Research in Rabbittown

Rabbittown statueThere’s a place just north of here, a hop, skip, and a jump, you might say, called Rabbittown. I don’t know the actual rabbit situation, but they have stuffed toy rabbits, and ceramic rabbits, and paintings of rabbits, and a huge statue of a rabbit. What would real rabbits think about Rabbittown?

On the one paw, a rabbit might say, “Man, we gotta go there. We’ll be like little fluffy kings!” Or a rabbit might say, “Let’s stay the hell away from that. We could end up on a styrofoam plate at the Rabbittown Cafe.” I ate lunch at the Rabbittown Cafe and saw no rabbit on the menu.

But that’s not what I came here to tell you about. What I wanted to tell you is that last Saturday I went to the International Dragon Boat Races. Did you know Gainesville, Georgia, was hosting the International Dragon Boat Races? International, baby. Did you even know that dragon boats have an international racing event? Or that there’s such a thing as a dragon boat? The boats do, by the way, have an actual dragon head on the front.

Me neither, until I started reading the Gainesville paper a few months ago, as research for the current novel. Eventually I decided I wanted to put the dragon boat races in the book I’m writing, so I drove up there to see them. The races were at the same venue that was used back in 1996 for Olympic rowing events, when the Olympics were in Atlanta. The dragon races were much smaller than the Olympics, but teams came from around the world, like Switzerland and Hungary (you know, places you think about when you imagine a dragon boat).

I made a lot of notes while I was watching the boats zip across the water. Each boat had a drummer at the front, presumably to encourage the rowers. This trip was one of the more interesting ones I’ve made for research—and it included the Rabbittown Cafe for lunch, which I may also use in the book.

Everywhere I went Saturday, I was making notes, thinking about what I might want to use, which is not the same thing as going somewhere as a tourist. As a writer, for instance, I might know that one of my characters really likes trains or loves antiques, etc., so I’ll pay more attention to things like that. I also care about local details, so I always note interesting little bits, such as the women at the Rabbittown Cafe wearing purple T-shirts, or the fact that for the races the local brewer in Gainesville had made a special beer flavored with dragon fruit.

Over the years I’ve done vasty quantities of writing research. Some of it has involved reading, a beaucoup plethora of reading, or nowadays I spend a lot of time on the web (I mean, productively, not the usual way). Twenty years ago, when I started writing the book I’m currently trying to market, Birds Above the Cage, I made a research trip to a monastery and another to a strip club, where I had a chance to talk with an elderly monk and a young stripper. From each of them I learned things that I used in the book.

You can’t know where research will take you: strip club, monastery, Rabbittown Cafe, or even to watch dragon boats. For the current book, Moonapple Pie, I made a trip about a year ago to Warm Springs to see Franklin Roosevelt’s house. They had his car there, along with other things, but I didn’t see a single rabbit. I mean, not even one. What was up with that?

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No Such Thing As Too Dumm

A good argument can be made that the invention of writing has allowed human beings not only to accumulate more knowledge (when the oldest person in the village dies, we don’t lose everything they knew), but writing has also allowed us to think more logical and complicated thoughts.

Most of the reason for that expansion in our mental capacity is probably the fact that unlike speech, writing does not disappear the moment you encounter it. If you don’t understand it, you can look at it again, as many times as necessary. You can also concentrate on just one part of the writing until you understand it, and then move on, taking as long as you need. In addition, writing allows us to slowly and carefully organize and add to our thoughts, until we can say more complex things that would not be possible when simply speaking.

This week I had an experience—not a particularly rare one—that made me consider an opposing concept. I was looking online for a baseball cap, going through page after page of images. Many of the caps had writing on them, and much of it was so stupid it began to seem like evidence that not only writing, but even speech itself, was a bad idea.

Does writing make it possible for us to be even more stupid that normal?

For instance, consider a baseball cap that says “I Only Do Butt Stuff at the Gym”. I can pause, if you want, and give you a few minutes to come up with something dumber, or you can read on for more. A relevant point here is not just the inherent dumbness, as if stupidity were some sort of quantum force moving through space (which it is).

What makes this worse is the context. A baseball cap is not a sign on a wall, or a bumper sticker. The cap displays a phrase on top of the head that will be seen by every person the wearer talks to. So maybe “In dog years I’m dead” is faintly clever, sort of, after a beer or two, but when that phrase is on top of your head, your first greeting to everyone you meet, maybe you need more dog years.

For straight-up stupidity, how about “Barbells for Boobies.” What in God’s name does that even mean? Or—and let me emphasize that I’m NOT making these up, they’re all real—“Cowboy’s butts drive me nuts”, “Wine ‘em, dine ‘em, sixty-nine ‘em”, “If it has tits or tires, you’re gonna have problems”.

Well, boys and girls, I guess you’re thinking we’ve hit bottom, but we’re talking about human behavior here. There is no bottom. So here are a few more baseball cap phrases, which you can go and buy right now, that overtly say “Look at my baseball cap. I’m a moron.” And again, I swear to God, I did not make these up. Picture someone wearing these on their head:

  • I’m either having a midlife crisis or I need a laxative
  • Drunk slut
  • World’s largest source of natural gas
  • Asshole

If not for these baseball caps, you would have to actually talk to the people wearing them to know that they’re idiots. If they were to merely walk by, you might not even know. But now, thanks to the wondrous invention of writing, you can see them coming across the room and think, “Oh my God, where’s the door?”

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I Will Go Down to the Amethyst Ocean

purple oceanCan words really describe our lives?

I was listening to the REM song “Losing My Religion”, and it captured some of what I think of life, both in content and in the feeling you get from the song. “That was just a dream. That’s me in the corner.” The song makes me think of the question up above, but I think of that question also in part because when I write, that’s what I’m trying to do, describe life.

I’m not wondering whether words can be used to describe a moment or a feeling, because I think they can. What I’m thinking, as absurd as it seems to me, is whether words can capture what it is like to be human here on the earth, in this existence.

That, I believe, cannot be done. The slightest consideration shows how vast and impossible it would be. Would I describe an old woman who is widowed and cleans a church in Venice, Italy, in the Middle Ages, how she looks up every day at the sad eyes of the Virgin Mary on one of the statues? Would I describe a young man learning to fish from his father, living on a small pacific island where he has never heard of other places, the way the young man loves the feeling of his canoe gliding across the water? Would I describe a banker in Chicago being driven to work by his chauffeur in the 1950s, as he wonders where his daughter is who ran away to New York?

The very idea of “describing human life” is foolish. And yet I try, illogical as that is, even as I know I’m going to fail. It’s weird, isn’t it, to recognize that I aim at failure? I am compelled by it, driven by it, passionate about it—to aim at what is going to fail. Where can such a thing lead me?

Perhaps the impossibility of words in a logical narrative draws me to things like REM’s “Losing My Religion” or the songs of Bob Dylan or moments in the novel Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. I’ve also been drawn to Russian decadent poetry, such as this verse from Zinaida Gippius (I’m the one guilty of the translation that follows):

Вас гонят… Словно дети малые,
Дрожат мечта и красота…
Целую ноги их усталые,
Целую старые уста.

They pursue you…as though young children,
The tremble of dream and beauty…
I kiss their weary limbs,
I kiss their worn lips.

Sometimes, when words are put together in ways that don’t make sense, they may evoke something beyond logic, something that is an indescribable part of our existence, actually beyond words.

When you think about it, words are only a very clumsy way of trying to express our thoughts, and even our thoughts cannot comprehend fully what it is to be human. Thus we have philosophy and religion and art. And words that patter and prance across the soft deep beckoning of a violet sea.

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I Think I’ll Call This One…

Adam naming the animals

And that one is called Grrr, no wait, Lion.

According to one source of the origin of the universe, within the first few days, Adam, the only human in existence, gave names to all the animals. What language he was speaking isn’t clear, but I think it might have been Yiddish. Quite a while later, the Swedish scientist Linneaus decided that he would name everything alive, such as Mus musculus (mouse), or Ficus carica (fig tree), using his double Latin names. And then in the late 1960s/early 1970s, even rock-n-roll started to get various names, like bubblegum, heavy metal, glam rock, and so on.

It’s human nature to name things, and people who like books have had at it. They’ve come up with names for different types of literature, and we even have a name for the names: genres. Good old Wikipedia lists more than 20 genres just for fiction, such as mystery, western, fantasy, horror, humor, etc. If you go on to the “subgenres” you can loose interest scrolling down the page, they have so many.

One of the difficulties with genres, however, is that many works of fiction don’t really fit into anything. Thus we have the “genre” (this is real, I didn’t make this up) of “literary fiction”. Aside from being a pretentious and incredibly vague name, it is also very common. And the kind of writing I do falls into that category.

Many literary agents specifically say they will represent literary fiction. When it comes to what that is, however, it’s not rare to see sentences like “I want great books by skilled writers” (as opposed to the other kind). Here are some modern examples of literary fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Life of Pi by Yan Martel, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

This week I found an interview with four literary agents, which I read part of. As they described the process of looking for an agent, of getting published, and of how they see the publishing field at the moment, I found myself slumping into a lethargic depression. One of the points they seemed to make is how difficult it is to publish literary fiction, one person describing it as “impossible”. How much was that intended as exaggeration?

I would also say to anyone who listens that it’s impossible to get a literary agent, at least if you write literary fiction. I was once recommended to an agent by another writer. Over and over I hear (and even read in that same interview I just mentioned) that a recommendation is the golden key to open the door. In my case, however, the agent looked at what I sent her, then wrote me and said, “It’s too hard to sell this kind of book.” Yeah, it’s a literary novel.

Was it easier when Mark Twain was first writing a novel? Could a writer at the time of Edith Wharton assume that if you had talent and worked hard, you would eventually be published? Perhaps the situation is much worse now than it used to be. All of the novels I named above have been very popular, in some cases extremely popular, and there are others. Why, then, is it so difficult to publish a literary novel?

In the broadest sense, every society needs art. The more the art flourishes, the healthier the society. I personally think there could be no such thing as too much artistic expression. I’d like to see murals and sculpture and public art everywhere you look in every city and town. Such art would be like oxygen for the spirit.

One aspect of art that a society needs is literature. Humans have always used language to tell stories and entertain, which is fine in the written form (such as romance novels or spy thrillers). We also must have books that explore what it means to be human, or we will be a philosophically shallow, spiritually hungry people. We cannot thrive without the kind of books that have been labeled literary novels.

So even if the agents don’t want them, even if it is impossible to sell them, I’m going to write them.

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What If We Just Made This Up?

nun playing a guitar

So then I put my dog in the pickup truck.

As long as you’re wasting time on the internet reading a blog, try this little quiz. If you were a writer and made up a character to write about, would you prefer:

 

 

  1. a) a male police officer
  2. b) a female police officer
  3. c) a Catholic nun
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp

There’s not really a lot of information to go on there, however. You might have chosen the young boy because you once were a ten-year-old boy and you went to camp. Or you might have chosen the nun because you actually are a nun (then again, you might have chosen anything but the nun because you actually are a nun).

Creating characters in fiction can be exciting, because you can basically write about any possible human being on the earth, a vast, practically endless, number of options. Creating a character can also feel overwhelming, because you must narrow a vast, practically endless, number of options down to one.

Then again, you could give things a twist, so that any individual choice feels larger. Let’s add a bit of twist to the ones above.

  1. a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen
  2. b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin
  3. c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats

I love creating characters, probably the most important aspect of my own writing. As part of how I work, I watch people around me sometimes, listen to how they talk, and even repeat things they said in my head, thinking about the language they used and the tone of it. I think so much about fictional characters and what makes them tick (i.e., do they behave the way real humans probably would?) that I sometimes have trouble reading other books. I’m constantly thinking “No, no, they wouldn’t do that.”

Some books are not really about the characters, however; they’re about the story itself. In those cases, if the detective finds the hidden letter with the clue to solve the mystery, and he solves it, then it’s goodnight, ladies, the book is done. And so what if every single time he talks to someone, he coughs as if he’s not sure what to say, and he’s embarrassed in every store that he forgot to bring cash—and that’s the extent of character development. Who cares if he doesn’t seem real? He found the envelope and solved the mystery.

Sometimes, I care, though I can’t honestly say that it’s wrong to write with shallow, undeveloped characters, when the purpose is to tell an entertaining story. Sometimes I just want entertainment myself. I’ll watch the Three Stooges all day long, and I’m not thinking about how those characters don’t seem real. I’m thinking, “Har! Moe hit Larry with a frying pan!”

In fiction, though, while shallow characters are not inherently bad, they don’t entertain me. I just can’t enjoy that kind of writing. I want to read about, and write about, real human beings. So for the experiment, let’s take those characters I presented and add just a bit more.

  1. a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen named Randi Hotlee; at home he also runs a black labrador rescue unit, with eight dogs currently living there
  2. b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin, but her own father was an abusive famous violinist, and she doesn’t want her kids to take violin lessons
  3. c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own; the sister is also raising the child the nun gave birth to before she became a nun
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats; he’s very afraid of bees and thinks there might be bees at a summer camp, but he wants to learn to swim

Now who would you choose? And once you’ve chosen, where does that person live, what is one of their favorite foods, and do they know how to ride a bicycle?

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The House of Books

bookstore cat sleeping

I think I’d be good at this

We were barely home from the wide-open green glories of the mountains when my girlfriend sent me an article on the cozy wonders of bookstores. If it’s possible to be reincarnated as a business, instead of something like a chipmunk, I want to come back as a bookstore. I’ve certainly spent enough time in them to feel at home with myself if I do.

Not so long ago, it appeared as if we could be moving toward a time when bookstores no longer exist. I’m more optimistic now that they will continue, but if they do disappear, no matter what fantastic wonders the future may hold, I’m glad I’ve lived in a time of bookstores instead. I love the magic of a bookstore, with all those books available any time you want to walk in the door, to browse from the Harlem Renaissance to Oaxacan Mexican cooking to Tibetan sand paintings. This is real immersion, not that webpage business. You don’t click away from a Oaxacan cookbook. You stand there and turn the pages, lost in it.

I have spent so much time in bookstores that one summer in a casual moment I started reading a few pages of the novel Moby Dick, then stuck a bit of paper in as a bookmark and returned the book to the shelf. No one bought that volume during the next few months, when I went to the bookstore so often that I sat there and read all of Moby Dick during repeated visits. I’m not making that up.

Last weekend my girlfriend and I were in North Carolina to visit my friend Lamar York, who founded the literary magazine Chattahoohee Review. In addition to the amazing house Lamar lives in with mountain views, he built a second tiny house, really just one room, out under the pine trees nearby to serve as a library. I think there can’t be very many people who have a separate building next to their house just for their books.

In Lamar’s library, the walls are lined with books, as you’d expect, most of them on southern literature, with one wall for literary criticism, and another wall devoted just to books about Florida. I don’t have an extensive book collection myself, as someone like me might, because I’ve moved 1,782 times. Actually, I’ve only moved about 30 times in my adult life, but you begin to cast things off after you pick the boxes up enough times.

While we were in North Carolina last weekend, we also went to Asheville for an afternoon, a city filled with young people, brew pubs (we had to try a couple of those), and restaurants, and of course with views of the green glorious mountains. In addition, this tiny city has not one, or two, but several private book stores. We went for a look at Malaprops, probably the most well known. It is what a bookstore should be, filled with people browsing through books on the Harlem Renaissance and Mexican cooking (or perhaps books on Thomas Wolfe and southern fusion cooking), and with a nice cafe on the side.

Seeing Malaprops so full of people gives me greater optimism about the future of book stores. A book store is one of the finest things human beings have created so far, and in my support for bookstores, when I want to buy books, I buy them from an actual bookstore or I don’t buy them. I know Amazon has made many things available (including my own books, and I will thank them for that), but when I want a book, if I can’t find it, I ask a small local bookstore near me to order it. Then I pay the higher price that it costs to buy from them. I’ve also browsed in bookstores over the years, picking out books I’ve never heard of, to take them home and see if I like them. I’ve found some books I loved by doing that, both in America and, as a matter of fact, in Ireland.

If it’s not possible to be reincarnated as a bookstore, if we are only allowed to come back as animals, maybe I could be one of the cats who live in bookstores.

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Before I’m Caught and Returned to the Asylum

Winnie the Pooh

President Xi Jinping of China

I’m so sure you would enjoy knowing that a very common word in medical studies is “randomization”. It means to take the people being studied and put them into groups in a completely random manner, so that no bias is involved in selecting the groups (and then they receive different kinds of treatment, to see what works). Nowadays randomization is done with a computer, though in the 20th century it was done by letting a squirrel in a cage, preferably a young squirrel, pick the numbers.

Actually, I don’t know how it was done. But as it happens, I have a squirrel here in a cage, not all that young, and I’m going to have the squirrel choose topics for me to write about in this blog entry. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that on principle I ruled out writing about any kind of nut or the band the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

So what does my little rodent have to suggest? Ah well, as uneducated as you might think a squirrel is, it has chosen the fairly subtle topic of satire. To my thinking, there is not enough satire in the world, which cries out to be ridiculed. Satire uses an exaggerated form of writing to emphasize the foolishness of people or situations, and the difference between satire and parody is…sheesh, I don’t know. And I have a degree in English. So much for my education.

I think of parody as sort of slapstick, closer in spirit to Monty Python. Satire is more subtle, but there’s probably overlap. One of the ancient Greek writers, Aristophanes, wrote satires (including one making fun of Socrates) that had some moments the Three Stooges could have worked with.

One of the most delightful bits of satire I’ve seen lately was created in China, where people have noticed that their president resembles the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh. As a typical dictator (i.e., pathologically insecure), he hates that comparison, and thus Winnie the Pooh is illegal in China. Think about that. How do you say “I love honey on toast” in Chinese? (我喜歡烤麵包上的蜂蜜)

There goes the squirrel again, and he’s—no, he stopped for a drink of water. Now he’s looking around, and he’s chosen British versus American spellings. What an eclectic little squirrel. What can I say on this topic? At work I get manuscripts from all over the world, and some of them use the British spellings, such as “programme” (American: program), “favour” (American: favor), and so on, and part of my job is to change them. If you’re thinking “Who gives a shit?” you should not apply for a job as an editor. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t give a shit either, but I do want to keep my job.

Here’s a little story about British spelling. When I was in Pennsylvania, I lived in the middle of the state, in Centre County, which uses British spelling in the county name (American: Center County). People in the county have gotten used to the spelling, so that some apparently don’t know any better. One day I was in a small town there and saw a sign on a restaurant advertising some of the food. I have no clue what a “chicken tender” is (a piece of chicken, I guess). Anyway, influenced by the county name, this restaurant had written that they were selling “chicken tendres”. I guess their cars have fendres and when they need a loan they go to a lendre.

OK, maybe that’s editor humor, something a normal person won’t connect with. Me and the squirrel like it, though. Look at…he’s…ah, I should give him a nut. I bet Winnie the Pooh would like those “tendre” jokes, too. And you know he’s British.

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