May 21, 2020
In 1985, an idea came to me. (I’ve had others. But this one turned out to be pretty important.) A twelve-year-old American girl named Clara Foy goes to France with her parents for a summer vacation in the mid-1950s. While there, she discovers that her mother, Lauren, as a teenager in California, had an illegitimate child, a girl. The family are conservative Roman Catholics. So, this new addition was a great scandal for them, and the baby was given up for adoption, much to Lauren’s deep sorrow. But now, that baby shows up again, a pretty Parisian woman in her twenties named Emma Dusel. When Clara learns of Emma’s true identity, she takes it upon herself to introduce her new sister to their mother. The resultant difficulties break up the marriage of Clara’s parents, and reveal the deep emotional troubles that Emma has had throughout her life. Clara stays on in Paris with Lauren, to navigate the troubles between her sister and their mother….
And therein lies the tale of the novel I subsequently wrote, titled When Clara Was Twelve.
This was the last book I ever wrote without first making a preliminary outline of the thing. I just started writing it, beginning with the title, and it is for that reason that the first draft took me seven years to complete. (I had by that time written just one other book, a story collection titled The Day Nothing Happened that was ultimately published by Alev Lytle Croutier at Mercury House in 1988.) Without a preliminary plan, you can wander and wander up and down the darkness-beset hallways of your manuscript, running into closed doors, turning back, scratching your head, going in some different direction to some other closed door. I suspect this is one of the reasons that so many wishful fiction writers give up so quickly, get a job somewhere in the military-industrial complex, and never give writing another thought (except to wonder every few years about what might have been.)
I did complete that first draft in 1992. But the writing was so loose-limbed and conflicted, the plot so much a gathering of confused and unrelated themes that, together, they made up a story that was way too long, and very short on plot. I let it sit for three or four months, read the thing again, and put it in a drawer. Literally. The one element I liked best about it was the title, which even then was When Clara Was Twelve.
The manuscript came with me through various turns of life and travels during the next twenty-five years. I never looked at it. Luckily it was also the first manuscript that I had ever transcribed to a computer. So, it was there, through subsequent computers, beckoning to me silently as I wrote and published other books.
What brought me back to it in 2017 was the beloved title and the fact that I so love Paris. (I had lived there for two years in the 1970s.) I released the manuscript from its confinement. The typewritten version was on sheets of paper 8.5 x 11 inches. The paper itself was now mottled brown and yellow. The writing was quite often confusing because the last edit I had made was with a pencil. So…my as usual clumsy penmanship, smeared erasures, lost logic from one point to another. Arrows. Underlines. Scratch-outs.
Nonetheless, I read it and to my astonishment found that it had merit! Yes, it was still confusing. The author did not know what he had here, and so was flying blind. But there was something to it. Clara herself was interesting. Her relationship with her mother was complicated, sometimes badly conflicted, but negotiable. Emma herself was so upset with her long-lost mother that the task Clara was taking on appeared often unsolvable to her.
And there was Paris.
It is easy to write badly. Every writer should understand this, and should understand therefore why close, intense editing is so important. But Paris gives you an advantage right from the beginning because it so lends itself to description. I subscribe to the notion that you should write about the surroundings in a particular scene in such a way that the surroundings themselves comment on the actions of the characters. A teacup can be described in innumerable ways. So why not describe it so that it helps reveal the emotions of the characters themselves? A teacup so described can help the reader understand better what’s happening in the mind of the person holding it, or in the mind of the person watching how it is being held. Etc.
Visually, Paris allows for this in just about everything that happens there. So, I had made a point of describing Clara’s reactions to the city differently, depending on what she was learning about herself, her mother, and her sister. As Clara’s observations of Paris became more sophisticated in the manuscript, so did her observations about herself.
I started editing the novel again, twenty-five years after completing the first draft. The process was no easier than before. The mistakes and failings that had existed in 1992 still had to be dealt with. But basically, I thought, it isn’t bad! I cut and cut, wrote and re-wrote. Suffered the renewal of exhaustion. Cut and cut some more. Brought scatological words back to my vocabulary that I had not used for decades. Savaged the thing…. Put it back together….
And now it’s out!
(Terence Clarke’s novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15 and is available everywhere.)
A StoryRocket feature film project.
THE IRISH WAR: And not a shot was fired
In 2006, my love Beatrice Bowles and I were in Buenos Aires to attend a week-long tango workshop with Gustavo Naveira and his wife Giselle Anne. It was mid-summer (i.e. Christmas-time in Buenos Aires, their seasons being precisely opposite to ours in the United States.) We had decided to participate in the workshop at the suggestion of Nora Olivera, who was also attending, with her husband Ed Neale.
The workshop was grueling and occasionally hilarious, depending on the moment and upon Bea and my abilities to keep up. I’ll write about it in a future column.
But there’s another story here.
Nora had told us about Gustavo’s two kids, Ariadna and Federico, who at the time were in school. Their mother, Olga Besio, was herself a noted tango maestra (and still is.) The two children were already masters of a kind, teaching tango together to children in a small studio in the San Juan y Boedo neighborhood, named for its most important intersection. This part of Buenos Aires has a rich tango history. (For an example, listen to the opening lines of Sur, written by Anibal Troilo and Homero Manzi [both of celestial importance to the history of tango], and sung here by Roberto Goyeneche. “Old San Juan y Boedo…/The memory of your girlfriend’s unruly locks/and your own name floating from her goodbye.”)
Nora had put us in touch with Olga, who invited us to join her at one of her children’s class sessions. This neighborhood is filled with classic big-city noise…tremendous traffic on both boulevards, street vendors, cafes, small stores of every sort and bustling foot traffic on all sides. It was a very warm afternoon, and Bea and I were simply dragging along, hoping for some shade. After lemonades at The Esquina Homero Manzi, which is an elegant tango supper club on the corner where the two boulevards meet, we crossed the street and found the address Olga had given us. A simple street door opened to a stairway leading to the second floor. We had not yet met Olga face-to-face, and we ascended the stairs, following the sounds of a recorded tango from up above.
The second floor contained three or four poorly painted rooms, including a large kitchen, windows wide-open for the air. It appeared to have once been a café of some kind, and now was quite run down. But the music was insistent, one of those tangos that commands your attention with its slow sensuous flow and possibilities for embrace.
Ariadna and Federico in performance, 2006.
We encountered such an embrace right away because Ariadna and Federico were dancing in the largest of the rooms. Bea and I stood watching in the doorway and, if it is possible to be transfixed, we were. They were just kids themselves, dressed in Levis, an over-sized T shirt for him, a flower-printed blouse for her and the de rigueur elegant dance shoes. But they both had all the authority that the finest tangueros have in the command of their dance. Federico, whose large dark eyes, like those of his mother, moved with slow, unquestioned intensity. His footwork, complicated and simple in the same moment, moved precisely with what the music wished to say. Ariadna is renowned for the spectacular grace with which she dances and her insistence on her own importance to the embrace and the movement of the couple together. That was evident even on that day, when she was in her teens. (You can see here a video of the two dancing together in 2006, the same year we met them. Apologies for the poor video quality. The dancing is another story altogether.)
We also met Olga in person that day. She arrived later, and clearly wished to know who these two Americans were and how had they heard of her two kids. We admired her careful shepherding of her children, and thanked her many times for allowing us to see them.
Ariadna and Federico Naveira have gone on separately to international fame. If you have the opportunity to study with either of them, please do. You won’t regret it.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.)
April 15, 2020
I have never written anything that takes place where I grew up…that would be Oakland, California. If, like me, you were raised in the suburb hills of Oakland in the middle of the last century, there was little of interest in your surroundings and general conversation that would provide for great writing…or any writing. Gertrude Stein’s famous remark about Oakland…that there is no “there” there…is truth. It is the one line of hers that I care for because the sentence defines my childhood, which was spent in the vernal hills above Montclair. A middle-class suburb neighborhood of Oakland, in the 1950s it was notable most for its self-satisfied silence and its very white population. Nothing ever happened in Monclair, except for when I and my mother would go into the village to shop for food. There was also a very nice grass playing field at one end of the village, where I played touch football with my school friends. That was my cultural life, although there was the occasional movie at the Paramount Theater downtown as well as the Catholic church (Corpus Christi parish), for which I was an altar boy.
Oakland has not engendered fine writing among those with whom I grew up because there is so little in the middle-class neighborhoods of that city worth observing. I got up, went to school, and came home, like all the other kids. It was not until I got to high school and began reading actual novels, short stories, and poetry that I found so many worlds that were different from the one in which I was living. That experience blossomed for me big-time, instantaneously, when I arrived at the University of California in Berkeley. I did dawdle through my first two years, somehow thinking that the sciences were my chosen subjects for study. The trouble was that I always included one of those pesky, riveting history or, especially, English literature classes, every semester. In the end, I realized that Chemistry bored me and that Engineering was not to be endured. Trigonometry? No. There was no Computer Science at the time, other than whatever you needed a slide rule for. (If you were born after the founding of Apple Computer or so, you may need information about what a slide rule was.)
But when I read Geoffrey Chaucer, in an undergraduate class taught by the great Charles Muscatine, I discovered the path that I had to follow. I remember the actual moment. We were reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida, the wonderful and occasionally comic poem by Chaucer about the love of Troilus, a fine Trojan warrior, and Cressida, who, in a modern translation of one of Chaucer’s lines, “in beauty first, so stood matchless.” There are many machinations, twists and turns in this romance, but it comes to a bad end when Troilus becomes convinced that his love has been betrayed by Cressida. He is only partially wrong about this.
“And in this woe Troilus began to dwell,/that what through sorrow and love and unrest,/he often every day bid his heart burst.”
It was a requirement of the class that the students read the Chaucer in his original Middle English. The very last day of Mr. Muscatine’s class, he read a long passage from the final book of Troilus and Cressida. Those of us who had stuck it out and understood the finesse and wondrousness of what the poet had written were able to sit back, put our notebooks into our briefcases or book bags, and simply listen. The difficulties Troilus’s love faces in this moment, his pining loss of Cressida’s love, and his eventual death in battle form one of the saddest passages in literature, and Mr. Muscatine’s reading of it was worth the entire course. His teaching was always stellar for its clarity and its love of Chaucer’s poetry. This particular day’s listening proved it.
Mr. Muscatine, with whom I spoke personally just once, was a major influence on my education. He still is, posthumously. After that day, I abandoned all hope for my career as an engineer. Let somebody else estimate the weight-bearing difficulties of that freeway overpass. I wanted to read Walt Whitman…and the others.
But…to get back to the subject of Oakland, I still had only the life experience of growing up in those hills, among all those white people and their worries about how to get their lawns to grow. No one up there knew anything about Geoffrey Chaucer, and I knew little of life beyond those lawns except for what I had read in Berkeley. I realized even then that writing a novel about my experiences in Montclair would result in a very short book. I had to go somewhere. I had to get out.
I chose Borneo, living in which, far upriver, formed the kind of consciousness that would allow me to write. I did not realize it at the time, thinking that the Peace Corps simply provided an alternative to the Marine Corps and Vietnam that would still satisfy my wish to do something for my country. But when I came back to the United States, I knew what I wanted, even though it took me almost twenty years to begin writing specifically about my experiences on the island of Borneo.
Since my return, I have traveled very widely, and placed much of my fiction in those places in which I’ve lived that are not named “Oakland.” The theme for me has been that of the American living in places not his or her own. A different culture. A strange language. Surroundings easy to misunderstand. The adventurous plight of that American trying to understand where he or she is, is the general theme of almost all my fiction.
He never knew it, but Charles Muscatine had a lot to do with my search for the right plight.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, is being published today, April 15, 2020.)
April 5, 2020
Writing a novel is a threatening process…to your self-esteem, even in some cases to your emotional health. First, you have to deal with the task itself, which can take years and may be filled with false starts, page-wasting erasures of poor prose, and long periods of authorial silence spent in self-censure. There are moments when writing a novel is fun, but self-doubt is usually an issue, no matter how much you’re enjoying yourself.
So, you’ve finished one, and think “Gosh, there’s another story here. The one I’ve finished is not yet complete.” You ponder the problem, sometimes for years, and then begin another novel, and even sometimes that one doesn’t tell the whole tale. So, fatefully, you start a third.
In my own case, that was not the plan. I wrote a novel titled My Father In The Night, which was published by Mercury House (hardcover) and Ballantine Books (soft cover) in the early 1990s, and is about to be re-published in a new edition. The main character is a boy named Pearse, who lives in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco in the mid 1950s. He becomes enamored of the Beatniks who populated upper Grant Avenue at the time, a major no-no for Pearse’s Catholic conservative parents. A subplot involves Pearse’s grandfather M.J., who immigrated to the United States during the Irish Rising in the midst of World War I. The memory of his involvement in the murder of an Irish policeman has plagued the rest of his life. Therein lies the story.
In 1992, I finished the first draft of a novel titled When Clara Was Twelve. It tells of young Clara Foy, an American girl on vacation with her parents in Paris in the 1950s. She learns that her mother, while a girl herself in the 1930s, had a baby out of wedlock who was given up immediately for adoption. Another Catholic conservative family, for whom such an event is a major scandal. While they are in Paris, that baby, now a young woman named Emma, shows up again. Clara, thrilled, has to become the go-between in the troubles between Emma and their mother, and therein lies the story. (Setting the novel in Paris, of course, provided me with the thrill of writing about that city.)
That draft had taken me seven years, and I did not like it. It then sat in a drawer for twenty-five additional years, until I brought it out and read it again. It wasn’t bad! But it was way too scattered and overlong, with too many characters. (I am by profession an editor of fiction and nonfiction and concluded that, if a manuscript like this came to me, I would charge extra for helping this poor sot out of the hole he dug for himself.)
I edited it with little kindness. Three times, with help from some others. It finally became publishable and When Clara Was Twelve comes out on April 15, 2020.
These two novels share no characters. They are completely separate. Each stands on its own.
A year and a half ago, I was thinking about the two books and thought that maybe there was another story here. My emotions did sink with the prospect. One that took a few characters from the first and the second, and involved them in…a third?
I have an adult son who is a lifelong epileptic, and my father was an epileptic who died during his last seizure. I’ve written about them, an essay titled “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures.” Epilepsy provides a kind of literary metaphor that fascinates me (Dostoevsky, et. al.), and I decided to write a novel that uses a certain aspect of the affliction as a metaphorical tool to understanding how one particular creative mind operates.
The particular mind in this novel is possessed by Yvette Roman, a Parisian artist who is the daughter of the lost Emma who showed up in When Clara Was Twelve. It is now the year 2000, and Yvette is a renowned painter and printmaker who has come to New York City for a grand exhibition of her work in the Guggenheim Museum. Her mother Emma accompanies her, and they are visited in Manhattan by Pearse and Clara, who are now married to each other and are successful actors. Pearse himself has directed several plays and films, and they are both appearing in New York in a Pearse-directed version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The plot revolves around a mysterious painting that arrives in New York, which everyone thinks must be by Yvette, although she herself has no recollection of having done it. Was it her epilepsy that intruded on her creativity and blotted out her memory of the painting? Or, is it a finely done forgery? Therein lies the story, and the novel is titled The Moment Before.
I’m writing it now, and part of the task is to present the previously appearing characters in fresh ways, so that the reader who reads just this novel will not be left wondering where these people came from. It’s reasonably straight-forward, this novel, except when it comes to the idea of epilepsy as an artistic metaphor. I myself am not an epileptic although, as you can imagine, I know a great deal about it. (My son, by the way, is now forty-eight years old and remains thoroughly afflicted.) I have to write about Yvette’s seizures, and I have to write about making a fine painting, of both of which I have no direct experience.
But that’s where being a novelist comes in handy. You’re making it up, which for a novelist is the very playing-field itself. It is where the story resides, and therein is a story in itself.
April 3, 2020
In 1995, Orlando Paiva was visiting the United States, and stopped at Nora Olivera’s Sunday afternoon class and practica in Berkeley. These were very special sessions. Nora is noted for her exceptional teaching, especially in the way that she never molly-coddles the students. She tells you the truth about how you’re doing, directly, and if you’re having trouble, she always offers a way to resolve the problem. I myself had been studying for about a year, so I got a number of quite justified suggestions from Nora, and I can still recall almost the exact words she used for many of them. Precision, exactitude, and follow-through are the prime elements in Nora’s advice, and those who understand that her deep love of tango is what drives her realize how valuable those elements are.
She introduced Orlando to the class. At the time he was about sixty years old. He was very slim and gray-haired, and dressed in a pair of tan slacks, a navy-blue blazer, white shirt and tie. Not a demonstrative man in conversation, he yet exuded a kind of kindness that won over the students immediately. Nora later told me that he had a serious heart condition at the time, yet persisted with his tango no matter what. She asked him to perform for us. I don’t remember to which tango he danced, but it was slow and extremely elegant, with the nonetheless acerb bite that makes tango music often so revealing of deep, conflicted emotion. He took his partner into his arms and began dancing.
You could see immediately the care with which he pursued the dance. He walked very slowly, and I remember how he would let his trailing foot follow along, pointed back, the toe at an outward angle that simply underscored the grace with which he was moving. Straight-backed, immersed in the music, and very formal, he made his partner look beautiful because she too was so involved in the way he was dancing. You could feel her intensity, and part of that, I’m sure, was enabled by Orlando’s caring escort of her around the floor.
He performed none of the gymnastic irrelevancies that so often appear in the work of today’s show dancers. No kicks. No lifts. No impossibly fast tripping about. This man was a tanguero, and you could tell that by how respectful he was of his partner and of the music. He moved very slowly, and every step was a marvel.
The students loved it and responded with much shouting applause. I turned to Nora, my own noisy clapping appreciative of what I had just seen. But what I saw now astonished me. Nora, who knew Orlando well, was awash in tears. I cannot recall another occasion when I have seen her so taken by what she has witnessed. Later, I asked Nora if Orlando’s heart condition were one of the reasons for his dancing so carefully and slowly. She responded that, no, this is the way Orlando has always danced. “He is a great master, you see,” she said. That was all the explanation I needed.
The attached video gives you a good sense of what Orlando Paiva could do. The quality of the video is not good, for which, apologies. But please note how beautifully his partner Cristina Benavidez follows him. She is wonderful herself, of course. But Orlando gives her the opportunity to dance in so contemplative a way that her performance reveals her very heart. Watch with what attention the audience watches them. The response of the audience at the end will give you a good idea of what you’ve just seen.
Orlando Paiva died on November 28, 2006.
Terence Clarke’s latest non-fiction book An Arena of Truth was recently featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
March 6, 2020
Beatrice Bowles and I were visiting Buenos Aires in 2006, and were told about the club Viejo correo at Avenida Díaz Vélez 4820. Diaz Vélez is an interminably long thoroughfare, and on this particular night, we worried as very heavy rain coursed from above. Our taxi driver had to lean well forward over the steering wheel in order to be sure that his view of the road was clear. What was not obscured by the downpour itself on his windshield was blurred by the hurrying of his old, ragged wipers across the glass.
We got to the club, though, and were greeted by a couple of men at the door, armed with large umbrellas. They escorted us in, and we immediately noted the black and white tiled dance floor, gleaming smooth, that was surrounded by tables-for-four at which many dancers were sitting. What made the place immediately special for us was that the dancers were well-dressed. This is not something you normally see in Buenos Aires milongas. That city is infected with the same nuevo-homeless style of fashion, most prominently among men, that you see in almost every other American or European city these days. Levis, T-shirts, no verve, etc. At the Viejo correo, every man had on a tie and a suit. The women were all dressed with a preference for real elegance.
The Viejo correo is a local place, visited mostly by neighborhood dancers who all seem to know each other well and, we found, are exceedingly friendly. They were surprised that a couple such as we could even find the place, and they watched carefully as we danced. They seemed equally surprised that we could essay the tango with at least some panache. Many of the other dancers wished to talk with us, and when they found we also had Spanish, our evening filled with conversation.
Many of the men offered the cabeceo to Beatrice, and always thanked me when they escorted her back to our table, for not being offended by their taking her from me. It was clear to them that she could dance, and I was not about to intervene with her opportunity to be on the floor with authentic milongueros porteños. The entire experience, for both of us, was unique.
There was a further surprise. One of the renowned couples in tango at the time were Lito and Lidia Filippini, and we learned that they were going to arrive at the Viejo correo, to dance that evening. “Not to perform,” one of the men assured us. “They come here all the time, just to dance, like the rest of us.”
When the Filippinis arrived, they were greeted by almost everybody as they passed through the tables to their own, which had been reserved for them. They were an older couple, dressed just so, as were all the others in the room. And indeed they did not perform. Beatrice and I watched as they joined others on the floor. Their dancing was in no way flashy or overtly gymnastic. They too were real milongueros and danced with care and elegance spiced by the usual Argentine porteño intensity.
Beatrice and I danced a tanda, and we sensed we were being watched by the Filippinis. This can be an unnerving experience for dancers who are not professionals themselves. After dancing, we sat down at our table and, heads held in reserved silence, calmed our nerves with a few sips of malbec. After more tandas, we saw that the Filippinis were leaving, and as they approached our table, I nodded to Lito. To our astonishment, he and Lidia struck up a conversation with us. Where were we from? Were we enjoying Buenos Aires? Where else were we dancing? And then they both told us that they thought we were dancing well. It had been a pleasure for them to watch, they said. I reached out a hand to Lito, which he shook with enthusiasm, and we both thanked them. It was then that I noticed that the others in the club were watching the conversation. It was clear that they approved, too.
The evening, of course, astonished both Bea and me.
As you’ll see from the video that accompanies this piece, the Filippinis dance in an older style free of the balletic macho fireworks that so often mar contemporary tango.
Compás. Elegancia. Verdaderos milongueros.
(For another adventure from that evening at the Viejo correo, see my piece “Big Nose in Buenos Aires.”)