After four years of writing four novels and fully outlining four more, a calm is overcoming my muse this summer. It is not a fit of writer’s block, in fact, quite the opposite. Nor is it some furor poeticus that will result in yet another stress-squozen pandemic novel.
I believe the calm comes from having novels out in the world. It is like the satisfaction of sitting on the beach after the scheduling and hectic travel of a long-planned vacation. You made it. You’re finally here. Literal or economic success, while probably a pleasant addition had it occurred, is wholly unnecessary. Whatever happens, I have written novels for others to find and read. Instead of a fury of writing, I found I could only begin a flurry of thinking and reading.
With untold and unfamiliar stress from the pandemic swirling around society, we were forced to build transparent walls and cloth gags to continue our winery business. It is just my wife Wendy and me. There is no staff but ourselves now. Even family is fearful of each other. I could sell four or five of my wine fiction books a week doing our tastings last year. Now that is a memory.
Yet the vineyard, so long an island of tranquility I have spent a decade of social media extolling, seduces me yet again with its peacefulness of purpose. If we can’t sell wine, the vines don’t care. They are making more grapes regardless. A lack of regular musicians on Saturday nights does not trouble the vines. The winds and orchestra of nature are still going to serenade them with a summer season acapella. With no money for vineyard chemicals to fertilize and protect the grapes, the vines merely shrugged. Whether a canopy heavy with fruit or culled to drop on the ground, the vines are going to pass through their seasonal routine with complete disregard for the external world’s machinations. The societal upheaval is like a distant war that by-passed the vineyard island as insignificant. The warships and warplanes might be glimpsed passing to and fro, but the battles were elsewhere, distant, over the horizon.
No true artist can ignore other’s pain and loss. The empathy necessary for meaningful art precludes ignoring death and injustice. As the names of the fallen begin to creep in on our bubbles, only the most jaded and callous can refuse to feel any sympathy.
So the vineyard becomes my life raft. With all the other struggles being bravely faced and cowardly feared, with no other choice but to surrender down into them and drown, the vineyard offers a different calendar and uncluttered agenda. The routine of the vineyard summer is therapeutic. The work with the living plants is cathartic. While the hands are busy, the mind can build the backstories of my next novel’s various characters. The defining elements and history never actively included in the final draft that can help make the novel’s characters different, memorable, alive. The logical values and illogical foibles that might resonate with human experiences. I try to make a good/bad/wish list for every supporting character and then look at the plot elements, speeches, and challenges of the novel from that character’s perspective. What was the best thing that ever happened to this person? What was the worst? How does their dearest wish, spoken or secret, shade their view of some element in the story? Try on different plot elements for the book like clothes off a rack in a store. Rearrange who says what, and in what order, with abandon. Reflect on your characters and learn your story from different perspectives.
Even after twenty years, I can’t quite write and do vineyard work. I can easily see someone using voice to text on their phone to do so. I might even get there one day myself, perhaps with much simpler tasks as mowing or leaf-pulling, but making wine in the vines, which is what you are really doing working in the vineyard in the summer, requires too much frontal brain function. My job is making wine while thinking about my novels, not writing while thinking about making wine.
All throughout these summer vineyard days, I find it far easier than ever before to take a half-hour, pull out the kindle or paperback, and sit in the shade of the vines to read and rehydrate my spirit for a spell. Given the stresses in my life at the moment, and hammered by some dire need in all probability, reading in the vineyard has become more of a catharsis than I ever imagined. In the movies, Frodo read in the Eastfarthing woods as he waited for Gandalf to arrive. I imagine that was probably my inspiration to give it a try.
In Children of Breton, Tiran walked upon the keel of the greatest French warship of its day, La Couronne, and his beloved fiance died of a real plague in Milan, all of this published a year before anyone heard of Coronavirus. In his forthcoming next novel CoB; Hard Cane, I removed the planned active subplot of the very real Loudon plague from Tiran’s storyline and wrote it into background noise simply because I don’t wish to craft a novel with a plague as a major theme element at this time. Instead, Tiran confides in his horse, confesses to a gray cardinal, seeks release in the music on his chateau porch, and wrestles with the poetry of Le Pléiade as the Seven Sisters themselves rise over the horizon before every dawn. Tiran struggles to put his own loss and passions to pen to express them in poetry, and when it falls short of the starry masters, he turns towards delirium.
He’s not perfect. We’re not perfect. And that is perfectly inspiring to me right now.