Thursday, January 28, 2010

Annie Proulx's dialogue

I've just finished That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. The novel is set in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandles in present day, and Proulx does two things that I think are wonderful and one thing I find off-putting. Let me talk about one of the things I like in this post, and I'll discuss the others later.

Proulx is a marvel in her ability to write dialogue that sounds like dialect without resorting to phonetic spelling. Here, taken at random, is an example (actually it's taken from page 132):

"Jesus... That's a little harsh, weld a man's gates. Could be he don't have no money. I hear their place is for sale. Anyway, when I was out there it was hot enough to loosen the bristles on a wild hog and Mrs. Wilcox gave me a glass a cold buttermilk. Best thing I ever drank. So I don't want to give them trouble."

I take it back on the phonetic spelling. She does use "a" for "of" and "awl" for "oil" and "Amarilla" for "Amarillo," but she uses it so lightly it does not become a distraction--or did not for me. One more example, a woman talking about another character on page 179:

"He was. Vain as a peacock. Wrote poetry too. Horse poetry and stuff about sunsets. Made your skin crawl to listen to him recite. He had a voice like a woman. They say a horse kicked him the Adam's apple when he was a boy. Some say the kick was lower down."

Friday, January 22, 2010

The questions they ask!

Although I had been extensively briefed to lead a tour in Japan, and although I've read extensively about Japanese history, Japanese culture, Buddhism, Shinto, Japanese gardens, and although I had already visited and was familiar with many of the sites the tour group would be visiting, I was not prepared for the questions people asked.

They did not ask about the subjects on which I was prepared: What is a bodhisattva? When did Buddhism come to Japan? Why don't Japanese gardens have flowers?

They asked things like: Why are some Japanese license plates yellow and some white? Why are the Japanese so polite? And—an example I used in the book—what kind of flower is this? A friend who has led many, many more tours of Japan probably has more arcane knowledge about the country than most natives because he's been asked so many off-the-wall questions...and has taken the time to find the answers.

I was talking about this with a tour guide in Italy, and she agreed that tour members could ask surprising questions. She once explained the Roman bus system to a group and said, "When you want to get off at your stop, push the red button to signal the driver."

A member of her group held up her hand and asked, "Can you describe the red button?"'s red...and it's round...and you push it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Japanese dialogue in English

Writing dialogue in fiction art?...a talent?...a skill? All of the above? It is tricky because it should sound like speech, but it cannot be an exact reproduction of speech. Real speech is full of verbal tics, dropped thoughts, repetition, and extra words. If you've ever read an exact transcript of ordinary people speaking you know how boring it can be.

Adding to the challenge is that ideally every character should have his/her own way of expressing himself/herself. His own vocabulary, turn of phrase, level of usage, and more. In a way, Japanese writers have it easy because there are words that only men use and words that only women use. Also by verb endings and other grammatical markers, it is clear whether a superior is talking to a social inferior, a man to a woman, an adult to a child, and more. It means that Japanese fiction does not (usually) need a lot of "he said/she said" to make it clear who is speaking and the relationship between the characters.

Another challenge I had in Getting Oriented—beside trying to give each character his/her own voice—was to distinguish the times when the main character was speaking in English and when he was speaking in Japanese or being spoken to in Japanese. I didn't want to clutter the pages with words few readers would understand, so I've put all of the "Japanese" dialogue into italics. And to make that dialog sound different, I tried (not always successfully) to first construct the sentences in Japanese and then translate them into English. I think—I hope—this gives the Japanese dialogue a different feeling than the English exchanges.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Will Miss/Won't Miss Things About Japan

One of the blogs I've been following faithfully is 1000 Things About Japan. The author is an American woman who has lived in Japan for about 18 years. She lives in Tokyo and teaches English in her apartment. A year or so ago she announced in an earlier blog that she and her American husband had decided to return to the States and that she would begin a daily blog of things she will miss/won't miss about life in Japan after she's left.

As a recent example of something she will miss: "About a three-minute walk from my apartment, there's a dingy little restaurant which uses buckets of red hot coals to cook its food. In the evening, when they are in full service mode, these buckets are sitting outside full of glowing coals and the air is filled with the heavenly scent of grilled food which is made with them. The smell is distinctive and extremely enticing. I'll miss the lovely scent of this old-fashioned cooking style and having a chance to encounter it often."

And something she won't miss: "Because of the long, humid summer and generous amounts of rain in Tokyo, I always have problems with spices and salt caking into lumps. While I keep most of my spices in the refrigerator, I simply do not have the space to keep everything in it and the result is having to whack the counter with the jars to try and break up the inevitable bricks that form. What makes it worse is the fact that spices are pretty expensive in Japan so wasting them can mean losing an investment. I won't miss my spices and salt forming bricks and blobs and becoming unusable because of the weather"

She accompanies each brief post with a picture, and I find her observations about everyday, ordinary life in Japan fascinating. And I'm fascinated that she seems to notice everything. I will miss her blog when she returns to the States...although at that point, perhaps she'll begin writing about the things she notices in everyday, ordinary life in America.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Nara Celebrates Its 1300th Anniversary

Until around 600 CE, Japan did not have a set capital. We don't know for sure because the Japanese had no written language until they were exposed to Chinese by Buddhist monks who had come across the Sea of Japan from southern Korea. Among the monks' ideas was that of a capital city and Nara was one of the first.

This year, Nara is celebrating its 1,300th anniversary. It has reconstructed the eighth-century palace that was leveled when, upon the death of the emperor, the capital was moved to Kyoto in 784 CE. The government has also built a life-size replica of a ship that carried Japanese envoys to and from Tang China.

So this is a good year to visit Nara. You can check out the New York Times story. This is, after all, the city with the largest wooden building in the world that houses a bronze buddha that is larger than the one in Kamakura, the Daibutsu in the Todaiji.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Introduction to the book and the author

Getting Oriented is a novel set in Japan. The action follows a group of ten American tourists as they visit Kyoto, Nara, Hakone, Nikko, and Tokyo. Their guide is Philip Fletcher, recently down-sized and whose wife had been killed in an accident a year and a half before the novel opens. Phil speaks Japanese and is offered the tour-guide job by an old college buddy.

I wrote the novel because I am fascinated by Japan, Japanese culture, American responses to the culture, and because I was interested in the way a group of strangers react to each other and to a foreign culture. I plan to use this blog to talk about Japan, Japanese, and writing.