Monthly Archives: August 2017

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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