“Novels live with you, and they are a problem. You can’t not write them. You couldn’t choose not to write a novel and it annoys you and it’s with you and it’s …and also, with a novel you know if you resolve this in some way that something in yourself will be resolved. It’s a kind of way of growing up, writing a novel.”
--Man Booker Prizewinner, novelist Anne Enright, in an interview with Ramona Koval of Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2008.
About Pale Surface…
Janey's first novel, The Pale Surface of Things, was published in Canada in June, 2007. Seven years in the writing, it led Janey on some interesting detours and adventures. . .
How did this book get written?
Beginning the Journey
For five winters, I went to Thailand and taught English and literacy to young Buddhist nuns (Maechee). I took very little with me: teaching tools for the nuns and one book for myself to read, and used jackets for the hilltribe children. I spent a lot of time thinking on the 4-hour songthao (pickup truck/bus) commute each teaching day, and a lot of time journaling on my days off. It’s an interesting way to meet yourself.
I was struck by how happy my students were, who had left their villages, had no possessions, shaved heads, no jewelry or trinkets, nothing but their present moment, in which they were learning skills of horticulture, sewing, crafts they could sell, and other ways of earning a living. English was another skill to help them to independence. They were the happiest people I’ve ever known, with no material possessions, and contrasted with the well-equipped backpackers staying in Chiang Mai and complaining about the injustice of being overcharged on a bus. There was a lesson there. It fascinated me. It seemed that having stuff was the curse, and the more we had, the less joy we felt. Not a new idea, but worth tasting, I thought.,
During year three, the book I brought to read was dull, but I had paper and pens. I began to catch a story about a young man leaving his wedding and going to a Cretan village. There was a little boy, his mother, an angry uncle, a monk (I changed him into a priest so he’d have a role in the village), and trouble with the nature of the mountain. That’s all I had, but that much came in the first day I wrote. Letting my pen wander, I wrote episodes that didn’t propel the story, but gave me information about the characters. I worked on it for two years. I finished one version, hated the trivial plot problems that had emerged, scrapped the last two/thirds and started over.
What was in the story that kept me looking? I didn’t know but it seemed part of my life’s quest. I kept writing on it, and when I was terribly ill and near death in 2001, I released the rest of my life but said, “I really wanted to know how my story ended…” and I fought to live.
Who Is Me?
People have asked me which character in the book is me. I think this is because it is hard to give credit to imagination’s working: if you wrote it, you must be it. It cannot be possible to understand and predict the behavior of someone else.
The easy answer is, they are all me. But it’s not true, of course. I’m not a young man; I hope I was never like Denise; these are characters drawn from a long lifetime of observing human behaviors, not always trying to understand why people behave as they do, just adding the data. When the characters rose as I needed them for the story, most of them had a fully formed set of characteristics and behaviors, and those included the quirks that made them individual and not just stereotypes.
Most of the characters arrived as general sketches, and their specific oddities came as the story needed them. The exception was Fr. Dimitrios, the present-day priest, who showed up on the page fully formed. His strengths, his emotional devotion to his grandfather and Crete, his unwillingness to “fit in” to his American boyhood, his strong desire to be of service, his relationship with Ellen (a bit careless of her feelings, assuming she was part of him and would be where he was in commitments), all were there from day one. In the years before I wrote Pale Surface, I had spent a good amount of time around Tibetan and Thai Buddhist monks and nuns and although none of them was like Fr. Dimitrios, they gave me a sample of people of greater or lesser commitments to an ordained life of service. There was information to draw on.
The hardest character to write was Douglas, because he was so passive at the beginning. My attention, and the reader’s, I assumed, would be drawn to a higher-energy character…and they were all higher-energy than poor Douglas to start with. The origin of the book was the question: what would it take to move someone like Douglas to a place of human community and compassion? I threw at him every lesson I could think of that would strip away his protections: shame, fear, terror, pain, gratitude…He needed them all.
At some time in the writing, I had to project myself into what each character would think or do in a situation, and it is surprising how easy that becomes by the time I had been working on the book for several years. So in that sense, I can become the characters, but it still stays separate: they are not me.
The Pale Surface of Things could have been set anywhere in the world that was “other” for Douglas’s character. Why did I pick Crete?
Some reasons I was conscious of, and some reasons didn’t occur to me until I was well into writing the book. I’m sure there are reasons that will occur to me in the years to come. Here’s what I knew:
- I had to choose a location I had been to and had some serious feeling for. Minoan Crete had fascinated me when I was growing up, because its art, the murals and the vase paintings, are possibly the most joyous of any culture’s. The lines of the tentacles of an octopus on a vase feel as if they are dancing. Borders swirl and bob. The figures leaping over bulls and walking in sacred processions seem to be having a wonderful time, and for a teenager, to drift into a place of such happiness was an important escape from modern adolescence. So Crete was an important place in my background.
- The places I had lived or spent much time were either in Scandinavia or in Southeast Asia, and in Scandinavia people are so courteous and shy that it is possible for a rude tourist to never understand that his actions were offensive. And in Asia, all those smiles cover a range of emotions from happy-to-see-you to I-might-like-to-throttle-you. And it’s hard to tell, even if you want to be a good guest. The place that I knew that seemed to say what it meant without worrying about hurt feelings was Crete.
- The other thing Crete offered was an enormous history, with layers of culture inviting my story to touch on them. It is one of the most fascinating places on earth, once you leave the coastal tourist strip behind.
What’s so special about Crete?
There are many layers to Crete, and they coexist. On one level, geographically, there’s the coastal touristic Crete strung along the shore, with the occasional monastery (Chrisoskalitissa, Moni Gonia, in the West, for example) and remote stretches where, in spite of the growth of tourist hotels one can still see the island as it has appeared to people for centuries, for millennia. The Rhodopou peninsula is one of those places.
The coastline is interrupted by the major cities of Crete, all of them ports: Chania, Rethimnon, Iraklion, Agio Nikolaos, Crete has always been linked to the sea.
So that’s the lowlands. As you proceed up the mountains, you meet ravines, the biggest being the Samaaria Gorge, you meet caves, you meet the geology of the limestone slopes. On those slopes are settlements, some as large as villages, some more isolated. You round a sweep in the road and suddenly find yourself face to face with a vista that appears to include the whole world. The island and the sea beyond it lie beneath your position and you may feel powerful or insignificant, or both, in the face of such majesty.
Culturally, all the periods of Cretan life have left reminders. There are the Minoan ruins, about 6,000 years old; there are Roman ruins; some Byzantine chapels stand unlocked, open to visitors; Venetian architecture fills the cities and their harbors; Turkish influences still show in the overhanging alcoves added to Venetian merchants’ homes to allow the Turkish women to see and not be seen; restaurants operating in the shells of buildings remind us of the German bombs that fell during World War II. All this history coexists with the newest car dealerships and tourist hotels.
The Mythical history of Crete is also still there: from Zeus, born in a cave on Mount Ida; to King Minos and his labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, the hideous child of his wife and a sacrificial bull; to the sacrifice of Athenian youth to that Minotaur; Theseus, son of the King of Athens slays the Minotaur, with the help of Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, who gives Theseus a sword and a ball of red thread to trail behind himself in the labyrinth so he can find his way back out. Then there’s Daedalus, the master metalsmith in Minos’s court, who wants to leave Crete. The king forbids it. Daedalus fashions wings for himself and his son, and they fly from the island, but his son, Ikarus, flies too close to the sun, his wings melt, and he falls into the sea, near the island of Ikaria. All the characters from these myths appear on hotel names, business signs, menus, in the names of mixed drinks. They all still live in the daily thought of the island.
The church and the pre-Christian myths live side-by-side on Crete. The Orthodox church has been part of life on Crete since Saint Paul landed there to preach. Christian miracles and Christian history are woven into the fabric along with the the pre-Christian myths and tales.
Villages build chapels even today. There are chapels standing alone on mountainsides, chapels near or in villages, churches, cathedrals, monasteries, each with a story to tell. The oldest remaining icons on the walls of Cretan churches date to the 10th century, 1100 years ago. The Cretan style of icon painting was and is highly regarded, and one of the leading artists of the West was an icon painter born and trained on Crete: El Greco.
All this detail, together with the rituals of traditional village life, was available to the story as soon as it was set on Crete. One reviewer said Crete was a character in the story, and he wasn’t wrong. The characters in the story interact with what is Cretan, whether it is nature or man-made, current or remembered history. It’s all there.
For much more information about Janey’s novel, see www.palesurfaceofthings.com