The God of War

( 6 )

Overview

The year is 1978. Ares Ramirez, age 12, lives with his mother, Laurel, and his younger brother Malcolm in a trailer at the edge of the Salton Sea, an unintentionally man-made body of water in the middle of the Southern California desert. It is a desolate, forgotten place, whose inhabitants thrive amidst seemingly impossible circumstances.

Where birds fly by day across the desert sky, by night government fighter planes and helicopters make training runs using live ammunition, and...

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The God of War: A Novel

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Overview

The year is 1978. Ares Ramirez, age 12, lives with his mother, Laurel, and his younger brother Malcolm in a trailer at the edge of the Salton Sea, an unintentionally man-made body of water in the middle of the Southern California desert. It is a desolate, forgotten place, whose inhabitants thrive amidst seemingly impossible circumstances.

Where birds fly by day across the desert sky, by night government fighter planes and helicopters make training runs using live ammunition, and an anonymous dead body floats in from the sea. These events inspire Ares, on the cusp of his adolescence, to enact elaborate fantasies of mortal combat. His membership in a troubled family marks Ares as a casualty of a different kind of war. Malcolm, age 7, is mentally handicapped, and his mother chooses not to do anything about it.

Ares' struggle with the burden of responsibility — to himself and to others — draws him into a world of drugs, violence, and sex that he is not prepared for, launching him into a very personal battle for his own identity, one that has a lethal outcome.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A stunning novel...Finely wrought characters and an illuminating portrait of [a] secret world...make for a powerful, often tragic tale." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Marisa Silver's The God of War is a novel of great metaphorical depth and beauty. It stays with you like a lesson well and truly learned." — Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls

"The God of War is such a stunning dive into a desert landscape few have understood and loved as deeply as Marisa Silver. It is no man's land, and every man's land — there, her people wage epic battles for their lives, for their loyalties, and for their very fierce versions of love." — Susan Straight, author of A Million Nightingales and Highwire Moon

"Marisa Silver's The God of War is as gripping as it is beautifully written. By the end I ached for these brothers, Ares and Malcolm, as if they were my own family, and I will not forget them." — Peter Orner, author of Esther Stories and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

"Marisa Silver is the author for whom we've all been waiting. With unabashed voice she steadily, bravely, unerringly tells a heartbreakingly beautiful story for our time. The God of War is the truest novel I've read in ages." — Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

Publishers Weekly

Scott Brick lends his talent to Silver's multilayered coming-of-age novel. The story unfolds from the point-of-view of 12-year-old Ares Ramirez and his hardscrabble '70s childhood in a remote Southern California desert community, and much of the focus surrounds Ares's relationship with Malcolm, his mentally disabled six-year-old brother. Malcolm's autistic symptoms render him uncommunicative, which poses a tremendous challenge for Brick, as Silver chooses to portray Malcolm's mannerisms and behaviors mostly through Ares's reflections. Yet Brick rises to the occasion, with compelling results. Brick delivers especially heartfelt performances as the two principle female characters: the brothers' bohemian mother and an enigmatic school librarian. The novel's structure may not lend itself to an easy transition to audio, but as the action transforms from preteen angst to dark explorations of violence and family dysfunction, listeners will appreciate Brick's ability to navigate the terrain. A Simon & Schuster hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 18). (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Twelve-year-old Ares Ramirez has a life as unique as his name. His mother, who has a taste for men who don't stick around, raises Ares and his mentally handicapped brother, Malcolm, on the shores of the isolated Salton Sea in the California desert. Ares is saddled with far too much responsibility while his mother flits through life as a free spirit, leaving him to watch over the brother Ares thinks he damaged by dropping him accidentally as a baby. Ares looks elsewhere for the attention and acceptance he's not getting at home, finally finding it in the kindly librarian who tutors Malcolm and her dangerous foster son, Kevin. Ares's new friend leads him on a path of destruction with a tragic end. New Yorker contributor Silver (No Direction Home) writes a dark and devastating coming-of-age story. Even though most readers will not have lived the tough life that Ares has, they are sure to relate to his search for a place in the world. Highly recommended for most collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/07.]
—Leann Restaino

Kirkus Reviews
A stunning second novel from Silver (No Direction Home, 2005, etc.): the coming-of-age tale of a boy growing up in the California desert with his autistic brother. In 1978 Ares is 12 years old, a little man in charge of his younger brother Malcolm, who is mute, odd and fiercely defended by their mother Laurel, a counter-culture masseuse. They live in a trailer on the shore of the Salton Sea, a dying saltwater lake in the desert between Palm Springs and the edge of nowhere, a desolate place peopled by misfits and the tenacious few willing to live the hardscrabble life. Laurel practices a sort of loving carelessness with the boys, expecting Ares to fix meals, take Malcolm to the dentist, act as go-between with the school. Ares acquiesces, in large part because of the crippling guilt he feels in regards to Malcolm; having accidentally dropped him as a baby, he thinks he's responsible for Malcolm's condition. Laurel believes Malcolm to be perfect and hates the school that wants to test and label him, to steal his innocence with a diagnosis. The school librarian, Mrs. Poole, begins to work with Malcolm at her home, and there Ares finds a world of order and rules, a conventional normalcy as exotic to him as any desert fossil his mother brings home for display. At Mrs. Poole's he meets her foster-care son Kevin, a 15-year-old with a history of violence who becomes Ares's first real friend. Silver's novel is full of looming menace-the pock-marked bleakness of the landscape (used at night for military practice), the violence Malcolm seems capable of (the school finds a shallow grave of birds he's killed), the very real risk of Kevin, sociopathic and strung out on drugs-but perhaps the mostdangerous threat is Ares's growing adolescent rebellion, which jeopardizes their already fragile family. Finely wrought characters and an illuminating portrait of the secret world of autism makes for a powerful, often tragic tale. Agent: Henry Dunow/Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner
The Barnes & Noble Review
California's largest lake, the Salton Sea, sits at 227 feet below sea level and was created by accident. A 1905 project to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley went awry, and for two years, water flooded the Salton Sink, resulting in (depending upon whom you ask) a desert wasteland or a miraculous ecosystem that continues to draw eccentrics to its shores. In a February 2002 essay for Outside Magazine, William T. Vollmann memorably depicted the North Shore:

... the beach comprising not sand but barnacle shells, fish bones, fish scales, fish corpses, and bird corpses, its accompaniment an almost unbearable ammoniac stench like rancid urine magnified. Fish carcasses in rows and rows, more sickening stenches, the underfoot crunch of white cheek-plates like seashells -- oh, rows and banks of whiteness, banks of vertebrae; feathers and vertebrae twitching in the water almost within reach of the occasional half-mummified bird.

But amid the putrescence and decay, a family caught his eye, "the children running happily, sinking ankle-deep in scales and barnacles, nobody expressing any botheration about the stench or the relics underfoot." It's not stretching the conceit too terribly far to imagine Vollmann's watchful eye falling on the shades of Ares Ramirez and his brother Malcolm, the two young boys at the heart of Marisa Silver's engrossing new novel, The God of War. But, as we're told within the first pages, happiness will not be the lot of these boys. Violence and tragedy are gathering and, as one of Silver's characters avers, the desert "will kill everything valuable."

Common themes of family, guilt, dysfunction, and shame informed many of the stories in Silver's debut collection, Babe in Paradise (2001), as well as her first novel, No Direction Home (2005). These concerns remain present in The God of War, but the story is primarily a sustained meditation on questions of agency and volition; the acceptance (or refusal) of responsibility and the apportioning of blame. Indeed, her damaged cast has settled in this remote backwater in the futile hope of controlling their own fate beyond the reach of government and society. That they largely fail suggests how impervious to geography and inescapably human the so-called human condition really is.

The story opens in 1978. Twelve-year-old Ares (narrating some 30 years after the fact) is largely responsible for the care of his mentally handicapped six-year-old brother, while their mother, Laurel, works as a massage therapist to support the family, whose home is a ramshackle trailer in Bombay Beach. Malcolm's condition reads like severe autism: He neither talks nor reads nor writes and refuses to be touched. "Now there are words for the kind of child my brother was," Ares explains. But not so 30 years ago: "My brother was simply 'backward,' as if he were a sweater someone had put on wrong."

Laurel, a damaged free spirit who escaped the clutches of religious parents, is mistrustful of all authority and adores her boys, divining a strange mystical purity in Malcolm. She's convinced that he has a vibrant inner life, whereas Ares is not so sure. When Laurel interprets Malcolm's smacking lips as a request for juice, Ares wonders, "But what if she was wrong? What if Malcolm wanted the opposite of juice? What if he didn't want it at all? What if the fall had knocked desire right out of him?"

The falls Ares refers to is his great secret, his great burden: When Malcolm was only a year old. Ares dropped him and he hit his head, and now Ares nurses untenable guilt, convinced he is the cause of his brother's disability. (Given the accident that gave birth to the Salton Sea, this resonant choice seems especially apt.) His guilt is at least a piece of what begins to drive him away from his mother, and Silver is especially good at depicting that strange in-between place during adolescence where love and loathing for parents commingle uncomfortably:

... I was trapped between loving her and another feeling that had recently introduced itself and that I had no name for but that felt alternately like hatred, like disgust, or pity, or worse: longing."

The anger and disgust are slowly fed as Silver introduces complications and ratchets up the tension. Whereas the scope of No Direction Home wove several disparate plots together, the canvas of The God of War is narrower and tighter, resulting in Silver's most effective work to date. Although the story takes a little longer than it should to get going, once it does it unfolds in precise, gripping measure.

Laurel's itinerant lover Richard, who leaves during the hot summers, returns, and Laurel's attendant neglect of her boys causes Ares's budding resentment to simmer. And when Malcolm is required, after an outburst in which he bites a teacher, to study in the home of the school librarian, Mrs. Poole, Ares is given a tantalizing glimpse of what "normal" life might be like. In stark contrast to the anything-goes atmosphere at home, Ares is mildly rebuked for snooping and finds it "oddly gratifying to be the object of her precise censure; I had strayed and been contained, and beneath my embarrassment, I felt a relief I had never experienced."

One of Silver's deftest pieces of characterization occurs when Mrs. Poole hands Ares a pamphlet called Plants of the Southern California Desert to assist him in a weeding assignment. "Anything in there, you throw out." But she proves unable to hold the merciless march of the desert at bay. Ares begins to depend on his visits to Mrs. Poole, until the return home of her troubled 15-year-old foster son Kevin from a juvenile care facility upends the domesticity and provides Ares a very dangerous outlet for his growing amorphous anger. The combination of a found handgun, drugs, and the hopelessness of unloved -- or wrongly loved -- youth combusts with deadly inevitability.

Silver is adept at depicting the anger that flecks this novel like bloodstains -- Kevin, Richard, Laurel, Ares all nurse rages of varying degrees of volume and clarity. And given Silver's previous experience as a film director, it is unsurprising that the book is full of vistas as memorable as the one Vollmann describes. Silver may not always be fully convincing narrating as a male: How likely is the adult Ares to say "Like me, I felt he was a bearer of secrets, and this made my time with him exquisitely charged"? And the story can occasionally unfold a bit too precisely in a New Yorker fashion that's become easy to parody. (Birds begin to fall dead from the sky just before the story takes a deadly turn.) Nevertheless, Silver has reached a mere 170 miles beyond the limits of her Los Angeles home and delivered a vivid dispatch from another world, utterly different yet all too familiar, in which her battered family wants nothing more than to keep "safe from the incessant harms that came of living." --Mark Sarvas

Mark Sarvas' debut novel, Harry, Revised, has been sold in a dozen countries around the world. He is host of the literary blog The Elegant Variation and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416563174
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/14/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 807,202
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Marisa Silver

Marisa Silver is the author of the novels The God of War (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize), and No Direction Home. She made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she appeared in the inaugural Debut Fiction issue. Her collection of stories, Babe in Paradise, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Silver's work has been included in Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her on the Web at www.marisasilver.com.

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Read an Excerpt

One

Where I grew up, people kept their business to themselves. I lived in the desert, far enough east of the big cities of Southern California to render them meaningless to my daily life, closer to the border of Mexico than most people would have liked to admit. People did not so much choose to live in that parched frontier as they ended up there. It was a place generally ignored because it did not have much to offer, and so it was a place where you could be left alone. The desert's plants and animals thrived in seemingly impossible circumstances, against heat and drought and other odds. The same could have been said of its people, too.

On a spring afternoon in the late 1970s, a boy I knew died of a gunshot wound. The boy was of no consequence. During his life he had been tossed from home to home like the object in a game of hot potato, while one or another well-meaning soul tried to handle him, then passed him on when the real heat of his nature became untenable. It would be hard to make a case for his goodness given the deceitful and sometimes violent things he did. And as much as I was captive to the bright, angry flame of him when I was young, I cannot, even now, easily point to his value except that he happened to be alive for a time through no fault or talent of his own.

The news of the shooting made its way from the local newspaper to the big city papers in San Diego and Los Angeles where it was reworked and retold so that our story became unrecognizable to us, and we read the paragraphs incredulously as if we couldn't imagine people who lived like that. The story captured readers' imaginations not because of the boy who was shot, but because of my brother, whose mute, some would say insensate, presence occasioned the killing. What captured people's attention, what had the phone ringing in our trailer in Bombay Beach until my mother tore it out of the wall, what provoked an intrepid young reporter from San Diego to make his way to our overlooked town, was the fact that my brother could not talk or read or write, was more at home with objects than people, and could not look a person in the eye or suffer a stranger's hand on his narrow shoulder without screaming as if he had been branded. He could not, finally, tell any judge or jury what had happened that day to cause such violence. He was a boy locked up in himself. Now there are words for the kind of child my brother was, labels and therapeutic regimens and even drugs. But thirty years ago, in the remote place where we lived, science had not caught up to us, and diagnoses of abnormal behavior, when they were made at all, ran to generalities. My brother was simply "backward," as if he were a sweater someone had put on wrong. It was left to others to speak for him, to tell our story to the police, judge, and the newspaper reporters, who then turned the information inside out, so that the boy who died was forgotten, my brother became the unwitting victim, and I became a hero. But I was not a hero that day.

Copyright © 2008 Marisa Silver

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Reading Group Guide


This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marisa Silver. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion of The God of War. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The God of War is the latest novel from Marisa Silver, author of No Direction Home, and the story collection, Babe in Paradise. Silver's fluid writing and vibrant descriptions merge to tell the moving story of two brothers; a story of loyalty, love, survival, and guilt, and how each of these things bind us. Twelve year-old Ares feels responsible for his mentally handicapped younger brother, Malcolm. Left to his own devices by their single mother, he attempts taking his first steps toward adulthood but finds himself irrevocably tethered to his family. Something in his past, a searing guilt that won't let relent, keeps Ares forever looking out for his brother. The story, set in 1978 at the edge of the Salton Sea near California's Mojave Desert, encompasses the beauty and harshness of its rugged setting as it races to its inevitable conclusion.

Questions for Discussion:

1. This story takes place on the desolate terrain near the Salton Sea in central California. A ranger visiting Ares's class explained "about the birds that migrated to the Salton Sea, how they used it as a stopping-off point on their way south because it was one of the only unspoiled places remaining for them to rest on the Pacific Flyway." How doesthis setting complement the story?

2. Discuss Ares. Why do you think he is drawn to Mrs. Poole? What does she represent to him? Why is he so enthralled with Kevin, her foster son who spent time in the Juvenile Detention Center? Did you find it significant that in Greek mythology Ares is the God of War?

3. There's a great deal of animal imagery in the story, particularly bird imagery. What do the birds signify? What about Malcolm's treatment of the sick pelican or the dead bird his classmate brought to school? What about the fish and birds dying -- how does this event relate to the story?

4. Laurel is described as a woman "who could not bear to be hemmed in by other people and their ideas of how we should live." How does this characteristic affect her parenting? What about the way she deals with Malcolm's affliction? How does her style of parenting compare to Mrs. Poole's?

5. Ares harbors a great deal of guilt over his brother and sometimes that guilt leads to resentment: "I want to be like all the other kids who didn't have brothers who bit people and put things in piles, who had mothers who cared if their underwear showed." How might his life have been different if he didn't have this burden to carry? And how would that have affected his relationship with Malcolm? Do you think they would be as close? Ares confides that "in many ways, I was envious of my brother." Why would he be envious of Malcolm?

6. After Laurel announces her pregnancy, and Richard moves in with them, Ares feels "pushed out of his own life" and starts to shoplift. What does his behavior indicate to you? How could the situation have been handled differently?

7. What is the significance of the title? How does it relate to Ares? Richard tells him "You know who comes out ahead in a war?...The ones that believe in the story." What does Richard mean? How does it relate to Ares and his family?

8. What do you think Ares meant when he said, "I saw the whole truth of things... that nothing can make you safe." How is Ares's relationship to Laurel similar to Kevin and Mrs. Poole's? How are they different?

9. Looking back to the fateful day of the shooting, Ares remarks, "...I was not a hero that day." Do you agree? Why or why not? Do you think Malcolm knew what he was doing when he fired the gun at Kevin?

10. Why do you think Ares never tells the truth about what really happened to Kevin? If he had, would it have made a difference? How so? What do you think Ares is referring to when he says that we are all "trapped by history?"

11. Did the ending surprise you? What do you think will become of Ares?

12. After he returns from the center and Richard leaves, Ares and Malcolm ride their bikes to the edge of the sea and Ares yells, " I AM THE GOD OF WAR!...I let out roar that came from so deep a place inside me... And then, like an echo, I heard a roar that mimicked my own so perfectly I thought I had made it. But Malcolm had made the sound." Why is this moment so important to him? Why is Ares the 'God of War?'

Enhance Your Book Club:

1. Author Marisa Silver got her start writing and directing films. Check out her listing on IMDB.com and rent one of her movies: http://imdb.com/name/nm0798749/

2. To set the mood for your book club, rent and view The Salton Sea with Val Kilmer, a gritty story about a man who aimlessly drifts into a world of drug addicts, dealers, and undercover narcotic agents as he tries to rescue his neighbor from her own demons.

3. Check out the author's website: http://marisasilver.com/

A Conversation with Marisa Silver

Q: How did The God of War come about? What made you choose the remote setting of the Salton Sea?

MS: I have long loved the California desert but had never been to the Salton Sea before I began reading about it. What drew me to pick up the first history of the area? Perhaps the romantic alliteration of the name (finding a subject for a novel is a bit like falling in love), or the oddity of a sea existing within the bounds of a desert. As I read, I discovered the fascinating history of the place. I was taken with the notion that, a century ago, men had wrestled nature in order to reroute an entire river with the aim of making the arid land fertile. I loved the hubris of it and admired the pioneer audacity of these new Californians. The story of their efforts and the resulting floods was so dramatic that, for a while, I considered writing a historical novel. But when I began spending time at the Salton Sea, I was pierced by the forlorn beauty of the place, and I knew there was a contemporary story to tell -- a story about the history of land and its legacy, and about a family. The historical themes of regeneration and of man's attempt to control unruly nature exist in this modern story, but now they are themes particular to the family I created, not simply the place. The sea and its surrounds are beautiful and desolate, lonely and brave -- a combination that, to me, is something like life.

Q: In fiction, there is the literary principle of 'Chekhov's Gun,' the law proposed by the Russian master of the short story that suggests that if there is a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third act. Did you have this in mind when you first conceived the story?

MS: I always knew there was something buried in this story, but it took me a while to come around to the idea that this hidden thing was a gun. Many things were buried in this sea during various drafts of the novel, all of them leading the characters onto different paths. It was only when Kevin entered the picture and I understood why he was there that I knew that what was hiding was a gun. The gun is an object that represents both Kevin's violence and, in a strange way, Ares's fleeting innocence. He is fascinated with war and with guns, and weaves them into his fantasy games with his brother. But as the story progresses and he loses his innocence and becomes embroiled with Kevin, the actual potential of violence changes for him, and the gun becomes an inevitable actor in the story.

Q: In Greek mythology, the name Ares is used for the god of war. At what point in your writing process did you decide to incorporate aspects of mythology? Why is Ares the "god of war" in this story?

MS: Ares was always named Ares from the first moment I conceived of him. It was a name that Laurel would have given him -- something iconoclastic, something a bit out of the norm. Although I knew that the name had mythological connotations, the meaning of his name vis-à-vis my particular story didn't come through to me until well into the process, when I recognized the personal war that this young boy was engaged in. Ares is at war with his family and with himself. He is fighting to break away from his mother as any adolescent does. In his particular case, the fight is harder because of the demands of Malcolm and his acute sense of responsibility for the way his brother is. And it is harder, too, because of the isolation he feels due to the place where he lives, the way his mother has cut the family off from those around them, and because of the fact of his brother. I think the process of self-definition we all go through during adolescence and even beyond can be seen as something of a battle between what is expected of us and what our burgeoning desire pushes us toward. The elements of actual war -- the not too distant battles of Vietnam, and the proving ground that exists near where Ares lives -- folded into the story not so much to satisfy the name, but as a surprising and happy coincidence.

Q: Was it challenging to write from the point of view of a twelve-year-old boy? How attached do you get to your characters? How much of yourself (if any) do you put into your characters?

MS: It is always challenging to write from any point of view not my own because it requires inhabiting someone totally different from me and understanding them specifically enough so that how they move and speak and act is of a piece, so that these elements create a fictional character who is palpable. Characters need not be consistent, but they have to be inconsistently themselves. A twelve-year-old boy, which I am not, is as challenging as a mother, which I am, because I am not any mother, I am me, and the mother I write is not any mother, she is particular and peculiar to herself. Lately, I've been surrounded by a lot of adolescent boys, so I've been able to watch how they move and speak and gesture. I watch how they manage being trapped in that moment between childhood and adulthood -- it is a potent, achingly lovely time.

Q: The relationship between Ares and Malcolm is so palpable and resilient. Was their relationship based on a relationship you've experienced in your own life?

MS: Although I am one of a troika of sisters, the relationship between brothers, starting with Jacob and Esau and Cain and Abel, has always moved me in a particular way. I don't know why this is. I've dedicated my book, in part, to my father and uncle. My father's stories of his life with his brother are full of humor and heartache. I have been captivated by these tales since childhood. I guess I still am.

Q: How did you decide to include autism, which wasn't widely understood and in the 1970's, in the book? Tell us about this choice.

MS: The book, at its heart, is about the war Ares must wage between responsibility to his family and responsibility to himself. This is an issue we all have to deal with on some level, and Ares particular struggle is all the more pronounced because of his brother's condition and because of his mother's denial of Malcolm's troubles and their implications. Malcolm is autistic, although at the time the story takes place, that condition was not as widely understood as it is now, and the protocols for therapy and medications were not so widely available, especially in a place as remote and off the grid as a desert town by the Salton Sea. (It was not long before this time that people thought the reasons for children developing in this way was due to cold mothers, or "refrigerator mothers" as they were termed.) Laurel's behavior vis a vie Malcolm's condition is an outgrowth of her intense love for him, her stubborn rejection of societal values, and a lack of knowledge. It was important to me that, as wrong as some of her choices may be, that they not be the result of malice. She makes wrong choices for good reasons, at least reasons that make good sense to her as she tries to protect her family. I don't name the condition in the book for the specific reason that it is not something that was named for Malcolm and Ares at the time. Ares knows so little about what is going on with his brother that he imagines that Malcolm's problems are his own fault.

Laurel does not seek out a diagnosis, and Mrs. Pearl, as well intentioned as she is, is not an expert. She is simply the one staff member at the school with any knowledge about learning difficulties, but her knowledge does not extend to a condition as complex as autism.

It is important to me not to romanticize illness. Autism to the degree that Malcolm has it is a hard and often heartbreaking condition. But as I wrote the novel, I began to understand how both Ares and Laurel, coming from their particular emotional points of view, could find certain positive attributes in Malcolm's situation. Laurel, who eschews rules in general, sees a kind of innocent untouchability in Malcolm. He cannot be made to behave in certain ways, and she takes pride in this obduracy. In a way, Malcolm protects her from having to face society. He allows her to cut herself off from the world...at least for a while.

Ares, who struggles with his identity and who is continually confused about his behavior and about the kind of person he wants to be, nearly envies his brother for not having to go through the trials of adolescence. By the novel's end, he understands well the mistakes his mother has made, and the real consequences of his brother's situation, but he also has developed a fierce and protective love for his brother, and a sense that his brother, as silent and unconnected as he seems, understands something Ares has come to understand about struggle and hardship and the ties that bind. Whether Malcolm really understands matters little. What matters is that Ares has come to accept that his brother is an elemental part of him and will always be.

Q: You write about characters that sometimes make poor decisions and sometimes do awful things, yet it never seems like you are judging them. How do you keep your own feelings out of the equation?

MS: There is no person who makes good decisions all the time, but most people make poor decisions with all the best intentions. Their mistakes might come from reading a situation wrong, or from the emotional scarring that they bring to their experience of life. We are none of us experts in the one job we have, which is to live and to love. I find this predicament of existence humbling and poignant.

Q: The imagery and the detailed descriptions in the novel are so evocative and beautiful. Was the strong animal imagery intentional from the beginning or did it come about organically during the writing process?

MS: One of the pleasures of writing is to make a scene sensory -- to invest it with touch and smell and sound. One of the challenges is not to overburden a reader with so much information that it all becomes a meaningless wash. So the job is about picking and choosing details that not only describe a place, or a face, or an emotional moment, but also illuminate character, or cause the reader to make an association that expands his or her understanding of the scene, of life. When I hit the target, I know it, and then I clear away all the other stuff around it so that the detail makes the most amount of emotional and visceral impact.

Q: What is your writing regime like? Do you outline first or just go where the story takes you? Who are some authors that have played an important role in your life?

MS: I wish I could outline a story. I wish I knew where I was going. I have no idea. I start with a situation, with some sketches of characters, and then, like a painter, perhaps, I fill in and fill in, deepening the lines and the colors until something feels real and until action and drama tell a story that moves me, that I care about telling. It is a herky-jerky process: a character does one thing, and then the story heads in a certain direction. But maybe that's wrong. So the character does something else, and I head down that new path. I recently learned how to throw a pot on a potter's wheel. As I watched the clay rise and fall and rise again, puff out here, slim down there, become something ungainly and then right itself, I thought: this is just like writing, only dirtier.

I read a lot. Old stuff. New stuff. William Trevor and Alice Munroe always. Madame Bovary, William Maxwell...the list is vast and there is no central theme. Sometimes I read simply to see how an author handles an aspect of craft: first person voice, flashback...Sometimes I read to let my conscious mind wander around in a world of another's words while my unconscious mind stews over my own work without my having to think about it. I keep note cards by me at all times. I wake up at night and write down things that I think are the solution to problems I've run into only to wake in the morning and find out that they solve nothing.

Q: You came from the film world, having directed films like Old Enough and He Said, She Said. How was it adapting to the more solitary life of a fiction writer? How are the two worlds similar? Which do you find more creatively rewarding?

MS: On a superficial level, of course, the worlds of filmmaking and fiction writing could not be more different. Standing on a set with upward of one hundred people who are all contributing to the final outcome, is about as diametrically opposite an experience from sitting alone in my room with my computer and my books as it gets. Personally, I'll take my room and my computer every time. I love the solitude (maybe to an unhealthy degree) and find that writing gives me the opportunity to slowly and carefully excavate character and story in a way that is hugely satisfying to me.

Issues of craft in the two forms, however, overlap quite a bit. Filmmakers and writers are each telling stories with tools, and although a writer has no camera, she does have point of view, narrative distance, and movement at her disposal. At every moment of writing a scene, I am thinking about who I am seeing, where I am in the room, where characters are in relation to one another, what is happening in the background that may inform the scene and the emotions of it. The editorial choices in filmmaking are not dissimilar to those in writing -- when to move to a new scene, what scenes to juxtapose to one another -- all these choices serve to move the story in various ways. And when I am in a scene, I am, in fact, really acting through my characters, trying to feel what they would feel, say what they would say. Although I have never acted before, I imagine that the process I go through in creating characters and in trying to make them feel real and specific is not all that different from what an actor goes through.

Q: Your literary career really took off after you were featured in the inaugural debut fiction issue of The New Yorker in 2001. How did you come to the attention of the magazine's editors?

MS: My agent sent my work to The New Yorker when they were putting together the first debut fiction issue. Having my fiction debut in The New Yorker was a tremendous experience. I grew up with The New Yorker, and to see my story printed in that idiosyncratic font for the first time was quite a thrill. The magazine has a legacy that has meant a lot to me and that I was so proud to be part of. It was also great to have my work in a magazine that the committed readers of fiction turn to when looking for work from both new and veteran writers.

Q: Do you have a preference between writing novels or stories?

MS: Writing short stories and writing novels are two enormously different jobs. The requirements of each might seem the same, except for the length, but, to me, they are quite different. A short story requires an economy of character and event. It requires that you illuminate a whole world in miniature. The challenge is compression. A novel, of course, is more expansive, but it has the added challenges that controlling a story over time and place involves. I love writing both, but both are equally hard for me. Although it was difficult at first, I have grown to appreciate the length of time it takes to write a novel. I like seeing how, year by year, the process develops, how the story shapes and reshapes, how characters deepen and define themselves over time. Writing novels has taught me patience.

Q: Are you working on anything else? If so, can you share a bit about it with us?

MS: I'm working both on a new collection of short stories and a new novel. I generally don't talk about what I'm working more specifically, because I've found that talking about something can take away the urgency to write about it. So I have to keep it all inside in order to ensure that that urgency, which is such a part of the writing process, remains.

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 21, 2010

    Better than I originally thought!

    The summary doesn't really do the book justice. This is an amazing book! You experience the guilt of a young brother and the confusion of puberty. It's really a buildungsroman, as in it's basically a story about growing up. I warn you it is kind of slow to start, but once you get a few chapters into it, it's hard to put the book down! I definately recommend God of War by Marisa Silver.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    Kept my interest!

    Fascinating & learned a lot

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  • Posted June 29, 2009

    FIGHTING THE BATTLES AND BURDENS OF LIFE

    The story surrounds the life of a twelve year old (Ares) and his diificulties of dealing with his brother who is autistic. Ares is going through puberty and he is battling boundaries as well as a host of other life circumstances.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2008

    An unforgettable story of the joys and burdens of family ties

    The gripping story of 12 year old Ares Ramirez,his loving but troubled family scratching out a life at the edge of the barren Salton Sea, and his desperate efforts to find his own path in a haunting and desolate landscape. A must for lovers of the mystical Southern California landscape and anyone caught in the loving net of close family ties.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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