Novelist

Grab Bag

How are you? It’s been a while …

Here’s what’s been going on:

Even my slimmed-down version of NaNoWriMo crashed and burned. I still love the story idea, still think about it a lot, still like what little progress I’ve made on it, but I won’t be finishing any time soon. It just needs some more cooking time in my head. The longer I do this — and I’m three books into it now — the more I realize that the words and stories come in their own time. I can’t be a crank-o-matic. Wouldn’t even want to be one.

I’ve kept busy with some freelance gigs, mostly of the editing variety. This brings up a good opportunity to do something I don’t do very often, and that’s to pitch my editorial services.  I have good, competitive rates, I turn the work around quickly, and I’m handing off good work to appreciative customers. Whether you’re prepping a manuscript for submission to agents and publishers or preparing to go it alone as a self-publisher, I can help you create a professional product.

Reading the story "Comfort and Joy" from "Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure" at Wild Purls. (Photo courtesy of Wild Purls)

Three years after 600 Hours of Edward was written, we continue to find appreciative audiences. One of my more interesting gigs was two hours with about twenty-five knitters at a local shop, Wild Purls. Check out this account of the evening on the store’s blog. I had so much fun. (And here’s a blatant tease for you: I expect to have some exciting news about 600 Hours in the near future.)

Finally …

E-readers and e-books should be all the rage this holiday season. If you’re lucky enough to get a fancy new toy, you might consider loading it up with my latest, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. The e-book price has been dropped to $1.99 through the New Year, which is a heck of a deal. Go here for the Kindle version. Go here if you have a Nook.

Happy holidays!


Grab Bag: My new book

I’m thrilled to be able to announce that my third book, QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, will be released on December 6th, 2011.

The book is a collection of ten short stories — some previously published, some not — that fall under the broad heading of family drama. It’s not a novel-in-short-stories (as seems to be popular these days) or a group linked by a singular time and place (ditto). Like my two novels, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD and THE SUMMER SON, the settings are largely Montana, but the themes could play out anywhere. If there’s a unifying idea to the book, it is one that explores the concept of separation–whether it’s from burdens, ideas, fears, beliefs, places or people.

Here’s a quick look at the stories:

SOMEBODY HAS TO LOSE: A championship basketball coach gets caught between his team, the rabid partisans in his town, and the disparate desires of his family.

THIS IS BUTTE. YOU HAVE TEN MINUTES: Consigned to a late-night bus ride, a traveling salesman shares space with a coterie of oddballs and lost souls, and one mysterious woman. (This previously appeared in e-book form as the title story in a three-story bundle.)

ALYSSA ALIGHTS: A teenage runaway finds herself in an unlikely alliance with a self-styled street vigilante. (This also appeared in the aforementioned e-book.)

STAR OF THE NORTH: A prison inmate who has been stripped of everything except his sense of self-righteousness takes a young arrival under his wing. (Also appeared in the aforementioned e-book.)

CRUELTY TO ANIMALS: Two mismatched lovers try to hold together a long-distance relationship. (Previously appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Montana Quarterly.)

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE: A husband and wife realize they are on opposite sides of their desires.

THE PAPER WEIGHT: A longtime journalist faces a worrisome new reality–and learns some new tricks–when he’s busted down to an entry-level job.

SHE’S GONE: A boy is shunted off to the father he barely knows, a man who has plenty of his own problems.

SAD TOMATO: A LOVE STORY: You’ll just have to read it.

COMFORT AND JOY: A young man who has lost his father to a tragic accident finds a friend he never would have expected in an old man who lives next door. (This was previously published as a standalone e-book last December as a fundraiser for Feed America. More on that in a second.)

Now, while the book will not be officially released until December 6th, I’m offering early copies for sale through this site.

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011. However, you can get an advance signed copy now for $14 (plus shipping).





One last note: As the final story, “Comfort and Joy,” takes up roughly 10 percent of the book, I will be contributing 10 percent of all net proceeds from the sale of this book to Feed America and its effort to eradicate hunger in the U.S. I said last December, when I intially published the story, that its earnings would go to food charities in perpetuity, and so it will be.

Thanks for reading!


Grab Bag: G.D. Spradlin, R.I.P.

You might not recognize the name, but surely you remember the face and the voice:

“You can take it and shove it up your ass with a poker, a red-hot poker!”

“I intend to squeeze you, Mr. Corleone.”

Turns out, Gervase Duan Spradlin, who died Sunday at age 90, was far more than an imminently employable character actor. He didn’t even break into Hollywood until his mid-40s, having been an oil company lawyer and a millionaire as an independent oil producer before that. But his sharp, hawklike features and rich Oklahoma accent made him a natural for the stage and screen once he stumbled into acting.

From the Los Angeles Times obituary:

“Being rich changes surprisingly little,” Spradlin told The Times in 1967. “You’ll still have to have an absorbing interest in life, something to do to make you feel alive.”

For Spradlin, that was acting.

In late 1963 his daughter Wendy, a member of the children’s classes at the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, wanted to audition for a role in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

To give her moral support, Spradlin accompanied her to the theater and wound up auditioning for — and landing — a role in the play, the first of three local productions he appeared in.

He also appeared in three episodes of the late-sixties revival of Dragnet, mostly playing morally suspect characters, the kind he excelled at.

My favorite of these is the rule of Arthur Leo Tyson in the episode “Baseball,” from the 1970 season. This is where Spradlin’s artistic life intersects with mine.

Here’s a passage from my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, where Dragnet-loving main character Edward Stanton gives his assessment of that particular episode:

Tonight’s episode of Dragnet, the 25th and penultimate (I love the word “penultimate”) of the fourth and final season, is called “Burglary: Baseball,” and it is one of my favorites.

G.D. Spradlin, an actor who appeared in three episodes of “Dragnet,” plays a man named Arthur Leo Tyson, and he cracks safes for sport. He’s an ex-convict who is on parole, and it turns out that he misses being in prison. This is a condition called “institutionalization,” and it sounds awful to me. And yet Arthur Leo Tyson has much to look forward to when he gets back in “the pen.” The inmate baseball team at San Quentin expects to have a good season, and he wants to be a part of it. This amuses Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon, who take a liking to Arthur Leo Tyson even though he is an unrepentant criminal. It’s nice to think that police officers can be a little human.

G.D. Spradlin is one of the more recognizable actors on Dragnet, and he went on to be a character actor in many shows and movies over the years. He has a very distinctive face: It’s kind of round, and he has crinkled eyes and a perpetually pursed mouth — the kind of mouth that “looks like a chicken’s asshole,” as my Grandpa Sid used to say. He has a raspy Southern accent, the kind that Grandpa Sid had, too. If you ever saw the movie One on One, starring Robby Benson as a basketball star, then you know who G.D. Spradlin is. He played the coach, and his mouth looked like a chicken’s asshole for most of that film.

I would have liked to have written to G.D. Spradlin about his experiences on Dragnet, but he was well-known enough that I never found out his address. I looked him up on the Internet a couple of years ago, and he seemed to still be alive, although he hasn’t worked in a long time. He would be old now — 88, according to the Internet.

That’s how old Grandpa Sid would be, too, if he were still alive.

Time flummoxes me.

R.I.P., Mr. Spradlin, and thank you for the memories.


Grab Bag: An Honor for ‘The Summer Son’

I’m pleased to be able to say that my second novel, The Summer Son, has been selected as a finalist for the Utah Book Award in fiction.

It joins two other novels — Sarah/Sara by Jacob Paul and Danse Macabre by Gerald Elias — as a finalist for the award, which will be presented October 15th at Westminster College in Salt Lake City as part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival.

Needless to say, I’m absolutely thrilled about this and honored that my book is in such good company.

Here’s a look at the Paul and Elias books:

Sarah/Sara

Publisher: Ig Publishing

Pages: 200

An engrossing meditation on the meaning of faith, Sarah/Sara is the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman who undertakes a solo kayaking journey across the Arctic Ocean after her parents are killed and she is disfigured by a terrorist bomb in a Jerusalem café. Haunted by her parents’ death, and in particular by memories of her father, a 9/11 survivor whose dream was to kayak through the Arctic, Sarah embarks on her expedition unprepared for the strenuous physical and emotional trial that lies ahead. What begins as a series of diary entries on her struggle with faith ends in a fight for survival, as Sarah slowly comes to realize that she is lost in the Arctic wilderness with the ice closing in around her.

The author, Jacob Paul, is an English professor at the University of Utah and a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Website: http://www.jacobgpaul.com/home.html

 

 

Danse Macabre

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Pages: 288

From Booklist: When internationally celebrated violin virtuoso Rene Allard is found grotesquely murdered, blind violin teacher and former concertmaster Daniel Jacobus finds himself reluctantly involved in what seems to be an open-and-shut case. For Allard’s rival, the sensational crossover violinist and former Allard student who calls himself BTower, has been observed at the scene of the crime with blood on his hands. Jacobus, the protagonist of Elias’ first novel, Devil’s Trill (2009), remains an irascible and not always likable amateur sleuth, but with the help of a formidable presence and, like a terrier, never lets go.

Website: http://www.geraldelias.com/index.html

And, of course, if you’re interested in The Summer Son, there’s plenty of information right here.


Grab Bag: Festival fun

Five days ago, I sat in Nutter Memorial Park in Sidney, Montana, on a stunningly beautiful 70-degree day (it’s generally at least 20 degrees hotter this time of year) and did a couple of my favorite things:

  • I talked with friendly people who love to read books.
  • I put my books in their hands.

With January’s release of The Summer Son, I even had an only-in-Sidney pitch to make for my second novel. I could tell visitors to my table, nearly all of them from that part of the world, that a key moment in the book happens in the very park we were in.

Toward the end of the book, as the narrator, Mitch Quillen, is learning some of the context that helps explain his inscrutable, violent father, Mitch remembers something that happened in the summer of 1977, thirty years earlier:

On a day we broke early from work, Dad and some of the other drillers barbecued burgers in the park across the street from the motel where we stayed. The revelry went on for hours, and I loved seeing my father loosened from the grip of work. For most of that day and evening, he was everyone’s best friend, quick with a joke and a smile.

Then a helper for one of the other drillers brought out boxing gloves and suggested some friendly bouts, and another good time crumbled.

A boxer from his Navy days, Dad turned frolic into intense competition, chopping down each opponent, one by one, until the only willing foe was the hand who had brought the gloves out. He was long and lean, his abdomen ripped with muscle, and he was more than a match for Dad–and probably half Dad’s age.

When the fight began, the young hand bounced side to side on the periphery of Dad’s range. Dad stalked his quarry. He loaded up a right hand and sent it screaming toward the kid’s jaw. The young man slipped the punch, shuffled left, and plowed three quick jabs into Dad’s face.

Dad came at him again, still cocking the right hand. When he let it go, the punch just missed, crashing loudly against the hand’s sternum. The young man’s eyes grew wide; he knew that a couple of inches higher would have laid him out. He slid to his right, out of Dad’s reach, and offered recompense with two jabs to the face and a right cross that sent sweat flying off Dad’s head.

Dad bore in hard and paid for the strategy. Lefts and rights hit Dad, splitting his lip and leaving a welt under his left eye. Dad swung wildly and missed even more wildly. Each misstep carried a heavy toll of leather.

Dad cast off his gloves.

“Enough of this shit,” he said. “I’m too damned old.”

His opponent smiled and removed his gloves. He offered a handshake to Dad, who accepted it.

The guy never saw it coming. Dad gripped with one hand and crashed a fist into the guy’s mouth with the other, toppling him. He got in two kicks to the guy’s ribs–punctuated by “Now who’s the tough guy, motherfucker?”–before Dad’s buddies pulled him off.

I saw it all from my perch atop an old steam engine, just yards away. I watched as one of Dad’s friends walked him out of the park and back to the motel. I watched as the young man rose slowly to his feet and spit up blood.

I quaked with fear as I returned to the room, scared of who I’d find on the other side of the door. Dad said nothing when I came in. He stared at the TV set. I quietly undressed and climbed into the bed opposite his.

My father’s indestructibility left me awestruck. His ability to turn vicious draped me in fear.

Thirty years later, lying there in a bedroom adjacent to his, I found it difficult to comprehend that he no longer possessed much of either quality. The clock always winds down, whether we think of it or not.

*****

I’ll be hitting other festivals in the weeks to come: July 23 at the Joliet Jamboree, August 5 at the Spirit of Montana Authors’ Gathering in Big Timber, August 6 at the Madison Valley Arts Festival in Ennis, August 20 at the Potato Festival in Manhattan. It’s a wonderful time of the year for any author who thrives on meeting readers. You can keep up with my schedule here.

It’s hard to believe the summer is floating away so quickly. Soon–much sooner than I think–the snow will fly and I’ll hunker down indoors with my work, waiting for the sunny days to return and bring festivals back into my life.


Grab Bag: The Story on Short Stories

Amendment: How terribly embarrassing! A commenter points out that the Times piece referenced below is actually from 2003. And yet, I’m not sure how much has changed. Agents remain leery of short-story collections. Authors are still guided toward the long form, if they’re not getting there on their own. My librarian, the wonderful DeeAnn Redman, says story collections don’t circulate well. So I guess my thoughts still stand; that said, I should acknowledge the age of the piece that spawned them.

A friend forwarded me this New York Times piece a few days ago.

The long and short of it:

  • Editors and agents are leery of short-story collections.
  • Readers prefer the longer form of a novel.
  • Those who defend short stories don’t make a very compelling case for them.
  • Movies and TVs can do short diversions better.

This, naturally, was all welcome news to me, as short stories are all I’ve been writing for the better part of a year. The why of that is simple enough: I write what I’m compelled to write. I don’t size up markets or tailor my writing to the prevailing tastes. This isn’t some high-minded declaration of artistic freedom; it is, simply, a pragmatic accounting of what it takes to move my lazy ass from the couch to the desk.

I now have a collection pulled together and am standing by as my publisher considers it. I’m hardly an unbiased source, but I think it’s worthy. The ten stories come from a variety of points of view, engage in a number of styles, have full story arcs (this was another complaint of the article cited above, the prevalence of “meltaway slices of life that end in a wan epiphany”) and play across a robust range of human emotion. There’s an underlying theme to the collection, but I tried to keep it from being a bludgeon. The 53,000 words or so represent the best work I could do, and I’m eager to share it.

It’s a shame that the short form has fallen out of favor in some circles; some of my most-loved reading experiences came from reading Stephen King’s short stories in his heyday, and certainly from reading Hemingway’s short fiction, some of the best ever written. I read a lot of books in 2010, and not one of them resonated with me more acutely than Benjamin Percy’s wonderful Refresh, Refresh. I’m serious here: Get that book. You won’t regret it.

(Notably, Percy, in this interview with the BULLblog, says that the bulk of his attention henceforth will be paid to novels. The limited market for short fiction figures heavily into this decision.)

Oddly enough, we seem to be in a particularly florid phase for short fiction. Rare is the book that gets such universal high praise as Alan Heathcock’s Volt. Shann Ray, a Montana boy, just came out with American Masculine. Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall has won every significant prize under the sun. Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming is up for a High Plains Book Award. And so on. That’s a lot of short-story collections for a parched market.

So … what about you, kind reader? Do you like short stories? Do you read them? Why or why not?


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.