Loving Your Work: Hilary Reyl on Translating Borrasca

This month, Ideasmyth’s Ideablog is exploring all angles of the theme “loving your work”–a topic that comes up very often with our clients. Especially as in: “How the hell can I start loving my work?!”

Translating Borrasca


“Do you ever feel,” I ventured, “like moments of growing up are sometimes weirdly about remembering who you used to be?”

When my father died, he left a partially written Western screenplay, called Borrasca which means the opposite of “Bonanza.” It is a boom and bust story about the California Gold Rush that takes place in a town called Point Blank. He left piles of notes, files and folders of ideas, many on scraps of paper, character sketches, research, a treasure trove but no clear path. I spent the year after he died trying to finish the screenplay for him, to speak for him as I always had. But I couldn’t. First of all, I am not a screenwriter. Secondly, it wasn’t my story and the pressure I put on myself to finish it “right” was unbearable. So, instead I wrote a manuscript about a daughter trying and failing to finish her father’s western. I thought it could be a novel. Only it wasn’t a novel, it was a tribute, and it was flat.

One of my the novels that has moved me the most in my life is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I am fascinated by the character of the mute, John Singer, whose silence is taken by the book’s cast of searching characters as a deep understanding of each of their particular needs and obsessions. Meanwhile, Singer is devoted to another deaf mute, an obese “dreamy Greek” named Spiros Antanopoulos, who himself seems to care about nothing but food. To me, no novel better depicts the solitary nature of longing, and the longing therein to be understood by another human being. I remember reading the book as a teenager and thinking it was in some ways about my father. I noticed that the people who were interested in him often read a deep complicity into his voicelessness. He was considered a sort of sage because he couldn’t talk. Like John Singer, he translated desires back to their owners and made them seem rich with possibility, simply by virtue of his silence. I have, of course, interpreted McCullers’ masterpiece in a very personal way. Like her deluded characters, I imagine that it speaks to me directly.

As I’ve mulled over Borrasca through the years – my father died in 1997 – and thought of ways to write about it and him, my translating urge has started to take over. The same one I discovered as a kid learning French. I am figuring out how to transform the raw emotion of my story into something with a narrative arc that is no longer bound to the truth. It has become a father-daughter caper set in California in the late 70’s. The pair are trying to sell a western together in Hollywood. It is a great experience, and one that keeps me loving my work.
Here is the first page of my Borrasca.


Simon Curran’s trademark cheer went the way of a shadow in sudden dark. He lost his sense of humor, and without it he was drunkenly off-balance, a sensation he recalled with disturbing accuracy considering the last time he’d been drunk was about thirteen years ago when Leo had poured some Scotch down his stomach tube. They were celebrating the final surgery on his neck. “Most well-earned shot I ever poured, my friend.” A viscous tingle had immediately dulled ages of Simon’s pain, a dye leaked over his life. Leo laughed and sped his convertible down the Minnesota highway, breaking the gravitational pull of the Mayo Clinic, the hospital that had reconstructed his boyhood friend Simon from an untimely bout with throat cancer. For a drunken moment, the clinic, with its tracheostomies and its skin grafts, became an authority figure to be mocked and avoided. “Hide the booze! Step on the gas! They’ll never catch us now! We can still act like young idiots. We haven’t lost our touch. We’re still immortal, my friend. Especially you, Simon.”

Since Simon could no longer answer aloud, he had written a note, RIGHT ON, and held it out for Leo to see while he drove. “Right on!” Leo had managed to read and yell out the wind-whipped words. “Time to pull over for another round of refreshment, wouldn’t you say?” Simon had let go of his paper while the car was still moving. He clearly remembered now how fast it had been sucked away.

Ten years later, faced with the gun of a highway patrolman, the smile at his memory of Leo’s antics clogged in Simon’s throat. This time, he was snared. There was nothing he could say that this cop could possibly hear. There was no one to translate the murmuring sounds be made; his daughter Carina was a hundred miles away. He had to go it alone, and he couldn’t keep standing quietly because the situation was teetering just shy of irrevocable. It only had a few more moments of life in it. Having gone to such great lengths, inhuman they said, to survive until now, it would be crazy to blow his future on a simple misunderstanding. But it was tempting. It occurred to Simon, glancing to the car that had chased him down, that a big gold star on the door of a black Dodge could be his final point of focus, and that to die at the hands of the law would be a fitting end.

He itched for the pen and paper in his shirt pocket. Of course the logical thing would be to gesture to his ascot, to gently move it aside to reveal the hole, the metal tracheal tube and the gauze pad cut so carefully just before sunrise today to keep the Sierra dust out of his lungs. If he would only clarify his situation in all its grotesqueness, the cop would shy away, feel frightened or even ashamed of what he had almost done. He might let Simon go despite having just done almost ninety miles an hour. But Simon didn’t want to slip off the hook on a stream of pity.
~~~Hilary Reyl has a PhD in French Literature from NYU with a focus on the 19th Century, and has spent several years working and studying in France. She lives in New York City with her family. Lessons in French is her first published novel. She is currently working on a novel called Borrasca, a father-daughter caper set in Southern California in the 1970′s, as well as a young adult novel with a magical Proustian theme. Learn more about Hilary at www.hilaryreyl.com.

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