Egg Salad Stains and Holden Caulfield ~ J. D. Salinger and a View From the Keyboard

60 years ago, J. D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye, the American classic that made many of us want to write our own stories and tell the secret societal truths like Holden did, while we hid our anguish with urbane and witty banter. Today, as a celebration of this remarkable work of fiction, I bring to you a delightful poem by Billy Collins.

Marginalia – Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

◊◊◊

Image is of Salinger in 1952. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society/Getty Images, found on The Guardian website. -PMc←

“I Look At Beautiful Things” ~ David Baker’s View From the Keyboard

David Baker was one of those very talented MFA candidates I have had the lucky opportunity to work with during my time at Columbia College Chicago. I can still remember bits of his stories from early on: a pair of brothers on a porch, the glow of one’s cigarette ember in the night; a rural landscape that was so green and vast in his creation, I sort of felt like I could step off the page and into it. So imagine my delight when after a number of years, the magic of Facebook put us in touch again after he moved from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. And over the years we’ve checked in now and then, mostly through short notes and public posts. I’ve kept an eye on his creative practice, enjoying greatly clips of his films on his website: http://301media.com/301/films/. And now I am happy to introduce him to you.

David: Where do I write? That’s a tough one. Almost as hard to answer as that other dirty question: “So, what have you written?”

I’m somewhat given to literary promiscuity. I once had an all-consuming passion to write a literary novel. It was a torrid affair lasting a decade during which I wrote two manuscripts that I was pleased with, though the hundreds of agents and editors I queried were less enthusiastic. Then I slipped around with some short stories, articles, a few poems and some screenplays, consummating the relationship with a few of these in published form.

I moved in with copywriting after discovering that there are very real and rewarding storytelling pleasures in marketing, chief among those being a regular paycheck.

My latest flame is a documentary called Vino Veritas (http://thewinemovie.com), and most of the writing I do there is in the form of grants. A few interview questions. Narration. Oh, and some video editing, which isn’t too different from its cousin, revising prose. But mostly it’s fundraising letters. Making movies is largely about begging money off your friends.

At home I write in the kitchen, on the couch, in bed and on the front and back porch. In Oregon it’s easy to find a free stump in the forest, a location in which seems to work especially well for me. I travel as often as I can, waking up a few hours before my family to perch somewhere with a view, spending half the time gazing and procrastinating and the balance scribbling in a journal.

That’s a practice I carry over from my time at Columbia College Chicago, where journals were required in the Fiction Writing Department. I was a bit puzzled at first. I didn’t make the connection between what felt at the time like a diary and the types of novels I hoped to write. I wondered why instructors insisted on page after page of handwritten introspection. “Type up your journal entries and turn them in.” I didn’t get it. I wanted to write fiction, not a memoir.

But now I understand. The journal is the glue that holds me together as a storyteller in this era of fractious media. Blogs are fine, but journals are something more elemental. The magic of a journal…the old fashioned kind where you scratch ink into the bleached, flattened pulp of slain trees…is that personal meditation on the practice of storytelling, and in my mind it’s the most essential form of writing one can do. Writing isn’t like riding a bike. You’ve got to work at it every day or the images fade and your voice loses its distinct timbre you’ve worked so hard to develop.

So I write on paper, in a notebook, jotting down what I had for dinner, other banalities, perhaps scenes, vignettes, outlines, illustrations…whatever informs the dozen or so different writing projects tumbling through my brain on any given day.

And the places I write the best are those that inspire me physically or move me emotionally. My kitchen is fine, but, for example, a fire lookout on Timber Butte in the Cascade Range is even better. It’s a small box of glass perched at the dead end of a logging road. I can’t sleep in there because it’s filled with light at five thirty a.m. as soon as the sun crests the horizon. So I get up, make coffee and write to the sound of my snoring wife and daughter.

As I skim back through the battered journals, all of the most meaningful entries have a location other than my home address. The place names themselves are poetry: Ochocos, Rainier, Walla Walla, Montepulciano, Black Hills, Chamonix, Absorokas. I know now why Hemingway decided to set his best story on the Big Two-Hearted River instead of the Fox, when everyone who’s fished Michigan’s Upper Peninsula knows the trout are bigger on the Fox.

It is in these geographically scattered journal entries I can find the bones of my most successful writing efforts. The outline for my screenplay The Eulogist—which earned me a few prizes, some decent option money and almost became a movie—was scribbled on a sagging mattress in a cheap hotel room in Paris after being awakened from a dream by the cacophonous waterfall of the shared bathroom next door.

Seven years after writing that journal entry, it became a script. A few years later I found myself at a restaurant in Santa Monica talking to a director and producer about who might play a lead character who would never have existed if someone hadn’t flushed a toilet in l’Hôtel Central a decade before. I’m still giddy by the absurdity of it all. It hasn’t become a film yet. It maybe never will. But that one journal entry took me on a ride that has been the high point of my little literary career. It may not seem like much, but after years of rejection letters, I’m pretty pleased with it.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with calling myself a writer. If you do that, someone invariably comes up to you and asks you what you have written. I don’t have a simple answer for that question.

But to answer that question correctly—what do you write?—I’d have to say that I write a journal. It’s mostly illegible script that rarely earns a second read by the author, let alone anyone else. But it’s what I do. I’m a writer. I wander around this great blue and green rock. I wake up early. I look at beautiful things. And I write a journal.

Here’s something I scribbled one morning after camping on the beach south of Waldport, Oregon. I’m not sure what, if anything, it will become. I’ve toyed around with making it into a short film. I also feel like there could be a novel in there somewhere. Or it may just live out the rest of its days a humble journal entry. I’m okay with that, too. After all, that’s my life’s work.

The Foster Child

She’s six years old and has three failed adoptions and suffered a number of smaller atrocities, but now she’s sprinting up the beach against the wind, clutching the pink leash of a borrowed Labrador, the wind swallowing the frantic shouts of her foster mother and the dog’s owner.

She strains cold air through her teeth, not quite a grin, and the blown sand that crusts her lashes and snakes over her receding footprints scours this hard child’s shell. Inside she’s all mush and hurt, but that shell, man, it’s something. You could break bottles on it.

She’s never before seen the sunset or the ocean, and this sudden confluence has her on a high. She trusts the dog and the reckless, headlong strides. The taste of the salt air, gulps of crab rot, kelp and bird shit.

She doesn’t understand her crimes, even less so the sentence, but the pounding of her feet, the tiny splash of each stride on the wet sand…this feels very real and solid to her. Her brown hair is a ribbon, a salt-sticky pennant streaming behind her. The dog’s tongue lolls and flaps, and there are three princesses and sequins stitched into her garage sale sweatshirt.

She doesn’t know that regular children aren’t in the habit of screaming themselves to sleep at night, and they will assert their rights with tooth and claw only at their peril. Punishment doesn’t really work on her. “Is that all you got,” she grins back over her shoulder.

She also doesn’t know that the Labrador, who gallops ahead of her, tugging on the leash, aware only of a gull in the distance and this strange little creature in tow who is indulging her penchant for headlong flight, has only this morning chewed the armrest off of the sofa and that she shits regularly on an heirloom throw rug, the oblivious creature persisting only through the owner’s sense of duty.

The girl glances back only briefly to see her latest mother and the dog’s owner both waving and cupping their hands to their mouths to shout into a wind that sucks the voice out of their words before they even cross their lips. Then the Labrador snaps the leash and puts her head down to gallop with redoubled stride, as if to say, “come on, kid, now’s our chance.”

The girl squeezes her eyes shut and trusts the leash and the yellow plug of fur and muscle at the other end, not heeding the voices she can no longer hear, not even sensing that the big people far behind her are, without even admitting it to themselves, both hoping that these two girls just keep on running.

◊◊◊
→David Baker, thank you for letting us into your glass box and your imagined world. Looking forward to what comes next. -PMc←

Shaking Things Up At Shake Rag Alley

William Burroughs, Franz Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Plath, Maxine Hong Kingston, William Faulkner, Kara Walker, William Blake, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat. What do these writers and artists have in common? They all use both writing and drawing in their creative practices. And at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, WI, August 8 – 11, 2011 writers and artists will join together to explore the possibilities of combining writing and drawing as a way to enhance their own work.

Philip Hartigan and I will be teaching our popular Journal and Sketchbook workshop in the mornings of that week, and Philip will teach Making Artists’ Books in the afternoon. These are separate workshops that can be taken individually or together. From the Shake Rag Alley catalogue:

Journal & Sketchbook and Making Artists’ Books are designed to complement one another so participants may take both. Taken together, these workshops will help you create your own artists’ books and discover and create content for them as well.

Journal & Sketchbook is geared toward writers and artists of all levels. Activities will help you use visual note taking, writing, and expressive mark making to help you record memories, observations, imaginings, stories, and visual narratives. This pairing and interplay of text and image is a time-honored artistic tradition, practiced by writers and artists from Mark Twain to Henri Matisse to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and is useful for all manner of creative expression. ens.

Making Artists’ Books is designed to meet each participant at his/her own skill and experience level. Learn how to make your own unique, one-of-a-kind artist’s books. The course shows you how to: select the right paper for your project; create your pages using printmaking (linocuts, monoprint), drawings, collage, paintings; make a variety of book formats such as accordion books, star books, map-fold books, and simple pamphlets; bind and collate your pages in a variety of stitching methods. You will also consider how to make an artist’s book out of found materials. Many materials will be provided, but participants are encouraged to bring photos, art supplies, and anything with a flat surface that might be used in book arts.

Evening activities during getaway include: Monday night artist presentation and talk by instructor Philip Hartigan; Tuesday evening reading and author conversation by instructor Patricia Ann McNair; Thursday evening closing reception, reading, and exhibition by workshop participants.

Class Schedule: Journal & Sketchbook, M-Th, 9-12; Making Artists’ Books, M-Th 1-4. Participants enrolled in just one workshop will have optional open and guided studio time.

To register for Journal and Sketchbook and/or Creating Artists’ Books, contact Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts & Crafts, 18 Shake Rag Street, Mineral Point, WI 53565; Telephone: (608) 987-3292 :: www.ShakeRagAlley.com :: info@shakeragalley.com

◊◊◊

More on the work we do in these workshops at The Writing Life” blog by Katey Schultz and Philip’s various posts on “Praeterita.” Writers: don’t be afraid; stick figures count. Artists: don’t be afraid; every word counts. Images above are scrambled collages of well-known writers/artists, participant work from past workshops, and Shake Rag Alley, respectively. -PMc←

View From the Keyboard ~ Malcolm Lowry

“What I have absolutely no sympathy with is the legislator, the man who seeks, for his own profit, to exploit the weaknesses of those who are unable to help themselves and then to fasten some moral superscription upon it. This I loathe so much that I cannot conceivably explain how much it is.” – Malcolm Lowry, 1909 – 1957. Author, Under the Volcano.

An appropriate quote for a time when our own legislators are fighting over budgets and debt ceilings. -PMc←

A Cross Between a Rabbit Hole and a Storm Cellar ~ View From the Keyboard of Lauryn Allison Lewis

Lauryn Allison Lewis is becoming a literary go-to girl here in Chicago. She’s a regular reader about town (including reading at tonight’s QUICKIES! Chicago event at the Innertown Pub at 7:30) and is known for her fine reviews in Literary Chicago. Lauryn writes fiction, book and bakery reviews, interviews, and essays. Her fiction has been featured at Curbside Splendor, Dogzplot, Bartleby Snopes, and other sites. Her haute chapbook, The Beauties, can be found at LaurynAllisonLewis.com. Her first novella is forthcoming from CCLaP in 2012. She is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine, a coeditor of Literary Chicago, and a regular contributor for both.

And here is where it all happens—

Lauryn: My writing space is much more like a closet than an office. It juts out from the corner of my living room, which sometimes makes it a noisy place to work. Still, the natural light in this corner of the house is better than anywhere else, and I shamelessly hog sunny patches; I am very much like a cat that way.

I usually write directly into my laptop, but I also keep a journal close by to reference notes I’ve made, or story-clues I’ve left myself in the night. Yes, I am one of those weird sleep-writers. This morning’s note, for example, says: a cross between a rabbit hole and a storm cellar. This makes sense to me. I have a Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter that I will sometimes use to write letters and poems. Whenever I use the typewriter I feel compelled to pour myself a gigantic scotch, chain smoke cigarettes, and channel Ernest Hemingway. This only ever happens very late at night.

Along with my books, I keep a lot of little doodads on the shelf beside my desk. The ceramic Chinese Good Fortune Kitty was a gift from my mom. Not sure yet if it actually brings good fortune, but its little winking face makes me smile and I gaze at it a lot when the writing isn’t jiving. Last winter I constructed bird’s nests for some robot-birds I’d been dreaming about. Did you know that robot-birds lay square eggs? Well they do. Keeping them nearby reminds me to strive to see the world in less-usual ways.

I have a cork board hanging directly behind my swivel chair. Right now it is full of images that help me to conjure the emotions I want to put into the story I’m working on. The image in the upper left corner is of Leo Tolstoy’s grave in the Stary Zakaz Wood. Kind of morbid, maybe, but I think it looks so beautiful and peaceful. Below that is a tiny painting of Kurt Vonnegut made by my friend Nikki Hollander. Lots of images of farms, forests, and bare trees. A letter from Stuart Dybek written on yellow legal pad paper. The card of an editor at Greywolf who’s interested in the novel manuscript I’m wrapping up. A blue paper badge that says COURAGE, which I found going through my grandma’s things, just after she passed away. My husband calls this a “mood board”. I call it motivation.

So that’s it! Nothing fancy, but I do get a ton of work done here. I wrote ninety percent of The Beauties here, including this:

The Beauties (an excerpt)

There was silence between them and a late summer gust blew across the fallow wheat field to the north of the house and whistled through the wild raspberry patch growing gnarled beside it. Seconds stretched to snapping, then sprung back with sonic force, creating in the wake a silence so cataclysmic, so emptied of sentiment, it expanded infinitely and devoured all surrounding sound; it leeched color from the landscape. Fern rubbed her bare arm as though from cold.

“Happy Birthday, Fern,” Jerry said again, because he was the father, a man; because it was his duty to push on. He felt the words come apart in his throat and splinter his voice. He couldn’t keep watching her rub her arms like that, afraid of what he’d see, afraid to see her rice paper skin threaded with tiny blue veins slashed apart, flayed. He fought the urge to slap her arms away from each other, wanting suddenly to forbid her body the comfort of its own touch. He didn’t want to see her without the speed of a horse blowing her hair back the way he’d imagined it.

◊◊◊

If you’d like to read more from The Beauties, you can find the chapbook at my website: LaurynAllisonLewis.com. There’s also a rundown there of the readings I’m participating in during the month of July. Thanks for letting me share my view from the keyboard!

Thank you, Lauryn, for the tour. Break a leg at the reading tonight. Hey, and writer/readers, why not contribute to View From the Keyboard? Guidelines here. -PMc←

On Influences, Human Frailty, Structure, God, VOLT, and Story ~ Interview with Alan Heathcock

Alan Heathcock’s VOLT is a collection of stories about residents of the small, familiar-yet-imagined town of Krafton. Heathcock’s debut collection is attracting high praise: “…a writer to watch…” – Library Journal; “…impressive debut collection…” – Publishers’ Weekly; ““beautifully unfettered, quintessentially American…” – Literary Chicago; “…shocking, illuminating and unforgettable…” – NPR.

Readers of this site might remember Alan Heathcock from his contribution to View From the Keyboard. He’s the guy with the way cool VOLT-mobile.

Recently, Alan spent some time answering some of my questions about VOLT, his writerly choices, influences, and other things literary. Let me share this conversation with you:

PMc: Place is clearly important to VOLT. This small town, Krafton, evolves through time and event as the stories are told. How did you, as a Chicago boy, find this place (clearly rural and likely different from the neighborhoods you knew as a kid) and know that it was the place you wanted to create on the page? And is it supposed to be a small town in any specific state or region?

AH: Both of my parents are from small towns (most all of my relatives are, in fact), and though I grew up in Chicago, I was raised with small town ethics. That said, I don’t think there’s much difference between a city neighborhood and a small town. In both, everyone knows everyone, for both good and bad, and certain behaviors are expected; a certain way to dress, talk, eat, dance, worship… The difference between a small town and Hazel Crest, where I grew up, would be in the details, a cornfield instead of an empty lot, a barn instead of a warehouse. The reason I made Krafton a rural town instead of a city neighborhood was my ability then to isolate the characters from outside influences, forcing them to have to act alone, to turn inward. Also, I suppose, I had some desire to write a book that people understood was about America, and the homogeneity of a rural town would be understood from coast to coast—I’m proud of the fact that different reviewers have placed Krafton in the south, the west, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. All of them are right, of course. I never declare a region for Krafton, and intentionally left that ambiguous so people from all parts of America can claim it as their own (or, depending, recognize Krafton as a place they know, and then disown it completely).

PMc: Many of your characters also become familiar to your readers as they get deeper into the book. Can you talk some about how these characters—particularly the recurring ones (Helen, Walt, Vernon, Jorgen, etc.)—came into being? As you wrote these stories, were they always the same characters? Or did you discover they were similar beings and could be the same characters with some revision?

AH: At the very beginning, I was just inventing the town and its people, and there were types of characters that would eventually become the Helens and Vernons of this book. What happened was that as I invented the characters they became real. I then fell to the mercy of the truth of this place.  If Helen Farraley’s the only law officer in town, then if a crime occurs she’d show up (of course). It wouldn’t be another law officer because there isn’t one. If someone needs religious counsel then the town’s pastor, Vernon Hamby, would be there. So much of writing, as I understand it, is taking the worlds I create seriously—so seriously that often the town dictates the story and its players, not me. It’s a real place.  These are real people. I love this about writing, as it’s a kind of magic. If I can surrender my ego, and give the story completely over to the truth of this world and its inhabitants, then honest things will happen. Honesty (truth) is the writer’s greatest weapon. If a character has a life changing experience in one story, then, as is the truth of the world, they change, and that change must appear, must be felt, in subsequent stories. Though this is a collection of short stories, I build continuity by allowing this to always be Krafton, which allows a reader to accumulate an intimacy with place and characters that’s not usually felt in the disparate nature of most story collections.

PMc: There are also a number of individual story lines carried through VOLT that gather even more weight and resonance when you put them together. How did you find this structure? And which stories were written first, next, and finally?

AH: A lot of the stories were parts of two failed novels. The novels failed because of a misunderstanding I had about how to write. Back then, I thought being a literary writer meant you just created a character, put them in a place (Krafton), and followed them around. In my case, I followed them into a whole lot of nothing. At first, I thought I was the next Walker Percy. Then I realized that whereas Percy was accumulating a kind of depth and momentum (even without a hard “plot”), I was just writing more scenes about the same people in the same place without any sense of greater movement. I was smart enough to scrap the novels, but I saw that within those discarded pages were really strong dramatic movements. Because I already had the greater context of the characters’ lives left over from the novel, I could add a few things to certain sections and they would stand alone as short stories.

I then realized that all of my best parts (stories) were grinding away on the same themes. My greatest preoccupation was, and still is, that of looking at the invasive nature of violence and the tenuous nature of peace. I also found, even better, that the novel-pieces-turned-stories were hitting those same themes, but from different angles, with different insights. It was then that I saw the book had the potential of being like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or James Joyce’s The Dubliners. I recognized that I needed a couple of new stories to fill thematic gaps (questions I hadn’t yet answered for myself).  I wrote those few new stories, as stories (not scraps from novels). Finally, the incredibly smart folks at Graywolf Press helped me put these pieces in the order that now makes up the book, VOLT.

Because they were parts of novels, it’s hard to say which stories were written first, though “Peacekeeper” was the first one published, followed by “The Staying Freight”, “Smoke”, and “Fort Apache”. The last stories written were “The Daughter” and “Volt”.

PMc: A couple of the recurring themes or issues in the book deal with faith and the crisis of faith, as well as (at times) transcendence. Some of your characters are religious folks (albeit with their own transgressions) and you are willing to make a direct reference to God now and again. How and why did you make these choices? Why does this sort of character and this type of writing interest you at this point in your writing life?

AH: Big questions. I could write pages on these questions. Here’s a couple glancing thoughts.

A few years ago, in Boise, Idaho, where I live, the local government decided they couldn’t have a Ten Commandments monument in a public park. Idaho being a very conservative state, there was much outrage over this decision, and as a show of support for the monument many folks put signs in their yards that quoted the Ten Commandments. Years later, a lot of those signs are still in yards. One yard in particular always catches my attention because it’s on the route of my daily run, and because it has two signs, one with the Ten Commandments, and the other that reads “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.  SUPPORT OUR TROOPS”. I don’t quite know what to make of this tension, one sign that clearly says “VI. Thou shall not kill” while the other implying that, in times of war, we must kill. This tension is not new to me, and is not exclusive to Idaho, or even the United States. But, as a moral being, this tension rages in me more than any other.

I don’t look at Christianity as a political movement, and I have no desire whatsoever to make a political statement here. In my mind, this has nothing to do with conservatives versus liberals. I have many friends and relatives who are/were soldiers and I’m very proud of them, and thankful for what they do. That said, and perhaps because I feel that way, I’m stuck in a deep moral quandary. I can’t make sense of it for myself. Even now, after having written a book in which I asked these questions over and over, I’m not sure how to feel.

I just read Tolstoy’s take on Christ’s telling us to “resist not evil” as a call to do just that—to not fight evil. A lot of what he discusses makes sense to me intellectually, and yet I struggle to rectify his insights with what I see in the world. Preachers and soldiers hang plentiful throughout my family tree, and I tend to be a serious and reverent individual, with a temperament that would lend itself to both the ministry and warfare. As a younger man, I thought long and hard about becoming a preacher, as well as joining the military. I write to make sense of the world for myself, to try and enact order on what too often feels unhinged. I tend to force the tension of the two yard-signs, God’s laws versus man’s laws, into my stories. I force myself to be the soldier, and to be the preacher (quite literally in the case of my book) to see what insights might be revealed about the world, about myself.

I have noticed that not many contemporary literary writers take on religion (especially Christianity) in any earnest way, which seems odd to me only because we live in the world that is largely ruled by the tension between the religious and the secular.

Finally, if someone writes about rural America without any mention of religion, they’ve experienced a different town than the ones I’ve known. It’s not up to me as an author to decide if people use religion as a means to heal from grief and/or make sense of their lives, but only to abide the truth that they do. I’ve seen religion, at its best, work in the lives of individuals, enabling them to transcend hardship and grief, and not in any shallow Chicken-Soup For The Soul way, but in deep life-altering way. I’ve seen religion at its worst, too, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.

I’m also fascinated by the story of Christ’s march to the cross, his resurrection, because I find the story told so often to the cliché center, the Bible-school version and not much more. I just feel there’s more to it than that Christ died for the sins of Christians. What I find so interesting are some of the human truths involved. I think of how lonesome Jesus must have felt carrying that cross all alone through the streets. Why had he worked so hard? Had he not spoken the truth? Of course, he called out on the cross that God had forsaken him. And then he went off into the tomb. In a church I attended for years, every week we read a section of scripture about Christ’s resurrection. There’s one line that says while in the tomb Jesus descended into Hell to later return to earth. For me, that was a big realization. Christ descended into Hell and then came back for the rock to be rolled away. I find this story to work as a perfect metaphor for how people overcome tragedy. The loneliness of carrying the cross, the forsaken feeling of being crucified, the time spent in the dark tomb, the descent into Hell, and then the fact that we have to face the sunlight, and get to go live so more.

I used this line of thinking directly in the end of my story “Lazarus”, where I have Vernon Hamby, the town’s pastor, who is mourning the loss of his son (a solider killed in Iraq), counsel a young man from his congregation, who is lost and mourning the death of his mother:

“Every day’s a new batch of crosses,” he finally said. “All of us taking our turn.” Vernon watched Dillard until the boy gave him his eyes. “Christ didn’t just die for our sins, son,” Vernon said. “Christ taught us how to be crucified. How to go off into the tomb. But then, after a while, that rock rolls away and the sun shines in and you get to go live some more.”

I just feel this is a profound truth, one not written about or even discussed (not ever in my experience), yet one vitally applicable to the greater human condition.

PMc: These stories seem to be part of a long literary tradition that includes authors like Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, John Steinbeck—writers who value the lonely and the misfit characters as well as the American landscape in its splendor and potential for danger and devastation. Were you influenced by any of these writers? Whose work do you consider influential to your own?

AH: Thank you. I’m very happy to be in the gothic tradition with the authors you noted, as all of them are huge influences on my work. I’m kind of an old soul, and find that most of my influences are dead writers, including (besides those you mentioned) Hemingway (especially his stories featuring Nick Adams), James Joyce (especially The Dubliners), Sherwood Anderson, Albert Camus, Carson McCullers, Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, and Harper Lee (to name a few). From contemporary writers there’s Rick Bass, Richard Bausch, Richard Ford, Daniel Woodrell, Dan Chaon, Chris Offutt, Tony Earley, and Joyce Carol Oates. My work is influenced by the playwrights Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, and Horton Foote, and filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, Michael Haneke, Michaelangelo Antonioni, and Francis Ford Coppola.

But really I have two main influences. One is Cormac McCarthy, whose books in style and substance resonate with me deeper and longer than anything else I’ve ever read. I think The Road is a perfect book. Second is Ingmar Bergman, whose films are often savage and raw, always beautiful, are like instruction manuals on human frailty and motivation. I admired his film Winter Light so much that I literally wrote down every word of dialog in my notebook.

PMc: Let’s talk about structure and artistic choices a bit more. You begin VOLT with the accidental death of a child through the (somewhat unavoidable) fault of a parent. My collection, THE TEMPLE OF AIR, also starts with the accidental death of a child at the hands of a parent. I have received a bit of resistance to this story; some readers tell me they have skipped it and gone on to the next because they couldn’t face the brutality right off. In fact, one book designer was unwilling to work on my cover because of the way the book started. Did you consider that you might be challenging some audiences with this beginning? Have you gotten any feedback or blowback from it?

Let me include here what I consider the most beautiful sentence on the first page:

He whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.

AH: My editors at Graywolf decided that would be the first story, and I agreed. And I have heard a little resistance, people who read the first page and can’t go on. I’ve thought a lot about this over the past few months. I know certain populations find my work, in general, too intense, and that story in particular difficult (impossible for some). Should I change, do something different in my next book? Would certain book clubs love me more?

I’m really not a big macho-man, tough-guy, who writes these terrible things with a sneer and a cackle. My extended family (on both my mother’s and father’s sides), have faced terrible tragedies that include the death of children. I won’t go into detail here, but I’ve seen the incredible damage events like these have caused. So…this stuff is a part of me. It’s in my blood and marrow. There’s even a part of me that wishes I didn’t have to face the stories myself. It was excruciating to empathetically write the pain through which I put my characters. Many days, especially writing “The Staying Freight” (the story you reference), I sat at my desk crying and crying. So I’m not going to begin to try and soft-peddle what I’ve written, and I’m not going to play used-car salesman, either, trying to make people believe it’s something that it’s not just so they’ll buy the book. It is what it is.

I wrote all of these stories because of stuff inside me that won’t go away. I’m the happiest man on earth, in part, because on a daily basis I take time to look directly at the things that scare and confound me. I believe the highest purpose of literature is to allow us to look directly at ourselves, though in a way that’s bearable. If I’m haunted, I at least understand why the ghouls appear each night, and I am not afraid.

All this said, I’ve been bolstered by what these stories have done out in the world. A woman in Oregon said she drove an hour and a half to come meet me because she’d recently lost one of her children and upon reading “The Staying Freight” was able to face some of her own grief. I’ve done several book clubs where the ladies are demure while in the group, but later, separately, a woman will come sit beside me and quietly tell me about something they’ve seen, something that’s happened to them. Something similar has happened at just about every reading or event I’ve done. I feel it’s a tremendous privilege, this powerful intimacy granted to me, and all because too often these kinds of stories are tossed aside as inappropriate or unseemly. I always thank people who share their tragic stories. It’s such a powerful interaction, a liberation of fear and/or shame. I tear-up a little just thinking about it.

So, yes, this stuff is difficult, but it’s real. It’s a part of our world. The only thing I can promise is that I’m not writing with such intensity, about such awful things, because I’m trying to entertain you, or myself. I take this stuff seriously, and use all my abilities, all my hard won sensitivities, to search for any available light in the darkness, for any insights to be gleaned, and to imbue my work, despite its subject, with truth and beauty.

PMc: Why did you choose the short story as your format to consider these ideas, Alan? The short story can be a tough row to hoe in this marketplace. Was it difficult to find a home for the collection? So far response to VOLT has been very good—and rightfully so. Why do you think some collections make it and others don’t?

AH: Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve heard that no one will publish stories, that stories don’t sell, and so forth and so on…  Yet my case is different. We sent the manuscript to one publisher, our top choice (Graywolf Press), and they took it. Though the book isn’t on the New York Times Bestseller list, it’s been on smaller bestseller lists, and though VOLT has only been out a couple of months it’s already in its third printing. I see that there are more writing programs than ever, more literary magazines, more people trying to write and publish short stories. Because of this I feel story collections should be able to compete in the marketplace.

So why did my book thread the needle? It’s not a question I can fully answer here, because I feel it’s a complex answer and has to do with the stories themselves, the talents of my publisher, timing, luck, and a myriad of fortuitous bounces I’ve made for myself. In a general sense I’ll say that too often I read collections of stories that don’t feel like a book. They’re a grouping of random stories slapped between covers. There isn’t a greater reward, an accumulation, from reading all of the stories. This is a major problem. As much as creative writing programs discuss individual stories, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an extended conversation, in a classroom, about how to build a story collection. I’ve noticed that the collections that seem to make the cut in the marketplace are, individually, powerful books. Books, not just stories. One thing I’d love to do for the world of writing programs would be to draw such intense emphasis away from the individual story, and put more emphasis on the book.

PMc: And what books are you reading now?

AH: I’m reading Touch by Alexi Zentner, which reads like a Marilyn Robinson novel, but with ghosts and monsters. I’m also reading American Masculine by Shann Ray, a rugged and amazing collection of heart-stomping stories. Finally, I just started The End of California by Steve Yarbrough, which, early on, is totally cooking with gas.

PMc: Would you mind sharing with us what you are now working on in the VOLT-mobile?

AH: I’m working on a novel, about another Great Flood (a la Noah), and a family floating around in the house-turned-arc, trying to survive a war over the world’s last remaining mountain peaks.

PMc: Alan Heathcock, thank you for spending time talking about writing with me. I look forward to reading more from you.

→ Since this conversation took place, I have put Bergman’s WINTER LIGHT in my Netflix cue, and am reminded that I must read WINESBURG, OHIO again. Coming later this week, the final installment of “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.” Thanks for reading (not just this blog, but for reading in general. You know.) -PMc←

“The Bones of the Book Glimmer…” ~ A Review from TNB

I have just found out that The Temple of Air was reviewed in The Nervous Breakdown. Such a stellar review. So thoughtful and positive. A great way to have my review cherry popped.

Here’s a snippet of what the reviewer, Leah Tallon, wrote: “The bones of the book glimmer in the spirit of Winesburg, Ohio. McNair’s sentences are free flowing and emotionally charged, electric power lines running straight to your brain. Each word is honest and relatable.”

Not bad, eh?

I would encourage you to read the review in its entirety if you are willing, and I also remind you that while the book will be officially launched at Women and Children First in Chicago on September 9, 2011, advanced orders are being taken at Elephant Rock Books.