Novelist

Archive for May, 2011

Progress Report: 5/31/11

I want to go back.

Still coming out of my post-New York coma, so I’ll be (relatively) brief …

  • Copies of the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, have been bundled up for reviewers and will go out this week. Release date is July 26.
  • I’m plug, plug, plugging away at the new novel project. This is all a little inside baseball, so if that’s not your cup of tea, go here for something more interesting. … OK, still here? I’m trying something new with this book. I have a basic idea of where it’s going to go, but I’m outlining only a few scenes at a time — four or five. Once those are written, I assess where the story is and consider new threads that have emerged — those always happen — and then sketch out a few more scenes. With 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, I plotted a bit more aggressively at the outset, and while I’m happy with both books, they perhaps missed a little bit of the spontaneity that I’m experiencing with this project. It’s kept the slogging — that awful point in a first draft where you’re several thousand words in and have many thousands yet to go — from being a total drag.
  • I hope you’re keeping up with my weekly project, The Word. I’m having a ton of fun with that. You can also see the stories at my page on Fictionaut.

Once More, With Feeling: ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’

A hearty thank you to all who served, and all who gave everything.

Grab Bag: The MFA effect

First: Read this story in Salon, provocatively titled “Are MFA programs ruining American fiction?” (I’ll end the suspense now and tell you that the piece doesn’t answer the question in any substantive way.) Then come back and I’ll share my meager thoughts.

I was fascinated to read that article because it’s a topic my good friend Jim Thomsen and I bandy about with some regularity. I’m afraid we’re no closer to an answer than anyone else is, and we probably never will be.

As the article itself points out, for every citation one can make that MFA programs are herding American letters into stultifying sameness that’s slavish to style, there’s an MFA holder who is writing superb, accessible, popular fiction:

Still, you can publish adventurous work without an MFA, as Jennifer Egan has repeatedly proven, and MFA programs have also produced writers with great popular appeal, such as Michael Chabon.

What I have found is that there is a certain kind of writing — affected, self-reverential, beautifully constructed but stripped of soul — that I sometimes wander across, and sure enough, I flip over to the “about the author” section, and the writer holds an MFA. But just as often, I’ll read something that moves me seemingly without effort, and that writer will turn out to have an MFA, too.

This is one of those areas where regardless of where you stand, ammunition is at the ready to bolster your point. I’m just not certain that either side is right, or wrong. Mostly, I find myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the author of the piece, Laura Miller, when she notes that “I must confess to being completely indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy.” Snootier-than-thou MFA types annoy me. So do artless genre hacks. And Washington Redskins fans. Whatever.

The thing I can say with certainty is that I despise any tendency to put storytelling in a box. To the camp that says MFA-fueled writing, categorically, is better, I say: Steinbeck. Hemingway. Egan. Evison. To the camp that finds literary writing to be too high-falutin’, I say: Read some Chabon, or Roth, or Wolff, or O’Connor and get back to me.

Jim, on the other hand, sees some real danger in the MFA-ification of American letters. Read on:

Jim Thomsen

My objections to “MFA writing” can be boiled down to a few key thoughts.

One, most of the MFA writing I’ve read has a dreary sameness. It’s almost all arid, airbrushed, emotionless prose drained of all blood and heat and light, as cold and perfect as the surface of a stainless-steel toilet. It seems to promote the idea that the sentence-crafting matters more than storytelling, which is a disturbing idea to promote in the world of writing, you know, stories. And that seems to come from the open boot-camp atmosphere of MFA classes and workshops, in which works are presented to peers and often mercilessly perforated, leading to rewriting that seems passive and even defensive, written specifically to avoid drawing classmate-driven scorn.

All that heavily implies that, two, an orthodoxy has been imposed on all such writing and that, as one commenter on Laura Miller’s essay put it: “Those who do not conform are locked out.” And that leads to three, which answers the question, “Locked out of what?” That answer: Many of the most prestigious and best-paying literary journals and publishing houses, and the critical establishment that moves in lockstep with it. It’s a scary idea, and a distinctly un-American one, this reality that, often, literature is not judged on its merits but by its pedigree.

Four: The idea that getting right out of college and cocooning oneself in an MFA program seems antithetical to the idea — and, I submit, the established fact — that the best writing AND storytelling stem from wisdom and perspective gained from actually being out in the world and experiencing a rich sampling of what’s best and worst about it. You have talent and want to write? Join the Army. Take a freighter to Argentina. Spend a month in a county jail. Fight wildfires in the high Sierras. Play minor-league baseball. Work a season on a sorghum farm in Saskatchewan. Spend a year in an Israeli kibbutz. Do some fucking thing. Just, you know, LIVE. Otherwise you’re just trading on trite and overthumped themes and subjects: Daddy Didn’t Love Me Enough. My Parents Divorced Sixteen Years Ago And I Still Can’t Get Over It. The Boy Who Drove Me To Bulimia In Eighth Grade. My Freshman-Year Existential Crisis. Sartre And Small Boobs Ruined My Life. The Weird Homeless Guy Outside The Dairy Queen.

And five, the MFA program simply isn’t available to poor people. It’s a form of literary redlining. You can’t get in without a bachelor’s degree, which many of us spend years paying off if Mom and Dad aren’t footing the bill. And all the fellowships and teaching gigs in graduate school won’t come close to covering your tuition, housing and daily living expenses. All of which is fine for those who are willing to do it but not so fine for those of us who can’t do it and have to settle for being told that we can’t be in The New Yorker or Glimmer Train or reviewed in The New York Times because of it.

Six is really one, but it bears repeating: MFA writing is largely BORING writing. And boring writing is always bad writing. Bad writing should never be rewarded, particularly to the exclusion of all other kinds.


Another Page: The books of Emily Carr

O. Alan Weltzien

By O. Alan Weltzien

I have just been reading the four (short) nonfiction books written back in the early 1940s by the great British Columbian painter Emily Carr.  I have long wanted to read the first and shortest of those, Klee-Wyck.  For anyone interested in getting the feel of temperate zone rainforest; of Haida Indians, totem poles, and the British Columbian coast and Queen Charlotte Islands, this little book is indispensable.  Many years ago I toured Carr’s home in Victoria, B.C., and I’ve never forgotten the impression her canvasses left on me.  Carr is a staggering painter, almost like a rainforest Georgia O’Keefe, and her evocations of forests and tribal peoples are enduring and remarkable.  Carr often writes as she paints:  impressionistically.  She sketches quickly and surely, and her metaphors often spring off the page as she forever charges with life the scene she’s evoking.  The brooding presence of totem poles aged by chronic rain clings to the reader as it did to the writer.

The other three volumes – The Book of Small, The House of All Sorts, and Growing Pains – all trace her autobiography.  “Small” was her self-chosen nickname in her large family, and this volume chronicles her childhood.  Carr ran a boarding house for twenty-two years, and the ever-changing motley crew in her rooms form the primary attention of the third volume — along with her kennel of dogs.  The final, longest volume traces her difficult adolescence and adulthood, trying to find her own place in the provincial art scene of British Columbia.  It wasn’t until middle age that Carr finally achieved a large reputation.  She was famously independent and eccentric, often seen on the streets of her native city with dogs and pet monkey, if not other pets, in two.  In Carr’s time, it was a difficult as any time for a painter who happened to be a woman, finding some reputation and acclaim.  Carr famously beat the odds.

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O. Alan Weltzien is an English professor at the University of Montana Western and an authority on Montana literature. He is the author of the memoir A Father and an Island: Reflections on Loss (2008, Lewis-Clark Press) and a forthcoming book of poems, To Kilimanjaro and Back (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011).

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If you’re a writer or artist interested in contributing an essay for the Another Page feature, please contact me at craig@craig-lancaster.com. I’d be happy to host it.

Progress Report: 5/24/11

This is where I am right now. I’d say I’m progressing nicely.

XOXOXOXOX,
Craiggers


Once More, With Feeling: The “Cinderella” You Won’t Find In Children’s Books

 

Guest post by Jim Thomsen

Last week, somewhere between Sublimity and Silverton, Oregon, between spitting rain and a sliver of sunlight far to the north, I broke the morning silence with the first CD of the second day of a road trip. The CD wasFirefall: Greatest Hits,” and the second song was “Cinderella.”

After the song was done, I punched replay. Then did it again. And again. Over and over I played it; my best guess is between nine and eleven times. By that time I let the CD advance to “You Are The Woman,” Firefall‘s biggest hit, I was on the outskirts of Boring, a boring town, and bearing down on decidedly non-boring Portland … and musing on the subject of stark differences.

“Cinderella,” see, is a lovely tune, full of lilting acoustic guitars, the occasional chime of an electric, and a flute part that floated atop the bobbing bass line like a seagull on the bow of a sailboat. It’s also one of the most hateful, misogynistic songs ever written, a caustic dismissal of a woman whose crime was loving a man who apparently let her love him until she committed the second crime of allowing him to have unprotected sex with her. (The chorus: “Cinderella, can’t you see? I don’t want your company. Better leave this morning, leave today. Take your love and your child away.”) On the last refrain, the song gets bouncier than ever, with some swampy harp urging along the beat, before settling in a sweet low fade.

Kind of makes you wonder about the songwriter, doesn’t it? I did some research online, and what I found revealed a lot about how songwriting sausage is made. Firefall’s primary songwriters were guitarist Larry Burnett and singer Rick Roberts. Roberts, who wrote Firefall’s biggest soft-rock hits, often did so with “his head in a big bag of cocaine,” according to a Burnett interview. Burnett, who by his own admission also had drug problems, insisted in another interview that he wasn’t the man in the song, and that he had in fact written “Cinderella” when he was 16. “I certainly didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend who was pregnant and I was working my butt off trying to support us,” Burnett said. “None of that was going on. But it was certainly happening around me in other people’s lives.”

OK, I can buy that. Then I thought, kinda makes you wonder what sort of discussions went on among the members of Firefall and their label, Atlantic Records, when it came time to choose songs to record and include on their 1976 debut album. “Cinderella” not only made the cut, but it was chosen as the second single. I can’t recall having heard “Cinderella” on AM radio, nestled between “Lonely Boy” and “Undercover Angel,” but I wish my parents had, just so the 11-year-old mean could have gauged their stricken expressions. I might not have ever been allowed to listen to the radio again if that were the case. And if my socioculturally staid parents would have soiled themselves, then imagine the feminist response. In an interview, Firefall member Jock Bartley explained what happened:

“’Cinderella’ ended up being an AM single that ironically enough we found out later was climbing the charts and got into the 40s and suddenly dropped with an anchor,” Bartley told classicbands.com. “We went, ‘What the hell happened?” We found out later that a number of women’s organizations on the East Coast; Baltimore, D.C., New York, Boston, kind of banded together and used their clout to tell this song was an inappropriate lyrical song, that basically says a guy kicked out a girl because she got pregnant.

“It was a fictional song. We certainly were not holding up the banner for any abusive kind of behavior or chauvinistic bullshit. It was a great song and one of my favorite Firefall songs. We found out that on the AM hits, it really dropped off the charts after there was an exerted effort put by some feminist groups, which was fairly ridiculous.”

Not sure I really follow Bartley’s reasoning there … but, whatever.

As for Burnett, the song doesn’t square very well with his current reality. At age fifty-six, he launched a regrettably short-lived blog in which he discussed life on the cold downslope of rock fame. At the time, he was living in Northern Virginia, scraping for performance gigs wherever he could and making ends meet by working for $10 an hour in a UPS store. Around age forty, he became a father to a son. And while he says it hasn’t been easy for either, given that he and the son’s mother divorced when the son was two years old, Burnett writes: “I love him. He loves me. There is no doubt between us of these two facts.”

Then he reveals something that reveals something, perhaps, about “Cinderella”: “A few days before my boy’s arrival home, I become uncomfortable. I wonder about my fitness as a father…  as his father. What will we talk about? Will we talk at all? What will we do? How will he greet me? Should I wrap him in my arms? Is he too old for that? Does he think I’m an idiot, yet (he is a teen, after all)? Does he see through my charade? Sense the fatherly fraud in me?

“This,” Burnett added, “is a small part of the influence of my own father’s absence on his son.”

I thought about that as I continued east on my road trip, to Walla Walla, Washington. Where I stopped to see my own dad. Or, rather, my own dad’s grave. He broke his back just trying to keep his head above water, my dad, but he did it with his children and wife at his side. He wouldn’t have had it any other way, and for that I am profoundly glad.

(Postscript: I contacted Larry Burnett by e-mail and asked him if he’d be willing to let me interview him about “Cinderella.” He agreed, and I sent him some questions. I didn’t hear back from by him by the deadline for this essay, but if and when he does get back to me, I’ll write a follow-up piece.)

 

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.

 


Grab Bag: Real Love

Like any good sports fan, I’m superstitious, so it’s with no small amount of trepidation that I dare post this.

Here goes:

I am a Dallas Mavericks fan, and I’m feeling good. Real good.

In about 12 hours, I could be feeling bad. Real bad. Game 2 of the Mavericks’ Western Conference finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder is tonight, and a Mavericks loss would erode my buoyant confidence considerably.

But that is then. This is now. And now, I’m feeling awfully good about a team I’ve rooted for since I was 10 years old.

You see, basketball was my game as a kid. I didn’t set the world ablaze or anything, but I played it with boundless joy, and it was the single sport at which I could generally hold my own with my peers. When the Dallas Mavericks embarked on their inaugural season in 1980, I was in the fifth grade, playing for a basketball team called the Chaparrals in the Richland Youth Association, and the emergence of professional hoops in my hometown gave me a tangible team to root for, if a bit futilely. (The first Mavericks team, you see, finished 15-67. As it turned out, that first losing season prepared me emotionally for the many, many, many losing seasons to come.)

I can still remember guys on that team. Jim Spanarkel, who was a star at Duke. Abdul Jeelani, who scored the first points in franchise history. Tom LaGarde. Stan Pietkiewicz. Brad Davis, the only guy who hung on long enough to play with some decent — even terrific — teams in Dallas.

I loved that team, and the Mavericks, historically, are tough to love.

Consider this:

  • They’ve been associated with four Hall of Famers: Alex English, who played out the string of a long career there; Adrian Dantley, who came over when the Mavs traded their franchise player, Mark Aguirre, and never wanted to be in Dallas; Dennis Rodman, who barely had time to get a tattoo in Dallas; and Don Nelson, who as coach of the Golden State Warriors administered possibly the most embarrassing playoff loss in history to the Mavs.
  • In 1988, they made it all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, falling to a great Lakers team. A year later, they were a consensus pick to go all the way. They finished 38-44 and jettisoned Aguirre (breaking my heart) to the eventual champions, the Detroit Pistons.
  • In 2006, they made it to the NBA finals against Miami, promptly took a 2-0 lead, had a double-digit advantage late in Game 3 … and lost that game, then three more in a row.
  • And then there’s the Golden State debacle, which I’ve already mentioned and don’t care to mention again.

Those with short memories like to point out that the Mavs are in the midst of 11 consecutive seasons with 50 or more victories. That’s fine and dandy. But the decade previous was marked by a similarly long string of hopelessness. From 1990-91 to 1999-2000, the Mavericks exceeded 30 victories just twice.

Like I said, it’s not easy to be a Mavericks fan.

But, look, I’m trying. Here they are, up 1-0 in the Western Conference finals, led by the best player in their history, Dirk Nowitzki, a guy who can score 48 points on just 15 shots, the very definition of offensive efficiency. It’s early, but it’s also undeniable: The Mavs have the look of a championship team.

If it happens — a very big if — I’ll be one happy bastard.

You see, I’m also a Dallas Cowboys fan. I’ve suffered enough, don’t you think?


Another Page: ‘A Farewell to Arms’

This is the book that did it. The one that made me want to write fiction.

I’ve written before — a couple of times, actually — about how Hemingway’s prose resonated with me on a structural level. No need to plow back over that ground.

No, this is a love letter not to Papa but to the woman who compelled me to read him for the first time: Janelle Eklund, my junior-year English teacher at Richland High School, whose assignment of A Farewell to Arms absolutely changed the way I read.

She and her husband, Rolf, my U.S. history teacher that year, were absolutely born to do the work of high school teachers. It wasn’t just about imparting a curriculum or teaching us in a way that maximized our performance on standardized tests. The Eklunds stretched their students’ imagination and challenged them to develop critical-thinking skills. Twenty-three years clear of high school, I find that I’m much better served by the ability to think and engage than I am by the simple regurgitation of facts. More than anything else, that’s what I remember about the Eklunds. They prepared their students for life beyond the classroom even while giving them an education in it.

I’ve published two novels now, and both of them have been read in first-draft form by Janelle. (Rolf, rest his soul, left us several years ago.) She doesn’t wield the red pen the same way she did all those years ago, but that’s okay. I offer her the words as a way of thanking her for inspiring in me a love of writing and for caring what happened to me long after I left her stewardship.

I’ll never, ever be able to repay her.


Progress Report: 5/17/11

Here we go:

Ed Kemmick‘s book, The Big Sky, By and By, has been approved for print, and the first wave of review copies should be landing at the doorstep any day now. Those will be distributed around the state, and by mid-June, we’ll be taking advance orders for signed copies. The official release date for the book is July 26.

I’m absolutely thrilled with how the book turned out, its prospects (people who love Montana and Montanans will love this book) and, most of all, for the chance to work with Ed.

On other fronts:

  • I’m still plugging away at the new novel project, tentatively titled Somebody Has to Lose. I get a few cracks at it each week, and right now, it’s sitting at about 14,000 words. Once Ed’s book gets launched, I should be able to dedicate more time to it. Still very enthusiastic about the story, which is revealing itself to me in exciting ways.
  • I’m really digging my weekly writing exercise, The Word. What’s been interesting, at least to me, is that the moments of inspiration have carried me back to Texas, where I grew up. I’ve done little writing set in Texas, but somehow, these little scenes of suburban mayhem have found their way there.
  • At the end of the week, I’m off to New York City for a few days of Book Expo America goodness. I’m looking forward to meeting other AmazonEncore authors, basking in the glory of books and, of course, exploring the greatest city on earth (or so I hear; I’ve never been). Blog posts will march on in my absence.

Once More, With Feeling: 10cc

When I tell people that I have obsessive tendencies … well, nobody really doubts me. But today, I have a concrete example of it.

Let’s take a trip, shall we, to 1977:

 

The other night, I played this song 10 times in a row. The only reason it was not 11 is that I had to do something else. Answer the phone or go to the bathroom or something. I don’t really remember.

This, of course, eventually led to a full-on Google-led expedition into all things 10cc. They were active as late as 1995, when it was just Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman. Later on, those guys couldn’t stand each other any more and apparently still can’t. As a counselor in my own mind, I suggest that they heed a lyric from the above song: “A compromise would surely help the situation.” Nowadays, Gouldman and Kevin Godley are together in an outfit called GG/06, and Stewart and Lol Creme are largely out of sight.

You may remember Godley and Creme for the 1985 song “Cry” and its cutting-edge-at-the-time morphing video:

 

You may also remember that it was skewered by Beavis & Butt-head:

 

 

I also found this dandy acoustic version of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” featuring Gouldman (who wasn’t the vocalist on the original cut; Stewart was), the incomparable Neil Finn and Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera:

 

That’s all I got.


Grab Bag: Death on Two Legs

Is your conscience all right? Does it plague you at night?

Some days, this is how I feel. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to embrace it.


Another Page: ‘The Big Book of Amazing Facts’

What, you were expecting Shakespeare?

As much as any book I can think of, this one explains why I am the peculiar way I am. I received it when I was 10 or 11 years old — a Christmas gift, perhaps? — and spent the next few years wearing out its pages and filling my cranial capacity with interesting, if not terribly useful, scraps of knowledge.

I learned about palindromes (“A man, a plan, a canal — Panama”).

I learned the word pneumonoultramicroscropicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which I didn’t have to look up to post here.

I learned about an African tribe whose members spat at each other in greeting.

When my friend Lisa Simon posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that the first basketball game used peach baskets and the ball had to be retrieved from the bottom of the basket after each score, I knew that, too. It was in The Big Book of Amazing Facts.

Concurrent with all of this, I was also reading and memorizing almanacs, which has led to a fun but steadily eroding party trick. I’ve memorized the birth years and death years of many celebrities, but the information is good only up to about 1985 (when I abandoned almanacs and began a largely futile pursuit of girls). Thus, I can tell you with great confidence that John Wayne (Marion Morrison) was born in 1907 and died in 1979. In the case of someone with a more recent death date — say, Bob Hope (Leslie Townes) — I can cough up the year of birth (1903) but am clueless on the year of death, as it happened post-1985. (Actually, now that I look it up, I should be able to remember that Bob Hope was 100 years old when he died in 2003.)

In any case, should you find yourself wondering why I didn’t remember your birthday or anniversary or my own phone number, please don’t blame me. Blame The Big Book of Amazing Facts.

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Are you a writer looking to promote your latest work? Want to contribute a mini-essay for the Another Page feature? I’ll happily host it. E-mail me at craig@craig-lancaster.com for details.


Progress Report: 5/10/11

Things are moving on, if incrementally, on several fronts …

THE BIG SKY, BY AND BY

Awaiting a proof copy of Ed Kemmick’s collection before doing the initial run. In the meantime, I’ve been pulling together the fact sheet (take a look) that will go out to booksellers and reviewers. By the end of the month, we’ll begin taking pre-orders of this fine book.

THE NEW NOVEL PROJECT

I added a couple of thousand words in the past week and am starting to see the field clearly, at least in terms of the first third of the book. Much like last week, though, it’s far too early to say whether this one has the legs to reach the finish line, so details on subject matter, characters and other substantive stuff will have to wait.

It does have a working title, though: Somebody Has to Lose.

BEYOND THE WORD

Remember The Word, my weekly writing exercise that’s based on the inspiration of a single word? Thanks to flash-fiction genius Meg Pokrass, I snared an invitation to Fictionaut and have begun cross-posting those short pieces there, in some cases using the feedback to hone the writing a little more. (For an example of this, see how Insatiable posted here at the blog and what it’s become at Fictionaut.)

(For more on the truly astounding Megz, see this piece she wrote for David Abrams’ blog.)

I can’t tell you how much fun it has been to experiment with the very-short form, especially while I’m trying to wrestle a bigger novel idea to the ground. I’m learning a lot about how to put a full story in just a few hundred words, and I’m confident those lessons will make me a better writer across all forms.

In the week ahead, I’m hoping to put down a lot of tracks on the novel, as it will be my last chance for some significant work before I disappear for a week in New York. Fingers crossed …


Once More, With Feeling: ‘Rocky Raccoon’

Among the many reasons I look back on my childhood with a fondness that’s almost criminal, this one looms especially large: My stepfather, Charles, had all of the Beatles’ albums — some on vinyl, some on eight-track — and we had a huge stereo console on which to give them a whirl.

This song, from the White Album, is the first Beatles song I remember loving. I must have been five or six years old when I first heard it, and it was enough to sell me on The Beatles in general and Paul McCartney in particular. (And I’ll just add that this homemade video, snatched from YouTube, is simply perfect.)

The big stereo I mentioned earlier also had microphones and a recording apparatus, and I remember spending hours with my brother Keith, making our own versions of this song and others by The Beatles. Those cassettes are probably drifting around somewhere in the family home, and wherever they are, I hope they remain well hidden.

Now, at the age I was when I fell in deep with this song, I didn’t have much in the way of musical discernment. It was later, much later, that I could consider this song in context and realize how slight it is, that I learned about John Lennon making fun of McCartney for it (particularly after it was parodied by Bob Hope (see below), which for a Beatle must have been the least cool thing ever). But you know what? All that hardly matters. For me, a sweet memory is hardwired to this song, and any time I hear it, I’m back in the mid-1970s in my suburban home, and let me tell you, that was a damned nice place to be.

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Are you a writer looking to promote your latest work? Want to contribute a mini-essay for the Once More, With Feeling feature? I’ll happily host it. E-mail me at craig@craig-lancaster.com for details.


Grab Bag: The Sad Case of Carlton Smith

Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

A few years ago, I set out to be a true-crime author. Like Carlton Smith. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to make a living? Running around the country, sitting in on murder trials, conducting jailhouse interviews, poking through courthouse files? Banging out deathless prose late at night over whiskey and cigarettes in one airport hotel room after another?

At the time I made my move, I worked at a newspaper. Like Carlton Smith. Although he was a bit higher up the food chain than I when he made the jump twenty years ago.

He was a star investigative reporter at The Seattle Times, whose exhaustive work on the investigation into the nation’s most prolific serial killer in the 1980s nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. It later was the basis for a well-written, well-received book called The Search For The Green River Killer.

I, on the other hand, was stuck in a dead-end job as the night and weekend news editor of the smaller daily paper on the other side of Puget Sound. I won awards, too, but they were for writing headlines. As much as I enjoyed that, I dreamed of working in longer-form journalism. Much longer. I began cultivating my dream in my early forties, about the same age that Carlton Smith broke away from The Times and went all-in as a true-crime author.

While Carlton Smith was nearing the end of a remarkably prolific run — twenty-five true-crime paperbacks in twenty years — I was sitting in on Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board hearings and digging through the board’s old case files at the governor’s office, in search of the perfect stories of crime, punishment and redemption. I dreamed of making a pitch, landing an agent and a publishing contract and following in the celebrated footsteps of Gregg Olsen and the lack Jack Olsen (no relation), two true-crime authors who had become friends of mine. I dreamed of an advance big enough to let me quit my job and spend my days driving around the state interviewing witnesses to long-forgotten crimes and typing up notes in the back booths of roadside restaurants.

My dream, like Carlton Smith’s, was not terribly practical. I gave up early, and he gave up far too late. I gave up because I learned that I couldn’t get a publishing deal unless the crime I chose to write about was fresh and high-profile, full of sex and pretty people that attracted lots of TV cameras. I wasn’t interested in those stories; I thought I’d found a nice niche looking into stories of old murders in which the killers had done their time and were ready to re-enter society as changed beings, but I was told over and over that there was no market for such stories. And I couldn’t self-publish them, even though I’m a big believer in self-publishing, because I would have had to pay for legal vetting and libel insurance to protect myself from the prospect of lawsuits based on what I wrote. And did I mention that I had a bottomed-out newspaper job? I couldn’t afford anything like that.

Carlton Smith, though … he made it. Big. At least that’s how I saw it. I read a lot of true-crime books, fascinated with the stories as much as the techniques by which they were written, and it seemed that a new Carlton Smith paperback could be found once or twice a year on the shelves of the local Fred Meyer or Target or Walmart. He was fearsomely prolific, and prolific in a high-profile way, churning out books on many of the nation’s most notorious crime cases (alleged wife-killing Chicago cop Drew Peterson, legendary record producer Phil Spector, family-killer Christian Longo, Jon-Benet Ramsey, the BTK killer, etc.).

I think that because I was so in awe of his journalistic pedigree and his prolific publishing pace, I allowed myself to not think too deeply about my belief that Carlton Smith’s books were, well … not very good. I liked thinking about the author, in the rumpled sportcoats he wore around The Seattle Times newsroom, jetting from one city to the next, using his name and reputation and publishing deal to get enviable and privileged access to the inside of the nation’s most fascinating crime cases. I liked thinking about the velvet rope being pulled aside for him, the deference and respect I imagined he would be given, the idea that the people who lived cheek-by-jowl with insanity and murder would unburden their delicious secrets to the man with the notepad and the sympathetic nod and the string of questions that never seemed to end.

But the more I thought about that, and the more I saw how true-crime sausage was made through my own journey, the more I realized that Carlton Smith’s books didn’t reflect that image. Rarely, I came to see, did he sit in on a trial. (In fact, the books were often finished and even published before a trial.) Rarely did he interview anyone, let alone the principal figures in a given case. Rarely did his research turn up anything that wasn’t readily accessible public record. And rarely did these threadbare narratives, with titles like Dying For Daddy and The Prom Night Murders, square easily with the comprehensive and exhaustive work he did as a newspaper reporter on the Green River killings. I used to keep track on a notepad of how many times in a given book Smith would write “It is not known ….” as a way to building a papier-mache bridge between a given story’s yawning chasms in chronology or understanding. It’s a phrase that no good newspaper editor would ever allow a reporter to get away with.

It became clear to me that Smith was operating in the shallow end of the true-crime pool, churning out quickies on the cheap as chunks of fatty raw meat for the Court TV constituency. And a skim through Smith’s Amazon page reinforces that realization. Of Smith’s Murder At Yosemite, a reviewer wrote: “Unfortunately, I probably got more information and insight about this crime from reading the local newspaper. The editing was poor and the story lacked substance.” Other reviews called the book a “tabloid” treatment that was “poorly written” and “sparse” in details. A few called out occasionally contradictory facts. Of Reckless, his book about Spector’s murder case, another reviewer wrote: “If you like student research papers in which the author simply looks at the other books and articles on the subject and then overwrites them with personal observations, then that’s what you get here. Very boring.”

The more I thought about it, though, the more I couldn’t decide who I held responsible for that. Did Carlton Smith, one of the great investigative newspaper reporters of his time, sell himself out and go for the quick buck? Or did his publisher put him in a box he couldn’t get out of, paying meager advances and holding him to impossibly tight deadlines?

I didn’t get my answer until I saw Carlton Smith’s obituary last weekend in The Seattle Times. It’s not hard to read between the lines of the article, which focused largely on his earlier newspaper glories, and see the sad ruin that his life must have become. He died alone outside his Reno apartment, his body found on the stairs by a neighbor. According to his ex-wife, “he had become depressed about finances.” While he was glad to be finishing the final true-crime book of his final contract and start work on a historical novel, she said “he was hoping to get part-time work at a newspaper.”

That last line hit home with me. Me, as I sit in a small room I’m renting in my sister’s house, having been laid off from my newspaper job a few months before. Me, who’s casting about for work in writing and editing, and finding only the occasional ill-paying freelance gig. Me, nineteen years younger than Carlton Smith was when he died, hoping my next nineteen years won’t be as hardscrabble as his. And knowing that they probably will be. Because I don’t know how to do anything else and I don’t want to do anything else. Like Carlton Smith.

“It was not an easy way to make a living,” the article says. “The deadlines were punishing, the cases were all over the country and ‘sometimes he would lose money on a book because he spent so much time researching,’ according to his ex-wife.” A woman, by the way, he pushed away during his newspaper days. And nights and weekends, according to the obituary.

I want to be a published book author. But I also want to be loved back by something I love, and have a shot at making a living at it at something above a subsistence level. Like Carlton Smith, I imagine. I also imagine that love was never really requited by a publisher that took its prime cuts from each book and left him with table scraps. As a friend who’s a true-crime author put it on a Facebook post: “I imagine he died of a broken heart.” I can believe it, if “hope” for a part-time newspaper job was all the great Carlton Smith was left with in the end. What does that portend for the not-so-great Jim Thomsen?

I don’t know, but I do know this: The way Carlton Smith went, that’s not the way I want to go. Or the way I want to be, in the here and now. How I’ll manage that, I don’t know. But now, thanks to Carlton Smith, I do know what I won’t do. And that’s a start.

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Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.

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Want to offer up a guest post for Grab Bag? If you have an idea about a writing-related topic, or you’re an author who’d like to be interviewed in this space, send an inquiry to craig@craig-lancaster.com.


Another Page: ‘Dancing at the Rascal Fair’

There’s this guy named Jim Fuquay, see, and I owe him big-time.

When I was a mere teenager, Jim did two big things for which I’ve never given him proper thanks: First, he gave me my first steady job in journalism. (On second thought, maybe I ought to kick his ass for that.) Second, he introduced me to the novels of Ivan Doig, my favorite author.

Back in the spring of 1989, I was covering sports and city government for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram bureau Jim ran while I tried — and mostly failed — to get a college education. In the haze of 21 years, I don’t remember the exact details of this, but here’s my best piecing-together of the situation: The bureau was running a huge advertising insert in the paper and had promised all of the advertisers a 50-or-so-word mini-story that would go with their ads. Deadline was nigh, and the paper needed a bunch of these little stories written and fast. So Jim pulled me off my editorial duties and struck me a deal: The paper would pay me $5 for every mini-story I could churn out over a long weekend. I was no math major, but I could see the possibilities. I churned through upward of 200 of them and found an extra $1,000 in my paycheck a couple of weeks later.

You know what that means, of course: road trip!

My best friend, Dan Gray, and I set out for Billings in my 1979 Mustang for a week of basketball, hanging out with extended family and scamming on girls who weren’t wise to our ways. It was beautiful. Before I left, Fuquay told me about this Montana author he really liked, Doig, and asked me to pick him up a book if I came across one. At Rimrock Mall, I snagged two copies of Dancing at the Rascal Fair, both signed by Doig, who had been through Billings a few days ahead of me. I gave one to Jim, and the other I took for myself to see what all the shouting was about.

So began a love affair with a writer who, every two or three years, comes out with a new story, all of them written in an inimitable, lyrical style. Different writers offer inspiration in different ways; with Doig, it’s sheer amazement at the way he makes words dance on the page, and the way he’s drawn generations of the West with tenderness and consistency of character.

When I first met the McCaskill clan, I was little more than a boy, one living in Texas and admiring Montana from afar. It took many years and many side trips, but eventually, I found my way here, and all these years later, Doig keeps giving me more books to love. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting the man — and perhaps I never will, which will save him the discomfort of having me jabber at him unintelligibly — but I know plenty of people who have, and they all say he’s golden.

I’d have expected no less.


Progress Report: 5/3/11

The bin Laden news in my workaday life has impeded my writing somewhat this week — life advice: your steadily paying job comes first, always — but I’m pushing the plow down the field. I’m about 7,000 words into a first draft of a novel project, which is enough to be developing some confidence but not nearly enough to actually talk about it. So we’re done with that topic.

I’m most excited about the work I’m doing with Ed Kemmick on his forthcoming book, The Big Sky, By and By. The book is with the printer, and we’re awaiting a proof copy. If all is good with that, we’ll soon have copies to sell ahead of the official release date, July 26.

I’m really, really proud of what we’ve done on this book. My little basement publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press, isn’t prolific — this is just our second book — but I think we’ve picked real winners both times. The debut title, Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, was just honored as a Spur Award finalist. I suspect that Ed’s book is going to find eager readers here in the place where he’s made his considerable reputation as a reporter and writer.

That’s it for this week. And it’s enough.


Once More, With Feeling: Collective Soul

So this will be the new Monday gig around these parts: an occasionally serious, more often comical dissertation on music that strikes a particular chord with me. (See what I did there? Strikes a particular chord. This is why music will be featured on Mondays. Frankly, I expect more of myself later in the week.)

Music, to me, is essential to the creative process, never mind that what I mostly create is unduly strident arguments about the relative worth of bands, to the point that I become highly annoyed if anyone disagrees with me. This happened yesterday on Facebook, when a friend posed the question of who should be blamed for Jefferson Airplane’s sad slide into dreck as Starship. I was prepared to de-friend him and possibly key his car if he persisted with laying blame at the feet of Paul Kantner. Luckily for both of us, he did not.

But today’s post is not about Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship. No, it’s about a much more inconsequential band: Collective Soul, and specifically the song “The World I Know.” See below:

Subtle, no?

When this song came out, nearly 16 years ago, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and scarcely took notice of it. I was mired deep in my bedrock musical predilections, notably R.E.M., Frank Black (and the Pixies, natch), etc.

But in recent weeks, because I’m eternally slow to pick up coolness, I’ve been toying around with Pandora radio, building customized stations that span the mellow-gold 1970s music that filled my childhood, the alternative rock I gravitated to in the 1980s, the grunge of the 1990s and whatever the hell I’m listening to these days (a weird amalgamation of rock artifacts and suggestions from much more musically inclined friends). And across all of those stations, the one song that keeps showing up as a DNA-confirmed relative is this one. It’s maddening. Not as maddening as the almost-as-perpetual appearance of Lionel Richie, but close. Dammit!

So, anyway, there you have it: Collective Soul is the type-O blood of my musical life.

The week’s gotta get better, right?

*****

Today marks the start of a new posting schedule. Check it, bleed:

Monday: Once More, With Feeling

Tuesday: Progress Report (what I’m working on)

Wednesday: Another Page (books that were influential for me — believe me, it won’t all be egghead stuff)

Thursday: Grab Bag (whatever I feel like doing)

Friday: The Word (the writing exercise I launched last week)

I’ll be taking Saturdays and Sundays off, like a regular Joe.