I was seventeen and my directional sense was severely impaired. Part of that had to do with being in a brand new school and town, and part of it had to do with my love of music. As the end of the school year approached, despite having my college plans all lined up, I still wasn’t sure how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Did I put my nose to the grindstone and pursue a serious career in psychology? Should I get serious about my music and work on my guitar technique? Could I make a living doing illustration and layout? Could I get paid to write? Should I look into teaching? The list was as long as my arm. Into this mix came an unexpected opportunity.
Some of my musically inclined friends, “folkies” all of us, conspired to bring a regular weekend “coffee house,” live music experience to Vancouver, Washington. None of us ever expected to actually spend time in Greenwich Village. The San Francisco folk scene was a remote possibility, but it was 1969 and there was a war on we hoped to dodge, so we did the next best thing. We called it “The Equinox” (sounded good…) and found a local church willing to bring us into its basement one night weekly. They even had a big coffee urn to offer us.
This meant we didn’t have to find a ride across the bridge into Portland if we wanted to hear some great singing and playing. We could invite the musicians to our little venue. It was really exciting and it ran for a few months, teaching me that running a music venue is a full-time job, not just a hobby. Meanwhile, I found myself exposed to a wide range of skills and performance styles. My head was opening up so fast I couldn’t contain it.
There was one guy, especially. His name was George Chudacoff, and he performed almost every week. Two songs he covered really grabbed me. He did a driving version of Gordon Lightfoot’s tune, “Don’t Beat Me Down” and an incredible, finger-style version of Dylan’s “I Want You” that just inspired me and challenged me to learn how to play like that. George was also a guitar teacher, but I didn’t know that. I became a fan, hitting every appearance I could. At some point during this heady year, I finally learned how to Travis Pick with my fingers, and finally gave up trying to find my lost flat pick. I have George to thank for that.
Here I am, mid-sixties, now living all the way across the country with my own family. I’m still trying to master his arrangement of the Dylan tune. George also introduced me to the full spectrum of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs when he introduced me to “Back Here on Earth” and his covers of earlier tunes. His inspiration has taken me to learning almost all of the entire Lightfoot songbook, so yesterday, when the CBS Sunday Morning interview with Lightfoot aired, I thought of George, and decided to try and find a way to thank him.
After some online searching, I read that George had left us back in 2005. I also saw that he had managed to affect many lives and many other musicians. I also found links to his recorded music. His CD of mostly Irish tunes is titled Unfinished Business. Appropriate title, it’s currently available on CD Baby. I’d read that as this was released he was already in a battle with cancer. I wished I hadn’t lost touch with him, but wherever he is, he has hundreds of happy students left, “Back Here On Earth”. I salute his memory. Slainte!
Yesterday, I terrified my wife who walked into the office to find me with tears streaming down my face. It was Thanksgiving, which is Opening Day for the Season of Familial Emotion and Discord for many of us. I had been reminded that it was also composer Randy Newman’s birthday, and one You Tube video led to another until I found a live version of his song “Marie” performed in Berlin with the Philharmonic back in ‘94. Hearing that tune immediately flipped one of my many hidden triggers.
I’m a really serious fan of Mr. Newman’s song writing and composition in all its iterations and covers. My personal favorite is Louisiana 1927, which I have been struggling to arrange for steel-string guitar and still retain the pianistic character of the tune, for many years now. But yesterday, it was his tune Marie that got to me.
Oddly enough, it’s not really the song itself, but a small, touching film about a little green parrot trying to find his way home (Paulie, 1998). The song was used in several key places. Hearing an unrelated live performance version simply brought me instantly back to the critical moment when the parrot, many years later, finds his lost girl, Marie, now a grown woman with children of her own. The song is how he knows it’s her. That scene somehow laid a finger right on one of my little triggers, where it rests, waiting.
Neil Gaiman recently expressed the phenomena of triggers so well in his The Ocean at the End of the Lane as (paraphrasing here, out of context…) an odd remnant of something that just won’t let go… that makes you aware of a hole in your heart. The why of it may be a specific moment in memory, or it may always remain an unknown — mysterious. A force pulling strings in the background that you may be aware of at odd moments.
When I was younger, I thought that self-discovery was mostly about the whys of it all. I was a quantitative kind of guy. Now, I’ve come to realize that it’s more about acknowledging the reality of it and not feeling compromised by mysteries that remain inside. Of course, it helps to try to confront those things that might actually interfere with our ability to live our lives the way we want to, but the rest? Those mysteries that reside in some tiny cranny inside?
I’ve concluded that if I don’t really know all the details of why they remain there, it’s okay. I don’t have to know everything. I just have to know how they act on me, not necessarily why they do. Besides, these small triggers seem to also exert influences that a writer’s muse can appreciate. Little snips of “what if”, I like to think, may well be connected with some of my own internal mysteries. I was once asked why I write, and my answer, at least that day, was, “for the therapy that’s in it.” I’ve also said that writing helps to get all those little voices out of my head and onto paper. There, at least, they can serve a higher calling than just remaining a slight annoyance in quiet moments. Or a bigger annoyance when I am compelled to share some obscure factoid developed through research with my poor, long-suffering wife.
Many writers are able to organize their work beforehand, but despite frequent attempts, I am unable to do that effectively. Instead, I try to find ways to open up those odd little mysterious voices and let them tell their tales. This time of year, with emotion running high for most of us, I expect they will be muttering pretty constantly. I may find myself wiping my eyes again, too. It might be a song, or a smell, or the sight of the moon rising behind tall pines, but I’ll welcome any opportunities I hope it brings. Along with some words. Maybe lots of them.
Recognizing not only our triggers, but how they affect us takes time, but when we can be conscious of an emotional reactions taking place, it can inform our characters and bring more honesty to our writing. I’ve learned to separate the domains of my different muses between the more intellectual realm of raw ideas and the mechanics that they will require and the purely emotional world of reactions. Good, happy ones and sad, angry ones. Both link up with the raw ideas, but sometimes the negative ones can be more useful. Depression, as it acts on us, for example, is debilitating and counter productive to most positive human behaviors. However acknowledging that it is often the result of specific grouped situations can lead us to better insight into ourselves and those parts of ourselves we name as characters in our work. The main thing for me, especially this time of year, is to try and keep my ears and eyes open and watch everything unfold in all its detail. In that way, I hope to capture and retain enough understanding of my own emotions that my characters will seem as accessible as possible to my readers.
As this Holiday Season unfolds with all its bumps, bruises and warts, and its joys and happiness, my wish is for everyone to enjoy the time we have to spend close to our families and marvel at the miracles unfolding around us. And not forget to feed our muses whatever they need. Preferably all year long. It’s on the job training, after all.
Recently, this scrap of revealing information was found rolled tightly in a sealed bottle of Jamaican Red Stripe beer that fetched up along the long Island shore near Oak Beach. Thaddeus Lovecraft has remained able to conceal his whereabouts, as no fingerprints or other identifying marks were found, once the cap was popped off the bottle and the beer carefully drained away. The note was written in indelible marker pen in a fine, looping cursive hand. The title used above was the one given by the author of the note, currently attributed to the reclusive writer… Writing as I do from my Caribbean hide-away, perpetually buzzed on gin and only ever one step ahead of Haversham, my intervention-obsessed butler, I find my experience of storycraft differs greatly from many of my contemporaries. For instance, some days I dip into a Bombay Sapphire and select random headlines from the Interweb. Using these headlines I imagine characters and scenarios and then have at it. On other days, I might sample a Gordon’s and send electronic mails to MySpace friends and request ‘a person, a place and a thing.’ Using this cipher, I decode the story that conjoins the three. Sometimes, if there is a bottle of Hendrick’s to be had, I might imagine an idiosyncratic type, with ticks and quirks and foibles, and place him in a mundane situation and set fire, figuratively, to the whole damn thing. Once the smoke has died down there is no end to the directions that the tale will take. You are aware, I don’t doubt it for an instant, that I have recently had a selection of such tales published by the rare and select Pillar International Publishing. I have also taken the time to record some of these short-stories using the very same studio that Jimi Hendrix used to record nothing ever. I’ve attached two of the offending items below. If you have the time and maybe a quart of Cork Dry lurking about the place, then you might take a listen. cheery pip thaddeus. (The reverse side of the note contained the following internet links, which seems to make this a recent bottle of Red Stripe…) Excerpt from ‘Memoirs of an English Geisha’ by Albert Thrupp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KijLMDkcW0c The Irresistible Story of how you died. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AivHZjQK-d8 In conclusion, we can only speculate as to the author’s intent with this revelation. We’ll continue to search for additional clues as they become available. Anyone with an intimate understanding of this message, please come forward and help enlighten us.
Ahhh… suburban living. Well, actually not as much as you might think. Yesterday, I had to drive the 40 miles from my home near Long Island Sound, in a cozy suburban village, to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I had a tense time-frame to satisfy, a client soon to board an airplane to the UK, and generally frayed nerves.
Living out here in what is literally “The Sticks”, given our population of towering oak trees, has its perks. But there are also drawbacks, such as enjoying a quiet drink on your patio in the Fall. Of course, nobody will prevent you from having your drink. But as long as there is one solitary leaf lying upon a neighbor’s grass or clinging to a shutter, you will have to endure the earsplitting whine of a back-pack blower. Often, several from different directions at once. Don’t get me started on why I seem to be the only one in the immediate neighborhood, that brings in his garbage cans.
But the relaxed way of life so often touted as a benefit – compared with the mad rush of urban living – doesn’t seem to be reflected in the driving habits of suburban residents. Not by a long shot. Yesterday, we drove in on the Long Island Expressway, often the poster child for rudeness on the highway. We were stalled in a barely moving traffic jam-up, on the exit ramp for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, where it runs under the elevated portion of the Expressway heading west, for almost a full half-hour, then we exited just across the Kosciusko Bridge over Newtown Creek. Traffic was heavy, but moving.
We exited and drove down along the BQE “EL” onto side streets into the resurging section of Williamsburg. We found parking immediately, right in front of our destination. There, a very helpful building maintenance worker stopped what he was doing and helped me find exactly where I was going. The drop-off completed, we headed back out to Suffolk County. Almost home, cars behind us blew their horns when we slowed down for potholes, or to allow a pedestrian to cross the street.
We stopped for lunch and then it hit me, we hadn’t heard one single car horn the entire time we were away from our suburban community. Not a single truck blast or disgruntled driver even when we were jammed up under the overpass. Not a single aggressive driver thinking we needed to make our left turns a bit faster, or that we were driving too slowly through an unfamiliar neighborhood. Not one single blast dedicated to getting even with the idiot that cut another driver off. Not one remarking horn, addressing the folks who left their turn signal on after their turn. Not one. No, the last vehicle horn we’d heard was here in our little suburban town before we even got on the Expressway.
So it just goes to show, that when people escape to the suburbs, much of the patience and tolerance they have learned while living the horrid urban life often disappears. Maybe it’s a by-product of the stress of picking up every single leaf before the next one falls?
Today, I’m sharing an interview with one of my favorite authors, Steve Bartholomew. He is an amazing storyteller working mostly with subjects set in the Old West. Steve is quite prolific and I’m glad to say I’ve read and reviewed several of his titles to date, so when I hear a new one was being launched soon about a notorious hold-up man, I had to find out more. Black Bart is all well and good, but who is this guy Steve Bartholomew, anyway?
Steve tells me he was born a long time ago, in Minnesota. His parents had the good sense to move to California when he was about a year old. “My mother said that was because it was twenty below for three months straight.” She sounds like an intelligent, reasonable woman.
He says he got his real education in the US Army, then spent four years in college listening to people talk. I remember the listening part from my own college years. He’s lived in Mexico City and New York a few years, then he returned to San Francisco. Probably for the seafood. He had a career in Government service which probably wouldn’t interest any readers, so I won’t go into that here.
Q: Growing up in California, I remember stories of Black Bart. He was supposedly the most successful stage coach robber of all time. Is that accurate? I know that California was rife with highwaymen, especially during and after the Gold Rush days.
A: One might debate about who was the most successful thief, but BB robbed 28 stage coaches that we know about. That’s probably a record. He only did time for his last robbery because it was the only one they could prove in court. Unlike most of the other thieves and robbers, both in Government and on the road, Bart never showed any trace of viciousness. He never hurt anyone, and always carried out his crimes with an unloaded shotgun and with the greatest courtesy.
Q: Black Bart Reborn, like all of your work I’ve read, reveals how corrupt the banking and corporate powers were at the time. The links between California’s Politics and that of Neighboring Nevada seem particularly murky with everyone’s hands in everyone else’s pockets.
A: Yes; it could be argued that our modern society is even more corrupt, given the billions done away with by banking cartels. I have no wish to debate the politics of that question: it’s just the way things are. Somehow society continues to function, more or less.
Q: This novel features a couple of extremely sharp, even devious woman characters. Was this unusual in the day, or do they portray a type of entrepreneurial female character that wasn’t uncommon?
A: There were many powerful, creative women in the Old West who provided a major driving force, even though they couldn’t vote. Lately I have become interested in the young women telegraph operators. That occupation was one that helped liberate women from the life of housewives or school mar’ms. One reason they were hired was that the head of Western Union believed women have more sensitive fingers than men. So they moved out to remote whistle stops in the prairie, surrounded by coyotes, Wild Indians and bandits—and practically ran the railroads.
Q: I know you do a great deal of research when working on a new novel, so I have to ask, was Bart’s loot ever recovered?
A: Not a dime. His story was that he’d lost it all in the stock market. I have a theory he might have sent some of it back to his estranged wife and family in Missouri.
Q: When I read Historical Fiction, I’m always struck by how our society seems to be unable to truly absorb enough of the lessons from past mistakes to prevent them recurring. Do you think this is a human issue, or one seen more in the governmental arena?
A: Well, the Government is run by humans as far as I know, though there are folks who have a different theory about that. Why do people keep rebuilding in flood plains, or under volcanoes? If at first you don’t succeed, etc.
Q: Well, that certainly opens up a whole Pandora’s Box of questions, but more on-subject, what’s next on your agenda? Should your readers prepare for a shift of genre, or a breakout subject or character?
A: At the moment I have two completed books with a publisher, awaiting appraisal. One is about old San Francisco, the other, recently finished, takes place during the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad. I have had a few other diversions from the Western Historical genre. My second novel was a story of the paranormal, Chapel Perilous. Last year I published a YA novella, Ariella. However, my main interest is in the living history of California and Nevada, the places I know best. If you want to read something truly fantastic, pick up any history book.
Black Bart Reborn, Published by World Castle Books, will be officially available beginning November 9, 2013
Here is a list of Steve’s work, and an online resource where it can be purchased in print and eBook formats:
The Terrorist Plot at Gopherville: http://askdavid.com/reviews/book/political-satire/6567
Ariella, an heroic tale: http://askdavid.com/reviews/book/medieval-fantasy/5774
Chapel Perilous: http://askdavid.com/reviews/book/paranormal-fantasy/5685
Journey to Rhyolite: http://askdavid.com/reviews/book/western-historical-fiction/3437
Gold, a tale of the California Gold Rush: http://askdavid.com/reviews/book/gold-rush/3293
The Woodcutter: http://askdavid.com/reviews/book/western-historical/3185
The Imaginary Emperor: http://askdavid.com/reviews/book/western-historical-fiction/3220
I want to warn my readers that today, I’ve made the mistake of deciding to publish the following interview. I hope I can be forgiven for taking so many liberties with your time and common sense, but to say my arm was twisted up behind my back… would be completely accurate in this case.
Authors Christopher Abbott and Todd Curry have just inflicted on the world of readers, a collection of stories that so skew my own sense of truth and value in literature that I decided to let them speak for themselves and their notorious excesses. Revolting Tales was officially launched yesterday, November 2nd, but I’m sure the two of them can explain better than I can…
Q: Mister Abbott, Mister Curry; you know when really terrible things happen to most people, they tend to hold it close. Maybe they don’t want to burden anyone except those closest to them, maybe they are worried about how the rest of the population will look at them afterwards, there are many reasons. So, please enlighten me. Why did you two decide to share all of this extremely disturbing material and reveal these distasteful events to the world? More importantly, why would the two of you risk being seen together?
Curry: Most people will deny it, but let’s face it; we are all drawn to disturbing events. The six o’clock news is not news unless there is disaster and mayhem. We all have a morbid sense of curiosity and a need to see blood and gore. Those relatives we only see at funerals…. and they act as if it is a happy reunion, is an example. The term “Rubber-Necking” derived from people driving in the north bound lane who just had to abruptly slow their cars down from 65 to 20, just to have a peek at the dead guy in the fatal car crash over in the southbound lane. I for one have been around the crazy, disturbing and dysfunctional for so long; it’s the norm for me. Christ, my wife works in a prison, so our morning conversations consist of the previous evening’s hangings, self-mutilations, assaults, rapes, suicides, and vomit. No big deal man, just another shift. Deal with it.
As far as being seen together, I can actual fit Chris in my pocket, so he will always have a place to hide.
Abbott: It’s time. That’s the crux of the answer. Demons are among us, they always have been, the world should realize that and understand it. We all know that people can be a little naughty at times, but the really naughty? Do we ever hear about what happens to them once they get caught? What about the ones who don’t get caught? Todd felt it was important to give voice where no one could. It was a conscious decision, if you like, to bring Lou’s world out in the open – I am just the scribe.
I don’t consciously spend time with Todd, in fact I actively avoid it. The guy’s an arsehole (trans: asshole)!
Curry: Easy there Brit
Q: Well that really doesn’t explain the deeper motivations, but I think we’re probably wise to change the subject. I assume all the names involved have been changed, as have the actual settings, but do you maintain relationships with any of the unfortunates in these twisted stories? Do you plan to continue?
Curry: Some of the scenes in the book are based on true events and actual people I know…. knew, but they are extremely exaggerated – mostly. And I’m going to stick with that. The names are changed but only slightly altered. They are actually looking forward to reading about themselves.
Abbott: I personally know none of the people in these stories, so for me I’m lucky, cos I’m just “The Brit” and he has me actually shackled to a massive stainless steel table that he got in Germany. I never really understood why it had a big hole it in. I don’t really think I have any choice in the matter, if Todd wills the stories to continue, I write them – out of fear!
Curry: Chris is like the morning pimple you never wanted. You have to wait for it to form a head before you can pop it.
Q: Okay, but how do they feel about that?
Curry: How they feel about that? Well your guess is as good as mine. My feelings are they have to buy the book in order to find out, so I can feel a few bucks richer.
Abbott: Most of them ended up as books for a reason, Richard! I’m not too worried though; most of them can’t read anyway.
Abbott: Too much?
Q: Let’s talk about Lou. May we do that, directly, I mean? Anyway, have you known about Lou for some time, or was it revealed in a single moment?
Curry: Lou’s been with me for quite some time. Most of my life actually…. I told my mom after I got caught climbing the flag pole at school. Naked. Because it was the only way to get away from the principle who was chasing me in order to beat me with a belt, because I shit on his desk, that the devil made me do it.
Lou first comes out of the closet or actually from the shadows in an alley in the Two Raisins story. I started that story back in the eighties. It was going to be a crime novel but I simply put it in a box and forgot about it. Chris did a great job expanding Lou’s character and personality. It was at that point we formed a true collaboration…. Wow, now that I think about it, it’s as if we were both possessed by Lou right at that moment….really, no shit.
Abbott: Lou… he’s Todd’s dormant personality. It wasn’t hard to bring out the evil in him, especially when you’re writing stuff and a naked half-crazed manic is standing behind you with a hunting bow. Seriously. Every now and then I’d hear a whisper in my ear. “Go on Chris… I’ll give you a two minute head start.” It was quite horrifying. The only reason I knew I was partially safe was simply because there was no practical way he do it, not when it meant taking time away from an open bottle of Rum – I kept him stocked in Rum, when he let me out.
Curry: By the way, you’re running low.
Abbott: It’s on the list
Q: We know your book carries a warning label, for obvious reasons, but reading through I’m struck with the fact that these stories may actually cause permanent brain dysfunction in readers. Did you consider how these tales might affect your readers, their families and jobs?
Curry: Ha!!! No worse than the warning on a pack of smokes I say…. That doesn’t stop people from lighting up. Have you been on the internet lately Richard? Everything causes permanent brain damage, brain dysfunction, colon cancer, over active bladder syndrome, anal fistula, and jock itch.
Abbott: All the stuff that people find offensive or damaging was written entirely by Todd!
Curry: No argument there
Abbott: I didn’t think so
Q: I see that your cover shows this is volume one… for God’s sake, does that mean there is more of this out there? How do you plan to get this reviewed? Any takers yet?
Curry: Oh this book is just the beginning. There are many more stories that will make these pale in comparison. Chris and I have actually fought tooth and nail with story content. The stories I have written here are mild compared to ones I wanted to put in. I blame Chris. He got “all Sandra” on me fearing they would have offended people, bla bla bla, and would have been too rude, crude and abusive…. Apparently, you shouldn’t use the “C” word in your stories? Go figure, but I’m slowly turning him. As far as a review plan, I’ll leave that to Chris.
Abbott: Turning me? He’s not turning me. He’s torturing me!! Forcing me to watch endless episodes of General Hospital and Judge Judy at knife point – I’m too scared NOT to write the horrendous crap he comes out with!
Curry: Candy boy….Wait for Fridays line up
Abbott: Can I go now?
Q: Finally, what can people do to protect themselves against any of this happening in their homes or schools?
Curry: If Lou were here right now he would probably say something like: “Oh you insignificant assemblage of snail shit. Daddy can’t help any of you now, so don’t bother looking up to the heavens for his help. Come to me willingly. Acceptance will make your transition easier, but far from painless.”
Abbott: You can’t protect people. Todd knows everyone – everyone! There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. He’s a trained killer – thanks for that Uncle Sam. I’m actually a hostage. But I will tell you this. Despite the torture, the endless torrent of abuse and filth, the exudate and bile that seeps from his devilish countenance, – he cooks amazingly, is generous to a fault, and, as hostage situations go, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else’s! And if I continue to write and do well, he’s assured me that I can have my passport and license back!
Curry: My Garage! My rules!
Abbott: I’m F**ked
Yes, yes you are. Well, I’m not sure if that shines any light whatsoever on the subjects addressed, but it should make it perfectly clear that for those rare readers whose personal habits require regular doses of the kinds of sick, pointless, painful, disturbing, putrescence that Revolting Tales contains, it’s their lucky day. They should visit the following government licensed, legal establishments and pick up your copy today. In plain wrapper, of course.
Here is a recent video which should explain more of the kinds of content you might expect:
Revolting Tales, Vol. One is available in Ebook Kindle formats and in print:
National Novel Writing Month began Friday, November 1st. For years I’ve dodged it, wondering why I’d need the extra incentive to completer a novel. Why me? Why, indeed. Well this year, I decided — yesterday, as a matter of fact, to join up. At the end of October I had a short story I’d been noodling with for a few weeks. It really didn’t go anywhere and I was ready to file it in the junk drawer, but on a whim, I asked another writer an opinion as to whether I should jump into a new novel, based in part on memoir, or get back to my WW2 book which has been in research and writing now for a full year.
When I was told to work first on the memoir based story, I figured the NaNoWriMo incentive might just propel me. Beginning Friday with a rewrite of the story to date and assembling some additional notes, the story that had languished took a new form and took off like a rocket. I’m just two days in and have racked up 15K words already. It is just flying off my fingers as if it had been waiting there already written, just in need of a pair of hands to execute it onto a screen.
Now, this much I can tell you. It’s a brand-new genre for me: YA, and it takes place in my old haunts in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades, in a small town where I was the new kid, my Junior Year of High School. The only thing I knew I could relate to when we first moved in, was the forest that towered around the house. It was, as I’ve already written, an island in the trees.
The story takes a decidedly fanciful turn as the new kid discovers that the accounts of a logging disaster fifty years earlier on his neighbor’s land, doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground. He must find a way to fit in, but also, since he has a lot of time on his hands, he becomes obsessed with finding out what exactly went on all those years ago. He hears that there are dark rumors of giants in the trees and old Indian curses still walking the land, but are they real, or a cleverly conceived cover-up of the truth? The old logger living next door, all alone in the woods, may not be as benign as he seems or he may turn out to be the only reliable friend the boy has. He hears the chainsaw running almost every day through the trees, but should he find comfort in it, or is it a warning?
The novel will be called, On Parson’s Creek. I’ll tell you more as I can. I have only a month to complete it!
(Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses)
(John Gribbin, author of Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique)
(Ted Nield, author of Incoming and Supercontinent)
Dennis McFarland’s new novel Nostalgia, is the product of an outstandingly empathetic mind. This is a writer who truly knows us, especially the unanswered questions that manipulate our lives. As a work of historical fiction, this stands in a very select company. It succeeds as a brilliant re-telling of the typical Union conscript’s soul-numbing experiences during one of the most destructive, protracted battles of the Civil War. It stands as a compelling study of the oddly dis-connected times when the lives of citizens in cities only slightly removed from the carnage, could continue as if the war was on the other side of the world. It stands as one of the most effectively brutal re-creations of Civil War Hospital convalescence I have yet read, and it stands as the most touching recreation of Walt Whitman’s ministrations to the injured soldiers I may ever read. In addition, the author’s use of nineteenth century baseball as a conduit into our modern age is brilliant and absorbing.
Nostalgia, in the title, so effectively dissected according to it’s etymology in the opening pages, actually refers equally to the diagnosis of the time for what is now, finally understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The author’s meticulous journey into the mind of Private Hayes brings this disorder into clear focus. We are left wondering why our society continues to make the same large-scale mistakes again and again, despite experience telling us there is another way. The surprising yet completely believable fate of a young Brooklyn ballplayer, gone to war, sets a very high standard for fiction yet to be written about the period.
In the Afterward, the author muses about the ways a character can control the telling of his story. In this case, I believe that Walt Whitman himself must have stood just a step behind McFarland during the writing, whispering into his ear, from time to time, to make sure he got it right. He did.
I read Nostalgia in a very leisurely pace for me. It took several days, yet it isn’t a thick volume. The dreamlike state of the primary character seemed to seep into reality,proving how effective the writing truly was. If there was a Board of Literati somewhere, whose job it is to confer the label of Enduring Literature upon new novels, this one should head their list. It breaks new ground in Civil War Historic fiction. Ground that surprising to me at least, really needs to be tilled again. Don’t hesitate to read this important book.
Writing has always, for me, consisted of leaping free from mental restrictions, then resting… allowing them to settle in again, then repeating the attempt. It’s a fitful, fretful occupation that sometimes actually reaches a goal I’ve intended. Most times however, the original goal can get so obscured by false starts and side-jaunts, that when the end is finally reached, it doesn’t seem to be the place I had in mind at all.
The way the tendrils and threads of every story twist around the players can also get confusing. It’s like looking at a section of braided rope under magnification. The patterns become so interesting with the repetition of numbers passing over and under, that one might forget that at its heart, it’s just a piece of rope. Its utility defines it, not really how it was constructed (unless you’re a sailor, then it gets interesting…). The story is the rope that connects us with the characters and with the place they inhabit. It also leads us along. As a writer, I’ve often found my grip slipping and often it takes a different reader to suggest I hang on tighter. That’s been a recurring part of my own ongoing education. Still, no matter how much I try to concentrate upon a plot, the surroundings and setting can easily pull me away. Off I go, into a realm of new research, gazing at images, reading historic accounts, letters, news clippings…
Writing fiction has always come with a nicely defined, organized set of easily structural tools. These tools can change from time to time, but the basic uses remain. Of course, in my impaired judgment, I often would rather just stumble along, seeking immersion into the world still locked away in my mind through other means. If I stop to outline, for example, it usually happens after the first or even second draft has been completed. In this way, crafting a story seems to take me longer than it would if I brought a map along. I blame it on my need to immerse myself in the setting.
Unless I can describe a setting I’m writing about in enough detail, or fill in enough sensory suggestion to create it complete in my mind, I’m unable to make the story work. Many of my short stories especially, lie there incomplete because my involvement wasn’t really satisfying. A big component of that seems to be my need to entertain myself along the way with a leap into the place I’m trying to write about.
A sense of place is a complicated thing, but those writers who have achieved that in their work, even if only temporarily, have attained something of rare value. Through their choice of certain words they find triggers that can put a reader into a different existence with a new set of experiences. I’ve read other writers, (most recently novelist Michela O’Brien in an interview with author Nik Morton) write about how for her, the setting is another character to be worked into the story. I feel exactly the same way with my own work. It’s not the easiest way to get a story out there, but it feels more complete, at least to me, when the last sentence is on the page. If I can create a sense of place in my fiction, my readers can hold that with them, too. Long after the book has been laid down. When it works, it is magical.
When we create our characters, we have ideas of what difficulties they have to deal with. We also need a sense of their inner character and any special abilities they bring into play. These attributes are the way our readers make the connections necessary to find them compelling, and I believe that the setting is another equal partner in the construction process. The place makes the character, or at least it influences their reactions and behavior. It gives substance to the intricacies of plot and actions taken. It is the substance underlying everything a story has to say.
Of course, I know that other writers approach their work differently. We’re each unique, but we also share our humanity and a common vocation. There are probably other writers who like to jump right in, as I do, but there are some who use a more thoughtful technique. A more directed process that yields more expected results. My own process is one that I can’t really define completely until it is finished, as it changes with each project. At the point of completion, one of the biggest reasons I write at all is the moment when, after jumping in and thrashing around, I find I’m left with something of value. Something unexpected, even useful. It makes me feel like an eight-year-old kid winning a blue ribbon.