Books About Philosophical Dogs Who Solve Crimes

dog smoking pipeWith Hurricane Irma getting close (still several hundred miles away), with rain falling and trees outside my window whipping back and forth all day Monday, the office where I work was closed for two days. Having so much extra time, I decided to spend some of it doing something I need to do, but don’t normally want to, investigating literary agency websites.

The three people who I talked to at the last conference, who agreed to look at samples of the novel The Invention of Colors, have all said no. Therefore, the next step for me is to follow the common route of sending a query letter to agents. I have a list of agencies or agents that I made up a few years ago, so now I’m going through that list and sending out letters.

These days, such contacts can mostly be done by email. The old way, still used in some cases, was to print and mail the letters, and, if you knew what you were doing, to absolutely be sure to include a stamped self-addressed envelop if you wanted to hear back. While the current process is still tedious and numbing, it is also a hundred times easier than it was, as well as cheaper.

I realized years ago that it’s utterly foolish to spend time contacting agents without checking to verify exactly what they want, whether they are even still in business, who works where, and how to submit. I found one agency, for instance, where every agent appeared to be focused on science fiction and fantsy, or agencies that appear to work only with black writers or with Christian writers. There are also agents who only handle romances or cookbooks or children’s books, etc. Now I could send these people a query letter, because who knows, maybe they changed their mind, but I don’t fit any of those categories, so I won’t bother them or waste my own time and energy.

It’s also important to send the agency exactly what they want, and some of them will even tell you they won’t read what you send if you don’t do it exactly like they say. There is always a query letter, sometimes a synopsis, sometimes an implication that these are the same thing, sometimes including a sample of your book (which they specify as five pages…or one chapter…or three chapters…or ten pages…or twenty-five pages..or fifty pages)—or don’t send anything except a query letter.

There are even a few agencies that don’t tell you anything except “Here’s the website to contact us” so you have to guess what to send and hope it’s OK. If you go looking on the internet for advice on writing query letters, or buy books on the subject, you will drown in that whirlpool of advice, and it doesn’t all whirl in the same direction.

My query letter for this book has been crafted over and over, with the advice of friends as well as feedback from several agents, including some from the last conference who I actually paid for a query letter critique. Thus I’ll be goddamned if I’m working on it any more. I’ll send it, and if it doesn’t work, so be it. They all hate me anyway, so what difference does it make?

In my investigations this week, I did come across one unusual thing, when an agency said to be sure to tell them what degrees you have. I wondered what the purpose of that could be, then I thought that if you’re writing a book on military history, for instance, or the benefits of a certain kind of diet, what you studied and got a degree in might be relevant—until I saw that they were asking to know the writer’s degrees only with fiction submissions, where such information is utterly irrelevant. I wonder how many college degrees Charles Dickens had? I bet he didn’t have any, that ignorant bastard.

As you know so well if you do it, writing is extremely difficult. I mentioned to someone this week that I was going to go home and do some writing work, and she said, “But it’s not really work for you, is it?” Oh, yeah, baby, it’s work. But as hard as writing is, it is a labor of creativity that I want to do.

Searching for a literary agent, on the other hand, while necessary, is an utterly horrible activity in every way. After I’ve done it for an hour or so, not only do I want to drink heavily (which I do), but I want to get in bed, curl up in a fetal position, and go to sleep.

I don’t even write books about dogs, much less dogs that solve crimes.


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Still Waiting

birthday cake candlesThere are moments when I live in the future.

I went last Sunday to a birthday party with quite a crowd, including people from the United States, Europe, and China (perhaps other places as well). In our birthday crowd were white and black and Asian, young and old, men and women, and gay and straight. We talked and moved from one little group to another all evening, happy with a table full of food and birthday cake and a watermelon carved into decorative shapes.

This cheerful mix of people is where our country is headed. I know, at the moment, this peaceful interaction of human beings is not where we appear to be going. We are witnessing a remarkable viper’s head of ugliness and intolerance, manifested in the election of Donald Trump. As bad as the situation looks at the moment, that election (to oversimplify somewhat) was part of the last gasp of angry old white people. They have honest grievances, but they are also deeply wrong in some of the expression of those grievances. Nevertheless, the world I experienced at the birthday party is our future.

It is not enough, however, to sit and wait for the future. Harriett Beecher Stowe did not wait for slavery to go away of its own accord, as entrenched and inevitable as slavery seemed in her world. Simone de Beauvoir did not wait for men to gradually realize that women are human beings, as brutish and dim as society was then in recognizing the humanity of women. As a writer, it is my intention to reach toward the future, to help imagine that world where black and white and gay and straight no longer exist as social ideas, a world where we become able to see each other as fellow human beings.

Walking toward the future can be exhausting and demoralizing some days. I don’t deny that. At times I feel the way the Renaissance writer Erasmus might have felt sitting at his desk contemplating whether human beings have free will, then looking out his window and seeing a howling mob passing in the street carrying torches. The most recent howling mob with torches was in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob who our own astonishing president showed sympathy toward.

What can I do? I’m not a politician to write laws or make deals, I’m not a sociologist to analyze social ills, I’m not a spiritual leader to promote higher ideals. I will use what I have, and when everything else I have is gone away, I’m a writer. The day I die, the world will still be filled with injustice and oppression, and then it will be for people in those days to fight it. Right now it’s my turn, and while I’m here, I will fight for a just and decent world with what I have, as a writer.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of their race or culture or religion is too many.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of sex or sexual orientation is too many.

One person shamed and limited anywhere on this planet by social rules is too many.

Creating a bright world of people who respect and love one another is difficult, and when I read the news, it sounds impossible. And there is little I can do. I’m only a writer, and I am unknown. But I will go on, because I have lived briefly in the future, and we will like it when we get there.


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Book, Kitap, Libro, Книга, Buch, Książka, Kitabu

Cuneiform tablet

An early book

I saw a newspaper article a few days ago commenting on the irony of the fact that book festivals are so crowded and popular—we have the Decatur Book Festival going on here this weekend—while books themselves seem to be disappearing. I was also thinking this week that whatever you call a book (the list above includes the word “book” in Turkish, Spanish, Russian, German, Polish, and Swahili), there are two basic ways to understand what the word means.


Up until now, the most common way to think of the book is as an object. Throughout history, and around the world, since the invention of writing, books have had dramatically different forms. The first books, if that word can even be used, may have been composed of separate small pieces of clay, not physically connected to one another. This was cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). At any rate, what was probably the first long piece of literature (“Gilgamesh”) was found on multiple clay tablets.

Some later forms of the book, depending on when and where you were, could have been:

  • sheets of papyrus (made from flattened reeds) glued together and rolled up into scrolls (Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans)
  • pieces of bamboo tied together in sets of “pages” and stacked together like an accordion (China)
  • sheets of paper made from agave plants, folded up between wooden covers (Mayan)

Sometime in the first century, the Romans invented a new format. Instead of gluing pages together end to end as a scroll, they stacked the pages on top of one another and then sewed them along one edge, with an added cover for protection. This form is called the “codex”, and it has lasted for 2,000 years, as we still use it.

There are various reasons why the codex book has been so successful. Part of that success is due to the invention of paper—light, cheap, flexible, and light-colored to easily show the ink. With the invention of printing in the west around 1450, Europeans were stunned and gaga at this fabulous new technology (the way we’ve been with the internet), and within only 50 years, millions of books had been printed in 18 languages. Think about that. Millions of books printed by the year 1500.

The codex has also been a success as a book form because it has become cheap, it’s very portable, it allows for fast access to any part of the book, and the paper with margins allows the reader to add notes. The paper book has been such an overwhelming success that when we use the word “book” we probably mean the object itself. It is lying there on the shelf, reminding us that sooner or later we are going to pick it up and read it.


I said there are two ways to understand the word “book”. I’ve been discussing one of those ways above, the book as an object. The other way to conceive of a book is as an idea.

In the last 100 years our technology based on electricity has begun to shift us in the direction of the book as an idea. Perhaps someday part of this process will be seen in the fact that some books are turned into movies. An author may like having their book made into a movie, but that’s not the book. It’s something else, using the idea of the book. More pertinently, of course, we have recently created two basic forms of the “book”—ebooks and audiobooks—that retain the original words, but the book as a physical object no longer exists. This development in particular leads us to an understanding of the word “book” as an idea.

ereader tablet

A later book

But hasn’t this always been somewhat true? To be more exact, a book is a collection of ideas, presented using symbols of language and visual images (and now, adding audio, video, and hyperlinks). No matter how strong our fondness for the physical paper object, many books are actually better in ebook format, where the ideas can be accessed more easily and far more efficiently, such as all reference books. For such books, the paper is not the point; the ideas are.

I believe paper books will always exist, for a variety of reasons, but the vast majority of books will not be physical objects. We will continue to use the word “book” but the word will come to have a very different meaning. (Eventually there will be a separate word for a book made of paper.) When the word “book” truly refers only to an idea, available in digital format, what will a “book” become? Will people in the future look back at people like me, who have mourned the supposed passing of our cumbersome bundles of paper, and say, “If only you could see what amazing things the book has turned into”?

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Conversations in the Mountains

Mountain house

The house where we talked

Last weekend, before a dragon came and ate the sun, I drove across the path of the eclipse to the mountains north of Asheville, North Carolina. I went up to the high country to spend the weekend with Lamar York, who founded the literary magazine The Chattahoochee Review. It delights me to visit Lamar, in part for the magical little house surrounded by stunning views, in part for the fabulous food we always have, but mostly for the compelling conversations.

We talked about Mexico, of course, because Lamar has been there about 25 times and has planted the seed of interest for me to go next year. We also talked about gardening a little bit and metaphysics a good bit, but mostly we talked about writing or literature. I made notes on some of that conversation to talk about here.

I was telling Lamar about my recent visit to Beaufort, South Carolina, where Pat Conroy lived. I’ve read The Prince of Tides, and I remember being impressed by his metaphors, but when I was talking to Lamar, I described Conroy’s writing as being “egregiously tragic” (and did that book really need a tiger?). Although Lamar likes Conroy’s work, he said he could see where my phrase might be a suitable description of the writing.

As we sat around the dining table one day tossing information in the air, other writers whose names came up were N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian writer, and I described his novel The Ancient Child, which I had just read. That apparently reminded a lunch guest of Louise Erdrich, a writer who is part Chippewa, and the guest said her writing can be fairly dark. Dark writing, in turn, reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, who I admit I haven’t read, but both Lamar and the lunch guest liked him.

Here is some of the contrast in points of view between me and Lamar: from what I’ve heard of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, I said I will probably never read him. Lamar, by contrast, said that if this were a just world—which of course it isn’t—Cormac McCarthy deserves a Nobel Prize. During the weekend other writers whose names came up were Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, and Borden Deal, who came from the same town as William Faulkner.

Back when I was working with Lamar years ago, we would have staff meetings for The Chattahoochee Review. I would sometimes hear him talk about various writers, in particular southern writers, and I would think “How in God’s name can anyone know all that?” Lamar always seemed to me to know all there was about southern literature. While I was at his house last weekend, he told me that southern literature as a literary discipline was created by Louis Rubin, who also founded the publisher Algonquin Books with Shannon Ravenel. As part of that same conversation, I learned that in Uppsala, Sweden, the university has a department of American southern literature.

Mountain view

One of the views from the yard

There were also times last weekend, usually later in the evening over bottles of wine, when Lamar and I shared stories of the extreme frustration we have both known from trying to publish, either in literary magazines or with book publishers (fiction in my case, of course, and Lamar has written and published many essays). Of course I felt the irony of the editor of a prominent literary magazine sharing my frustration at how difficult and disheartening it is to try to publish in just such a magazine. We didn’t even mention the Chattahoochee, simply shared our war stories of disappointment and struggle, and within the last few months we have both been rejected by a book publisher.

I certainly will be back on that mountaintop some time, and when I go back, we’ve agreed to drive into Asheville to go bar hopping and try some locally brewed beer. When we do, I’m sure we’ll mention a writer or two.

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About the Meaning of Life

plate of chilesThere’s not one.

However . . . it’s not as bleak as it sounds. Who would have thought we would have adverbs to thank for rescuing us from a world of existential vacuity? The savior adverbs, stepping down in glory from the Grammar Book of Heaven, are “inherently” and “just”.

Let’s see this magic at work. There’s not inherently a meaning of life, and There’s not just one meaning of life.

The first statement, of course, sounds a bit pessimistic, what with the idea that life as we find it has no meaning, simply embodying the old adage “First you suffer, then you die.” OK, well, that’s still true, but that first statement leads us on to the second, that there is not just one meaning of life—there are many.

I would be understanding if you were to squint your eyes in that suspicious way you have, thinking So all this time I was asking, where were those meanings? Here’s the hard part—and seriously, why does there always gotta be a goddamn hard part?—you have to discover an individual meaning of life just for yourself. I know that’s not an ideal answer, but it’s better than no meaning, right? For some people the meaning of life might be, I don’t know, learning to cook great Mexican food, or playing basketball, or teaching fifth grade. None of that is my thing, but it might be yours.

A week ago I finished writing a novel, so I sort of knew this was coming. I write the way a drug addict takes drugs, not necessarily for the pleasure of it, but to maintain the illusion of balance and normality. You got heroin, I got Microsoft Word. Which is worse? I can go for a while and not write, but then I get kind of irritable and start to ask, “Good God, what am I getting out of bed for?” When I ain’t writing, I ain’t thriving.

So a week ago, as I said, I finished writing a novel. Since then, every evening I’m sitting here finding ways to pass the time. If I were a normal person—but note, I’m a writer—I’d have a TV and I could kill time the way normal people do, happily, contentedly, flowing through every evening, right up to bedtime, with stories of medieval(ish) Britain, or women in prison, or history shows about ancient Egypt or World War II.

Instead, I started writing a short story, just to let myself do it, because writing is what makes life meaningful for me. I don’t expect to publish the story, as the literary magazines have all seen the memo to avoid me like a rat jumping off a ship from Constantinople in 1348.

It might sound strange, and honestly it even seems kind of strange to me, but when I work on this story (about a man who can see memories that have floated away from people, and he writes them down), while I’m writing, I begin to feel the most contented and at home in the world that I’ve felt all day. Life has meaning.

So if you’re not a writer, I hope you find the thing that does that for you. If cooking Mexican food is your thing, call me, and I’ll help you out with getting rid of it. I really don’t mind doing that for you.

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More Champagne

glasses of champagneThe first time I finished writing a novel, lo them many years ago, I wanted to call all my friends together and have dinner and celebrate the great occasion. I felt sure I had done something huge and serious and people should join me in commemoration of greatness.

Many years later, having written two or three more books in the meantime, I finished writing another novel, and that time I went out to dinner by myself. It happened that there was no one convenient then to go out with me, but still I wanted to do something nice to mark the occasion.

This past Sunday evening, I finished a book that I’ve mentioned here a few times, one I’ve been revising for a while. This time celebrating didn’t really seem possible, no one to go out with, trying to conserve money, and in any case, the next day was Monday and I had to go to work. It’s also true, unlike years ago, that now I can go out to a restaurant if I want to, and I do. Back in the days when I finished writing that first book, eating in a nice restaurant (or any restaurant) was a major and extravagant event.

The book I just finished was twenty years in the writing, beginning back in 1997. It was hardly a novel then, just six separate stories about different characters, linked slightly, but I called it a novel. In the ensuing twenty years, I’ve revised the book three times, each time involving drastic reconsideration, removing characters, adding characters, and throwing away a lot of what I had written.

For the current revision, again I threw out about half the book and brought back a character who had been removed the last time. What was left I cut into pieces and put together with new material. Approximately the second half of the book did not exist before, so from the middle on, I was really writing a new book. In this version, I removed a major character entirely, and another major character now has a supporting role.

As I often do with book names, I labored mightily for years trying to come up with a title, and in different versions the name has changed over time: The Cost of Music, The Land of Melancholy Spices (OK, I liked it at the time), and now it’s called Birds Above the Cage. In effect, however, those were three different books.

The next step is now to find a few people willing to read the novel and give me feedback. I know that asking for a critique of a novel is asking a lot, and ideally I’d like to have people who read literary fiction and may have a better understanding of what I’m trying to do. In the past, I’ve asked someone to read a book who said yes and never did, I’ve asked someone who said yes and months later had not touched it, then seemed irritated when I asked, and I’ve had someone  offer to help and ask to read a book, and even after that never did. Nothing about this process is easy, not in my house, anyway.

I thought I would end this blog entry with the opening paragraph of Birds Above the Cage:

“We think that the ghosts who roam the earth would be immune to natural disasters. For most disasters, such as earthquakes, tidal waves, or broken hearts, no doubt the ghosts are unaffected. A tornado, however, is such a violent force that even ghosts can get caught up in it. It can’t hurt them, but it will whirl them away, sometimes by the hundreds, translucent spirits of the dead whipped and whirled around and around by those powerful winds, helpless apparitions circling off across the countryside. The tornado that hit Gainesville, Georgia, in 1936 like a giant bomb sucked up all the ghosts in Hall County and integrated them in the maelstrom, made those black and white ghosts equal before the wind.”

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Where You From, Boy?

little boy eating watermelon

And then we used the garden hose

There are various ways to put writers in boxes. One day Charles Dickens might be in the British writer box, sitting there chatting with Jane Austen or even Kate Atkinson (using a time machine). Then suddenly the box is white male writers, and Charles is looking around wondering where Jane got off to, while Hemingway is there going on about some fish.

Most writers don’t love the boxes. In general, women writers don’t want to be known as women writers, but as writers. After all, we create because No One Is Quite Like Us. One of the possible boxes people might put me in is one I’ve always considered myself outside of—southern writers. After all, I’ve lived large parts of my life outside the south, and what I write about isn’t just this region.

And yet, here I am in Atlanta, at least for now. I was born and grew up an hour from here, going barefoot on a farm and eating watermelon from my grandfather’s field (I could invoke other cliched rural imagery if needed). The fact is, to be a serious fiction writer, we write about human behavior and aspirations as truly as we know how, which we partly know as an aspect of where we come from.

I would guess that the majority of writers write about the place where their feet are standing, and this has been true of me as well. At the moment I’m finishing one novel and getting ready to begin another, and lately I’ve been thinking about the place where my feet are standing, about southern culture, both current and past, about southern history, and about the depth of our sins here.

Last weekend I had several days of vacation on the coast, at Hilton Head Island and in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, and in Savannah, Georgia. These places are historically and culturally captivating and within an hour’s drive of one another. I spent plenty of time doing the vacation thing, drinking beer, drinking coffee, drinking more beer, and I also went bike riding, just barely saw an alligator, and climbed up to the top of a lighthouse.

Besides gators and beers, I came home contemplating southern history and culture. While riding a bike on Hilton Head, for instance, my friend and I stopped to see the Baynard plantation house ruins. It was a reminder that this island, now so developed as a vacation spot, was once a site with wealthy plantation owners, agriculture, and slave laborers. Among the ruins at the Baynard house are the remains of slave quarters, and all the ruins are made of a common coastal building material called “tabby” that contains oyster shells. For me, that one fact intimately ties the slave economy to the coastal region.

While I was in Beaufort, I was also reminded of the darkness of southern history (I don’t mean to imply that all history isn’t dark). Nearby, on St. Helena Island, is a place called the Penn Center, founded by Pennsylvania Quakers as a school for slave children. What makes the school even more interesting is that it was begun in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, for children freed by Union troops on those islands.

When I look at all of this history—moreso, when I feel all of this history—as a writer I think that I come from a place where there is a lot to be said still. For one thing, as a culture, the south has not seriously dealt with the horror of our history regarding slavery and racism. That is yet to come.

But I want to illustrate an additional point of view. While on vacation, I had a meal in an upscale restaurant, with food based on traditional southern cuisine, and the meal was so good I wondered how it was even possible for food to have that much flavor. In Beaufort, I saw the paintings of local artists and drank the beer of local breweries. One afternoon in Savannah, I sat under oak trees hung with Spanish moss, drinking coffee and looking across the square at the house of Flannery O’Connor, a writer of Irish background.

My point is that the south has been a horrible place, and yet it can be a righteously wonderful place. If I consider myself a southern writer, I wonder if this doesn’t give me something in common with Irish writers, who might say “We come from a place that has been fucked up beyond any rational comprehension, and yet we are tied to it and love so much about it.”

The American south can evoke those same feelings. That may be useful for a writer.

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