Let’s Talk About The Staff: Meta-Writers

Part of being a creative writer and a teacher is working on process and what makes storytelling and sharing important. From topics like plot, conflict, character building to philosophical constructs and patterns in narratology and hermeneutics it is easy to dive into the world of writing and get lost. The two sides are (1) the work and creating it and (2) process and purpose. I think of these two elements as my never dying metaphor of the coffee and the cup. The coffee is writing, stories, books, and output. And the cup is the aesthetic purpose for containing that content. All that being said, let’s talk about The Staff. 

In the novel The Staff, there is a lot of brewing in the village society.  Taska is shunned and honored at the same time into taking in a prisoner and keeping him and protecting him all at the same time. This is, of course, the main thread and plot of the story. How will she deal with him and how will the village allow her to deal with him?
But during the course of the story, Taska is working on these brittle parchments that are stacked on a shelf in the corner of her cottage. This is where the novel gets a little meta in that she is writing the story of how she sees the world (in a novel about a woman and how society see her). She speaks openly to her parents on these pages and eventually she begins to forge something new there. In the oppressive nature of this story, we have the social constructs and the hidden rules that don’t make sense in the beginning. Then we start to see how the village operates and who pulls the strings. It is through many of the other characters that we (as readers) start to accumulate some of the treachery around our main character.
But it is there in Taska’s writings that we start to define two possibilities (1) she is totally crazy and that there is a reason for her being isolated and shunned; or (2) that she is rewriting her story, putting it forward and creating hope and vision. This is where we find one character rewriting her story, breaking out and changing the way her narrative appears.
Meta-stories in fiction can be extreme and can be found in experimental fiction. They can also be more mainstream. But this isn’t a case of breaking down the fourth wall (finding the author as a character in the story somewhere), but more a case of a character rewriting the path or the plot. The concept resonated with me that the main character is writing her own story. I didn’t plan that but felt she needed a conduit for speaking to her parents and eventually seeing the future. I actually considered early on to have her pray in the church, and her verbal discussions to God would act to deliver the same information. Yet, Taska senses (if she doesn’t know) that the church is helping to make the rules that she really doesn’t understand. That is why she has the exchange with the reverend about the bells not tolling in the morning. And he mentions that no one can hear them. When she says she can, it doesn’t change his mind. She knows they never saw her as a believer, a member of their society.
What other books or stories have writing or storytelling built right in? I am fascinated by The Arabian Nights because of the different variations of stories and themes, but that is like a collective compilation. Nobel Prize winning Naguib Mahfouz wrote an updated version called Arabian Night and Days which in a novel form is more focused on linked stories. Probably the most effective use of writing in a novel is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Through this epic story we see Zhivago and his world changing and shifting. And we often see him writing, but we never read the out put. It is suggested and mentioned that he is writing, but we don’t read it at the moment of creation. However, at the end of the novel the poetry there. And as you read those poems, it is a brilliant retelling of the story through a poetic lens. It was very emotional for me to read the poetry at the end of the book.
Keep track of people who write in novels. They may be telling you something, or sending out a lifeline. They may be plotting, sharing, confessing. In some cases, they may be trying to break out of the narrative altogether. — #
Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles.
#narrative #metafiction #writingcommunity #Coffee&Cup

Finalist / Best Book Awards in Literary Fiction

The Staff is now “Award-Winning Finalist in the Fiction: Literary category of the 2019 Best Book Awards sponsored by American Book Fest.” American Book Fest has announced the winners and finalists of The 2019 Best Book Awards on November 13, 2019. Over 400 winners and finalists were announced in over 90 categories. Awards were presented for titles published in 2017-2019.

The Staff, a literary parable, was also a Finalist for the International Book Awards earlier this year. Called “a novel with the rarefied atmosphere of ancestral myth, The Staff unfolds in a time and places that feels ancient and simultaneously apart from history.” Ron Samul’s debut novel is touted as “an intriguing, skillfully constructed plot about the darker side of human nature,” according to The Book Life Prize. This novel is available on Amazon and Barnes &Noble online book sites. 

Winners and finalists traversed the publishing landscape: HarperCollins, Penguin/Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, TarcherPerigee, New World Library, Hay House, Rowman & Littlefield and hundreds of Independent Houses contribute to this year’s outstanding competition.

Let’s Talk About The Staff / Chapters: Give Me a Break

Chapters are funny things when you are a writer. During the editing process of writing The Staff, the connections and relationships between chapters was an evolving thought. I started with writing numbers. However, during editing the numbers were so jumbled and disconnected I didn’t even see them there. I progressed to replacing numbers with lines or breaks. It started with a centered line, then a series of asterisk and eventually a mix of different versions. Finally, during the last few revisions, I took out all chapter breaks, lines, and anything that resembled a specific stop. Then I replaced it with a double space and left it. 

And then I read the novel and I really liked the fluid motion that was created. If people wanted to stop, they could stop at any one of those breaks and stop. A few people have asked me about chapter breaks and the fact that I don’t have chapters. My response has been, why would I want you to stop reading? 

Conceptually, chapters and their history is an often overlooked element of writing. There are a variety of approaches for chapters. In spy novels, location changes are highlighted in chapter headings. Sometimes, a writer will add a quote to the beginning of a chapter to add some kind of esoteric quality to what is coming. Sometimes, that is intriguing to me and other times it is a distraction. 

Nicholas Dames wrote an article The Chapter: A History for the New Yorker in 2014. And he outlines that “The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge… who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies.” He goes on to explain that complex religious or philosophical texts required an almost index quality that was created for the purpose finding the location of important passages and areas to refer. 

Later, as novels developed, chapters became manageable nightly moments that were framed for the reader. “Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shady” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know what we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going – an attention paid out rhythmically – would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.” 

It makes sense when Dickens and others were writing their stories in serials that chapters were like short story titles and that when collected together, it makes sense that we are reminded about what is happening as the story unfolds.

In modern novels, chapters have become flexible. In the age of Netflix binge watching, where the credits are not even consumed when a new episode starts, are modern readers looking for a break or time to digest the story — or are they reaching for the next moment of conflict, action, and storytelling. Just keeping reading.

Read more articles about The Staff 

Let’s Talk About The Staff: Jumping Boy

This post may contain spoilers. 

The Jumping Boy is a unique and probably the most memorable character in the novel The Staff. The Jumping Boy plays a strange and often comforting role in the novel. He first appears around the church when a meeting happens, and while it explained that the Jumping Boy was always around, it was never clear which family he came from. He is just a runt. This shows that even in a small village, there is a sense of casting out things that people don’t want. And the child lives feral. In this small hamlet it is better to not claim this daft young man than embarrass a family name. 

“There was a boy in the village that nobody spoke to because they all knew he was an imbecile. He never spoke or laughed when someone would try to amuse him. He would wander the village and do things that seemed like that of a curious child, but he wasn’t playing as the other children did. He would never go and explore the woods, or walk around the rocks and look for crabs by the ocean. The only thing he truly seemed to enjoy was jumping up and down.”

The second time he appears, it is a meeting with Philip and Emmit concerning a box. Philip watches the Jumping Boy as he plots his next move concerning his political and personal relationship with Emmit. 

The next time we see the Jumping Boy is when he shows up around Taska’s cottage. This scene is intentionally created to play Cain’s blank mind to that of a feeble mind. Cain is weary of this child and perhaps looks down on the silly boy. But the child’s behavior is contagious. And seeing how much fun he brings to the three of them, even Cain can’t help but join in, even if he doesn’t understand why. 

“She hadn’t felt this light and easy for years and year. So many difficult and tragic events had belabored her sense of happiness. It had been so long.”

And the scene ends with the boy jumping out of the doorway and into the darkness. 

“Taska let out one final laugh as he disappeared into the falling twilight. For a long time they sat in silence. Words would have only interrupted and trampled the ardent happiness that the heart held captive for the rest of the night.”

After the Grounding of the Fleet, he is there, standing with Taska, reminding her to be brave and face the village head on. He becomes a tailsman for Cain and Taska. He reaches out for her hand and holds it while they wait on the Grounding of the Fleet.  It is noticed that he is calm, he is just a boy. When Taska push the child away and ignores him, Cain shows emotions. Something that has been vacant in his life. 

“He saw the boy’s reaction. Watching the child’s face wounded Cain greatly with a pain that he felt through his chest and down to his legs. Not like the pain of the glass triangle, piercing into his hand, but that of something incomprehensible. It was a deeper pain that emerged from the pit of his chest and spread all over his body, dissipating into numbness at his fingertips. The concussion of his feeling broke him. It was cold.” 

Clearly, this symbol of innocence shows up as freedom, simplicity, and happiness. But Cain now realizes that this feeling of togetherness, their past fun, now feels like something broken and changing in him. 

He shows up when Sophia tries to stop Taska from going to Old Lady Gertrude’s house. When that scene ends, the Jumping Boy is just spinning around like a wild animal. “The jumping boy ran after Taska and Cain, laughing and spinning in a surreal dance, mocking the severity of the wounded souls.”

Just before the Annual Visit, it is mentioned that on cold nights, the jumping boy would sleep at the base of the blacksmith forge. He takes the men from the boat to the door of Philip and his family. 

Finally, it is Cain who tells the Jumping Boy to “Jump!” and the boy smiles and laughs at him has he is marched up to the tree at the end of the novel. 

It is not clear when this strange kid was born in the novel, but I wanted to add more complexity, more depth to the village. Looking at the length of this article, he played a significant role in the book. The boy is Cain’s alter-ego. He is innocence born from guilt and neglect. And while Cain knows his fate at the end, he still thinks that the jumping boy should be jumping. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff / Lucifer’s Wing

In a lot of my writing, I am captured by living close to the ocean, traditions, and the essences of living on the edge of the world. I don’t live on the edge of the world, but I do live near the sea, so the wind, the waves, the fog, the atmosphere of my life falls into the writing easily. 

In The Staff, they live in a small village by the sea. While it isn’t a seafaring book, it is based on living near the ocean and even some of the traditions they keep concerning the sea and the fishing fleet. Beyond that, there is an ominous nautical reference in the arrival of a large ship. This ship is not only imposing, but it is called Lucifer’s Wing and the bowsprit is a devil with its arm raised out reaching for the soul of the village. Thinking back, I saw that image somewhere. I think it came from my dictionary. I have an old 1950’s Webster New Collegiate Dictionary and I adore the book. It was always the book on my desk and even in the digital age of spell check, I still use it. Yet, when I looked through the dictionary, I can’t find that black and white spot image. 

DaVinci’s sketches 
When a tall ship came in this month and I saw the ships prow with a great face on it, I thought about my novel, and where that image of the devil on the front of a ship might be? I still don’t know where it is – if not on the pages of the novel. I was also inspired by Da Vinci’s portraits of old men. The senior council members were inspired from drawings and visions of things like the images below. This is how I imagine Langston and the boys. They always seemed tired and sketched. They felt like old bas-relief, scraped from a stone or some tree bark. 

Tall Ship in New London
It makes sense, I suppose, that all things in this book seem elusive and shifting. Perhaps that is the nature of lives built on lies, deceit, and desperate want for freedom. The last point of all this – is that seafaring culture is clearly evident in museums in New London, New Bedford, Nantucket, and all along the Atlantic seaboard. It is a culture of lighthouses, whaling, fishing, and living on the edge. A place so eloquently captured by the likes of Steinbeck and Rachel Carson. But there is little mythology (other than the overarching elements) that define the fables and the curiosity around the sea. The mythology is often generic, Poseidon orientated, or it is superstitious and linked to random things. My question, I suppose is where do we house the mythology of the sea? And how much of it is still emerging. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles. 

Reading List / What Inspires

Haruki Murakami said “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” He makes an interesting point. So, simple advice would be wander away from the books everyone is reading and try something different. But it comes with a catch – you might have to work harder to understand the books and the ideas. It is okay to not understand a book or an idea. Research it, try to understand why you don’t get it. And make that a project. I know that seems like a lot of effort for a summer beach read, but the challenge comes with critical reading skills, the ability to not give up when it gets hard, and you will feel like new ideas and visions of the world are shifting. That is a good thing. 

As people have finished my book, they have reached out to me. Some people mentioned that they wanted to go on read a new book as soon as possible. In one case, a reader went on to classic literature (win). I thought I would list some books that are some of my favorites in the hopes of inspiring a new pathway of reading. This list is an alternative to some of the mainstream reading that is hyped in the media and in book clubs. There is nothing wrong with best-sellers – if you like them – read them. They are popular and you can probably find someone in your social circles to talk about these books. These books on this list are likely available in libraries and used bookstores. If you don’t want to spend money on the titles, find them cheaper or through your library. I have an amazing used bookstore nearby called The Book Barn, but there is also an online retailer called Thrift Books that can find used books for you.  

Some of the titles here are directly inspired books that connect closely with The Staff as a story. They are also stories and connections that resonate with me as a writer. They may not be your favorite books, but they should move you into the hinterland of your bookstore, away from the prepackaged  lists, and into your own vision of the world. Find a writer that you love and read ALL their books. I just finished reading Erich Remarque’s collection of work and they were brilliant (All Quiet on the Western Front, et al.). Challenge yourself and you will find that reading is like binge watching a show on Netflix, you will want more. These aren’t in any order. 

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter 

The Black Obelisk by Erich M. Remarque 

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

The Lottery (short story) by Shirley Jackson

The Birthmark (short story) or any Nathaniel Hawthorne

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima 

A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk 

The Familiar (experimental fiction) by Mark Danielewski 

1984 by George Orwell 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

If you are someone who likes a particular area of history, explore writers in that time. Don’t be afraid to look up writers from 1800-1860 and find out what is available. Give in to what you want. If you find a writer that moves you, read all of it. And then find out who inspired them and read more. I tend to read writers; not books. I know I like Murakami so I will read whatever I can find. Be passionate and find your own amazing journey through books. 

Lastly, when you read something you are excited about, tell people. Shouted out on social media. It isn’t that they don’t care, they probably just don’t know about the books you are reading. Talk it up and compare notes. It is a great way to share books and ideas. 

Let me know on social media what you are reading and what is inspiring you. Click the share buttons below and shout out what is important in your reading. 

The Staff / Finalist in the 2019 International Book Awards

The Staff, a novel by author Ron Samul, is now an Award-Winning Finalist in the General Fiction Category of the 2019 International Book Awards. Jeffrey Keen, President and CEO of American Book Fest, said this year’s contest yielded over 2,000 entries from authors and publishers around the world, which were then narrowed to the final results. Awards were presented for titles published in 2017, 2018, 2019. 

Ron Samul is a writer and faculty member at Mitchell College in New London. He is also a Writing Mentor in the Western Connecticut State University Creative and Professional Masters in Fine Arts. A native New Londoner, Samul said this novel is based on living in a small community where everyone knows about each other. Some of those interactions are for the better and some for the worse. Samul enjoys talking about the book with writers and book clubs, and said, “Talking to people, I always find new ways to look at the novel. Books don’t work unless the writer and reader are working together to make it a shared experience. And to hear what people think of the novel, in their own terms, it is just as exciting as writing it.”
Samul’s work has appeared in Liturgical Credo, Outstide In Magazine, SNReview, Inquiring News, Library Journal, and other online media. He has presented his work at the Associated Writers Program Conference, The Northeast Popular Culture Association, and the Hollihock Writers Conference in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

In 2017, The Staff was short-listed for the Del Sol Press First Novel Prize. Don Snyder, author of Fallen Angel and Of Time and Memory explains, “Samul tells this story with such luminous prose and immense imagination that the reader is transported to a place beyond the borders of the known world where new meaning attends our longings and our fears, and where we discover a deeper understanding of ourselves. I believe this is the requirement of literary fiction.” The book is currently on Amazon for purchase in print and e-book.

The Staff Now On Sale / Amazon / Paperback & E-book

PRINT BOOK AVAILABLE NOW  through Amazon.com
In a remote fishing village, a well-known member of the village is murdered, and the suspect is caught and beaten. When he wakes up he can’t recall who he is or what he has done. The village council decides to invoke an age-old ritual that condemns the killer and a villager together for life. Taska Valimar is selected to be the warden to the killer in this draconian social contract. Scorned by her life of servitude, Taska begins to unravel the secrets of her missing family. What she finds begins a spiral of deceit and revenge. In the midst of the darkest hours, Taska searches for friendship, hope, and a way out. The Staff is a timeless tale of lies, treachery, and hope.

“In the tradition of Orwell and Huxley and Dostoevsky, Ron Samul has imagined a world in stunning detail where justice and human dignity are casualties of the fears that inhabit us. It is a terrifying world that exists beyond our reference points and yet it feels oddly familiar because the people we come to meet there, though strangers to us, give us an unexpected glimpse of ourselves.” – Don J. Snyder author of Of Time and Memory and Fallen Angel.
“A novel with the rarefied atmosphere of ancestral myth, The Staff unfolds in a time and place that feels ancient and simultaneously apart from history: a northern seaside village where the air holds the electric charge of prophetic meaning. Samul has written a dark, tension-filled allegory of crime, punishment, and transcendence that will appeal to fans of Hawthorne, Kafka, and Shirley Jackson.” – Tim Weed author of Will Poole’s Island and A Field Guide to Murder and Fly Fishing.
“An intriguing, skillfully constructed plot about the darker side of human nature.” The Book Life Prize.

Available through Amazon.com

Ron Samul is a writer and college educator at Mitchell College. He is a writing mentor in the Western Connecticut State University Masters in Creative and Professional Writing program. He has worked as a journalist, literary magazine editor and publisher, and book reviewer. His articles and stories have appeared in the SN ReviewLibrary Journal, Liturgical Credo, Inside Out Magazine, Inquiring News Hartford, and on other print/electronic media. He is the winner of the Connecticut AWP Fiction Award in 2005 for his short story Paper ThinThe Staff was shortlisted for the 2017 Del Sol Press Friest Novel Prize. Print and Kindle copies of the book release through Amazon.com on March 15, 2017. 

And now you have to reconcile it, too.

What if The Staff isn’t what you expect? What if it fits the definition of historical fiction but doesn’t do what historical fiction does? It isn’t what you think it is. That sounds like a strange riddle. But that is what The Staff feels like – a novel that takes places in unknown history. It isn’t a novel in time, but a novel untimely and unplaced. And that is the whole idea of creating a novel based on an idea.

There is a concept called “the novel of ideas” – stories based on visionary times and seeing more than just our own superficial visions of the world, but seeing an idea, a social value, and seeing it subverted. It is a concept that is apparent in speculative fiction, like Fahrenheit 451, where firemen start fires and don’t put them out. Even in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, we see cathartic and tragic things happening to a man who is alienated. He actually turns into a bug and is completely isolated from his family. The sleight of hand is watching his sister Gerta, draw out of the shadows and become a woman capable of feeling the sun on her face and destroying the evil that is killing her family. Ideas in a novel are imperative. It is more than a theme, but a vision of craft.

The Staff functions as a riddle without a punchline. And the very thing you think you will be reading is intentionally withheld. Not because I am a jerk or just couldn’t come up with a solution. It is because the solution, the answers you want is detached from a genre – this isn’t a whodunit – that isn’t the idea at all. You may not like this book because it isn’t the genre you prefer. Has genre killed your sense of wonder? Do you need to know how the murder happened? Do you need to be the detective? Do you need a red herring? I’ve given you all the things you desire if you were reading and murder mystery, at least at the start. But the novel is not about conforming to the expectations of a genre. It is about what happens when you are put off by it.

There is a portion in this novel that directly pays reverence to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. And the purpose of that is because it is the ultimate tale of what you think a lottery should be – and what it becomes (a stoning in the town square), is exactly what this novel is. I am not asking you to like it. I am not asking you to be happy or even satisfied with the ending. I am just asking you to live with the idea built in this novel and find your own moments as the scenes pass by. This is not a philosophical novel that stops to contemplate long-winded ideas. It is just an idea, set into motion. And every single character has to reconcile it. And now you have to reconcile it, too.

The Staff Shortlisted for the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize

I am very excited to be a semifinalist for my novel The Staff in the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize. The winner will be announced in late August of 2017. 

Del Sol PRess seeks to publish exceptional work by both new and recognized writers, as well as republish literary work that we consider extremely significant and that have done out of print. Their approach is eclectic, but with an emphasis on original, unique, and accessible work with an edge. 

My sincere thanks to the nominating editor(s) and all the writers in the list. It is an honor to be among them all. Check out their website here

HERMOSA by Marisa Clark
MALL by Pattie Palmer-Baker
OUT LIKE A LION by Robin Martin
THE BEREAVED by Emma Schrider
THE STAFF by Ron Samul
DAUGHTER’S JOURNEY by Catherine Kapphahn
WRAPPED IN THE STARS by Elena Mikalsen

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