridge for a book tour. It was hot that summer and the rooms were broiling. There were air-conditioners perched on stands, vented through hoses in the open window - so that the hot air continued to stream through.
That first night as I slept fitfully I heard an argument in the hall. I looked at the clock. It was ten thirty. I was jet-lagged, over-heated, exhausted. The argument went on. I got out of bed. But when I went to look I discovered my door had no peephole. I put my ear to the door. A man was shouting.
If I opened the door, I might be thrust into the middle of a vicious argument, I stood there not knowing what to do, then the voices stopped.
I went to bed.
The next day I went to an exhibit that one of the characters in the Third Angel goes to - a beautiful, heartbroken display at Kensington Palace. It was still hot, sticky, overcast.
I went to bed that night. Still not sleeping well, still jet-lagged, still thinking about love gone wrong and betrayals. At last I fell asleep. And then, the argument began. I looked at the clock. Ten. Another argument. I heard the man in the hall. Did I get up and throw open my door? Or did I stay in bed, hope for peace and quiet, finally sleep?
Who was that out in the hall? On the first night, the second night, and then again, on the third night, on every night of my stay at the hotel? I began to get used to the voice, wait for it, be lulled to sleep by it - it had come to seem normal, a regular part of the day, like breakfast or tea.
It slowly dawned on me that a loop was being replayed, again and again. It was the same argument out in the hall, unseen, but passionate. This was the beginning of the Third Angel. What happened out in the hotel hallway years earlier, what haunts us, what we can't forget even when we try, what redeems us is at the heart of the novel.
A summer night in London. A hotel where it is possible to get lost and to lose someone you love. Do you open the door or not? I didn't then, but now I do.
Welcome to the Lion Park Hotel. The doors open today.
Who is the Muse?
If the third angel is an unexpected blessing on earth, the person who by the very act of your generosity saves you in return, then is the muse the third angel for an artist?
There are those, like Jamie Dunn, the musician in The Third Angel who can't write and is in a desperate search for a muse, who believe a muse is a person who will inspire. There are others, like Frieda, the young woman Jamie is convinced is his muse, for whom experience itself is the muse. The act of living, of being in love, of loss, all work together to help Frieda produce a perfect poem/song.
The greatest writing teacher of the century, Albert J. Guerard, my beloved mentor, believed that every writer and artist has a voice, and that voice is made up of experience, readings, dreams, along with, and most especially, childhood readings and experience. Your childhood is within you. It's part of the muse, subconsciously or consciously. It's in everything you do, part of your imagination's DNA.
All this adds up to another puzzle in The Third Angel:
Who is the boy on the train from London to Edinburgh who helps Lucy return to the living after she witnesses the accident in London?
He's mentioned throughout the book. Later in life, he becomes a great, unique artist. Although he may not have been on that exact train, he often went to Edinburgh as a child to visit relatives. When he was twelve or so he did compose the book he is writing and illustrating while on the train, Anthology, a reworking of the books he loved, including the Alice books. Perhaps Lucy influenced him as well, and years later he wrote about her, perhaps even long after he'd forgotten meeting her. Maybe he only remembered her name and a train ride and the stories he loved which had gotten him through his own troubles with loss and love.
As for me, I found that many people who I had admired and who had influenced me while I was growing up arrived in the pages of The Third Angel, as if they had minds of their own. The music you listen to, the books you read, the paintings you love, all become part of you, and, as an artist or writer, a part of your work.
I was twelve when I went to the Plaza Hotel and waited outside with hundreds of other fans in the mad hope that we might catch a glimpse that boy on the train. Every time a curtain moved, we all screamed, hopeful. My mother took me there, she was that sort of person, as much a friend as a mother, a fan of the boy on the train as well. We stood outside the Plaza until it became clear the hotel employees were at the windows, shaking the curtains, having their fun with the fans.
I didn't see him that day, but it really didn't matter. My mother and I went for coffee somewhere on Fifth Avenue.
"To hell with it," she said to me. "Let's just imagine we saw him."
Thank you so much to everyone who sent in comments to my new website. I so appreciate the kind words and thoughts and I'm delighted to hear so many people are looking forward to the arrival of The Third Angel.
Sometimes, when I'm at work on a book I forget anyone will ever read it. I've often wondered if that's what allows me the freedom to write - a detachment from the future of the book at the time I'm working on it. The idea of publishing and being public with what has been created in private can stop writers from going forward. I knew a woman who couldn't finish her novel because she was afraid of what her mother would think. This writer decided she would have to wait for her mother to die before she could publish. Good luck or bad - the novel died long before the writer's mother ever did.
The novel becomes the world that I live in. The creation of that other world -- and the characters who live there--is very personal and very private. I don't discuss my work when I'm writing. I know too many people who have "talked out" a book, confused themselves with other people's perceptions during that delicate time when it's all too easy to throw a novel away.
Once a book is finished, there it goes, into the real world where it will mean different things to different people. Many thanks for all the support, kindness, and messages that have meant so much to me.
More about the secrets inside the new novel next time.
----- with gratitude,
For me, a novel isn't autobiographical in "real time" - but my life is there, transfigured by fiction. I think of a novel the way analysts deconstruct a dream - the dreamer is every character in his or her dream, including the cat and the dog. Or, think of it this way: Your life is a mirror. You throw it down on the ground. It shatters into thousands of pieces. You can never recreate the mirror as it was, but each piece is still a part of the mirror, a part of the writer's life.
For me, reality in art is a false construct. We are creating life from ink, print, paper and wanting characters to "feel" like flesh and blood. Can you fall in love with a fictional character? Absolutely. Can you detest one? Certainly. Can one renew your faith? I think so.
Here is another clue to the identity of The Third Angel.
At the edge of the woods there was a cave. No one went there. As a matter of fact, the people in my town took the long way, around the woods, just to avoid it. A monster lived inside. He was seven feet tall.
When people began to fall ill they blamed the damp weather, the ruined crops, each other, and then they blamed the monster. I was one of the people who went after him. I had a knife, a lantern, a silver star to protect me from evil. My child had fallen ill. I was filled with something I thought was righteousness. It was thick and poisonous and it led me to the woods with a hundred other righteous men.
I got lost in the dark. I stumbled and the others left me behind. They forgot me. When I called out they couldn't hear me. But something did. The monster came out from a cave. He was a bear, seven feet tall. He had been hunted and had a fear of humans, but I had dropped my lantern, my knife, my star. I had the chance to look into his eyes before the people from town circled around. I imagined the woods without people, our lives without boundaries, the night without fear, the town without sick children, the world where we could live together. I turned to the people I had known all my life.
Imagine, I said.
Novels have inside stories and outside stories, sometimes more than one. There are stories that reveal themselves all at once, and others that are a puzzle. My new book The Third Angel is filled with secrets. Some characters keep secrets from the people they love best. Some keep them from themselves.
Here is a clue to the identity of the Third Angel. Sign my guestbook and I'll send out other clues.
I heard something at my window. I thought it was snow falling, or birds calling, or branches hitting against the glass. I had been betrayed by someone I loved. Because of that I was sick of human race. All I could think of was how people went behind your back, lied to you, gave you gifts that looked like gold but were made of straw.
I heard it again at my window. I knew someone wanted to come in. I wondered if I had lost my soul, if someone or something had now been sent to collect it. I had most certainly lost something in being betrayed. I couldn't find it again because I didn't know what it was.
I thought I heard someone say my name even though the window was closed. Not the name I went by now, but my childhood nickname, a name I didn't use anymore. I looked out and saw a man. It was cold. The sky was filled with stars. I had one thing left from the person who had betrayed me. A black coat. When I thought of him I thought of that coat and how he looked in it. Now I grabbed it from the closet and brought it outside. The man in the snow was waiting for someone to save him, so I did. I helped him on with the coat.
When he walked away I thanked him for his gift. Now when I thought of that coat I wouldn't remember my betrayer. Instead I'd think of the man in the snow and the way he came to save me.