This story about a woman attempting to write a work of fiction feels like memoir, if you know L.L. personally, as I do, or if you have read either of her spiritual memoirs, Stone Crossings or God in the Yard. "Laura" from fiction is a copy writer, grew up in rural New York, and had an abusive stepfather. She drinks tea, reads interesting books, and grows herbs in a backyard that feels like a place I have been. I know this Laura.
The poetry throughout this book feels familiar, too. I didn't look to see if any of these poems were taken directly from L.L.'s book of poetry, InsideOut. But their sensual descriptions and playful meter would have felt right at home there.
L.L., the actual novelist, has Laura, the fictional novelist, quote L.L. the writer of a book about writing, L.L.'s real life Rumors of Water. And the fictional "Laura" participates in Twitter parties and uses the WordCandy.me app that the real life L.L. has orchestrated as part of the poetry movement/literary press she has launched, TweetSpeak Poetry.
Throw in the references to real life photographers Claire Burge and Kelly Sauer, friends of mine as well, not to mention the Tea Empress Muse, Megan Willow, based loosely on real life friend, Megan Willome, and I almost feel like this is a novella I could have written.
Except this work of fiction L.L. pulls off is like nothing I've ever read. All of these things I have mentioned about this book are true - it's memoir, it's poetry, it's promotion, yet the book isn't just any of these things. In fact, the book says on its back cover that it could possibly teach you how to write fiction. But I don't think the book, or its author, would be content with being just a writing manual, either. L.L. has been there and done that.
Besides the obvious, I think this book does three things, and does them incredibly well.
First, this novel was a place for L.L. to play. In her book, God in the Yard, L.L. talks about play and its spiritual importance.
"Christianity's sister faith Judaism is filled with this kind of play: reenacting Passover, sitting shiva after a death and later leading the rereaved down his drive to symbolically reenter society . . . these are forms of play that lead us out of ourselves and restore us to God and community. . . .However, our spiritual goal is not simply to renew the child but to play through the child, towards soul restoration, towards a Proverbs-style partnership between us and God, preparing the way for grace in the world."The Novelist very likely began as a dare for L.L., just the kind of challenge we see Megan Willow posing to Laura in the pages of fiction. Though L.L.'s dare may have been directed to herself. And surely, weaving all of these writing milestones from her past into a fiction about writing could not have been any more fun for L.L.
I can practically see her sipping tea, looking out toward her backyard, laughing as she returns to the keyboad. But not only laughing. Play "is not limited to light-hearted topics," she reminds us. The Novelist also is full of the stark realities of loneliness and abuse and unrequited love and poverty.
The second thing L.L. does in The Novelist is model an important writing lesson from Rumors of Water, the very truth "Laura" misquotes in a Tweet to Megan Willow: writing takes time.
"I believer a writer can make writing happen, sit down and stir from grass or leaves or snow. But I also believe it takes time to write. Each book I've written, in some sense, could not have been written before its time. . . . Part of what makes them ready is the commitment to come to the edge of our memories and keep bringing them upward. This can take many years. . . . There is no hurry. The things we cannot write about today we will surely find we can write about tomorrow. We should not worry about the process, but simply trust it and move on," L.L. writes in Rumors.Laura does this as she tries to determine what she should write about in the dare from Megan. We see the principle modeled in that way. But L.L. is doing it again, too. Because she has opened herself up to us in previous works of non fiction, we see the time it has taken for her to bring up more and more memories in this newer work.
Which brings us to the last important accomplishment of this novella. L.L. explores over and over the idea of story-truth, the yes and the no uttered simultaneously. This is a book completely about herself, and yet this is a book so utterly not about herself, too.
In our lives, story truth is expressed in every compliment we want to be true, in the memories we recount just a little differently with every telling, in the prayers of faith we offer, "I believe, help my unbelief."
L.L. plays beautifully with this concept throughout the novella, though she expresses it outright in one particular passage.
"James ignored her smart-aleck comment and went straight to the heart, as she realized he so often did. 'Do you want to? Write it, I mean?'::
"'Yes,' she typed.
"Both answers were true."
The Novelist is L.L. Barkat's first book of fiction, unless you count as fiction the story truth sprinkled throughout her four other books of poetry, spiritual memoir, and writing instruction. The Novelist is available in print or for the Kindle.
A former advertising copywriter and art director, L.L. Barkat is currently Managing Editor of Tweetspeak Poetry, the makers of Every Day Poems and WordCandy.me. She has two spiritual memoirs, a book of poetry, and an award-winning book called Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing. Rumors was twice named a Best Book of 2011.
This review was done without any compensation from the author, other than her kind friendship over the years.