Sunday, December 11, 2005

Taking Risks

Two writers--Jack O'Rourke and J. Irvin Kuns--were kind enough to share their thoughts on risk-taking in response to my comments about taking risks in our work and not backing away from fear. (See "Diving Off the Edge," Nov. 13, 2005.)

Jack O’Rourke started the conversation:

"Chris Lynch ... takes a lot of risks in some of his work. Freewill comes to mind. Also a very early one, Gypsy Davy. Even a less literary one, Extreme Elvin, takes chances. For the joy of reading, Gold Dust scores high, even if less risky."

His comment--about a work that he felt required less risk--prompted J. Irvin Kuns to respond:

"I would like to address ... the element of risk involved in a book like Freewill vs. a book like Gold Dust, both written by Chris Lynch. I disagree with Jack’s implication that Gold Dust is less risky than Freewill mostly because I know a little bit about the impetus behind each of these books.

"Freewill came about in part as a result of the Columbine shootings and the placement of crosses for each of the victims, including the shooters. Gold Dust was written after Lynch ran into a former baseball teammate, the encounter forcing him to re-examine some rather uncomfortable childhood memories.

"To me, writing about the events surrounding something personal, especially one I’d rather not revisit, takes as much if not more courage than writing a book about an event that was somewhat more removed. But I also know that it was risky for Lynch to 'go there' with Will in the writing of Freewill and to live with him in his depressed state for the duration of the writing of the book.

"I haven’t had that much experience in novel writing, but I do know that each book I write changes me somehow. In light of that, I think it would be very scary indeed to write a book like Freewill. As a writer I think I would fear that I might never recover.

"So, I had been thinking a lot about Jack’s comments and finding myself unable to articulate exactly what was bothering me about them when I had the good fortune of meeting up with Chris Lynch at the recent NCTE convention. He was there to discuss his most recent young adult novel, Inexcusable, another very risky book as well as a National Book Award Finalist, no less.

"I asked him then which book, Freewill or Gold Dust, he thought was riskier. He immediately asked, 'For the reader or the writer?' My knee-jerk response was 'for the writer,' but after I thought about it, I realized that this was the distinction that was bothering me about Jack’s comment.

"Freewill may seem riskier for the reader, partly because it is written in second person and immerses the reader, from beginning to end, in Will’s depression. Gold Dust, on the other hand, might be easier on the reader, but I’m sure felt every bit as risky for the writer as did Freewill or any other book, for that matter."

For O'Rourke, though, the notion of risk is inherent in the choices an author makes in telling the story, such as those Lynch made to tell the story of Will in the rather unorthodox second-person point of view:

"I still have to say that Freewill is the riskier, both for the reader and the writer.

"For the writer there's the rarity and difficulty of writing in second-person point-of-view and keeping the reader engaged, demanding the reader interact with Will all the way through his depression, risking losing the reader who doesn't want to have Will lean on him/her all that terrible distance. It's my own salute to Lynch that he succeeded with me, but it was hard.

"Gold Dust, though, was an engrossing, spell-casting story all the way. There is rarely a character portrayed as fanatical about baseball and as likeable as Richard. Lynch's words propel this character through life in his Boston Ward with all the ease of last Olympic's gold medal girl who took her sledboard through all those pipes, half-pipes, and full flights with total confidence. I don't even like baseball, but I enjoyed Richard.

"Sure, Richard (white) has to face down racist talk/attitude from some locals about his friendship with Napoleon (West Indies black), and about Napoleon's friendship with the redhead, but I don't think that's taking very much risk with the reader today. I can't imagine anyone except maybe dispensable, non-reading Fifties retrogrades having problems today with such issues and how Richard navigates the situations.

"It wasn't delivered in the form of 'messages' either, it flowed smoothly with the story. Maybe I'm being too casual about the literary risk (not the story interest) of this conflict theme today, but I hope not. Kudos to Lynch."

But for Kuns the risk involves something different, not so much the stylistic risks that Lynch took but his willingness to risk exploring his feelings about a difficult, not entirely positive experience that he had in his life.

Here's what Lynch has written about the genesis of Gold Dust. (His comments appear in a HarperCollins flyer that Kuns shared with us.)

"The idea for Gold Dust came to me very slowly. In fact, it gestated in the back of my brain for 25 years. There are just some things, I think, that we bury among the trillions of small, important, and routine events of adolescence. And sometimes we bury them for significant reasons.

"The story here, and the character Napoleon, were based on my friendship with a guy named Michael Gray, who did in fact move to Boston from Dominica when we were about twelve. This was in the 70's. I was a catcher, and he was a pitcher who threw so hard I had to pack an extra inch of material inside my glove to protect my hand from the swelling. He'd learned the game by looking up the rules in a book the night before sign-up for the Regan Youth League. He joined because so many of us were doing it.

"That was the good stuff. The bad stuff, almost all of it, I had blocked out for years.

"In the 90's, Michael turned up in my life again, this time as the manager of my bank. One day during one or our banking conversations, Michael brought up the past. Didn't I remember? he wanted to know. Didn't I realize? He was talking about the one time the two of us got in a bit of a scrap. It hadn't come to much, but was unpleasant enough to attract the attention of all our mutual friends and admirers.

"Only the friends and admirers turned out to be not all that mutual. Not for him, anyway. Didn't I realize? he wanted to know two decades later. Didn't I notice?

"Michael turned into the invisible man after that fight. He was placed outside a glass wall. Inside the wall was almost everybody in my class, and me too. And there he was, the outsider. Totally ignored. Didn't exist.

"And I think I was the one who started it.

"After that, I started remembering. And I remembered that I remembered a lot more than I wanted to. And so, as a writer, I knew I had to go back. And that's Gold Dust."

Many thanks to Kuns and O'Rourke for pondering the nature of risk-taking as writers (and readers), and to Lynch, of course, for having the courage to "go back" and develop a seed of memory into a powerful work of fiction.

Have other Wordswimmers read or written stories that they feel take similar risks?

How would you define risk... for the writer? And how would the definition change, if at all... for the reader?

Do you think books that take risks are more significant than those that avoid risks? Why? (Or why not?)

Let Wordswimmer know when you get a chance.

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