Murdering Your Darlings: Mark Powell

Mark Powell

Editors Note: After our discussions of famous revisions by authors such as Fitzgerald, Wharton, James, and Carver, we’re continuing our “Murdering Your Darlings” series by enlisting the help of some of our favorite authors currently working today.  These authors will let us in a little of their artistic process, as it concerns the exceptionally complex work of a writers’ revision.  For this installment, Mark Powell, the author of Blood Kin and Prodigals, shares the powerful prologue of his current novel-in-progress.  We’re thrilled to present the final version, an earlier draft, and an enlightening Q & A, where Powell discusses his choices and helps demystify the revision process.  Enjoy!

From Armies of God

He woke miles from the sun, at sea, again, and chasing a dawn that cut along the horizon like light beneath a door. Woke early because this was the time one might be alone with the dark, for—he realized this as he rose from the musty recliner and walked toward the front windows that opened over the porch—for there was no sun, no dawn, and he was not at sea but alone, hours from light.

He collapsed back into his chair.

It was starting. It was starting and now they were back in the big Chinook, chasing its jagged shadow across the paddies while a plume of water towered and spread in a fishnet of dull light. I am with you, Christ said, but the old man knew that in a few minutes Christ would be dead, decapitated by a .30 caliber round, headless and bleeding in a ripple of dark water, and when the old man shut his eyes tonight Christ would die again, and tomorrow the same still, his dreams a billion acts of needless resurrection.

He needed to get up.

He needed to get up before it made him any crazier. He reached for the TV remote but stopped. He knew all he would find was another war—three Marines dead in Fallujah, a car bomb in Baghdad—and kicked off his blanket and stood, stiff as a rake, to make his way to the kitchen and put on the coffee.

Someone was up at the homeplace. From the window, he could just see the roofline raked against the flint of the morning sky. He stood over the sink with a Styrofoam cup of orange juice and watched the lights diffuse through the distant trees. Dallas, he supposed, though the old man had no idea why his oldest boy would be out at this hour. When the lights disappeared, he rinsed the cup and placed it in the drying rack. His dead wife Evelyn sat at the table and spooned cornbread out of a glass of buttermilk.

“You hungry they leftovers in the Frigidaire,” she said.

“I ain’t hungry.”

“Let me fix you something.”

He shook his head as if this might settle things. “I gotta get moving.”

He stopped in the hall to stare for a moment at a portrait of his sons—Dallas and Malcolm, stair-stepped and smiling—then limped on to the bathroom where he washed his face. His boys. There was no use thinking about them. He tried to pray but couldn’t find them, whatever words he sought, standing so still he could hear clouds pass overhead. He dried his cheeks and stared at his reflection.

“Say something.” He shook his head. “You old fool.”

When the coffee dripped he fixed a cup, took his mug onto the porch and settled into a rocking chair. Evelyn was still near. He couldn’t see her, but she was near. Her fragrance today was White Shoulders and baby powder. Other days it was woodsmoke and the cool dirt in the crawlspace beneath the house. That was the smell the night before she died, the night he had brought her a glass of buttermilk only to find her mounted up in her four-poster bed as if already gone to that place across the river, as if she knew what awaited her. He sniffed the cold air. The smell always came first, sometimes hours before she arrived.

But he was a patient man.

There were days he would wait out the steady unclocking night only to watch the blue figures rise from the dust to walk again. The yard full of ammo crates and the LZ lined with dead children dressed in fatigues. When he closed his eyes this time he was back in the dim troop hold, sweating machine oil and sitting still enough to feel the submarine groan of the ship’s engines. East, aboard the USS Hermitage. Pulling dawn from the horizon and watching it falter and fail in the convoy’s green wash. Seven thousand Marines two days out of San Diego on the way to Okinawa. The old man two weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday and sleeping on the third tier bunk beneath a tangle of metal pipes.

Oh, Christ.

But Christ is not with him.

Christ comes later, wading through the sawgrass south of Qui Nhon, the Son of God headshot and caught by the turning rotorwash. For years the old man drank his Early Times and thought of Jesus spinning in the pink surf. He watched his wife and sons toss in their beds while he slept in the cool insect mud then woke to shoulder his rifle across another flooded field. The dead paratroopers wearing the blush of three-day beards. The VC curled fetally, burnt out of tunnels by demo teams, charred until they were nothing but zippers and the melted eyelets of boots. Their hands clawed inward like dead spiders.

He had come to understand death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate. He was dying. That much was clear to him. When he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and probed his abdomen he felt a ridgeline of tender bulges. It felt like the last thing that bound him to this world. He had pretty much ceased eating, and when he slept he was back in the dark water, crawling over the stone borders that shredded his hands and knees, so he was pretty much done with sleep, too.

Another old son of a bitch, he thought, gone and outlived his usefulness. The gutter clogged with leaves and not a damn thing he could do about it. Besides his land, he didn’t even own anything worth fighting over. In the shed were a few tools no one would ever touch. In the deep freeze, a box of corndogs no one would ever eat. But it wasn’t the obsolescence that bothered him. It was the diapers he feared most, the adult undergarments matted to his bony shanks like he was an infant, the green shit running down his leg. He’d put a slug in his head before he let that happen. He knew enough to know it had to be on your own terms. You had to own it. Owning it was everything.

When he opened his eyes he found his dead wife beside him, a shawl across her dead legs. Of course—today his youngest was returning. He had almost forgotten, but now it broke in him like a star, all crooked silver light.

“He’s on his way by now,” she said.

“Probably.”

“Getting him a bus ticket. Be here in two day’s time,” she said. “And I tell you this, I’m glad it come out like it did.”

He raised his coffee. “Half killing yourself don’t make you no more a Christian than the next.”

“Hush.”

“It don’t make you no more in the eyes of God.”

“You hush that talk,” she said. “You think the Lord ain’t got you both on His mind?”

He stared into a dark that seemed to both begin and end a few inches from his face. “The Lord ain’t never said boo to me.”

“Elijah.”

“The Lord ain’t never said jack shit.”

She seemed to study him from the depths of whatever place she occupied. “You got a black heart, Elijah Walker,” she said finally. “You got the devil in you like a worm.”

He opened his mouth, shut it. There was no use in arguing. He could sense the landing zone beginning to coalesce out of the lifting fog. He would be on the ground soon. He would be needed.

“Maybe,” he said. “It don’t matter no how.”

“No,” she agreed, “not now it don’t.”

It was freezing and what mattered was coming. His boy was coming.

From Armies of God: Earlier Draft

He woke miles from the sun, at sea, again, and chasing a dawn that cut along the horizon like light beneath a door. Woke early because this was the time one might be alone with the dark, for—he realized this as he rose from the musty recliner and walked toward the front windows that opened over the porch—for there was no sun, no dawn, and he was not at sea but alone, hours from light.

He collapsed back into his chair.

Christ. It was starting. It was starting and they were back in the Higgins boats and on the way to the island. He watched a plume of water tower and spread in a fishnet of dull light and knew that in a few minutes Pete Harris would be dead, decapitated by a .30 caliber round, headless and bleeding in a slosh of diesel and seawater, and when the old man shut his eyes tonight Harris would die again, and tomorrow the same still, his dreams a billion acts of resurrection. He sat there and thought: Watch. No, don’t watch. He forgot which. And then Pete Harris’s head separated cleanly and instantly from his body. And then again. And then—

He needed to get up.

He needed get up and stop this shit before it made him any crazier. He reached for the TV remote but did nothing with it, thought he might find the highlights of a ballgame, but knew all he would find was another war. Three Marines dead in Fallujah. A car bomb in Baghdad. Another woman crying while some ambulance with its Red Crescent wailed up another street. Enough already. He shook the sleep from his body, stood, stiff as a rake, and made his way to the kitchen to put on the coffee.

From the window, the old man could just see the roofline raked against the flint of the morning sky, stood there over the sink with a Styrofoam cup of orange juice and watched the lights diffuse through the distant trees. Someone was up at the old place, Dallas, he supposed, though the old man had no idea why his oldest boy would be out at this hour. When the lights disappeared, he poured out his juice, rinsed the cup, and placed it in the drying rack. His dead wife sat at the table and spooned cornbread out of a glass of buttermilk.

“You hungry they leftovers in the Frigidaire,” she said.

“I ain’t hungry.”

“Let me fix you something.”

“I’m alright.”

In the living room, he stared for a moment at a portrait of his sons—Dallas, Tillman, and Malcolm, stair-stepped and smiling—then walked down the hall to the bathroom where he washed his face. He tried to pray but couldn’t find them, whatever words he sought, standing so still he could hear clouds pass overhead. He dried his cheeks and stared at his reflection. He looked disgusted with himself.

“Say something,” he said. “You old fool.”

He fixed a cup of coffee and fought with the door chain, hands nerved with shallow pain so that he undid the lock with his thumbs, took his mug onto the porch, settled into a rocking chair, and covered his legs with a throw. She was near. He couldn’t see her, but she was near. Her fragrance today was White Shoulders and baby powder. Other days she was woodsmoke and the cool dirt in the crawlspace beneath the house. That was the smell the night before she died, the night he had brought her a glass of buttermilk only to find her mounted up in her four-poster bed as if already gone to that place across the water. The smell always came first, sometimes days before she arrived. But he was a patient man.

It was not yet daylight though moonlight moved a single cloud shadow across the open fields. Along the road a pickup pushed its headlamps, the highway ghost-lit and then not.

When the truck passed he closed his eyes and was back in the dim troop hold, sweating machine oil and sitting still enough to feel the submarine groan of the ship’s engines. East, aboard the USS Hermitage. Pulling dawn from the horizon and watching it falter and fail in the convoy’s green wash. Seven thousand marines two days out of Pearl Harbor on the way to New Caledonia. The old man two weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday and sleeping on the third tier bunk beneath a tangle of metal pipes.

There were days he would wait out the steady unclocking night only to watch the blue figures rise from the dust to walk again. The yard full of ammo crates and the beach lined with dead children dressed in fatigues, a long row face down as far as he could see. Graves Registration brushed sand from their faces, while up and down the beach the children washed up like driftwood. There were days he watched them scurry along the sand asking about mammas and buddies and had anybody seen their outfit? Half-men, columns of nerve and heart’s blood. Dead fish floating in shell craters foamed with rainbows of diesel while the children wash ashore.

Oh, God. Oh, Jesus.

But Christ is not with him.

Christ comes later, wading ashore at Okinawa, the Son of God headshot and caught by the incoming tide. For years the old man drank his Early Times and thought of Jesus in the pink surf. He watched his wife and sons toss in their beds while he slept in the cool insect mud then woke to shoulder his rifle across another barren ridge. The dead SeaBees wearing the blush of three-day beards. The dead Japs curled fetally, burnt out of pill boxes by demo teams, and charred until they were nothing but zippers and the melted eyelets of boots. Their hands clawed inward like dead spiders.

Okinawa. Them cliffs, son. It got ugly there.

He understood death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate, just as he had felt it circulate for the last sixty years. He was dying. That much wa s clear to him. When he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and probed his abdomen he felt a ridgeline of tender bulges. He had pretty much ceased eating, and when he slept he was back on the island, crawling over the volcanic rock that shredded his hands and knees, so he was pretty much done with sleep, too. He tried to stay awake and found he didn’t have to try so hard.

Another old son of a bitch, he thought, gone and outlived his usefulness. The gutter clogged with leaves and not a damn thing he could do about it. Besides the land, he didn’t even own anything worth fighting over. In the shed were a few tools no one would ever touch. In the deep freeze, a box of corndogs no one would ever eat. But it wasn’t the obsolescence that bothered him. It was the diapers he feared most, the adult undergarments matted to his bony shanks like he was an infant, the green shit running down his leg. He’d put a rifle slug in his head before he let that happen. He knew enough to know it had to be on your own terms. You had to own it.

When he looked over he found his dead wife beside him, a shawl across her dead legs. Of course—today, his son, his youngest boy was returning. He had almost forgotten, but now it broke in him like a star, all crooked silver light.

“He’s on his way by now,” she said.

“Probably,” he said.

“Getting him a bus ticket. Be here in two day’s time. And let me tell you something,” she said. “I’m glad it come out like it did.”

He drank his coffee, addressed the cold dark that seemed to both begin and end a few inches from his face. “Getting yourself half killed don’t make you no more a Christian than the next man.”

“Hush.”

“It don’t make you no more in the eyes of God.”

“You hush that talk,” she said. “You think the Lord ain’t got you both on His mind?”

“The Lord ain’t never said boo to me.”

“Elijah.”

“The Lord ain’t never said jack shit.”

He could sense the island beginning to coalesce out of the lifting fog. He would be on the beach soon. He would be needed.

“You got a black heart,” she said.

“Maybe.”

“You got the devil in you like a worm.”

“It don’t matter no how.”

“No,” she agreed, “not now it don’t.”

It was freezing and what mattered was coming. Day was coming.

Interview by Johnny Damm

JD: I’d like to start by asking you about what must be the largest logistical change here, shifting the war memories from WWII to Vietnam. What dictated this choice and at what point in the process did it occur to you?

MP: This was a very late, and reluctant, change. As the story developed the age of Elijah proved to be a continual stumbling block. Simply put: he was too old to make believable certain moments. I wanted him to be a WWII vet for sentimental and thematic reasons. The lateness of this change is proof of my stubborn refusal to submit to what the work is telling me. His experience as a veteran is integral, however, hence the shift in wars. The change was reluctant not only for the above reasons but because it required not only reworking his backstory but reworking the imagery that described it. This section was born of the imagery, so changing that felt particularly difficult.

JD:  In making that change, you also do something amazing in the third paragraph: “Pete Harris” becomes Jesus Christ. A fairly literal fragment of the old man’s memory—watching a comrade die—becomes strangely more revealing when shifted to the fantastical, ultimately giving the reader, I think, a stronger sense of the old man as a character. How did this revision come about? Did you surprise yourself?

MP: I originally wrote the piece with Jesus as the ‘victim.’ But as the novel progressed my sense was that the thematic element of ‘the death of faith’ or what have you, was becoming too heavy-handed. I wound up trimming a great deal of later references which opened up space at the beginning for Elijah’s dream imagery. I needed this, I think, because it front-loads the book’s thematic concerns, making clear—I hope—what is at stake while allowing character to drive the story.

JD: There are several great examples here of straight forward line editing, where small removals make a large impact (i.e. “He needed to get up and stop this shit before it made him any crazier” becomes “He needed to get up before it make him any crazier.” The cutting of “He poured out his juice” and “He looked disgusted with himself.”) In the original version, these passages read just fine, but they are unquestionably stronger once trimmed down. How did you recognize these spots, and how can less somehow make a character or scene more vivid?

MP: Anything you can compress—and still retain sense—is more powerful than what came before. Very often I tend to clutter a description or insight with three or four mediocre details when a single perfect detail eludes me. I deceive myself into thinking that when quality is absent I can somehow make up for it with quantity. This isn’t the case, of course, and revision is often a process of trimming out the excess so that what remains exists in an undiluted form. Zadie Smith talks about scaffolding when writing early drafts: you build the scaffolding so that the building can go up. But when the building is up you have to remember to take down the scaffolding. It takes me a long time to determine what is scaffolding—what is necessary for me to write the story—and what is the building—the story itself.

JD: You also make larger cuts of some quite nice language (i.e. “Dead fish floating in shell craters foamed with rainbows of diesel…). When you make these type of cuts, does it feel, in fact, like you’re “murdering your darlings”? How do you deal with the difficulty of cutting well written sentences?

MP: It’s heartbreaking since my first love isn’t plot but language. My only technique is distance through multiple drafts: the more distance I get from a draft the more rational I become. Given time, I base my decisions about what to keep and what to cut on what works from the story. But it takes time for me to see this. I fall in love with the language first. It’s not until I fall in love with the story and the characters that I can cut what might work on a line-level but not a plot-level. But it’s still hard since I never fall out of love with language.

JD: I want to ask you about the small changes that are really quite minute but have an enormous impact. Two sentence edits really stuck out to me in this way:

Vers. 1: “He understood death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate, just as he had felt it circulate for the last sixty years.”

Vers. 2: “He had come to understand death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate.”

Vers. 1: “It was freezing and what mattered was coming. Day was coming.”

Vers. 2: “It was freezing and what mattered was coming. His boy was coming.”

Again, both original versions are excellent and effective lines, but your revision transforms them into something significantly more powerful. How did you recognize the need for revision? What, would you say, is the ultimate effect of these revisions?

MP: These are simply attempts at concentration of imagery. If figurative language works something like a spotlight, I want to move away from lighting the entire stage to attempting to light certain precise points. It’s also, I suppose, a matter of trusting the reader. In the first example, I cut the reference to time because I hope the persistence of death becomes evident through the actions of the character—to tell the reader is cheating, and somehow makes the claim less convincing. In the second example, I realized I had lost focus. Through Elijah is waiting for daybreak what matters is what daybreak will bring: the return of his son. Normally, I think one is much better focusing on the physicality of a scene—the temperature, the light, the smells, and so forth—but in this case I realized I was sapping the section of needed power. If this line works, it works because it closes the piece. It might not have worked elsewhere.

JD: How do you look past the polished surface of a piece—when it reads well, as this first version does—to see what needs to be further worked? Any final advice for writers bogged down in the revision process?

MP: Revision for me is a constant slog. I need time between drafts—that’s the most important thing. I also need to read things in and out of context. So I’ll read a work several times through to address issues of plot or consistency of character. But then I read chapters, and bits of chapters, out of context to focus wholly on the line-level issues. I’m constantly moving between the two and hoping that between them something begins to coalesce.

Thanks, Mark!

About the Work

Mark Powell

Mark Powell is the author of the novels PRODIGALS and BLOOD KIN, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Stetson University in DeLand, FL.

back to:

From the Archives