Friday, March 20, 2009

In the Courts of the Sun

by Barbara D'Amato

Sean Chercover’s wonderful and tough-minded post, Your Ideas Suck [March 13], and the fascinating responses to it made me think again about the ever-alive question, “Where do you get your ideas?” My son will come out with a book this week that has been fifteen years in the writing, is seven hundred pages, and is the first volume of a projected trilogy – all of which suggests an element of obsession. He has responded to some queries about where he gets his ideas, and his view seems to be ideas get him.

So over to a guest blogger:

By Brian D’Amato

A few weeks ago I found a magic-marker drawing I’d done when I was about eight, of a kind of a monster, in a style imitating the ancient Maya reliefs I’d seen in Time-Life books. It reminded me that I’ve been thinking about the Maya for a long time. Great cultures are like great artists. Some of them intrigue you more than others. You want to get at what’s so singular about that culture. You want to know what makes it so powerful. There’s a personality in the stylization, a certain poetry or madness in the turns of their metaphors or in the way they draw the curls of their snakes’ tongues, that hooks and captivates. Of course, an outsider can’t understand something like Maya culture the way a person who grows up inside it can. And even a person who, for instance, grows up speaking a Mayan language today -- even that person with that level of insight still won’t know what the Ancient Maya were thinking hundreds of years ago when they created their great monuments.

In college I took classes with Mary Miller, who is the author of The Blood of Kings and one of the top Maya scholars today. I remember one dream I had, in school, in particular. I’d fallen asleep thirsty, with the lights on, while I was reading a book called Urban Planning in Pre-Columbian America, and I thought for a while that I thought that I was the city of Teotihuacan, spread out over three square miles of altiplano, baking in the heat under drifts of dust.

Still, I felt I wasn’t quite uncovering what I needed to know about the Maya. I started writing In the Courts of the Sun, thinking I’d have it done in a year or two. I spent some more time in the Maya area, hanging around the ruins, and I spent a lot more time just sitting and reading, immersing myself in Maya art, anthropology and language. I lived in New York, but eventually left the city and holed up in Michigan, alone in a house on the lake. By now I thought I’d get the book finished within three or four years. Instead the book turned into three books, and took fifteen years.

Most of the time went into research. I completed my addiction to the on-line life. It was fascinating how I could be by myself, with blizzards howling by outside and Lake Michigan freezing and thawing, and still correspond instantly with anyone anywhere, how I could order books from all over the world and get them in two days, how I could grab articles out of obscure professional journals that would have taken half a day each to dig out of a library, and all the other perks of the time. I’d decided that I wanted the book’s ancient sections to be the most authentic historical fiction ever written, and not just authentic in the sense of accuracy, but in the sense of getting at what made these people tick. I did collect a lot of facts, of course, but I didn’t want it to be a term paper. The best thing to do, I found out, was to try and learn everything and then, later, see what rises to the top in your head. I spent a lot of time interviewing specialists. I was especially lucky to find Prudence Rice, from the University of Illinois, who, in addition to being a great scholar, is also a fan of thrillers and science fiction, and who has gone over Book I more than a few times. Although I haven’t followed all of her directives, you could say that in general, the Maya material in the book is “according to Rice” and sometimes even inspired by her -- for instance, by her work on the ritual rotation of Maya political “capitals” every twenty years.

Prudence inspired me to learn to draw glyphs. I wanted the glyphs in the book to be accurate but not copies of any specific Maya text. I also decided the book should have illustrations -- after all, I’d originally tried to get at “that mysterious thing” about the Maya visually, not verbally -- and after trying many different styles, some of which I’ve given examples of on my website, I decided to restrict the Maya-world illustrations, stylistically, to something that could credibly have been done by Maya themselves.

I also spent quite a bit of time playing games, researching games in general, and, in particular, playing Go. My Go teacher, Janice Kim, is an American woman who grew up in the Korean Professional Go Training Program, which like a cross between an Olympics camp and a Shaolin monastery. Many of the Game terms and Game-training details in the book, and some of Lady Koh’s character and mannerisms, are based on her.

But the biggest effort was trying to get the “what-it-is-ness” of Mayan languages. One thing I eventually decided to do was to follow the way Maya narrative or formal speech tends to use a lot of short couplets. After a lot of false starts I settled on trying to convey something of the sound of Mayan through English dactylic dimeter -- although we have yet to see whether this really works for most readers.

I tried writing some sections as pure historical fiction -- that is, using language in a way that could credibly come from a Maya narrator of that time. But the problem with those experiments -- and I think it’s a problem with most historical fiction -- is that not only aren’t you really narrating in Mayan or whatever, but you’re not even really narrating in English. That is, English is a language that depends for its effect on ever-changing idioms and current references, and when you’re blocked from using any of these, the language sounds stilted. On the other hand, it sounds even more stilted if you have up-to-date slang or whatever coming out of the mouth of an ancient character. The only solution, as I saw it, was to keep the past historically consistent, but to have it narrated by a speaker of contemporary English. Hence the (not-quite) time travel.

Fiction was just the best medium I could find for investigating certain things that I needed to investigate. Some aspects of what I was think about, say, the Maya, were too involved for film, too elegiac for computer games, too speculative for nonfiction, and too abstract for painting. I needed fiction to get at them.

People ask what “drew me” to the Maya. Sometimes I just say what I said at the beginning, about the sheer mystery of it all, and that if I knew the reason it wouldn’t be a mystery. But lately I’ve been trying to offer something more specific. I’ll say that Pre-Columbian cultures in general are interesting partly because they have the most “otherness” -- that is, of all the cultures in the world they were the least in contact with any of the Old World civilizations that shaped what we call the Western outlook. I’ll say that I was I was originally drawn to the way they had different interpretations of basic things, or different metaphors from the ones that shape “our” minds. For instance, when I was in school I was fascinated by how things like snakes or the counterclockwise direction or the number thirteen, which have mainly negative associations for us, had mainly positive ones for Classical Mesoamericans. I was interested in how the pillars and columns of many Mesoamerican buildings were sculpted to appear to come down from the roof into the earth, instead of going up the way Western ones do, and how that might have something to do with how Mesoamericans tended to visualize lightning as going up from the earth into the sky and not the other way around. But then I’ll say that one tends to come for the differences and stay for the similarities. That is, the more time I spend thinking about the Maya, the more I understand how people are everywhere alike.

And of course, people still ask and re-ask the age-old question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually I just remind them of what Rimbaud said, that ideas get us. Sometimes I go on and elaborate, and I say that ideas are like vampires, and the most dangerous vampire, the that keeps you in thrall the longest, is... well, to find out what it is you’ll have to read the book

IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN, Dutton, March 26, 2009.


Steerpike said...

Thanks, Brian, for a thoughtful post. You're quite right about how certain ancient cultures resonate with certain people while others don't; I know practically nothing about the Maya but have a degree in the history of another ancient culture, for the very reasons you described.

Fifteen years and 700 pages is a heck of an investment, but labors of love often are. Congratulations on your book, which I will be sure to grab a copy of, and I wish you the best in future volumes.

"Elegiac," by the way, is an awesome word which I must now attempt to use in as many sentences as possible. However, as a computer games professional, I feel compelled to point out that the only reason something may be too elegiac for games is because no designer has created a suitably mournful game scenario. It could be done, and with luck, it will be.

Sean Chercover said...

Nice post, Brian. I will definitely pick up the book.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Barb was kind enough to send me an ARC of the book. I'm 70 pages in and hooked.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, everybody, and Brian thanks you, too.

bdamato said...

Yes, I do.

I'd be quite interested to know what games Steerpike has worked on...