By Deb A.
Michael Onofrey's short story, Chardonnay, appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Agave Magazine. This year he published his first novel, Bewilderment, a tale of a man returning home to Los Angeles after three decades abroad to care for his dying mother and come to terms with his memories. We took the opportunity to catch up with Michael and find out more about bringing Bewilderment to life.
AGAVE: You’ve written and published over 70 short stories, but this is your first novel. What was the most difficult aspect of moving from short fiction to a longer format, and what prompted you to make the leap?
MICHAEL ONOFREY: Actually, this is my first “published” novel. I wrote two others before Bewilderment, but they, thus far, haven’t been accepted for publication. But, regarding your question, the most difficult aspect in moving from short to long fiction is the investment of time. Bewilderment came off rather quickly, but the first novel I attempted didn’t. I thought it was done and I sent it out. But I understand now that it’s not done, and I want to return to it. Returning to that book represents a chunk of time. Returning to a short story doesn’t represent so much time.
I made the leap to that first novel because an agent had read a story of mine and sent me an email, asking if I had a novel going. A few weeks later a second agent sent me an email asking the same question. That agent, though, had read a different story. So I figured I should start writing a novel. But of course, like most fiction writers, a novel was something I wanted to try at some time. As a footnote, both those agencies turned down the novel (50 pages) that I sent them, which was the first novel I wrote.
One other thing: With short stories you have to keep thinking up new ideas, one after the other, as you move from one story to the next, which can be exhausting after a while. With a novel, once you got the idea you can start chewing on it without having to think up a new idea. In that sense a novel is kind of a relief. It’s not a bad policy to go back and forth between long and short fiction because it breaks up the monotony of one format going on and on and on.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing Bewilderment?
There were two big challenges. In the order that I dealt with them, the first was the handling of tense: past and present tense. Chapter 1 is present tense. Chapter 2 begins with past tense, but then switches to present tense at the story break on page 18. Chapter 3, a short chapter, is all past tense. So why did I go back and forth? The first reason was that it felt right, which is to say that it felt fresh. I thought it worked well, or at least worked well for me. In the first draft, I tried different approaches. I tried, for example, sticking with one tense throughout, present and then past, but in both cases the narration started to drag. Then I tried putting the Los Angeles scenes in present and India/Pakistan in past, but that was too pat, too formalistic, too mathematical. So I went with what felt right, which might appear random, but of course I went over this any number of times, so how could it have been random? At the same time, I liked the suggestion of random because it somehow served to enliven the narration in an organic way. And then, which leads to the second challenge, I thought that the play of tense would help bring memories into the present, kind of like how we have memories bubbling in our minds while we operate in the present.
The second challenge was how to suggest past and present coming close to one another, and in this regard the novel begins with the past (India) and the present (Los Angeles) far apart, but as the novel progresses the past and the present shift back and forth more rapidly, and so the distance between them narrows.
Many of the characters in Bewilderment deal with profound bouts of loneliness. Who do you feel deals best with the situation?
Evelyn. Evelyn is the most grounded, and in the end she is the one who moves beyond loneliness. Ironically, she is the one who has lost the most because she is the one who had the most. In addition, she worked for what she had, and then lost it.
What books did you learn from, and what lessons did you keep in mind while writing Bewilderment?
Like everyone else who writes (or wrote), I learned from a lot of books. But to name a few that I think were (and are) extremely pertinent, I’d single out How Fiction Works by James Wood and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Along the lines of fictional work, there were (are) Madame Bovary (Lydia Davis translation) and A Sentimental Education (Douglas Parmée translation) by Gustave Flaubert. And the thing that kicked this whole deal off with regards to Bewilderment there was In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (Penguin Classica Deluxe Edition, separate translators for each book, Lydia Davis doing Swann’s Way). Proust got me thinking about writing a novel that involved memory and memories. Another way of looking at it: Flaubert for realism, Proust for modernism.
Lessons I kept in mind? James Wood: narration, particularly free indirect style (moving between character’s eyes [or characters’ eyes] and author’s eyes, but I’m tempted to say narrator’s eyes and character’s eyes [characters’ eyes]), and then the arbitrary quality of memory which can yield the unexpected. Francine Prose: every rule regarding fiction has been broken at one time or another in a great work of fiction. But this doesn’t mean a free-for-all. It means doing what’s appropriate, which might mean breaking accepted rules. Flaubert: author ought to be careful in keeping his or her opinions out of the story. Proust: fiction is wide open; Proust wasn’t even sure if what he was writing was a novel.
Do you plan to write another novel?
I hope to.
Michael Onofrey's Bewilderment was published by Tailwinds Press. It is available in paperback and as an e-book.
By Deb A.
It's time once again to find out what the Agave staff will be reading behind sunglasses in this, our third annual Summer Reads blog.
Ariana, Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Like many, I am so excited about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, her first novel in 20 years. She is an absolute favourite of mine, and I am hoping to look past the lukewarm reviews of her latest efforts and devour every page.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: My favourite living author, hands down. So this newest book of short stories made the list, easily.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: A chance to lose one's imagination in fantasy and mystical tales of far away lands - sounds perfect.
Linda, Contributing Editor: Literature
The only thing on my list is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. With our new baby reading time is sparse but this is a must-read for me!
I'm reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, In The Fall by Jeffrey Lent, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio (with the kids).
Deb, Blog Manager
This summer I'll be savouring my most recent surprise from my Year of Books subscription from Heywood Hill: Freya by Anthony Quinn. Every book I've received so far has been fascinating, so I'm eager to see how this one measures up. I'm also catching up on old editions of the now-defunct Lucky Peach magazine and whispering Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo and The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton to my children at bedtime.
Grant, Business Manager
We were recent winners of an online contest for Book of the Month Club. Each month you get a book of your choice sent to your home, and there are 100 books or so from which to choose. I'm looking forward to the joy of finding new books waiting for me in my mailbox.
Emily, Editor-at-Large : Art & Photography
Earlier this summer, Emily came across Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird On The Internet (almost), and has related to almost nothing in it, but still finds it funny. She just bought Nicotine, by Nell Zink, because of the cover illustration, and hopes to start it soon. She also may start reading her son’s The Secret Series, by Pseudonymous Bosch because, again, the cover art is compelling.
By Deb A.
If you're in need of some inspiration to begin your week, look no further:
Art is good for us: On Wednesday the British Parliament will announce the results of its two-year inquiry into arts, health and wellbeing. In anticipation of the report, Nicci Gerrard offers an eloquent account of the role of arts in helping people with dementia. (The Guardian)
Beware the selfie: A single snapshot was to blame for the domino effect that knocked over a row of plinths holding $200,000 worth of art. Too perfectly awkward to be true? (The New York Times)
Sketching the unknown: How artists and researchers teamed up to find and introduce new species to the rest of the world. (The Atlantic)
Illustrator, cartoonist, trailblazer: Canadian artist Jillian Tamaki's new book of graphic short stories marks her emergence as a "consummate storyteller". (The Walrus)
Visual activist: Photographer Zanele Muholi highlights racism, homophobia, and hate with Somnyama Ngopnyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, a series of self-portraits she took every day for a year. The Guardian dedicates two spaces to her work, and rightly so: a striking photo gallery and a compelling article.
When is a Modigliani not a Modigliani? Twenty-one artworks have been confiscated from a major exhibition in Genoa after several were confirmed as fakes. (The Telegraph)
The Commuter Pig Keeper? You still have time to vote for the Oddest Book Title of the Year. (The Bookseller)
Agave alumna: Agave Magazine contributor Karla K. Morton's twelfth book, Wooden Lions, is now available.
By Deb A.
Disruptions, delivery services, death: the news about drones is far from positive. But in the right hands, a drone can capture beauty from an uncommon vantage point.
Dronestagram is a social network solely for aerial photographers. This is the fourth year that it has held a drone photography contest in partnership with National Geographic and the first year it has included "Creativity" as a category alongside "Nature", "People", and "Urban". Plucked from 8,000 submissions, the twelve winning photos take us around the world with striking views of France, Romania, Greenland, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Spain, South Africa, the United States, and Vietnam.
By Deb A.
The museum-going experience is generally a fairly standard one: Go in and look. In most cases, the act of experiencing art relies heavily or even exclusively on sight. Anyone wishing to contemplate something particularly fascinating might get close enough to see the tiny details, or sit for awhile to gaze. There might be something to listen to, but touching or tasting are generally frowned upon, and smelling is often wholly irrelevant altogether.
Peter de Cupere is a preeminent olfactory artist whose works include a fake fuel station smelling of grass, candy and exhaust fumes; a house made of pleasantly scented garbage; real flowers that smell like smoke; and a dome containing an old black tree on a white ball that makes visitors' eyes water with its intense peppermint and pepper aroma.
"When you walk into an installation with scent, you cannot hide. Your body starts to react," Mr. de Cupere explained to the New York Times. He believes that so little art is olfactory because smells "act directly on the limbic system and don't give you the necessary time and chance to translate things like you do with sight." Odours have an immediate physical impact on us, whereas even our first visceral impression of a painting can be considered and evaluated and refined.
The immediacy of smells extends to how we experience them. Unlike visual and aural art, scents must be encountered in person. They are not available online. As Scent Art, a network for olfactory artists, explains, "The resistance of odour to digitisation makes it one of the aspects of an artwork that still demands the physical presence of its audience in order to experience it." Klara Ravat has taken advantage of this fact to examine how human interaction changes after visitors have exchanged body odours with someone else—a feat that could only be realised in person.
Artist and smell scientist Sissel Tolaas thinks that scent affords us a deeper understanding that is more likely to remain fixed in our memory. Her installation for Beauty--Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in 2016 examined the beauty of smells--in particular, decay. She captured autumn odours in Central Park, then reproduced them and mixed them into paint that is activated by another sense: touch. She aims to help visitors understand that there is beauty to be found in odours.
Scent is the only sense that triggers our emotions, our memory and our adrenaline. Why, then, aren't more artists using aromas in their works? For one, smells can be difficult to control—in 1902 Sadakichi Hartmann's 'scent concert' was upstaged by tobacco smoke. Smell is also temporary, although artists like Anicka Yi have used it to reinforce the idea that "maybe, all art shouldn't stick around forever in its object form."
Perhaps the most important barrier to scent art is that we simply don't care as much about our sense of smell as we do about our other four senses. It has been shown that the ability to smell is the sense we would be most willing to sacrifice. Hopefully the growing ranks of contemporary olfactory artists (if you'd like to become one, here's a helpful resource) can help us acknowledge the value of what's right under our noses.
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