The writer and the storyteller

I’m going to a writers’ retreat in a rustic and charming place on the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington. It’s March. The light is that earnest bright shade of springtime when I pack my paraphernalia into the trunk of my car, early on the morning of my departure. Before I start the car, I put in a single CD which will play on repeat all the way through the six-hour drive ahead of me. “The Eessential Leonard Cohen”

Falling in love with Leonard

Leonard Cohen head shotI discovered Leonard Cohen late in life – so late as to be practically afterwards, as a character in a sitcom once described a boyfriend’s announcement. At some point, I heard k d lang perform “Hallelujah”, a song I’d never heard before which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I listened to this version, and then listened to it again and again and again and again. When I discovered that it belonged to Leonard Cohen and heard it for the first time in his own voice, fell in love. Hard. With his music. With the poetry of his lyrics. With his soul.

It was no accident I picked that particular CD to play me into a weekend at a writer’s retreat far away from the distractions of anything except the Word. Leonard Cohen’s songs are something that stirs my mind and my heart

They’re ALL stories. Some of them aren’t comprehensible at the level of the lyrics because those words are just glorious jigsaw pieces in themselves, and it isn’t your brain that puts them together into the pictures and the stories which they end up making inside of you, it’s your heart, and your spirit, and your soul.

“Suzanne” takes me out of my driveway and I’m on my way, the perfect body of those lyrics touching my mind, telling me to trust this, to trust the story that he tells me now and that I will start telling when I sit down with my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop. “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy” – the latter with its strange calliope music in the background that makes me think of abandoned carnival spaces after the carnies have left and all the lights have been turned off for the ghosts to start roaming free – follow me onto the highway.

I pass the open fields which spill by the sides of the road while belting along with Leonard to “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” and “So long, Marianne”. I remember reading about the real Marianne, Leonard’s love and his muse, and about the letter he wrote to her when she was dying, the letter that made my heart clench, because this man with his hoarse raspy voice and his half disillusioned and half angelically optimistic soul is a nonpareil poet and someone who truly understood love. All of it, even the dark side.

I can sing along with him and laugh and cry about it all again, right there with him, with Marianne whom I never met but who is in the car with me, with Leonard and his voice and his poetry and his memories, with all the stories which are starting to bud and flower and intermingle in the car while I sing and weave through highway traffic on the I 5.

“Bird on a Wire” catches me in a slowdown through a city, and “The Partisan” with its sudden unexpected segue into French catches me in the midst of a sudden shower with the windshield wipers thwapping disconcertingly out of time with the song. I have to force myself to stop extrapolating the story of the “Famous Blue Raincoat” while I am negotiating the passing of several large trucks which are slowing me down and driving me crazy.

I leave the highway and turn into smaller roads curving along the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula. Traffic is light and I get haunted by songs like “The Guests” and “If It Be Your Will”.

I stop for coffee and gas in Aberdeen, to the tune of “Who By Fire”, and remember the tales I was told about both the history and the current events of that city, while my road takes me directly through it – over a bridge, down one residential street then another, past houses which look like they have histories of their own, some decorated with kitsch and some so plain and suburban and poor and empty of any spark of creative life that they wrench your heart.

Somewhere past Aberdeen, back on the empty roads, I get hit by that song that is my anthem, “Hallelujah”. Somewhere near a place that rejoices in the queer name of Humptulips I pass a house with a sign that says “Three for $1” Three what? I am writing a story about that in my head even as I drive by without stopping to find out. It’s much more interesting that way, anyway. It isn’t the first story I’m playing with on this long drive, with Leonard Cohen as my companion, guide and inspiration.

I struggle to understand the undercurrents of “Night Comes On” and another story comes pushing forward, demanding attention. Another song tells me that “Everybody Knows” and here too there is a story waiting for me, waiting to be found, to be shaped and reshaped, to be inspired by those words which are easy to listen to, easy to take in as though by osmosis, through the skin and the fingers on the steering wheel, my thighs on the seat of the car, and the ends of my hair tucked into a braid.

The closer I get, the less I am human, the more I am story. I am changing. The music is changing me. “I’m Your Man”, Leonard tells me, and I whisper, “I know.” He’s more than that right now. He’s an unlikely craggy-faced raspy-voiced muse who is casting a hook into my subconscious and fishing out stories, one by one. Word by word. He might have ended up in the “Tower of Song” but he’s taking me to a place where all the stories live, and he will bless me with his music, and he will make my words live.

The stories the songs have to tell me solidify and set, and words march off in directions the songs themselves could not have imagined. After a long empty and solitary stretch of a narrowish country road, I see the sign at last, Lake Quinault to the right. I turn and Leonard turns with me, insistent, quietly powerful, teaching me how to dream.

Through the trees, the glitter of sun on the water. Lake Quinault. A piece of quiet beauty. Waiting with its gifts of silence and solitude and sun and dappled shade, water and a lawn made of moss. By the time I arrive the light is already on the turn, starting for evening, with one of Lake Quinault’s incandescent sunsets to come.

I turn the engine off, and Leonard falls silent, his voice gone from the real world around me… but his words echoing, still, inside my mind, elbowed aside by the stories which they have rearranged themselves into, which they have made on this journey – stories which have (on the face of it) very little directly to do with the lyrics which have inspired them. But which are, nevertheless, the natural-born children of those songs which have been my companions for the last six hours in that car.

I’m here. It’s time to write.

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Q&A about “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

What if you could relive your life?

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Where did the idea for the book come from?

There was a restaurant known as Spanish Gardens that I used to go to when I was a student at the University of Cape Town. It was a place of true magic, and I’ve carried it within me for decades. It’s a memory caught in amber, ageless and eternal, and it’s something that demanded its story. And here it is. I hope you’ll follow me into Spanish Gardens, that you will recognize the place somehow as somewhere that magic lives, that perhaps you will find yourself thinking about the magical places in your own lives. And the choices you made there over the years.

What genre does your book fall under?

Contemporary fantasy, I guess – but it’s basically a story of people and how they change, with a sprinkling of magic fairy dust over the top, just to make it glitter.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters?

I would love complete unknowns – people who would lend their faces to my characters, who would then BECOME those people in the minds of the people who were taking in the story – rather than casting well-known actors who would distract from what’s happening up there on screen. But I’d love to know, here, who my readers might cast as these characters. Any reader want to tell me your dream cast?

One-sentence synopsis of the book?

What is the most important thing in the life that you have been given to live – and what would you be willing to give up if you were given a chance to change your life completely?

What other books would you compare this story to?

Well, one recent review compared it to Haruki Murakami’s work, which was a little startling but nonetheless a compliment. So that’s ONE opinion. Another one for you, readers. Did it make you think of any other stories or writers?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The memory of that place was the inspiration for the setting. But married to the end-of-the-world scenario as applied to 2012 – it became something else again, something rich and strange. This became a novel about telling the truth, about living a lie, about settling or reaching for the stars, about love, longing, betrayal, and most of all about choices.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It asks questions that everyone has asked themselves about their own lives at some point – what if I had chosen THIS instead of THAT, one person over another, a different direction?

Many of the reviews basically begin with the reviewers asking those questions of themselves. They couldn’t help it; the book appears to function as a literary mirror. The readers look into it and somehow past the characters and see… themselves. It may not be an entirely comfortable place to be. But it’s a fascinating one.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Internet “wakes up?” Ridicu – no carrier.
– Charles Stross

More from Wired HERE

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