Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Summer I Discovered Narnia


Today is the birthday of Clive Staples Lewis (b. 1898), so I thought I'd reprint a review I wrote in 2000 for another website to mark the occasion.  Here then is the account of the time I tamed three restless children with C. S. Lewis' words.....


C.S. Lewis’ perfect fable The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is subtitled “A Story For Children.”  Lewis may have been one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians and a devout follower of Christianity, but he was a big fat liar when he wrote those four words.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the six other books in the Chronicles of Narnia are Stories for Everybody.  In fact, if you’re sitting here reading this and you are older than your shoe size and you have never entered the world of Narnia, shame on you!  Your life is truly the worse for not having read at least one of Lewis’ fantasy-allegories.  Please, I urge you, stop what you’re doing—quit the obsessive mouse-clicking, turn off the television, quiet those demanding inner voices that say you don’t have time to read “a story for children,” and go find a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  And don’t try to give me any of that I’ve-got-bills-to-pay-and-dinner-to-make-and-the-symphony-fundraiser-to-plan-and-my-boss-wants-those-reports-first-thing-Monday song-and-dance.  Forget all that brain-noise and go discover Narnia.  You owe it to yourself.

Now, having wagged my tongue and shaken my finger at you, I’ve got to confess I didn’t read—didn’t really read—the Chronicles of Narnia until I was 30 years old and the father of three grade-school children.  It was one of those mystical intersections of a near-holy literary event and the ragged state of my spirit (similar occasions include the first time I read Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor).  Back then, I was starting to feel the encroaching stresses of job burnout and parental worries.  In the summer of 1993, Narnia was the perfect balm.

First, to backtrack for a moment…

As I mentioned, I’d read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before.  I was 12 and a regular patron—um, okay, inhabitant—of the town library (the head librarian even offered to reserve a corner in the fiction section for me if I wanted to bring in a cot and a sleeping bag).  At that age, I read books like college students drink beer—perhaps even more so.  “A Book a Day” was my motto.  I crammed so many stories and characters and foreign lands in my head that pretty soon it got overpopulated and little literary wars broke out (the Hardy Boys started arguing with Nancy Drew and then Old Yeller bit Sherlock Holmes on the foot and someone—not mentioning names here—vandalized the Little House on the Prairie....it all got pretty ugly).  In the midst of all that word-gorging, I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I read it with mild interest; then I moved on to the next book in the series, Prince Caspian, but lost interest somewhere in the middle.

Looking back, I realize I wasn’t ready for this “Story for Children.”  Many children are, I suppose, and I can only envy their early experience with the books.  Me, I came late to the feast.


I sometimes wonder how my life might have been different if Narnia had intersected my spirit 18 years earlier.  Maybe I would have been a gentler man, a more hopeful human, someone who sees the unseen magic in the world.

I was none of those things in the summer of 1993.  I was an exhausted father and husband working late hours for meager pay which had to be stretched to incredibly thin-and-wide proportions to pay the monthly bills.  By that point, I'd been in the Army for five years and its demands had worn me down to the shred of one nerve clinging to the nub of a bone.  On top of that, I didn’t understand my children.  They were scampering little creatures—loud and silly and just short of uncontrollable.  This, you understand, was not their fault—they were just being children—it was my inability to find that bonding place which was to blame.

Then, one night, I found the key which opened the door to that bonding place.

It was in the midst of the usual routine—rounding up the children to get pajamas on, teeth brushed and tucked into bed (for the first of four up-and-down gymnastics)—when it hit me: I needed something to calm them down.  If I could just get my kids to hush the babble and pay attention to me for just one pickety-pucking minute, my life would have at least a sliver of peace.

“Aha!” I thought.  “I’ll read to them.  Whether they like it or not.”  (Thinking that they probably wouldn’t, but I was game for anything at that frazzled point.)

I went to my bookshelf and trailed my finger along the spines.  I was about to pick out Charles Dickens (“David Copperfield,” I muttered, “now that will put them to sleep!”) when I went a little farther along the shelf and saw it: the boxed (and unread) set of Narnia Chronicles.  Hallelujah!

I strode back upstairs, full of parental vigor and shouting, “Kids!  Kids, c’mere.  I’ve got something for you!”  I brought them into my bedroom and tucked them under the covers of my bed, snug as three peas in a pod.  “Listen, just listen,” I said.

I turned to the first page.
      Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs. Macready and three servants. (Their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much.) He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.


I kept reading about how the four children stumble across a magic wardrobe and, pushing their way through the mothballed fur coats and hangars, enter a land of snow and forests and fauns and lampposts and a white-skinned/black-hearted Queen who dispenses Turkish Delight candy like deadly heroin.  Welcome to Narnia.

When I paused to take a breath, you could have heard an eyelash drop.  Three sets of eyes—once droopy with sleep—were as wide as Montana horizons.  Three mouths hung open, a thin glisten of drool running down unnoticed on one particular chin.  By the time I reached the end of the second chapter, I could practically hear my children’s heartbeats.  I was amazed.  Nothing—not even the nosiest, most colorful Disney cartoon—had ever held them this rapt, this silent, this obedient.  When I reached the end of the third chapter that night, my voice hoarse and faint, I dog-eared the page and closed the book.

“No, Daddy, no!  Just a little bit more!  Puh-leeeeze?!”

“We’ve had enough for tonight, kids.  It’s already a half hour past your bedtime.”

“Puh-leeeeeze, Daddy?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

And I kept that promise all summer long.  I read nearly every night as the four of us wound down from the day’s stresses (oh yes, I’m sure my children had their own share of grade-school stresses, too).  It became part of the ritual: don pajamas, brush teeth, slip under covers, read Narnia, kiss good-night.  I sailed through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then we journeyed through the other books, in order:
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader"
The Silver Chair
The Horse and His Boy
The Magician's Nephew
The Last Battle

I read the books like a hammy radio actor, varying the pitch and tone and timbre of my voice.  For the four children, I spoke in a clipped British accent; for Aslan the lion, I adopted a rumbling James Earl Jones throatiness; for Reepicheep the brave little mouse, I squeaked; for Puddleglum the web-footed Marsh-wiggle, I sounded like a rainy day full of wet blankets.  I shouted, I whispered, I sang.  Sir Laurence Olivier had nothing on me.

The nights I didn’t read—the nights I worked too late and stumbled home bone-weary and bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained—the children were as downcast as Puddleglum himself.  But those nights were few and far between because I made it a point to return to Narnia as often as I could—not for my children’s sake, but for the sake of my own ragged soul.  Lo and behold, the spell of the books was being cast over this slump-shouldered 30-year-old man himself.  It is just possible that I was enjoying the books even more than my under-10 audience.


Now, seven years later, that Summer of Narnia has a special place in my memory—a reserved spot on the shelf labeled “Golden Moments to Treasure Even When You’re Senile and Wearing Adult Diapers.”  But encased in that memory is the image of a particular night when the five of us (this time my wife sat in on the reading) were camping in the Alaskan wilderness 50 miles south of Anchorage.  We roasted marshmallows, made s’mores, watched the still-bright evening sun slide across the glaciered mountains.  Then, when the mosquitoes swarmed too thick, we retreated inside the tent.  Don pajamas, run a dry toothbrush across teeth (the one modification for camping), crawl into sleeping bags and then…Narnia.

I’m sure people in the neighboring campsites must have wondered at the sounds of the mouse and a bunch of British kids calling out “Reepicheep!  Reepicheep!” coming from that tent.  But I didn’t care because I was glowing with fatherly love and, for once, gentle kindness.  And it was all due to a lion, a mouse, a Marsh-Wiggle, one-footed Dufflepuds, a talking horse and a lamppost in the middle of a forest.

Now, I tell you this story to show you that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and all the ensuing volumes are most definitely not just stories for children.  They are for the very young and the very old, as well as for very distracted 30-year-olds.

Lewis’ writing is incredibly fine-tuned and, as one who read every word of these books aloud can attest, sits on the tongue like silky caramel candy.  He has created an entire fairy-tale kingdom (complete with maps and histories), but yet it’s one that is completely believable—at least, you want to believe you can find your own passage through an old wardrobe.

Humor, of course, abounds.  It is the quaint, dry British humor which you can also find in Agatha Christie novels and old movies with Alec Guiness.  Lewis knows what he’s doing, playing to both the adolescent and adult audiences with his delicate balance of Christian allegory and downright exciting adventures.

I suppose at this point you want me to talk about the plots of the books.  Out of the question.  For one thing, there’s just not enough space on your computer screen for a full description; for another, I could never do Narnia justice.  Let’s just say that there are many battles between good and evil, there are sea voyages and journeys to underground caverns, there are deaths and joys and redemptions, there are enough wildly fantastic creatures to keep Jim Henson puppeteers busy for a lifetime and there are page-turning cliffhangers to keep a father reading long into the night, even after his throat is all but bleeding.


I would be remiss if I didn't also mention The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, an adult love letter to Lewis' creations written by Salon editor Laura Miller a few years ago. Jonathan Lethem praised it by saying: "Conversational, embracing, and casually erudite, Laura Miller's superb long essay is the kind that comes along too rarely, a foray into the garden of one book that opens to the whole world of reading, becoming in the process a subtle reader's memoir, and manifesto."

Monday, November 28, 2011

My First Time: Joseph Mills


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Joseph Mills, author of the poetry collections from Press 53Love and Other Collisions, Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers, and Somewhere During the Spin Cycle.  Joseph and his wife, Danielle Tarmey, are the authors of A Guide to North Carolinas Wineries.  His fourth volume of poetry, Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet, will be released by Press 53 in the spring of 2012.  He holds degrees in literature from the University of Chicago (B.A.), the University of New Mexico (M.A.), and the University of California-Davis (Ph.D).  A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. In addition to teaching at UNCSA, Joseph is the Poet-in-Residence at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Visit his website here.


My First Publication

The writer Fred Chappell has said, “If you’re lucky, you’ll be rejected the first 1,000 times.  That will teach you to persevere.  Get the first poems that you submit published, and you’re dead meat.”  In my case, he was wrong.  The first place I ever sent work to accepted it, and it was the best thing that could have happened.

As a junior in college in 1986, I had just begun to write poetry as part of a creative writing course.  However, I had been told since elementary school that I would be an author someday.  So, after I had written a half dozen poems, it was logical to send them out for publication.  They had received scathing critiques in workshops, but only by classmates.  The professor hadn’t said a word, I suspected, because he didn’t want to embarrass the other students in public by correcting their faulty judgments.

I’m not sure where I saw the announcement, probably in The Writer or Writer’s Digest, which I had begun to read regularly (spending more time, in fact, reading about writing than actually doing any).  An “Important International Poetry Anthology” wanted submissions.  I sent my best poem.  It was four lines long, and it dealt with the aftermath of a party.  Cigarette butts.  Empty bottles.  Hangovers.  Ash, trash, and regret.  Real life, man.

The acceptance came quickly, along with the stipulation that contributors must buy a copy.  This seemed reasonable, even unnecessary since, of course, I wanted one.  My dorm-mate began introducing me as a “published poet” at the business school recruiting parties we were crashing.  I would shake my head and look away as he did this, trying to look modest, which was difficult since I was only 20 and already on my way.

Finally the fat envelope came.  I opened the book and had an immediate, overwhelming, feeling.  Surprisingly, since this was my first publication, it was also a familiar one.  It’s that feeling you get at the arrival of the X-Ray specs or the life-size remote control Frankenstein ordered from a comic book, that alloy of disappointment, anger, and shame forged by the awareness you’ve been scammed. 

Each of the anthology’s hundreds of pages had at least a dozen poems.  It was difficult to find mine crammed among the thousands.  I read some, and they were uniformly terrible.  Then I realized that if each “contributor” bought a copy, that’s all the publisher had to sell.

Long after midnight, when the hall was deserted, I took the book to the garbage chute, tossed it in, and listened as it hammered its way down to the dumpster to be incinerated.

This first publication was critical.  I stopped going to B school parties, afraid someone might remember “the poet.”  Consequently, a business career became even more unlikely.  I didn’t submit work again for several years, and then I chose the places that I knew.  Most importantly, I understood from the beginning of my career what it meant to be a “published author.”



Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Freebie: My Father's House by Ben Tanzer


Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Glass by Sam Savage.

This week's book giveaway is My Father's House by Ben Tanzer which came out earlier this year from the small-press Main Street Rag.  It's a short novel about a social worker and his dying father--maybe not the cheeriest of subjects for the holiday season.  But then again, maybe you're ready for some cathartic family drama after the T-Day get-together.  Michael Fitzgerald (author of Radiant Days) had this to say about My Father's House:
Few things remind us we're utterly alone in this universe like our dads dying. At the same time, few things can remind us we're all in this together like great literature. In My Father's House, Tanzer took the first and made the latter. It's a sincere and important book full of grace, beauty, and… I'm happy to report…a delicious humor. I can't recommend it highly enough.

When I received my copy of Tanzer's novel, I did what I always do with new books coming into my library: I read the first two paragraphs.  Except in this case, I ended up reading several pages because Tanzer's style of writing is so clear, direct and compelling.  With the author's permission, I'm excerpting the entire first chapter here so you can get a good feel for the rest of the book:
      I don't even remember how this started exactly.
      I know it was 1999 and I know that my father had a seizure. I know his blood didn't look right. And that there was something going on with his bone marrow that looked to be pre-cancerous, but needed to be confirmed with a genetic test.
      I also know it turned out that he has myelodisplasia, a rare form of bone cancer that causes immature bone marrow cells to explode before reaching maturity; that these explosions are known as blasts and without treatment these blasts are going to escalate until he has full-blown Leukemia.
      The doctor at Sloan-Kettering says that my dad may have been sick for awhile because his red blood cells looked low as early as last summer. The doctor also said that my dad needs a bone marrow transplant and that the disease is worse then they thought and progressing, though it's just hard to imagine how that's possible.
      My mom says people can walk in to see a doctor, hear they have this disease and die three months later. Of course, she also says that people who get bone marrow transplants can live five more healthy years.
      The thing is there needs to be a match, and while siblings are the best bet, it turns out that they only match about twenty-five percent of the time. In comparison, children only match about three percent of the time, however, so they won't even test my brother Jerry and I until they are truly desperate.
      So, maybe my uncles will be a match. Or maybe it will be Jerry or I. And if it is one of us then maybe they will wheel us into some cold and antiseptic hospital room and put tubes into our lower back and then very slowly draw the bone marrow that could very well save my dad's life.
      That would be something wouldn't it?
      Sure it would, though this is assuming of course that he doesn't die on the operating table, that his body doesn't then reject the transplant or that some opportunistic infection doesn't wreak havoc on his now compromised immune system.
      But let's say that there is a match, and that these things don't happen, who knows what's possible, right? I can feel a little hopeful, can't I? Well, I don't actually know that anyone would quite say that, because I don't know that anyone really knows anything, most of all me.
      I do know though that I have this image of the old man that I plan to hold on to. I pulled up to the house with my wife Kerri today and when I arrived my father was up on the porch leaning over the rail and tending to his bushes. He was in his ratty old Cape Cod sweatshirt and he was surrounded by all this foliage and shrubbery. It was this brilliant day and he was smiling up there, all active and healthy looking, tending to his plants, the plants he planted with his bare hands. He looked so peaceful and focused up there, nothing like he could have looked like, tired and sallow, beat-down and sickly looking. And before I yelled hello I paused to take it all in, my old man, Monet-like, in his garden, relaxed and happy.
      It's the image I won't let go of. It's a keeper.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of this keeper-novel, all you have to do is answer this question:

What is the name of Ben Tanzer's blog?  (The answer can be found on this page.)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 1--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 2.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks


Not the book I remember, but a gorgeous one nonetheless

Yesterday morning, Tweeter Colleen Lindsay started a mini hashtag movement of gratitude among readers and writers with "It's Thanksgiving; which writers or books are you thankful for? Share with Twitter! Use hashtag to participate."

Book-loving Twits responded with things like: "Thankful for my hometown library's Hardy Boys collection" (Galley Cat), "C.S. Lewis & Narnia made a reader out of me" (Laura Miller), "#readerthanks to Richard Ford whose Frank Bascombe knows me better than I know myself" (Janet Somerville), and "#readerthanks from me to Ms. Ruggiero, my 6th-grade teacher who introduced me to Tolkien" (Bethanne Patrick).

My thanks-giving was: "#readerthanks go to the guy who wrote that EZ Reader book on Pilgrims I found in the Kittaning (Pa.) Library 44 yrs ago. Look what U wrought"

Thinking of this book brought back memories of the days, circa 1968, when I would walk from my brick home on Arch Street in Kittanning to the Armstrong County Public Library.  At the time, it was less than two blocks away, just down the hill near the east bank of the Allegheny River.  I held my mother's hand, skipping ahead, pulling her along the sidewalk, impatient to get to the House of Books.  The library was built in 1860 and had Italianate-style white columns at the front entrance.  From my small perspective, it was huge--high ceilings, an imposing front desk which one approached like a royal throne, and, along dark passageways behind the desk, towering shelves full of books (adult books) which would someday be mine once I mastered the English language.

On this one day in my memory, I went to the children's section--just to the left of the front entrance, flooded with sunshine from tall windows--and found a book which would be the cornerstone of my entire life.  Of course, I didn't know that at the time.  Back then, it was just a book with interesting people in funny costumes.

The name of the book and the author are lost to me now, but I do have a very strong sense of the book as a physical property.  It had no dustjacket and the cover (or, "boards") of the book had the fine-grained weave of a painter's canvas.  It was the color of salmon, of crushed berries, of raw venison meat.  Inside, each page had a photo of Pilgrims--suffering persecution in the Old World, sailing on the Mayflower, stepping onto Plymouth Rock, exchanging handshakes with what the book called Indians, walking across fields with dead deer collared over their necks, sitting at a long wooden table groaning under the weight of food.

In truth, maybe the book had none of these pictures. The one I do remember is a photo of a man encased in conquistador armor, his head lifted as he looks at a distant horizon. For whatever reason, that image is seared in my memory and I am certain of nothing else but this.  The fact that these were color photographs and not painted or hand-drawn illustrations must have really fucked with my young, malleable mind.  I was five years old and here, right here in this book on my lap, was photographic proof of Pilgrims!  The authority of this printed and bound book convinced me they had cameras back in 1621.  It took years of primary and secondary education to convince me otherwise.

This half-remembered, forgotten-titled book is an important landmark in my reading life because it is the first book I recall checking out of the library, taking home, and--for two weeks--feeling like I possessed the words and the photos between the covers.  My mother had been reading to me for years and I had probably learned to start "reading on my own" around the age of 4.  But this book, this story of Thanksgiving with its photos of faux-Pilgrims, was different because I claimed ownership of the words.

I have owned them--thankfully, gratefully--ever since that morning in the high-ceilinged, dust-moted air of the Armstrong County Public Library.  Nothing of this life I now know would have taken shape if it weren't for those first pieces falling into place: the skipping walk with my mother, the beautiful authority of those white columns, the reverent hush of the air inside the building, the sunlight falling on the spine of this particular book, the librarian rubber-stamping the due date in blue ink inside the front cover, and the two weeks I spent with the Pilgrims as they found a new world.

The Kittanning Library. It, like me, is now a historical landmark.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Soup and Salad: RIP Anne McCaffrey, AWOL Novelists, Alan Heathcock's Process, Jeffrey Eugenides Reaches Out, Mark Z. Danielewski's Killer Serial, Bad Sex in Literature, Ann Beattie's Truths About Writers, Lydia Netzer: Writer in the Hoodie, High Plains Book Awards


On today's menu:


1.  I was sad to learn of Anne McCaffrey's death when I opened my Publishers Lunch email this morning.  The 85-year-old author of the "Dragonriders of Pern" novels died Monday in Wicklow County, Ireland after suffering a stroke.  She was the author of nearly 100 novels and was the first woman to win the Hugo and Nebula awards.  While I never read any of her books (which included the 1978 bestseller The White Dragon), I do remember shelving many of them when I worked as a teenager in the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming.  If I was ever to read a fantasy which involved genetically-engineered, scaly-winged beasts defending a colonized planet, McCaffrey's Pern series would be the place to start.  As a matter of fact, if I have some extra time on my hands this winter, maybe I'll go for a rare dip into science-fiction/fantasy.


2.  "1-Adam-12, 1-Adam-12, be on the lookout for beloved novelist.  Last seen on Obscura Boulevard ten years ago, carrying around a heavy writer's block."  That's the imaginary bit of pop culture Greg Zimmerman probably had running through his head when he wrote this love letter to AWOL novelists for Book Riot.
[T]here are any number of real reasons for long gaps between novels. Usually the simplest explanation is the right one: Novelists have spent their time on other projects, like teaching, traveling, or writing non-fiction, short stories or essays. But the opposite may be true, too: They’re blocked. Or, perhaps they’re actually gone for good, having enrolled at “Harper Lee’s School For Quitting While You’re Ahead.”
Zimmerman prays it isn't so as he lists his Top 5 Where-Have-They-Gone Novelists, including David James Duncan (whose The River Why came out 29 years ago) and Cormac McCarthy (The Road was five years ago--how time flies when you're having an apocalypse).  This reminds me of my own "Literary APB" for Jon Billman.  (Yes, yes, I know he's alive and well and living in Oklahoma, but his fiction is still AWOL from bookstores' new-release tables.)


3.  At The Story Prize blog, Alan Heathcock takes us deep into his process as a writer.  Though he starts by discounting the value of "a behind-the-scenes look into an author’s day," Heathcock obliges by giving us just such a peek at one typical morning--a routine which includes transcribing favorite passages from other writers' work into his notebook, watching clips from movies like There Will Be Blood ("I drink your milkshake!"), and finding a path to true empathy with his characters.  This last step "takes up most of my day," he says:
I work to fully inhabit my point-of-view characters, to see though their eyes, hear through their ears, think and feel and imagine, in full, as the character. Much of my day is working to get my imagination all the way into the place of empathetic truth. This means I need to fully realize the world and the events of the scene, the scene’s choreography and timing, and the sensory experiences and emotional content of the character.
Whatever he does and however he does it, Heathcock has struck a rich vein because Volt is pure gold.


4.  At her blog, Anne Trubek (author of A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses) takes Jeffrey Eugenides to task for a note he left on his Facebook wall* which basically thanks readers for all the love they've rubbed on him during The Marriage Plot tour and says he's really not into this whole social media thing but he wanted to leave this one little note of connection before he jaunted off to Europe for his promotional tour there.  "So this is his pose?" Trubek writes.  "My publisher made this page? (i.e. 'I'm not one of those pandering, pleading, social media-obsessed authors desperate for buyers'). I don't usually do this stuff? (i.e. 'I am an Author, important and mysterious.')  The author, ultimately, is beside the point?"  (This last remark is one Eugenides actually made in the Facebook post.)  "Social media has changed literary authorship," Trubek continues. "The gap between writer and reader is narrowing. Get on twitter (and without the 'oh now I have to do this because the publicist is making me' pose). Get over yourself, and come into the fray."  I think Trubek's a little too hard on Eugenides--I think it was a genuine reach-out to his readers--but I see her point.  I know a lot of people (writers and real people alike) who don't do "The Twitter."  But that train has already left the station and if authors don't hop on board, they'll be left in what will eventually be an empty station.


5.  According to the L.A. Times' Jacket Copy blog, House of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski is going all Dickens on us.  His next project is a big one: "The Familiar," a serial novel in 27 volumes.  (Maybe I should have said he's going all Vollmann on us.)


6.  The shortlist for this year's Bad Sex in Literature Award includes Jean M. Auel, Chris Adrian, James Frey, David Guterson, Lee Child, Stephen King and Haruki Murakami.  It's all all-star lineup of tumescent prose!


7.  The New Yorker's Book Bench highlights Ann Beattie's "7 Truths About Writers" (which comes from her latest novel, Mrs. Nixon).  I especially liked these True Things:
2. If they find a copy of Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, they buy it. It is as if they’ve found a baby on the front step. They peek inside, examine the dog-earing, the marginal scribbles. Or perhaps it’s a clean copy, which carries its own kind of sadness. In either case, they embrace it, though they already have multiple copies. Those are irrelevant to the one they would be abandoning if they left the book behind. This is a hostess gift you can give any fiction writer, guaranteed to delight her even though she already has it. Regifting becomes an act of spreading civilization.


6. Writers are very particular about their writing materials. Even if they work on a computer, they edit with a particular pen (in my case, a pen imprinted “Bob Adelman”); they have legal pads about which they are very particular—size, color—and other things on their desk that they almost never need: scissors; Scotch tape. Few cut up their manuscripts and crawl around the floor anymore, refitting the paragraphs or rearranging chapters, because they can “cut” and “paste” on the computer. As a rule, writers keep either a very clean desktop or a messy one. To some extent, this has to do with whether they’re sentimental.

8.  One of the truths on Beattie's list has to do with the clothes writers wear like superstitious talismans.  Novelist Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) knows all about that kind of obsession.  She's in love with her hoodie:
So this hoodie. It is a simple garment. A black hoodie with athletic stripes down the sides of the arms. It's not soft fleece; it's terry on the inside. I don't know when I started seeing it as my writing uniform but it happened. And then it happened so much that the thing began to deteriorate. Holes formed. Threads frayed. It was washed a zillion times and it faded. In spots. But it was still so perfect and so wonderful... I could not let it go, even though I looked absolutely insane while wearing it outside the house. A small part of my brain could see that I looked like a crazy homeless person staggering around town in this vile scrap of hoodie, but most of my brain was saying, It's fine, it's fine, it's totally fine! You need this hoodie, or else your novel is never going to be finished.

9.  A belated congratulations to the winners of the High Plains Book Awards, including Best Fiction for Alyson Hagy's short-story collection Ghosts of Wyoming (which, as you know, I loved).



*Which may or may not have been written by Eugenides himself--it could very well have been penned by an intern in the publicity department.


Artwork: Detail of "The White Dragon" by Michael Whelan

Monday, November 21, 2011

My First Time: Martha Southgate


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Martha Southgate, author of The Taste of Salt from Algonquin Books.  Ayelet Waldman, author of Red Hook Road, had this to say about The Taste of Salt: “A haunting novel about the ways we hurt and are hurt by the people we love most in the world, and about how, despite that, we find solace in their love.”  Southgate's previous novel, Third Girl from the Left, won the Best Novel of the Year award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was shortlisted for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy award.  Her novel The Fall of Rome received the 2003 Alex Award from the American Library Association and was named one of the best novels of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post.  She is also the author of Another Way to Dance, which won the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award for Best First Novel.  She received a 2002 New York Foundation for the Arts grant and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.  Visit her website here.


My First Editor

The editor I’m writing about here is not, strictly speaking, my first editor.  My first novel is a young adult novel, well-regarded but now out of print.  But the story I want to tell here is of my partner in literature, the editor who has stood by me since the late 1990s.

On the same glorious day in 1998, I gave birth to my daughter and learned that someone might publish my second novel.  I was still in the hospital—the baby was asleep and my labor had been quick (as labors go) and not too hair-raising.  I didn’t feel that bad, relatively speaking.  So like any modern woman, I checked my voicemail (I suppose, if smartphones had existed, I’d have checked my email and my Twitter feed as well—just as well they didn’t).  My book was being shopped and I hoped against hope that there might be some word.  There was—a call from an editor named Jane Rosenman at Scribner Books.

I liked her voice immediately—even on the voicemail there was something frank and inviting about her tone.  I don’t remember her exact words except for the golden phrase, “interested in your book.”  She was the first one to utter that phrase after a long, discouraging time.  The novel was my first for adults, The Fall of Rome.

I called her when I got home, again during naptime, and told her I had a new baby.  We talked and I still remember the warmth and interest she expressed in both my work and my life—something that has remained through our entire relationship.  I remember her energy and her love, love, love of books.  Not of marketing.  Of books.  Not something you always find in an editor these days.  Things progressed—after 13 years, the details are foggy.  But I know she took the book to her editors and fought for it and was the first person to really fight for my work at a major publishing house.  And so The Fall of Rome was published by Scribner.

She helped me shape that book just the way an editor should.  When I got stuck, she’d take my long phone calls.  When I was running into a wall, she’d say something like, “You know, this isn’t quite working.  Maybe Jerome (the protagonist) should have a hobby or something—he’s too static.”  Her thoughtful notes covered the manuscript, just the way you hope an editor’s notes would and every one of them only improved the work.

Even with all her hard and careful work, the thing about being published by a major house in this era is that maybe your editor will see the book through to the end, and maybe they won’t—the days of Maxwell Perkins digging through a shoebox of manuscripts to extract Look Homeward, Angel are long gone.  The vagaries of office politics, mergers and layoffs make every editor’s job an uncertain one.  So it was with Jane.  Not long before The Fall of Rome was published, Jane left Scribner.  I was deeply saddened, though I knew she’d done what was best for her and I knew she was respected by everyone in the business (you will never hear a bad word about her at a literary cocktail party).  After she left I had one, no, two more editors, both of whom left before the publication process was complete.  Thus I came to understand that at that time, something unhealthy was afoot at the house of Scribner, though I never quite knew what it was.  More than that, it left me without a publisher, a champion or a clear path for my next novel (which, I should say, didn’t yet exist).

Flash forward five years.  New book, Third Girl from the Left was finally substantially begun—enough to begin shopping it.  What to do?  Scribner was completely uniniterested—I had no fans there anymore.  But while I had been working on the book, Jane was recruited to Houghton Mifflin.  She was there for me again, fighting for the manuscript, believing in my work, convincing another house to take me on.  Third Girl was published to good reviews and sales that were…well, not quite what we had hoped.  But Jane always reassured me, “It’s a great book.  It’s just hard to figure out how to get it out there.”

More time passed and I went to work on a new book.  Houghton Mifflin was bought by Harcourt Brace and Harcourt cleaned house, sweeping out a host of esteemed longtime editors and even the publisher, who had been there for 25 years.  Jane, who would happily have stayed at Houghton for the rest of her career, was one of the swept.  Shock—a much harder one for her than for me, of course.

Again after a period of retrenchment, Jane was hired, this time by Algonquin Books.  I finished my newest novel, The Taste of Salt, which was published this September.  And again, she was the editor who loved my work, who fought for it, who shepherded it every inch of the way through to publication.  Until the day I got the call from her—again.

She was leaving Algonquin, this time of her own accord, to strike out on her own as a freelance editor.  Unbelievably, the changes in the publishing industry over the last 13 years are such that a respected, skilled, beloved editor like her can do just as well financially (if not better) freelancing than she can in-house.  “Oh man, Jane, this is the third time this has happened!”  I wailed.  But again, I knew it was right for her.  And I knew that she had taken me such a long way, never ceasing her belief in my work, carrying it from one publishing house to another, always my fan, always willing to share publishing gossip and opinions of other books with me, always funny.  Always Jane.  To whom I will always be grateful.  I’ve said it to her privately but now I’m glad to say it to the world.  Thanks Jane.  For everything.

Photo by Tom Rawe

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Underworld: DeLillo Hits One Out of the Park


It's the birthday of Don DeLillo, our modern Melville.  He was born in 1936 in the Bronx and published his first novel, Americana, in 1971 after working on it for five years.  "It's no accident that my first novel was called Americana," he said in a 1993 interview. "This was a private declaration of independence, a statement of my intention to use the whole picture, the whole culture.  America was and is the immigrant's dream, and as the son of two immigrants I was attracted by the sense of possibility that had drawn my grandparents and parents."

DeLillo is a writer's writer and he burrows deep into the mechanics of art, even putting words like these in the mouths of his characters (Bill Gray from Mao II): "Do you know why I believe in the novel?  It's a democratic shout.  Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street.  I believe this, George.  Some nameless drudge, some desperado with barely a nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it.  Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open.  The spray of talent, the spray of ideas.   One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next.  Ambiguities, contradictions, whispers, hints."

In that 1993 interview with The Paris Review, DeLillo talked about method and process, saying: "I work in the morning at a manual typewriter.  I do about four hours and then go running.  This helps me shake off one world and enter another.  Trees, birds, drizzle--it's a nice kind of interlude.  Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours."  And later in that same conversation, he said something which I as a novelist in the final throes of editing a 170,000-word manuscript down to 100,000 words can fully appreciate: "I find I'm more ready to discard pages than I used to be.  I used to look for things to keep.  I used to find ways to save a paragraph or sentence, maybe by relocating it.  Now I look for ways to discard things.  If I discard a sentence I like, it's almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like.  I don't think I've become ruthless or perverse--just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself.  The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith.  It tells me there's a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time."

Today also marks the anniversary of the attack on the Essex by a sperm whale in 1820.  After hitting some bad luck on their voyage, the crew of the whaling ship had come across a pod of sperms on the morning of the 20th and had harpooned a couple.  But then, they found themselves facing an enormous whale which was acting strangely.  The whale rammed the ship repeatedly for apparently no reason.  First mate Owen Chase later wrote, "I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed (around 24 knots or 44 kph), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.  The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail.  His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship."

Chase survived the voyage (which also included starvation and cannibalism) and later told of his exploits in The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.  Twenty years later, Chase's son William met another seaman, Herman Melville, who had heard about the sinking of the Essex and asked him about it.  William Chase gave Melville a copy of his father's book.  That, of course, inspired Melville to write his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

DeLillo and Moby-Dick.  Surely, there's a straight line we can draw between 1820 and 1936.  Just as Melville burrowed into the belly of a whale, DeLillo goes to the belly of our nation.

In celebration of Mr. DeLillo's birthday, I offer this review of what I'd call his Moby-Dick: Underworld.  I wrote the review in 1999 and in reading back over it today, I see how it's loose and unrestrained; but, in the interest of literary archeology, I have preserved it untouched.  It's all I have to offer by way of a birthday gift.  I hate showing up at parties empty-handed.

*     *     *

Underworld by Don DeLillo is huge—huge in the way that the United States is huge.  This book, like our nation, is crowded with people, places, events and inexhaustible energy.  It’s got jazz, atomic testing, J. Edgar Hoover, flavored condoms, baseball, graffiti artists, inner city nuns, Jayne Mansfield, websites, Lenny Bruce, 50’s doo-wop, chess and Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark.  And that’s just for starters.

The novel, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1997, is a gargantuan undertaking by DeLillo (who also wrote Libra and The Names) and it is one of the most breathtaking volumes of literature you’ll read in this or any century.

Underworld covers a lot of territory and envelopes a cast of characters so diverse that DeLillo puts filmmaker Robert Altman to shame.  But, just like Altman’s classics Nashville and Short Cuts, everything gels just perfectly by the final page.

The story opens at a baseball game.  But not just any baseball game.  It is Oct. 3, 1951 and the Dodgers are battling the Giants for the World Series pennant in the final game of the contest.  J. Edgar is there, so are Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra, cheering and kvetching and downing ball park franks.  Did it really happen this way?  Were they really there at the game?  Probably not.  But I will say this as an aside: DeLillo’s writing was so convincing that when J. Edgar Hoover picked up a discarded Life magazine and was attracted to a photo inside, I wrote to the editors at Life to see if I could get my hands on that back issue just to see what Hoover saw.  That’s how compelling DeLillo’s writing is.

Also attending the game is a young boy named Cotter who catches the game-winning home run smacked up into the stands.  That one baseball, with its raised seams and tiny smudge of bat tar, resonates throughout the whole book as it passes from hand to hand over the next forty years.

By starting Underworld in New York’s Polo Ground with a crowd of 35,000, DeLillo describes a dizzying array of characters.  His sentences—nay, the very words—tumble one after the other, panning from person to person like a restless camera.  It’s an incredible feat and it works so well for those first 60 pages that the rest of the novel almost feels a little drained.  It’s like putting the high-wire act before the rest of the circus.  In fact, this opening prologue is so good, you could tear out the pages, put them behind glass in a museum and call it True Art.  Here’s the next-to-last line, coming after fifty-nine pages of atomic literary energy: "Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted."

DeLillo’s prose is full of such "sand-grain manyness," moving effortlessly through place and time as it charts its cast of thousands.  Central to the story are Nick Shay and Klara Sax who were briefly lovers back in the 1950s and who meet again in the 90s.  Events ricochet off these two people, setting off a string of circumstances that, yes, eventually connect to the home-run baseball.

If you like the writings of E.L. Doctorow, you’ll love Underworld which mixes historic figures with fictional characters much like Doctorow’s Ragtime.  But DeLillo goes Doctorow one better by infusing these pages with a jazzy rhythm that’s unique and invigorating.  His words practically put bubbles in your blood.

Open Underworld at random and you’ll come across some great passages that will stand the test of time.  Idly flipping through the pages, I found these two outstanding paragraphs in different locations:

"A photograph is a universe of dots.  The grain, the halide, the little silver things clumped in the emulsion.  Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event."

"It was the time of Nixon’s fall from office but she didn’t enjoy it the way her friends did.  Nixon made her think of her father, another man of frazzled mind, rehearsed in his very step, his physical address, bitter and distant at times, with a loser’s bent frame, all head and hands."

DeLillo’s scope is big and breathy and almost, but not quite, stretches itself to the limit.  You can practically hear the plausibility twanging like an overstretched rubber band.  Even if you can’t quite grasp it all, you know for certain that you’re in the hands of a master.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Freebie: Glass by Sam Savage


Congratulations to Nathan Phillips, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition.

This week's book giveaway is Glass, a novel by Sam Savage which was released a couple of months ago by Coffee House Press ("where good books are brewing").  As anyone who read Firmin (Savage's previous novel about a bookstore rat) can tell you, the septuagenarian author excels at "blending philosophy and abundant literary references with originality" (Booklist).  Glass follows in the same rich metafiction vein, rewarding the book-obsessed* at every turn.  Here's how the publisher describes the novel:
Tasked with writing the preface to a reissue of her late husband’s long-out-of-print novel, Edna is unexpectedly asked to take care of a vacationing neighbor’s pet rat, an aquarium of fish, and an apartment full of potted plants. Sitting at her typewriter day after day, her mind drifts from one thing to another in a Proustian marathon of introspection. What eventually unfolds, as if by accident, is the story of a marriage and a portrait of a mind pushed to its limits. The reader is never quite certain if Edna’s preface is an homage to her late husband or an act of belated revenge. Is she the cultured and hypersensitive victim of a crass and brutally ambitious husband? Or was Clarence the long-suffering caretaker of a neurotic and delusional wife?  The unforgettable characters in Savage’s two hit novels Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth garnered worldwide critical acclaim. In Edna, once again Sam Savage has created a character marked by contradiction—simultaneously appealing and exasperating, comical and tragic.

If you'd like the chance to win a copy of Glass, all you have to do is answer this question:

Which of Savage's previous novels was subtitled "Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife"?  (Easy-peasy hint: You might be able to find the answer here)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com.

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 24--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 25.


*Which, if you're visiting this site, means YOU.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Cut-Short Life of a Writer: Remembering Amanda Davis and her novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me


Lately, I've been thinking a lot about death.

With my wife gone to Savannah, Georgia for five weeks to take care of some business, I've been alone in my home.  And when you're by yourself in a 100-year-old house, snow rattling the windows, two cats your only company, you tend to dwell on worst-case scenarios: drawing a bath, stepping in, slipping on the slick of bubble bath, hitting your head, and drowning in five inches of water; or taking a too-big bite of thick-crust pizza and choking to death, your cell phone in a distant room and your cats looking on with wide eyes, thoroughly useless when it comes to the Heimlich maneuver; or descending the narrow staircase to the basement, a plate of cheese in one hand, a wine glass in the other, and getting tangled in the cats swirling around your feet, tripping, the wine glass breaking, and you falling in just the wrong way so the jagged stem of the glass slices open your jugular and you bleed out right there on your own staircase.

That sort of thing.

But I've also been thinking about death because every night for the past five weeks, I've climbed on the stationary bike in our basement and pedaled for forty-five minutes until I've gone about eight miles.  The bike is next to one of my bookcases--it's surrounded, in fact, by my entire book collection--and is right at the D section of my library.  As I pedal, I look at the spines of my books and my eyes fall on the two volumes by Amanda Davis.  Even though it's been nearly nine years since it happened, I feel my chest constrict and the muscles of my throat squeeze and I think once again about the cruelties life hands us, the mean joke of the grim reaper's scythe chopping down a happy life which is just on the verge of getting happier. I think about fate and unpredictability and the agonizing "what ifs" of a future that never was.  I think about rooms bathed in sunlight until suddenly a heavy door slams and everything is plunged to pitch black.  These are the thoughts which cycle through my head as I stare at the slim spines of Amanda Davis' two books.

I didn't know Amanda, but I felt close to her in a way that the wires of the Internet can falsely bind us to strangers who may or may not give a rat's ass about our existence.  I liked to think that Amanda knew who I was (though she probably didn't) because, even as a fleshless citizen of cyberspace, I was drawn to her warmth, her wit, and her charm when she posted to the online forum at Readerville.  Sadly, the site--like Amanda--is gone now, but in its heyday it was a vibrant community of readers and writers who came to chat about everything ranging from The Hardy Boys to Proust.  It was a place where bookworms could connect with writers who frequently joined the conversation--authors like Katharine Weber, M. J. Rose, Caroline Leavitt, Peter CashwellEllen Sussman, and Amanda Davis.  She was a recent addition to the community, but I remember that whatever she said in the forum chats was bright and selfless and wise-cracking.  She was the flame, we were the moths.  We Readervillagers were happy for Amanda because her second book, a novel called Wonder When You'll Miss Me, was about to be released by William Morrow.   She'd worked as an editorial assistant at Esquire, published a short-story collection to critical acclaim in 1999, and had just been awarded a teaching fellowship at Mill’s College in Oakland, California.  Things were looking good.

From the sidelines, we watched Amanda make preparations to go out on a tour to promote the book.  For part of it, her father would be flying her in his Cessna from town to town.  Amanda was busy, but she still made time to stop by Readerville and promised to post dispatches from the bookstores along the way.

Some of Amanda's comments are archived at the now-defunct Readerville.  Here are just two:
      Feb 2, 2003
I once did a reading where the audience was my godparents, the organizer, and this one little old lady at the front.  I thought, OK, fine, I’m going to read just for this lady.  Well in the middle of it, she stood up and asked me to keep it down, she was trying to read.  Sigh.
      Feb 4, 2003
This is more nerve-wracking than I had imagined.  I mean, until last week, no one but my mother, editor and agent had read the book!

And then one day, we woke up, logged on to Readerville, and were crumpled by the news she was gone.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 14, the plane carrying Amanda and her parents crashed into a mountain in North Carolina. There were no survivors.

How could this be?  Amanda was 32 years old, she was just coming into her own, the literary world was about to be split open by her talent.  Why her?  Why now?

We could do nothing but turn to the legacy she had left us: the new book which most of us hadn't yet had a chance to read.  Its title, of course, was now unbearable, the irony thick on our tongues when we said it aloud.  Wonder When You'll Miss Me.

It became even worse when we actually read the book.  Here was the cruelest joke of them all: the novel was damned good--so good, we started to weep for the unwritten stories which were still housed in Amanda's imagination when she met her end on the side of that mountain.

Friends of Amanda--actual friends, not people who knew her only by intangible handshakes across the Internet--brilliantly eulogized her at a special webpage set up at McSweeney's.  She was, Heidi Julavits wrote, "one of the funniest, most self-effacing, chutzpah-charged, and big-hearted human beings anyone could ever hope to encounter.  To meet her was always an historical event, one you would remember for the rest of your life."

So where is all this going, all this rambling about mortality and young writers and scythes?  I don't know.  These are just some of the things I've been thinking about lately, alone in this winter-chilled house, biking eight miles while going nowhere beyond the D shelf of my library, mulling over the death of near-strangers.  I'm trying to not be morbid or maudlin here.  I'd really rather celebrate Amanda Davis and her writing, so I'll leave you with a review of Wonder When You'll Miss Me which I wrote for January Magazine a month after the plane crash.

One last thing before I go: It was only after her death that I realized Amanda and I had had another connection.  I was going through some of my files when I came across a letter from Esquire discussing some editorial suggestions for "Providence," a short story of mine the magazine had accepted for publication in 1998.  The tone of the one-page letter from an editorial assistant was upbeat and encouraging with some kind things to say about my writing.  The signature at the bottom of the letter was Amanda's.


Faith Among the Elephant Dung

How can a story that begins with the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl end on such an upbeat note 250 pages later with that same girl standing in a circus tent dreaming of spiritual liberation as a trapeze artist? How can a novel go from grim to grand in a brief, whispery page-turn?

If you're a novelist named Amanda Davis, the answer is something like a trapeze act itself: deceptively simple from the audience's point of view, but high up near the big-top roof, the flip-fall-catch is one of muscle, grace and, above all, timing.

In her novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me, Amanda Davis, like a trapeze gymnast, knows how to dazzle her audience with a literary act that disobeys the rules of gravity and leaves us, heart in throat, wishing it would never end.

Unfortunately, the novel does and, sadder yet, so did the short happy life of Ms. Davis. On March 14, Amanda died when the small plane her father was piloting during a promotional tour for the novel crashed into a North Carolina mountain. A sad story, but for those of us who didn't know her personally, it is just one more obituary on a page already filled with good, decent people who have gone to the hereafter. Just another obit, that is, until you read Wonder When You'll Miss Me or Davis' collection of short stories, Circling the Drain. Then the loss can be a profound, smothering weight. Nothing else will spring fresh from Amanda Davis' imagination; we're left with just two thin volumes of words.

It's both joy and agony that those words are so good, so dead-on target as Davis describes the pain of lonely adolescent life. If there's any comfort to be had in news of the author's cut-short life, it's that Wonder When You'll Miss Me is the kind of novel that will endure. Even though it's marketed as adult fiction, this is really the kind of story to be read by teens -- males and females alike -- going through that horrible, bumpy transition into adulthood.

Faith Duckle, the overweight girl who's assaulted under the bleachers during her school's Homecoming game, is a kind of Everyteen -- we've all had bits of Faith's loneliness and optimism-against-all-odds at one point in our lives. Davis hones in on Faith's troubled psyche so quickly and accurately that we immediately embrace the girl as an intimate friend. Faith is the kind of character who steps off the page in the first paragraph.

After the attack by the group of boys, described in stark but subtle terms (I stared at buckles and pockets. He pinched my nose so my mouth fell open. Then the terrible sound of zippers…), Faith tries to commit suicide, ends up in a mental hospital, and sheds 48 pounds before her release. She returns to school as a renewed Faith, but she is dogged by the presence of her former self, which manifests itself as Fat Girl.

While constantly stuffing her face with junk food, Fat Girl is a menacing, nagging ghost who dispenses advice like: "There are all kinds of anger. Some kinds are just more useful than others." She dogs Faith's shadow, insisting that the teen might be able to shed pounds, but she'll never lose the person she was. There were days when she was a comfort and days when she was a nightmare, Faith says. Eventually, she becomes more of a nightmare after she convinces Faith to revenge the rape.

The "character" of Fat Girl is a marvelous stroke on Davis' part because, honestly, we can never fully leave our selves back in teenhood. We may move on, but something always clings. Wonder When You'll Miss Me is all about the process of un-clinging the bad debris while coming to terms with the bits that can't be shaken loose.

In Faith's case, this means running away to join the circus (something Davis herself did for several months). She renames herself Annabelle and is taken on by the Fartlesworth Circus as it tours the Eastern seaboard. She begins by picking up trash around the midway, then works her way up to assisting with costumes, grooming the elephants and, eventually, practicing with the trapeze artists. Along the way, we watch as she grows from frightened, easily-manipulated girl to a self-confident, brave fighter willing to somersault through life without a net.

Part of Wonder When You'll Miss Me's appeal is Davis' no-nonsense style which makes Faith such an accessible character. But it's also filled with an array of details about circus life which place us effortlessly inside that bizarre culture, turning even a description of an elephant performance into an authentic glimpse of the big top:
It was loud inside. We stopped at the edge of the ring. In one graceful move, Olivia bent her head, Jim stepped up on her trunk, and she lifted him into the air, then began to walk again and Bluebell followed. I let go of her harness and stayed at the edge of the ring and did my best to smile, but I felt the heat of the lights and the people all around us, looking, their eyes like tiny hot bullets thumping me from all sides. I couldn't focus on anything, not even what Jim was doing. The sawdust made me want to sneeze, and trying not to made my eyes water. There was a strange soupiness to it all. My heart hammered away and everything sparkled. The band played tinny music so loud it seemed to echo in and out of every crevice, bouncing wildly around the enormous tent. I grinned until my jaw ached.

Just as the circus transforms Faith into a girl with a sequin-speckled future, Davis turns her descriptions of circus life into small parables about how it's possible to find beauty, even among the sawdust and elephant dung:
I liked this feeling of lightness. It was what I imagined the world felt like from up on the trapeze, what Mina the Ballerina must know. It was what I imagined it felt like to fall when you saw the outstretched hands before you and knew you would come out of a spin and be caught. It was this lightness, this emptiness, this trust that you weren't about to plummet to an unforgiving surface, powered by the weight of yourself. No. You would spin and be caught, you would flip and fall and catch, and you would swing back to a platform at the end, arms in the air, high above the crowd, proud of your victory over what hadn't happened.

There are times when the novel feels like scattered bits and pieces, as if it had been written in fits and starts -- something akin to a teenager's diary. But when you reach the final page, when you come to the epiphanic moments of the book, those disjointed passages coalesce beautifully, even transcendentally.

At one low point, Faith frets, I didn't matter. I saw that. I didn't matter at all.  But, in truth, she does matter -- she matters a great deal, especially to any young people reading Wonder When You'll Miss Me and thinking they are the only lonely teenagers on the planet. More important, Amanda Davis matters; and her words -- the only things most of us will ever know her by -- matter the most.

In the final pages, Faith confides, I wanted to believe that I was not so easily replaced.

She's not, and neither is Amanda Davis.


Monday, November 14, 2011

My First Time: Sabina Murray


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Sabina Murray, author of the short-story collection Tales of the New World (Black Cat).  Murray grew up in Australia and the Philippines and is currently a member of the MFA faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She is also the author of Slow Burn, A Carnivore's Inquiry, Forgery, and The Caprices, which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  Visit her website here.


My First Book

I sold my first book, Slow Burn, when I was twenty years old.  I was not yet able to sign a legally binding contract, nor able to legally consume alcoholic beverages.  Of course an illegally consumed alcoholic beverage tastes much the same as its legitimate cousin and the fact that I instinctively knew this probably explains why obvious memories (me clutching letter from agent in hand, a tear of pride, a gasp of expectation) are missing from the landscape of that time.  Instead, I fill in the blanks.  I must have been excited, proud, and probably a little smug at my precocity.

I was living in Albuquerque at the time.  I had just graduated from college and my dream of America—having spent my childhood in Australia and the Philippines—was populated with anachronistic hippies, live music, and Indians, all of which Albuquerque had in solid representation.  I say this merely to explain that there was a lot going on and I really didn’t see just how bizarrely lucky I was to have sold a book.  Slow Burn, by the way, follows a Filipina party girl in the crash-and-burn culture of Marcos Era Manila.  I knew that life because I’d lived it.  A few short years had blunted my edge a little and turned me into some variety of fun-loving New Mexican.  And now I was publishing a book.

Six months later, when Slow Burn arrived on shelves, I was living in Portland, Maine.  I felt as if my years in The Philippines had been a dream.  I was working at a greeting card store called The Paper Patch for sisters Shirley and Betsey.  Mostly I ran the register, but I also wrapped gifts, did typesetting for birth announcements, and made balloon arrangements.  During the Old Port Festival, I inflated dozens of balloons and wandered around the Old Port hawking them.  I think my line was, “Balloons for a dollar—instant popularity!”  At the same time that I was selling balloons, I was also in the Fanfare section of Vanity Fair with a nice photo of me looking off to the side and a brief article, “Bright Lights, Big Palm Trees.”  My friends had gone around to the stores that carried Vanity Fair and opened all the issues they could find to the Fanfare section and my picture.  People would come up to me and ask if it was me in Vanity Fair, and I’d reply, “I’ll tell you if you buy a balloon.”

There was also an advertisement for Slow Burn that ran in Rolling Stone.  I’m not making that up, although it does seem like something that happened a long time ago, perhaps in another dimension.

I realize how na├»ve I was then because I felt that publishing a book was success and with success should come financial security.  I thought that book publication was the answer to all sorts of questions: who I was, how other people would value me, what my career would be, how I would survive.  Slow Burn supplied none of that.  It would take me ten years to publish my next book and I spent my twenties profoundly concerned that I had already peaked and hadn’t been alert enough to enjoy the moment.

Slow Burn is no longer in print and, despite a few positive reviews, the book disappeared into the paper sea shortly after rearing its lovely head.  The pages are now yellowed and in the picture of me, taken by my aunt in her backyard, I have a spacey, nervous look that always makes me feel for my younger self, as if she senses that this is just the first hurdle, one of many to come—that things are not going to be easy.  And she could use some comfort because she, that younger me, is absolutely, irrefutably correct.