Monday, March 7, 2011

Soup and Salad: David Mitchell's Stammer, Story Prize Winner, Believer Short List, Montana Book Award, Carving Books, 20 Best Shorts of 2010, Indies Choice Awards, David Foster Wallace's Backbone, New Shel Silverstein, The Agony & Ecstasy of Revision

On today's menu:

1.  In the British magazine Prospect, Novelist David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) is forthright and eloquent in his assessment of this year's Oscar-winning Best Picture: "No film (to my knowledge) comes close to the intelligence with which the award-winning The King’s Speech handles the subject of stammering."  Mitchell should know because he is a lifelong stammerer:
To mangle Oscar Wilde, stammering is the disability which cannot say its name.
This silence is even common in the homes of stammerers. Despite growing up in a much saner family than the Duke of York’s, my open and kind parents and I discussed my speech impediment exactly never, and this “don’t mention the stammer” policy was continued by friends and colleagues into my thirties. I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13 year old. Intentions are honourable—“the poor bastard’s suffering enough without bringing up the subject”—but silence leads to public ignorance, and this has allowed fallacies to take root: fallacies that make stammerers’ lives harder in the long run.
The first fallacy’s stupidity is matched only by its doggedness, and in The King’s Speech it is embodied by the Duke of York’s father. It’s the belief that stammerers can be urged and exhorted to “get it out!”—because stammering is caused by a lack of willpower. Do me a favour. Stammerers are furnaces of willpower, burning more of the stuff in making a single phonecall than our non-stammering accusers get through in a week. My first ever public event as a writer was in 1999, at the generous invitation of AS Byatt and Tibor Fischer. Tibor picked up on my nervousness and, meaning to reassure me, said: “This will be the scariest reading you’ll ever do.” I’ve never told him how right he was. [Read more...]
David Seidler, who wrote the screenplay for The King's Speech and deservedly won the Oscar for the same, has an interesting backstory (on the somewhat reliable Wikipedia).  I hadn't realized he also wrote Tucker, another of my favorite movies about a man bucking the odds.

Personal aside: I, too, had a severe childhood stutter and can attest to the cold-sweat dread that Mitchell describes in this essay.  While I've since conquered the worst of the troublesome syllables (ms and ns and ks), as Mitchell notes: once a stutterer, always a stutterer.  Phones, for instance, are my biggest phobias.  So if I ever cut our tele-conversation short, you'll know why.

2.  Congratulations to Anthony Doerr whose collection Memory Wall took this year's coveted Story Prize.  At the Like Fire blog, Lisa Peet has details of the awards ceremony.  At the TSP blog, here's what the judges had to say of Doerr's work: "It is the shimmering space between the two planes of reality and memory that Doerr captures with immense sensitivity."

3.  The Believer's shortlist for its annual Book Award includes Skippy Dies and The Orange Eats Creeps, among others.  The winner will be announced in the next issue of the magazine.

4.  Closer to (my) home, Ruth McLaughlin has won the Montana Book Award for her memoir Bound Like Grass.  *Sigh*  Yet another book to (gladly) add to the To-Be-Read pile (Mount NeverRest).

5.  I'm not normally one to advocate defacing books, but Brian Dettmer's "sculptures" are so stunnng in concept and execution that I'm willing to make an exception.  Amazon's Omnivoracious blog has more examples of the carved-away books, plus a link to Dettmer's website.

6.  Back in December, Chris Flynn listed his Top 20 Short Stories of 2010 at his Monkey vs. Falcon blog.  I'm late in posting this, but there's never a bad time to pay homage to the short form.  Among others making Flynn's list: Maile Meloy, Ann Beattie, Elizabeth McCracken, Anthony Doerr (him again!), Laura van den Berg, and Tea Obreht.  Speaking of Tea Obreht, is anyone else looking forward to reading The Tiger's Wife as much as I am?  I just hope the novel lives up to the buzz-n-hype.  (If you've already read it, feel free to report your findings in the comments section.)

7.  The American Booksellers Association has announced the nominees for its Indies Choice Book Awards.  The Adult Fiction list rounds up the usual suspects (Great House, Room, A Visit From the Goon Squad, etc.), but I was especially pleased to see Bruce Machart join the crowd--here's hoping The Wake of Forgiveness takes the Adult Debut prize.  In another category, Jonathan Evison is in the running for Most Engaging Author (one who is "an in-store star with a strong sense of the importance of indie booksellers to the community").  (Please note: voting is only open to booksellers at ABA member bookstores, so unless you fit that description, you shouldn't bother filling out the ballot)

8.  David Foster Wallace's The Pale King will be released on April 15.  For now, The New Yorker has a taste--what they're calling a "short story"--and you can visit the magazine's website to read "Backbone."  It's all about a boy's quest to kiss every part of his body.  DFW disciples will most likely love it; others might walk away mystified by the seemingly cold, distant tone of the fiction, especially the lengthy anatomical lists.  But there are plenty of gems buried throughout.  Like this:  Dr. Kathy had reading glasses on a cord around her neck and a green button-up sweater that looked as if it were made entirely of pollen. I've been hearing some grumblings around the internet lately about how The Pale King may not be the best it could have been if Wallace had lived to shepherd it through more revisions.  Well, of course, it's going to be a--pardon the pun--pale imitation of what it "could be."  The Mystery of Edwin Drood would have been better, too, but it's still the best we have.  If we're left with fragments and those fragments are assembled in a readable fashion, then I say hoorah and hooray.  I've always thought that Larry Brown's posthumous novel A Miracle of Catfish was among his best.  Now, as to whether or not David Foster Wallace would be pleased with what will land in our hands on April 15, I can't say for sure.  Sadly, I never met the man.  All I have are his words--words in which he invested so much time and creative energy.  For more insight into Wallace's revision process--comparing the version of "The Backbone" the author read publicly in 2000 to the published story in The New Yorker--there's an interesting Google Docs link making the rounds of the web.

9.  And in further posthumous publication news: a new book of poetry by Shel Silverstein will be released in September by HarperCollins.  Everything On It will include more than 130 never-before-seen poems and drawings by the poet who died in 1999.  For his happy fans, the sidewalk never ends...

10.  At Grub Street Daily, James Scott has a very funny--and very spot-on--account of "The Long Road to Publication."  Prompted by the question "How long did it take you to write your book?", Scott hits on all the usual bits of advice ("It's a marathon, not a sprint" and "You're done when you're done," and so on).  And this:
Some days you will think, “Carver, Faulkner, Morrison—you hacks.” Other days, you’ll think, “I should go by the park and ask some preschoolers to finish this, because they couldn’t do any worse.” (Of course, those children shouldn’t talk to strangers, and they definitely shouldn’t give their best ideas away for free.) Oddly enough, when you read over your work, sometimes the days you feel the worst produce your best work, and some of the days you felt wonderful end up in the trash. You have to fight through the bad days knowing a good one is coming, and always knowing that revision is the great leveler.  [Read more....]
Amen, brother.  For what it's worth, right now I myself am being leveled by revision.  I haven't mentioned my Iraq War novel (Fobbit), here at the blog in quite a long time.  I don't want to go into the nuts and bolts right now; except to say this: the book has bounced from me to my agent and back again.  Right now, the ball is back in my court and, on the sound advice of my agent, my task is to trim somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 pages from the 800-page manuscript.  I can do it, I just don't want to do it.  Nevertheless, as a man named Mick once said, you can't always get what you want.  But sometimes you get what you need.  I just have to tuck my head down, barrel through the bad days, and try not to think about the fifteen novels Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the time it took me to poop out one measly book.


  1. phoebes in santa feMarch 11, 2011 at 6:52 AM

    I was interesting in your comments about stuttering. I just turned 60 and am a life-long stutterer - thankfully fairly mild since I became an adult - but always "there", always with me. I have worked life-long to "deal" with my stutter and have looked for opportunities to speak out loud. I don't enjoy talking on the phone, but chose a job - as a travel agent - where I HAD to spend a great deal of time on the phone. I speak out in classes and meetings and have even given speeches. Talk about "white knuckle" moments.

    Anyway, what interested me about your comments was the fact that no one ever talks about my stutter. I didn't talk about it for years - it was just "there", as much a part of me as anything else. Curiously, I have a facialist who also stutters, and she could never talk about it, either. But we became friends and bonded over our shared stutters as I lay on the table and she gives me facials! We both feel so liberated as we talk, we are each other's "outlet", so to speak.

    But the interesting thing I find is that even as mild as my stutter is, I'm still only one second away from stuttering every time I open my mouth. I now talk about it to other people, occasionally.

  2. Phoebes,

    Thank you for sharing this. I can relate to your statement about taking a job (travel agent) that would seem to be counterintuitive to being a stutterer. I, too, chose a "talking profession" as a journalist. Face-to-face interviews were okay (after the first few stumbling minutes), but phone interviews were another thing altogether. I tried to avoid them at all costs--still do. I'll drive 40 miles to interview someone for a story rather than picking up the phone to ask the questions.

  3. phoebes in santa feMarch 14, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    David, I'm just finishing "Volt", and while I'm really enjoying it and appreciating the superb writing, there's one story I don't "get". Maybe you do. In the story "Furlough", does Jorgen lead Mary Ellen to the cabin to be murdered? Is she chased down through the cornfield and raped? And I'm confused by the buck deer. Maybe you could explain that. Thanks.

  4. "Furlough" is one of the more challenging stories in "Volt" (but it's not completely impenetrable). There are as many interpretations of a story as there are readers, but here are some of my thoughts:

    Jorgen is someone who doesn't quite fit into the world around him, though he desperately wants to belong (he spends his valuable leave time going back to the freight yard and watching Tad, for instance). This explains why he would want to lead Mary Ellen on this brutal mission Tad has given him. Complicating this is Jorgen's obvious, unspoken desire for Mary Ellen. So, he's leading the girl he likes (maybe even loves) to a place where she could potentially be harmed, or at the very least, offended and upset by the prank.
    In a sense, it was Jorgen who set these events in motion since I think his unsigned letter ("you ought to know I'm fucking your girl") went to Tad and was meant to implicate Tim Eddy Jenkins (the delivery boy Mary Ellen may or may not have actually been screwing). Heathcock really stacks a lot of complications into this one story--but they only become truly clear upon a second reading. The first time through, I had this sense of dread, but I couldn't fit all these seemingly disconnected pieces together; the second reading helped fit the puzzle together.
    I don't think Mary Ellen was led to the garage to be murdered. I think Tad wanted to send her an ugly, brutal message ("I know you're cheating on me and this is what happens to people who betray me"). It's plain to us that if Tad thinks he can win Mary Ellen's heart by doing that, then he's truly an idiot.
    As to the question of whether or not Mary Ellen is raped....Heathcock isn't entirely clear on that. I guess (or maybe I just "hope") that she's not, but there's no real evidence to indicate one way or another. While I do care about Mary Ellen's fate, the real focus of the story is Jorgen and how his complicit behavior bothers him. Why does he continue to tacitly approve of violence (by being a soldier at war, by aiding Tad in the ugly events of this evening, etc.). We know he has a tender side (his compassion for his bird, the gentle way he takes care of Mary Ellen on their walk), but he allows the darker side of his masculine nature to sway his actions.
    I think the deer represents the wild side of men's sexuality (as do the dogs in the cornfield). The buck crashes through the plate-glass window because it had been crazed during its sexual rut (what's also known as "buck fever"). It's an odd detail at the beginning of the story, but it comes to have deeper significance at the end when Tad and the other boys string it up in the garage and, whether they know it or not, feminize the sexual side of the beast by dressing the deer in a wig, a robe, and painted hooves.

    Those are my thoughts. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  5. phoebes in santa feMarch 14, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    Thanks, I think I will go back and read it.