Tuesday, April 30, 2019

On Framing: Guest Post by Chris Pavone


For the past dozen years, I’ve been a professional writer. But for three decades now, I’ve been doing the following things on a regular nonprofessional basis: painting walls, framing pictures, and arranging clusters of framed pictures on walls that I painted.

Why? They’re all things that are enjoyable for me to contemplate doing in the future, and soothing while actually doing them, and satisfying afterward. I like working with paint rollers and brushes, flat and glossy, walls and trim; I like cutting matts and stringing wire and using a special tool to insert little metal points into wooden frames; I like arranging and rearranging pictures on the floor into the right pattern, then measuring and hammering, hanging and aligning. I love how it all looks when finished, and it was me who did it. This is not highly skilled work—there’s no real expertise involved—and that’s one of the things I like about it, similar to cooking daily supper for my family: the main requirement is merely a willingness to chop onions.

But why do I like doing some things with my hands—brushwork on crown molding, dicing carrots—but dislike others? I think it’s related to the sorts of the sorts of things I like to do with my mind.

Not only do I love real-world physical framing. I also love imaginary stories about framing—I love reading them, and I love writing them.

In THE PARIS DIVERSION, I tried to create layers of framing: within the story, where characters make one another look guilty of things they’re not; and also as a reading experience, making readers question who’s innocent, and who’s guilty, and of what. I tried to construct each character within similar frames (as a parent, and as a professional, and as an American in Paris), and then arranged those individual pieces into a pattern that when finished looks clean and elegant, all set against what I hope is a beautiful backdrop that I very carefully painted—

Wait a second: am I talking about the book, or the wall?

I also love crossword puzzles, boxed into their own frames, which I’ve also been doing for more than thirty years, beginning when I’d lounge on my university’s arts quad with the Daily Sun. In New York, my first full-time permanent job was as an editorial assistant at Dell Puzzle Magazines, which published mostly crosswords. For my whole adult life, I’ve been doing the Times puzzle religiously (in ink, thank you very much), partly because I enjoy it, also because it’s a fantastic exercise for my brain, not just figuring out the puzzle, but also exercising language muscles generally—vocabulary, synonyms, puns, double entendres. The crossword is like going to the gym, for the brain.

My favorite sort of puzzle is one that tricks me on two levels. With individual clues that set me up to think the answer is going to be one sort of word or phrase, but turns out to be something different. And with an overall theme that begs this question throughout the solving experience: what exactly is going on here? In a good puzzle, my first guess is almost never the right one. Nor the second. The more wrong guesses, the more fun, and the more satisfaction from the eventual solution.

Which is exactly the same sort of pleasure as reading a story about framing, the tension of not knowing what’s really going on, the fun of guessing again and again, readjusting your guesses to accommodate new clues, the excitement as you near the solution, and the eventual satisfaction of finally knowing everything, that moment when you can see the whole puzzle’s solution, every element in place, hanging right there, deftly arranged on that perfectly painted wall.

Photo Above: My wall of black-and-white wall with red in the middle, including a very old map of New York and another of Paris, various 19th-century works on paper, one photo of the kids and one of our first dog Charlie Brown, a piece of charred paper picked up downtown after 9/11, a few mid-century etchings by a distant relative, a vintage photo and a contemporary one and one excised from a damaged book, a Raymond Pettibon drawing and, the red bull’s eye, Steven Sorman’s 1978 collage “Letter to Matisse.”


CHRIS PAVONE is the New York Times–bestselling author of the international thrillers The Expats, winner of the Edgar and Anthony awards for best first novel, The Accident, The Travelers, and most recently The Paris Diversion.

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