Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Upcoming Dune movie offers lessons for writers

I was casting about for a topic for my writer’s blog when I came across a fascinating piece about Frank Herbert’s 1965 SF novel Dune written by the ever-surprising economist/NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman. 

 The item was inspired by a new movie version coming out soon, and Krugman writes that “what we’ve seen in trailers looks true to Herbert’s vision. I’m optimistic about this one.” (He hated the other two film versions, mainly for underestimating the audience.)

Krugman describes Dune as an extremely cinematic novel and “a sweeping epic set on a desert planet, with knife fights, mystical powers and, oh yes, giant worms. It’s an amazing piece of world-building; Herbert was clearly possessed by a vision and worked obsessively to get it right.” 

Actually, he could say that again, since  Herbert wrote five sequelsDune MessiahChildren of DuneGod Emperor of DuneHeretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune.

Herbert’s inspiration for the series (and his interest in ecology) began in 1957, according to Wikipedia, when he traveled to Florence, Oregon, at the north end of the Oregon Dunes, where the federal government was attempting to use poverty grasses to stabilize the sand dunes

Herbert claimed in a letter to his literary agent that the moving dunes could "swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways.” Dune’s giant sandworms immediately come to mind, of course. Another significant source of inspiration for Dune was Herbert's experiences with psilocybin and his hobby of cultivating mushrooms.

As someone who has written both a literary novel (Journeyman, 2020) and a genre novel (Hotwalker, a murder mystery set at the Kentucky Derby, out Oct. 1), I wish to make three points for fiction writers to consider: 

1) the vital importance of creating a sense of place in a novel

2) never underestimating the audience

3) not being intimidated by “serious culturati sniffing at genre fiction.” I think all of this can be said across the board about creative writing in all forms.

In A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, James Joyce writes, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight…. I shall try to fly by those nets.” Joyce was talking about Ireland, but the point is universal, and more than nations hold us back from flight.