Thursday, December 06, 2007

Ambiguity

Debby here. Since I forgot again to post on Monday, I hope I’m not stealing anyone’s space! Sorry, gang.

This thread about neat endings being a necessity of CF (nice acronym, Rick) has my wheels turning. I, too, like to have characters struggle with moral ambiguity. Other types of ambiguity, too. There are a lot of phenomena that can’t be explained, aren’t there? There’s always religion, but I’d better not get started...

My last book, Fire Prayer, deals with the long-lasting effects of a violent death in a fire that happened 10 years before my story begins. Since I try to weave in a handful of local folklore and culture, the book makes a strong reference to Hawaiian sorcery. That's what the title means.

Molokai, where the story takes place, is the home of the most powerful of the Hawaiian sorcerers. There are different kinds of sorcerers in Hawaiian lore, and among them is the fire pray-er. In case you’re interested, in Hawaiian this person is known as a kāhuna kuni.

Like other groups who believe in paranormal or psychic powers (voodoo comes to mind), this is a very real phenomenon in the islands. Whether or not one believes these people have actual power isn’t really the point. Many believe, and many don’t. Just like the burning bush, stigmata, Easter morning, or the parting of the Red Sea. Oops, there I go on the religious tangent.

Consequently, I left it up to the reader to decide whether a “fire pray-er,” or kāhuna kuni, could cause a conflagration powerful enough to kill an intended victim. That 10 year old death was the only unresolved aspect of the story. All current, real time, deaths are explained. (BTW, no animals died, just humans. But there were a couple of imperiled horses, along with an eleven-year-old boy)

And my editor, for whom I have great respect, had me change the end. I needed to explain the fire that resulted in the old death, too. So I did, and I had to make a choice as to whether the fire was caused by a sorcerer or by some other means. But I liked it better when it was ambiguous.

Certainly moral choices are ambiguous, but even death can be ambiguous, can’t it? Does any one remember that movie with Nicholas Cage, “Leaving Las Vegas?” That was a great example of ambiguous death. In my eyes, Cage’s character was suicidal. But there could be an element of doubt, just in his loss of control. And in the oft-discussed “suicide by cop,” ambiguity reigns large.

Enough rambling. Thoughts, anyone?

3 comments:

Rick Blechta said...

You mention that you had an ambiguous ending to the book that your editor made you change, but that you preferred the original. Do you still? Did you get a really good reason to change that ending, and did you have a chance to defend what you'd written in the first place?

My guess is that you were more or less told to change it. The same thing has happened to me. What really bothers me is that the editor or publisher is making a judgement call that is based on other considerations than what makes a really good story. "Readers don't tend to like this," is not what I would consider a strong reason to make a change.

Perhaps this is where CF goes wrong. You can certainly bet that putting your original ending on a "literary book" would not get such a short rope to dangle from, and I think this ultimately hurts what we do.

I've already had a bit of a "fight" (perhaps too strong a word) with my editor and publisher over the ending of my forthcoming novel. We had a "lively" discussion about it, and for the moment, it stays, but I certainly had to justify what I'd written.

I guess I'm lucky that RendezVous Crime takes a more generous route than your publisher seems to.

Would they have preferred Romeo to get the letter sent by Friar Lawrence and be happily reunited with Juliet? Probably...

Charles benoit said...

Maybe it has something to do with the times we are living in - everything seems so ambiguous as it is, we don't want our mysteries to add to that discomfort. But then all times are ambiguous to those who are living them, so there goes that idea. How about this: Happy endings (happy as in unambiguous) sell better than unhappy, ambiguous endings. Now, does anyone have any evidence (facts and figures) to back this up, or is it a collective gut feeling?

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Hey Rick, Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. It's the Christmas rush, I guess. Yes, I guess I do still prefer the ambiguity of my first ending. It wasn't a crucial issue, though, and I have a lot of respect for my editor's view. Minette Walters did a much more ambiguous ending in her Devil's Feather, which I enjoyed immensely. But Walters can get away with it. Alas...let's keep working on it! I certainly don't think my sales would have suffered. I have more trouble with the Hawaiian words I use, and my editor likes those...
Debby