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Symbolism in The Pecan Man

Author’s note: One question that almost always makes it into a book club discussion of The Pecan Man is with regard to the scene with Eddie and the barber chair.  I thought it might be a good idea to talk about it here, so other readers can add their own ideas.  I HIGHLY suggest that you do NOT read this until your book club has already discussed the question. You may want to print this out and read it after your discussion, so I don’t influence your experience with my own thoughts. You’ll see what I mean when you do read this post.

Symbolism in literature is when an object, figure of speech, or even the actions of a character, have a deeper meaning in the context of the story. That meaning is often subjective – unique to each reader – and informed by their own perspective. To me, this is the beauty of literature…that the story can be a slightly different experience for each reader.

For the author, symbolism can be a tricky device. Sometimes symbolism is used with specific intent; other times it can be subconscious or completely inadvertent. As with everything I have done in my writing career, I approach the writing process first as a reader. What kind of stories do I like? What techniques do I appreciate in other authors? What habits annoy me as a reader? One of my pet peeves is when an author beats me over the head with what they want me to think. Just give me the image. I’ll either get it or I won’t, but let me process it my way.

With The Pecan Man, there are several questions left open-ended for that reason. Does Blanche know who Eddie is? When Ora sees a flash of white at the back door, does that mean Blanche heard her talking to Eddie? What is the significance of the barber’s chair? Was Marcus’s death an accident or did he commit suicide? All of these questions are meant for the reader to decide, and whatever they believe is fine with me. This is completely intentional on my part, even when it isn’t popular. I want the reader to have a personal experience with my work.

Sometimes readers have said, “But you’re the author, you decide.” My answer to that has a couple of layers. The first is: If I didn’t write it in the book, I’m not going to make it up now. The second is: The story is told from Ora Lee’s perspective, so we can only know what she knew. To interject with the author’s POV would be intrusive at best. So the answer to “Did Blanche know?” is I don’t know. And I don’t. Same with Marcus, same with the flash of white. It is written to be interpreted by you. And, trust me, this has made book club discussions quite lively!

Now you see why all of my stories are long (with the exception of the novel itself). I set out to talk about the barber’s chair and I’ve written an entire page without getting to it! So here goes:

Years ago, I was married to a man who worked as a railroad conductor on freight trains. His work took him all up and down the eastern seaboard in a time before cell phones and GPS. He owned this antique barber’s chair which, by the way, was not as ornate as the one I describe in the book. It had been sitting in the back yard of a little house in a neighborhood the train would often pass, and he had finally been able to figure out approximately where it would be by watching for landmarks and finding it on a map. He took the time to go find that house and buy the chair for ten dollars. It was rusted and torn, but he restored it to a near original look with a lot of time and elbow grease. Now, despite the fact that this man is the grandfather of my daughter’s children, and that we are friends today, the story was not originally intended to be nostalgic or to hold any particular symbolism in the story.

However…I know that my subconscious writer is a much better storyteller than my conscious writer is. I write character-driven fiction with very little focus on plot, and I write using a technique I call “mind movies”, where I basically visualize the action as if it were a movie and transcribe it on the page. So, I put characters in situations and see what they do. Because of this, I often foreshadow without realizing the significance until later. I also pull from true stories in my life, which get fictionalized in my work. If you think about it, there are certain stories in your life that stick with you, even if you haven’t analyzed the significance of them. It may be because they are funny, or heartbreaking, or just interesting, but they are the ones that get told over and over when you are sitting around reminiscing.

So, as I was writing The Pecan Man, and visualizing Eddie hopping a freight train to Alabama, I thought of the story about the barber’s chair. I loved the idea of Eddie taking that much time to get something for himself, despite the fact that he was homeless. But I didn’t necessarily think about that at the time. I just saw it unfold and transcribed it. Then, when Ora and Chip go to the woods and find Eddie drunk in the ornate barber’s chair, I really loved the scene (and I hope it makes it into the movie) because it was just this ironic moment of a broken man…a man destroyed by an addiction and circumstances he cannot control…in a setting where he was a king. He had his chair, and his bottle, and his fire, and his woods. And he had this thing he could do, at least in his mind, to set things right. He could atone for old wrongs. He could save Blanche from even more sorrow. He could pay a debt that wasn’t exactly the one he owed, but it would work out the same in the end.

So, the chair, for me, came to symbolize this: Eddie takes care of that which he loves. And the chair elevated him in ways mere words would never do. I have had readers tell me what it symbolized to them and, even though it was not at all what I intended I thought…YES…that’s right. So I invite you now to add your thoughts. What was the significance of that chair, if anything, when YOU read it? Please comment below, or go to my Facebook page for The Pecan Man and share it there.

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Workshops Available

Is your writers’ group looking for workshop presenters or speakers? We are available for presentations throughout the Southeast. Check out the workshops we offer here:

Professional Craft Workshops for Writers and Storytellers

Patricia Walker holds a BA in Musical Theatre from Catawba College in Salisbury, NC, and an MFA in Acting from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is currently a patti-walker-headshotSenior Instructor in the Communications and Rhetoric Department at University of South Carolina teaching Public Speaking. She has been instrumental in creating workshops for both actors and writers, developing techniques for accessing character using physical methods of of actor training.

 

Cassie Selleck is a novelist, storyteller and motivational speaker and holds a BFA in 35518011506_5f178a9b8e_kCreative Writing from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. She recently won the Moth Story Slam in Asheville, NC, and was a guest author at the Florida Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine. As a former Outreach Coordinator for a tri-county public library cooperative, Cassie has extensive experience in developing and presenting writing workshops for participants of all ages.

 

Arkansas State Library features “The Pecan Man” as their 2016 common reader.

What a thrill it was to have my first novel selected for the Arkansas State Library Program “If All Arkansas Read the Same Book.” Though the tour of libraries is over and done, the program goes on throughout the year. I’m hoping to Skype with many more libraries in the coming months.

My tour guide and director of the program itself was Zoe Butler who, I might add, is a wonderful traveling partner, and a fun and interesting person to be around. We had so much in common and we made a great team as we traveled the highways and back roads of the beautiful state of Arkansas. Seriously, y’all…it is lovely.

I loved that the libraries we visited were mostly in small towns where I got to meet and talk with fascinating people, and was treated like royalty by the library staff. I worked for a library cooperative and I know what it takes to host events like this. I want to take this opportunity to remind you to check YOUR library website and social media to see what’s happening there. Funding can be a huge issue and the thing that makes our representatives take notice is COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT.  You may not think too much about the library if you aren’t a frequent patron, but stop a moment and consider what your town would be like WITHOUT one. Okay…off my soapbox.

I wish I could thank everyone personally but, though I am sending thank you cards to the libraries, it is impossible to remember all the names and credit them one by one. Suffice it to say that there were many people who made my trip wonderful and welcoming. Special thanks to Danny Koonce, who shadowed us for two days and took more photos of me in those two days than I’ve had taken in probably my entire life. Will share a few of them here as soon as they are available.

I say this all the time: Writing is about connecting with other people. It is about empathy and the sharing of story. It is about those “ah-ha” moments where you read something someone else has written and think, Wow! Me, too! I loved meeting readers and writers who attended the events at the libraries. It is an experience I will remember the rest of my life. I met new friends, and enjoyed all the little moments of “recognition” in our brief, but powerful, interactions.

Thank you to Zoe Butler and the State Library of Arkansas for making this possible. I am forever grateful.

Cassie Selleck

Outside In: Character as Verb – a Workshop for Writers

 

 

In his text Building a Character, famed theatre practitioner Constantin Stanislavski writes:

“At the beginning of our lesson I told Tortsov, the Director of our school and theatre, that I could comprehend with my mind the process of planting and training within myself the elements necessary to create character, but that it was still unclear to me how to achieve the building of that character in physical terms. Because, if you do not use your body, your voice, a manner of speaking, walking, moving, if you do not find a form of characterization which corresponds to the image, you probably cannot convey to others its inner, living spirit.”

Of course, Stanislavski is speaking of the physicality of the actor portraying a character on stage, but I believe his statement is likewise true of a writer portraying a character on the page. Writers must convey images of their characters – how they move, speak and walk – if they are to reveal to readers the inner, living spirit of the characters they create. Most writers understand this as “show, don’t tell,” yet many still wonder how exactly to accomplish this in their narrative.

Stanislavski then asks Tortsov how to achieve the external characterization, and Tortsov responds that it is most often generated by the actor once the “right inner values have been established.” This was the accepted technique at the time, which represents the creation of characters from the inside out. You decide who the character is, and then portray him accordingly.

As the chapter goes on, however, Stanislavski and Tortsov begin to alter their own physical characteristics by choosing specific clothing, demeanors, and speech patterns, which revealed a technique for external character development they had not considered before. We look at this as the creation of character from the outside in.

For actors, either method is acceptable and many performers use a combination of both. The same is true in writing as well. A writer can assign philosophical and spiritual beliefs, personality traits, and behaviors, and then develop corresponding physical features and qualities of movement. Or they might simply be inspired by the external, as I often am. I see a person in real life, a character on the street or in a coffee shop and, lacking any background information, I create a fictional character based on the physical traits I’m able to observe. This works well for me, since I write almost exclusively character-driven fiction.

My daughter Patricia Walker and I have developed a technique, a tool writers can use in the immediate process of writing, to analyze, embody and convey characters who live and breathe on the page. Since I started using the technique, my own writing has taken new shape, expanding both actively and visually. I can physically embody characters, which helps me move the action forward and create authentic and unique dialogue. I am able to analyze my work to make sure there is a fully developed and well-rounded cast of characters. I can identify the core dynamic of each character, and assign them a specific, descriptive verb that I refer to when I need to convey emotion or intent through physical action. I can show, rather than tell the reader, everything they need to know about who the character is as a human being.

Patti’s experience as a professionally trained actor and university instructor makes her uniquely qualified to present the program we call Outside In: Character as Verb to writers of all skill levels. My experience as a successful author of character-driven Southern fiction helps me apply the concepts of stage movement to the written word. We are available as a team to present this dynamic and exciting new two-hour craft workshop for writers.

If you are in the Calhoun, Georgia area, we’ll be presenting this program at the 2017 Northwest Georgia Writers Conference May 19-20.  Go to http://www.calhounareawriters.com/ for more information.

To request information about hosting a workshop, please go to http://www.CassieDandridgeSelleck.com and use the contact page.

 

 

Upcoming Author Appearances

Put these on your calendars and watch for more information. I’ll be a guest author at The Florida Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine on September 23, 2017.  See http://www.floridaheritagebookfestival.com for details. May need to wait until closer to time for the event to know the exact schedule.

I am also speaking at the Northwest Georgia Writers Conference May 19 and 20th, and presenting a workshop with Patti Walker, Senior Editor of Obstinate Daughters Press, on the craft of character development. This will be at the Harris Arts Center in Calhoun, Georgia.

And for those of you in Arkansas…check your local and/or state public library schedules for appearances the week of June 12th, 2017. I’ll be visiting across the state for the “If All Arkansas Read the Same Book” program, featuring my novel The Pecan Man. The schedule is still being developed, but I know I’ll be in Hot Springs on the 11th. These are all free to the public.

 

Goodreads Giveaway

If you are a Goodreads member, check out the free drawing I’m doing for a signed copy of my second novel What Matters in Mayhew. This is the first in what I call the Beanie Bradsher Series, about a quirky woman in a small Southern town. This is the blurb from the book cover:

Every town has at least one beloved, if misunderstood, eccentric and Beanie Bradsher belongs to Mayhew Junction. Some – LouWanda Crump, for example – would call Beanie a spectacle, but Beanie just marches (and dresses) to the beat of a different drum. Not much has changed over the years in this town. On any given morning, you’ll find the same people at the same table at the same café, and none of them have changed one iota in the past twenty years. But now Beanie Bradsher has won the lottery, and might be dating Sweet Lee Atwater’s husband. And the hometown basketball star Vesuvius Jones just got a face full of Red Velvet cake at the Trunk-or-Treat. The gossip has never been juicier, which might just be a good thing. Lord knows this town could use a good shaking up.

Sign up before March 13th for a chance to win one of two signed copies of the book, which is also available on Amazon’s Kindle program for $4.99 or for FREE if you belong to Kindle Unlimited.

Book Club Photos

 

I love that these ladies from Boston thought to add me to their picture! What a lovely time we had discussing The Pecan Man. Gotta add, since this is Super Bowl Sunday, go Patriots!!! boston-lucinda-studley