This post was originally published on the 11th Floor Writers website on February 9, 2016. The bio has been updated.
Dennis Bock has penned many highly acclaimed books, including The Ash Gardens. His novel, Going Home Again, was short-listed for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Dennis’s newest novel, The Good German, was released in fall 2020.
Dennis also teaches Creative Writing classes, including “Writing the Literary Novel: Master Class” at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.
When it comes to offering advice to aspiring and emerging writers, Dennis doesn’t pull punches. He’s honest and direct, and often says things that linger in our thoughts long after class has ended. As a token of our thanks to Dennis, we’ve compiled a list of our favourites to share.
“I’m a huge fan of something actually happening. Make your character do something.” “Always dramatize.” “Always create scenes.” “Mention all the people in the room at the outset of a scene.” “Don’t be obscure –mysterious or cagey is not attractive.” “Never rely on abstractions.” “Take the reader out of the story sometimes – don’t keep them stuck in the present.” “Be wary of putting too many plot threads.” (e.g.,“I’m confused,” said a character in one of our stories. “So am I,” replied Dennis.)
“Send your character up a tree and have him figure out how to get down. This makes your story much more interesting.” “Don’t be afraid to take risks with your characters.”
On the narrator
“The narrator’s purpose is to give the reader a sense of what will happen, a sense there is a story, and a sense of urgency.” “The narrator recounts something when time has passed and can comment and add wisdom on the subject.” (Similarly, when introducing a new character). “The narrator knows the point of the book and should drop this in early on.” “Find the narrator’s voice to keep the story focused.” “Establish that the narrator is dead immediately.” (Only when your narrator is dead, of course!)
“Dialogue should be made up of only how the speaker thinks and talks. No information dumping and no stage direction. ” (i.e. “It’s 4:30,” he said.) “Don’t use dialogue to advance the story.” “Avoid non-words like ‘huh’ in dialogue.”
On the reader
“A reader will like a fighter, not a sufferer.” “You have to earn the reader’s confidence.”
Y, by Aaron Tucker, follows J. Robert Oppenheimer: reluctant father of the atomic bomb, enthusiastic lover of books, devoted husband and philanderer. Engaging with the books he voraciously read, and especially the Bhagavad Gita, his moral compass, this lyrical novel takes us through his story, from his tumultuous youth to his marriage with a radical communist and the two secret, consuming affairs he carried on, all the while bringing us deep inside the mind of the man behind the Manhattan Project.
Discover Y by reading the excerpt and Aaron’s thoughts on it below.
They stayed at Perro Caliente for two months, and during that time he and Kitty would ride together under the heat of pride and competition across the hardest New Mexico trails, each admiring the other’s meagre movements of control, a flex of legs rarely aided by spurs in the stirrups, instead a light tap with the side of a palm or tug upwards on the reins, their mutual wonder a recognition of each other’s shared muscle memory. She was there even though she was married to another man; in fact, he knew Kitty’s husband, Richard Harrison, a friend and doctor, and the two men would sometimes share notes and drinks in the restaurants near Berkeley, spaces crowded with noise. Yet he didn’t feel the yank of guilt and instead relished his and Kitty’s overlapping, a low and constant rumble like the engine of his exquisitely curved Chrysler coupe as he drove Kitty around, the speed of the big car accented by his half-attention to driving and her describing how the two of them would soon stride into rooms together, powerful and charming and overwhelming. Although she was married, he would burst into parties pronouncing her his fiancée, and Kitty would emerge, inflorescent, from behind him, bursting out in unthinking laughter, her body unconfined by the distant and overwrought movement Jean showed even in hesitating when turning the kettle on, Kitty bathed in the scent of orchids, the large petals drooping over his thin fingers as he thrust the flowers excitedly towards the hosts. He would overhear her tell her friends, “I simply adore Robert,” and knowing that he was listening, would explain how he would expand when he was in a conversation, become as large as the room in the way that a soft bulb glows and settles over every person and thing.
They remained that way all through the summer, winding through the pines and spindly birches that blanketed the mountains, only stopping to build a secluded fire, eat and, sharing a sleeping bag, groan against each other, “Robert,” him above her and her hands clenching and pushing him further into her, “Robert,” the stars just above them, white, large, blossoming. She told him how brilliant he was, how he was going to conquer the future, that she would conquer it with him, barbarians consuming mussels soaked in garlic butter and leeks, duck confit piled beside black currants, drinking the best wines of every city, of every decade, and he saw in her imagery sattvic, Krishna explaining the best of the three kinds of food,
Where vigor, life, power, comfort, health Content are strengthened, food Bland, solid, cordial, savory Is relished by the good,
and she repeated to their guests at Perro Caliente, to an amused Katy after she handed back Kitty’s underwear, left at her ranch home, looking at him with bemusement and caution, and Kitty left that August pregnant with their son, Peter.
Although Y looks like a piece of historical fiction on its surface, in my mind, its heart is the love triangle between Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty and his mistress Jean Tatlock that is the affective centre and prime mover of the work. It is through Robert’s relationships with these powerful and engaging women that his own perspectives of the world, and his actions within, come to bear. While Jean and Kitty are not opposites, they do represent two separate and appealing paths for Robert that roughly parallel his feelings about his leadership of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and the subsequent use of the atomic bomb: Jean embodies much of the doubt he has about himself and his work, while Kitty is more aligned with his ambitions and sense of patriotic duty.
The second chapter, from which this excerpt has been taken, details Robert and Kitty’s blossoming romance. Importantly, the two bond over their mutual love of New Mexico and horseback riding, and their passion for each other is crystallized in the beginning of their bold and unapologetic affair. For me, this passage shows how the two are unbridled and completely enamoured with each other, providing essential nourishment for the other; yet, the relationship is not quite equally symbiotic, even from the beginning. Kitty has to fold parts of herself into Robert’s ego and drive, become his wife and put aside her own dreams, and, despite her immense love for him, there is a well of tragedy there. She empowers Robert, but Robert drains a key energy from her.
As well, the passage reflects a further contradiction and tension within Robert: his respect and care for the New Mexico landscape that he also destroys by leading the Manhattan Project. The incorporation of the poetry here reflects Robert’s interior struggles and his constant turning to the texts of his life for ethical and spiritual guidance.
Aaron is the author of two collections of poetry, irresponsible mediums: the chesspoems of Marcel Duchamp and punchlines, as well as the two scholarly manuscripts Virtual Weaponry: The Militarized Internet in Popular Cinema and Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema. His current collaborative project, Loss Sets, translates poems into sculptures which are then 3D printed; he is also the co-creator of The Chessbard, an app that transforms chess games into poems. In addition, he is a lecturer in the English department at Ryerson University.