Showing posts with label Butte. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Butte. Show all posts

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Visions and Voices: "Hawk" and "Arm"

I'd stared at the painting for more than three months, willing the words to come.  They were there--the vowels and syllables and sentence-patter--but they were tantalizing me, dancing just out of reach.  I was certain I'd eventually touch them.  It was just a matter of time.

Trouble was, I'd run out of time.

I was on deadline to provide a short piece of prose to go along with the painting, "Fox Hawk: From the Lost Ornithology Series" an acrylic on wood panel by Christine Martin, as part of the Visions and Voices exhibit for the Imagine Butte Resource Center.  They were already starting to hang the other artwork and accompanying texts at the gallery in uptown Butte and, as is typical of my procrastinating self, I was The Lagger.  The story was there--waiting to be touched, within my grasp, tip of my tongue, etc.--I just needed to set aside some time and write the damned thing.

(I should note that at the time I didn't know the title of the painting or the artist's name.  I think it worked out better this way, remaining totally ignorant of Christine's artistic vision and intent.  Only this morning did I start browsing through her online gallery in which she marries skulls with living bird bodies.  It's a fantastic and beautiful hybrid of life and death--something my words could barely begin to touch.  If you want to see more of Christine's work, visit her at Deviant Art or her Etsy shop.)

So, hours before deadline, I returned to my copy of the painting, printed on 8x11 paper, and stared at the body of the hawk, topped by another creature's skull and standing in the center of a burst of sunrays.  This was the Vision, I was the Voice.

Death.  Isolation.  Predation.  Release.

Sometimes, you begin a story with a sense of feeling and let the plot and characters flow from that genesis.  Such was the case with my Visions and Voices project.  I had a hawk, I had a skull, I had that brilliant burst of sun whose rays looked like trails up to heaven.  I pictured a woman trapped in a remote location somewhere in Montana.  She's unable to move--broken legs, maybe? weak with starvation?--and she's in a stare-down contest with a hawk.  Death is imminent for at least one of them.  I thought about a finger of wind ruffling the beautiful mottled feathers on that bird's breast.  I thought of that woman's life ebbing away.  And then--


The words fell into place like the tumblers of a lock about to be opened.

I typed a sentence: In the end, it was just her and the hawk.  And then I typed another and another....

*     *     *

Here's how the Visions and Voices project worked: the Imagine Butte Resource Center invited local Montana visual artists and writers to contribute a single piece of art--painting, poem, sculpture, or whatever--and then each person could choose something from the opposite medium which inspired them.  It was the artistic equivalent of picking sides for dodge ball in junior high gym class, except it was much more pleasant.  I'd contributed a short-short story called "Arm" (mainly because it was the first piece of fiction I'd ever written about Butte, Montana) and now it was up to me to choose from among the visual works.

Christine's painting immediately spoke to me.  Back in June, I didn't have the broken, starving woman or the hawk hunched on a tree branch staring hungrily at her, but I had something.  Inspiration wasn't yet fully formed--it was still just a nibble at the back of my brain--but that's how stories begin, isn't it?  We feel the tiny bite of ideas and wait for the words to come.  Sometimes, it's a flood; and sometimes, it's a trickle that takes three months to fill the catch-basin.

Last night, during the monthly Uptown Butte Artwalk, my wife and I attended the reception for the Visions and Voices exhibit.  I was anxious to see how another artist (Christine Martin, the same person--either by coincidence or design--who'd painted my hawk) would interpret my somewhat bizarre story "Arm" and I wanted to see the hawk painting in person for the first time after months of staring at a blurry computer print-out.  "Fox Hawk: From the Lost Ornithology Series" was smaller than I'd imagined it would be, but also more beautiful with its earthy browns and golden sunburst.

"No One Gives a Shit About Butte, Montana"
(poem by Justin Ringsak, painting by Jenna Radowski)
As I walked around the gallery, I marveled at what had come from our artistic intercourse ("when words and paint make love").  It was only a three-month pregnancy, after all, and now just look at the fully-developed art we'd raised.

Christine's "Reliquary"--a glass jar containing a nest, dried leaves and a small jawbone--is not necessarily what I thought would have resulted from my story "Arm," but I'm sure she was thinking the same thing about my short fiction spawned by her "Fox Hawk."  The draft of the story I turned in was raw, imperfect and quickly-written, but it was how I interpreted the painting.

Maybe "Reliquary" illustrated the withered dreams of the two couples in "Arm," the dessicated hope of ever getting out of a relationship which seems to have trapped them in Butte, Montana.  I don't know--that's just my layman's interpretation of the glass jar full of dead things.  What matters most in this case is how Christine felt when reading "Arm."  Her vision and my voice ultimately began with emotion, which we brought to concrete life, put on display, then sat back and waited for the audience to come to the gallery and, perhaps, feel something else entirely.

This was a fascinating experiment in artistic interpretation and I'm honored to have been part of it.

*     *     *


In the end, it was just her and the hawk.

Marjean—broken leg, skin wooden from the cold, regrets logjamming her soul—leaned back against the boulder and tried to stare down the bird.  It was not working.  The hawk hunched on the pine branch unblinking, waiting its turn.

The bears, wolves, wolverines, chipmunks and beetles were just over the horizon.  They were coming.  But first, the hawk must have its dinner.

The wind fluffed its feathers, but the bird did not break its stare.

Before long, it would begin to work on her: small nips at first, then larger and larger bites, beak-scraping her skin until there was nothing left but a pile of bones and a gleaming, grinning skull whose only speech would now forever be the song-moan of wind through bone cavity.

The boulder felt good pressed against her back, like a granite La-Z-Boy.  Her only comfort in her final resting place.

Marjean looked down the hillside at the suitcase broken open, the money—what was left of it—fluttering in the wind like small green flags.  Marjean hiccupped another sob and went back over her list of If Onlys:

If only she’d never moved to Butte.  If only she’d never lost custody of her son and if only Gordon hadn’t been such a dick about it, draining her completely dry with lawyer fees.  If only she hadn’t been forced to go back to work—first at the Finlen, then at Pork Chop John’s, then at Wal-Mart, and on and on in an ever-downward spiral of jobs until broke-starving-desperate she’d hooked up with Skeever that one regrettable night in a squalid apartment at Silver Bow Homes.  If only she hadn’t liked it enough to stay.  If only Skeever, working his usual mindfuck, hadn’t convinced her to take the suitcase to Helena.  If only he hadn’t said, “Just this one time, baby.”  If only she hadn’t said yes.  If only she hadn’t passed that highway patrolman near Basin and, thinking he was U-turning in pursuit of her, stepped on the gas and sped faster and faster into the canyon.  If only she hadn’t looked in the rearview mirror—to see nothing was there after all—at just the wrong turn in the road.  If only that bend in the road had been less sharp.  If only the guardrail had been stronger.  If only the tires on Skeever’s never-reliable Chevy hadn’t slipped on the buttered gravel.  If only the car hadn’t tumbled through the guardrail and rolled like a log down the hill, scattering Marjean, suitcase and Skeever’s dope money every which way.  If only that bird hadn’t arrived so quickly, like it was summoned.  If only it would blink, godammit.

If only, if only, if only.

Marjean, life draining in a faster trickle now, looked from the money to the hawk and knew it was time.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Later, the hawk lifted first one foot then the other with a preparatory talon-flex.  It puffed its chest, spread its wings in a terrible feather-shake, rose into the air.  The hawk flew seven feet above the car, the body, the money-scatter.  It hovered there for seven seconds then the bird descended and began its terrible, beautiful work.

*     *     *


As I was going into Wal-Mart, a man with a useless arm came out.  I’d never seen anything like that arm—a dangle-flesh, rubbery thing with no purpose.  It was like this three-foot flaccid glove coming off his shoulder.  Made me stop where I was, halfway in the door, and turn to look.  Even made me go blank for why I was there in the first place.  Julie needed mozzarella and oregano and I’d planned on picking up more beer and Oreos, but after seeing that arm, everything on the list went out of my head.  Jules and her half-made lasagna were waiting for me back at the house and she was probably getting more and more pissed by the minute, but can you blame me, man?  That arm, that arm.

That arm demanded you look at it flapping and turning in the wind coming down off the mountains around Butte.  And I guess that was the point—stare at the arm and feel a little bad about doing so.  That arm could have raked in a lot of money if the dude had a bell and a kettle.

He was with a woman, gabbing to her about a movie he’d seen last night for the third time.  Or maybe they’d seen it together because she was nodding and saying, Yeah, yeah, yeah.  She clutched a Wal-Mart sack.  I could hear its loose edges snapping in the wind.  A bag of fragile potato chips pushed up, trying to escape past the plastic handles.

The man wasn’t carrying anything in his good hand except a cigarette, which he used to stab the air and make his point about Harrison Ford.  He was really into this movie, man, and I could tell it would be no fun to watch anything with this guy because you’d miss important lines of dialogue when he turned to talk to you in order to make his point, of which he had plenty.

Read the rest of the story at The Provo Canyon Review, where the story was originally published.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

For the past three months I've driven along Harrison Avenue here in Butte, Montana and scowled at the marquee for Carmike Cinema in the Butte Plaza Mall.  Even though I'm a die-hard movie fanatic, nothing I've seen advertised on that marquee has even so much as raised a blip on my pulse.  This has certainly been a lackluster blockbuster summer, hasn't it?  In fact, I don't think Jean and I have even been in a darkened theater since Memorial Day--which is pretty unusual for us.  This is Where I Leave You is the first movie to catch our mutual interest and make us pause-and-rewind as we skim through commercials on our TiVo.  Based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda, the movie (or at least the trailer) looks like a whip-smart middle-age-crisis romantic comedy.  Sure, it has an overabundance of boob, masturbation and impotence jokes--but I'm hoping the movie marketers just crowded all that junk into the trailer in order to sell it and that the rest of the movie is a little more reasonable and balanced.  Still, what we see in the preview is pretty damn funny.  Here's the plot description of Tropper's 2009 novel:
The death of Judd Foxman's father marks the first time that the entire Foxman clan has congregated in years. There is, however, one conspicuous absence: Judd's wife, Jen, whose affair with his radio shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public. Simultaneously mourning the demise of his father and his marriage, Judd joins his dysfunctional family as they reluctantly sit shiva and spend seven days and nights under the same roof. The week quickly spins out of control as longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed and old passions are reawakened.
From all appearances, the movie hews pretty close to the book.  I think it helps that Tropper himself wrote the screenplay and serves as one of the producers.  Here's how the novel opens:
      "Dad's dead," Wendy says offhandedly, like it's happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy. "He died two hours ago."
      "How's Mom doing?"
      "She's Mom, you know? She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner."
Finally, it looks like I have a reason to go back into the movie theater!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Fiction Begins Here: Fobbit in the Wild (as Captured by Intrepid Photographers & Assundry Passersby With Smartphones)

Logan Schulke and his family live across the street from me.  Logan is a ridiculously smart young man with an altruistic drive to improve his community; I often see him mowing neighbors' lawns and planting flowers at the local city-owned Clark Park here in Butte, Montana.  Logan and I have had a nodding acquaintance--mostly at neighborhood garage sales and Christmas parties--but it wasn't until after he graduated high school, flew halfway around the world and picked up a copy of Fobbit that we had a personal, one-on-one exchange.  He sent me this photo, along with the following Facebook message:

I was sitting in a rather small bookstore in southwest England when suddenly I saw a name I recognized on the wall. Amazing how small the world seems some days.

Indeed, Logan, indeed.  Just how shrunk-down that globe really is became apparent to me about a week before Fobbit was published when friends--Facebook and otherwise--started sending me photos of my debut novel spotted on their local bookstore's shelves, or on the selfie-end of a camera.  Since today marks the two-year anniversary of the book's official launch at Fact and Fiction Books in Missoula, Montana, I thought I'd take a selfish moment and share some of my favorite photos submitted to me over the past 24 months.  I'll keep saying it 'til my mouth runs dry and my tongue falls out: "THANK YOU to everyone who has taken the time to buy and/or read my dark little comedy about the Iraq War.  You have made me the happiest and luckiest guy on the globe."

At The Strand in New York City.

Ann B. in Scotland was one of my first international readers.

Staff Sergeant Graham was brave enough to flash his Fobbit on an Army post.

Tracy in Richmond Hill, Georgia needed a little wine
to help her get through the book.
I'm totally cool with that.

Mystery novelist Robert K. Lewis (Critical Damage) sent his Fobbit portrait in noir-soaked B&W.

At the esteemed Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Kentucky.

Matthew sent proof that Fobbit is alive and well in Hawaii.

Dear friend Robyn sent this from Australia.
You can't see it, but she has a Vegemite sandwich in her back pocket.

Bozeman (Montana) friend Angela snapped this picture shortly before
my appearance at Tattered Cover in Denver.

The filling in a Hunger Games/Mindy Kaling sandwich, courtesy of
Joshilyn Jackson (Someone Else's Love Story).
I've always been fond of the number 15.

I still can't believe Fobbit beat out Legends of the Fall
in the Great Falls (Montana) Books and Brews Book Club vote.
Thanks, gents!  (And better luck next time, Jim...)

In which young Atticus asks, "Daddy, what's an f-bomb?"
(This is still one of my favorite Fobbit photos)

Sally C. snapped this at, of all places, a Kinko's.
I've always counted on the Tolkien spillover
from the ignorant and/or near-sighted to boost my sales.

Earlier this year at the Waterstones in Norwich, England.

Jayme, a dear friend from high school, took Fobbit on a sightseeing tour of NYC.
Like this....


....and the other.

Fobbit photobombs a Michael Chabon reading at Powell's.

Double the Fobbit at Politics and Prose,
taken by Priscille Sibley (The Promise of Stardust).

Still life on my parents' coffee table, along with Fire and Forget
(which contains one of my short stories) and the omnipresent bowl of hard candies.

And, finally, I'll leave you with this shot of my son posing with Fobbit in the Savannah, Georgia Barnes & Noble two weeks after its release:

(If anyone else out there would like to see their Fobbit in the Wild photo on this page, email it to me and I'll update accordingly.)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Call of the Wild: Through Glacier Park and Tenting To-night by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The lure of the high places is in your blood.  The call of the mountains is a real call.  The veneer, after all, is so thin.  Throw off the impedimenta of civilization, the telephones, the silly conventions, the lies that pass for truth.  Go out to the West.  Ride slowly, not to startle the wild things.  Throw out your chest and breathe; look across green valleys to wild peaks where mountain sheep stand impassive on the edge of space.  Let the summer rains fall on your upturned face and wash away the memory of all that is false and petty and cruel.  Then the mountains will get you.  You will go back.  The call is a real call.

Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote those words in Through Glacier Park, first published in 1916.  Those of you who are aficionados of vintage mystery literature may not readily associate Rinehart with the high, thin, bracing air of Montana's Rocky Mountains.  "Isn't she the one who wrote The Bat and The Circular Staircase?" you ask.  Yes, she is.  The author of more than fifty books--including the classic mystery The Door, which is said to have inspired the phrase "the butler did it"--Rinehart was also an intrepid adventurer and prolific journalist.  She traveled to the front-line trenches of World War I Belgium and, in 1916 and 1918 (Tenting To-night), she wrote about her visit to Montana's crown jewel, Glacier, which was still in its first decade of national parkhood.

She traveled on horseback with a party of 42 others, some of them city slickers--the sort, she wrote, who "must have fresh cream in its coffee, and its steak rare, and puts its hair up in curlers at night, and likes to talk gossip in great empty places"--and others who were "cowboys in chaps and jingling spurs; timorous women, who eyed rather askance the blue and purple mountains back of the hotel; automobile tourists, partly curious and partly envious; the inevitable photographer, for whom we lined up in a semicircle, each one trying to look as if starting off on such a trip was one of the easiest things we did; and over all the bright sun, a breeze from the mountains, and a sense of such exhilaration as only altitude and the West can bring."  Artist Charles M. Russell was also along for the ride, famously spinning yarns around the campfire each night.

The 1915 party
Through Glacier Park is, like the very air of the park, bracing and exhilarating in its descriptions of high-mountain meadows, plashing streams, and diamond-sharp peaks.  It is, on occasion, also very funny:
There is only one thing to do if a bear takes a sudden dislike to one. It is useless to climb or to run. Go toward it and try kindness. Ask about the children, in a carefully restrained tone. Make the Indian sign that you are a friend. If you have a sandwich about you, proffer it. Then, while the bear is staring at you in amazement, turn and walk quietly away.

Upper Two Medicine Lake
Rinehart opens the first chapter of Through Glacier Park with these paragraphs:
      This is about a three-hundred mile trip across the Rocky Mountains on horseback with Howard Eaton. It is about fishing, and cool nights around a camp-fire, and long days on the trail. It is about a party of all sorts, from everywhere, of men and women, old and young, experienced folk and novices, who had yielded to a desire to belong to the sportsmen of the road. And it is by way of being advice also. Your true convert must always preach.
      If you are normal and philosophical; if you love your country; if you like bacon, or will eat it anyhow; if you are willing to learn how little you count in the eternal scheme of things; if you are prepared, for the first day or two, to be able to locate every muscle in your body and a few extra ones that seem to have crept in and are crowding, go ride in the Rocky Mountains and save your soul.
Dawson Pass
This Labor Day weekend, my wife and I hope to find some Glacier Park salvation.  For the last six months, we have been diligently laboring--me at my full-time Day Job, she almost single-handedly running The Backyard Bungalow here in Butte, Montana--and we've really only had one proper day off each week: Sunday, which is too often consumed with mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or rearranging the furniture at The Backyard Bungalow.  It's time we heeded Glacier Park's call.

I'll be heading north with Rinehart's two books in hand.  Because we're limited to one all-too-brief day of hiking along what Rinehart called "trails of a beauty to make you gasp," we won't exactly retrace her steps (or, more accurately, hoofbeats); but we hope to find that same refreshing call of the high places.

Cities call–I have heard them. But there is no voice in all the world so insistent to me as the wordless call of the Rockies. I shall go back. Those who go once always hope to go back. The lure of the great free spaces is in their blood.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Soup and Salad: Special "I've Got You Covered" Edition

On today's menu....I thought I'd depart from the usual potpourri of book-world news and bring you a special edition devoted to cover designs.  Because everyone likes a menu with lots of pictures, right?

1.  The consistently-wonderful Causal Optimist blog has rounded up some recent book cover designs from the U.S. and other countries which feature maps (and a couple of floor plans).  My favorites from the collection include The Coat Route by Meg Lukens Noonan (designed by Allison Colpoys), The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom (designed by Jo Walker), and The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World's Purest, Deepest Snowfall by Charlie English (cover art by Mike Topping).  The latter is a 2009 book I'd never heard of, but would probably pick up regardless of the cover design because, frankly, I love snow.

2.  Earlier this month, The Casual Optimist rounded up "Book Covers of Note" for August.  My raves and faves included H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (cover art by Christopher Wormell) and A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor (design by Richard Ljoenes).

3.  At The Huffington Post, designer Charlotte Strick describes the many rejected cover designs for Lydia Davis' new collection of short stories Can't and Won't.  Early in the process, Strick fixated on the longest story, "The Cows."  At first, she and illustrator Ariana Nehmad tried several different bovine-heavy designs, including these two (which I rather like, actually):

"These early sketches look so fussy to me now," she writes, "though Ariana’s painting style is simple and sophisticated and the color would be just as limited in the final jacket design.  That 'final' design was actually one of my very first ideas, scribbled in a notepad, but instead of working it out I’d been seduced by Davis’s bovine neighbors and lost my way.  Often you need to build a jacket design till it’s dense with ideas–then find the time, will and clarity to strip, strip, strip away.  Lydia’s writing is that stripped down too, and to get a design right for her work I need to remind myself of this."  In the end, nothing but words were left on the cover:

4.  At Amazon's Omnivoracious blog, designer Chip Kidd talks about how he was influenced by these sentences from Haruki Murakami's new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: “You know, in a sense we were the perfect combination, the five of us.  Like five fingers.”  And so Kidd came up with this colorful design using "finger windows" cut into the jacket.  I've got Colorless Tsukuru on order at Books and Books here in Butte and hope to have it, ahem, in hand tomorrow.

5.  When I posted Penguin's cover for a re-issue of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on my Facebook page, the response was pretty strong: howls of protest and vomiting in the aisles.  My social media followers weren't the only ones with a violent reaction ("You're destroying my childhood!").

I was under the mistaken impression that this apparent depiction of Violet Beauregarde would be one of a series of designs highlighting different characters from the book (which is, admittedly, darker and creepier than our golden-nostalgia memories want us to believe).  Knowing this is the only cover for the re-issue, however, I too am vomiting and howling.  The wrong-headed cover led The Guardian to post its candidates for "Worst Book Covers Ever."  Do you agree with their lineup of five design criminals?

6.  I leave you with Flavorwire's "20 YA Book Covers That Are Actually Gorgeous."  I'm in lurve with The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumire (cover art by Fernando Juarez), The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma (cover photograph by Elena Kalis; art direction & design by Linda McCarthy), Hourglass by Myra McEntire and Jackaby by William Ritter (design by jdrift designs).