Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Soup and Salad: Merritt Tierce's Husband Has Read Her Novel, Encountering Tim O'Brien, Un-Slumping Sophomore Novels, Will We See Thomas Pynchon?, High Desert Journal's Subscriber Campaign, The Smell of Old Books, Literary Halloween Costumes, 10 Worst Opening Lines, Peyton Marshall Finds Her Goodhouse Setting, Staging Deliverance, Is Spokane the Next Brooklyn?, Emory Gets Flannery

On today's menu:

1.  At the Powell's blog, Merritt Tierce, whose debut novel Love Me Back is about a waitress addicted to sex and cocaine, talks about how she's been confronted with an unusual question:
     "Has your husband read it?"
     So far I've stifled the following responses:
     "No, has your husband read it?"
     "No, because he's not allowed to read. He has too much to do around the house."
     "Yes, and he's in therapy. I'm afraid our marriage might not make it."
     I suppose those who have posed this question to me could be making the most innocent of inquiries; after all, it's a normal enough thing to wonder about someone who makes any kind of art and has a spouse or partner. But the question still grates, because maybe what they mean is something more like, "Is your husband really OK with the fact that you wrote a book about someone who resembles you in several significant ways, and that person has sex with a lot of different people? Does your husband know that you may have had sex with a lot of different people? How does he feel about that, if so? And if he's OK with it, do you know how lucky you are?"
     Even if the asker doesn't realize those are the questions buried in their question, those are the questions I hear. And I can't help but think they wouldn't ask a male writer that question — had he written such a promiscuous disaster of a semi-autobiographical male character, he would more likely be asked, "What are you working on now?" or "What's your writing routine?" or "Who has influenced you as a writer?"
For the record, Tierce's husband has read Love Me Back.

2.  Jesse Kornbluth frequently re-reads Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, but until recently had never cracked open The Things They Carried; I'm currently re-reading The Things They Carried, but have never ventured inside In the Lake of the Woods.  While we have yin-yang reading experiences, we both agree on one thing: Tim O'Brien is The Man.  At his Head Butler blog, Jesse describes his virgin encounter with O'Brien's short story masterpiece:
     I read Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods every few years. Not because I forget the plot; I can tell you the story beat by beat. Now I just try to understand how O’Brien does it. There’s Vietnam. And magic. And politics. And a marriage. And a disappearance — or is it a murder? How O’Brien masterfully juggles all those balls is one of the most impressive achievements in modern American fiction.
     I promise you: You won’t put it down.
     So you’d think I’d have gone on to read the other two parts of what could be called O’Brien’s Vietnam trilogy — Going After Cacciato, the novel that won the National Book Award for O’Brien, and The Things They Carried.
     But for years and years I never looked at these early books.
     Then I went to Costa Rica — into the rain forest, actually — and because that climate is so much like Vietnam, I took along the paperback of The Things They Carried. One afternoon, when the temperature was 95 and so was the humidity, I sat down with this collection of short stories. Two hours and 271 pages later, I got up.
     You don’t get better reading experiences.
As for me, I'm traveling through the jungle with T. O'B. in preparation for a lecture I'm giving this Friday in Missoula at the art museum: "How to Tell a War Story."  The Things They Carried is the Big Read for the Montana and I'm honored to be just one small voice in the month-long celebration for this outstanding book.  O'Brien himself will speak in Missoula on Oct. 28 and it's bound to be a moving experience.

3.  "I'll third that!"  God bless Slate and the Whiting Foundation for coming up with the idea to recognize "the best under-recognized second novels of the past five years."  As someone who's fretting about the slump of his own (still uncompleted) sophomore novel, I'm happy to see the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List, "which will celebrate five terrific second novels whose first trips through the literary-pressdustrial complex may not have been all the authors hoped for...After all, Their Eyes Were Watching God?  Ulysses?  Giovanni’s Room?  O Pioneers!?  The Firm?  Second novels all."

Joaquin Phoenix and Benicio Del Toro in Inherent Vice
4.  A New York Times reporter probes Inherent Vice director Paul Thomas Anderson for the answer to the most pressing question currently plaguing the internets: will Thomas Pynchon make a cameo appearance in the film adaptation of his novel?
     Surely Mr. Pynchon, 77, would be tempted by such an inside joke? Told that other sources had confirmed a cameo, Mr. Anderson stared intently into his salad and poked around with his fork, either looking for an answer among the summer beets, fighting back a grin or both.
     “I’m staying out of it!” Mr. Anderson said eventually. “No. No. I just—.” He trailed off, running a hand through his shaggy, sandy blond hair, a pained look on his face. “Somebody spent a long time deciding not to have themselves out there. There’s a reason for that. So I’m just going to step out of that.”

5.  If you love the literature of the West and you aren’t currently a High Desert Journal subscriber, now is the time to atone for your sins.  It’s the Journal’s 10th anniversary, and the hard-working staff is about to put out the 20th issue.  In celebration they’re launching a 1,000 new subscriber campaign.  Right now, you can buy two subscriptions and get the third subscription free.  It’s well worth the price of three lattes.  For instance, in the current issue you’d find articles like “A Poet’s Guide to Huckleberry Picking” and “The Day Evel Knievel Died.”  Intriguing stuff, right?  As they say at the website, “Where other magazines are all hat and no cattle, High Desert Journal is a working ranch, bringing you the best art, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction we can find.”  In the video below, editor Charles Finn talks about the significance of the literary journal: “I'm inviting you to invest in a region of the country, to help promote the stories that come from the land.”

6.  “A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.”  That, my friends, is the smell of old books.  Or, if you want to be more scientific about it: toluene, ethyl benzene, and 2-ethyl hexanol.

7.  Have you picked your child's Halloween costume yet?  Book Riot offers a few suggestions:

8.  We hear a lot about great opening lines to novels, but what about the worst openers?  The American Scholar does us all a favor by listing “10 opening doozies, lines that make it difficult to continue reading”--like these from Thomas Wolfe's 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel: “A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.”

9.  At the FSG Work in Progress blog, Peyton Marshall describes how she came up with the setting for her debut novel, Goodhouse:
     I couldn’t sleep. It was June 2009 and I was returning from a friend’s wedding, staying in a cheap hotel outside of Sacramento. My husband was beside me, blissfully unconscious, as I sat there, stupefied by late night television, by the weeping beauty pageant contestants, by the pawn shop reality programs, by the people fighting in foam-padded suits. Over the years, insomnia had provided few benefits—a raw, twitchy nervous system, for example, or a suspicion on some days that my brain had been replaced with boiled ham—but all that was about to change.
     I’d recently started working on the book that would become Goodhouse. I’d been sketching different characters and scenes, unsure how everything fit together. I knew the book was set in a future version of a reform school—a place where the state was attempting to rehabilitate boys born with a genetic propensity for violence. But I couldn’t see where any of the writing was really going—not in a linear way. I was working within some kind of narrative cloud, and these scenes were like atoms orbiting a mysterious, unseen core.
     And then, in that dingy hotel room, insomnia paid off. A new program was starting, a paranormal investigation show with several muscle-bound hosts—linebacker-sized men who sprinted through dark hallways, startling at the smallest sounds. That particular episode was set in the now-shuttered Preston School of Industry, a boy’s reform school founded in 1894 in Ione, California. The institution itself had been housed in a giant Romanesque castle built on a hill. A grand and imposing structure that was thought embody a new way of thinking, a new commitment to reform instead incarceration, the Preston School was now in ruinous decay. I muted the volume on the television and just stared the structure itself; huge and turreted, built to intimidate and inspire, it looked like a castles from European antiquity, not a part of contemporary American justice.
     I sat up in bed. I actually felt my heart beat faster, spurred on by a jolt of recognition. I’d never had a moment like this before. This was my setting.
     “Oh God,” I said, elbowing my husband, maybe a little too enthusiastically.  “That’s it.”
     “What’s happening?” he said, sitting up. “What’s going on?”
     “That’s it,” I said. I pointed to the television. “We’re going to go there.”
     He groaned and lay back down. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
     “Not right now,” I said. “But soon.”

Nick Paglino, Bryce Hodgson and director Joe Tantalo in rehearsal
10.  “It was such a sprawling story: the vast wilderness, the river, the cliff.  And then Hollywood made it even bigger by making it legendary.  Now a theater company of modest means is trying to contain the tale on a 12-by-12-foot stage, hoping to concentrate its power by focusing on the language and the interior journey.”  The novel is James Dickey's Deliverance and the theatre company is Godlight.  I love the idea of stripping away the river, the cliffs, the dueling banjos, and just getting down to the core essence of Dickey's language.  From the New York Times article:  “The idea that works for us is that the audience is creating their own sense of what the wilderness is,” (Joe) Tantalo, the company’s founder and artistic director, said during a rehearsal break.  “If we had a woodland set, if we had too many markers of the environment, I think it loses the idea that it’s a work of the imagination.”

11.  What’s the deal with Spokane?  “I can’t tell you how many people, most of whom know Jess (Walter), said something to me about Spokane,” Vestal said.  “‘Spokane!  What are you guys doing out in Spokane?  What’s in the water in Spokane?’  There’s definitely some kind of regional energy going on right now.  And it’s an exciting thing to be a part of,” he added.  “A big part of it is just this community, support and friendship among writers.  It’s a nourishing dynamic right now.”
     That's Shawn Vestal speaking to a reporter soon after he won this year's PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for debut works of fiction, for his story collection Godforsaken Idaho.  “People afterward were asking me if I was OK,” Vestal said.  “I guess I seemed like I’d been hit in the head or something.”
     Those of us who were already familiar with Vestal's work were probably less surprised (but just as elated), but there does indeed seem to be something incredible being poured into the city's water with some of my favorite contemporary writers currently working in the area.  To name just a few: Jess Walter, Gregory Spatz, Nance Van Winckel, Shann Ray, Sam Ligon and--coming next year--Sharma Shields.

12.  It looks like a trip to Atlanta may be in order.  Emory University has acquired “a trove of Flannery O’Connor’s literary drafts, journals, letters and personal effects, long hidden from all but a few scholars.”  A good opportunity like this is hard to find.

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