Published January 31. 2014 4:00AM
According to many English professors or literary critics, there are only seven or eight basic story plots in the whole world - although that hardly explains James Patterson.
But maybe it's not just about finite plotlines. Maybe some stories are so timeless and irresistible that authors can't help but revisit them, tinkering and offering intriguing variations on the original.
Consider award-winning novelist Patrick Ness. His latest book, "The Crane Wife" (The Penguin Press), is a conscious retelling of a beloved, centuries-old Japanese folk tale about a man who finds a wounded crane and nurses the bird back to health. After the crane returns to the wild, a mysterious woman shows up at the man's door and they fall in love and ...
Ness' updated version takes place in contemporary London, where 48-year-old George Duncan, divorced and lonely, works at his small print shop. He, too, finds and aids a wounded crane and, the next morning, meets a woman named Kumiko, an exotic artist who seeks George's assistance in her creations. George begins to fall in love with Kumiko and, as he seeks to learn her secrets, must come to terms with his own past and family relationships.
Ness is best known as a writer of children's books - including the dystopian and best-selling "Chaos Walking" series - and has won multiple awards including two Carnegie Medals and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. "The Crane Wife" is his first novel for adults since 2003's "The Crash of Hennington," though the newest book definitely has roots in the author's childhood.
The well-traveled Ness, who grew up in Hawaii, spent a decade in Seattle and has lived the past 15 years in Britain, first encountered the story of "The Crane Wife" as a kindergarten student. His beloved teacher, Mrs. Nishimoto, had an indelible way with storytelling, and "The Crane Wife" marinated in Ness' brain for years.
"What resonated with me about this particularly is that, if you think about folk tales, most of them start with an act of cruelty," Ness says during a phone conversation earlier this week. "But 'The Crane Wife' starts with an act of kindness, and that gives it an entirely different flavor than any other folk tale I've ever heard."
It's perhaps interesting that Ness wrote "The Crane Wife" for adults instead of kids. The answer as to why he did so indicates Ness' shrewd grasp of audience.
"Teens tend to be expanding personal boundaries - 'I am this and I am not that' - and going through self-discovery, and it's a fascinating process to write about," Ness says. "For an adult book, though, concerns are slightly different. Adults have found their boundaries and we wonder how much of a prisoner we are within those boundaries; what are the limitations?
"One concern is not better than the other, but they're different. In telling this story, I thought it was about whether the characters could escape their boundaries and, if so, what happens now that you've done so?"
Those familiar with the folk tale know that it ultimately proceeds in a darker direction involving greed. Ness found that at odds with the initial kindness of the protagonist, and it's not giving away too much about the novel to say his characters are more emotionally consistent. Through utilization of lush prose, elements of magical realism, and even a separate story-within-a-story - complete with its own typeface - Ness captains a literary voyage of transfixing momentum.
As for the variant story arc, Ness relied on a fascinating personal ritual: when starting a new project, he always writes the last sentence of the book first.
"That way I know how I'm going to leave the reader," he said. "I don't know how I'm going to get there, but I have the whole novel to figure it out and provides me enough of an idea so I don't get lost on the way. I call it the dismount, because you have to nail it. It's very important."
Another Nessian writer's quirk is that he chooses a theme song for each book he writes - one that emotes a specific emotion Ness is trying to convey.
"I use the song as a touchstone and a reminder that THIS is why I'm writing this," he says. Obviously, Ness doesn't listen exclusively to the particular theme tune for the entire writing process, but as needed. "It serves as a reminder because I want to make the same impact with my writing that the song has on me."
The song usually doesn't have anything to do with parallel story or characters but, in the case of "The Crane Wife," Ness chose a song by The Decemberists, the Portland, Ore., progressive rock band. The song is called "The Crane Wife parts 1 & 2," off an album called "The Crane Wife" and, yes, the CD was inspired by the same folk tale.
"I'd been thinking of starting to write 'The Crane Wife' and I bought and listened to this album, and I thought, 'This is perfect.' In fact, it was almost TOO perfect. The tone of the song is exactly what I was looking for," Ness says.
Ultimately, Ness says his "The Crane Wife" is an examination of kindness.
"There are questions that interest me: what does a kind man do? Happiness is also really interesting. I had a theory: there's a difference between being nice and being kind. Can you be kind without being nice? Each of these characters represent different aspects of these possibilities."