Criticism

Thoughts on “Will Kill for Food”

Why I Wrote the Story

Trouble at Rindo's Station

1953 magazine in which “Trouble at Rindo’s Station” was first published

For some time, I have been planning to write a novel about the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (also known as the Rodney King Riots, the South Central Riots, the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Disturbance, and the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, and, in the Korean American community as  Sa-I-Gu). In fact, I got about a third of the way through writing it before I abandoned the project back in the mid-90s.

A couple of years ago I decided to restart the novel. In preparation, I thought I would write a few stories, one for each of the main characters. The purpose of each story was to focus on some aspect of the character’s personality that is key to their role in the novel, and further, show some event that helps form that aspect of their character.

In Dean’s case, the aspect of character I wanted to show was how he became more active politically. Because Dean is the main character, the story should probably be titled “Young Man Blues.” But “Will Kill for Food” is so much more interesting, at least to me. I think it also expresses a certain desperation that most of the characters in the story experience, which is an undercurrent of the story.

I finished writing this story in May 2011. The original was in eight sections. I edited the story in places to meet the word-length requirements for JukePop, and to suit the serial format better. I think the changes improved the story.

 

How I Wrote the Story

Once I knew the basic experience Dean would have in the story (defending Uncle Jun’s store), I needed a plot. The  plot I settled on came from two sources.

First, I knew we had to meet Dean before the verdict in the Rodney King case was announced (Wednesday), and that we had to stay with him until he decides to join the Koreatown peace march (which takes place Saturday, the day after the story ends). I also knew I needed quiet time in the series of events to get some background in on Dean, Jun, and Ron. Dean’s friend John appears in the beginning and end of the story as a constant by which to measure Dean’s emotional change.

Second, the more I thought about and researched the setting of the L.A. Riots, the more it resembled a Western. In a Western, the threat of violence is present in a far more natural way than in any other genre (except maybe prison or war stories). I mean, every man on the street in a Western is openly armed for one thing. And the idea of taking care of yourself – through violence if necessary – rather than relying on the law, is taken for granted.

I intentionally threw in some references to Westerns (“Holding down the fort,” “Calvary is on their way”) to make the point clearer.

I borrowed the structure from an Elmore Leonard Western short story. In that sense, “Will Kill for Food” can be read as an updated version of Leonard’s “Trouble at Rindo’s Station.” (It’s a great story, and is reprinted in a couple of his anthologies if you care to read it.) In the original, a renegade warrior takes over control of a tribe from a peaceful chief, arguing that strength, not tradition, determines leaders. The renegade warrior gathers a group of others and jumps the reservation to attack Rindo’s Station. In the end, a reservation agent trapped inside the station (who’s actually a good guy for a change) subdues the renegade in a fist fight.

In my remake, one gang that takes over another’s turf by moving beyond their neighborhood (“jumping the reservation”) and subduing the leader of the gang by force. Also, while Leonard’s protagonist was a normal Western hero, in the sense that he’s brave and accustomed to violence, Dean has to overcome his fear in order to fight off the threat of Willy Dobson and his gang.

 

Limitations of My Approach

An interesting aspect of looking at this story as an updated Western is that it freed me from feeling a need to get into the reality of the L.A. Riots from different points of view. In “Rindo’s Station,” there is no discussion of the morality or fairness of having Native Americans confined to reservations. They simply are, and when they leave the reservation, it often means trouble for the white population nearby. Similarly, in my story, there is no discussion of the causes of the civil unrest. I did not want to create a historical novella. The aspects of the riots Dean saw on TV were representative of what the media chose to show and what he chose to focus on. As a non-political individual, I think that makes sense in the context of the story. A better piece of work (a truer Historical or Literary fiction) might go into greater depth on how wrenching an experience the riots were to different communities, even without the threat of a gang at your front door. That just wasn’t my aim here.

Another interesting thing about the story is that by accomplishing what I set out to do, I had something of a failure on my hands. After months of research, writing, and editing, I came to the end only to find that I didn’t think this was viable as a publishable story exactly because I did what I set out to do; that is, create a character study based on a Western. Also, by focusing on including what I thought I needed to make the story complete, it ran well beyond short story length (of which there are many places to publish) and into novella length (which has few outlets). By chance, I stumbled on the publisher (Black Hill Press), the contest (Summer Reading Project), and the serial-form website (JukePop). Otherwise, this story would probably never been read by anyone.

Finally, there is a fair amount of information I intentionally left out of the story. Some people commented on them: How did John and Dean meet? What happened to Tanya’s mom (Jun’s wife)? All of this information and more besides actually resides in other stories I’ve written or intend to write. Rather than repeat the information in every piece, I thought I would only repeat it as necessary. It may be a bad decision, but that’s where things stand now.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Criticism, Novel Writing, Will Kill for Food, 7 comments

I Don’t Get John Grisham

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Hack writers are sometimes quite successful, even admired.
But so far as I can see, they are of slight use to humanity.

John Gardener

I don’t get John Grisham. Never have, really. But I also never figured it was worth the effort. He writes crap that sells. (As one critic notes, his second novel, The Firm, “sold a bazillion copies”. Not technically accurate, perhaps, but close enough.) I read a couple of his novels and didn’t see any reason to read more.

But last year (11/09) he released his first collection of stories, Ford County. I read a couple of reviews that seemed favorable. One comment I found particularly interesting in Janet Maslin’s comparison of Ford County to a new story collection by Stephen King. She wrote that Grisham “could accomplish in 40-page virtual synopses what he normally does in 400-page novels. (That review is here.) To me, his novels seem largely like Steven Segal movies: same hero, different title. But I was taught that shorter forms of fiction required the writer to distill language, that is, to cleanse the story of the extraneous, to boil down the words, as it were, to get more from less. That’s what I thought Ms. Maslin was saying Grisham had accomplished here, so I thought this collection was worth a read.

I was wrong.

I should probably just realize that Grisham’s writing doesn’t do anything for me and leave it at that. But what I found as I read the stories was that my mood went from expectant willingness to enter his world, to wondering why I was there, and finally, to feeling like I was fleeced. I can’t really see any advantage to criticizing a wildly successful author. But at the same time, I am pissed off that I read these stories and feel like I need to say something about that.

As for the stories, there are seven in the collection, each running around 40 pages. Too long to be considered short stories, and too short to be novellas. Depending on one’s definition, they might be considered novelettes. Apparently, they started out as ideas for novels but, in Grisham’s words, “they just didn’t make it” (see here and here).And therein lies the first problem with the stories. Unmoored from any stylistic definition, the stories lack the discipline inherent in form. What we end up with is half-baked ideas. Well-written, to a point, but not really complete.

The second problem, which is actually much deeper, is that the stories have no heart. No soul. The way that comes across to me is that after each story I found myself asking, “Why did he bother writing it? Why did he think this is worth reading?” Because the stories aren’t worth reading. And ultimately, that is probably the worst thing I can say about a story.

I realize that it may be too much to ask more of Grisham that an entertaining diversion. But I didn’t even get that satisfaction. If I were to analyze it further, I think I would suggest that he has has set up a number of situations and placed characters in them, rather than the other way around. As a result, we are left with characters he doesn’t seem to care much about, just situations he finds interesting. I think that’s why once each story ends up so unsatisfying. There is no real resolution, or growth, no real character development. Once the situation plays out, he ends the story.

In Blood Drive, for example, he winds up the story useing an old stand-by from Westerns: a bar brawl. Police arrive, characters are hauled off the stage, and now he’s free to wind the story up by summarizing how everyone fared in the aftermath. In Michael’s Room, a defense lawyer who successfully defends a doctor in a malpractice suit is kidnapped by the parents of the plaintiff. The lawyer endures a harrowing experience, including a mock trial in the severely deformed plaintiff’s room. The lawyer is certain his kidnappers mean to kill him. Instead, at the end of the story, he is dropped back off by his car unharmed. His biggest concern is how to explain to his wife that he’s three hours late for dinner.

I don’t know. I think characters – and readers – deserve better. FWIW, here are a few links to what real reviewers thought (the list is online here).

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Criticism, 1 comment

The Plan

Okay, so here’s the writing plan.  None of this is particularly original.  But it is enough of a plan that it actually gives me a roadmap, something I need if I’m to make any progress at all.  As to the plan itself . . .

I would like to be able to write a novel or two.  Or more.  And get them published. You know.  To make it easier to get a novel published, I want to create a track record by publishing shorter fiction, short stories.  At the same time, it struck me that I could use short stories to develop characters for the novel.

So my thought was to take a basic novel idea, even if not fully formed, figure out who the main characters are, and write stories about each.  And further, that the stories would highlight some trait of that character that is central to their actions in the novel. So, for instance, if a character in the novel is particularly political, try to write the story about how they got that way.

Not really an original idea, I’m sure.  But one that breaks things down in a manageable fashion.  With luck, I can publish these stories in magazines, collect them as a book, then use that as a foundation for a novel.

Ya, not original.  But simple.  Well, still a lot of work.  Approachable might be a better word.  Less overwhelming?

Whatever.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Criticism, General, 2 comments