What makes a great novel? The Authors Collection

The shadow between life and death. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford
The shadow between life and death. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

Brilliant novelist Cormac McCarthy said he had never been a fan of authors who did not deal with the issues of life and death, citing Henry James and Marcel Proust as examples. “I don’t understand them,” he said. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good, I consider strange.”

***

Some people depend on the Muse for inspiration.

I don’t.

He comes around every now and then to sprinkle a little wisdom.

Mostly he just comes to cause trouble.

Early in the morning.

Usually when it’s dark.

Usually when I’m writing.

Always when I want to be left alone.

My office is in the sunroom.

And that’s where I found the Muse waiting for me.

He likes he sunroom.

When it’s dark.

When I’m writing.

He can watch the new moon turn full.

The dark is full of mystery.

That’s what he tells me.

“There’s nothing in the dark that’s not out there in daylight,” I tell him.

He laughs.

I can tell by the way he laughs that he knows more than I do.

He knows what’s out there.

I don’t.

I should.

Might make a damn good story.

“Do you know what makes a great novel?” he asks me.

“I think so.”

“What?”

“I think it’s all about character,” I say.

“Characters are important,” he admits.

“But that’s not it.”

“No.”

“Don’t tell me it’s plot,” I say. “People remember the characters long after they forget the plot.”

“It’s not plot,” the Muse says.

I feel better already.

“So what makes a great novel?” I ask.

“Life”

I shrug.

“And death.”

“Nothing else?” I wonder aloud.

“Nothing else matters.”

“How about the motivations,” I say.

“Such as.”

“Such as love, hate, greed, ambition, jealousy, revenge,” I say.

The Muse laughs again.

I hate it when he laughs.

“Some of those happen to a person while he’s living,” the Muse says.

I nod.

“Some of them are the reason he’s dying.” The Muse sits down in the rocker behind my desk and props his boots up on the coffee table.

Leaves scratches and even scars sometimes.

Doesn’t care.

“That’s drama,” the Muse says.

“What?”

“Life and death.”

I sit for a while in silence and think about it.

“What’s man’s greatest fear?” the Muse asks.

“I guess it’s dying before his time.”

“Dying period.”

There it is again.

The laugh.

“Pure drama,” he says. The muse pauses a moment, then asks, “What are the most important things in a man’s life?”

“Happiness.”

“Where does he find happiness?”

“With the love of his life.”

The Muse nods.

“His family,” I say.

“Go on.”

“His business.”

“What drives him?”

“Success.”

“And money.”

“Always money,” I say.

“And what happens when he dies?”

“He loses it.”

“When he dies,” the Muse says, “it’s like he never had it at all.”

The full moon drops behind the stand of oaks. The first shafts of daylight slip from the far side to the near side of the fence. A cardinal lands on the arbor in silence.

The Muse stands up. It is time for him to go.

“Just remember,” he says.

“What?” I ask.

“It’s not the journey that people want to read about,” he says. “It’s the battles along the way. There is no such thing as life without a little love, a little hate, a little joy, a little bloodshed. Life is never really important unless it’s shadowed by the specter of death. Death is what tears people apart or brings them together, what drives men or destroys them. Every time you find a measure of the good life, death comes along and spoils it.  Life and death form the boundaries within which all great lives are led and all great stories take place.”

“That’s pretty deep,” I say.

The Muse shrugs. “I’m sure I read it somewhere,” he says.

I’m sure he did.

The again, the Muse may have been drinking again.

SecretsAudio-A Thriller

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Every good story needs an Alpha and the threat of an Omega.

  • Darlene Jones

    That darn muse is probably right!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Certainly makes sense to me. Even if no one dies, there needs to be the shadow of death hanging over the characters That’s the last battle.

  • Being able to tell yourself you COULD be that character, if your life circumstances had been just a little bit different.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, that probably describes all of us who throw words on a paper and try to tell a story.

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