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John Counts’ Utility Room ~ Another View From the Keyboard May 26, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Things and Stuff, View From the Keyboard.
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I remember hearing John Counts read at a graduate student event some years ago at Sheffield’s, a long-standing Chicago establishment with a history of supporting literary events. Now you know how it can be listening to readings in bars–not everyone is there for the words. Still, when John stepped up to the mike, he took control. People shut up. People listened. People sipped their beers quietly, intent on not missing a word. John’s stories have heart and they have balls (I tried to think of another word that might not offend some, but sorry, this is the very best word to fit here) and you will want to read more.

These days John Counts lives in gorgeous Northern Michigan, where he writes not just fiction, but also for the Manistee News Advocate. His fiction has been published in the 2010 Chicago Reader Pure Fiction issue, as well as in the online journals Monkey Bicycle and Knee Jerk. His blog: Oh Pines! The Notes of a North Country Newsman comments on things literary, political, and everyday ordinary, as well as his often strange work as a police reporter. Below, he describes his writing space for View From the Keyboard.

John: My writing utility room in Northern Michigan. There is a sink in the room. The desk is nothing more than an old door on sawhorses. There are five sinks in the entire second story of the old house in Manistee, which my wife, Meredith, and I rent dirt cheap. There are sinks in bedrooms and in our dining room/library. Apparently, the 100-or-so-year-old house used to belong to Jehovah Witnesses who used to host overnight visitors here. I hope their spiritual determination rubs off in my work in some way, but not exactly in a literal way.

So that’s what you can’t see. What you can see is the corner of the “utility room” I call my office. The utility room. That’s what our landlord referred to it as when we toured the place. As evidenced by the white smears on the white and blue wall, it’s not a finished room. The ceiling is green with white swoops of patch and prime paint. It’s eternally under construction. But down where the writing work happens is the desk itself. There is an ancient laptop with a dead screen, thus the monitor that I’ve plugged in to keep things going. There are guitars, which occupy me when I’m stuck.

There is a lot of visual stimulation on the bulletin board. Pictures of hero-writers like Jim Harrison from Detroit Free Press profiles where he’s standing outside his own Northern Michigan abode with a dog and an empty box of whisky. Or, in another, in overalls with a horse. And then there’s Saul Bellow standing in a pork pie hat with bustling Chicago behind him. I try and try to make sure I’m not disappointing these fellows. I usually fail. Sometimes, like Beckett, I hope I fail better.

There are pictures of bird dogs, a ticket stub from the last game played at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and backstage passes from St. Andrews Hall in Detroit and the Metro in Chicago from back when I played in rock and roll bands. Keepsakes to remind me that writing is about life, experience, memory. Next to the bulletin board is a picture of my old man typing away in the newsroom of the Bay City Times in the 1970s, a trade I’ve followed him in here at the Manistee newspaper. I’m usually in my utility room writing before the “real” workday begins covering all the sordid crimes that happen in this sparsely-populated county.

There are also peanuts in a Mr. Peanut jar and a brown paper bag of dead batteries. A lamp. Pens. A stray hiking boot. Maps. What-nots.

It’s a utility room, which always reminds me that writing is a craft. That it’s something to be worked at, worked at and worked at. I like to think that I build stories over the sawhorses like I’m creating something tangible like a cuckoo clock. Just like the room, my work is always “under construction.” And there’s always a nearby sink when I get thirsty.

From “The Anarchy of Blood” (an excerpt):

Maybe criminals and artists are hatched from the same desperate egg thought the failed poet Pete Binnquist. Thirty years old used to mean something: a career, a home, a family. Instead, the night it all started, Binnquist was half-numbed from whisky driving the streets of Detroit with a coked-up Indian fumbling with a nine millimeter in the passenger seat.

“You’re driving too slow, Binnquist,” Bobby “The Moose” Cobmoosa said. “Speed up, pussy.”

Binnquist wasn’t so much afraid as he was terrified. The materials that signified Detroit in the night: a light-post leaning and threatening to fall into the street emitting no glow, a helicopter clacking away overhead, the summer heat jelling in the air, draping itself blackly over the tired old buildings of this tired old city.

They zoomed through downtown streets in the sputtering Sonata, Pete at the wheel, two guys from the rural North Country trying to navigate the confusing downtown streets that seemed to run them in circles.

Binnquist was terrified not so much of the city, but because Moose was dangerous, a real criminal. Binnquist had no idea where they were going and what they would do when they got there. Cobmoosa was a half-breed who grew up in the tough-ass tribal housing on Indian land near the casino in their hometown. He came downstate from Bear County on Michigan’s northwestern coast for unexplained reasons a week ago and had been using Binnquist’s Ferndale apartment as a crash pad for sinister purposes.

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Thanks, John, for the visit to your utility room. Perhaps every writer should have a sink nearby while they write–a place to perform the necessary ablutions. -PMc←

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