Death and the Writer - Umberto Tosi

 Rod Kamitsuka, back when.
To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: The prospect of death (by Coronavirus) can "concentrate the mind wonderfully."  We've been living with that prospect for more than a year now, awaiting the vaccine cavalry while the threat escalated from miniscule to monstrous. It matters not that the odds are in favour of survival except among the elderly and health-impaired. It's still a threat, with nasty side effects. Covid and the solitude of lockdown have made death more present to us all. Our capacity for denial wilts as the toll doubles and redoubles on TV.

Death, however, can be a writer's friend. It motivates characters. It propels our narratives, themes, plot points, and symbols. Plus, dying can be a good career move for some writers, boosting book sales, prestige and popularity. No one ever heard of Stieg Larrson until he died, and we all know how The Great Gatsby flopped in 1925 and didn't catch on until after F. Scott Fitzgerald's death in 1940.

Writers since Homer and Dante have taken us into nether worlds. Sagas follow Odysseus, Orpheus, Hercules, young Alice, and more recently Jake Gittes,  Wonder Woman, et al, into the heart of darkness. And, this is crucial, bring us safely back with what pearls of wisdom we may have grasped.

“Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it," wrote Margaret Atwood  in her 2002 autobiographical guide to writing, Negotiating With the Dead.  

Lucky for me -- or maybe not: The older I get, the more dead people I know. At 83 I can see their destination more clearly now, just over the next rise.

Odysseus in Hades
More and more dead people have populated my stories over time. They show up thinly disguised as characters, and outright, as ghosts. I didn't start doing this on purpose. I'm much too scattered for that. 

Perhaps from lack of inventiveness -- or out of habit from my years as a reporter -- I draw characters from people I've known. I find old friends, associates and acquaintances most handy, along relatives and others I recall from childhood. Ergo, most of them have gone on to their maker. Best case: they metamorphose. If I work hard enough and hit it just right, they will take on a life of their own.

Portraying real live people in fiction remains a taboo, especially in a strong, often harsh light, even though that can make them compelling. Like a lot of writers, I'm loathe to embarrass friends and loved ones. Making nice saps our powers of expression, unless you're maybe St. Francis.

It's a double bind. Write what you know and don't censor yourself. Our desire to depict plausible, three-dimensional characters conflicts with our fear of being called out for exploiting those around us -- maybe even sued, or worse. 

"The best stories I know, I must not tell," wrote Bonnie Friedman in Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life,

In retrospect, it seems wiser, to hang out with dead people. They can't sue you.

In my case, the chance of them being outed decrease exponentially with time. My powers of reanimation remain minimal in any case. I depend on my unreliable memories to start with. I write from my long-ago impressions, then expand those with research as my stories take shape in unplanned directions. I can't say that I truly get into anyone's head. I dreamed that impossible dream long ago as an aspiring non-fiction hack. Nowadays, as I presume to create literature, the characters get into my head.

The dead run wild in my latest novel, The Phantom Eye, which I purposefully populated with characters based on memorable showbiz oddballs whom I recall from my childhood and youth as the son of an opera singer and sometimes movie dubber in 1950s Hollywood. I didn't plan it that way, but it turned out to be an homage to detective noir and send-up of 50s Hollywood, remastered (to advantage, I hope) in colour and living HD

It's taken me more than a year to write, revise and rewrite. As with all I finish these days, I'm thankful to have lived long enough to finish writing it. It's now in editing and production, for release in late spring, Lord willing and the creeks don't rise.

 Rod, Suzanne & Romy, c. 1960s.
I was musing over this the other day when an old friend and esteemed colleague showed up to tell me he had died. That's the way it seemed, anyway. His picture popped up innocently amid images of latest Facebook "friends." I thought that odd because he and I had been Facebook friends for years and real-life friends going back decades. 

I clicked to his feed, feeling a little guilty that, engrossed in my novel, I hadn't kept in touch lately. Everything looked normal at first. But as I scrolled the latest entries, I saw posts by his daughter, Romy Godding updating friends and sharing her grief. 

Rodney Kamitsuka, graphic artist, photographer extraordinaire, friend and wit, had died on January 6, of all days, after a short illness (not Coronavirus) at home with family after being hospitalized.

Rod and I had worked together on the editorial staffs of three magazines in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as on independent projects over a span of 30+-years. I first met him in 1967 when I joined the editorial staff of The Los Angeles Times' award-winning, Sunday Magazine, West, where he was a designer and photographer. We were young, second bananas then, he in the art department, and I as an assistant editor. 

Over the years we collaborated on production, assignments, features, and spreads. We became more than work friends during my next five years at West, sharing good times after work, at events and together with our spouses and young children. We joked and conversed and swapped stories over sushi in Little Tokyo a few blocks from the former L.A. Times-Mirror building at First and Spring Streets, where we worked. I fondly recall the night we spent with his grandparents on one of our road trips. At the time, they owned a small farm near Pismo Beach, California, and had been among the thousands of West Coast Japanese Americans interred in concentration camps by the government during WW2.

l quit the Times in 1972, after eleven years at the paper, and moved to San Francisco. I hired Rod as art director when I became editor of San Francisco Magazine in 1973, and again in 1982 when I was editor of San Francisco, The Magazine (published by a different owner.) His graphic work was always creative, meticulous and outstanding. I could fill volumes with examples of his excellence, and his ironic and often hilarious sense of humour.  

We grew distant and lost touch for a while after the last of those gigs ended. He moved back to Southern California. I relocated from place to place, gig to gig, changing my focus as the Internet transformed publishing, until settling in Chicago and turned to writing fiction full time.

I an thankful, at least, that Rod and I both lived long enough to reconnect, however tenuously, this past decade. What can I say? I'm thankful about a lot of things -- my four daughters - Alicia, Kara, Cristina and Zoë, my inamorata, the artist Eleanor Spiess Ferris, that I finished another novel, that my daughter Doctor Zoë Chapa Tosi recently earned her Ph.d in cognitive science, after nearly a decade of hard work and accomplishment at University of Indiana (okay, I'm a proud papa.). I'm thankful I've lived long enough to see us boot gangster-fascist Donald Trump out of the White House, and to see his bloody, attempted coup thwarted, for now, anyway. 

Of course, there is so much more to do, always to push forward. With a respectful nod to those who have passed, I hope to sit here at my keyboard writing what I can each day, come what may.

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Umberto Tosi's books include Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com)





Comments

Jan Needle said…
What a fantastic piece. Umberto - thanks. Two things I want to use fir my own amusement, if I may.

"Portraying real live people in fiction remains a taboo, especially in a strong, often harsh light, even though that can make them compelling. Like a lot of writers, I'm loathe to embarrass friends and loved ones. Making nice saps our powers of expression, unless you're maybe St. Francis."

"Our desire to depict plausible, three-dimensional characters conflicts with our fear of being called out for exploiting those around us -- maybe even sued, or worse."

My most recent novella, Lying Doggo, kicks all those wise thoughts 'aht the window' as we low-class English might say, although I'd swear in any court of law my Boris Johnson is certainly not a real live person. But I feel we've got to try and call out bastardy with any weapon that falls to hand. My own 'inamorata' can't even bear to read it, but it's on Kindle as an ebook and paperback for stronger stomachs!
Reb MacRath said…
Marvelous, Umberto. Wise and deeply moving. In addition to picking up a couple of books I want to read--the Atwood book and your Phantom Eye--the phrase 'good career move' made me wince and smile at once. I remember Gore Vidal using the phrase to describe another writer's suicide. The more tragic the ending the better for the commercial machine, it seems. Then again, there are tales too of older writers who've weathered storms of neglect and sailed on in their lifetimes to, at last, acclaim. I hope Phantom Eye is a terrific career move or you.
Peter Leyland said…
A deeply moving piece Umberto about the death of your friend and the chance way you found out about it.

It made me think about how writers use characters who were dead when they wrote their novels. As I have embarked upon War and Peace during lockdown this is quite fascinating. I have just read the part where in full regalia Napoleon tells Tsar Alexander's envoy, Balachow, that he will invade Russia. We all know what happened next!

Thanks for your post which really concentrated my own mind.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto,

Firstly, my condolences on the passing of your friend. It's never good to hear of someone's death, and it seems especially cruel when Facebook is the bearer of this bad news. What you wrote about him is beautiful and touching.

This >>> "Like a lot of writers, I'm loathe to embarrass friends and loved ones."

I guess I'm not all that concerned about this. Does that make me a horrible person? Yikes!

Seriously, I write fiction, so even though I draw inspiration from people I know, I also disguise my characters in a way that will not 'out' them in real life. If I do my job properly, the reader should not know where real life ends and fiction begins.

Look forward to grabbing THE PHANTOM EYE when it drops, and congratulations on completing it!

eden
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for all your kind comments and condolences, Eden, Peter, Reb, and Jan.

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