Patty is taking a well earned rest after a hard semester at Columbia College, where she is currently the acting chair of the renowned Fiction Writing department. Her academic duties have also coincided with the launch of her short story collection, “The Temple of Air”. Which is why you’re reading this blog in the first place, isn’t it?
Actually, if you know Patty personally, it will not surprise you to know that she is taking a well-earned nap at the moment. Which is why I am standing in for her and writing this blog post from Florida, where we are spending the New Year holiday in an effort to recharge the batteries before 2012.
So it is New Year’s Eve, and today in St. Augustine, Florida, it was in the mid-seventies Fahrenheit. The photo above is of one of the grand old buildings framed against a glorious blue sky. If you’re reading this in the frozen north somewhere, and you’re feeling a little bit envious, and perhaps wishing all kinds of bad things on me, then I have succeeded in my intention. My work is done here.
What do I really want to say, before Patty wakes up, reads what I’ve written, and starts deleting everything? I want to say that as the husband of the author, it is difficult to have an objective opinion about my wife’s writing, or at least to persuade people that I could have an objective opinion. But I hope you’ll believe me when I say that even if I were not married to Patty, and if I had happened upon “The Temple of Air” as an anonymous reader, I would have been bowled over by the strength of the writing, the dark nature of the material, the toughness of the characters’ emotional struggles. I love the way in which we seem to traverse dark landscapes with Nova, Sky, Michael, and the others, and that there are no easy answers to their conflicts. I love the sense that the only saving grace comes from us, the readers, as the silent witnesses to their pain.
2011 saw the publication of these stories. It brought a memorable book launch at Women and Children First, in Chicago. An interview on the local NPR station with the inestimable Alison Cuddy. A book reading in Hampstead, north London, which is still the literary heart of the publishing world in England. Appearances at book clubs in the midwest. Conversations with old friends and new friends on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog. Have I missed out anything? Patty is strangely reluctant to toot her own horn, so I feel I should list everything I can. Suffice to say that it’s been a breakthrough year (and I think 2012 is going to be even better).
I know that Patty will thank you in person at some point, but in the meanwhile, as I sit here with a laptop on my, er, lap, sipping a glass of wine and looking out of the window on palm trees swaying gently against the greening sunset Florida sky (are you jealous yet? you fucking should be) — let me raise my glass to you, o supporter of “The Temple of Air”, and to the author herself. Here’s wishing you and her all the success that you are capable of and that you deserve in the coming year.
My Christmas gift exchange list gets shorter every year, but still I dream of the presents I would like to receive. (I am a bit of a present baby, truth be told.) So below I am making a short list of the books I would like for Christmas–and if I don’t receive them from anyone, I will buy them for myself. Because I am an adult. I can do that.
EVERYONE REMAIN CALMby Megan Stielstra (I know I should already own this one, too, but I don’t yet have a convenient electronic reading device.)
THE LEFTOVERSby Tom Perrotta (I had my name in for a book giveaway, and I was unrealistically hopeful like I am when I buy a lottery ticket; I didn’t win.)
THIS BURNS MY HEART by Samuel Park (Sam teaches at Columbia College Chicago where I teach, and I have heard nothing but great things about this book.)
PORTRAITS OF A FEW PEOPLE I’VE MADE CRY by Christine Sneed (A Chicago writer who has won all sorts of praise with this book; I get to share the stage with her at Story Week Festival of Writers in March 2012.)
DROWNING IN GRUEL by George Singleton (because how could you not want to read a book with this title?)
And I am certain there are many, many more titles I would like to add to my collection, but this will get me through January, at least.
2011 brought a number of good new(ish) books my way as well, some I have released into the world with love (passed on to friends), some I have kept on my bedside table, some I am still savoring. Among these: As If We Were Prey by Michael Delp; Volt by Alan Heathcock; Small as a Mustard Seed by Shelli Johnson; Carry Each His Burden by James Goertel; Birch Hills at World’s End by Geoff Hyatt; The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie; Windy City Queer, edited by Kathie Bergquist; many poetry books from Fleda Brown; The Whale Chaser by Tony Ardizzone; What You Don’t Know About Men by Michael Burke; and and and…..
Looking forward to new books in 2012 from Michael Downs (The Greatest Show), and Stacy Bierlein (A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends), and Bill Roorbach (Life Among Giants).
So many books, so little time.
→Happiest of holidays to you all. May you spend them on the couch with a book in hand and a cat on your knee. Thanks for reading! -PMc←
When I tell people I have a century of letters from my family—reaching back all the way into the early 1900s when my grandfather, Victor Hugo Wachs, took his family to Korea to serve as missionaries—nearly everyone is impressed. “What a treasure!” “How lucky you are!” “I wish I’d saved my mother’s letters.” These are the sorts of comments I get.
I know I am lucky; I know this is a real treasure. My mother, and her mother before her, saved the letters they received, and my grandfather even kept carbons of a number of the letters he sent. These are organized in boxes with folders separating them into decades.
I’ve used a number of these letters in an installation Philip and I did at Finestra Arts Space (a gallery in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building) a couple of years ago. It was a print, text, and sound installation called “Climbing the Crooked Trails,” the title taken from one of my grandfather’s letters describing his navigating the mountain roads on a motorcycle in Korea in 1910 or so. There are hundreds of his letters in my files, and more still in various archives around the country.
My mother’s letters saved by her mother are—at first glance—of a less dramatic life. There are letters written while she was a college student at Oberlin during World War II; notes from when she worked for the government at a Japanese internment camp in Poston, Arizona; about her time working in Washington, DC at various jobs; her factory work in Detroit and Chicago; letters telling of her quiet suburban life with her husband and four kids. In between the lines of these letters, and sometimes in the lines of them, is the understory of her life, the things she didn’t tell her parents in letters but would later share with me some, and that I would discover in her journals and diaries, in her letters to friends. Like: the loss of boys she knew—and some she loved—to the war. How she lost her virginity in an Arizona desert during what started out as a romantic, moonlit night, but was interrupted by the angry presence of a rattlesnake. Her affair with a married man who would later become her husband and my father. Their work as union rabble rousers; their affiliation with the Communist Party and the FBI’s interest in them during the 50s, the 60s. The struggle to raise four kids on not a lot of money, and my parents’ overwhelming desire to save (or at least change) the world.
There is so much to discover in these family letters, so much to laugh about or worry over, to consider in the light of my own memories. I am fascinated by the things I encounter: my great Uncle Paul’s deep crisis of faith right before he joins the ministry; my grandfather’s long and tall tales about riding his motorcycle and ministering to lost souls—with hardly a word about his own family, his wife, his children, the babies born while he was on these Korean roads; the lies my mother wrote to cover up her relationship with my father and the birth of my oldest brother before they were married; the anecdotes my mother wrote about us—my brothers and me—while we were children, that could still accurately describe our family dynamics and personalities today when we are in our 50s, our 60s; the long passage of time between letters in the 1950s when, for some reason I don’t yet know, she pulled away from her parents entirely, cut off contact until after my brother Roger was born in 1957. And then there are the small moments, the ordinary ones she describes from our daily life: fevers and parties, new clothes and report cards, holiday trips and Christmas presents, a broken furnace, a new car.
The United States Postal Service has announced its plans to drastically curtail its mail services. Post office closings, no Saturday deliveries, other cost cutting measures. No one sends letters anymore.
When Philip and I first met, we were both residents at the Vermont Studio Center. At this artist residency, there was a little wooden tray where the daily mail would pile up, and we residents would sift through the envelopes and packages hoping for something with our name on it. My mother wrote me letters then. I wrote her back. My boyfriend (the one I left behind, the one I had to break up with when I returned home because I had fallen in love with Philip) did. I sent letters to writer friends with long comments on their books I brought along. I sent postcards to my brothers. When my residency was over and I went home to Chicago, Philip was still in Vermont. I wrote him letters there and sent him care packages of Pringles and bourbon and books and photos. He wrote me love letters back with drawings and lines from poetry and sexy passages. When he went back to England, his letters came to me in Chicago on that blue airmail stationery, the type that folds into an envelope, the type you see in movies sometimes, in old shows on public television. I have these letters still (of course.) And sometimes, even though we are married and live together, we have occasion to write letters still. I’m teaching in England, maybe, or in Prague; he is out at our country house for a few weeks working on a project. Sometimes I will leave a letter on his pillow. Sometimes he slips a card under my plate.
We email, of course. And there is satisfaction in that. The instant connection, the quick contact, the immediate response. But for some reason the anticipation brought forth by this act (checking the inbox, monitoring my spam filter) is different from what I used to feel while waiting for letters when I was away at college, when I was doing work in Honduras in the 70s, when I visited my half-brother’s family for long summer trips, when Philip went home to England before we were married. What is it about letters that is so satisfying? In a way that email will never be for me, I mean. Holding something in your hands that you knew someone else held in theirs in another part of the world—is that it? Recognizing someone’s handwriting on the page, seeing the words they crossed out, turning the page around to follow the lines written up the side because the writer ran out of room at the bottom—none of this is possible in an email.
For some reason I am thinking now of the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square in Prague. I’ve taught there a number of summers, and each time, I make sure to bring my students to the square so that they can see the clock on the hour, can see how the Apostle sculptures move in and out of doors, see how it has worked since the 1400s. They—these students who have access to movies in their pockets, carry instant messages in their purses, talk to friends across the world without spending a fortune, have gadgets that hold whole libraries and weigh less than a pound—are unimpressed. And no matter how much I tell them that this matters, this remarkable artistry and technology from centuries ago, they don’t buy it. They tease me, shake their heads and cluck their tongues at how incredibly old fashioned I am, how I am too easily impressed by something so archaic, so mundane, so (like me) old fashioned.
Do people feel this same way about letters? Are these hand-written communiqués ridiculously old fashioned? As a writer, I feel chagrined by this possibility, as I feel chagrined about the possibility of people not buying actual books and periodicals anymore. I am not anti-new (and ever-evolving) technologies, but I don’t want to let go of the old ways of sharing news and stories either. Letters. Newspapers. Books. In another consideration of new technologies replacing old that I read somewhere, the commentator said that just because cars were invented, people didn’t stop walking. But is this the right analogy? Yes, we still walk (some of us,) but we don’t ride horses anymore, do we? Is a letter a horse? Writing letters, riding horses—things done by a certain committed few.
This is another thing that is special to the letter writer: the ability (or propensity) to follow the tangents. Perhaps not always a good thing, but an interesting thing. The sort of mind spinning that one might be inclined to simply block cut in an email, or more likely, never spend (waste) the time writing her way into. (On some level, this is all about time, really, isn’t it?)
Enough of the tangents, then. Here is what I want to say: write a letter. Put it in an envelope. Put a stamp on it. Mail it. I can guarantee you that the recipient of the letter will be awestruck by your having done this. They will treasure holding this thing you have made; they will likely save it. It will not get lost in a computer crash. It will not be accidentally deleted.
Trust me on this: it will matter.
→Thanks to The Daily Show for the clip. And in case you don’t have anyone to write to, feel free to send me a letter at Columbia College Chicago, Fiction Writing Department, 600 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60605. Thanks for reading…and writing. -PMc←
I knew Mark Beyer when he was a talented graduate student in Chicago some years ago, so imagine my surprise and delight when I was teaching a fiction writing class in Prague and was interrupted by a phone call from the very same Mark Beyer. He had taken to the road sometime after he received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago and after a stint in the publishing biz, following paths that led him to many places in the world, and ending up in (for now at least) Prague. We’ve kept in touch since that phone call in 2009, and I am very pleased that Mark has invited us into his writing space.
I have tucked myself into a corner to write. It’s my best mental space, a corner; no distractions, books nearby, a comfortable chair, the tea kettle ten steps away. The overflowing cork-board has too many pins to make sense, so any peek at it sends me back to the sentence from which I jumped. The room has many windows that give wonderful light. At night, I draw the blinds to create a cave atmosphere; a very writerly space.
I spend 4-6 hours here, four days per week, lately finishing a novel titled WHAT BEAUTY— if I’m lucky with class cancellations I get a fifth day. My writing times are late morning to mid-afternoon. Perfect for my energy level. The other 2-3 hours per day I spend here (seven days per week, in the evening, when my mind is not so sharp) I do book marketing for my last book, THE VILLAGE WIT — or write essays, read online magazine articles, blog for Bibliogrind.com, kibitz with friends.
This space has become my ally, friend, and confidante (yes, sometimes I speak to the cork-board). I trust its comfort. I feel “tucked in” when I sit here. I’m also close to the heater. And if I need help on a grammar question, my wife is just behind me, at her desk.
What you don’t see here (besides my wife) is the view from the window, something I rarely take in myself until the work is done. The view is across Prague 10, a residential area that includes a huge park with its own vineyard. The distant buildings are modern high-rises that let you know they are definitely NOT the Art Deco period of European history, of which mine and the surrounding palace apartments derive. And what you don’t see is a big wood-burning fireplace, which looks a bit like Magritte’s “Time Transfixed”.
I don’t have to write here, staring into a corner; when a hot story moment or piece of dialogue strikes me, I’m comfortable writing nearly anywhere under any light, noise, movement, weather, or duress (!) … But I choose to write in this spot because this is my home, where so many memories are stored, and where love exists.
And love? Where were the perforations in love’s box? This question, Bentley realized, he no longer had an answer for. But he knew one thing about love that was true. The end happens so fast because that’s how events take their course once love’s core unravels. A word is said, offense taken, action and reaction, more words, slights, the inevitable inability to change course because the river on which this boat has launched is swifter than any propeller set to reverse direction, so that all is lost and the parties know it is lost before the tempestuous river starts to break the boat apart and suddenly the rapids consume everything before “good-bye” is spoken, and all they would have known or said is gone.
→Mark, thank you for the tour. And writer friends, View From the Keyboard has slowed some during the teaching year, but let me assure more is to come! In the meantime, I hope that you will consider contributing your own View. Guidelines here. -PMc←
Every once in a while a day comes up when you feel like you might really be doing this author thing right. I had a day like this a couple of weeks ago when I had the opportunity to read in London at an event sponsored by the incredible Daunt Books at The Stag in Hampstead. I shared the stage (not really a stage but a comfy sofa next to a fireplace upstairs in a lovely British pub) with Adam Marek, D. W. Wilson, and K. J. Orr, three short story writers who are taking the UK by storm and reinvigorating the country’s interest in the short story. The event was one of the highlights of my book tour (as it is, working it in around my day job) and I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to read to such an engaged, thoughtful, and curious audience–each who actually paid 5 pounds to be there, and in many cases sit on the floor! I made many great long-distance friends in that way you can now with social media, and I will never forget the evening.
Today is shaping up to be another of these great days in the life of a writer, I think. Tonight I get to read at Tuesday Funk, a very fine Chicago reading series at the remarkable Hopleaf in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. I get to read with a number of very interesting writers, among them, Jody Lynn Nye, a woman I went to high school with and was in plays with (I was in the secretarial-pool chorus and she was a sexy, hip-swinging secretary in How to Succeed in Business…)
And this morning, I will be on 848, Chicago’s news and events program on its local NPR affiliate WBEZ. Recently I was interviewed by the show’s smart and funny Alison Cuddy, and we had a nice chat about The Temple of Air. I had heard about other radio interviews for other shows that writers have done, ones in which authors felt as though the interviewer had never really read their books, and in some cases, didn’t even get their names right. This interview, with Alison Cuddy, I am glad to tell you, was nothing like that. A more thoughtful reader I can’t imagine having. Her questions and thoughts about the book were insightful and reassuring, the sort of thing that makes me glad to have written the book so that someone like Alison might read it.
So that’s the way the day is shaping up. Oh, and work. That. In between interview and reading, I get to go to school and spend time reading student stories. Not a day, really. Not a bad life, when you think about it.
Today, December 4, is the anniversary of the birth of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Here then, are some of his words to a young poet…
“Go inside yourself. Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all else, ask yourself at your most silent hour of night: must I write? ” -Rainer Maria Rilke