Fortunately, I don't get turned down for interviews very often, though I did recently and I was pretty disappointed. The author, C. E. Morgan, is a first time novelist, whose book, All of the Living, stood out to me and I was excited to talk to her about it. Unfortunately, Ms. Morgan is rather shy and does not grant video or audio interviews, we don't do printed interviews, and so, for now, it was not meant to be. I don't usually recommend books on this page, but I will do so in this instance, and largely because of what I would like to share with you this month. In my opinion, it's not often that a novel can stand or fall on the descriptive powers of the author. Description, like dialogue and pacing, is just a tool after all, employed to serve its master-The Story. But there was something about the descriptive language in All of the Living that got my attention, and it wasn't until about midway through the book that I understood what.
Ms. Morgan commits a lot space in a short novel to rendering the physical world for her reader. And yet she rarely dwells on what something actually looks (or smells or taste) like. Rather, the focus of her descriptions is what it felt like to look at something. That, I believe, is where her genius lies, and where the genius of all great description lies.
Because what something looks like doesn't matter. Strangely, the physical world doesn't matter one bit. If a woman sees a man standing in her doorway in a black coat, the fact of the man and the coat and the doorway is nothing. All that matters is what she feels seeing this-frightened (he is a stranger), happy (her lover), tense (her critical father).
And this extends even to events. Someone gives someone else one million dollars. The fact of the million dollars is not the point at all. Does the person want to give it, or were they extorted? Was the person receiving it a billionaire or a pauper?
It's an important distinction, and one which, if employed effectively, allows a writer to be of particular use to the reader. When a writer shows the physical world for what it is-not a beast with any intrinsic power over anyone, but rather an utterly neutral canvas upon which we all interpret life-he or she silently and inconspicuously lifts the veil on reality. This, more than anything else, was what drew me to the books I read as a young man. It was books that showed me life as something felt, not something that could happen to me.
The easiest slip to make, of course, is to assume one must feel a given way faced with certain facts. Your child dies; your wife leaves you; the promotion comes through; the book sells. And so you are like a ping-pong ball, ricocheting against all the paddles in the world. This mistake is usually made only because the choice to feel a certain way-not the requirement-happens so fast, and most often so habitually, that we do not even experience it as a choice. It seems to have happened in spite of us.
And yet nothing happens in spite of us. Absolutely everything happens through us and because of us, without exception, every moment of every day. That is why we are so often moved by poetry and songs and stories in which the world is rendered not as a kind of inanimate obstacle course to be trained up for and negotiated, but a constant reflection of our truest self. In All of the Living, Morgan describes a sun at sunset as being "dismissed into the west." With that, the sun becomes a living thing, as intention-not mere gravity-decides its course, and for the moment the power I have ceded to all the objects and events in the world is returned to me. Only I may dismiss it or say farewell or morn its passing if I so choose. The choice was always mine and remains so, for all that I will ever be is what I am feeling.