Thursday, June 23, 2016

Soup and Salad: James Joyce Illuminates Karl Ove Knausgaard, Matthew Norman on Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare, What’s in a Publisher’s Name?, RIP Lois Duncan and Jack Fuller

On today’s menu:

1.  “I longed to get away. What I wanted was to write, and I resolved to read this marvelous work and be illuminated by all its radiance.” In his introduction to the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Karl Ove Knausgaard (My Struggle) writes about how the Irish writer’s masterpiece shone a light on his life and career:
Even now, 27 years after I first read the book, its moods come back to me. The rain-drenched school buildings in the dusk, the circumambient sound of children’s voices, the dull thud of a foot striking a ball, the heavy arc of the ball in the dismal air. The smell of cold night in the chapel and the hum of prayer. The family gathered together on Christmas Day, waiting for the dinner to be served; the fire burning in the fireplace, candles lighting up the table, the bonds and conflicts that exist between the people seated around it. The father, who talks with strangers in bars and tells the same stories every time. The narrow, filthy lanes in which the prostitutes huddle, the yellow gaslights, the smell of perfume, Stephen’s trembling heart. And the birds at evening, circling above the library, dark against the blue-gray sky, their cry “shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools.”
It’s been a number of years (too many) since I read Portrait. Thanks to Penguin and Knausgaard, I hope to return to its pages soon. To echo the novel’s concluding lines: “and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

2.  At Lit Hub, novelist Matthew Norman (We’re All Damaged) writes about every writer’s worst nightmare: a room full of empty chairs at a reading...
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to find inside that bookstore. I’m not an idiot. I knew that I wasn’t The Beatles getting off that plane in San Francisco. No one was going to be throwing underwear at me or bursting into tears. But, surely someone was going to be there, right? Book people? A Hopkins creative writing class? My coworkers? My friends? But then it dawned on me that my book had only been out for about 72 hours and no one had any reason to have any idea who in the hell I was. And then something else dawned on me—something far worse. I hadn’t really told anyone about the reading. I’d posted something about it on Facebook, but that was about the equivalent of shouting the date and time of my reading out my open car window on I-95 in a rainstorm. A lone microphone stood in the café. Lined up there before it were five rows of startlingly empty chairs. My literary career had started.

3.  Book Riot gives the backstory behind some publishers' names, including a few of my favorites like Dzanc Books:
Pronounced “Da-Zaynk”, the not-quite 10-year old Michigan literary powerhouse (books, a monthly magazine, classes, writers residencies) took its name from the initials of the five children of co-founders Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett had between them: Anna, Zach, Chase, Nasstassja, and Dalton with letters moved around to form something that almost looked like a word.
and Tin House:
The power forward of the Rose City’s writing community began as a bi-coastal magazine operation in 1988 with two of its founders based in New York and its managing editor living in a literal tin house on the city’s northwest side. That same building (“to be honest, it’s corrugated zinc oxide,” a Tin Housian told me) now houses the operations of the magazine, book publishing unit and acclaimed summer writing workshops and the unbreakably sealed story of Tin House’s other potential names. “Those are buried under the Tin Garage. Along with the bodies.”

I was saddened to hear of two writers’ deaths this weektwo authors whose orbits had briefly, peripherally touched mine in recent years...

4a.  To any young reader growing up in the 1970s and 80s, the name Lois Duncan will probably be familiar as someone who trailed icy fingers down the knobby spines of our backs. The author of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Killing Mr. Griffin, and many others wrote about sinister threats to teenagers and managed to tap directly into our deepest adolescent fears; she was like the darker sister of Judy Blume. Three years ago when I put out a call on Facebook for suggestions on what to read next, I was surprised to receive a personal email from Mrs. Duncan:
     Dear David Abrams,
     Of course, the book I’d like for you to read next is my book, One to the Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer, about the murder of daughter Kaitlyn Arquette. It has just been published as an e-book by Planet Ann Rule and can be downloaded to Kindles, Nooks, etc.
     I’ve written over 50 books, and am best known for fictional suspense novels. This time the horror story is a true one. The heroine was our own child and I was not able to manipulate the plot to produce a happy ending.
     Lois Duncan
Sure, it was what some might call “shameless self-promotion” (though I say there’s no shame in trying to spread the word about something you worked long and hard to produce; it’s a noisy world out there and it’s hard to be heard); but I was struck by the little twist she even managed to put at the end of a simple email. I think I was also so stunned to receive a message from one of my childhood idols that I never wrote back (nor, more to my self-disappointment, did I read One to the Wolves) and now I’m sorry to have let that moment slip by. Lois Duncan passed away on June 15 at age 82. At The New Yorker, Carmen Maria Machado wrote a beautiful tribute to the author she first discovered in 1997 when she was eleven:
     That was the summer when—tan, smelling of chlorine, stippled in mosquito bites and goose bumps from the air-conditioning, just on the verge of puberty—I discovered Lois Duncan. Her books’ dramatic titles, such as “Summer of Fear,” “Killing Mr. Griffin,” “Gallows Hill,” drew me in, and their taglines sealed the deal. I wedged as many as could fit into my bag. Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?
     Very, of course. The climax of “Gallows Hill”—in which a girl’s classmates believe her to be a witch and gather on a hilltop to hang her—was so thrilling that I literally trembled. (Only when it was over did I notice that, while I was reading, I’d moved to the arm of the couch and perched myself there.) I picked up “Summer of Fear” next: a teenager’s beautiful cousin moves in with her family after a terrible tragedy and begins to steal the protagonist’s life. After that, “Killing Mr. Griffin,” about a group of high-school students who accidentally kill their English teacher. Then “Daughters of Eve,” in which a teacher runs a feminist organization to instruct her students about the poison of regressive gender roles—but her message of empowerment is tinged with something sinister.
     These novels weren’t scary in a way that I recognized. They walked a delicate line between impossibly terrifying and terrifyingly possible. Duncan has sometimes been grouped with writers like Christopher Pike or R. L. Stine, but her novels lack the comic, pulpy luridness of their work. Her prose is unfussy and clean. She centered her books on young women, and her writing considers themes that have come to obsess me as an adult: gendered violence, psychological manipulation, the vulnerability of outsiders. She writes about folie à deux and mass hysteria, doppelgängers, sociopathy, revenge. She portrays psychic powers and past-life regressions with a kind of realism; she recognized that even a supernatural evil must have a human heart.

4b.  I knew Jack Fuller was terminally ill. Greg Michalson, his publisher and friend, had arranged for Jack to write something for this blog in order to help get a little more visibility for what would turn out to be his last book, the just-released One From Without. But then I got this note from Greg: About his “my first time” blog post for you: Jack’s health has taken a steep turn for the worse and he entered hospice care yesterday. But I spoke with both him and his wife—he’s going to try to dictate this piece about his time in Vietnam with Stars & Stripes, if he’s able. I know he very much wants to do this. Though I’m not sure how this will work. That’s why, when I did receive Jack’s essay, “Finding My Novel,” five days later, I knew the high cost of the words he’d written. I don’t think I’ve ever published anything here at The Quivering Pen with more respect and appreciation. Jack Fuller passed away earlier this week at age 69. The notice at Shelf Awareness included this tribute from Greg Michalson:
The passing of Jack Fuller is inexpressibly sad and difficult. Our hearts go out to his family. It was a tremendous privilege to know and be allowed to publish this man, whose brilliant writing may only be exceeded by his intellectual curiosity and good will toward his fellow man. His interests, like his career, had a breathtaking scope. A conversation with Jack was always profound and entertaining. He was truly one of the good guys, someone who tried to make the world that much better. We’re glad we were able to launch into that world his final novel, a masterpiece which he said took him a lifetime to be ready to write.
I’ll leave the last word to Jack, in these closing lines from the essay he wrote for this blog as he recounted the struggle to put his thoughts about his Vietnam War experience on paper:
     Perhaps a year passed. I did not have a story in mind, just a faint, restless, buzzing in my head, something that wanted out. Then one night, while I was studying in an underground library, all of a sudden the story came to me. Every movement of every soldier in it was clear in my mind. The geography of the village was so sharp that somewhere in my papers there is still the map I drew that night, which did not change over the years I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the novel.
     When I started writing that night, I had no idea who these men were, moving through the village. I did not know where they came from, what else they had done in the Army, anything about them. And so I started with whatever I could with each of them, and worked from there.
     Many things remained unclear to me even as I worked deep in the story. But the importance of this story itself never failed me. It was at least a decade before I saw the book in print. It was actually my second book to be published. But it was the one that I would never let go.
     The picture of those grunts in the village is still as vivid to me as it was that night, underground, in the library, reflected from my experiences at Stars and Stripes.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure how old I was. Maybe it was the summer I was thirteen. Baltimore's public library system, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, sponsored a reading game for kids & teens. Of course, I was all over that. At the end of summer the Pratt hosted a talk from Lois Duncan. The books I chose as my prize for completing the reading game were her books. I got to meet her and have her sign my little paperbacks. It was a big moment for this budding bibliophile. And, GOD, how I loved Killing Mr. Griffin and Summer of Fear!