Archive for June, 2011

Grab Bag: The Dead Father and the Faux Faulkner Competition

By Jim Thomsen

One recurring feature on my Facebook page is called “What Do You Think Of This Sentence?” I’ll then pluck a sentence that caught my eye from whatever I’m reading at a given time—a newspaper, a magazine, a website, a novel, an instruction manual, whatever—and share it with my 800-some Facebook friends. They’ll usually snark on it, and usually they’re there to be snarked upon.

Craig and I are prolific pouncers-upon of purple prose—mangled metaphors, swirling similes, tiresome tautologies, etc.—that exalts sentence craft over story craft in storytelling. But we probably feel more strongly than most about such things, and usually such Facebook threads get ten to twenty responses before getting lost underneath whatever other crap I’ve posted on top of it.

Then came last Thursday night, June 23. I posted the following sentence, which came from an anthology of short fiction I’ve been periodically picking through.

“My father died, and a heavy tether between us was cut, dropping away like a wet rope freed from my waist.”

I posted this after ten in the evening, a time when my Facebook traffic usually drops off a cliff, and Craig jumped right on it by suggesting that the sentence should end at cut. He followed with this Onionesque gem.

Publishers Weekly Starred Review. “This spare, parched allegory reveals much about fathers and sons and the many ways in which they go sideways, generation upon generation.”

Well, that got me to thinking about how reviewers praise novelist Cormac McCarthy, and inspired me to take a look at “my father died” through McCarthyesque eyes:

“My father died, and I was no longer the son of my father, and I stared and I listened and the horses of my father thundered like echoes of distant cannons across the desert hills, a bloodbeat and blessing and featherbeating and wingwhipping, and the sound of my elegiac grief trailed behind them like the mist of bone and the cry of sinew and the musculature of centurions.”

If you’re a McCarthy fan and you were offended by that parody, you’re welcome.

Craig came right back over the top with a poignant paean to Papa Hemingway:

“My father died. It happened in his study. He built it in 1920. He died in it in 1943. In between, I went to war. Times were hard.”

Hemingway is one of Craig’s literary heroes. And now that sacred cows were legalized for slaughter, I went straight for the throat of one of my icons, Stephen King:

“My dad did the Buffalo Shuffle off the mortal coil, ayuh, and good fucking riddance to bad trash, that one. I mean, he wasn’t that horrible, really, but I didn’t need him to show this sonny boy where the bear shit in the buckwheat. And I thought about that as I lit a Lucky Strike in the lovely spill of evening light as it split the coming night down the alley between LeMaire’s Luncheonette and an Arby’s that had gone tits up sometime during the second Clinton Administration.”

And then Craig topped me with a direct slap at the Southern-fried sophistries of Rick Bragg:

My daddy died, gave up the ghost, kicked the bucket, went to collect his heavenly pension, and danged if anyone knew what we was gonna do then. Momma, of course, carried herself proud. We may have been poor, but we was prideful poor, the only way momma would have it, as she told us that night after giving us a belly full of collard greens.”

Having more of a genre bent, my response move was a hack at the world’s most successful hack, James Patterson:

“My father died, and my wife was getting ready to go to the funeral with a Juicy Coutoure bag on her arm when a rapist in a ski mask slipped behind her. He placed the sharp metal blade of a knife against the smoothness of her throat and said, “Don’t move, bitch, or I’ll cut you.” Alex Cross burst through the doorway, .38 in hand, and said, “Not this time, Soneji.” Cross fired twice and Soneji disappeared in a hail of glass until the next book.”

And I followed up with an uninspired swipe at Tom Clancy:

“When my father died, I stood at the helm of an MXPX-3800 manual auxiliary console aboard a CSN&Y 93000 Czologosz-Class U.S. Navy submarine, directing Spy Ops from CenCom through AirSeaSkyDirtSpace Unified Command, my finger near the integrated dual trigger-lock mechanism for twenty-six SSXY 3212 Blaupunkt phelgmtanium-cluster-tipped maxi-nuclear warheads.”

And then I just went nuts with this knife-thrust at Dean Koontz:

My father died and I gazed into pools of blood. My head pounded as strange lights flickered through the darkness of the attic. A premonition came over me: That I was cursed, from this day forward, to make untold millions writing essentially the same book twice a year. And even as my screams rose and caught in my throat, I knew there would be no escape. They would not allow. They. The unseen things in the night. The others. The watchers. The bringers. The HVAC installers. All ran together in my fevered dreams like rivers of cold, twisted hate ….”

Actually, I think that one pretty much was dead-on. Craig weighed in again with a masterly stab at the eminently stabbable William Faulkner:

My father did not feel weak, but he died just the same, luxuriating in the vicissitudes of the flesh, that supremely souciant state of being in which love, honor, cherish neither exist nor erode — the accumulations of the seconds and hours and epochs to which a body, any body and all bodies, must hew to the demands of the earth and the heavens, no longer supplicant but instead mendicant to the vagaries of time’s rapprochement.”

And I tossed a rhetorical harpoon at Herman Melville:

“O! My father has passed! Come ye, Starbuck and Stubb, tarry not in yer sorrow. Damn you, but he is God’s true prince from the empire of the world’s hustings, and I am game for his crooked jaw, as I am for the whale that vexes me from the Cape Of Mediocre Hope to the apogee of the Orkneys. He pleaseth me in his countenance and in his form, and I shall make him spout black blood until he rolls fin out, much as I shall roll Ishamel’s darling half-breed in the naked slumber of his beth belowdecks. O Queequeg! He shall be laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I boff! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way! Or something.”

Craig then took an affectionate poke at Larry McMurtry:

“My father died halfway between Dodge City and Ogalalla, a damn sight away from any town that was worth a piss on the prairie. Fortunately, the problem of where to plant him was solved one afternoon when we ran into a party of buffalo soldiers with a mule team who had relieved the tedium of travel by getting drunk. They were generous men, and they took my father’s body and considerately let it ride in the wagon.”

Then we took our first request from a mutual friend following the exchange, and Craig accepted the challenge of Mock John Irving:

My father detested many things, but what he detested most was dying; this struck most of us as a curiosity, as Herman Bellblather hadn’t died before, as he was, right up to the moment he did perish, quite alive. Nevertheless, my father considered dying the sort of endeavor that required more time and effort — endless amounts of both — than he found himself willing to expend. It was this belief in the superfluous nature of death that kept him from buying a proper coffee pot for the entirety of his life, something he surely must have considered as the heart attack took him away for good.”

I didn’t have much parodic gas left in the tank, but burned what vapors I had on Don DeLillo:

“My father died. And all I could think to do was go shopping. So I went to the Price Garroter down the street and filled my geometrically pleasing shopping cart with franks and beans and greens and creamed corn and corn oil and motor oil and soy milk even though I didn’t drink soy milk and tortillas and ranch dip and Tide With Extra White Brighteners and Waffle Crisp and Quaker Instant Oatmeal Because It’s The Right Thing To Do and Stay Free Panti-Liners With Wings That Draw Away Wetness and Hefeweizen Apricot Asparagus Abalone Winter Summer Wheat Berry Hop Beer because if I’m happy and I know it I should clap my hands right and I crawled into the child seat of the cart and cried and cursed the obscure absurd postmodern comic irony of it all, inaccessible only to me and to The New York Times Book Review and the judges of the National Book Award, and my father was still dead.”

Craig then closed out the manic run with a sendup of that dirty old bastard Philip Roth:

“During the war years, in Newark, my father died. His was a magical name on our street, even to those whose blood ran back to the Prince Street ghetto days. Upon his passing, he bequeathed to me a watch of intricate parts and inimitable reliability, a watch constructed by Sol Schwarzheim, who was known in Newark for two things. The rugged beauty of his timepieces and his penchant for swimming at the shore.”


Brilliant. And yet, so many writers, so ripe for parody, have been left unpunctured here. I mean, no Raymond Carver? No John Steinbeck? Elizabeth Gilbert? Charles Bukowski? Jhumpa Lahiri? (Okay, I’ve never read Lahiri, but if The New York Times Review Of Books loves her so much, there must be something there to make fun of.)

So, never having been ones to voluntarily shut off the snark valve, Craig and I will open the floor.

One, give us the name of an author you’d like to see us parody. One of us will take it on.

Or two, feel free to add your own author parody here.

(We should also hasten to point out that we love authors. Love them. We are them. This isn’t about swamping anybody’s boat; it’s about celebrating the other side of the truism that there is magic in words—in this case, the magic being that nobody is too big and important for some good, clean fun.)

Another Page: ‘A Reader’s Manifesto’

This book is what I’ve been reading for the past few days. It’s not a new book; just new to me. And it entered my view at a time when I’ve really been struggling with some of the things I read, things that have received near-universal acclaim but leave me cold, never allowing me to slip out of my own world and into the realm of the characters on the page because the prose is so stultifyingly self-conscious. As I tend to come from a Potter Stewart-like sensibility about the merits of literature — I know what I like when I see it — I thought that B.R. Myers’ book might coagulate some of the thoughts I’ve been entertaining.

Did it succeed? Well, it sounds like a copout, and maybe it is, but yes and no.

Oh, where to begin:

First, the book is not at all falsely billed. If you use a word like manifesto in your title, you better come packing stridency and a take-no-prisoners approach to your topic. B.R. Myers certainly does. With a subtitle of “An Attack on the Growing  Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose,” Myers’ words live up to his stated objective. It’s definitely an attack, and there’s definitely pretentiousness in some quarters of literary prose in this country.

Second, the very things that validate the title — the relentless takedown of some of America’s best known and most highly regarded literary writers, the gleeful pounding of preeningly precious prose — are the things that give a more moderate reader pause. At several junctures, Myers attempts to crawl a bit too deeply into these writers’ heads, ascribing to them an intentionally deceptive approach to writing that sends things a bit too deep into conspiracy-theory land for my taste.

A good example of this is Myers’ examination of this selection from the E. Annie Proulx novel Accordion Crimes:

She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.

Myers writes: “The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand ‘rooted’ long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.”

That’s a step too far for me. I’m happy to talk about the merits of the sentence, and Myers’ criticisms strike me as sound and reasonable, but I’m simply not willing to say what Proulx does or does not want from me or that she was quite deliberately trying to draw my attention away from the questions Myers poses. And that’s the thing: Myers does this continually in the book, with each of the writers he goes after.

The book focuses its takedowns on five authors: Proulx (oh, how Myers delights in tearing into her, even holding up a book’s dedication to withering criticism), Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and David Guterson, dropping them, respectively, into categories of “evocative,” “edgy,” “muscular,” “spare” and “generic literary.” The first four, you might well note, are some of the most common adjectives in reviews of literary work.

Where Myers succeeds most thoroughly is in the sheer number of pretentious passages he unearths, demonstrating convincingly that the perception of deep literary value is often nothing more than a trick of the light, a way of arranging the words to achieve a tonal effect that, when deconstructed, reveals little.

Here’s one from McCarthy, a snippet that employs the “andelope,” a word made up by Myers that denotes “a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction and“:

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

Myers writes: “… the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described. Not for nothing do thriller writers save this kind of breathless syntax for climactic scenes of violence. … And why does McCarthy repeat tortilla? When Hemingway writes, ‘small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers’ (‘In Another Country,’ 1927) he is, as David Lodge points out, using wind in two different senses, and creating two sharp images in the simplest way possible.”

That’s good stuff.

The book teems with examples like that, with level-headed, sensible explanations of why such affectations often are pointless. And Myers certainly is correct when he says that such pretentiousness is multiplying as newer writers, who genuflect at these altars, commit similarly errant prose in their own work. The evidence is out there, on bookstore shelves, for anyone who cares to look for it.

Here again, though, I end up feeling a bit hinky about endorsing Myers’ findings to the point of zealotry. I’m reminded of conversations with friends — some of which I’ve detailed previously — who like this kind of writing. I don’t think they like it because they’ve been brainwashed or they’re unable to see the merits in more workmanlike prose. They simply like what they like, and in the end, isn’t this true of all of us? (That brings to mind another conversation I had a couple of years ago with a high school friend, who was arguing vociferously for the objective standard of good art, while I was taking, as I’m wont to do, the more populist approach. He got a bit angry with me, and I responded with this: “You’re just pissed off because I refuse to tell Britney Spears fans that they’re wrong.” That seemed to lighten the mood, if not settle the dispute.)

In the latter part of the book, Myers deals directly with critics of the original Atlantic article that became the basis of the book. He defends himself well — and rather seems to enjoy it, so much so that I’m a little worried he’ll find this piece and tell me that I’m a two-bit hack clown. Luckily, I’ve been called worse.

Finally, he wraps up with “Ten Rules for ‘Serious’ Writers.” For me, this was the most disappointing part of the book, juvenile and predictable. Here’s a taste:

I. Be Writerly: Read aloud what you have written. If it sounds clear and natural, strike it out. This is the whole of the law; the rest is gloss.

Coming at the end of a long, fascinating piece as they do, these rules smack of taunting and repetition. I really wish Myers had left them out; if any reader comes across them ripe to be swayed, he will more likely be turned off.

In total, though, it’s a worthwhile, illuminating read. Myers brings out the long knives and carves up a lot of writing, and regardless of where you stand, his points are so learned and well-argued that it’s worth considering what he has to say. I came away from the book with a clearer mind about what I’ve been reading lately but also with the motivation to better acquaint myself with the work of those authors Myers attempts to slaughter. A good example: I’ve not read Paul Auster, and I found myself enjoying many of the selections of his that Myers was holding up to ridicule. I also remembered, even as I guffawed at some of the McCarthy criticism, that I found No Country For Old Men and The Road — the only two McCarthy titles I’ve read — artful and moving. Same with Proulx, who for whatever flaws Myers might have exposed has written some breathtaking stories.

In other words, I emerged from the pages of Myers’ book with respect for its message and with my own sensibility, however flawed, still intact.

Progress Report: 6/28/11

Confession time: I have nothing to report.

The short-story collection that has taken up the bulk of my time for the past year is finished and delivered to my editor.

Ed Kemmick’s book is mostly out the door.

I’ve done a couple of library gigs — Ronan (Montana) on June 16th and Columbus (Montana) a week later.

Next week begins my summer festival season:

July 9: Sunrise Festival of the Arts in Sidney, Montana.

July 23: Joliet Jamboree in Joliet, Montana.

August 6: Madison Valley Arts Festival in Ennis, Montana.

August 20: Manhattan Potato Festival in Manhattan, Montana.

Until tomorrow …

Once More, With Feeling: An Interview With Paul Roberts of Sniff ‘n’ The Tears

Paul Roberts, 1978


By Jim Thomsen

Last week, I rhapsodized about one of my favorite pop-rock bands, Sniff ‘n’ The Tears. But I was really giving mad props to just one person: Paul Roberts, the band’s founder, singer, songwriter and sole constant since the British group came together in 1977. I’ve always been a fan of auteur types, artists who take control their own universe—sometimes by force—and make their art better for keeping it as undiluted as possible. I also admire artists who work for the sake of the art—and the craft—and aren’t obsessed with stardom. (When Roberts got burned out on music from time to time—he’s recorded one album per decade since the early Nineties—he turns to his second artistic career as a gallery-quality painter who created the Sniff album covers.) Roberts qualifies on all scores.

And so it was a pleasure to find that the Somerset, Great Britain, resident—now sixty-two and a father of three grown daughters—was willing to answer some questions via e-mail for our benefit.

Enjoy a visit with the man who brought the insanely catchy “Driver’s Seat” into the world. (And I should hasten to add that the new Sniff album, Downstream, which was released just this spring, is an accessible, absolutely wonderful collection of grown-up pop-rock gems. If you need a touchstone, I can safely say that if you like Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler’s solo recordings, you’ll find much to relate to and admire in this self-produced, self-released, under-the-radar delight.)

Q: Why a new album, after eleven years away ? Do you, in your sixties, feel any particular urge to round up a group of friends and hit the road?

A: I make the records because I love doing it, I don’t have unrealistic expectations for them but there are enough “Sniff” fans to make it worthwhile. As for touring, I would love to, but the demand would have to be there for promoters etc to get behind it.

Q: How often did you tour America with the band, and what are your memories of those days? Who did you open for, and were you received and treated well? Or were there some memorable bad times? Did touring tend to bring the band together or expose the personal differences among members?

A: We did one two-and-a-half-month-long American tour in 1979. The first half of the tour we supported Kenny Loggins and the other half, Kansas. On that tour only (guitarists) Loz Netto and Mick Dyche remained from the original band; Chris Birkin and Alan Fealdman had left. Chris had his own band and didn’t want to commit to Sniff now that success beckoned and Alan literally did not want to give up his day job which I believe he still has. Drummer Luigi Salvoni did not want to do the tour and was opposed to our new manager, Bud Prager, (who was instrumental in Foreigner’s success), who he felt was steering the band in the wrong direction.

In retrospect, I think he was right, but … we had a great time on tour and everybody got along fine, but in hindsight it would have been far better to have done a club tour. Bud felt we’d reach more people playing coliseums with Kansas but that goes back to the generic pop fodder argument. Now I think it’s better to play to an audience, however small, that is in to you.

Q: In listening to the Downstream lyrics, your thematic concerns seem to be more about the outside world — sometimes in torn-from-the-newspaper way, and sometimes in an appreciating-the-wonder-of-the natural-world way. Whereas in the first four Sniff albums, your concerns seemed proportionately more about the worlds between men and women. What does that say about the Paul Roberts of, say, 1978, as opposed to the Paul Roberts of today?

A: When you’re young, relationships are what occupy your mind, everything else is secondary. When the turmoil of raging hormones is behind you, you worry about what kind of world your children have to deal with. A more reflective state of mind.

"Buttoning The Red Dress," an oil-on-canvas painting by Paul Roberts

Q: Why do you think Sniff ‘n’ the Tears didn’t sustain the commercial success portended by the breakthrough of “Driver’s Seat”? Was it about how the music didn’t fit into the music of the moment between 1978 and 1982? Was it about band stability? About label promotion and distribution? About your experiences on the road? Or was it about what was going on with you on a personal level?

A: I have never contemplated making music which “fitted in” with the times. I try and do what comes naturally, and work with musicians who complement that. In the music business, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and I would say it takes a huge amount of focus and determination to circumnavigate the pitfalls. We were unlucky in a number of areas and maybe not determined enough in others.

Q: After four albums in five years, you were without a record contract at the end of 1982. At that point, what were your thoughts about what to do with the rest of your life? Did you want music as much as painting, still, as viable careers? Or did you maybe think about packing it all in, in your mid-thirties then, and go somewhere completely different and do something completely different?

A: Chiswick were a small independent label who had done well out of licensing the band worldwide but they were not equipped to promote us properly themselves. So by the time we got to “Ride Blue Divide”, the last contracted album, believe me, there was no desire to continue working with them. I’d say that Love/Action (the band’s third album, released in 1981) was the one that should have changed our fortunes but we had been coerced into using a “producer” which Bud Prager felt had been lacking on the first two albums and going for a more produced sound. I don’t think it worked. It’s the album which to me sound most dated. It was time to take a raincheck, and that’s what we did.

Q: How would you describe yourself as a bandmate vs. a bandleader?

A: My main reason for wanting a band was for that interaction and consistency but I also I wanted my songs to be central to the concept.

"The Holly Walk," an oil-on-canvas painting by Paul Roberts (2007)

Q: My theory about why Sniff ‘n’ the Tears wasn’t a bigger radio/commercial sensation is this: The songs, like your singing voice, seems to exist in a middle register of emotion, lacking the anthemic soaring or the pumped-up dance-floor urgency of the biggest hits of the time. Your music, like your voice, doesn’t wail or rip or shred. They’re songs that simply lope along in second or third gear with great shimmery competence, complementing the comparative dryness of your vocal style, but they don’t grab listeners by the throat in the way that, say, The Clash did. Or Journey. Or just about anybody who was “big” then on the radio.

A: You mention The Clash and Journey; I remember two of the biggest bands at the time were The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, not to mention Tom Petty. One of my favourite bands ever would be Little Feat, who as far as I know never had a hit. Music is a broad church; I wasn’t plotting how to storm the charts, I just wanted to do music that I could feel proud of in my own way. Dire Straits had a second album failure but came back with a strong third album. In my opinion, that’s what we failed to do.

Q: It certainly wasn’t a function of the catchiness of the songs, or their arrangements or musicianship, in my opinion, because deep album cuts like “Roll The Weight Away” or “The Game’s Up” or “Steal My Heart” or “The Thrill Of It All” or “5 & Zero” float unbidden into my forebrain as often, if not more, than “Driver’s Seat” … but they do so in a sneak-up-on-me sort of way. I see them as subtle delights, rather than overt ones. What do you think?

A: The industry in those days was, and probably still is, geared for mega-success. A lot of the music I love is not that obvious, but there is room for it. Bud Prager, our manager, at the time also managed Foreigner. (He) believed that unless you made music that appealed to teenage boys in the Midwest, you could never hope to sell twelve million albums … which he seemed to think was the point. I never thought that was the point. I hoped that if I made good enough music that there would be enough people out there to build a sustainable career. For me, Tom Petty has done that. So has Paul Simon, JJ Cale, Tom Waits and many others. If something grows on you, it will stay with you for longer.

Q: I remember you saying not too long ago in an interview that Sniff ‘n’ the Tears suffered early on in the public consciousness by being compared to Dire Straits and the London pub-rock scene. But Downstream has many songs that sound … well … Knopfleresque. (The opening guitar licks on “Black Money,” for instance, sound like Mark Knopfler was sitting in on the recording session.) Have you grown more at ease with those parallels, however unfair they might have seemed at the time, given that your second, third and fourth albums went in move of a New Wave direction that Dire Straits never touched?

A: What had happened was that we had in fact recorded Fickle Heart (Sniff’s first album, recorded in 1977 and released in 1978) before Dire Straits’ first album. In fact, me and (guitarist) Mick Dyche ran into (original Dire Straits drummer) Pick Withers and were discussing this with him in Wardour Street when we were mastering and they were still recording. Unfortunately Chiswick’s distributor then went bankrupt and they didn’t finalise their deal with EMI for another year, so we found ourselves being accused of following in the path of Dire Straits. (As they say in the movies, any similarity is purely coincidental.) I never really thought the comparison bore too much scrutiny, but we were both laid-back muso-ish bands in the days of the three-chord thrash. New Wave was a meaningless description even then. All it described were the bands that had more to offer than attitude and haircuts.

Q: What have you been doing, for the most part, since the late 1980s, after your pair of solo albums? You seemed to take yourself off the regular-recording path. Has it been all painting, or have you been doing other work? Concentrating on your family? Traveling? Finding other artistic pursuits?

A: We made an album, No Damage Done, in 1992 and then toured Germany and Benelux. (Jim’s note: I actually overlooked this album since doesn’t list it in its database, nor did I see it on Sniff’s Amazon page. Apparently, it was an import-only album. I’m glad Paul alerted me to it, for it was like Christmas for me—a “new” Sniff album to enjoy!) I might re-release it as I think I probably now own the rights. I have, of course, also been painting and enjoying seeing my children grow up.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with “Driver’s Seat”? A lot of artists tagged as “one-hit wonders”—and, sadly, that’s how America probably sees you since I believe that it’s the only song that got real airplay here—tend to resent being defined by the one song that gets cemented to their names. They tend to say, “You know, I wrote and recorded a lot of other good songs, too, you know. Hello?”

A: I’ve always felt that if you had to be a one-hit wonder, then “Driver’s Seat” was a pretty good song to be remembered by. People still love it. It’s not cheap or cheesy or formulaic. It’s got a great energy. Of course, there are other songs I’m proud of, but what the hell. I would never not play “Driver’s Seat.”

Q: If somebody wrote a book about your life, or if you wrote a memoir, what do you think it should be called?

A: What Next?

Paul Roberts, 2011


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

Grab Bag: Notes on a Poem

I really don’t want to make a huge deal about my poem, Eastward Ho, that was recently published by The Montucky Review. I certainly never expected to publish a poem; I know how bad most of my attempts at the form truly are. But now that an editor has seen something in the work, my wife, Angie, suggested that I give a little background on it.

So here goes …

I spent my first summer in Montana drinking beer and making stupid faces. Pretty much how I've spent every summer since.

I wrote it in the early fall of 2006, just months after I’d moved to Montana from California to start my life here with Ang. I’d made the trip here that June with a bit of money in the bank, and I figured I could float along for the better part of a year, if I had to, without finding full-time work. As it turned out, I was in town less than a month before something opened up at The Billings Gazette, and so I was back on the job fairly quickly.

The poem, whether it’s obvious or not, was the result of some conflicting feelings I had about my situation — personal and professional. Between the time I started my career in earnest in the early ’90s and the time I came to Montana, I’d been married to my work — pouring my energy and my passion into journalism. When I came to Montana, that changed. I still enjoy working with words and designing pages and the thrill of a big breaking story, and I still hold myself to a high standard of work, but my arrival here was driven, at least in part, by the sudden realization, at age 36, that work would never love me back. And I now had someone in my life whom I’d never let in before, someone who would love me back.

That was the dynamic at work as I wrote the poem, the letting go of a job as the most important thing in my life and the embracing of another human being in that role. Marriage has not been easy, mostly because I’m not an easy person, but this I can say with all conviction: I’ve never regretted the trade.

Another Page: ‘Catcher in the Rye’

J. Gregory Smith

By J. Gregory Smith

This past Father’s Day had me thinking about and missing my Dad, who passed away five years ago.  I remember one of his early jobs in journalism.  He was one of very few reporters granted an interview with the reclusive J.D. Salinger.

Given that honor, you might think I would have had an added interest in reading Salinger’s work.  You’d be mistaken, at least back when I was in high school in the early eighties.  Back then, my priorities were avoiding work along with consequences of the mischief I caused to fill what should have been productive time.

Case in point: a fine Sunday that followed an entertaining Saturday unmarred by a trace of academia, including reading  The Catcher in the Rye, due in its entirety the next day.

Not a problem.  I had a plan.

Back in those days, we couldn’t Google the book and get the finer literary points at the click of a mouse.  No, we had to get off our butts and earn our shortcuts.

Off to the local bookstore, I perused the racks of the slacker’s best friend.  I didn’t see the condensed tribute to J.D.’s masterpiece.  Undaunted, I went the extra mile and marched to the front desk.

“Do you have the Cliff’s Notes for The Catcher in the Rye?”  I had cash in hand.

“Why?  It’s a great book.  You should read it.”

“So, you don’t have it?” Did he not see the bills ready to leap from my fingers?

“No. You should read it.”

I suspected he had a stack of them behind the counter, but could see I was wasting my time.  Those notes weren’t going to read themselves.

I decamped for one of his competitors.  Again, I found I wide selection of curtailed classics, but Catcher wasn’t among them.  I sought assistance, only to hit the same wall.

A lady this time.  “Why?  It’s a great book.  You should read it.”

“Um.  Well it’s due tomorrow and …” I knew this was weak and began to wither under the repeated disapproval.

“You shouldn’t have waited so long.  You should read it.”

By now, I was determined to get my hands on those notes even if I had to disappoint every bookshop in the city.

I knew they couldn’t be colluding against me, but each time, without fail, all responded: “It’s a great book. You should read it.”

That afternoon, I waved the white flag.  I stormed home in a frustrated huff, picked up my copy of the actual novel and read the entire book in one sitting.

They were right.

Maybe a book about a sullen, lost teenager was just the right speed for a sixteen-year-old, but in many ways this book represented a turning point for me. I’d learned grownups weren’t always wrong, and also sometimes it was easier to just buckle down and do the work than find ways around it.

That memory gets me through days when writing feels like work.  Even when I’m plowing through a dreary section of prose (that I know I’ll cut later) I understand I might never find the gem just past it if I don’t put in the grunt work.

J. Gregory Smith is the author of the thriller Final Price, published by AmazonEncore.  He has written two other thrillers and a YA novel.  He is currently working on the third book in the Final Price series.  You can follow news of upcoming books on Facebook or Twitter (JGregorySmith3).

Progress Report: 6/21/11

This will be blessedly short. It’s 2:05 a.m. as I begin it, and I’m exhausted:

Really Cool News, At Least To Me, Part 1: A poem of mine has been published by The Montucky Review, a new literary journal. It’s called Eastward Ho, and I wrote it about five years ago. Sometime back, I posted it on Facebook, and a friend of mine — a true poet named John Wall — suggested some revisions, which I finally made last weekend, right before I submitted it.

As I write poetry about as often as Boston releases an album — and to far less satisfying results — I wouldn’t expect to see this feat duplicated any time soon.

Really Cool News, At Least To Me, Part 2: The short-story collection that I’ve been bleating about (now renamed She’s Gone) is done, done, done, done. That’s why I’m up at such an insane hour. I’ll be sending it along to my publisher this week.

Pointless News, To Everybody: Because I don’t waste enough time online, I have a new social-media presence. Check it out (or look at the ghastly screen grab above).

Finally …

I know this feature is supposed to focus on things that are happening, well, away from here, but if you haven’t checked out Jim Thomsen’s piece on the band Sniff ‘n’ The Tears (directly below this post), you really are missing out on something special. If you haven’t checked out the first video, for the band’s hit song “Driver’s Seat,” please do. If you don’t like it, please see a doctor, as you’re probably dead.

Jim will be back next Monday with Part 2, an interview with Sniff’s lead singer and songwriter, Paul Roberts. It’s not to be missed.

Sniff ‘n’ The Tears and “Driver’s Seat”: One-Hit Wonder? It’s No Wonder

“The second album by this intellectual minded English ensemble is filled with the same kind of quality music that graced its debut last year. Writer / guitarist / vocalist / painter Paul Roberts is at the forefront, writing songs that are both heady in content and poignantly melodic. His songs have an eerie kind of esoteric quality to them.”

— Billboard magazine, June 14, 1980


By Jim Thomsen

It’s amazing to me how many pop and rock acts from the Seventies are still recording and releasing albums of new, original material.

Molly Hatchet? Still in business. America? Still at it. So is Foghat, and the Little River Band, and Kansas. Leo Freaking Sayer! Debby Effing Boone! Alan O’Day, whose one hit, “Undercover Angel,” was released over thirty-four years ago, put out an album in 2008. Who buys an Alan O’Day album nowadays? (Hell, who bought one in 1977?)

Who buys any of these albums?

Well, people like me, that’s who.

Because, to that list, add a band I love: Sniff ‘n’ the Tears.

Scratch your head for a minute as you think about that one. “Um … hmmmm … are you talking about the guys that did ‘Driver’s Seat’? Those guys are still around? Those one-hit wonders? Are you freaking kidding me?”

Yes. Yep. Yup. And nope.

I was in eighth grade, sporting headgear braces and Farrah Fawcett-feathered hair, when I first heard “Driver’s Seat” on my AM/FM clock radio. I promptly ten-sped down to Steve Nicolet’s Record Shack to procure the brand-spanking-new vinyl single with my newspaper bike-route money. I must have played it twenty-six times or more on my Sears belt-drive turntable before my mom called for me to come down to dinner. And then, I’m sure, I played it twenty-six times more as I did my algebra homework beneath the watchful eyes of my Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head poster. And probably 2,600 times since. As far as I’m concerned, “Driver’s Seat” is the most insanely catchy song ever created.

Now I’m less than two weeks shy of forty-six, with a stomach that slopes like a ski run, and temples shot through with tarnished silver. And as I write, I am listening to Downstream, the Sniff ‘n’ The Tears album released this spring, on my laptop computer. And it’s good, and it’s good for all the same reasons I eventually bought—and wore out—the first Sniff album, Fickle Heart, in 1978: Accessible songs, hook-riddled melodies and engagingly cryptic lyrics rendered in the pleasantly high, dry burr of founding member Paul Roberts’ singing voice.

In fact, as probably the only person in North America who owns all seven Sniff albums (and the two Paul Roberts solo albums), I can authoritatively say that everything Paul Roberts has recorded is like that. The man simply has the gift for catchy, tuneful pop-rock songs with sly, intricate arrangements that bring out something new for the ear with each listen.

His songs are the equivalent of sliders at happy hour; cooked just right, slathered with the right condiments and chased with smartly selected aperitifs, they go down tasty and easy and not a bit greasy. They simply agree with me, and I could sample them all night long. (Which may or may not explain the sloping stomach.) They’re not high cuisine, nor are they fast food. They’re merely pretty good appetizers.

That said, I understand perfectly why Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, which put out four records between 1978 and 1982 before calling it quits (for the first time, that is), was a one-hit wonder.

One, nobody knew what they were or what scene they fit into. They were New Wave, sort of, a little, but not really (though anybody who heard the serenely spacy synthesizer solo near the end of “Driver’s Seat” could be forgiven for thinking otherwise). They came from the London pub-rock scene that spawned Dire Straits, among others, but their pop songcraft was just a little too slick to be lumped in with the Dylanesque shuffle blues of Mark Knopfler & Co. They rocked, but not too hard, and in that regard they were as far away from being The Clash as they were Led Zeppelin. In short, they defied categorization. And, as any author pitching a book to a publisher knows, the inability to categorize is almost always the kiss of commercial death. Inevitably the bottom line is: “We love it, but we don’t know how to sell it.”

Two, their songs dwelled in a narrow, middling emotional range. They didn’t reach for anthemic heights, nor did they produce their records with the propulsive dance-floor rhythms of the music that made the Top Forty in that time. There was no cohesive lyrical vision, merely Roberts’ affably vague, vaguely sophisticated observations. Whether or not to try for bigger things was apparently a subject of constant tension between Roberts and the band’s manager, Bud Prager (who was filling the same role with Foreigner, among others).

Roberts drily distills the debate about how to follow up the band’s successful first album on the Sniff website: “Bud wanted the guy who was later to have huge success producing Bon Jovi. Bud felt that a big glossy rock sound with big choruses was what was required. It didn’t occur to him that poodle rock might not be our natural constituency. For Bud, there was only one way to do it and that was the way Foreigner had done it.

“There were other bands from England that did not fit the template. I remember him saying, ‘The Police will never make it in the States because Americans don’t like reggae.’”

Roberts held out for his producer, a first-timer, and won. Or did he? He picks up the story: “At the studio, the reaction to the album was fantastic and certain light-headed feelings of vindication were beginning to set in. Until Bud Prager took me to one side. He said, ‘Enjoy this evening, Paul, while you can. Everybody is telling you (that) you made a great album, but I’ve got to tell you it’s a disaster. There is no hit single, no ‘Driver’s Seat.’”

Both were right. The Game’s Up was a very good album, receiving positive reviews, and it remains Roberts’ favorite. But it yielded no hits. While Sniff charted a handful of singles in Europe, it stiffed in North America and never again found so much as reliable distribution over here.

Three, there is the unsmall matter of Roberts’ voice. I’ve spent more time than anybody ever should trying to find the words to describe this instrument, and what I’ve come down to is this: He sings like a man leaning against the outside of a nightclub at two in the morning, cupping a cigarette and a lighter in his hands as he sings alone, with a hint at an untapped well of unspeakable melancholy, to whatever traffic might be passing by.

It is a thin, scratchy, slightly hoarse instrument with a limited range that can’t wail, soar or snarl with much credibility or cohesiveness. And yet, it is wonderfully expressive within that narrow corridor—dryly pained, dryly sardonic, dryly seductive, but oh, so distant. He sings like a man who is afraid to let loose everything he feels, or simply can’t find his way to the fullest expression of his feelings, often floating his voice in a light croon or a dry whisper just behind a slow or midtempo beat.

He’s not unlike other critically acclaimed singer-songwriters of the era I like and admire—Mark Knopfler, David Knopfler and Lloyd Cole among them. But none of those guys had much in the way of hits (Dire Straits had only a handful of Top Forty singles; it was one of the last album-rock-station sensations)—and one can’t help but wonder if their too-cool-for-school singing styles, whether affected or genuine, didn’t impact their fortunes on radio and in video.

That indifference can best be summed up by a single word spoken by a friend on a recent road trip through Oregon. I played the Fickle Heart CD all the way through, and toward the end, my friend asked who the artist was. I showed him the CD cover and asked him if he’d like me to burn him a copy. There was a moment of silence, then my friend handed me back the cover. “Eh,” he said.

That didn’t bother me—believe me, I get it that Sniff ‘n’ The Tears is an acquired taste—and I get the strong impression that it doesn’t bother Paul Roberts, either.

In everything he’s said and written on the subject, Roberts’ attitude toward his fame—or lack of it—as a one-hit wonder can be summed up: “Oh, well.” He didn’t need music to make him whole; he’s been married for nearly thirty years, has three grown daughters and a second career as a commercially successful painter.

Now sixty-two, he lives in Somerset, near London, and lives comfortably (“Driver’s Seat” has made him a pretty penny on various reissues and commercial licensings for cars and stereo systems). He makes music when he feels like it (solo albums in 1985 and 1987; Sniff albums in 1991, 2001 and now 2011) and lives his life when he doesn’t. You might say that on trouble and strife, he has another way of looking at life.

I’ll tell you more about it next week … when I share an interview I recently conducted with the man himself.

In the meantime, enjoy one of Roberts’ best atmospheric compositions.

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

Grab Bag: My Sunday night

You may have heard that I’m a Dallas Mavericks fan. And you may have heard that the Mavericks won the NBA championship Sunday night.

(If you’re Facebook friends with me, you no doubt heard entirely too much of both things.)

But Sunday night wasn’t spent on my couch, with a plate of pizza and a bottomless mug of beer. You see, Sunday nights lie smack dab in the middle of my work week, when I’m doing the job that (a) takes 40 hours of my week and (b) pays the bills and (c) I’ve been doing for more than 20 years now, in one way or another.

I’m a copy editor and page designer at the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, and like many daily newspapers, on Sundays we go with a smaller crew of newsroom workers. On Sunday nights, I edit and design the front page of the newspaper and the front of the sports section. This particular Sunday threw an interesting curve into everything: It brought the biggest game in the history of a team I’ve rooted for since I was 10 years old. I’ve been a sports journalist for much of my career, and thus I’ve conditioned myself to be more placid observer than rabid partisan when it comes to the nexus of sports and work. But Sunday night was terra nova for me, and I’ll be honest: In an environment that didn’t include the press box — where it’s never OK to cheer — I allowed myself to bask in the joy of the Mavs’ close-out game.

I caught a break on the front page. I’d designed the centerpiece (on the rising number of skin cancer cases among young people) the night before, leaving two smaller stories to choose, edit and place, along with the various add-ons (top-of-the-page promos, the index, etc.). You can see the results at the top of this post. I also edited the designed the two smaller stories on the sports cover.

At game time, I was far enough along to slip over to the TV and keep a close eye on things for a while.

Once halftime rolled around, I started harvesting NBA photos from the wire service with a mind to how I might approach the early edition, depending on how things shook out. I had already researched and compiled two charts — one on the three road teams that have won Game 7s in the NBA finals, which I’d have used in the case of a Heat victory, and one on the current franchises with NBA titles, a group Dallas would be joining with a win. For our first edition, the end of the game was going to be a tight squeeze, so I basically went simple: one big photo, one story, the applicable chart.

I’ve posted here the page as it evolved for our final edition. I put a horizontal crop on a vertical photo to capture a nice moment between Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, the two holdovers from the 2006 Mavericks team that flopped in the NBA finals. The NBA champions chart splits the two stories — one on the Mavericks’ win, the other on the residue of the Heat’s loss.

I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out. It was a fun night to be a journalist and a Mavericks fan.

Even minus the beer.

Another Page: ‘The Wayward Bus’

Of John Steinbeck’s titles, I regularly re-read three.

The first two aren’t likely to be surprises: Of Mice and Men (to remind me that a novel need not be long to be brilliant) and Travels With Charley (even though much of the rustic appeal apparently was embellished, if not outright made up, my heart was cast long ago).

The third, however, isn’t one you hear much about. And yet, in upward of 10 readings, I’ve consistently made new discoveries in The Wayward Bus. As years and experience and gains and losses shape me, the arc of the story and the characters on the page seem to shift, giving me new insights into this motley band of travelers Steinbeck assembled.

The book, published in 1947, is considered one of Steinbeck’s weaker efforts, and perhaps that, in some perverse way, is one of the things I like about it. (Although I still believe it’s leagues better than, say, The Winter of Our Discontent.) It’s certainly atypical of his work, most of which was imbued with an optimistic outlook about humans and human nature. In this book, though, there is much to dislike in almost everyone, notably Juan Chicoy, who owns a restaurant and runs a connection bus line; Alice, his suffering and insufferable wife; Norma, the live-in waitress at the Chicoys’ restaurant who has pointed her star to Hollywood (and almost certain disappointment); and a collection of passengers highlighted by a strutting businessman, his mousy wife and their college-age daughter, Mildred. Perhaps the most sympathetic character, Juan’s teenage apprentice Pimples Carson, is pitiable more than anything else.

And yet, there’s something about the tossed-together dynamic of driver and human cargo that illuminates some disquieting truths about we humans and how we interact. Anyone who has ever ridden a bus cross-country knows that Steinbeck has pegged what that experience is like — even without the breakdowns (mechanical and personal), the tryst and the recriminations that mark this work.

Beyond all that, I find myself responding to this book in much the same way that I respond to nearly everything Steinbeck wrote: I marvel at his control of story, the way he softly treads through lovely prose (unlike so many literary writers these days who fertilize their stories with stacks of precious sentences, choking the more workmanlike writing that would allow their lyrical language to stand out), his masterful evocation of time and place.

I recommend it highly.

Progress Report: 6/14/2011

It’s been a light week. And, dammit, I deserved it.

A few things:

  • Finally, the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, is for sale in advance of its official July 26 release date. If you’d like a signed copy, please jet over to Ed’s site and make a totally safe PayPal transaction. If you love Montana and Montanans, this book will not disappoint you. I’m damned proud to have it as the second release from my little literary house, after Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice.
  • I’m hitting the road this week, heading up to Ronan, Montana, to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. Ronan was a great host last year when I was thumping 600 Hours of Edward, and I’m really, really looking forward to talking to my friends about my new novel, The Summer Son. This, I suppose, is the unofficial kickoff to my summer book season. Check out my calendar for the other stuff I have on tap.
  • My collection of short stories, tentatively titled Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, is in the hands of a trusted editor before I move it along to my publisher. Really, really excited about these. Really, really hoping the publisher will be, too.

And now, a personal note:

Today is the 72nd birthday of my dad, Ron Lancaster (shown above with my dogs Bodie and Zula). (By the way, them’s my legs behind him.) I’ve written some about his difficult life, and my occasionally difficult dealings with him. I’ve never shied away from the fact that The Summer Son is, on some level, both a vehicle for working out my frustrations with him and a love letter to him.

But I’ll be telling him today — as he will never see it here — that I love him very much and am blessed to have him in my life.

Happy birthday, Pops.

Once More, With Feeling: ‘Troy’

R.J. Keller

By R.J. Keller

I first heard Troy by Sinead O’Connor in the spring of 1988 when a friend of mine loaned me her copy of The Lion and The Cobra. I was seventeen years old and the song scared the shit out of me. But I was hooked.

It opens with vocals that are barely a whisper and with low, haunting strings. By the end of the song both she and the strings are howling her betrayal. At the midway point she wails, “I’d kill a dragon for you”…and she means it.

At seventeen I didn’t fully appreciate the song. I didn’t know that the title and fiery imagery had been borrowed from a poem by William Keats. I would later find it ironic that Keats absolved the object of his unrequited affection with the words, “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” while O’Connor used the sentiment as a scathing accusation. And in the mid-’90s I would shake my head when I heard people proclaim Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know the anthem for spurned women everywhere, because I knew the true honor belonged to the song I had heard so many years before.

At seventeen I only knew that I never wanted to experience the kind of heartache that had inspired this song. Eventually I did, of course, because we all do. And when it happened, I was grateful to Sinead O’Connor for giving me such a powerful outlet for the pain.

R.J. Keller’s fine first novel, Waiting For Spring, was recently released by AmazonEncore. To learn more about R.J. and her work, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or like her on Facebook. Honestly, you should do all three.

Grab Bag: When a Novel Dies

"Cap'n, I don't believe she's seaworthy."

I remember reading this New York Times article back in March and finding myself amused at the various ways authors spoke of novels-in-progress that never see the finish line:

  • Michael Chabon eventually published his in McSweeney’s 36, complete with the page annotations in which the great novelist assailed his own work.
  • Stephen King acknowledged the failure rate directly: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”
  • Joshua Ferris refused to acknowledge whether he’d ever left one naked and quivering on the floor: “I won’t even cop to whether or not I have abandoned novels.”

Of those three approaches, I find myself most comfortable with King’s. Yes, I’ve abandoned novels. A half-dozen or more in my twenties, one just a few months after I finished 600 Hours of Edward, one late last year … and one last week. One I’ve written about in this space. You see now why I was loath to reveal many details. Until the moment a novel is finished — and I mean finished and ready to be delivered to the publisher — its efficacy is never certain.

What went wrong with the story I was writing? Fundamentally, nothing. It’s just that I realized, nearly 14,000 words in, that I had quite accidentally set myself on a course to write a story that would be forever compared — unfavorably, I imagine — with a much-beloved work that mines much of the same territory, albeit in a different way. I’m not going to say more than that about the similarities. I was horribly, horribly aghast at the realization, and after thinking about it over the course of 18 hours or so, I saw no viable way to continue. I had to pull the plug on its prospects as a novel-length work.

But there is a bright side to all this.

The Times story tells how John Updike successfully extracted several short stories out of an unrealized novel called Willow. As I considered what I could do with several thousand words I was proud of, I realized that I could do something similar. So I went to work, trimming and shaping and amplifying, and I was able to turn that work into a short story that will fit nicely into the collection I’ve been working on for the past year. In fact, it ends up completing the collection. Not a bad turn for a story that, in its envisioned novel-length form, had a fatal flaw.

I was also able to rework sections of the project that stalled last year and turn them into three other stories in the collection. In other words, as a novelist, I’m turning into a pretty decent recycler.

I still haven’t found a good way to repurpose the project I abandoned back in March 2009, just after I finished 600 Hours of Edward. And there’s a good reason:

It S-U-C-K-S.

Another Page: ‘Cujo’*

* — aka, “The Horror Novel That Isn’t Really a Horror Novel Nor Is It Really About a Rabid and Murderous Saint Bernard”


Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

I never had a “Hemingway moment” as a kid, as most modern-day male writers have. Nor a Steinbeck one, though my inner road-tripper was mesmerized by Travels With Charley. My tastes tended toward Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators, and trended in my young teens toward Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures and true crime. In retrospect, I see now that I liked (a) painless diversionary fare that (b) allowed me to project my own fantasies for dark adventure in a safe and silent way.

None of that explains why I felt a strange ping in my solar plexus the first time I picked up a Stephen King book. It was the fall of 1981, and I was a junior in a Christian boarding high school. And as a social maladroit, I spent large swaths of time staring out of my dormitory window being bored out of my Christian gourd.

One of the fellow doinks in my dorm had lent me a stack of horror paperbacks, and the one on top was Cujo. I don’t know why I even opened it, based on the back jacket copy: A big friendly dog chases a rabbit into a hidden underground cave—and stirs a sleeping evil crueler than death itself. A terrified four-year-old boy sees his bedroom closet door swing open untouched by human hands, and screams at the unholy red eyes gleaming in the darkness ….

I am not a bit into tales of the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial, so I am surprised that I bothered to crack the cover. I have always preferred tales of hardcore reality in everyday circumstances (which made my unfortunate side trip into Cussler-dom a blessedly brief one). Somehow I got past that and into the story, and discovered three things with the aforementioned zing:

  • Cujo is not really a story about a rabid, murderous dog. It’s a nuanced, bittersweet, deeply real tale of anger, love, marriage and corrosive compromise.
  • The language. The voice. Oh, my God. I never knew that a writer’s voice could be so original, so brimming with feeling, and yet so wise and crisp and literate. And so unaffected. And so awesome. Holy crap!
  • The characters come to fully realized life in a way I’d never seen in a novel before, and haven’t all that often in the thousands of literary novels I’ve read in the thirty years since.

Oh, yeah, and No. 4. There’s story, and there’s more story, and then there’s even more story.

Here’s an example that encompasses all four of the above virtues … and it concerns a secondary character in Cujo, for crying out loud.

His grateful country had given him the Distinguished Service Cross. A grateful hospital staff in Paris had discharged him in February 1945 with an 80 percent disability pension and a gold-plated monkey on his back. A grateful hometown gave him a parade on the Fourth of July (by then he was twenty-one instead of twenty, able to vote, his hair graying around the temples, and he felt all of seven hundred, thank you very much). The grateful town selectmen had remanded the property taxes on the Pervier place in perpetuity. That was good, because he would have lost it twenty years ago otherwise. He had replaced the morphine he could no longer obtain with high-tension booze and had then proceeded to get about his life’s work, which was killing himself as slowly and pleasantly as he could.

Now, in 1980, Gary Pervier was fifty-six years old, totally gray, and meaner than a bull with a jackhandle up its ass.

I find that just about perfect. It sets a scene. It establishes a character (a very Hemingway character, at that). It makes backstory, often a dreary undertaking for most writers, as fun as the front story. And it does so with remarkable insight in an utterly effortless shoot-the-shit tone. Most writers, I suspect, couldn’t resist the self-conscious impulse to doll this up with prose with something purple like “puffy rolls of fishbelly flesh pitched and rolled on his ancient and agonized bones, fueled by nothing more thin blood and strong alcohol.” Because, you know, in the literary tradition, seediness is next to godliness.

But that passage, as wonderful as it is, isn’t really what the book’s about. (I’m giving away very little when I say that Gary Pervier, the poor bastard, never makes it to fifty-seven.) Cujo is about two couples fighting mortal battles for the souls of their unions and their children. Vic Trenton is a man at the end of his tether, fighting to save his advertising business even as he fights a battle within himself about whether to keep his family intact in the aftermath of his wife Donna’s confessed infidelities. Charity Camber is fighting to keep alive her dreams for her ten-year-old son’s future from the coarse, alcohol-crushed clutches of her contentedly white-trash husband, Joe.

But none of these characters are as sympathetic — or unsympathetic — as they sound. Joe Camber isn’t really a bad guy, and Donna Trenton is no shrewish whore. And that’s the story with real people, as opposed to people usually found in literature. Most writers don’t have the space or patience or skill to develop multi-dimensional characters. Genre writers are often too busy shaping the traits of their characters to the demands of their plots; literary writers are often more concerned with crafting perfect sentences to describe their characters than with the characters themselves.

King’s talent, by contrast, is so ridiculously off the charts that he manages to have it every which way. He spends pages and pages on the turmoils in the Trenton and Camber households, and the reader doesn’t notice that we haven’t seen the rabid, eponymous Saint Bernard in twenty or so pages at any given time because King has crafted unbearable suspense in the spaces between the words of the husbands and the wives, making everything they say — and don’t say — like a sprint through a minefield at darkest midnight.

An example:

They walked together to the stairs.

Donna asked, “So what comes next, Vic?”

He shook his head. “I just don’t know.”

“Do I write ‘I promise to never fuck the local tennis bum again’ five hundred times on the blackboard and miss recess? Do we get a divorce? Do we never mention it again? What?” She didn’t feel hysterical, only tired, but her voice was rising in a way she didn’t like and hadn’t intended. The shame was the worst, the shame of being found out and seeing how it had punched his face in. And she hated him as well as herself for making her feel so badly ashamed, because she didn’t believe she was responsible for the factors leading up to the final decision to fuck Steve Kemp — if there ever had been anything so thinking as a decision.

“We ought to be able to get it together,” he muttered, but she did not mistake him; he wasn’t talking to her. “This thing —” He looked at her pleadingly. “He was the only one, wasn’t he?”

It was the one unforgivable question, the one he had no right to ask. She left him then, almost ran up the stairs, before everything could spill out, the stupid recriminations and accusations that would not solve anything but only muddy up whatever weak honesty they had been able to manage.

I can’t help but think that most genre writers would never think to probe this part of their characters’ psyches — and now, back to our gun-riddled chase scene, folks — and that most literary writers would dance around it, forsaking direct dialogue for deep searching studies of the strained planes of the patrician bones of Donna Trenton’s face under her ashen skin and the allegedly immutable truths contained within each sweat-stung pore and puckered fold around the eyes. King cares, and cares and cares and cares, page after page after page.

This is where his critics over the decades have gone horribly wrong: King is not a horror writer. He is a teller of stories about people whose character traits — the full messy buffet plate of them — emerge in horrific situations. Which, yes, sometimes involve vampires, telekinetic teens, underground creatures, postapocalyptic satanic figures and Chryslers possessed by the souls of cranky old men. And, of course, rabid Saint Bernards. And I say, so fucking what?

I could belabor the point, but the point here isn’t to get into a critical dissection of Stephen King’s man-of-letters credentials, it’s to geek out about a book I loved at a time when I needed not only a quality diversion but also quality beyond diversion, as can only be needed by a boy at a time when he’s trying to fumble his way toward being a man.

Not that the diversions themselves weren’t lighting up my nerve endings. I can remember reading in the bed of my dorm room after lights-out, balancing a flashlight on my pillow, thoughts of sleep driven away by a surge of adrenaline as I took in passages like this:

She looked out the car window, saw the baseball bat lying in the high grass, and opened the car door.

In the dark mouth of the garage, Cujo stood up and began to advance slowly, blood-flecked head lowered, down the crushed gravel toward her.

“Come on then, motherfucker,” she whispered.

It was twelve-thirty when Donna Trenton stepped out of her Pinto for the last time.

Thirty years later, I still get the chills when I read those few paragraphs. That is the power of Stephen King. The enduring power. Where’s my flashlight?

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

Progress Report: 6/7/11

I’ll be quick (there’s an Anthony Weiner joke in there somewhere, but I’m not making it):

  • I’m close — so, so close — to finishing the last short story for a collection I’ve been working on for the past year. In fact, my plan is to move immediately from typing up this post to working on the story, so by the time you read this — about eight hours after I finish writing it — I may well be done. Then again, maybe I won’t. At any rate, tell me how this grabs you for a title for the collection: Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.
  • Copies of the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, have been shipped out to early reviewers, final changes to the interior have been uploaded to the printer, and soon, books will be for sale. Please bookmark and visit it often. He’ll be posting details there. The official release date is July 26.
  • I do have some news on the novel project I’ve been yammering about, but I’m going to save that for Thursday’s Grab Bag. That right there is what we like to call a cliffhanger. Or a ripoff. Choose your nomenclature.

And finally …

Today, June 7, is the 30th birthday of my wife, Angie (pictured below during our recent trip to New York). I could say a million things about her, and I probably will eventually, but lately, I keep coming back to this: She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And that’s seen us through some really difficult times. Happy birthday, sweetheart!

Angie at Ellis Island.


Once More, With Feeling: The Larry Burnett interview


Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

A few weeks ago, I shared some thoughts in this space about the not-quite-a-hit-single “Cinderella,” (see below) recorded and released by the soft-rock band Firefall in 1976. As I wrote, it’s a pretty tune wrapped around some shocking and seemingly misogynistic lyrics. (Cinderella, can’t you see/I don’t want your company/Better leave this morning, leave today/Take your love and your child away.)

Since then, as hoped for, the songwriter — Firefall band member Larry Burnett — agreed to talk to me about what’s informed the song he wrote as a 16-year-old in 1968 — and what’s continued to inform it in his private life and in the public consciousness. I think you’ll enjoy this remarkably candid, self-effacing conversation with a musician who had a backstage ticket to the never-ending show that is classic rock.

Q: I’ve seen you discuss this in a few interviews that can be found online, but can you talk a little about what you saw around you as a teenager that led to the writing of “Cinderella”?

A: I, like so many (even my own son), come from a broken home (Mom left Dad when I was 4-ish).  For most of my adolescent and adult life, all was filtered through a lens of betrayal and suspicion. It was easy to look around and notice lives going awry and against their own standards.

Q: Was the lyrical view of “Cinderella” typical or different from the themes expressed in other songs you wrote in those formative years? What were your obsessions of the time?

A: Other songs I wrote during my teen years sucked. I was mostly obsessed with narcotics and having sex with some forty-something divorcee in the neighborhood … or any female, for that matter. I didn’t get laid until I was 18 and moved out of my folks’ house. Nancy Neal … I’ll never forget her. I actually crossed paths again with her when I was in Firefall.

Q: When the time came to choose songs for the first Firefall album, were there any misgivings within the band or the label about putting “Cinderella” on it? It seems quaint now, but it WAS 1976, and Middle America was still presumed to be churchgoing and innocent, and a song with “Goddamn, girl!” as the punchline passage must have at least raised a few eyebrows.

A: Once I wrote a song, I didn’t really care how it was handled for “business reasons.”  For the single, Atlantic edited out the word “God” from “Goddamn”, thinking that might help soften the impact.  I was never a fan of softening the impact, but, like I said, I didn’t really care.

Q: Feminists protested the playing of “Cinderella” on the radio, leading to it stalling out as a single just short of the Top 40, according to Firefall’s Wikipedia site. What do you remember about that?

A: I remember everyone being surprised at that … bunch of men, what do you expect?  Again, I write ‘em as I see ‘em.  People react how they react.  Some of the kindest words I’ve gotten regarding that song over the years have come from women.  Why? I couldn’t tell you, but kind words are kind words. I’ll take them gratefully.

Q: In reading your 2008 blog, I saw that you came to be a father relatively late in life, and now have a son who’s almost college age. How did you take the news that you were to be a father … and how did you take to BEING a father? How do you characterize your relationship with your son?

A: For many years I never saw myself as a husband or a father … and rightly so.  As I healed up from years of drinking and drug addiction, my self-image began to shift to one in which I thought I actually had something to offer in those roles.

I have an astonishing relationship with my son and I believe that he would agree.  I am driving to Connecticut on Saturday to see him in his last high school play (he is in them all, and quite the charismatic thespian, much to both of our pleasant surprises).

It was not as I had planned or hoped. His mother informed me that she did not want to be married to me anymore when he was about a year and a half old … and then had me removed from the house by the courts a week before his second birthday. I was deeply disturbed by it all, but figured as long as I didn’t disappear, like my own father had, it would be, at least, better than my own experience.

So, I was as present as I could be.  I saw him every few days throughout his childhood.  We spent many series of days and nights together. I attended and was present for all the big moments.  We vacationed together.

To her credit, his mother was a strong supporter of our relationship and time together, she just didn’t want to be married to me.

Q: How does the man that you are now, nearing sixty, relate to the kid who wrote “Cinderella”? Can you imagine having that mindset today, living what you’ve lived? What would the 2011 Larry Burnett say about the 1968 Larry Burnett?

A: I can imagine anything … bit of a curse. “A little less self-absorption, son …”

Q: When you pull out a guitar and start to compose a song nowadays, what do those songs tend to want to be about?

A: Same ol’ stuff … life and folks around me and the stories that lie therein … observing things (foibles, weakness, fear) that most won’t self-observe out loud. I provide a service. Other writers that I bow down to provide that same service for me.

Q: You’re still writing and recording music, and playing the occasional live gig, but as recently as 2008, you were working in a UPS store for $10 an hour. Do you think of yourself as a happy man, even content? Or are you still chasing after something?

A: Still chasing. Passes the time … and occasionally leads to some extraordinary music being made. I’ve actually had some pretty lucrative jobs over the years (classic rock on-air talent, transportation and logistics sales, copyediting) but my willingness to drop it all in pursuit of that chase has led me here.

Q: How do you look back on your Firefall days? Any big regrets, or do you see the journey — however it spun — as the destination, and every experience as a constructive learning moment? Could you take the stage with (Firefall bandleader) Jock Bartley and the others just as easily now as you did in 1975, or has there been too much time gone by and too much bad blood spilled?

A: I actually took the stage with Jock, Mark, David, Joe Lala and current members of Jock’s ghost band in 2009 for a reunion concert.  The concert went very well. Jock and I will never get along, (but) all that stops when we play … as it did in the ‘70s.

Regrets? Nothing that keeps me up at night or ruins my days. It all could have been handled better by us and those around us. We all did the best we could.

Whenever someone I am speaking with discovers that I was in Firefall (and many hundreds have over the years), I never have heard this: “Firefall? Yeah, I remember them. They sucked.”

Postscript: I ordered the two CDs that Larry Burnett has recorded in the last decade, via CD Baby, and found them to be full of accessible, enjoyable acoustic folk-blues tunes. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

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

Grab Bag: Unfashionable

I want to buy a cold drink for Stephen Harrigan and a copy of his new book for me.

And then I want to thank him for saying this:

“In terms of modernism, or postmodernism, or post-postmodernism, I tend to be a bit of a philistine. In reading and in art, I’m always drawn to what seems to be perpetually unfashionable: a narrative, a plot, a story, deep emotional feeling. I’m not interested in art that doesn’t move me or stir me in some perceptible way.”

That last sentence is the money part of the quote, and with it, Harrigan pinpoints why I’ve felt despair at some of the reading I’ve done in recent months. Barren, scorched, grotesque tales that in all their exquisitely tuned beauty of language crowd out things that are essential to my enjoyment of a story: cohesive narrative, some point other than the up-close examination of navel lint, and most of all, empathy for the characters on the page. That these sorts of stories are finding wide critical acclaim is a bit of a puzzlement to me, as my own take on them seems to set me outside the conventional wisdom of what constitutes good literary writing. That’s not a place I’m used to being, or want to be. (And to answer the inevitable question: Is it professional jealousy? Well, fuck, yes. On some level. But that lies mostly in the envy over the reviews, not in my sense of the stories’ merits.)

I’ve had some interesting conversations about this with my friend David Abrams, the tireless author and blogger at The Quivering Pen. His enjoyment comes from the richness of language, a sensation he once described to me as a “ping” that he feels when a sentence captures his fancy.

He describes that sensation in a recent blog post, where he extols a passage in Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam:

There’s something about the last sentence of the first paragraph in Nadzam’s debut novel which snaps me to attention with its clear, clever imagery:

About the tops of upturned trash bins, black flies scripted the air.

I like the construction of the sentence, the specificity of the flies’ blackness, and especially that verb “scripted.”

I’m with him on the introductory prepositional phrase; it has pleasing cadence and imagery. With the rest of the sentence, I’m less impressed. The blackness of flies strikes me not so much as specific as stunningly obvious. And “scripted” is a leaden verb here, one that lands on the ear with a thud. For me, though, the question goes beyond a sentence. My interest in a work is more overarching. That’s why I nod vigorously when I read these words, from screenwriter William Broyles Jr., about the aforementioned Mr. Harrigan:

“He’s about as far from David Foster Wallace as you could get, and he’s not as pitiless as Jonathan Franzen. But he has just a close and clear and unblinking ability to look at human behavior.”

That’s what I demand from my reading — particularly so the idea of “clear.” My friend David, I know, requires the same. We just seem to find it in different places sometimes.

Another Page: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’

By Ron Franscell

For Whom the Bell Tolls was the first Hemingway I ever read. I was a high school kid in the early 1970s, working on my campus newspaper, newly graduated from Jack London but not yet ready for Jack Kerouac.

To my young eyes, it was a good action story: Robert Jordan, the passionate American teacher, joins a band of armed gypsies in the Spanish Civil War. He believes one man can make a difference. The whole novel covers just 68 hours, during which Jordan must find a way to blow up a key bridge behind enemy lines. In that short time, Jordan also falls in love with Maria, a beautiful Spanish woman who has been raped by enemy soldiers. The whole spectrum of literature was refracted through the prism of my youth: Good guys and bad guys, sex and blood, life and death. For me, just a boy, the journey from abstraction to clarity was only just beginning.

On the occasion of Hemingway’s centennial in 1999, the Chicago Sun-Times asked me to reflect on For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Re-reading it at 42 (roughly the age Hemingway was when he published it), I had lost my ability to see things clearly in black and white. My vision was blurred by irony, as I noted that two enemies, the moral killer Anselmo and the sympathetic fascist Lieutenant Berrendo, utter the very same prayer. For the first time, I saw that the book opens with Robert Jordan lying on the “pine-needled floor of the forest” and closes as he feels his heart pounding against the “pine needle floor of the forest”; Jordan ends as he begins, perhaps having never really moved. I certainly could never have seen at 16 how dying well might be more consequential than living well. And somehow the light had changed over those intervening 26 years, so that I truly understood how the earth can move.

As a teen, I missed another crucial element, even though Vietnam was still a seeping wound. Three pivotal days in Jordan’s life force him to question his own role in a futile war. He wonders if dying for a political cause might be too wasteful, but he ultimately believes that dying to save another individual is a man’s most heroic act.

The book’s title is taken from John Donne’s celebrated poem: “No man is an Iland … and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” It was not about loneliness and aloneness, as I once had thought, but about the seamless fabric of all life: What happens to one happens to all.

I am not blind to Hemingway’s flaws. He was a good short writer, and what was short was almost always better. Pilar’s tale on the mountainside has been widely acclaimed as the most powerful of Hemingway’s prose. Her story within a story is nothing less than a contemporary myth.

For Whom the Bell Tolls has also been regarded as Hemingway’s capitulation to critics who barked that his innovative style was too lean, and as a consciously commercial exercise for which Hollywood might (and did) pay handsomely. Robert Jordan, in so many respects, was a tragic mythical hero in the vein of Achilles, Gawain and Samson. For Whom the Bell Tolls ranks as one of the great American war novels in a country that has always struggled with the concept of good and bad wars — as we are at this very moment.

It also ranks among the stories — alongside John Fowles’ The Magus and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe — that made me want to be a writer. It was simple: I wanted to make people feel the way Hemingway made me feel. Only time will tell if I chose correctly.

Ron Franscell is the bestselling author of THE DARKEST NIGHT and DELIVERED FROM EVIL. His next book, THE SOURTOE COCKTAIL CLUB, will be published in October by Globe Pequot Press.