Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Which I Overcome Certain Prejudices

I’m always fascinated by the narrow line between discovering a great writer and passing him/her up with an “ehh, maybe not,” and a shrug of the shoulders.
When I was a teenager reading my way through the shelves of the Lexington library I used to run across the novels of Richard Brautigan regularly. They all had weird titles and when I looked at the inside flap there was always a complete failure by the publisher’s copy to describe or convey what in any way they novel was about. Since I liked to know what a book was about before I read it (call me spoiled), I left Richard Brautigan alone. And so his name vanished in my mind behind hundreds of other writers I did or didn’t read, and would have stayed there for good if I was not trying to recall recently what sort of books were peculiar to the 1970s. I looked to see if Brautigan was still a native of my local library (answer – sort of) and then I went to a bookstore and got 3 of his works (Trout Fishing In America, The Pill Vs. the Springhill Mining Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar) in one volume.
Brautigan’s life can be summed up in a very short narrative. Grew up poor in the Pacific Northwest. Bummed around most of his life. Drank. Went through a lot of women. Wrote short, obscure sort-of novels that even a Martian would recognize as being quintessential 1960s. Drank some more. Killed himself. His writings are full of parody and irony. His saving grace may be that, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t in love with the sound of his own voice. His sentences are spare and focused and his images are memorable. Fantasy, magical realism and pop culture are balanced by trout fishing, camping in the hills and memories of a hardscrabble childhood. In fact, the Brautigan I’ve found in these works probably not so much a quintessentially 60s writer as a quintessentially Western writer – one far less stuck-up than Wallace Stegner. He creates a modern mythology for his land – Lewis and Clark coexisting in time with a boy watching a Deanna Durbin movie in Great Falls, Montana; a man going to a junkyard and buying a used trout stream; a backwoods outhouse mourning the man who built it.
Sometimes a writer’s reputation won’t rise until several decades after his death. I’m not sure that this will happen to Brautigan – the 60s seem increasingly to be cast as an embarrassing decade, not to be taken seriously – but if his ever does it will be because he is understood as a great modern Western writer, and not merely as someone whose work has to be explained in the context of his times.

How to See the Elephant - Part IV

Thetis finds a boatman willing to take her and Sheba downriver. They are accompanied by Mrs. Ayers, who has decided to volunteer as a nurse. Louisville is under military occupation and they are arrested by a military patrol and held at a hotel while a decision is made about what to do with them.

The sun had long since set and the hours slipped by. We had a plate of dinner in one of the hotels, served by a waiter who leaned against the wall and picked his teeth, watching us sternly. We were supposed to be seen, in a few hours, by another general. From time to time soldiers walked through the lobby, making their way to the bar with steady footsteps, only to stagger back a little while later. Once we heard gunshots in the street outside, followed by a window going up and someone calling down the wrath of heaven on the next person who made any noise. The soldiers in the bar began to improvise verses of “John Brown’s Body.” Mrs. Ayers, calm as ever, was eating with attention, as if it were her last meal. Sheba, finished, had put her head on the table and closed her eyes.
I got up and left.
I saw no other way. I knew it was wrong, unsafe and disloyal. I knew that I should trust to Mrs. Ayers to sort everything out. But I also knew that Pa was close. From the moment we had set foot on shore, from the moment I had begun to explain myself to the army, and heard about the hospital camp, I had begun to dread that my father was dying somewhere near by, and I was not there. It had been my intention from the first to find him as fast as possible, and I had been sidetracked, and now I would be punished for my neglect. I had come so far. I was so close. I could not stand to be held back by passivity and caution, by pats on the head and assurances that everything would be cleared up if I was patient. I had to go, even if it just meant walking and walking and walking until I found him. When I had left Miss Veda’s through that broken window, I had put certain things behind me for good. There was no point trying to jump back now. I had begun this adventure running through the streets of Philadelphia without thought or direction, and I would end it by doing the same on the streets of Louisville.
A drunken officer was beating on the door of the hotel, calling “Le’ me in, Sophie, le’ me in.” I opened the door and stepped over him when he fell down. Then, a moment of inspiration. His horse was tied to the rail outside. I took his gun from his holster, tucked it under my arm, heavy great thing that it was, then stepped to the rail and untied the horse. I put my foot in the stirrup and – how I did this without shooting myself I’ll never know – launched up into the saddle. The horse was a monster, far bigger than anything I had ever ridden – a blood mare, suitable for an officer. I didn’t even have to say “Get along.” I just squeezed my legs and the beast took off, with me holding the reins like I knew what I was doing, and the gun bouncing and jolting under my arm.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pageant a Triumphant Success!

I can report that my church's children's Christmas pageant this year is not that bad. I guess only a really mean person could criticize a children's Christmas pageant, but I generally have to sit through it twice and there's a lot of room, during the longer songs, for my mind to wander. Usually the Theme of the Christmas pageant is something along the lines of "Stop text-messaging, kids, because Jesus is the reason for the season!" Last year one of the stars of the show threw up (twice!) during the performance, which at least gave us something to talk about and brought back fond memories of the Beaumont Junior High School Christmas program of 1981. This year, however, marks a new era in Christmas Pageants. The pageant is well-acted, the songs are short, and the Theme is, roughly, Hawaiians Celebrate Christmas, Too, a sentiment no one can object to. So it looks like I won't mind sitting through it again on Christmas Eve. By the way, if you start crying during a Hawaiian-themed Children's Christmas Pageant, it doesn't mean you're having a nervous breakdown or anything, does it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to See the Elephant -- Part III

Arriving in Cincinnati, Thetis goes to a boardinghouse where she is known from visits with her father, hoping to borrow money to get a boat downriver. She finds Mrs. Ayers, the owner of the boardinghouse, mourning her son, killed at the battle of Bull Run.

“I’ve had gallons of tea,” Mrs. Ayers held up a hand. “I’ve been thinking. I shall go to Washington and find Tim’s body. After all, they might have made a mistake, mightn’t they?”
“I mean, unless someone from the family is there to identify the body, I don’t see how they could really know.”
“But…” I wasn’t sure if she thought his body still lay unburied, or if she contemplated disinterring it.
“Until I see it, no one can say for sure that it is him.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking it unwise to disagree with her, and though she hadn’t asked after Pa I began to tell her my story:
“Pa went into the Army, too. He was wounded, and now he’s in the camp hospital in Louisville – if he wasn’t captured. We’re going to get a riverboat down to Louisville to find him.”
“That’s impossible,” Mrs. Ayers said, matter-of-factly, “No boats have run for three weeks. The river’s too low.”
“Oh. None?”
Her voice lowered to a whisper again:
“It hasn’t rained since Tim died. Do you think if I went to Washington and found his body, it would rain again?”
“I – I couldn’t say for sure, Mrs. Ayers.”
“Well, Louisville’s under attack.” She had resumed a normal voice. “No riverboats will go there. They say Bragg is shelling the city. You might get a train through Indiana, but you’d have to cross the river anyway at Jeffersonville.”
I went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. It occurred to me now that something was very wrong with the picture I had seen from the window with Sheba a few minutes before. The river was a narrow strip of white-silver. No traffic stirred upon its surface.
So that was it. Mrs. Ayers was crazy with grief and Sheba did not want to go any further. I had defied my sister, my teachers, the law, and the customs of my race over four days, slept out in the open, ridden with strangers, outraged the laws of hospitality and nearly been shot for a chicken thief, only to end up stuck in Cincinnati, a hundred miles still from my father.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Then and now

I always thought of myself as a writer, but when I was younger writing wasn't something I could do every day. In fact, it was something I often put off doing. A lot. Oh, good, some time to myself...a perfect chance to get some writing done... Just let me get something to eat. No, I'm not going to put tv on. Maybe just to see the weather. I wonder if the mail's here yet. God, I've been staring out the window for 5 minutes. I better wash out my teacup. You know, I'm still hungry...

Writing was painful partly because I was intolerant of failure and of doing things over. That much I knew, back then. In that era I ran across an incident from a biography of the painter Duncan Grant. When he was in art school, his mentor told him he should paint every day -- even if it wasn't any good, just paint, in order to get into the habit of it. Of course I used this incident to beat myself up a little. And then I scoffed. That's just not the kind of writer I am. I work slowly. Yes, that's it -- slowly, but well.

Somewhere along the line, however, things changed. When I began writing "again," after a long off period (never truly off, but not really planning things), I didn't dread writing any longer. I looked forward to working, I felt confident about what was coming next in the story, and wrote pretty much anywhere I was and in pretty much any medium. If things didn't work, I went back and re-wrote them, and I was able to do it this time with tears and agita. I wish I could claim some great insight or drive for this change, but I can't. I guess it was just time and maturity. And one day I looked back and I fully understood why and how Duncan Grant painted every day and how basic such a thing is. Do I still have problems? Do I still have to sit or pace and work things out, slowly, over weeks sometimes? Yes. But I don't fear writing anymore. I don't put it off.

And this has held true, particularly in the past month, no matter if the day brings work crises, holidays, headaches, bad weather, early darkness, moments of gloom and fear -- the tumult of life that's so ugly and unruly close up. Something is written, at least a little bit, to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Stop calling me Shurley

I once pointed out to my son, as he struggled with his English homework, that the school is essentially trying to teach him a language he already speaks. I said this to give him confidence, but it illustrates the backwards nature of English as a subject. We learn to speak English, and to a lesser extent write it, informally, via parents, books, television and everything that goes on around us. In other words, we learn by imitation. We don't learn anything about the bones of the language. And then school comes along and tries to stuff those bones into what we already know and in the process they often end up turning the English language into something dull and unappetizing.
Let me just say that I like grammar when it is nicely done. I'm particular about the subjunctive (if she were, not if she was) and various other archaisms. Parsing a sentence, and seeing exactly how the words have their own place and yet work together, has the same excitement for me as a medical student might feel watching the dissection of the muscles of the arm. But how did I learn grammar? Truthfully, not in elementary school or middle school "Language Arts," no matter how many times we were tested on it. None of that stuck. No, I learned in high school, when I took Latin. Suddenly I had to know all the verb tenses, and the difference between an indirect object (the dative case) and the direct object (the accusative case.) And when I knew Latin well I suddenly looked back at English and understood everything I had forgotten so many times. And it seemed easy.
Some things have changed for the better in school, but English grammar instruction has not. I can say this because my son's school uses the popular "Shurley Method" to teach it. Shurley uses jingles to teach everything and yes, that does make it easier to remember. And Shurley does make sentence structure easier, although after the poor sentence has been parsed it's an obsessive-compulsive's nightmare of PPV, HV, SN, PPA and a dozen other labels. But I think when you have an English grammar system that requires students to memorize all 49 prepositions and 23 helping verbs the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
No one ever learned English by memorizing prepositions.
No one ever learned any language by memorizing prepositions.
Having to memorize prepositions is like having to memorize road signs. You see a road sign, you know what it is. No one is supposed to run around with a catalog of all possible road signs in their head, and if they did it wouldn't help much. The brain just doesn't work that way.
Did I also mention that this particular test required him know the prepositions in alphabetical order as well?
I just hope that somehow my son, and all the other Shurley kids, survive this instruction and come to realize that the English language was not specifically invented as an instrument of torture designed to ruin an 11 year old's weekend.
If not, I guess I can always enroll him in Latin.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Perryville, Part II

I think Americans sometimes forget that we have suffered actual physical damage during wars. We forget that the cities of Vicksburg, Atlanta and Richmond were burned and bombed out. We forget that ports were blockaded, that people starved, that they fled from their homes. There are very few photographs to remind us of these events and very often, when we see the site of a three-day battle in the middle of what is now suburban sprawl, we can't quite picture it. Of course we preserve these battlefields, but they are overgrown now, and function much as oases of peace amid modern life. And the towns that do still bear scars, like Gettysburg and Perryville, get stuck in a time warp and are not allowed to really be part of our century. Wandering through them is very disconcerting.
On Thanksgiving visits I used to go with my mother to the town of Perryville to take afternoon tea in a bed-and-breakfast/tearoom there. We never went to the battlefield. We believed (wrongly, I think) that it was closed in the winter, and in any case my mother says she finds battlefields depressing. The bed-and-breakfast was in a large house which had been used as a hospital for the wounded. We would eat petit fours and drink tea and then drive back, in the fading light, to Lexington.
I have always been good with directions and so more than ten years later I was able to find my way by myself, slowing down as I passed through the same Victorian houses of downtown Harrodsburg (and the Baatan memorial -- another reminder of another war) and turning onto the Perryville road. After a few miles I saw an interesting-looking graveyard behind a church and I got out to look. It proved to be very cold, and I got back in the car within a minute. I drove into Perryville, turned as directed by a battlefield sign, blinked, found myself outside of Perryville, and had to turn around and go back to the turnoff I had missed. Perryville has a river, a couple of churches, some old houses and an intersection with one of the blinking yellow lights that scare the heck out of city drivers. The battlefield was just a couple of minutes down the turnoff, past houses with signs for "Antiques - Bullets - Shells." Even after I parked I still wasn't sure it was open. There were only two small buildings, both deserted. Just beyond the parking area were two monuments, one Confederate, one Union, side by side. The Confederate monument had one of those big standing wreaths in front, while the Union monument was undecorated, and I must confess I minded. I let it go, thinking that the wreath might have been placed in honor of a recent Confederate Memorial Day (which is sometimes celebrated in January), but I still minded.
After this I walked onto the battlefield itself. It was hilly -- long gentle hills -- and there were clumps of trees, often on the ridgelines. Where the grass had eroded the muddy areas were covered by straw. Except for my walking everything was silent. It was very cold. I went up a long slow hill, hoping the exercise would keep me warm. In the next few minutes I did several sentimental things, but I did them and I suppose I ought to confess them. First I took two pieces of straw and looped them into a cross like on Palm Sunday. Then I found a pebble and picked it up. When I got to the top of the hill I looked at the green and brown landscape and the bare trees. There was still no one in sight. My feet were going numb. I went down into a little copse of trees because in my Perryville scene Thetis finds wounded men in such a copse. I remember trying to judge from the size of the trees if they would have been there at the time of the battle. I don't know much about the size/age relationship of trees, unfortunately. In the copse I sat for awhile and then I found a snail shell. At first I couldn't imagine how that could get there and then I remembered land snails. I've lived too long in the desert, I guess. I put that in my pocket with the pebble. I really wanted to find something from the battle, something that would be an actual connection, but there was nothing. I had come to Perryville to "pick up" details for the battle scene, of course, but I was thinking not so much about the shape of the hills and the bare trees (I had this in my memory a million times over just from growing up in Kentucky) but something more. I guess as a writer you're always looking for a kind of "aha!" (Perhaps secretly you want something that will make it easier for you, something that just falls into your lap.) There was no aha. There was just what you would expect standing on a hill in Boyle County in January -- serious cold, and silence.
I went back down the hill and I put the straw cross and the pebble and the snail shell on a step at the lower edge of the Union monument. Then I crossed the road and went in the museum and said hello to the woman behind the gift-shop counter. She was kind of bubbly. I didn't like her. She suggested I go into the museum and watch the movie but I had to be a rebel so I started the movie but walked around and looked at the exhibits while it was on. I looked at old medical implements and items that had been dug up out of the ground and I read accounts of the battle. Then I signed the name "Robert Southey" in the visitor book. Southey wrote a poem "After Blenheim," which recounts two children finding a skull on a long-deserted battlefield and wondering what all the fighting was about. It repeats the line "it was a famous victory" in every stanza. I wrote that in the visitor book, too. It seemed very clever at the time. Then I hovered in the gift shop, had one of those sudden pangs that lead you not to buy anything after all, and went back out to the car and drove away.
My mother had warned me that I would find nothing to eat this side of...Louisville, perhaps, but in fact Harrodsburg had quite a respectable selection of fast food restaurants. I chose Pizza Hut. Everyone was so polite I thought something was wrong until I remembered that this is normal in Kentucky. While I was eating I eavesdropped on the waitresses, who were talking about their kids. On the way back to Lexington I drove by the big liquor store that I remembered from eons ago as a landmark signalling the border of a dry county.
I went home thinking that nothing had changed in my conception of Perryville and that I had found no new details for my chapter. But not long afterward I began to see how the ending of the book might be brought around to Perryville again, with Thetis and Sheba visiting the battlefield two years after the fighting, and considering the place where their war began. This tightened the narrative focus and made visible certain things I hadn't seen before. It turned out to be a huge leap forward. I have often written scenes, credibly, I hope, in places I have never been. But I'm glad I went to Perryville. Sometimes you need to sit there and absorb the place with all your senses to understand its importance and to convey that to your readers.

Perryville Part I

A major scene in How to See the Elephant is set at the battle of Perryville, which took place outside the small Kentucky town of the same name on October 8, 1862. Although I grew up about a hour away (country-road driving) in Lexington, and although we learned a select amount of local history in social studies classes, I learned very little about the battle, the broader campaign it was part of, or its significance to the war as a whole until I was much older. In fact, I did not visit the battlefield itself until about two years ago, well after I had decided to set part of the novel there*. I suppose the reason we didn't learn much about Perryville was because it was generally thought in those days that all important Civil War battles occured in Virginia -- or at any rate, back East. (I grew up in a subdivision whose streets were named after Civil War battles, including Cross Keys and Seven Pines, but there was no Perryville, no Franklin, no Pea Ridge among them.)

Recently historians have cycled back to the view that those Western battles were significant, but I'd be a little suprised if local schools have picked up on their proximity to the battlefield. Perryville is just a hard battle to admire. It was fought more or less by mistake by two generals who were both eventually dismissed for incompetence and who were out of touch with their troops when it was actually going on. There were 8,000 casualties from a half-day’s fighting, and it is generally conceded to be one of the goriest and fiercest battles even for the West, where the fighting tended to be more bloody than in the East. After it ended, both generals claimed victory, but both acted as if they had lost – Braxton Bragg, the Confederate general withdrew not just from the battlefield but the entire state, which he had spent two months conquering, and Don Carlos Buell, the Union general, did not bother to follow.
For those left behind, soldiers and civilians both, conditions were bad. There had been a serious drought all summer and food supplies were further reduced by soldiers living off the land. Buell had made little provision for medical care for the wounded -- his theory was "the sick take care of the sick." Worst of all, perhaps, the Union soldiers refused to bury the Confederate dead who had been left on the battlefield. After several days had passed, with conditions now unbearable, they finally rounded up townspeople from Perryville and made them do it. Altogether it's not a story that can make you extremely proud of your country. But some attention must be paid -- if for nothing else, for the men who died there.

This is all by way of background for what will probably be a two-part post, the second part taking up the visit I made to the battlefield two years ago. By that time I knew all the foregoing and I looked around with eyes that might have appreciated more than when I didn't know anything.

*My sister says we did go once, when I was a baby, and I was sick. Or maybe I didn't go because I was sick. In any case, I don't remember.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween & All Saint's

Three really great things about Halloween:

1. It's a secular holiday (and no, please do not start with, it's really pagan, blah, blah, blah...first, that was over 1000 years ago, and second, almost all the modern Halloween traditions are less than 100 years old) and we need secular holidays because, unlike religious ones, we can't fight over them. Anyone can participate and the only requirement is a sense of fun.

2. It's a community builder. Think of it, you actually get to go out and get to know the people in your own neighborhood. Isn't that quaint? This is one of the reasons I am down on shopping centers sponsoring trick-0r-treating. A shopping center is not your community. Your neighbors are.

3. Fear is part of the community (in spite of what I wrote above.) Robertson Davies wrote an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times years ago to the effect that we need Halloween because we need to acknowledge darkness. One of the supreme chills of Halloween for me was the idea that my seemingly innocent neighbors might be capable of putting razor blades in apples or poison in my Pixie Stix. Alas for good old reality, none of them ever did, although I did have a neighbor who more or less poisoned my brain by giving me a pamphlet telling me I was going to hell because I wasn't born again. (See secular holiday, above.)

The day after Halloween is, of course, All Saint's Day, and I would like to give some love here to my current favorite saint, Saint Martha of Bethany, a.k.a. St. Marta de Betania in Latin America.
That's her above, being led down the street sitting on that strange-looking creature. Martha in the New Testament is the sister of Lazarus and a follower of Jesus in her own right. According to the legend that is told about her, however, she later moved to the South of France (well, who wouldn't?) and lived in a town called Tarascon. The citizens of the town were being plauged by a monster called the Tarrasque, which was kind of a cross between a turtle and a dragon. Unlike St. George, whose attitude towards dragons verged on genocidal, St. Martha went out into the wilderness, tamed the monster, and brought him back to the town. The people of the town, perhaps misinterpreting her actions, then killed it. St. Martha was apparently rather annoyed by this and made a speech which caused the townspeople to weep in shame and promise to name their town after the monster. To this day St. Martha's festival is celebrated every July in Tarascon.
See, this is why (in spite of the aforementioned neighbor) I love Christianity. You start out with a nice Jewish girl who just happens to be lucky enough to have a brother who knows Jesus personally, and you end up with dragons and allegory and, 900 years later, advertisements for Leibig's vitamin extract.
I don't know where or when or how but someday I'm going to write a version of this St. Martha and the dragon story.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Love and ambition

I'm not always delighted when songs I greatly like are used in commercials, and I'm even less so when the songs used are Beatles songs. I spent a particularly intense part of my adolescence as a Beatles fan and the songs are so connected to certain events that they can't ever be anything but bittersweet. (I also can't buy "new" Beatles music. It would be like buying my own head.) There's a commercial that they've been running a lot during the baseball playoffs that uses a remake of "All You Need Is Love," and it intrigues me only because I've always thought that this is one of the most misinterpreted Beatles lyrics.

"There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
There's nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved.
There's nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time."

Think about it. What John Lennon is saying here is not the usual you-can-be-anything-you-can-overcome-any-obstacle that is so dear to our hearts and narratives. Just the opposite. Sure, you can do something, but, guess what, so can lots of people. If you don't do it, some one else will, probably. At the time John Lennon wrote this he was one of the most famous and successful musicians in the world. If anyone had ever "achieved something" in both material terms and in mattering in the lives of millions of people, he had. And yet, here he is looking back and saying, there's nothing particularly talented or special about me and what I did, many others can do. Material success doesn't bring happiness. You can do or not do a million things, but until you learn how to be you, living your life, you won't find peace.
OK, it's a bit of a downer, and very mid-1960s. But I like to keep it in mind as a corrective to ambition. If the most famous musician of his time can shrug his shoulders at success, maybe I can, too...sometimes...

How to See the Elephant - Part III

Out of money,Thetis and Sheba leave the train at Xenia and walk to Cincinnati, a two and a half day journey, working for food and sleeping out in the summer night.

I think I was awakened by heat lightning. The wind was still blowing, but with a stronger intensity. I lay listening to it restlessly pushing the trees and I remembered that even as a child, in bed at night, I had hated that sound, and hated being alone outdoors even in the daytime, and most of all I hated the horrible, gloomy forests in Ohio, the trees that went on for miles and miles, soughing and buzzing, stirring against each other. I could always feel a savageness out in the woods. I remembered a story I had been told, something about an Indian curse on the area about Mansfield, and then there began to flood back into my mind all kind of tales: mysterious lights that followed people home; blood-curdling screams from uninhabited woods; giant men, all black and hairy; strange footprints; horrible goat-like animals. And after I thought about all that it came to my mind that people said Kentucky, in the Indian language, meant “dark and bloody ground.” And with that almost all the heart went out of me. I knew it was true, because I could feel that darkness in the land as I lay there. I thought of the burial mounds, not so far from here, and I wondered how many of the dead of that lost race lay there and if they would ever let the land alone.
I could not hear Sheba breathe anymore, and I could not move. The wind kept blowing through the trees, pushing and hissing, like something alive. Far away, over the hill, I heard a fox or a dog, and nearer, the bustle of chickens, clucking in nervous response.
I knew that the worst thing to do in the middle of the night was go anywhere near a coop full of chickens, but I did not care. I wanted the house to awaken and the wife to scream and the husband to run out with a light and a gun – mostly a light, though – so I could feel I wasn’t alone in the world. I sat up cautiously, and after about five minutes, not having been murdered by a ghost or seen any mysterious lights, I scooted, still wrapped in my shawl, across the damp ground, trying to make out the chicken coop in the darkness. I had hardly gone five feet when I ran right into something. It was something small, a bin or a trough perhaps, but it rolled over, and then something else got tangled up with it and both things tumbled down the hill and must have gone smack into the chicken house because there was a crash and all the hens began a wholly unnecessary call for divine intervention, clucking frantically and shrieking and thumping like dervishes into the sides of the coop.
After about five minutes the hens died down, rather wistfully, as if they hadn’t really expected to be rescued. I felt better. Then came a thud-thud. Boots. Still no light, but a door creaked open. “Who’s there?”
I felt better now, and I had no wish to be shot at. I sat as still as possible, thinking, go back to bed.
More thuds. A woman’s voice. Suddenly a set of shutters was thrown back and light shone into the yard. I realized it was later than I thought – almost dawn. The sun was not up but the sky was graying. Early risers, darn them.
Boots again, and the grass crunching, and a boy in a wide straw hat, holding up a lantern, walked right towards me. I stood up, pulling the shawl around my shoulders.
“It’s me. Don’t shoot.”
The lantern slumped a little, in disbelief, and then came back up.
“Lydia?” he whispered.
“No – my name is Thetis. And my friend – my friend is up there. Don’t shoot her either.”
He was a farm boy, my age perhaps, but taller.
“What are you doing?”
I didn’t see anything to do but answer that directly.
The lantern slumped down again. There was kind of a rueful laugh in the darkness, and then I heard his boots moving back across the grass. He opened the door, leaned into the house and called:
“Ma, there’s two ladies or something sleeping out back!”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Baking vs. Cooking

I bought a pie pumpkin last week and this weekend I made it into a pie. I've been baking since I was a kid, partly, I think, because it was something to do on rainy days. My best friend Amy and my sister and I would page through my mother's loose-leaf Betty Crocker cookbook, which was full of little homey pieces of advice that we thought were hilarious. (The editors evidently thought that housewives would not willingly cook or bake unless the recipes were made more exciting with little rhymes and mantras.) I still use a slightly earlier edition (1950) of Betty Crocker, and the baking recipes, while somewhat lacking in oomph, are good as ever. While I was rolling out the pie crust, I paused to think about why I am a good baker and love to do it, while I don't much like cooking and don't do it too well and I came to the conclusion that the answer lies in the fundamental difference between baking and cooking. Baking is orderly. You do step one (cook pumpkin), step two (puree pumpkin), step three (mix pie crust ingredients), etc. You nearly always have to complete a set task before going onto the next one. Cooking a meal, on the other hand, usually requires doing a bunch of different things all at once, hopefully timed so that they all finish together and can be served that way. I'm just not very good at that. Also, I have a tendency to sit down and read a book in the middle of things, and it turns out that baking is conducive to this, and cooking is not. I think this comparison may extend to writing as well. I like to know what I'm doing, and do it, and complete it. I'm not the type of writer who will have a bunch different plots going and hope they will all come together -- although its nice when they do! And yet there are some writers, I'm sure, who can do this, and very well. But I'll stick to baking.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Annual WTF? Moment

This morning the CNN ticker said "German writer wins Nobel Prize for Literature." I assumed this is shorthand for "German-writer-so-0bscure-we-can't-even-mention-the-name-lest-confusion-reign-over-the-breakfast-tables-0f-America," and I kind of groaned, but I wasn't really surprised. Quick, name last year's winner. Now, name the last winner you'd actually heard of (Doris Lessing, 2007). Now, name the last American. (Toni Morrison, 1993). Now, name the last Canadian. (Oops.) Mexican. (Octavio Paz, 1990.) South American (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1982.) I will say that Herta Muller, this year's winner, may be a great writer and the fact that I don't know much about her may be a sad example of a lack of interest by American publishers in European writing. She also seems to have maintained the integrity of her art under a brutal political system in Romania and I suppose that's what led the Nobel committee to her. But I have to say I don't understand why the Nobel committe seems to think that standing up to a brutal political system in 20th century Europe is the defining test of whether a writer is worthy of the world's top literary prize. This same theme, more or less, is explored by 6 out of the 12 most recent winners, including Dario Fo, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass, Imre Kertesz, Elfriede Jelinek and even, by extension of the same kind of regime to South Africa, J.M. Coetzee. Suppose you are unfortunate enough to have been born in a democracy, and to want to write books that take on serious themes, including identity, modernity, sexuality, racism, consumerism, and myriad other complications of culture? Well, I guess you can't ever expect to win a Nobel Prize for it. If only John Updike could have gone to prison! If only the Canadian government would get off its ass and start persecuting Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro! That's probably their only hope of ever getting the Nobel Committee to notice them.

Incidentally, Toni Morrison is the only living American Nobelist. The most recent American winner before her (not counting Joseph Brodsky, who as a political exile wrote mainly in Russian and about Russian life) was Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won in 1978. A quick glance at the Nobel roster would lead to the inescapable conclusion that the United States, as a country, has not produced any long-lasting or interesting literature, particularly in the last 25 years, and has minimal influence on the rest of the world. As for the other American nations, well, really, do they even have moveable type south of the Tropic of Cancer? Canada? Canada? What language do they speak there?

Can't wait for next year. Somewhere in middle Europe, an overlooked writer is sharpening his goose-feather quill pen in anticipation of the fact that a poem making fun of Stalin which he hand-printed in 1955 could launch him into the big show in Stockholm.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bright Star

One of the perils of a professional education in film is that you can almost never get really absorbed in a movie. Maybe the occasional super-dramatic picture can pull you in so you forget everything but it, but most of the time when I go to a movie I'm thinking about camera shots and what the actors were thinking and why the director/writers decided to tell the story the way they did. I wouldn't call this a bad thing: if the movie is boring, it gives me something to think about, and if the movie is good, it actually adds to my enjoyment. Last weekend I went to see a movie called Bright Star, which is about the poet Keats, and I found I was spending a lot of time looking at the costumes worn by the lead actress, who was playing Fanny Brawne. In this case, however, I don't think this was a sign of distraction. The movie was made in such a way that I think the viewer is honestly supposed to notice everything every character wore. Bright Star is a historical picture, and a biopic, but it is small in scale, and focused on the everyday. There's not much of a plot, except that Fanny Brawne can't marry Keats because neither of them have any money. The ups and downs of their relationship and the machinations of one of Keats' friends, who dislikes Fanny, form the episodes of the movie, until the end, when Keats goes off to Italy to try and regain his health. (Spoiler - he doesn't make it back.) You often hear about character-driven plots in writing -- actions that are driven by the motivations of truly realistic characters, not just forced upon them by authors who need "something to happen" in this chapter. It's hard enough to achieve this in fiction, but it's far rarer in film. And that's precisely what Bright Star is. Go see it as a class in creating plot, conflict and character. And enjoy the costumes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

It's kind of hard sometimes to be writer when you hold down a day job. About three weeks ago my revised query letter drew a request from an agent to see the entire manuscript. This popped into my email in the middle of the morning, just after I got out of a meeting. I kind of sat there, and then I thought, I can't just sit here, and so I got up and walked out to the front of the building and stood in the Vegas sunshine. On the way out, someone asked if I were OK and I said I was fine. I took the long route around and came back to my desk. There are a lot of people I can tell when something like that happens, but for various reasons the people I work with (though perfectly nice) aren't in that category.
I sent the manuscript off and since that day I don't think I've had any peace of mind while checking my email. Today, mid-afternoon, the reply came back. It was very nicely worded but it said they had decided to pass, at this point, on representing How to See the Elephant. I've spent the past two weeks magically steeling myself ("magically" meaning for every time I've imagined a positive response I have to imagine a negative one as well) so I wasn't surprised. In fact, I didn't really mind. I mind being treated as a tiresome wanna-be who should just give up. I don't mind being treated as a genuine writer who perhaps just isn't the right fit for this particular agency. My dealings with this agency were very professional and I don't have the usual hurt feelings I've gotten in the past from being rejected. (Perhaps this is naive -- if so, please don't disillusion me!) I have some other queries out there and will be sending out more next week. So I'm OK. Really, I am. I'm just sitting at work, staring at my desk calendar, listening to my co-worker's radio play "Band on the Run," wondering how I'm going to get through the next two hours. I'm probably not going to get any work done today, or any writing either. But I'm OK. Really, I am. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow I'll go back to Tara. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Whatever.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pahrump, Part II

OK, I should probably apologize to Pahrump. There are hotels there. There is also a community college and a library. And there's a big green man in a Tyrolean hat carrying a sign that says "Valley Homes." And some people protesting the BLM's wild horse management policy. (Why they were aiming these protests at a Quizno's, I can't say.) There aren't a lot of street signs, but I found my way to Bookworm Haven and traded in my paperbacks and spent a hour or so browsing. It's the kind of place where books are shelved very idiosyncratically (i.e. "Movies," meaning books that have been made into popular movies) so half the fun is just looking. I found Black Hearts in Battersea (the sequel to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and an old Lois Duncan and a forgotten Rumer Godden and three Ursula K. Leguin reissues. Also The Princess and the Goblin and Jean Dixon's My Life and Prophecies which I bought because I remembered reading it in 1979 when it scared the life out of me. (Now, given that Earth was not hit by a comet in the mid 1980s and that Armageddon did not start in 1999, I can't help but feel sorry for poor old Jeane Dixon. She must have died a disappointed woman.) Altogether it was quite worth the trip and I'll never look at Pahrump the same away again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Going to Pahrump for literary purposes

A couple of years ago I dreamed I was driving out into the desert to buy books. When I woke up I couldn't imagine where that idea had come from. Although I did happen on some cheap used books in Tonopah last spring, most of the little towns outside Las Vegas are pretty barren of anything you could possibly buy, other than gas. (If you ever want to see a zombie town, drive through Goldfield, NV.) But a month or so ago, when the local newspaper ran an article claiming "the best used bookstore in Nevada isn't in Vegas...it's in Pahrump," I found myself thinking of my dream. Used books...it's only an hour or so, not very far, highway all the way...I have some days off coming up at work... I told my husband what I was thinking. He said simply, "Pahrump? You're crazy."
In order to understand his response, it's best to know that Pahrump, Nevada is truly one of the few towns in the world that people in Las Vegas can look down on for being too sleazy. OK, perhaps that's not a fair statement. Perhaps people in LV are biased because they only go to Pahrump for fireworks and brothels. But disregarding this bias, I can say that my experiences of Pahrump have done nothing to change my mind. If you took the most soulless parts of urban sprawl -- trailers, fly-by-night housing developments, screaming billboards, traffic, strangely configured strip malls -- from every part of America and plunked them down in the middle of nowhere, you'd have Pahrump. Spend ten minutes there and you hate the human race. There are no restaurants in Pahrump other than fast food places, and there are no hotels or motels, though it's only an hour away from Death Valley National Park. The town, as a whole, gives off a strong scent of the abnormal, the unreal and the soulless. I've tried and tried to be objective about Pahrump and I just can't. Nothing could make me go there.
Except used books.
Las Vegas has a couple of good used bookstores and I enjoy them but they are kind of small. People tend to move here from somewhere else and they usually clear out their closets and attics before they move, so I think there just isn't a lot of stock circulating -- not as much as you would get in an older town, anyway. Now, the article on this store in Pahrump described it as a series of trailers and dealing mainly in paperbacks which they gladly trade for. So I'm not expecting to find anything really old or obscure. I don't care. It's going to be an adventure. Next Friday is going to be the first of the Jewish holidays which I get off work and I'm filling up the gas tank and going "over the hump to Pahrump." Wish me luck. I may be the first person to ever descend on Pahrump for literary purposes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Lyric Game

There’s a song I play a lot by the band the Decemberists. It’s called “July, July!” and my love from it stems from two lines that fall right in the middle of the song:
“And I say your uncle was a crooked French Canadian
And he was gutshot running gin.”
Something about those lines makes me laugh every time I hear them. I like the songs I like for a lot of different reasons – the poppy beginning of “She’s Lost Control,” the bass line of “Superstitious,” Peggy Lee’s smoky voice on “Why Don’t You Do Right?”— but there are some songs I like almost solely for literary reasons – because a line in them just pops out and gives me the pure pleasure of a line of poetry.
Strangely enough there’s often nothing overly poetic about these lines. Rather, I love them because they seem to get something right. Novelists have pages and pages to set up and describe a character, but songwriters have to get the essence in a few lines. With the Decemberists' lines I get the feeling of a story described in minature, or compressed into its essence. I feel the same way about these lines from a Billy Bragg song:
“I know people whose idea of fun
Is throwing stones in the river in the afternoon sun.”
I can see the stones falling in the river and I know exactly the kind of people he is trying to describe. And then there are the lines from “St. Louis Blues:”
’Tweren’t for powder and for store-bought hair
The man I love wouldn’t have gone nowhere.”
I think I would trade Moby-Dick and Huck Finn in their entirety to for that line, especially “store-bought hair.”
With other songs it's more often a feeling of something timeless being expressed in a scant few syllables. In "Old Man River," there's a line:
"I'm tired of living
And I'm scared of dying."
Rivers of ink have been spilled, and yet no one has ever described depression better. And someday, when I learn to embroider, I will stitch on a pillow the line from Hole's "Doll Parts:"
"I want to be the girl with the most cake."
My newest favorite is from Robert Johnson's "Kind-hearted Woman Blues:"
“She’s a kind-hearted woman.
She studies evil all the day.”

I'd love to use this as an intro quote for a novel but I've never written anything yet that fits it. This is a highly personal list but I'd love to hear what lines set your mind going when you hear them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to See the Elephant - Part III

Traveling across Pennsylvania by train, the relationship between Thetis and Sheba breaks down further:
Juggling the doughnuts, and licking my fingers, I came back to find Sheba standing right where I had left her, staring at the women on the washroom line.
“What are you doing here?”
A skinny woman in a roughly-pinned shawl turned from the line and said:
“Is that one yours, miss?”
I didn’t know how to answer this. The woman went on:
“You better watch her, that’s all.”
“She tries to go in there,” another woman said, nodding towards the latrine, “there’ll be trouble!” I sighed. “No, she’s going in the bushes. Sheba, I told you…”
A thin, fluttering woman, with gold-rimmed glasses and false curls, rather like my old Sunday-School teacher, came out of the line and put her hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t know where you two are going, or where you’re coming from, but for her own good, miss, you ought to teach her what she can and can’t do.”
The washroom door stood open now, temporarily forgotten. All the women on the line were agitated, and I saw we had attracted the attention of a few young boys, too.
“I’m sorry,” I said to them, “I told her not to…”
“You let it happen once and they’re all over the place, next,” another lady said.
“I know, ma’am.”
I couldn’t take Sheba’s arm because of the donuts, but I went up to her, gesturing with my head, and tried to hurry her down the platform towards the stairs. She stood there, sullen, staring around her, not willing to move until one of the boys stepped forwards and pushed her, yelling “Get out of here!” She stumbled after me, and as I hurried her away I heard something hit the ground behind up with a sticky gluck. Mud. High cackles of laughter followed.
“I told you this would happen!” I hissed to Sheba
I could feel my face going hot and cold. Some of those women would surely be on the train – perhaps even in our car – and I didn’t see how I could face them again. I had tried to explain it wasn’t my fault… Perhaps I they would take pity on my youth. Perhaps they would realize, on reflection, that I wasn’t the one…
We got to the end of the platform. I pointed silently down the stairs and waited for Sheba to go ahead of me. At the bottom of the stairs I pointed again at an area of brush and waist-high weeds. She disappeared into it. The half a doughnut I had eaten was stuck somewhere between my mouth and my stomach. I was getting coffee if it was the last thing I did. Sheba came out and I handed her the doughnuts and went myself. (After all, I wasn’t going to wait on that long line.) We climbed the stairs silently. People were getting back on the train. The washroom line had shrunk and only a few hostile faces looked towards us. I saw Sheba to the car and made sure she was seated.
“Now you stay there. I’ll be right back.”
I dashed away, up to the big silver coffee urns inside the now-empty restaurant.
“With cream, please.”
“Train’s about to leave, miss.”
“I drink fast. Come on now, lots of cream.”

He was already pouring the coffee. I scooped up the cup and stood drinking – nothing ever tasted so good – warm, milky, scalding my parched tongue and throat. The train whistle blew a long woo-woo. I set the cup down empty and tossed three cents next to it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Synopsis redux

Not long ago, someone on the Adventures in Writing blog asked, how do you know when a book is finished? Well, I'm possibly not the best person to answer this, but I would say you know a book is done when you feel like screaming with joy and dancing around. I realize anyone reading this blog would conclude that I am seriously manic-depressive since not 6 weeks ago I was all I-hate-myself-I-don't-know-how-to-do-this but now it really does seem that I've finished the revision to How to See the Elephant and it is a respectable 72,000 words which is still long, I know, but not as bad. And I think I've made some really good revisions and brought about a satisfactory little novel. Perhaps the best sign is that it wasn't that hard to bring the synopsis, which follows, in at just under two pages. I've tried to follow the guidelines -- only 3-4 characters, just the general outline -- but I would appreciate any criticism. (Also hidden typos, which I have just found two of, and I'm sure there are more.)

Synopsis - How to See the Elephant

Since the deaths of her mother and brother from cholera, Thetis has accompanied her father on his salesman’s route, travelling by wagon and train through Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. Thetis enjoys this life and considers it her job to manage her father, who is given to rash decisions. But in March of 1862 she is unable to dissuade him from his most recent one – to join the Union Army. Thetis is given a choice – temporary residence with the Shakers or an education at Miss Barclay’s, the boarding school where her older half-sister teaches. Thetis, now 15, chooses Miss Barclay’s, and travels to Wilmington, Delaware to start at the school.
Miss Barclay’s is run by MISS VEDA SKAGGS, a sweet-natured, accomplished woman, and Thetis hopes she will be able to absorb from her the refinements she has missed since her mother’s death. Miss Veda is the owner of three slaves, including SHEBA, a girl of uncertain age whom Miss Veda treats as a pet. She makes a point of treating her slaves with kindness and upholding the virtues of slave-owning against those who “don’t understand Negroes.” Wanting to admire Miss Veda, Thetis revises her previous opinions about slavery. Nevertheless she is unpopular at Miss Veda’s, and wrongly tarred as an abolitionist. The students are taken to a concert by a famous pianist and Thetis, developing a crush on him, determines to become his student. Her absorption in music makes it possible for her to bear life at Miss Veda’s, even though she knows she is not particularly talented. These fantasies are shattered when Miss Veda tells her that a professional career as a musician is not an appropriate goal for one of her students. Freed from her admiration for Miss Veda, Thetis begins to question everything she has learned from her.
News arrives that Thetis’ father, fighting in Kentucky, has been wounded and possibly captured. Forbidden to go to him, Thetis plans to escape Miss Barclay’s but is forced at the last minute to bring along Sheba, who wants to run away as well. The two girls flee from Delaware to Ohio, first by train, and, when their money runs out, by foot, begging food and sleeping outdoors. Thetis initially dislikes Sheba because she is spoiled and helpless and plans to abandon her as soon as she decently can. However, as they travel across Ohio, meeting both hostility and help, a tense partnership emerges and Thetis is brought to realize that Sheba is not a child and can take care of herself. Her experiences on the road with Sheba also give her the basis to form a realistic opinion about slavery, without the influence of Miss Veda. In Cincinnati they find that no riverboats are running and that Louisville is under attack by Confederate forces. Sheba, who has little experience of the outside world, breaks down and refuses to go on, but Thetis convinces her that she cannot go back to Miss Veda’s, and the two eventually find a boat downriver to Louisville. There they are put under arrest and confined in military headquarters, but Thetis escapes again and makes her way to the army camp outside of town, where she finds her father wounded but alive.
Under the guidance of a veteran nurse, MRS. HANCOCK, Thetis cares for her father and other patients at the camp hospital. News of the battle of Perryville is brought and Thetis and Mrs. Hancock go to the battlefield to care for the wounded. Although Thetis is horrified by the sights she sees there, she finds that she is a good nurse and is proud of her ability to be useful. After six weeks in Perryville, she returns to Louisville to begin work with Mrs. Hancock in an army hospital. Sheba is now living in a “contraband” camp there, and Thetis, visiting her, realizes that though neither of them has found exactly what they expected when they left Miss Veda’s, both of them have found something better.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My generation

I spent the weekend reading Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick, who has a blog, Fine Lines, which is devoted to YA favorites of the 70s and early 80s. I knew my generation's books of passage included Deenie, lots of Lois Duncan and -- you know you read them -- Flowers in the Attic and its many sequels. But I didn't realize that others had also loved Blossom Culp, heroine of Richard Peck's Ghosts I Have Been, or surreptitiously read their mother's copy of Wifey. (Best Pawley's Island vacation ever!) It was nice to feel a little vindicated by this book...and, yes, I went today and got a copy of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself so I could re-read it.
One of the strange things about time is that every generation becomes a little more innocent than the one before it. Certainly I never would have regarded the 1970s as an innocent time to grow up in. We were constantly told that our world had been corrupted by pollution, war (real and potential), divorce, drugs and sex. Innocence was for the past: we lived in a harsh present, one devoted to sorting all these issues out. (Today, of course, it all seems so quaint. We were allowed to go outside and play for hours by ourselves, imagine that!) And our fiction reflected this. How many novels in those years began with the family moving to a new town because the parents were getting a divorce? ("You'll like it here in Millersburg, Amy. And Grandma will be so happy to see us.") Add to this bullying (which in those days was just called "life," and which has never been better described than in The Chocolate War), racism and child abuse (The Summer of My German Soldier), rape (Are You in the House Alone?), the Holocaust and/or Siberia (The Endless Steppe) and abandonment in the wilderness (Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins.) Even if we were lucky enough to be reading a relatively mild novel, there were angst, misery and guilt for all in practically anything by Paul Zindel as well as The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and other novels which enshrined unpopularity as the only respectable alternative to high school. Strangest of all, with about 5 exceptions (you know who they are), there was absolutely NO fantasy. My generation would have laughed at the idea of saving the world in the eternal battle between light and dark. We just wanted to survive to the end of junior high school. (I think this is probably one of the reason why I read so much YA fantasy today -- making up for lost opportunities.)
Now, I have to admit I was a bit of a rebel amidst all this. I never really took to those angsty books. (I was unpopular myself and didn't need reminders of it.) I backed away from I Am the Cheese and those other gloomy, well-thumbed teen paperbacks on the library racks. Not having fantasy as an outlet, I took to historical fiction, with predictable results. But I like to think that these books of the 1970s marked me in several ways. First, they left me with the strong belief that there was no subject that might reasonably be faced by young adults that could not be written about. No censorship, no barriers. If it happens, and you have the talent and guts to do so, write about it. Second, there was a kind of tender bravery to even the angsty novels. This world isn't an ideal one, they seemed to say, but it's survivable, if you face it. Perhaps, come to think of it, this was our particular fantasy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Underwear Question, or, Problems of the Historical Novelist, #1

My research on two novels, one set in the 19th century, one in the 1920s, has led me to conclude that the greatest revolution of the late 20th century is in what women wore under their clothes. This may, of course, be connected to that other great revolution of the late 20th century, but it is certainly an overlooked one. In fact, one of the perils of research in this subject is that there are basically two kinds of books on the history of underwear. One is the slender kind, with lots of illustrations, usually written by someone who never paid much attention in college but who now writes for some recondite fashion magazine. In addition to the copious illustrations of women in garters and teddies, this kind of book will tell you what underthings Marie Antoinette, Lily Langtry, Mary Queen of Scots, etc wore, and will relay a few historical anecdotes which are now exploded and get a few names and dates wrong. Their version of history will begin with the Roman Empire. It is possible to pick up from a book like this bits of general information, such as when elastic was invented, and to get an idea of what an extremely chic character (should one ever stray into your novel) might have worn. It will tell you nothing about the average woman, however.
The other kind of history of underwear is usually written by a historian of women's studies. It will tell you about the genderization of underwear -- in other words, what men thought about women's underwear, and what women thought about women's underwear. (Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever written anything about what men think about their own underwear.) It will support its assertions by quoting the diary of a single crank who lived in 1820 and extrapolating this into a generalization that will fit all of 19th century society. What the average woman wore under her clothes will sometimes be mentioned, but only in very scattered instances, because it is not the function of such books to give practical information about average women's lives. This is serious history, and serious history is mostly about what people think about, and what they think about what they think about. It doesn't get any more solid than that.
Now, I'm being amusing here, but this is really serious. A girl in the 1920s wore, as near as I can figure, "step-ins" (what we call today "granny panties," and considered, in those days, highly erotic), if not longer underwear, garters, stockings held up by the latter, girdles, plus, at times, a belt contraption for sanitary napkins. You think walking around with all that under your clothes doesn't affect your character's state of mind? It is at this point that the historical novelist considers going downstairs and making one of those large, colorful icy drinks and maybe putting a little umbrella in it.
All I want is a good honest history about what the average woman might have worn underneath. I can skip reading another book about D-Day or the Tennis Match that Changed Life as We Know It or another biography of Jane Austen. Give me a historian who can write and point him or her towards the subject of women's underwear. Please.


August is a hot, dead month here. There's a scene in How to See the Elephant where Thetis is remembering walking around the cemetery where her mother is buried and, wanting to do something beyond the usual cemetery-rain-sadness scene, I thought of walking around in August with dried-up grass crunching underfoot and everything in sight scorched and dead, and I wrote that into the scene instead. This August has been a bit of a relief from the usual. When I go out to water in the morning it's coolish, and we've had a number of days when the highs were only in the 90s. (As fate would have it, on those particular days we took a local vacation and complained mightily that the hotel pool was "freezing.") Not much rain, either, no regular moonsoon. My South African succulents are gone. (Why, WHY, do I buy them every year?) The rosebush was doing well until it got rust and I had to cut all the diseased branches off. Now it is growing back, slowly. Well, I'll won't complain and I'll hope for a little more rain before the monsoon is over. In the rest of the country people are making summer last. Here in LV we look forward to fall. (We know it's almost fall when the local news gets pre-empted by football games and Walmart puts 15-cent notebooks in the center aisle. Otherwise, no idea.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

If you're writing happily now, don't read this.

Save this post for a day/week/month in which you can't write, you can't revise, you can't even think. Save it for when you have the shakes and bats fly out of the walls. When you can't imagine how you ever thought you could write and would easily consign everything you worked on to the flames. Maybe it will never happen to you. But if it does, I hope this post can help.
I was in this position a couple of weeks ago. I was revising How to See the Elephant. I had sort of laid out everything I was to do, but the more I worked the more confidence I lost. I was doing a lot of writing and was tired and having headaches, but I thought going on vacation would probably give me the rest I needed and it would be easy to pick up where I left off. The rest lasted about two days. Then I became unable to revise any more -- not because it didn't need it, but because I couldn't think. I couldn't even read the MS -- my eyes would close and I would begin to fall asleep. I'd never had trouble concentrating before, but now the slightest background noise would derail me. I hated the book and didn't even want to finish it. I was miserable and yet walking around trying to act like a normal person and wondering how much longer I could last.
In the meantime, I'd ordered a book by a writer I'd become interested in -- Caryll Houselander, a mid-century English Catholic -- and in the middle of this it arrived. Houselander wrote primarily about her religion, but she also worked as a lay healer for people who were troubled, many of whom were referred to her by psychologists. The book I ordered included a letter she'd written to a woman who was anorexic. Although this was far from being my position, as I read it I almost cried with recognition. She analyzed the layers of fear and compulsion in the woman's mind, and then gave a recommendation: don't try to reverse it all at once, just work on getting a tiny bit stronger each day.
The next morning I made a list on a notepad of what scene I was going to work on. I planned as far at the next three days -- all that would fit on the page. ""Scene" is probably the wrong word -- for the first couple of days it was just a paragraph, just a conversation between two characters or a few lines of description. I would do this paragraph, and only this paragraph, and then leave the computer or go on to something else. And that day, and the next couple days, were good days. The fear was gone, and the guilt I hadn't even realized I'd had over not finishing and not working fast enough. I didn't write much, but what I wrote was decent and I never had to second-guess it. I've had a setback or two but basically I'm still following this pattern, and sticking to what I schedule myself to write. Gradually it's expanded to multi-page scenes and I've picked up the pace of my writing again. But I'm being very careful not to overload myself.
There was a lot more in the Houselander book which has been very helpful to me, but I won't go into that. (Although if anyone is interested in spirituality, definitely read her.) But I will assert that a genuine miracle took place, one which I think should be investigated by the Vatican. I ordered that book from Amazon on Friday and it arrived on Monday. That hasn't happened to me since 1995 -- the good old early days of Amazon.
I think being able to write quickly and get a lot of words done is a beautiful thing. I've done it myself and I remember that feeling of triumph. But I'd like to put a word in for limiting yourself when you need to. Like I said, don't read this post when you're doing well. Read it when you can't go on. Maybe it will help you find a way out of the maze.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The book that started it all

In 1942, Maureen Daly, just out of high school herself, wrote Seventeenth Summer, the book that is considered to be the first "young adult" novel. Prior to that time there had been simply "children's" and "adult" categories, with some crossover. After WWII, with, obviously, the baby boom, etc. blah, blah, blah (I'm assuming if you read this blog you know your history) the idea of targeting books to adolescent readers took off and an avalanche of books we know and love resulted. Looked at another way, no Seventeenth Summer, no Down a Dark Hall, no Wizard of Earthsea, no Golden Compass.
One of my favorite vices is reading old-fashioned girls' books -- the kind I'm not supposed to like, being level-headed or modern or whatever. I approached Seventeenth Summer, based on the title and the cover illustration, in that fashion. I already knew the plot - boy meets girl, summer love, summer ends, and so on. OK, it might not be good, but it would be enjoyable, like a grilled cheese sandwich. I don't think it took but three pages to disillusion me. I was not reading some throwaway screed of outmoded romance. This was a doorway into a summer night in 1941, waiting for your sister to come home from college on the train, with rain on the station bricks, the two-handled baggage carts standing in a line, the train coming "out of the darkness, feeling its way with the long yellow headlight beam." Each scene took me deeper into a small-town summertime world, a moment in time, just after a depression and just before a world-changing war, perfectly caught by Daly's strong, observant prose which renders people, places and things precisely. (It's something of a revelation to find out that teenagers in 1941 went to keg parties and played drinking games.) The summer gradually slides from the promise of June to the heat of July to the ripeness and decline of August, each day and each scene drawn exactly. This is one of those books you live in, and its probably one of the best-written young adult novels I've ever encountered.
OK, I'm going to restrain myself before I call it "luminous" (my favorite book-reviewer word, along with "compelling.") Just if you have any interest in young adult fiction, or being in love, or even what it was like to be alive in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1941, hunt this one up. (It's still in print!)
Just for a sample of Daly's style, I'm going to quote the next-to-last paragraph of the book:

"Quiet, sleeping houses and gray clapboard taverns slid by the window, lined along the track. I could feel the chug-chug of the train beneath me as the wheels turned. The drab houses at the edge of town straggled past, shabby, sad-eyed houses and sagging sheds, trailing bits of worn fence rail around them. Fond du Lac gathered her shoddy outskirts in about her. Bushes in the fields were russet-leaved, catching the glow of the first light of morning and the treetops rocked with the waking birds. And slowly, slowly out of the grayness, morning was coming."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It's like a sauna in here

We are several days into the usual 110+ mid-July heat wave. Certain things separate the 110+ range from the standard summer 105 degree heat. Mornings are hot and breathless. Cold water comes out of the faucet warm. Shallow water in the swimming pools is warm. You drive home with the a/c on in the car and sweat rolling down your face anyway. This is probably the moment to point out that there are places hotter than Las Vegas. Why, I've met people who moved here from Phoenix because it's cooler. (Phoenix does get more rain than we do, however.) On the other hand, residents of Las Vegas do have a strange relationship to heat. People brag "it was 120 by my car thermometer!" They make nervous, superior jokes about not having to shovel snow. When they do complain, they do it lightly and without expecting sympathy.
The vegetable garden is being nursed carefully through this. I hand-water twice a day and the shadecloth is still up. The desert plants have gone dormant; the rosebush is not showing as much dieback as usual, the hibiscus, though stressed, is blooming. Everything looks fine, but it's not July that kills plants, it's August. In the meantime, some clouds, small and not very dark, appeared yesterday. I don't expect much from them or the ones we'll see today. But perhaps over the weekend, or next weekend, if we're lucky and good, we'll get some rain.


The past week has been kinda bad from a writing point of view. Kinda bad is a euphemism, but I don't really want to try and describe or analyze it. I'm not sure it's entirely over and I'm too superstitious to want to look back. (What was it Satchel Paige said -- "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you?")
So I have a new system of just doing a little bit of set work each day, and being content with that. It seems to be working and if I keep to this a while I hope that I will be able to do more gradually. But it's OK. I'm content with what I do now. It's my offering, as everything in life is.

Monday, July 6, 2009


For the past week I've been on the road, away on vacation. I had a great time. We hiked a bunch, including along the rim of the Grand Canyon, looked through the telescopes at the Lowell Observatory, picked up 800 year old potsherds in an Anasazi ruin (and put them back!) and spent a night in an Indian boarding school on the Navajo reservation. We also got a speeding ticket and I came home totally addicted to sugar again, but every vacation has a few bumps.
I always keep a diary on vacation. When I was younger I tried very hard to record the things I saw in a very exact way. It made no difference that the buildings of Rome had been described by thousands of others (and probably better) -- I was going to fix exactly what I saw in my own words. Now, I have to say, I've slacked off regarding descriptions. For one thing, I began to notice that some of the most memorable bits of the vacation didn't make it into the diary. You know the kind of thing -- finding a motel, eating a quick lunch, making a long drive somewhere, getting lost and finding your way again. Stuff that's not "important" enough to write up next to the Parthenon or the Grand Canyon. And yet, human memory being what it is, sometimes you recall those "unimportant" things along with all the grand views and great sights. They all come together to make a whole. So writing up the day in my diary and leaving out all the little things came to feel false to me. I was recording only part of what I'd seen.
This is a feeling I've struggled with in writing as well. Of course you have to get the important stuff -- but you need a feeling for unimportant stuff, too. Otherwise your writing will never feel real. But how real is too real? Where to draw the line?
Wow. I'm tired and this is day 3 of a migraine, so this is as far as I'll go. But let me just remember a few of the odd scraps of my trip that didn't make it into my diary:
-Riding down the main street of Tuba City, Arizona, watching Navajo kids skateboard.
-Walking on a cloudy, cool, evening around a park in Flagstaff
-Listening to disco classics as we climbed the Kaibab Plateau towards the Grand Canyon.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Drawing from life

I'm a chronic observer, and an eavesdropper. For several years when I was living in NYC I kept a "street diary" in which I jotted down conversations I heard on the subway or in the street, and sketched people and scenes I saw. I don't think I've ever directly transferred any conversation, or any person, word for word, but it does help give the flow of everyday conversation, as well as the trivial and tragic bits and pieces that make up life. And when I get stuck in a scene I often look to the outside world for a way around and through the problem.
Yesterday I was back at the WIP, and I was revising a scene in which Gertrude, the main figure in the novel, is talking to a panhandler, a one-legged man begging in front of a department store entrance. My idea for the scene is that the man says something to her -- something that, intended or not, has great meaning to her. The sentence had to be something ambiguous, so that Gertrude could read a meaning into it, but it also had to be something a homeless person might actually say -- no flight of fantasy here.
I turned this over in my head awhile and I remembered something from the night before, when I had gone to a Open House for writers at the local library. It sounds like the worst kind of Las Vegas joke, but there was a man there dressed up as Elvis. The reason for this was that one of the writers featured had written a semi-mystical book about "the real Elvis." ("You have to read the book to get the blessing," the flyer said.) A gaunt woman with purplish hair tottered around the room on high heels giving out the flyer. She approached me three times in the course of the evening, though I politely waved her away after I took one the first time. Her air was not so much that of a pushy writer marketing her book as of a divine messenger, working away around the room, too busy to talk, determined to bring the gospel to a suffering world. She hadn't written anything on her nametag, just drawn a large heart.
So it came about that, after a brief detour towards and mild flirtation with hobo nickels, in the scene the panhandler outside the department store digs in his pocket and hands Gertrude a large wooden token with a heart inked on it.
This may or may not make it through further revision. Already I'm thinking, perhaps a little obvious...perhaps a little sentimental... But this is a huge part of writing for me. When in doubt, look at the world around you.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Yours from purgatory

It's the early 1980s. I'm passing time in 11th grade geometry class with Dante's Inferno. Jennifer Brady, who I know from junior high school band and who occasionally says hello to me, turns around and says, "Whatcha reading?" "It's a story about a man who goes on a tour of hell, and then he goes to purgatory and then he goes to heaven," I say. Jennifer digests this a few minutes, and then chirps, "What's purgatory?"
Everyone knows that the Inferno is the best part of Dante's Divine Comedy. Interesting people, interesting punishments, a little defiance, lots of regrets. It's around Purgatorio that most readers' attention flags. You do meet some characters in purgatory but there's a lot of preaching, too, and some pretty crushing symbolism. (Paradiso, forget about it -- it's all angels and light and weird astronomy.) Basically in Purgatory you're recognizing your sins and working through them. Near the end, as I recall, Dante walks through a wall of fire which purges the last of them away. Well, this seems to be where I am now. I realized recently that How to See the Elephant was too long for a YA novel and I have decided to split it into two, stand-alone volumes. (Somewhat along the lines of Octavian Nothing.) As a result, I have to revise the first half so that it can stand alone as a novel. It's not major revision (mainly just smoothing certain patches and tying up a couple of loose ends) but it's not what I wanted to be doing at this point. Yesterday I couldn't help thinking of Dante's wall of flame. All week I've been recognizing my sins, in the form of paragraphs that don't quite mean what I meant them to mean, and purging them away. It's scary work because what I don't want to do is fall down into the inferno of never-ending revision. (I've been there and I'm not going back...) After a few hours my brain is weary, and then I go to the gym or eat and settle back down with my MS and my post-it notes again.
It will be done eventually. But for now, its yours from purgatory.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to See the Elephant -- Part III

At the train station in Philadelphia, Thetis considers ditching Sheba:

If I abandoned Sheba here she would be safe enough. I had never asked her to come, after all, and it was hopeless to continue to drag her along. I have to get out of here, that's all that matters. I pictured her running loose in the station. It wouldn't be five minutes but that they'd catch her.

The next man in line moved up. "What's the closest city you got to Buffalo, sir?"

On the other hand, helping Sheba escape was getting my own back, so to speak, against the girls and Miss Veda. They thought their Sheba was so happy and devoted! And I would be like a hero -- liberating her from her chains! So what if we were chased by dogs? No child of my generation could have been wholly insensible to the glamour of being hunted by bloodhounds, preferably across floes of ice, but even the Penn Railroad terminal might do in a pinch.

Waking up the next morning on the train, Thetis realizes what she has done:

All the years of riding trains with Pa, I had been used to getting off the train for food, coffee and certain necessities. If I was thirsty between stations I drank water from the tank in the car. But I had never seen a Negro in a station dining room or hotel restaurant, and I did not want to be the first person to ever bring one in there. I knew for sure that Sheba would not be able to use the station washrooms or facilities. And if she drank from that cup alongside the water tank no one else in the car would use it, and they might even complain to the train conductor. And he could throw us off, no apologies.

I looked over at her, perspiring a little in the already airless car.

"You're going to have to listen to me from now on,"I said, "Do as I tell you and if you don't I'm going to put you off the train at the next station and leave you there, forever."

Sheba shuttered her eyes and lifted her chin.

"Uppity," she muttered. "Can't we eat?"

"They'll let us off for breakfast in Altoona. You're going to listen to me, right?"

She rolled her eyes, exactly as she had last night, and looked out the window beyond me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Someone could have told me that I didn't have space in that little garden to grow cantaloupe, but I generally have to learn things the hard way. Last week the cantaloupe had twined itself about so much and was starting to go up the house so I got a trellis. Actually, it adds kind of a classy touch, I think, to the porch.

We've been having strange weather. Day after day in the 80s, clouds, mugginess, but no rain -- it's almost like summer back East. Frankly, I don't know how much more of this I can stand.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Query Letter (Beta)

On Sunday I did something totally out of character for me. I read my rewritten query letter to my husband Nick. I've always been intensely private about my writing. He gets to read the finished product, and that's about it, and I never fill him on much of how things are going. But I spent an hour and half on Sunday crafting the letter, walking up and down and talking it out to myself (alone in the house, fortunately) and I felt pretty good about it. And he thought it was good, though he questioned the wording of two sentences and we sat down with the thesaurus and had a nice confab over that. So I'm going to post the new version here, and hope for feedback. I thought about sending it over to Query Shark, but that woman scares the bejeezus out of me.

Dear (whoever),
When her father hastily decides to join the Union Army, Thetis Wymore is sent to continue her education at Miss Barclay's, the Delaware finishing school where her half-sister teaches. Miss Veda, the headmistress of Miss Barclay's, is a slaveowner, and Thetis, wrongly tarred as an abolitionist, finds herself cold-shouldered by the other girls, especially after a flea jumps out of her luggage. As she tries to find acceptance at Miss Barclay's, studying music in hopes of meeting her idol, a world-famous concert pianist, Thetis begins to question what she has been taught about slavery and struggles to maintain her independence of mind. When Thetis learns that her father has been wounded and possibly captured, she decides to run away. Forced at the last moment to bring Sheba, Miss Veda's pet slave girl, along, Thetis flees with her across a drought-stricken land under threat of Confederate invasion. Will Thetis and Sheba be able to set aside their antagonism and help each other survive? Will Thetis be able to understand the lessons she has truly learned at Miss Barclay's? And will these lessons give her the strength to respond to the terrible aftermath of the battle of Perryville?
[Usual personal information, publications, etc.] How to See the Elephant is a piquant narrative of American life during the Civil War, told with dark humor by Thetis herself. Even as she grows from a flippant schoolgirl into a self-confident nurse , Thetis' youth is darkened by her exposure to the face of battle, a subject I have treated seriously. How to See the Elephant is a lively and moving work of young adult historical fiction which could be marketed to the same young adult readers who like the works of Ann Rinaldi, Richard Peck and M.T. Anderson. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pearls before Swine

This one's going on the cubicle wall.
Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comics and, along with My Cage, one of the great newcomers to the comic scene, in my opinion. If you don't follow PBS, all you really need to know to understand this is that Rat is usually kind of a jerk.
I'm always interested in how people view the writer's life and the struggle to get published. Usually they make it out to be much easier (a couple of years ago For Better or For Worse ran a story in which one of the characters wrote a first novel and received a $25,000 advance) or much harder than it really is. I like to think that this cartoon is overly negative, but sometimes it really does feel like you're being judged on a single word.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ideas from dreams

The first chapter of my WIP is largely drawn from a dream. I'm not the sort of person who pays much attention to dreams, except of a general barometer of my unconscious, but about two years ago, while I was making notes for the WIP, I had a dream in which I was trying to solve a missing persons case. I stood on a dock at the edge of a lake and knew that if I swam out to a raft in the middle of the lake I would be able to contact the ghost of the missing person and solve the mystery. So I dived in and swam but I as I climbed up on the raft the dream faded away and I woke up.
I couldn't think of the dream as anything more than a random mess, but the emotion it brought was so strong that I gave it to the protangonist of my WIP and used it to begin the novel. The novel is not a murder mystery, so instead of a missing person, she is trying to swim out to meet her dead mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship. I still think this makes a very strong opening to the book. Something about the idea is just solid and right. I just wish I knew who I had to thank for it.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Child's Delight

A Child's Delight is a 1997 book by Noel Perrin which aims to revive some fallen-out-of-favor children's classics. As he sketches in his introduction, the two main criteria for the list were that the books had to be good, and they had to be obscure. (You may disagree with what he calls obscure.) He then provides a capsule review and some background and publishing information for each title.
Here is the complete list (except for a couple of picture books.)
1. Rumer Godden, The Doll's House
2. Mary Stolz, A Dog on Barkham Street
3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls
4. Mary Norton, The Borrowers
5. Virginia Hamilton, The Planet of Junior Brown
6. Ernest Seton, Two Little Savages
7. T.H. White, Mistress Masham's Repose
8. Margery Sharp, The Rescuers
9. Lucy Boston's Green Knowe books/Edward Eager, Half Magic
10. Robert Burch, Queenie Peavey
11. Zilpha Snyder, The Egypt Game
12. P.L. Travers, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land
13. Noel Streatfeild, Movie Shoes
14. Jean Merrill, The Pushcart War
15. Anne Lindbergh, Nick of Time
16. E. Nesbit, The Railway Children
17. Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
18. Lolah Burford, The Vision of Stephen
19. Richard Adams, Watership Down
20. Robert C. O'Brien, Z for Zachariah
21. Diana Wynne Jones, Dogsbody
22. Robert Lawson, Rabbit Hill
23. Rhoda Blumberg, Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun
24. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Wizard of Earthsea
Also a group of fairy tale books by George Dasent, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Laurence Houseman.
Like I said, you can disagree about obscure. For Perrin, I think it means not well-known to non-readers.
As I child, I read 6 of these (4,8,14,19,20,24) and I was familar with Godden, Stolz, Hamilton and Snyder as writers but read different titles by them. (Same for P.L Travers, obviously.) I also read The Railway Children and I Capture the Castle, but as an adult.
Discovering this book in the library sent me to catalog looking for all those books I missed. Some I never found. The Vision of Stephen, which is a kind of historical fantasy, is, I think, the most completely obscure. I Go by Sea, I Go by Land, which the diary of a WWII evacuee sent to the US, has also not been back in print in a long time, and none of the libraries here had it. I found the Green Knowe books easily, and the Half Magic series. The Planet of Junior Brown turned out to be kind of weird but good. Mary Stolz is one of those mid-century children's writers whose excellence cannot be praised high enough. I'm afraid I never looked for Hawthorne or Seton or re-read Watership Down.
I have to thank Perrin tremendously for 8 and 21, though. I hunted them down and eventually acquired two paperback copies of Mistress Masham's Repose, while Diana Wynne Jones has become one of my all-time favorite writers. Dogsbody is one of her early works and is now out of print but my library has a beat-up paperback copy. And I realize, looking back over the list, that I never followed up with 13 or 15. Back to the library catalog...
Has anyone else remembered or encountered any of these books? I love stories about how people came to find favorite books. (For instance, how I, who didn't like science fiction as a child, came to read The Wizard of Earthsea -- but I'll leave that for another post.)