Author M. Allen Cunningham and I are both small-press publishers based in Portland. But we also write, and I am so grateful he tagged me in this blog hop, giving me an opportunity to open up about the novel I’ve been working on for the past four (or five or six) years.
M. Allen Cunningham is the author of two novels, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, which was chosen as a Book Sense pick in 2004, and Lost Son, a novel about Rilke that’s definitely on my to-read list. His short story collection, Date of Disappearance, gets to the heart of what it means to be human, to make mistakes, and live with them, to question your own judgment and move forward in the world. Mark has an elegant, classic style, and he brings that aesthetic to his publishing endeavors through Atelier 26, which recently released Harriet Scott Chessman’s exquisite novel The Beauty of Ordinary Things, a meditation on the lives of three very different characters, who influence each other in deep and unexpected ways.
And here’s what I have to say about my third novel, which is still in progress.
- What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or a historic person?
Henri Blanchard. His family makes a very peculiar type of barrel organ that seems like it must be fictional, but that part is real, while Henri is an invention. The whole novel evolved from me wondering who would have dedicated themselves to making such an absurd but beautiful little high-pitched instrument. I’ve had such fun exploring the answer to that question.
- When and where is the story set?
The novel begins in a French village in the 1840s, based on a real place but with a changed name to allow for some magic and diversions from the real history of the community. It shifts to the Five Points district of New York City—the heart of the strumpetocracy—in the 1850s after Henri finds agency and leaves home.
- What should we know about him/her?
He’s quick to worry—and to imagine things to worry about. He has unusually flexible wrists, which he hides from the other schoolboys, upon his brother’s urging. He likes bobbin lace as much as music-box making, but only women and the sons of lower-class families are allowed to make lace, so instead he sorts his mother’s bobbins, smelling them to identify the different types of wood in the dark.
- What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
His father pokes his eye out in the workshop, and Henri runs to the village, whereupon he faints on the doctor’s doorstep. Henri gets locked in the doctor’s dead mother’s room and, after much examination, diagnosed with a feminine condition, which removes him from the world of music-making and deposits him neatly, and with no apologies, into his bed. His older brother Jean-Jaques, of course, picks up additional duties to compensate, while Henri grows accustomed to laziness, and it’s their relationship—and the presence of a particular spunky village girl—that generates the main conflict.
- What is the personal goal of the character?
He wants to be a piece of something bigger, to fit in and contribute the way a pin on a music box cylinder adds its vibrant, essential sound to the whole. Henri defines that longing as wanting to be normal, but it’s more like wanting to contribute to a community, to be given the opportunity to work together, whether it’s making a piece of lace that will be attached to a bigger piece of lace or as something entirely unforeseen.
6. What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it?
The Serinette. I’ve written about the act of writing it over the past few years on this blog, and there’s a short synopsis at my website.
7. When can we expect the book to be published? [Or: When was the book published?]
I’ve spent a lot of years writing novels, and had an agent for a number of them, so I’m determined for this one to work, and to find the right home for it. I’m revising right now, trying to fix a particular issue, and then we’ll see what happens.
Now, I’m tagging two people. Gigi and Dan will post their answers on their blogs on Monday, June 16.
First I knew Gigi Little as a writer before I knew her as a designer, but one day she mentioned her artistic background and her interest in making book covers. She’s been my designer for Forest Avenue Press ever since. Also, she used to be a clown. Stick around her blog for “Moments in the Day,” her lovely epiphanies and explorations. Gigi’s new novel, which I am fortunate to hear in our writing group, is hilarious and heartbreaking, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll reveal about it.
Dan Berne, whose novel The Gods of Second Chances was published (by me) in March, was a slush pile surprise, and I now use his query letter as an example of what works when I’m teaching such things. His down-to-earth style, and blue collar characters, really have been resonating with readers and folks who attend his events around Oregon. He’s been blogging lately about Amazon from the perspective of an author and a marketing expert, so check that out. I love The Gods of Second Chances so much, for its snappy characters, sense of humor, and page-turning gasp-worthiness. It’s going to be fun to hear how he answers these questions.