How to Write a Powerful First Novel in a Bland Age

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Write what you know" is advice that has influenced young writers for a long time. The four words gained a populist urgency in an era when two world wars and a national depression enabled writers to frame personal feelings with hugely dramatic collective experiences. But what powerful use can a writer make of the saying in a time whose most characteristic cultural artifact may well be "Seinfeld," a show in which getting separated in a movie line brings a crisis?

Increasingly, writing teachers urge students to dig beneath surfaces by thinking of the truism as "half the recipe," as Baltimore-based novelist and writing professor Madison Smartt Bell puts it. The other half, of course, is imagination--and three young Los Angeles area writers met at a Santa Monica cafe recently to describe what mixing knowing and imagining was like for them. Authors of just-published or soon-to-be-published first novels, the three are products of the graduate writing program at UC Irvine, where they say they learned a broad openness for how to make fiction.

A hospital window overlooking 5th Avenue embodied the line between what David Benioff did and did not know when the 30-year-old Santa Monica resident started imagining what became "The 25th Hour," his glowingly reviewed novel about Monty Brogan, a young man who interacts with two friends in the hours before he must start a seven-year sentence in a federal prison for dealing drugs.

Benioff never faced jail time. But he started to conjure Monty's forced departure from New York after a frustrating half-return to the city. Raised in the Upper East Side neighborhood of Yorkville, and a graduate of Dartmouth and Trinity College in Dublin, Benioff had been away in Wyoming. He got hit by appendicitis on a visit home for Passover and underwent emergency surgery.

"Walking the halls of Mount Sinai afterward, seeing people walking up 5th Avenue and Central Park and trapped in the hospital, I had a sense of being so close to the city and not being a part of it," he says. "I thought, 'What if you are not stuck for five days, but seven years?' And that is writing what you don't know. Taking a banal problem and making it much more serious."

Benioff believes growing up in a relatively calm America has made younger writers' search for a dramatic context more challenging. The old stress on direct personal experience gives way when "you are not Norman Mailer and you have not been through war in the Pacific," he says. "I live in a time in the United States when history is not in crisis. There is no big story that you feel you're a part of, and so you have to look harder."

Monty's downfall stems from the drug war that offers today's most familiar form of national combat, but Benioff says he found a subtle opportunity in the fact that "it's a war he chose to get into. It's different from when you are swept up in historical tides of war or being a dust bowl farmer." For his next novel, he's researching war-besieged Leningrad in 1942.

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Benioff and his colleagues say the sensitive coming-of-age novel--that usual outcome when fledgling novelists write what's more or less in front of them--was distinctly not the rage among their Irvine classmates. It's been replaced, in Charmaine Craig's case, by the entering-another-age novel, one centered on the Catholic Church's effort to end a mystical Christian movement in medieval France and the impact that crisis has across three generations. Called "The Good Men: A Novel of Heresy," it's due from Penguin Putnam this fall.

"I feel I am in line with writers who write with what they know in that I am writing about what I care about," says Craig, 29, who lives in Laguna Beach. "I find the farther I go from my personal circumstances, the better I am able to write about my emotions."

Craig felt the pull of that detached intimacy as an undergraduate studying French literature and history at Harvard. Reading a book of work by mystical women writers, she stumbled onto a deposition of a woman named Grazida Lisier, in a trial held in a town near Toulouse. "And essentially in the deposition she admits to having had an affair with a village priest even when she was married to someone else, and what was interesting was that she did not conceive of it as sinful. She did not think of it as wrong or displeasing to God because it gave them both great pleasure."

"I wasn't thinking of myself as a writer, though I'd been creative all along," Craig recalls. "I thought I'd go into academia all along, but [the story] grabbed me and stayed with me." She found she was moved by the record of people snared by complex tensions between the spirit and the flesh, "the notion that one is necessarily better than the other, the shame that ensues from that."

In the same story, she found a clash between a determined minority and the power of the church. She had learned an unusual perspective on the relationship of minorities and majorities, growing up in the Pacific Palisades, the daughter of a half-Jewish, half-Burmese mother and a father of Scottish-English descent. The project fascinated her. But, says Craig, "I found out how ignorant I was about the specifics" of time and place. "I became more and more anxious."

She grew confident as she worked with documents in an old form of French, visited the towns in Provence where the historical characters lived. Staying sensitive to "the emotional circumstances of my life," she turned real events into fiction. Her next novel will draw on her mother's experiences in Burma.

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Of the three novelists, the one whose book might come closest to a coming-of-age tale is Andrew Winer, 34, of Laguna Beach. His book, "The Color Midnight Made," is told by a 10-year-old white boy during a year when he is immersed in the lives of a black family in present-day Oakland. It is due from Simon & Schuster in July, 2002.

Winer grew up in the Oakland area, "the product of '60s hippie academic liberals." While he says he had close black friends and reveled in black culture, "the story line in my book where the character is almost adopted by this black family is something I did not experience." He says he breached the line between what he knew and did not know by a kind of lyrical subtraction. "I did not fill my book with pop-culture references. I did that on purpose. It is not filled with references to appliances or technology.

"This is not gritty Oakland streets," Winer adds. "It's more dreamlike. I look at myself as not being that different from what Charmaine did because I did create a book world that is not what we all know." Winer's next novel is about an Orthodox Jewish family. Though one of his parents is Jewish, that realm is distinctly foreign to him.

"Our generation has not experienced war," Winer says. "But we have experienced social nuances of pain and difficulty. We do go looking more aggressively for subject matter than perhaps Hemingway's generation did. But the themes that are in me to come out will come out no matter where the novel is set."

The three writers describe the literary and nonliterary influences on their work. Benioff speaks of Saul Bellow and the movies ("as important to me as literature"); Winer refers to Toni Morrison and the culture of skateboarding; Craig learned a lot from Hawthorne and Flaubert about challenges to women when they break the rules and vividly evokes her mother's political passions on behalf of Burmese independence.

They credit Geoffrey Wolff, director of the UC Irvine program, with fostering a maximum of individuality in exploring their interests, rather than doing what writing programs are often accused of--imposing a standard idea of what writing should be. Says Winer: "Geoffrey is a literary writer. He's a good writer, and good writers have to make up every word one at a time, if they are writing the truth. You have to imagine the truth."

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