Monday, April 30, 2012

My First Time: Debra Spark

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 Debra Spark, author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception, which has just been published by Four Way Books.  She is also the author of the novels Coconuts for the Saint, The Ghost of Bridgetown and Good for the Jews.  She edited the best-selling anthology 20 Under 30: Best Stories By America's New Young Writers.  Her popular lectures on writing are collected in Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction WritingSpark has also written for Esquire, Ploughshares, The New York Times, Food and Wine, Yankee, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other places.  She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Bunting Institute fellowship from Radcliffe College, and the John Zacharis/Ploughshares award for best first book.  She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.  Visit her website here.

My First Story Publication

 When women sit around and share the stories of their children’s births, I always think that I got off easy.  Week-long labors?  Vows to off your husband?  Pain, the sort of pain the dead know all too well, but the living largely experience only if they’ve passed a kidney stone?  Nope.  I have the least traumatic birth story there is.  To wit:  an emergency C-section.  I’d been told I needed to have one if my water broke.  One second I was standing in the bathroom, thinking, “Wow.  This is weird,” as bizarre fluid flushed itself out of my body.  Two hours later, I had me a baby.  Of course, a C-section hurts, but I think it hurts a lot more if you’ve labored for 14 hours before you get one.  I never even had a contraction.  Just surgery (ouch!), distress in the lower tract (uck!), and I was up and about.

So it was with my first story publication.  I got really, really lucky.  Pain, minimal.  And then I had me a baby.

I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right after college.  Back then, in preparation for the weekly workshop, the office staff Xeroxed the student stories that were to be discussed.  Then those stories were placed on a shelf outside the Workshop’s administrative offices, so students could read the work before class.  When it was time for me to have my first story discussed, I was sick with nerves.  I was convinced I was an admissions mistake and that soon someone would discover the error.  Even though others confessed they had the same fear, I was not comforted.  My anxiety was so high that I actually considered stealing the copies of my story off the shelf.  What would happen then?  Would I drop out of school?  I hadn’t thought beyond theft.  Everyone else in my workshop class was so accomplished!  One man had a book already accepted for publication.  Another women had just had a story in Playboy.  Several others were publishing in women’s magazines or literary journals.  I’d never published anything, not even in my college literary magazine.

My workshop teacher was Rust Hills, then the long-time fiction editor of Esquire.  I understood, from the older students, that Hills was a big deal.  I would have thought so anyway simply by virtue of his title and the fact that he was my teacher, but they impressed upon me the importance of his books and anthologies as well.  One of his books had the subtitle “Revelations of a Fussy Man.”  Hills knew all the literary lights, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and had strong opinions.  A fussy man indeed, but not in a prim way.  More in a hard-drinking Esquire man of the 1950s way.

People routinely had a drink before their workshop.  The experience was deemed to be so terrible that fortification was needed.  People didn’t drink alone though.  Two people were discussed at each class session, so those two normally bought each other a drink.  When my time came, I went with a student of whom I was already intimidated.  She was quite beautiful, and I supposed dozens of men were in love with her.  She smoked a lot and clicked her retro purse shut in a way that struck me as Hollywood glamorous.  She was a good writer, but things did not go well for her story when we got to class.  But then they hadn’t gone well for anyone so far.  In general, Hills was dismissive of our class’s efforts.  Later, in the semester, a man would actually start to weep when his story was discussed.

The tenor of the class changed, though, when it was time for my story.  For the first time, a student got praise in class.  Hills spoke of my story in completely glowing terms.  My classmates’ didn’t feel as he did, but I think they modulated their criticism in light of his opinions.  When class was over, I left the room--it is amazing I got through the doorway, my head having swollen to the size of a beach ball--and I thought I heard Hills say something about buying my story for Esquire.

But that couldn’t be right.  I must have misheard.

There was always a gathering at the bar after the workshop, and though I was not at all a drinker in those days, I remember getting a little drunk, and then going home to read the student comments on my story.  One man had written, “Rust is going to buy your story for Esquire.”  So maybe I hadn’t misheard?  But surely I would know if an offer had been made?  I called my parents, thrilled by what I suspected, but wasn’t quite sure was happening.

It turned out I wasn’t confused. Rust did want to buy my story for the magazine.  And more than that, he wanted to buy it for the summer fiction issue, which meant my name would appear on the cover of the magazine alongside the names of the other writers who had stories in the issue: John Updike, Ann Beattie, Jayne Anne Phillips, Kurt Vonnegut, Peter Matthieson, William Styron, Robert Stone, and Alice Walker.

Talk about getting out of the starting gate fast.

And there was more.

Bruce Davidson, a photographer whom I had always greatly admired was slated to take pictures of all the authors, so he flew out to Iowa and spent a day with me.  Later, while in New York seeing family, I went to the offices of Esquire and met Tom Jenks, the magazine’s associate fiction editor.  At the time, I had the idea of putting together an anthology of short stories by writers under thirty.  I asked if he had any names he could suggest.  He did, and he also had a name for an agent whom he thought should represent me.  Some months later, Tom moved from Esquire to Scribner’s, and he called my agent to ask if he could publish my anthology.

So my first story publication quickly became my first book publication.

I was 24 when the book came out.  I had one of the best agents in New York.  The New Yorker actually wrote me back then and asked me to submit work.  When I did send stories, I got long detailed responses.  Editors called my agent, asking for a novel from me.

Only I didn’t know how to write.

That story I wrote for Esquire was the first story I ever really completed.  I had all the attention a writer could want, and no polished work to offer up.  I knew that as an older woman I would regret the fact that I couldn’t take advantage of all the interest.  And now that I am 49, I am right.  The New Yorker certainly isn’t ringing me up now!  Only what could I have done?  I wasn’t ready for the attention.  Still, if I hadn’t had the attention, I wouldn’t have had the career that I have had, since I did manage to go from the early success to literary magazine publications and a fellowship.  Later to teaching jobs and a first novel, though that first novel had to wait till I was in my early 30s.  Now I am about to publish my sixth book, a story collection called The Pretty Girl.  So perhaps my first publication was “too” big, in a manner of speaking, but it was what set me on my way.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Freebie: Boleto by Alyson Hagy

Congratulations to Brian Smith, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, Dust to Dust: A Memoir by Benjamin Busch.

This week's book giveaway is Boleto by Alyson Hagy which will be released by Graywolf Press in two weeks.  Through the generosity of the publisher, five lucky readers will win a copy of the book.  I'm especially pleased to be able to offer Alyson's novel to Quivering Pen readers because I've long been a fan of her writing.  This new novel is about Will Testerman, a young horse trainer in Wyoming who is making his way in the world as best he can.  Here's how the publisher describes the plot in the jacket copy: "Money is tight at the family ranch, where Will is living again after a disastrous end to his job on the Texas show-horse circuit.  He sees his chance with a beautiful quarter horse, a filly that might earn him a reputation, and spends his savings to buy her.  Armed with stories and the confidence of youth, he devotes himself to her training -- first, in the familiar barns and corrals of home, then on a guest ranch in the rugged Absaroka mountains, and, in the final trial, on the glittering, treacherous polo fields of southern California."  As with any of Hagy's novels or short stories, Boleto is about much more than horse whispering or hard-luck ranching; it's about finding the heart of people on the wide landscape of the West.  Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a "beautiful tale of redemption and perseverance....In measured, textured prose, Hagy finesses the nuances of equestrian life, from the knowing twitch of the filly's ears to Will naming his horse 'Boleto' ('ticket'), signifying his hoped for success.  Joining such resonant talents as Annie Proulx and Kent Haruf, Hagy is fast becoming a recognizable author of the American West."

Hagy writes in a stripped-down, direct style which helps readers cut straight to the core of the story.  Just take a look at these paragraphs from the opening chapter of Boleto:
      His name was William Testerman, and he was twenty-three years old. There were days he felt older. And days he felt as lost as a blind pup. His parents had raised him in a way that allowed him to take account of the weaknesses he might find within himself. His older brothers, Everett and Chad, had managed to cover the bases on the family ranch. It was a small place, just ninety deeded acres set along one side of Little Kettle Creek. The town of Lost Cabin, Wyoming, had grown right up to the edge of the ranch, and the town was growing still. It was his father's joke to refer to the hay meadows and corrals he owned as the Lost Cabin Municipal Golf Course.
      Town is eating its way right past us, his father said. When I was a kid, you couldn't pay people to live in this part of the state. Too cold. Too much isolation. Now everybody in America thinks they're in love with fresh air and loneliness.

If you'd like a chance at winning one of five copies of Boleto, all you have to do is answer this question:

Where was Alyson Hagy raised?  (Hint: read this Publishers Weekly article about her)

Email your answer to

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 May 3--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on May 4.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done either or both of those, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"The Bones" by Henning Koch (Pt. 8)

This is the eighth of nine installments of "The Bones," the serialized novella which acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Henning Koch has made available exclusively to The Quivering Pen. "The Bones" is a story about America's decline into a wasteland where crude oil serves as currency and violence rules the landscape--sort of like Mad Max: The Exxon Years. Koch calls the novella "an oil-based scenario of future social decay" and it's easy to see the frightening trend he predicts for our society. Click these links to read the earlier installments of "The Bones": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

The Bones


After her first sighting she did not see them any more. The bone men, or people, or whatever she should call them, kept out of view and did not give themselves away.

As they climbed into the mountain, more mountains came into view, and she realised this must be a whole chain, a system of peaks and troughs and valleys.

They walked up a dry river-bed; camped in it, slept; continued. As they went, they noticed more and more grass, bushes, cacti.

Wyre was clenched and tense, constantly regretting leaving his gun behind. That gun could have been an important survival tool.

And when they suddenly heard running water and went round a bend and saw bushes and even a few trees growing alongside a spring that came gushing out of the ground, he turned to Henrietta and said: “I told you there’d be game.”

She ignored him and ran forward, submerging her face in the cold water and drinking!

Without quickening his steps he joined her, sinking to his knees and cupping his hands in the clear water.

He stood up, touched one of the leaves on the trees, a certain wonder evident in his voice. “Alder!” he said. “Good wood.”

They continued, and as they went round the next bend they both stopped in amazement. The river-valley was steep and narrow, but the entire floor was covered in trees and vegetation.

After all their exertions and thirst and loneliness in the huge wasteland, they grabbed each other’s arms and stood there overwhelmed on the threshold. That’s when they saw the bone people all round them; tall, slender, motionless. Their bodies were decorated with beads and shells and wooden seeds. The men were at the front, with spears and bows. The women stood behind them, their breasts hanging free; some held children in their arms or in slings on their backs.

Henrietta looked at their faces: some were gnarled and old and haunted. Some were young and fresh and ready for childbirth. Some were hard, some were soft.

The bone people were people, just like Oilers or anyone else.

But none of them moved. None of them betrayed the slightest intention of any kind. She did not know if they wanted to embrace or feed her, kill or starve her.

And then it dawned on her that they had not decided.


As Arty drove, and the desert took him into its bosom, his spirits rose; he realised that in fact he was seeking out Wyre not to kill him, perhaps, but clear up a few things between them, things that had built up over a lifetime. If Wyre was reasonable about it and said sorry, Arty would take it in good spirit; not bury the hatchet in his head.

Clarity was good. Oilers did not dwell on things, they said their piece and if there was anything still rankling, did what had to be done.

If you had to resort to violence, so be it. There was no room for remorse, certain things just had to be done. 

The constant grinding up and sliding down the sand dunes cleared his mind, and he told himself he was enjoying this; realizing with a jolt of annoyance that Wyre had again figured out something before he’d even thought about it. This desert, which he’d avoided all his life, was a place to come when you wanted to be free of the pernicious presence of other humans.

His vehicle was a recent acquisition. He had air conditioning in there, and a cooler between the seats, which he’d packed with Cola and beer. He was also carrying close to three hundred liters of fuel and the same amount of water – he even had a small bunk in the back, with an electric heater for the nights, so he figured whatever happened he’d be fine. He’d sleep well. And if anyone came bothering him in the hours of darkness, he also had a heavy-bore shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, a couple of stun grenades, infra-red night vision binoculars – all locked in a gun cupboard which he’d got Scot to bolt into the wall beside his little kitchenette.

Basically, he was set up for anything other than an aerial bombardment.

And thus when he made his first camp that day, he enjoyed getting out a slab of frozen beef and putting it in the microwave, stirring up some mashed potato from a sachet of powder, and adding plenty of butter and chopped parsley.

He didn’t leave the vehicle after darkness had fallen and kept the doors closed. If there was any truth in this bone people bullshit he wasn’t going to take any chances. He slept snug as a wintering larva in his bunk, rising just before dawn and continuing on his way. Satellite navigation systems did not work anymore, things like that were all broken nowadays thanks to the world banking crisis. But at least he had the old map, which he’d glued down on a piece of stiff plasticized board; he’d taken a reading from the tracks he’d seen a few days earlier, leading away from Wyre’s house. And he had a compass on the dashboard, so that at any moment he could turn round and keep going in a straight line until he hit the road, running south-west to north-east. 

Most likely he’d find no one out here.

He’d drive around for a few days, then come home, satisfied at least that he’d tried his best.  

After a few weeks he’d head out again, he’d never give up until he found them, dead or alive. The most likely thing, Arty knew, was that he’d chance on their vehicle somewhere, abandoned and half-buried. And then, thirty or forty or fifty kilometers further on, a couple of mummified corpses in the sand. He’d take ’em back and put ’em in the cemetery, Wyre would be all alone there, alone in death as he’d been in life. As for the journalist…whether she deserved to have her final resting place in Oil Town was a matter for debate; some might argue that her bones should be tossed away somewhere by the side of the road.

Of course, if he found ’em alive it would be a much trickier matter. By experience, Arty knew he might be sorely tempted to dispatch them both at a distance, without any words or eye contact. His assault rifle could take out a man at eighteen hundred metres, accurately if there was no wind.

Justice should be like this, swift and instant.

A few of his workers had been dealt with in this way, on a few occasions; untrustworthy types who’d helped themselves to his things, or sold oil behind his back for personal gain.

On the third day, in the evening, Arty started seeing wild camel critters more or less at the same time as he spotted the mountains on the horizon. 

He took a reading and wrote down their position, so that he’d be able to come back one day with more people and explore the place with better security.

After parking up and frying himself a steak, Arty put a folding chair in the sand and amused himself by shooting a couple of camels. He concentrated on the calves, ’cuz as everyone knows young meat is always better than old. But in practice, after hacking off a haunch of one of them, he couldn’t be bothered to skin the thing or wash off the gore, so in the end he just rinsed his hands and let the dead critters lie where they’d fallen.    

The next day when he awoke he had a sense of urgency about him; and he drove without even breakfasting towards the mountains, hitting seventy-five miles an hour at one point and jumping the dunes almost as if he was driving a sand-buggy and not a three-ton truck. He slowed down after the first mighty jolt, however—he didn’t want to deal with a broken wheel-axle out here. 

Before he knew it, he was driving into a gorge with steep bastions rising up on either side.

He saw Wyre’s camels grazing on some light scrub – he recognized them by their hobbled legs. Something about their long, stupid legs annoyed him, bringing back all his resentment about Wyre’s strange ways. He wasted no more time on it. Took up his rifle and put a bullet through each of the dumb animals’ skulls. They went down like fucking tree trunks – apple tree trunks! – and he knew that from now on, his mission was to hunt Wyre down and obliterate him.

As he stood there feeling his painful broken toe, he made a personal resolution to go back to Wyre’s house and demolish the foundations properly, then rake over the ground with a tractor and plant something there – cactus trees, perhaps? Something to cover up the remains of the dwelling from where so much bad shit had come.

His resolution clarified his thinking. When he found Wyre’s old rusty crate hidden under an overhang, he doused it in petrol and put a match to it. As he stepped back, Arty realised with some satisfaction that even if he did not find Wyre and the bitch, they would be stranded here with nothing to eat or drink and no transportation to get ’em back to civilization.

The car was burning really well and Arty had let his gloating get the better of him. When it blew, he was standing way too close. Even worse, the fucking prick had left his ammo inside and a couple of bullets whizzed past, one of them narrowly missing Arty’s head. Fuck!  

After making his preparations, rinsing his stitched-up ears with surgical spirit and tightening the bandage on his broken toe – Arty took his rifle and a few other items and headed up the slope. Cunts like Wyre shouldn’t be allowed to live. No doubt about it, when he saw his crooked back toiling away on some godforsaken slope, heading god-knew-where to do fuck-knew what, he’d take aim and pull the trigger. The only thing bothering Arty was that after Wyre had gone, he wouldn’t be able to follow him any more – even though his revenge was incomplete and always would be. In cases where a dead man crosses over to the other side and a living man wants to stay with him and keep the conversation going, there’s a problem.

No one through the entire history of the world had ever learned how to deal with the other side.  

Which bothered Arty a good deal. Because when all was said and done, Wyre was at least very good entertainment.

Henning Koch's writing started with screenplays.  Between 2002 and 2007, he worked as a translator and dramaturge for Yellow Bird Films, makers of Henning Mankell's Wallander series for television/cinema in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK.  In 2005, Koch moved to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where he spent three years writing the short story collection Love Doesn't Work and the novel The Maggot People (forthcoming in September from Dzanc Books).  Follow him on Twitter: @henningkoch

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Book Radar: J. K. Rowling, Junot Diaz, William T. Vollmann, Aryn Kyle, Herman Wouk, and Erik Larson

Book Radar rounds up some of the latest publishing deals which have caught my eye, gathered from reports at Publishers Marketplace, Galley Cat, office water-coolers and other places where hands are shaken and promises are made.  As with anything in the fickle publishing industry, dates and titles are subject to change.

By now, you’ve no doubt heard the news that J. K. Rowling will be coming out with her first adult novel (perhaps you’ve also heard that chewing gum you like is coming back into style).  The Casual Vacancy is a “blackly comic” tale about an idyllic town ripped apart by a parish council election.  The 480-page book will be set in Pagford, a dreamy spot with a cobbled market square and ancient abbey which becomes a town at war with itself.  I never made it through the Harry Potter books (and barely survived the Potter movies), but The Casual Vacancy actually sounds like something I’d pick up and spend a few hours with (tea and scones close at hand, of course).  The novel will appear in late September.

Junot Diaz also has a new book of fiction coming out this Fall.  His new story collection This Is How You Lose Her, “about the heartbreak and radiance that is love,” will be published by Riverhead on September 11.  Diaz hasn’t published a book since winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008, so his fans are pretty thirsty for his words. Here’s what Riverhead had to say in its press release:
 [The stories] capture the heat of new passion, the recklessness with which we betray what we most treasure, and the torture we go through – “the begging, the crawling over glass, the crying” – to try to mend what we’ve broken beyond repair. They recall the echoes that intimacy leaves behind, even where we thought we did not care. They teach us the catechism of affections: that the faithlessness of the fathers is visited upon the children; that what we do unto our exes is inevitably done in turn unto us; and that loving thy neighbor as thyself is a commandment more safely honored on platonic than erotic terms. Most of all, these stories remind us that the habit of passion always triumphs over experience, and that “love, when it hits us for real, has a half-life of forever.”

It’s been seven years since his last novel--the National Book Award winner Europe Central--but now it appears William T. Vollmann has two forthcoming works of fiction: Last Stories, a collection of “ghost” stories: supernatural, metaphysical, and psychological tales about love, death, and the erotic, set all over this world and the next; and The Dying Grass, the next novel in his “Seven Dreams” series, which also includes The Rifles, The Ice-Shirt, and Argall.  According to my Publishers Lunch email, The Dying Grass explores “the clash between Native Americans and White settlers, [and is] set during the Nez Perce War of 1877 with flashbacks to the Civil War.”  This is a reminder to me that I need to crack open those other Vollmann “Dreams.”

Here's another deal that pinged sharply on my radar screen: a new novel by Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals.  Publishers Lunch says Hinterland is “the story of a turbulent platonic friendship between a married father and the gifted, troubled, charismatic woman he's known since college, and how her sudden death--one he feels he should have saved her from--changes the course of his life and that of his family: a story of friendship and family, obsession and devotion, failure and forgiveness, and love.”  If that sounds a little canned and cliche, consider the strength of the opening line of The God of Animals, her debut novel: Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy.  I have no doubt Kyle can pull off a terrific narrative with verve and energy.

And here’s the most heartwarming, encouraging deal on my Book Radar: 96-year-old novelist Herman Wouk has sold his latest novel to Simon & Schuster.  The Lawgiver follows the production of a movie about Moses through “letters, memos, emails, journals, news articles, recorded talk, tweets, Skype transcripts, and text messages” sent between characters.  Publication is set for the fall.  It’s nice to see the The Winds of War author is still going strong.

And, finally, for all you fans of Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City), you’ll be happy to hear he’s got another narrative history on the way.  Sea of Secrets is “a fresh take on the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, which heightened tensions between the US and Germany and helped sway American public opinion in favor of entering the war."  Looks like you’ll have to wait a while, though--the New York Times says its tentative publication date is 2015.

"The Bones" by Henning Koch (Pt. 7)

This is the seventh of nine installments of "The Bones," the serialized novella which acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Henning Koch has made available exclusively to The Quivering Pen. "The Bones" is a story about America's decline into a wasteland where crude oil serves as currency and violence rules the landscape--sort of like Mad Max: The Exxon Years. Koch calls the novella "an oil-based scenario of future social decay" and it's easy to see the frightening trend he predicts for our society. Click these links to read the earlier installments of "The Bones": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

The Bones


Like many fighters who come out on top, Arty Simpleton began to realize after a few days that his total victory over his old rival had left him empty. An important flavor had passed out of Arty’s existence, like running out of salt or having no milk in his coffee. He dreamed about him once or twice and saw the face of Daisy Lopez, which, after more than thirty years, came as a shock to his system. She hadn’t changed at all, the dream brought it all back like a television replay. Arty had to admit Daisy would probably laugh if she saw him now, big and bloated. She wore a yellow cotton drop-halter dress and she didn’t need no lipstick, she had such a cute smile and her words came tumbling out of her mouth quicker than Arty or Wyre could think of replies.  

They had climbed the rocks just north of Oil Town, and they were standing there looking out over the desert which, from this vantage point almost thirty metres off the ground, was like standing on the bridge of a huge ship. The dunes, like enormous ocean swells, reached to the horizon and beyond.

Wyre, of course, had to impress. He said: “One day I’ll have a camel and I’ll ride out there like an Arab, to the other side.”

Daisy shook her head impatiently. “I just want to get to the other side, and when I get there I want to sit in my uncle’s back yard under his grapevines and eat a big juicy melon straight from his refrigerator. And then I’ll go to college and one day I’ll live in Mexico City and have my own car, and when I go to work I’ll wear a chalk-grey suit and a pink Hermes scarf and very pointy high-heel Guccis!” It sounded impressive until they looked at her and realised she was young and stupid like them; more likely she’d end up living in a caravan with one of the drill-operators; and that’s why the boys grew heated when they saw her, because they saw an opportunity. Arty thought he might buy her some Gushy shoes or whatever; Wyre felt he could turn her on to camel-riding and then one day they’d have four children, all named after the month when they were born: May, Julia, August and Janus.    

Arty, even then, was drawn to simpler truths. He nodded at some high spruce trees growing below the precipice, the tops of their crowns reaching up to perhaps fifteen or twenty foot below where they were standing. “I bet you I can jump from here and grab a branch and hang there like a damn wild turkey!” he said.

“I bet you won’t!” said Wyre.

Arty turned to Daisy and took her hand. “First I have to tell you something. If I die, please remember, I love you Daisy Lopez and that’s all I got to say.” She blushed.

Wyre felt outsmarted. He could hardly grab her hand and tell her: “I love you, too!”

So he just stood there, burning with resentment.

“I don’t see the connection with jumping into a tree,” said Daisy sharply. “If I were you I wouldn’t jump for the sake of it, you might survive and end up in a wheelchair an’ what’s the stupid use of that?”

“I said I’ll do it, now I have to do it!” said Arty and without thinking about it anymore, took a run and threw himself off the edge.          

It was much higher than it looked and the tree was not as soft as he’d anticipated; he near enough broke his arm hanging onto a branch; and then swayed there like a rotten fruit, crowing at his friends: “See?! I told you I’d do it.”

He looked up and saw Wyre and Daisy standing there staring at him, on the edge of the ravine. Wyre had grabbed Daisy’s hand and she didn’t push him away. She just looked at Arty and then called out: “Arty, jumping off a cliff is just craziness and you can’t ask a girl to love you for it!”

She was probably right, he probably was crazy, but that was the great thing about him – his craziness, his willingness to sacrifice. He stayed where he was, hanging on and wondering what the hell had possessed him.

By the time he’d shinnied down the long, rough tree trunk and stood with trembling legs on the ground, Arty knew he’d lost Daisy Lopez – although of course you can only lose something if you have it in the first place and he’d never had Daisy Lopez; in fact the thing he’d lost was the possibility of her.

“I’m too sincere about things!” he told himself. “I’m too fucking sincere and people hold it against me!”

After that, the two boys were no longer friends. Both were the sons of Oilers and they instinctively understood the notion of having a problem with a man and never speaking to him again for as long as you lived – apart from a few fistfights on assorted Saturday nights.   

Wyre moved on to better things; he hassled his grandfather to give him a camel; and when he got it, he exercised on the dunes as a provocation to the other boys. 
A few times Arty saw him riding about on it, one time he saw Wyre riding with Daisy – that was the moment he decided he’d get even with Wyre.

A few months later, Daisy took a bus to Mexico and they never saw her again. The boys were just sixteen years old, but the day Daisy walked down the main street in her yellow dress and a small suitcase in her hand, and climbed into a Greyhound, the boys were both there to wave her off.

Daisy was a sweet person, she said her goodbyes and waved at both of them; but Arty fancied there was some extra warmth in her eye when she looked at Wyre, because he’d turned her against him. When the bus drove off pursued by a cloud of dust, which was the wailing heart of Oil Town reluctant to let anyone go, Arty knew all his hopes and his heart were packed up in that small leather suitcase in Daisy Lopez’s hand. She’d taken all the good things with her to Mexico City, and as she progressed through life, a better, brighter happier Arty would stay at her side like a ghost – meaning that Arty Simpleton of Oil Town was a shadow of his better self. But his better self did not exist – had never existed. His better self was still Wyre’s friend, that was another truth he found unpalatable, bitter to the taste like a plate of rancid olives.  

The rest of his life would be a mechanism of regret. He was sure of it.      

Later, when he was a few years older and the spruce trees by the cliff had been cut down, he persuaded Wyre after a long night of drinking to come along on a wild night of joyriding “for the sake of old times…”

There had been a terrible inevitability to the whole thing, and now that the dream had brought everything back with such sharp clarity, it acted on his memory.

He started addressing long monologues to Wyre – while at his breakfast table or on his way down to the pump jacks in the mornings. The worms and hands of Navel Grange noticed the change in him. Either he was vague and distant, or they felt an abrupt edge to him that had not been there before.

Even Carmen noticed something wrong. He didn’t come over this past Sunday, for one thing, and then when she did see him he walked past without so much as a hello. But she saw his face crumple up with anger and heard him say, quite clearly, through clenched teeth: “You sly bastard, what did you expect?” before disappearing out of view. At first she thought he’d been cursing at her, then realised he was addressing the most powerful enemy of all – the enemy inside. Although, to be more specific, she had a strong suspicion he was talking about Wyre, because everyone was talking about Wyre, and some of the locals had even said they ought to send out search parties for him; ’cuz a man could not just drive off like that and be allowed to die like a wild animal in the desert. The workers were saying it – but the lily-livered Oilers weren’t saying a goddamn thing, they didn’t want to go against Arty. Three times a week they assembled in the evening outside the main house at Navel Grange and stood there mumbling with their guns, waiting for Arty to come out. And when he did come out it was like watching a globule of slime dripping through a hole; he emerged and stood on his porch, stretching and yawning and throwing his rifle on his shoulder.

A few days after burning down Wyre’s house, he came out and said to them: “What’s the fucking use of this? Who’s going to be such an ass he’d come here and rob us? We’d shoot his tail-feathers off in a second…” He turned round and slammed the door, mumbling quite loudly: “Anyway, the worst thieves are the ones that take your invisible earnings…”  

And the Oilers stood there for a while, unsure of what to do, then shuffled off to the bar and put their guns back and that was the end of their patrolling days.   

Arty had come to the conclusion that he did not want to save Wyre from the desert, he wanted to shoulder the onerous burden of doing the desert’s work; that is, he wanted to put a bullet in Wyre’s skull as a down payment on a lifetime’s worth of implied criticism.

’Cuz what was Wyre now? Surely just a fugitive from justice, a man who had unjustifiably packed up and left them without reasonable cause; abandoning his community and thus making himself an outcast and lawless criminal? By speaking to the journalist cunt, by revealing their secrets, he’d shown faithlessness to his own people. Even keeping those camels was an offence against normal practice. Oilers did not keep live animals, Oilers bought dead animals and ate them, Oilers did not even keep dogs or cats, ’cuz what the hell was the use of keeping useless critters on your land, that ate good food and left their shit on the ground? Guard dogs were not required in Oil Town. Anyone straying onto Arty’s property would find himself looking into the clean bore of his shotgun.

And for all these reasons, Arty Simpleton decided to go down to Wyre’s burnt-out house, kick around in the ashes and see if he could find something, a keepsake, possibly something to nail up over his work bench or put on the mantelpiece.   

There wasn’t much left of the place. The ashes lay pretty deep inside the foundations, and he waded through them with a sense of satisfaction, until his foot struck something hard and he felt with his hands and then lifted up a disfigured lump of wood, cracked and charred but still recognizably a sculpture, a beaver or a fox or something, at least something with a snout and four legs. Fucking critter-lover! Not a bad start. He’d bring that home and clean it up.

The chimney-stack was still standing – a testimony to Jeremiah’s skills as a stonemason. It was precarious, though, the way it twisted off to the side and then rose up to where the roof-tiles had been.

Arty had brought his tools, of course. Without his tools, what is a man?

He tried using a crowbar on it to demolish it, but that didn’t work. Instead he fetched his biggest mallet, the one he used to drive eight-inch steel pins into the drill-bit, and he let loose on the masonry with all the vituperative anger he could muster.

And fall it did! In fact much quicker than he’d figured; even though he stepped back pretty sharply, a couple of the stones fell pretty close and one big bastard landed right on his toe, breaking the bone.

Fucking Wyre! First that bitch tore his ears like a crazy she-devil, and now her friend the fucking nigger-blood camel-man had cracked his toe. 

“I’m warning you!” he raged at the sky, limping about and cursing and smashing anything else he could find until his flabby body heaved with exertion. “Do not fuck with me! I’ve reached the end, you hear me?!”

The books had all burned, of course, and the ash they had left was soft like a newborn’s shit. But at the back, in a small cranny built into the stone wall, Arty found a heavy metal box, still warm. Inside, all the paper had smoldered away but there was a roll of very old kidskin parchment still more or less intact.

He took the roll home and tried to open it, which was mostly useless, for the heat had rendered it brittle and fragile; but he did manage to save one piece, an old hand-drawn map of the desert; must have been a hundred and fifty years old, ’cuz there were still woods and rivers, also the desert which had always been there, only smaller and more distant. Arty saw the daubed symbol of a mountain range about a four- or five-day drive south-east of Oil Town. One part of his mind marveled at this, because he had never wondered what lay beyond the desert, in fact he had never looked at a map at all. Maps showed what was not here.

Arty preferred to be here and not there.

But if Wyre could do it he would also do it, just to show him.

He’d take his best vehicle and set out on his own without any damned camels for back-up. He’d find him and tell him what he thought of him. Once and for all.

He left the disfigured beaver or whatever it was on his kitchen table, with a note for his foreman Scot:

I’ve gone. You know where I’ve gone, so don’t ask.

Keep it up.


Henning Koch's writing started with screenplays.  Between 2002 and 2007, he worked as a translator and dramaturge for Yellow Bird Films, makers of Henning Mankell's Wallander series for television/cinema in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK.  In 2005, Koch moved to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where he spent three years writing the short story collection Love Doesn't Work and the novel The Maggot People (forthcoming in September from Dzanc Books).  Follow him on Twitter: @henningkoch

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Day the Laughter Died: Remembering Lewis Nordan, the Clown Prince of Southern Lit

For the better part of twenty years, I carried Lewis Nordan around with me like a beautiful, restless agony.  Though I tried to tell everyone I met he was the greatest writer they’d never read, the agonizing truth was I pretty much had him all to myself.  He was the author of seven books of fiction and a memoir (Boy with Loaded Gun), each one of them gems of humor and heartbreak that stood tall with other giants of Southern literature.  I myself have been known to pepper my sentences with the names “O’Connor” and “Nordan” side by side like fraternal twins.  From the day I read my first Nordan short story, I knew I’d found someone special to treasure and hoard in my heart.  The fact that I can remember the exact month (October) and year (1992) when my eyes first lit on Nordan’s words should tell you something.  My memory’s getting fuzzy as moldy Swiss cheese these days, but that first encounter was a Memorable Life Event—the kind I’ll never forget, like my first kiss or the day I stuck a damp tongue into a lamp socket.

Beyond a circle of devoted, rabid fans, Lewis Nordan was relatively unknown.  Critics ate him up with a spoon: “As if the worlds of William Faulkner and James Thurber had collided” (The Associated Press) and “An immense and wall-shattering display of talent” (The Nation).  But, maddeningly, the Clown Prince of Southern Literature never enjoyed the wide readership he deserved.  Now, sadly, he is gone from us.  Lewis Nordan—“Buddy” to everyone lucky enough to call him a friend and teacher—died of complications from pneumonia two weeks ago, slipping away peacefully and without pain, according to postings by family members on his Facebook Wall.

This has been a tough season for fans of Southern literature—first William Gay passes on, then Harry Crews, and now Buddy Nordan.  It was Buddy’s death that hit me hardest, though.  It felt personal and cruel because here was a half-obscure literary hero I’d advocated with all the fervor of a Baptist preacher gettin’ his Jesus on at a tent revival.  Lewis Nordan taken from us?  No, no, no.  It was to the book world what the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper were to the rock ’n roll world.  Friday, April 13, 2012 will forever be known to me as The Day the Laughter Died.

Upon hearing the news of Nordan’s passing, I was struck by a tidal wave of melancholy.  The only cure and salve was to reach for one of his books, open it, and start reading at random—a story like “How Bob Steele Broke My Father’s Heart,” for instance:
Naughty demons accompanied my father wherever he went.  All misery did not seem to be of his own making.  In his home, the telephone often rang with no one on the line.  Hoses broke on the Maytag.  Pipes froze in the spring.  Pets came down with diseases they had been inoculated against.  Wrestling and “The Love Boat” appeared on television at unscheduled times.  Lightning struck our house and sent a fireball across the floor.  He was the only man in Mississippi to buy a bottle of Tylenol that actually had a cyanide capsule in it.  He went to only two high school baseball games in his life and was beaned by a foul ball at each of them.  A homeless person died on his back stoop.  When he walked down the street bluejays chased after him and pecked at his face.  He was allergic to the dye in his underwear.  He mistakenly accepted a collect obscene phone call. This sounds like a joke or an exaggeration, but I swear it is not.  There was something magical about the amount of benign bad luck that, on a daily basis, swept through my father’s life like weather and judgment.

Sentences like those remind me why I became a writer in the first place—the burning itch to turn words into music and give readers a jolt of joy, a thrill not unlike licking a lamp-socket so long and hard that the very fillings in your teeth rattle and dislodge.

Lewis Nordan’s fiction, to put it bluntly, could pop the teeth right out of my head.  He was an unsung genius at taking the most miserable human condition and slathering it with a layer of laughter.  Sometimes it was a very thin layer—that divide between the awful and the awful funny—as with, for instance, his most famous work, the 1993 novel Wolf Whistle which was a fictional retelling of the story of Emmett Till, the young black boy murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman in 1955.  The Emmett Till story was a very personal one for Nordan because he grew up in the same place at the same time as the murdered teen and was haunted by the crime all his life.  When he finally set it down on paper, it proved to be his richest, deepest work, told from a multitude of perspectives, including that of the lynched victim himself:
The dead boy saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music, as living boys, still sleeping, unaware, in their safe beds, might hear singing from unexpected throats one morning when they wake up, the wind in a willow shade, bream bedding in the shallows of a lake, a cottonmouth hissing on a limb, the hymning of beehives, of a bird’s nest, the bray of the ice-man’s mule, the cry of herons or mermaids in the swamp, and rain across wide water.

Buddy was one of those lucky writers who early in his career found a comfortable publishing home for his books and never left.  The names "Lewis Nordan" and "Algonquin Books" were the literary equivalent of "hand and glove."  Yesterday, marketing director Craig Popelars shared his memories of Buddy in a touching blog post, including this fine summation of his prankster style:
Reading Lewis Nordan is an act of defiance. His stories are swollen with life, death, and a deep love of the Delta and its people. He was a writer who simultaneously kept a reader’s heart and head in his cross-hairs. He was confident with his aim, knew when to pull the trigger, understood the trajectory, and he cared deeply for each of his victims. Buddy was an amalgamation of Flannery O’Connor, Lenny Bruce, Pinocchio, and Houdini. If there was an opportunity to dance, peek up a girl’s dress, throw M80 fireworks off a front porch, or run bare-assed through a hotel lobby you could count on Buddy’s participation. He was that hole in heaven where some sin slips through.

My life intersected with Lewis Nordan’s only once.  In October 1992, I was introduced to both the man and his writings at the same time when he visited the campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where I was enrolled in the MFA program.  My thesis advisor, short-story writer Frank Soos, pulled me aside one day and said, “You must come hear Lewis Nordan read.  You must.  He writes stories like no one else and I think you’ll appreciate him.”  He said it like he had a secret gem glowing in his chest, like he was giving me an exclusive invitation to a men’s club on cream-colored stationery presented on a silver platter.  What was especially striking is that Frank said it with a note of urgency in his voice.  Which was odd.  Frank is tall and thin as a lamppost and, a laid-back Southerner himself, speaks in a slow, measured drawl.  For Frank to be all out of breath about someone was like a screeching alarm, flashing red lights and a missile silo’s doors coming open.

I immediately did the 100-yard dash to the campus bookstore and bought every book Lewis Nordan had written up to that point.  I went home, ignored my wife, refused to build a Lego castle with my sons, and turned to the first page of Music of the Swamp.  It was a religious experience.
The instant Sugar Mecklin opened his eyes on that Sunday morning, he believed that this was a special day and that something new and completely different from anything he had ever known before was about to jump out at him from somewhere unexpected, a willow shade, a beehive, a bird’s nest, the bream beds in Roebuck Lake, a watermelon patch, the bray of the iceman’s mule, the cry of herons in the swamp, he did not know from where, but wherever it came from he believed it would be transforming, it would open up worlds to him that before today had been closed. In fact, worlds seemed already to be opening to him.

No, it was my own world which was blossoming open.  Here was a writer who’d already published three books, books that spoke to me in highly personal and thrilling ways, but why had I never heard of him?  I read on without stopping—not even when my wife threw sharp glances in my direction and my kids cried at how oddly misshapen their castle turned out to be.  I read all the way through Music of the Swamp in a one-sitting gorge, burping lightly, happily when I was finished.

Though it’s labeled by publisher Algonquin Books as “a novel,” Music of the Swamp is actually a collection of linked short stories which relate the oddball childhood of Nordan’s most frequently-used character, Sugar Mecklin, an 11-year-old narrator who, I suspect, serves as a funnel for all of Nordan’s own boyhood experiences growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Sugar lives in Arrow Catcher (Nordan’s Yoknapatawpha), a Mississippi Delta community populated with Southern-fried characters straight from Nordan’s literary predecessors (Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers). Here, I met folks like Sweet Austin, who takes Sugar out to the swamp and shows him a man’s corpse caught upside down in a tangle of brush; Gilbert Mecklin, Sugar’s lovable, whiskey-drinking, no-good daddy who listens to Bessie Smith records (“wrist-cutting music”), who advises his son, “The Delta is filled up with death” and whose life—as I’ve already noted—is filled with “benign bad luck;” Dixie Dawn McNeer, who “was overweight and wore heavy makeup and had a pathetically angelic look about her” and who dreams of singing soprano at the Met someday (the heart-crushing story of her birthday party is the best in the whole collection); and the white-trash family named Conroy, whose next-to-youngest member, Roy Dale, is Sugar’s best friend. The mini-portrait of the family is classic Nordan:
There was a passel of Conroy children, all red-haired and sunken-cheeked. I was never really sure how many. There were the twin girls, Cloyce and Joyce, children who spoke in unison. There was a misfit child named Jeff Davis who believed his pillow was on fire. And, of course, there was the boy near my age, Roy Dale, and a very young child, about four, named Douglas, whose only ambition when he grew up was to become an apple.

By the time Nordan arrived in Alaska a week later, I’d chomped my way through Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair and The All-Girl Football Team, cackling and crying in equal measures.  I’d found my literary soul-mate.

But what do you say to your soul-mate when you actually meet him in person?  If you’re like me, you stammer and trip over your words and generally make a fool of yourself.  Nordan came to our graduate writing workshop and talked about craft and the story behind his stories and why writing is both struggle and triumph.  And then—Willy Wonka Golden Ticket Moment—he sat down with some of us for a one-on-one critique of our stories.

When I entered the room where he sat at a table with my manuscript pages spread before him, we were both shy and awkward.  I sweaty-palmed a handshake and he started in on my story with the kindest, softest voice I’d ever heard come from a man.  Ask any of his many students at the University of Pittsburgh and they will agree: Lewis Nordan was a wise, polite mentor who always made you feel bigger than your shoe size.  You walk out of a one-on-one session with him and I guaran-damn-tee you’ll have a hard time fitting through the doorway, your head is so swollen with self-confidence as a writer.

Now here’s where the Swiss cheese of memory becomes frustratingly fuzzy: I don’t remember what Nordan said about my story, or even what story it was.  At the time, I was going through a Flannery O’Connor phase so maybe it was my story where a man takes a road trip with his mother and has an epiphany when he finds a black-velvet painting of Jesus at a truck stop.  Whatever it was, I remember Buddy Nordan had high words of praise (in hindsight, probably unnecessarily high) for my writing.  I can’t recall exactly what he said because my head was clanging with the sound of church bells and angel choirs.  Later, he signed my copy of Music of the Swamp with these words: “To David—a wonderful writer in this magical landscape.”  I could have done any number of things upon seeing those words: burst out singing an operatic aria, wet myself, or swooned away in a dead faint.  But as I recall, I stuttered a thanks and, eyes a-shine with gratitude, slunk away in a fit of pleasurable embarrassment.

Over the years my debt of gratitude to Buddy Nordan has only increased—not just for that burst of ego at the beginning of my writing career, but mostly for the gift of story he shared with the world.  Our lives are richer because he gave us swamp mermaids who sing into black, fathomless mirrors; fathers who look forward to that one time of year when they can dress in drag at the Womanless Wedding; where boys go fishing for chickens in their back yard; where the next-door neighbors are a family of midget construction workers; and where, forever and always, America is the “Land of the Freak and the Home of the Strange.”

I often tell people that Nordan is the only writer I know who can break your heart while herniating you with laughter.  As a character in Wolf Whistle says, “There is great pain in all true love…but we don’t care do we, because it’s worth it.”

With Buddy’s death comes great pain, the kind of pain we find in the wrench of blues songs, but in the end I know it was worth it because there is the solace of what we’re left with—the eight books we can return to again and again, books which put us on board the Funny Train to the Land of Odd, books filled with singing llamas and competitive arrow-catching and boys who believe they’re apples, books which are tender and compassionate and cause us to right away get up from the couch, hug our wives and help our sons rebuild castles.

A version of this essay originally appeared at Book Riot.