Mesa Musings: Novels are a labor of love and then some

Over the last two years I've written the equivalent of a novel.

I say "equivalent" because I haven't actually produced a novel.

My claim is a bit like the guy who went to a batting cage, slapped 20 grounders, and claimed he'd hit the "equivalent" of a 450-foot home run.

In two years, this weekly column has generated 70,000 words, which, by my count, is the size of an average novel. So, I suppose I'm saying that had I been slightly more industrious I might have actually produced a novel instead of a weekly rant.

But my logic is tortured. Some writers are natural fiction writers and some are not, and I'm afraid I belong to the "not" category. A friend of mine teaches novel writing at a community college, and we've had long conversations about the writing process. He's convinced me I'm no novelist.

A writer I greatly admire, Philip Yancey, a best-selling essayist, was asked if he'd ever considered writing fiction.

"I took several classes in fiction writing which convinced me I'm not a fiction writer," he said. "Somebody's got to write essays."

Those are my sentiments exactly.

"Musings" is my personal site for disparate and episodic forays. But, as an aficionado of sententious syntax, I shall forever be in awe of inventive novelists.

One of my favorite writers is Alan Furst, a historical spy and espionage novelist. Furst has been favorably compared to such luminaries as Graham Greene, John le Carre and Joseph Conrad.

A former weekly International Herald Tribune columnist, Furst's particular gift is writing fiction, and the way he goes about it is labor intensive and impressive. As one in possession of a short attention span, I'd have great difficulty toiling for years before actually producing an outcome.

Far from those formulaic hacks who crank out a book every six months, Furst gives birth every two or three years, working long and hard on each. I've read nine of his books and can't begin to calculate the effort that must go into each of his polished jewels. His fans appreciate his meticulous approach.

The books are loosely connected and are set in Europe prior to and during World War II.

One critic called the books "textured, suspenseful and passionate, peopled by seductively appealing characters, most of whom are facing a terrible doom."

Furst's novels are packed with such detailed cultural and historical information that you feel you're actually in Paris in 1938, or Berlin, Budapest or Warsaw. Many of his secondary characters appear in several books.

The elegant, pulsating and spy-infested Paris restaurant, the Brasserie Heiniger, is a cornerstone of every book. Though the brasserie doesn't actually exist, one critic has suggested that some entrepreneur might want to consider establishing it. He or she would be rewarded with an enthusiastic clientele. A Furst devotee would find it an adventure savoring a meal at infamous Table 14!

A longtime Parisian, Furst is a New Yorker by birth who now resides on Long Island. He considers Paris "the heart of civilization," and writes about it with affection.

"The way I work: I pick a country," he told a Seattle audience last year. "I learn the political history — I mean I really learn it; I read until it sinks in. Once I read the political history I can project and find the clandestine history. And then I people it (with) characters."

Though the plots are deliciously intricate and the characters fully developed, Furst exhibits a particular skill that resonates with me. He must be an epicure because he writes about continental cuisine with mouthwatering panache. Warning: Never open a Furst novel on an empty stomach!

There yet remain two of his books for me to read. I'm intentionally delaying that pleasure because I devoured the first nine like a teenager attacking a bag of tortilla chips. I can't face the looming prospect of no more Alan Furst titles on my reading list.

Thankfully, I shall be granted a fleeting reprieve. His 12th espionage book, "Enchanted Strangers," is due out in 2012.

I'm counting the days.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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