Today, We Are All Irish

Editing and Remembering

Working on the novel today. I am remembering my research of the Book of Kells in the Library of Trinity College in Dublin. So long ago, it seems. Not to the Book of Kells, I'm sure. The last of its 340 folios was completed in 384AD.

Today is March 17, and the weather is beautiful where I am. The sun is bright in a blue sky and warming the chill of a late winter morning beside the Pacific. It's a good day and I am grateful for it. That said, I'd rather be in The Temple Bar this morning for a proper Irish Breakfast.

Irish Breakfast

  • Eggs

  • Bacon (chewy, not crispy)

  • Sausages

  • Mushrooms

  • Baked Beans

  • Grilled Tomato

  • Black Pudding

  • Toast  (Irish soda bread for me, thanks)

  • Butter

  • Marmalade

  • Tea  (coffee for this Yank)

Dublin is 11 hours and 5,145 miles away measured in time and miles, but not in the more accurate distance of memory, desire and the senses. The streets, Georgian stone architecture, the greens, buskers and bracing poetic passions of that place are just outside my mind's window today.

The annual St. Patrick's parade will cross over the Liffey River at O'Connell Street and enter another year of one of western society's most enduring traditions.

Patrick and Ireland are indelibly bound in our imaginations, yet he is not Irish. He was born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain. When he was about 16, Irish pirates kidnapped him and sold him into slavery to a Druid high priest in Ireland.  He worked as a shepherd for six years before escaping back to Britain. Eventually, he had a dream in which a voice gave him the mission of returning to Ireland to work with the Christians there. Patrick was beyond good for the Emerald Isle. He adopted the Irish and by the time of his death, he had established schools, monasteries and churches all over the island. 

Perhaps it's the Irish in me, but I'd like to think that Patrick and today's Irish would recognize one another if he were to return to Ireland for today's celebration in Dublin. He would welcome the embrace of that legendary and companionable literary city.

Now, I'm off in my mind to The Temple Bar for a stout. With a raising of the glass by the Scot in me to the North-Northeast and a corresponding Sláinte to the assembled patrons in the pub, I settle in to appreciate ballads accompanied by Uilleann pipes.

Photo: Leandro Borges de Carvalho

Photo: Leandro Borges de Carvalho

Happy St. Patrick's Day to you.



Navigating Choices

Art - Like Literature - Captures Essential Truths

Much of the art that moves me explores our experience at the intersection of one world and another. Sea and land. Man and woman. City and country. Feeling and intellect. Offense and defense. Generosity and greed. Benign and evil. Past and future. Trust and mistrust. Life and death.

A practical, real-life example is the boat. A boat floats on a membrane separating two universes: fathomless reaches below and infinite space above. Sailors who live in that narrow in-between are a metaphor for each of us who live between now and then, yesterday and tomorrow, right and wrong, left or right, risk and reward, failure and success. We all float, sink or fly by the choices we make.

Seen in this way, the art of sail becomes a bridge between the creative process and the secret explorer in each of us.

Three-masted Topsail Schooner  Oosterschelde  NL   (2018) by Mark Roger Bailey

Three-masted Topsail Schooner Oosterschelde NL (2018) by Mark Roger Bailey

Lovers desperately seek perfect union yet are distinct beings. Prisoners of their bodies, they are separated by heart or mind, love or lust, soul or body, past or future. They are so close yet so far away.  

Day and night are rich with potential meaning between bright color and blackness, light and shadow, openness and mystery, work and sleep.

The fact is that I am thinking about storytelling puzzles constantly, making notes about whether this story renders better through this lens or on that page. For too long, the New England Yankee in me always said, go slow in revealing what you're up to. You'll confuse readers if they think you're passionate about art, and you might confuse art collectors if they know you've published novels and optioned them for the movies. The Californian in me says relax, don't second guess yourself, trust the flow. It's way bigger than you and will show the way. The traveler in me asks what are you doing? Whatever it is, is it more important than experiencing the stories that are happening right now in the Hebrides, Antarctica and the Aegean? Who will I listen to today - the Yankee, the Californian or the traveler?   

What are we to do with all the potential of these intersections between universes? We must choose. Art is born in the choices we make, where we sometimes find ways to express the beauty and meaning of this existence between opposites.

Collectible limited edition art by Mark Roger Bailey

Collectible limited edition art by Mark Roger Bailey

View my Tall Ships collection and please stop by my Gallery Shop to consider a special series of signed and numbered limited-edition prints for the collector. A miniature print of a tall ship would make a wonderful gift for yourself or a thoughtful surprise for a friend. 

The Art of Sail | Tall Ships

Why Maritime?

My artistic interest in sailing vessels goes back to my earliest memories on the shores of Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont. The mystery of wooden rowboats caught my imagination at first. Rowboats. How was it that humans figured out how to build wooden crafts that could both float and leak simultaneously? Every harbor had dinghies patiently filling with water while waiting for their owner to return, who would bail them out with a coffee can or bucket, then row off to the deep water mooring where a more substantial boat waited patiently for its master. Being around these workboats was powerful stuff for the curiosity, intellect and ambition awakening in my seven-year-old self.

Then I noticed that the larger boats were also bailing water from their bilges, fighting the intrusion of the lake on which they floated. The mystery and majesty of vessels large and small fighting the same good fight shaped my early attempts at ordering and understanding the facts of life on the water.

Then one day while out in an uncharacteristically stiff wind braving breakers on the beach, I saw an even larger vessel, a three-masted fully-rigged ship (full rig means that all masts and yards carry square sails) beating north through the robust winds and high waves. It was an honest-to-goodness blue water tall ship on Lake Champlain! THAT caught my attention. That extraordinary vision seared its way deep into the folds of my brain and took root in my soul. That afternoon is as much an influence on the man I have become as anything else I have experienced.

Later, I tested myself on sailboats on Lake Michigan, the Pacific Ocean off southern, central and northern California, Chesapeake Bay, Mamala Bay south of Oahu, Gage Roads off Fremantle, Western Australia, and the North Sea. These experiences sharpened my skills and bound me to the waterman’s ways. Increasingly, occasional encounters with tall ships drew me closer like Ulysses’ sirens.  Increasingly, I organized my life around getting to the tall ships and photographing them, finding their elemental selves afloat and ashore. Tall ships are in a class of their own where natural and human mysteries are expressed in wood, iron, canvas, and hemp. Each vessel reflects human passions, aspirations, and purposes that are as distinctive as the sailors who master the winds that power them across the sea.

Tall Ships Series

Artistic inspiration is an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour. For me, curiosity is a foundational component of the process. It starts with a question such as what is that? Why is it doing that? How does it work? In the process of solving any one of those questions, inspiration sparks creativity, which results in art as an expression of my experience of the subject.

Readers, clients and buyers are people with multiple interests of their own, also. Curiosity is a hallmark human characteristic, after all. Inspiration is all about being open to all possible answers to a given question and finding a connection with truth, however fleeting. Creativity, then, is about being human and curious and disciplined simultaneously… intentionally.

Sailing vessels are floating manifestations of centuries of sailors’ curiosity. Their curiosity was inspired by necessity to create something functional, to solve a problem. In my view, along the way they created art.

As an artist, my process is to observe a vessel and its rig at various times of day, paying particular attention during early and late daylight hours for maximum angles of slanted light. I also prefer to study vessels and rigs during the midday hour or two to see how the rig shadows cascade onto deck and water. This strategy is not always practical, so I adapt to circumstances and stay flexible, yet with my ultimate vision still in mind.

Foremost to me is finding that unguarded instant where the ship and her rig reveal themselves to the appreciative eye, a pivotal moment where art supersedes science. Like every relationship, there is a give and take; an exchange in which individual priorities must bend to mutual recognition, appreciation, and need.

I then pare down the composition, light, and shadow to allow the ship’s rig to speak for the vessel and the sailors who sail her. To me, these studies convey a palpable sense of quiet strength and particular respect for these vessels. Each image strives for one essential, elemental truth that is absolute and immutable. If I ever achieve that single moment of artistic representation of pure reality, I’ll let you know!

Spars Above the Treeline  (2018) by Mark Roger Bailey - Barque  Charles W. Morgan

Spars Above the Treeline (2018) by Mark Roger Bailey - Barque Charles W. Morgan

In the meantime, I invite you to view my Tall Ships collection and please stop by my Gallery Shop to consider a special series of signed and numbered limited-edition prints for the collector. A miniature print of a magnificent tall ship would make a thoughtful surprise for the love of your life. 

Creativity Squared

Writing + Art Photography

Writing and photography are competing and complementary pursuits for me. Until now, their competing aspects kept my workspaces separate and distinct; writing here, developing photographs and printing there. Two sides of the same creative force divided into two creative spaces. Until today.

Writing is impossibly difficult and immensely rewarding. While it costs far more in time and effort than anything I have ever done, it compensates with learning, discovery, and understanding.

Photography is also difficult, yet opens me up to the world, other lives and remarkable stories in a journey of discovery that makes me a better person and, hopefully, a better artist. Always has. Blotched and imperfect daguerreotype images from 1838 France, then England, and later from the U.S. Civil War captured my imagination during rainy afternoons among the stacks in the village public library. Large format impressed me with the mystery of glass, solution and light. Then medium format seemed to perfect the beauty and authentic documentary truth within the confined borders of a print. The spectacular advances of 35mm, Polaroid, film to digital, and DSLR photography seemed essential and worthy. If I could learn enough, I might just be able to translate my innate curiosity and empathy for certain subjects into meaningful works that support others’ interests. This is how we discover the truth, by gathering fragments, piecing together theories of reality. Evolving.

The world is large and diverse, yet most of us live within walking or commuting distance of our day jobs. Most of us grow up thinking small, grateful for a paycheck, fearful of the loss of that paycheck, amazed when we find friendship, humbled when we discover love. Decades fly by as we prepare for our life’s great aspiration. Time passes, and we find out that as we made plans our life spent itself. We were focused on job, family, house, and taxes while time focused on… time.

Today, I break through the wall that separates my writing and my visual art. Writing and Photography. A new beginning for both.

I am pleased to present a series of my images of tall ships, each of which captures a sense of story that I strive for in everything I do. And each of which inspires new stories in my imagination.

Debut: Tall Ships

I have been photographing boats for longer than Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours required to become world-class. Yet I still feel I am only beginning to understand the truths to be found at the intersection of time, skill, and insight.

Flying Jibs and Euterpe - The Star of India

Flying Jibs and Euterpe - The Star of India

Discovery is a fundamental quality of the sailing experience. No two moments afloat are alike. Every ocean, season, and transit is a one-off. Each tack, reach and run is unique. And the human skills that developed over thousands of hours learning and eventually mastering the ability to navigate all this newness are fragile and fleeting, for we are here for only a blink of an eye in the scheme of time. Yet the more one discovers, learns and masters, the more opportunities present themselves to challenge us. In this way, we find out the soul of nature, weather, seas and the vessels we build to walk on water and take flight on ever-changing winds.

Whether writing or shooting, telling a story about the history in a 2,000-year-old tibia or documenting time’s stresses in a 178-year-old whaling ship’s arthritic rib, my goal is the same: to capture meaning itself, inspire the viewer’s imagination and touch the timeless in everyone who looks upon them.   

I invite you to visit my gallery and view my new Tall Ships collection at, and while you’re there, please stop by my Gallery Shop.

Until next time,


Separate Fictions, Joint Reality

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

All our separate fictions add up to joint reality.

- Stanislaw Lec (1962)

BTW Cvr Blue.png

Recently, I discovered an alternate draft of the pitch for my novel, BEYOND THESE WOODS. Considering its position between works-in-progress dating back to 2014, I assume that I put it aside when one of the calls-to-duty that occur in my working life took precedence, and the draft was misplaced for the past four years. Reading it, I experienced a return to my state of mind at that time, which now seems irretrievably distant, a time before the flare-up of human darkness that threatens to overtake us. 

The fictional dysfunction at the root of the conflict in BEYOND THESE WOODS remains with us in fact. My novel is an imagining based on facts rooted in events that have occurred in our lifetimes and remain unresolved mysteries. The passions that drive social, economic, scientific, political and military forces to their breaking points in WOODS have metastasized into a plague on America's foundational principles and the institutions upon which our ancestors built what I have always considered to be a good life. Our shared aspirations and values have become practice targets for the angry and aggrieved among us who are willing to submit to the disruptive expedient, to roll the dice and only hope they haven’t participated in the torching of civilization. Perhaps they are exhausted by the demands of progress and have intentionally submitted to a louder, dominant destroyer. It’s just easier. The duties of effective citizenship are too hard.

Reading this alternative draft through, I am struck by how everything has changed in our day-to-day reality, and nothing has changed at all. We are re-learning that consciousness of a fact is not the same as knowing it. Our history is repeating like a dark tidal current. 

Here is what I wrote earlier:

When men claim that the earth was made for them, beware. Human beings - and birds, fish, mammals, plants - are of and by the earth. When men bully Mother Earth, who stands up to them? The lobbyist, the sheriff, the national guard, the average citizen, the lone wolf scientist? When men savage Earth's ancient forests, who has the courage to say no?

When all of these forces conspire to brutalize again and again, should anyone be surprised when Mother Nature pushes back?

Many of the trees on the western slopes of California's oldest mountain ranges were growing peacefully before the first nation ancestors crossed the Aleutian Island chain, and more than 1,000 years before the first Europeans discovered North America. Giant Sequoia trees were masters of this corner of our planet. No other living thing could match them for size and strength. They have endured every wave of natural disaster and human exploration, settlement and exploitation. But today, something in California's Thunder Peak old-growth forest is killing everyone who comes to harm them, who thinks the Sequoia are theirs for the taking. Loggers and hunters are dying, struck dead in their tracks when they get too close. No one has a clue about what is causing these deaths among the trees' tormentors, except Lotte Keene, who knows more about nature -- including human nature -- than is healthy for her and anyone who works with her.

What this irrepressible scientist-adventurer doesn't know is that past is prelude in this environmental crisis. A mysterious environmental activist and a ruthless shadow force within America's government are dedicated to preventing her from ever learning the truth about their goals. Worse, they are unaware of their separate, yet intersecting plans. And Lotte Keene will stop at nothing to identify the cause of this pathogen. No one is safe from her fierce, unblinking and stubborn search. 

With Keene on their case, no clues are safe from discovery. No enemy is safe from the ultimate antiseptic; exposure to the people of Thunder Peak Wilderness, America and the world.

This is high-tech close-quarters warfare with causes and shadowy actors that are chillingly familiar to each of us. This is high-tech combat in which the enemy within is more terrifying than any enemy beyond our borders. 

This is the story of natural justice and one woman’s tenacity to solve the mystery of sudden death in the Sierras, to rescue earth’s oldest forest matriarchs, and save humankind from itself.

This is human weakness run rampant. In the wrong hands it will rewrite the laws of evolution and permanently alter life as we know it . . . beyond these woods.

I questioned whether to share unpublished writing from another time. What decided it for me was the window this experience opened into a higher truth: humans are a fascinating breed capable of exquisite achievement and beauty, yet we are simultaneously inclined to darker deeds. There are times when we as a species can't seem to control our horrifying impulses. We allow the worst among us to rise, dominate and destroy. Just as the people of Longwood, California experience the nightmare of creeping extremism in BEYOND THESE WOODS and have to confront how far they are willing to let chaos take over their lives and everything they have worked generations to achieve, we now find ourselves at a similar moment of truth in 2018 America, the UK, Italy, Germany, France, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, Egypt and elsewhere.  

One is fiction that gives us an opportunity to live history without paying a price for the experience. The other is fact. 

Fine Art Photography

Can Photography Be Considered Art?

Yes, art photography exists. It is rising in influence across cultural boundaries and is growing in sophistication among established and emerging collectors.  


Art photography is photography that is planned and executed as fine art. The art photographer uses his or her knowledge, skills and aspirations to express his/her perceptions and emotions to viewers and collectors. In this sense, the camera becomes what John Steinbeck described as an "extension of mind and heart."

Just as impressionist paintings were considered to be experimental and at odds with traditional art norms at one time, photography - now nearly 200 years old - has also suffered the growing pains and critical resistance that other emerging art forms experienced. Selected styles and forms of photography have experimented, matured and tested themselves against traditional styles and forms of visual fine art.

View from the Window at Le Gras (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

View from the Window at Le Gras (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Earliest surviving camera photograph.  Louis Daguerre's image of a man receiving a shoeshine on a Paris street utilizing his daguerreotype process occurred in 1838.

Rebecca A. Moss, Coordinator of Visual Resources and Digital Content Library, via email. College of Liberal Arts Office of Information Technology, University of Minnesota., Public Domain,

Just as there are many styles of artistic painting - abstract art, surrealism, conceptual, pop, photorealism, hyperrealism, minimalism, futurism, impressionism - there are many kinds of photography. Purely objective photography, such as scientific and documentary. Photojournalism, such as Mathew Brady and Dorothea Lange. Candid or Street Photography, such as Cartier-Bresson. Art, such as some of the work by Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.

The Steerage  (1907) 19.7 x 15.8 cm by Alfred Stieglitz

The Steerage (1907) 19.7 x 15.8 cm by Alfred Stieglitz

In his book, Road to Seeing,  Dan Winters cites The Steerage as an early work of artistic modernism that many historians consider to be the most important photograph ever made.  

Fashion by Horst and Rodney Smith. Portraits by Brigitte Lacombe. And waterscapes by Gerard Bret

Insolite  by Gerard Bret (France)

Insolite by Gerard Bret (France)

Many of the most striking, accomplished and individual works have emerged as enduring forms of visual representation that are rightly regarded as art. The best among these have risen to a level where they engage, connect and are valued, respected and collected as fine artworks. The arts and art goods markeplace is growing, as indicated by consumer expenditures on arts and cultural-related goods in the United States in 2013 (the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available) were $151.7 billion, which was up 17.6% since 2000. Visual art is but one aspect of culture-related goods, yet an increasingly significant contributor.

Most importantly for me, fine art photography improves our environments - our work, social and living spaces. Art of all kinds, including fine art photography, supports the best in ourselves and others, communicates across cultural divisions, records history-in-progress, and shares stories in compelling ways that free us to experience new pathways to personal development. Art helps us discover our 'best self' in the Emersonian sense. Fine art - including fine art photography - gives form to our vision and aspirations.

Support art. 


Overcoming Limitations of the Suspense Genre


Few love to hear the sins they love to act.

William Shakespeare

Pericles, Act I, Scene I


Judge George Mason is at a moral and professional crossroad with only three choices for a way forward, none of which offer any hope for his nagging conscience.

George, a former criminal defense attorney familiar with internal struggles between loathing, amusement, intrigue, envy, and empathy, is now an appeals court judge hearing motions about a case that has multiple mitigating factors. The case is old, and the clock is about to run out on the law’s statute of limitations for rape. The politics of the appeal and the particular way he and his fellow judges on the Appeals bench prefer to deal with it, each for his own distinctively non-legal reasons, is boxing George into choices he’d prefer not to make. He is also struggling with dark fears associated with death threats from an anonymous troll from his past.

This is a great start and more than enough to keep readers turning pages, not only in the bookstore where a strong start is a competitive advantage yet also on airplanes, park benches and in bed late at night.  Scott Turow knows his craft as a legal thriller writer. He is a lawyer. He is a #1 New York Times Bestselling author who has published eleven fiction and three nonfiction books and sold more than 30 million copies. He also served effectively as president of the Authors Guild during one of the most challenging eras for writers and authors in history. He is more than an author. He is an expert who can translate legal arcana and ethics into meaningful tutorials for the rest of us.

There is another thing that Scott Turow is – he is a novelist, which is saying he is something more. He practices the craft side of his talents deftly in ways that don’t let the seams, the diversions, and the subtle mechanics of literature show. It is the storytelling side of work that qualifies as literary art. His characters grow before us on the page as they encounter life challenges and reveal themselves in the way they react, sometimes freezing, sometimes fleeing, more often planting their feet and facing up to their fears.

Gail Caldwell of the Boston Sunday Globe compares Turow to John le Carre for his ability to share “an introspect’s embrace of the gray-zone ambiguities of modern life.” It’s a good observation and, as a long-time fan of Le Carre’s writing, I can mostly agree with it. The critical difference for me between the two authors is that while le Carre is deeply wary of the government and the people responsible for its present and future, Turow seems to be more optimistic and forgiving, which results in more neatly fitting resolutions. 

Writing this during these trying times when values such as truth and character are so easily compromised by weak, selfish and narcissistic leaders makes me realize how much we have to appreciate in the works of writers and artists during society’s worst moments. LIMITATIONS was written before our current crisis of faith and confidence in our social institutions, which is both good and not so good. Good because it reminds us that man’s struggle with truth and honor has a long and varied history. Not so good because it enables readers to make allowances for George’s and his enemy’s moral and ethical framework.

LIMITATIONS is a good novel and more than worth its low cover price. 

First Picador Edition, November 2006

THE LAST HUNT | Horst Stern

Joop vs. The Bear

Here, as in Marta Morazzoni’s INVENTION OF TRUTH (1993), is a small European novel that resonates with energy, truth and pathos more expansive than the design of the book jacket or the dimensions of the book suggest.

This novel is about nature and human nature and how the two seem to be fundamentally unsuited to co-exist, in opposition to each other at best.

Joop is the great German capitalist, a self-doubting banker, hunter and economic predator in civilized society. His prey, the bear, is the great creation of nature, a mighty power in the forest. Joop’s ego is nearly as potent as his complex instincts. The bear’s struggle for survival is simple, primal and direct, and compellingly rich with hints of meaning. Jack London’s unforgettable Buck occurred to me more than a couple of times as I read and identified with the lumbering innocent I feared was doomed by Joop before the two would ever meet.

It is noteworthy to me that both THE INVENTION OF TRUTH and THE LAST HUNT feature seemingly simple slice-of-life stories that leave the reader intrigued, inspired and thoughtful. So much writing published since THE HUNT ties up stories in resolutions neatly and leaves little room for imagination and reflection, not to mention application of the story’s distinctive strengths to the reader’s own life experience.


THE LAST HUNT, Horst Stern, Random House, New York, 1993.  First U.S. Edition. Originally published in German as Jagdnovelle by Kindler Verlag GmbH, Munchen.


Happy Book Lovers Day 2017!


Poignantly Awry - Life Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

I recently re-read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and am glad that I did. It is a leader in a small class of novels that deal so entertainingly with immortalism and aging.

Upon picking up the book for the first time, any of us would naturally ask ourselves: Did Max Tivoli really emerge from the womb an old man? That has to be writerly bravado, a wild swing at capturing the reader’s attention. Or the beginning of a story that has never been told before. Either way, the author has moxie.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is an enchanting and affecting novel about an old man born old in 1871 in San Francisco who is destined to grow young.

1st Picador Edition (2005)  ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

1st Picador Edition (2005)  ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

Andrew Sean Greer tells how this improbable mistake of biology, time and physics occurred in strikingly rich exposition. Max’s mother is from a wealthy Carolina family relocated to Comstock-crazed San Francisco. His father is one of the countless dreamers drawn to the Gold Rush. As Max tells it, “…the Comstock had made too many beggars into fat, rich men – so society became divided into two classes: the chivalry and the shovelry. My mother was of the first, my father of the wretched second.” Suitably, their union is a paradox of the mundane and the magical, which combine to create a moment of timeless possibility.

Max learns soon enough that while his condition is not unique, he is one of very, very few. So rare is his dilemma that only once – later in life as he grows younger – does he encounter another of his kind, and then it is only supposition.

Max meets his life’s great love early and their future seems doomed by the secret between them. Over time, he wins her through desperate deceptions for a glorious period in his middle years. Even then, she is unaware of his magical condition.

Greer's literary voice has been compared with Ford Madox Ford, which is high praise. Greer's narrator Max is direct whereas Ford's Good Soldier John Dowell is disengaged and distant. The ultimate unreliable narrator. " . . . I have generally found that my first impressions were correct enough. If my first idea of a man was that he was civil, obliging, and attentive, he generally seemed to go on being all those things."

Max is comfortable with seemingly straightforward declarative sentences, which are in fact occasionally complex expressions of deeper emotions woven like Celtic coils into his trustworthy narrative. He earns our confidence with candor and a voice that is consistently true to 21st century sensibilities despite its slant and attitudes of 1890's San Francisco. Max's out-of-time experiences and priorities complete the illusion of otherness. "While at twenty I had been far off the map of youth, now that I was nearly thirty I looked nearly right. Perhaps not quite in the bloom of youth, but approaching it in my ogreish way, and I began to get more than my usual share of glances from ladies who peered like fascinated children out of carriages, streetcars and shop windows."

Greer also consistently surprises and delights the close reader with his offhand use of opposites, subverting expectations and recharging our attention with the unexpectedly profound cast off phrase.  

The century turned, the seasons changed, but little changed for me until a lucky and terrible disaster.
Something of youth comes back with age.

This novel received extraordinary support with blurbs from John Updike, Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, the L.A.Times, and the plaudits go on and on.


If you read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and have an issue with my description, please comment below. I will respond if appropriate and update this post to reflect new information.


Andrew Sean Greer

Born to two scientists, Greer studied writing at Brown University, where he was the commencement speaker at his own graduation. He worked for years as a chauffeur, theater tech, television extra and unsuccessful writer in New York City. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from The University of Montana in Missoula. Currently, he lives in San Francisco and is a fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center.

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Conflict - The Author's Secret Ingredient

Literature's Critical Element

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

Conflict, especially in literary writing, helps us decide whether to read on or not. Readers know this about their favorite books. Sometimes, writers may lose sight of it as they venture into the thickets of their stories and become temporarily distracted by character histories, setting details, and fascinating yet ultimately distracting arcana. 

The ancient Greeks understood conflict and created the foundation for all drama and comedy upon this essential 'x' factor. Aesop put it in fables. Shakespeare, Woolf, and Hemingway put it in every paragraph. Tabloid newspapers put it in lurid headlines. Aaron Sorkin puts it in every line of dialogue. 

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and President Josiah 'Jeb' Bartlet confront each other over the killing of officials in the Middle East.  (Season 6 Episode 1)

Types of Human Conflict

Writing without conflict is bread without texture or flavor. Effective prose includes conflict: yin/yang, body/soul, Tracy/Hepburn, rock 'n roll, good/evil, want/need, sweet/sour, life/death, love/indifference, freedom/enslavement, east/west, hot/cold, liberal/conservative, sharp/blunt, light/dark . . . you get the idea.

There are lists of human conflict categories to aid writers, artists, actors, directors, producers, psychologists, researchers and others.  The basics are Man vs. Man (universal including Woman), Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Self. Here is my expanded list:

  • Man vs. Man     The Da Vinci Code | Dan Brown
  • Man vs. Society     The Catcher in the Rye | J.D. Salinger;  Charlotte's Web | E.B. White
  • Man vs. Self     Hamlet | William Shakespeare
  • Man vs. Nature     The Old Man and The Sea | Ernest Hemingway
  • Man vs. Technology     Frankenstein | Mary Shelley
  • Man vs. Alien     Alien | Dan O'Bannon (screenplay)
  • Man vs. God     It's A Wonderful Life (Film) | Based on "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern

There are other kinds of non-human conflict, of course, such as gravity vs. inertia, star vs. black hole, dog vs. cat, wolf vs. lamb, dry hi pressure weather system vs. wet low pressure system, and heat vs. cold. For our purposes in this discussion as writers and readers, I’ll stay focused on human conflicts.

Besides promising an exciting discovery in return for your time, suggesting that there is a choice to be made creates tension. Will our hero achieve his seemingly impossible goal?  Will society overcome violence to secure peace? Will our father find his kidnapped daughter? Will our heroine outsmart her stronger enemy? Will truth prevail? Will the injured find justice?

Examples of conflict in literary works


Individual vs. Society -- Huck’s evolving conscience and experience place him in direct conflict with the law and accepted cultural codes (slavery) as he seeks to free Jim.  

THE ENGLISH PATIENT | Michael Ondaatje

Person vs. Society – Almásy, the title character, defies the state and its military apparatus to pursue his love affair with Katharine Clifton.  Kip, the Sikh sapper, embedded with British soldiers, besides being in mortal conflict with the German bombs he must defuse, is in conflict with the Brits, who ostracize him because of his Indian otherness.  Hana, the young nurse, is caught between childhood and adulthood, denial and coping, as she navigates the terrible romantic extremes of World War II.

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

Man vs. Nature – what appears at first to be a convincing case of Nature responding to humankind's abuse of forests evolves as epidemiologist Lotte Keene sets out to discover the cause of mysterious deaths occurring in the High Sierra Sequoia groves of 1,000-year-old trees.  

Society vs. Nature – As Keene unravels the puzzle, she discovers that government has adapted biology for a dark purpose and lost control to even darker operators. Eventually, the government fights to defeat the killer with overwhelming force.

Woman vs. Society – Ultimately Keene embarks on her own one-person crusade against government and corporate overreach.

These conflicts are powerful, larger than life examples in literature.  What about the average everyday conflicts that so many people experience in real life? 

No one wants conflict in his or her life, of course. We all recognize it is present, however, and that its disruption of our peace of mind is inevitable. We know that our relationship with conflict influences how we navigate the hundreds if not thousands of small and large decisions we make throughout the average day.

  • Should we wait for the light and turn left past oncoming traffic because it is the more direct route, or should we turn right, go with traffic and circle the block? 
  • Should we have that difficult conversation with a friend whose behavior is becoming toxic?
  • Should we tell our neighbor that their television is too loud? 
  • Should we let a loudmouth ruin our movie-going experience that we paid too much to see?
  • Do we speak up when a bully harasses an innocent person or do we keep moving?
  • Do we speak up when we witness a theft?
  • Do we keep to our writing schedule or make exceptions to watch certain television shows (as research, of course!)?
  • Do we confront governmental overreach into our private lives to defend democracy, or do we avoid a fight and adapt as well as we can to avoid endangering our family's safety and well-being?

Any of these has enough conflict to fuel a novel.

What is it about conflict that makes it such a potent ingredient in our writing?

Literature succeeds when it explores the conflict that threatens the protagonist's ability to achieve his or her goal. Why is it that when we see someone achieve a goal, we lose interest? Whereas when we see someone persist toward their goal against all odds arrayed against them, we are fascinated? 

One reason is because we are compelled by conflict as an extreme of human behavior. It brings out the best in heroes and the worst in villains. We all have aspects of both extremes in our personality. Reading a story about how another person responded when pushed to their extreme helps us gauge how we might measure up in similar circumstances.

The Anatomy of Empathy

Another important reason is that we are hard-wired for empathy*.  We are compelled by how others deal with conflict.  This compulsion is due in part to the functional anatomy of empathy in our nervous system. Certain underlying neural responses are mirrored in us whether we engage in conflict or observe it in others. We experience the same intensity of agitation, discomfort and momentousness whether we fight or observe another engage in combat. This compelling intellectual, physical, emotional, moral identification is one of the compelling appeals of literature. As a reader, we experience the emotional and physiological effects of a high-stakes conflict situation without injury or loss of blood.  And we identify with characters as they must decide: will they or won't they? Will Abraham sacrifice his son? Will Emma Bovary swallow the arsenic? Will Jason Bourne eliminate his tormentor, or is there enough of a connection to his former humanity within him to give his enemy the benefit of the doubt that he, too, is human and at the mercy of his handlers? 

Primal, decision-making processes in our brain cannot discern the difference between engaging conflict in reality and vicariously experiencing it as we read. Matters of discernment, distinguishing reality from the imagined, or recognizing the difference between dreaming and doing are assessed by a combination of other neural processes. These processes of assessing danger, risk and reward; moral drift; ethical dissonance and its ramifications, truth vs. falsity, good vs. bad are complex functions of consciousness. This insight gives the author an opportunity to help the reader suspend his/her disbelief and invest themselves in the protagonist's story, conflict, choices, risks, and rewards. 

In a very real sense, we authors hold the reader’s vicarious life and death in our hands. Should we do everything we can to craft the most extreme scenario we can imagine to thrill the reader? Or should we exercise intellectual and artistic integrity to engage and support our reader’s literary experience of values and ideas in conflict?  

I’m conflicted.


* (ref. Preston S., de Waal F. (2002). "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (1): 1–72.)


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