I’ve engaged creatively as a writer and photographer since my mid-teens. But in the past several years “novelist” is what I’ve settled on. I write several hours a day and I’m on my third novel. Plus, photography has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to lay a claim to the medium. Also, I know that when I see someone self-identifying as being in command of two very different forms, I’m usually skeptical. So I’ve been dropping my “photographer” identifier lately. And that’s why I want to discuss what I do with a camera first.
Photography allows me to make visual art. My content is human character. And, within that, I tend toward lightly humorous, un-posed “telling moments”—with a style and philosophy influenced by mid-20th century photojournalism. On the technical side, I simply benefited from great high school photography classes (1974–1978). Then, with fundamentals firmly in place, I took it from there. I engaged seriously with photography, but it was always something I did on the side. However, after a few decades, I found myself sitting on a substantial, high-quality archive of pictures that maintained a very specific style throughout. So in 2008, I published through Oakland House Press a monograph of my images that span thirty years, from 1977–2007. Titled Relationships, the images were selected to fit that theme. But, in truth, most of my images fit that theme. For three years, 2009–2012, I was the resident photographer for the Oakland Museum of California, documenting behind the scenes. That resulted in my first and (thus far) only museum show. Additionally, every year I present my work, solo, November through January, hanging seven framed prints on a verbal theme (e.g.: “Under Cover” for 2017–2018), at an Oakland gallery … Rockridge Barbershop. It isn’t prestigious, but it’s a nice space, and a good challenge, and proprietor Marty Hatton is a smart viewer.
Writing has had a longer and more formal gestation for me. I began thinking of myself as a writer in elementary school; took words very seriously in high school; became a creative writing major for a bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State; worked for a spell as an advertising copywriter; rigorously shaped my narrative technique as a graduate student in American History; emphasized essay writing as a community college history instructor; found a voice as a magazine columnist; edited the work of others; and wrote, wrote, wrote, finding me in middle adulthood. As with photography, writing is a means for me to capture moments of humanity on the page.
In both mediums, my strength is in catching character and dialogue. “Relationships” could easily be the title of any of my work, whether pictures or words.
My first novel was Among the Fourth Graders. It came out in 2013, also via Oakland House Press. Fundamentally a memoir—which was drawn from my six years as a volunteer classroom assistant at two Bay Area elementary schools—I creatively re-assembled characters and events, and shaped it into a non-fiction novel. It was exactly what I needed for a first novel. Writing in narrative/dialogue form, with drama and character arcs, plots and sub-plots, was something I just knew I’d be good at, it was simply the coming up with the story that kept me from accomplishing that first book-length narrative. And I didn’t want to write a roman à clef, thinly disguising myself as a character. Rather, the narrator is me, “Terry Carroll,” and all the events are fundamentally true; however, I have disguised everyone else, to allow for their privacy, and have created a fictionalized version of what really happened. Prior to writing this story, I felt at a loss as to how to come up with everything that is a novel, from scratch. I needed a “live model” for my first presentation.
And that led me to my second. In late 2015, I published Mary Jorjorian in Love, again via Oakland House Press, which is yet another novel that is non-fiction based. Its story isn’t something I experienced but, rather, one I found. It takes place in 1921 among a group of young-adult Armenian immigrants living in Florida, who are trying to capture the expanding prosperity as tailors and rug specialists—and as refugees—while maybe not fully anticipating the more pressing matters of the heart that suddenly arise. It is based on the actual romantic drama that transpired between my wife’s maternal grandparents before their engagement, and which existed only in fragments of a diary and in letters, photos, and other contemporaneous artifacts of that period. I became captivated by young Mary Jorjorian, whom I’d never met, and whom no one alive had known in that state of vivaciousness. (The actual Mary Jorjorian became a badly damaged middle-aged and elderly woman, suffering from mental illness, which was the only version any living relatives knew.) The twenty-year-old Mary of the spring of 1921 provided me with her character and situation, several additional characters, several details, a neat beginning, middle, and end, and alluring gaps throughout all of it. My challenge was to transform her all-too-brief diary entries, etc., into a living, breathing, swooning, and heart-breaking short novel that takes place over a five week period. And I’m very happy with the results!
So happy, indeed, that I realized Mary Jorjorian in Love is, in fact, Mary Jorjorian in Love, Part One, and that what I had were the raw materials for an in-depth saga that will be in five parts. Right now (autumn 2017), I’m two-thirds through drafting Part Two, which I’m hoping to publish in 2018. I had intentionally shaped Part One into a self-contained short novel, just in case I could not, for whatever reason, continue with Parts Two through Five. The additional parts will be published as individual short novels, but they won’t be self-contained. And, ultimately, by 2025 or thereabouts, I plan on re-editing and packaging all five parts into a single, “door stopper” novel. (Hint: it would make a really great multi-season television series.) The entire saga takes place in five different geographic locations, with multiple sets of characters, changing situations, and many sub-plots—all densely packed into a single, short era: from the Spring of 1921 to the Spring of 1924.
To bring it back to my photography: with the Mary Jorjorian books, as well as with Among the Fourth Graders, I’ve employed a cinematic approach to the storytelling. All of my narrative writing is told in present tense. That places the reader into the action, making him or her a witness, and thus gives some leeway for the narration’s putative omniscience. So too with my photography: I generally shoot in-close, within scenes, at arms-length to the subjects, giving the viewer a “you are there” experience. That’s what I mean when I say that, with both my writing and my photography, my strength is in catching character and dialogue. My photography is narrative in form, and my writing depicts this moment. They both come from the same place in my creative generator. But these days I’m a novelist. Or, as it looks, it’s being an “ist” with the “a novel” that’s going to keep me busy for the several coming years.
I am married, with no children, one cat, several nieces and nephews, and a comfortable home, in good health, happy with most of my choices, and enjoying a well-functioning life.
(Photo by Linda Dardarian: Colonia, Uruguay, 2006.)