By Roxana Arama
May 10, 2013
“It’s really not worthwhile to write if you don’t write a myth.” – Jack Remick
Jack Remick is a poet, short story writer, novelist and teacher. More than twenty years ago, he and Robert J. Ray started a writing practice group that still meets every Tuesday and Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Louisa’s Café in Seattle. I’ve been going to Louisa’s for three years now and wrote the first draft of my novel there with lots of help from Jack, Bob, and many other talented writers.
Jack and I talked on April 25th, 2013 about two of his four published novels, Blood and Gabriela and the Widow. We talked about his writing process and about the history that informed his work. My conversation with Jack is a sample of the kind of coaching that goes on at Louisa’s, an open and welcoming place for writers in and around Seattle.
First, I’d like you to explain the concept of story spine because we will be referencing it in our conversation.
Let me kick back a little bit and tell you how Bob and I became aware of the notion of a spine. We used to talk about the armature of a story, but we really didn’t know what it was until we were teaching in the screenwriting program at the University of Washington and Sydney Pollack visited our class. He talked about the spine of a movie and he said that he didn’t know what the spine of Out of Africa was until he was filming his third reel. Then he realized that the spine was based on the notion of possession. What that meant was that the notion of possession showed up in a number of metaphors or images in the screenplay. In the beginning, for example, the female protagonist owns all this land and all this property and in the end she’s selling off everything and losing the land. She also loses her lover, who refuses to be possessed. So this opened up a whole panorama of ideas of what we as novelists could do to take advantage of that notion of spine.
So I started working at it and I came up with the idea that the spine is a statistical measure. In other words, if you write and write and write, and then you go back and look at the metaphors that you used, the one that has the most transformations is probably an example of the spine. You read Claude Lévi-Strauss, so you know that he tells us that myths are constructed from a set of polarities – plus and minus – that are mediated by a third element, which then introduces another set of polarities that has to be mediated. So, if the spine in Out of Africa is possession, then, of course, the polarity of that is dispossession or no possession.
The advantage of learning what the spine is early on is that you don’t have to wait until Act III to do your writing about the writing. The most clear and complete working out that I have done occurs in Gabriela and the Widow when I discovered that the spine was thick/thin. What you have there is a whole series of metaphors linking or linked to Gabriela. The first time you see her, she has no breasts, she’s skinny, and through time she changes, gradually. Her story is a thickening of herself. Look at La Viuda. She is in fact very thick. She’s rich and she lives in a big house, she has all these possessions. She’s starting to thin up. So you get this crossing of thick and thin, and it became clear to me—well, I did a lot of writing first—what the spine in Gabriela was.
We were primed and ready for this notion of spine, but we didn’t know it until we met Sydney Pollack.
So how do you define spine?
The spine is a system of metaphors dictated by the predominance of a single polarity and its transformations (because this ties into linguistics). The spine is determined by that polarity that has the highest number of transformations.
What’s the difference between change and transformation?
Change is a kind of transformation, yes, but it refers to characters and not to language. Gabriela’s character changes thoughout the story, she evolves as she acts on her character arc. But a transformation has to do with the images and metaphors used in the writing of that story. Let’s look for example at the way the spine thick/thin works in Gabriela. The first time you see her, she’s wearing a peasant skirt. You see her again in a servant’s dress, then you see her again in a yellow dress, then you see her again in a pair of Levi’s. You see her again later putting on a sable coat, then you see her again blossoming into a woman and putting on a red dress. These are all transformations of a single polarity, thick/thin.
Now harken back to Blood, which you have read. Mitch changes as he learns the truth about his family and about the reasons for the war he had been a soldier in. That’s change. But there’s also a large number of transformations of the notion of blade, or knife, or cutting. Mitch uses the knife, he uses the fan blade to make the knife, he uses a button, he uses a zipper, he uses a hardback book as a slicing device, and in the end he actually bites off an ear, so that’s another transformation of the cutting/biting metaphor. That’s pattern and transformation of one notion. If you don’t have that kind of transformation, you have to find it. Otherwise your writing wanders in all directions.
What is the spine in Blood? In my opinion, it has to do with the sinner/saint polarity or innocence/corruption.
Because of the looping structure of Blood, and because of the structure of the space, I think the spine is inside/outside. There is an inner-story (Mitch’s bloody years) and the outer-story, his time in prison.
I think that sinner/saint is a strong polarity with lots of transforms and mediations. It may be that the innocence/corruption polarity is the spine of the inner story, but it shows up in the outer one as well: Mitch/Squeaky. I am inclined to think that the inner/outer pattern is the more potent one though. The way I see that novel is as two stories: the one Mitch writes, “The Patron Saint of Blood,” and the outer one of his changes as he understands what he has done. That’s the innocent/corrupt polarity. You can see that one working out in the arc of the guard Mitch corrupts into killing his brother-in-law, using Geraldine as bait.
The resource bases in Blood and Gabriela are different, but the war depicted in the two stories is always about maintaining the power structure within the indigenous community and about grabbing the resources by outside interest groups. Can you talk about the fight to control the resource base in these two novels?
That’s right. In Blood that’s very, very clear. Everything that takes place in Blood is about controlling the resource base and power structure.
In Gabriela, the resource base is and has always been not the objects, not the gold, but the mythology of womanhood. Access to the myths. When Gabriela comes into the story, she has no access to the myths. She doesn’t know who or what she is. Gradually, La Viuda teaches her all the myths. She brings them from around the world. I think you noticed that in your review of Gabriela. In a way, La Viuda is the resource base because she contains the knowledge and what she does is give this knowledge to Gabriela. The objects are an index to mythology. For instance, when she teaches Gabriela the mythology of stones. The objects are just placeholders as she reveals to Gabriela the true myth base which is the mythology of being a woman.
In a way the resource base is culture, but it’s universal, and Gabriela is absolutely innocent when it comes to that. And then gradually she remembers stories that old women would tell sitting around the campfire. In the end she becomes the embodiment of a certain aspect of the mythology. She is Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of motherhood and fertility. She’s also the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, the revenging goddess of death, because what she does in the end is that she stacks up all the bones of her dead. If you look at Coatlicue, she is in fact a serpent goddess covered with skulls.
There are all these mythological aspects to the story. It’s really not worthwhile to write if you don’t write a myth. And that’s where my allegiance and respect for Claude Lévi-Strauss come in.
In Blood, Mitch mentions three books: Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre Dame de Fleurs), Marquis de Sade’s The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom (Les Cent-vingt Journées de Sodome), and Albert Camus’s The Stranger (L’Étranger). Why did you pick those three books, all by French authors?
Those books are extremely important. They are representative of the whole history of books written in prison or about prison. Other books I considered for Blood were In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison by Jack Henry Abbott and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. But Mitch’s story has multiple indexes to French history.
Prison is a very funny thing. When you write books in prison, you’re really doing something that’s very deep and has a historical component to it. At one point Mitch says, “I don’t want to go back out there in the river of blood.” He’s happy in prison. He writes a four-thousand-page book called The Patron Saint of Blood. He writes history. Notre Dame de Fleurs is about Jean Genet’s hellish time in prison because his guards would take away his writing material and he had to rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it. That’s also Mitch’s story in Blood: Mitch starts writing with semen on a wall, blood on toilet paper, and he moves to paper and all the way up to computers. He becomes a snitch in order to write. So what I’m doing is linking all those past writers who had written in prison to a contemporary story that’s saying that people will sell their souls to be able to write.
Your stories are full of known and sometimes little-known history. But even as there is history in everything you write, it’s always subordinate to the characters and the story you write. For instance, in Gabriela and the Widow you write about Çatal Huyuk, Troy, Agamemnon, Maximilian I of Mexico, The Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Moscow. How did you pick the historical points to include in La Viuda’s life story? How do they relate to the thin/thick spine of your book?
I’m not aware of making all those choices, but one thing suggests another.
The history that I was aiming for in that book—after a certain point—is the history of womanhood that La Viuda wants to teach Gabriela. The mythology of womanhood. For that, La Viuda goes back to the origins, walks through time with Gabriela, showing her the old cities, the coins, the Greek coin, the Agamemnon coin, bringing it up to modern times. I also used the juxtaposition of mud (thin) and stone (thick) to get to the notion of permanence. Gabriela is looking for something permanent, and she finds permanence in two places: she finds permanence in metal and she finds permanence in stone. And if you look at the history of the human race, we first start building in mud, we start building in stone, then the world changes once we figure out how to make bronze. La Viuda is giving Gabriela a history lesson not only in an individual culture and the events in it, but also in human culture. In a strange way Gabriela becomes the history of the world and of the women in it, while also being emblematic of every person that has ever migrated north.
My favorite part in the novel is the poem from La Viuda’s funeral. Gabriela honors the two ancestries she now possesses: one from her mother, the other from La Viuda. One Mixtec, the other universal.
Gabriela let the sob rise in her chest. She leaned over the casket and she spoke to two dead women at once. She said,
“You were mothers to me.
The flesh and blood I am.
You were light to me
And the night I slept in.
You were the guides who led me
Into death and out again.
You were mothers to me
And I will miss you.”
– Gabriela and the Widow (p. 236)
What about the historical aspects in Blood?
In Blood, all historical aspects have to do with personal ascension.
Such as the history of Cathars? In Blood, you have repeated references to the Cathars and the Montségur Massacre (1244 CE) under Louis IX. Why did you pick the Cathars for the purpose your book?
The story of the Cathars is an important history lesson regarding the foundations of Western religion as it came out of the post-Roman era. The name of the Cathars shows up in Mitch’s sister’s name, Catharin. His mother was a history aficionado obsessed with the Cathars. Mitch goes back to Toulouse, home of Raymond VII who supported the Cathars.
The Cathars, also known as the Albiegensians, were a very democratic and non-sexist Christian organization. There were no priests. Everybody was a priest, the women, the men. Meanwhile, the Church of Rome became a hierarchical male-dominated culture and they needed to wipe out the heresy of the Albiegensians who were defying the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Once the king of France decided that he was going to align himself with Rome, he ordered the siege of Montségur and eventually the slaughter of all the Cathars.
The story of the Cathar religion is that the minority, the heretical view, always gets slaughtered. That links directly to all the wars of colonization throughout history. Mitch’s personal link to history is that his great grandfather fought in WWI, his grandfather fought in WWII, his father fought in Vietnam, and here’s Mitch fighting his war in the jungle for his corporate brother-in-law over the resources of indigenous Central and South American populations. Mitch’s big enlightenment is when he realizes that he was killing the wrong people.
Mitch cannot escape where he came from. The history of blood shedding, the river of blood. We can’t escape where we came from either. In one of the interviews I did while promoting Gabriela I was asked if there was anything that I would do differently if I lived all over again, and I had to say, no, I’m the sum of all of my mistakes. Without my mistakes I would not be who I am. What we have to do as a culture is to learn that our mistakes have made us who we are, and to try not to make them again.
Tepeñiptlahuaca appears in Blood and Tepeñixtlahuaca in Gabriela and the Widow. What is the connection between the drug wars in Gabriela and the guerilla harassment of native people by corporations coveting their lands in Blood? Is there a theme connecting these two books?
Disguising ourselves as night, we infiltrated, killed, and before light left corpses splayed like mysterious crucifixions, throats cut using the corte corbata—a lovely cutting that severs the throat, lets you pull the tongue from the cavity to hang on the chest like a necktie—the necktie cut—a technique I learned from Suki who learned it from the Colombians during La Violencia when the rebels there stopped entire busloads of people to slaughter them all except one—the Chosen One—they left to tell the tale and to spread the terror. We were hidden in the thickets outside a tiny village called Tepeñiptlahuaca.
Blood (Kindle Locations 403-408). Kindle Edition.
The theme connecting these two stories is the devastation of this continent. Some of the most devastating interactions of Americans were especially in Central, but also in South America. We overthrow governments, we kill people, we sanction the murder of thousands of people, all for bananas or coffee or gold or whatever else there is. We fight wars for the control of the resource base. Mitch becomes a representative of all the corporations with killing power, corporations that have been trying to manipulate the world’s resource base from 1800s on. The names that appear in my books are emblematic places, full of resources, recognized by many: Tepeñiptlahuaca, La Oroya.
I chose La Oroya for a very specific reason: it happens to be one of the richest deposits of metal ore in the world. Copper and tin and gold and everything else are in that mountain range in the Andes. There, as the result of mining, the land is so toxic that nothing grows there. The animals’ food and the people’s food are toxic. And the rape continues, day by day.
In Blood, I used the name The Cerro Corporation. The real name, up until 1974 when it was nationalized, was The American Cerro de Pasco Corporation. It represents the rape of the earth. Mitch talks about going into the jungle to kill the Indians who were keeping the oil explorers out. In Blood especially I wanted to write about how the corporations have basically alienated the United States as a nation from all the people we could be doing good things with.
If you look at the way it works in Gabriela, El Senor is the representative of corporations. He’s mining the earth. That carries over, so thematically the books are linked in that way. Etymologically the books are related in the use of the names that represent certain focuses of activity.
The big thing in the Mixtec/Mesoamerican myth base I was working off in Gabriela is the descent into the underworld. At some point La Viuda talks about the Lords of Xibalba. That’s a polarity of the male death and the female life-giving force, so you get to life and death and resurrection. The ultimate death in the novel, of course, is when El Señor dies in the belly of the earth, the earth goddess engulfs him, and that’s another aspect of the descent into the underworld. With his mining company, he raped her and he did all these bad things to her, so the goddess punishes him.
“I don’t always know where I’ve been when I write.” – Jack Remick
How did you become interested in those wars? Have you been to those war zones?
I have been there. Central America was a trip of less than a year. The South American stay was three years. My Mexican stay was more than a summer long, maybe six months.
If you were to look at pictures of La Oroya, Peru online, you’d think it’s hell. A Dantesque hell. I’ve been there. I’ve driven through there. I lived there. I carried those images with me all my life from the time I was a boy. When I lived in Peru the first time, my father was working on a water project, dam and tunnels, for the Cerro de Pasco Corporation. A project to generate electricity. The ore they were pulling out of the mountains in La Oroya was miles away, and the destruction stretched for miles and miles too. I had no idea then, but it was one of those projects specifically designed to foment and further the exploitation of the mining resources. And with it, it brought a certain amount of death.
Now we move to cocaine: when I was in Colombia, I had quite a run-in with the criminal underground – not the cartels – and that’s when I learned all about the cocaine and what goes on there. I have witnessed the growth and exploitation of the cocaine trade of Colombia. I have witnessed the oil and mining rape of the earth in Peru and Ecuador. And I have watched the destruction of areas for marijuana in Central America, from the Southern Mexican coast to Guatemala. Rio Verde in Blood and Gabriela is a real river, one of the few rivers in South America/Central America where dysentery is indigenous and you cannot drink its water.
There’s a lot going on there that I experienced as a tourist and as a person who lived there. When I travel to a foreign country, I don’t take a lot of stuff with me, just the minimum amount to get to my destination. Then I buy clothes there, I try to live the way the people who are there live. I was so successful at blending in that, when I lived in Ecuador, people didn’t know I was an American. They thought I was an Ecuadorian-born German. I dressed the way they did, I smoked the same cigarettes, I didn’t ask for any American things, I used Ecuadorian toothpaste. That’s how you immerse yourself in a culture, not by standing out, but by being a part of it. And that’s what Mitch does in Blood. That’s what Gabriela learns to do with the help of La Viuda.
Thank you, Jack, for taking the time to talk to me about your novels and your writing process.
Find more about Jack Remick and his books at www.jackremick.com.