Take a bow, Mr. Doyle, and publisher Thomas Dunne, too! A book like The Plover has becoming such a rarity lately, your work shines like a star breaking through the clouds. Now, I can see how the run-on sentences and dancing viewpoints might daunt some readers; but as a sailor with close to forty years on the water, I found the cadence of the main character’s almost steady chants of self-deprecation and fix-it preoccupations very familiar. This is not a book for every reader; but rather, for those who love the sea, love boats, and have a glimmer that there is much hidden in plain sight in our world.
The Plover is the last remaining love of a man who wants to free himself from expectations and involvement with others. He’s chosen an ungainly cedar planked fishing trawler jury-fitted with a mast and sailing gear. He’s named her for a small but plucky shore bird and launched himself into the immensity of the Pacific with only a single idea of course: West. His carefully constructed solitude is broken almost immediately by a friendly gull and an odd rag-tag passenger list that seems to grow with every landfall despite his best intentions to keep it simple.
Within these sometimes hilarious, sometime frightening and regularly mysterious pages, he discovers that he can love other people as much as he loves his little boat. Mr. Doyle has crafted some of the most beautiful descriptive passages I’ve read and some of the most harrowing action, too. His characters are all much deeper than I initially expected. To think that someone this driven to deny his humanity could find redemption in the loving grace of an afflicted young child, the easy humor of a close friend, the deeply spiritual grasp of an almost silent Island woman and the evolving, miraculous worldview of a former politician, is incredible. Fighting storms and a maniacal ship’s captain on the open seas, adds just the right amount of accessible conflict, but in the tradition of the fantasy writing of Yann Martel, the incredible can still be deeply moving. For me, the story of the seemingly aimless voyage of The Plover, found a landfall right in my heart.
This book will be available starting April 8, 2014 at your favorite bookseller and at Amazon
Recent media coverage of the Ukrainian protesters manning the barricades this morning, remind me that sometimes, what outwardly seems like a feeble attempt actually wins. The news from Kiev is finally, a little encouraging.
My own experience with barricaded protest was decidedly different and much safer. The early winter of 1970 found scores of us, undergrads and grad students, massed along a hastily-erected sandbag and pallet barricade. A student had been hurt when hit by a fast-moving truck along the main street through the campus. We all vowed to stop that from ever happening again, and began protesting to force the university administration to close the street off from through traffic. It didn’t do much good, so our protests took a new direction. We assembled one night, with shovels, and sandbags and oil drums and wooden pallets and just past midnight, we blocked the road off with a big, nasty-looking barricade.
We spent a chilly night, singing folksongs and warming our hands around a small, smoky oil drum fire. Next morning, those of us awake, saw the sunrise flanked by police in full riot gear. Our sum total experience with violence had been the occasional cat call or tossed beer bottle from the drunks leaving the two campus bars that had agreed to give us restroom privileges. Most of the student body – with the exception of the uniformed ROTC – had cheered our efforts, so we prepared for the confrontation we believed would prove our commitment to our cause.
Behind the line of police, however, loomed two big garbage trucks which said, more than anything else, that our commitment was soon to crumble. In the initial onslaught, after a couple of the most rabid SDS member protesters were bloodied by police batons, the rest of us ran like rabbits, leaving what few belongings lay strewn about what remained of the barricade. From a safe distance, hidden behind shrubbery, we watched as everything was dumped and trucked off.
I had stupidly taken a moment just before the first blows were struck, to clear the gravel from my worn-out sneakers. From the shelter of a nearby laurel bush, I watched the sanitation workers shovel the street clean and cart off my shoes. I stood there in just my socks.
That evening, after reading the local paper’s coverage of the event, I was crestfallen. We’d failed. Traffic was whizzing through the campus again, but a meeting of the steering committee had been called, so I guess the leadership hadn’t yet given up.
What a bold plan it was, too. One of the post-grad leaders had a buddy who was a mason. He, in turn had a buddy who could get several wheelbarrows, shovels and a load of concrete in a hurry. We were told to assemble at one o’clock, in the same spot where the barricade stood. We were going to quickly build two, almost street-spanning brick and concrete planter boxes. They would be filled with layered drainage gravel and soil, and planted with trees, supplied by another buddy who had a landscaping business. The temperatures were going to stay in the forties, so they’d accelerate the concrete mortar mix and we’d all learn how to be bricklayers in the dark. With more than forty of us working, it should take no time at all. We only had an hour between patrol car passes, so the strength of the work, not the finish quality was what counted. We all dashed off to prepare. I had a pair of work gloves, but no shoes, so I wrapped some rags around my socks, and at one the next morning, I became an apprentice bricklayer.
At some point in the night, I became aware that my feet were burning up! My ragged footwear had absorbed enough concrete mortar to actually begin to set. I tried to strip off my socks, but they were stiff. The rags had already set up. It took a friend with a bowie knife to cut them off my now baked feet. Almost numb, the red lime burns went well up both legs. I stumbled to the nearest sill-cock and ran the ice-cold water over them until I’d cleaned off any remaining concrete. The skin was puckered and the same color as a frog’s belly. I had another pair of socks in my pocket, so I pulled them on. It was better than nothing. My commitment to the cause hadn’t allowed me to waste a single moment trying to find some cheap sneakers, so there I stood, defiantly behind the brick planter box, in wet stocking feet.
The next morning, the same line of police formed, but among them were three tear gas launchers. The administration was also there, trying to persuade our fearless leaders to abandon this now solid effort. They refused, and the bullhorn started shouting orders to disperse. A group of administrators walked through the bike lane we’d left between the planters and approached the police. There was hand waving, angry words and ample finger pointing. Even some finger in the chest pointing. The administrators walked back and the police withdrew. We waited with high hopes.
Turned out all the administrators had done was buy some time. The police were going to keep their eyes on us, but no confrontation was going to occur while the administration and the town highway supervisor went into negotiations. A soft light went off in my head. It seemed like the normally remote administration shared some of our anger at the traffic issues.
Meanwhile, we just settled down to wait out the rest of the day. Later one, there were cat calls from the bar crowd, some eggs tossed at us by infuriated ROTC cadets who felt we were somehow damaging their educational opportunities. Some local ya-hoos in a pick-up, dumped garbage all over the planters.
By afternoon, there were all kinds of banners strung across the planters as well as the nearby shrubbery. Not just the safety issues, but any other reasons for students to yell protests at authority, now boasted a say at our barricade. It was looking like a circus. Late in the day, a group of faculty and grad students came to pay us stalwarts a visit. One of them, a mathematician-scientist with a reputation for really outspoken political opinions, approached me with a package. He thrust a big, heavy box into my arms, saying, “No one can man a barricade with bare feet. Put these on if they fit.”
I croaked out a surprised, heartfelt thank you. The labeled size was close enough. I pulled them on: serious, brand-new, steel-toed work boots. They looked a bit odd, all bright and un-scuffed, sticking out from my ragged jeans, but it strengthened my commitment. Now in addition to the heart of the matter and street cred on the line, I couldn’t disappoint Professor Schoenfeld. His kindness had touched me and fired up my spirit. I couldn’t fail that spirit.
I didn’t. I manned the planters, along with a dwindling group of like-minded hard-core, for the rest of the week. Twenty-Four-Seven. Food and coffee came in shifts in big take-out bags. We’d all given up our semesters to make a point. No reason to head back to class. For me, those big yellow boots left big, important footprints. I couldn’t let them down.
Two weeks later, the agreements reached, the trees had been removed from the planters. The brick rectangles just gaped, and were slowly filling up with trash. Most of the banners had been torn down, but one remained, extolling the virtues of a safer campus. We’d all drifted away into other protests. I’d been asked to attend a meeting to support Democratic anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, so the planters slipped out of my mind.
One morning, the town brought bulldozers, and with no warning, simply swept the pavement almost clean. By the time I’d heard the news, all that remained was the rugged base outline of the two planters in broken, set mortar. A week later, the street was permanently closed to through traffic and steel posts were set deep into the pavement.
So, you see, sometimes, tossing rocks and bottles from behind a pile of garbage actually works. We won that fight and as I remember, a few others, too. Some of them were big fight, some were smaller. I was tackled by a burly cop when I was on a picket line for some locked out mill workers and spent a night in the local jail until we were all released the next morning, our cases all dismissed.
Looking back, even the tiny victories meant a lot, as did the many failures. Eventually the work boots wore out, and years later, I heard that Professor Schoenfeld had died after fighting the good fight for a lifetime. Today, seeing the coverage of those hopeful masses trying to force change in their homeland, I remember the kindness of a man I didn’t really know, and how fast bricks can be laid down if enough motivation is there. Sometimes, the increments on the way to winning are tiny, but they all add up… they really do.
Last night, I finally saw the film, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I’d been surfing around Netflix trying to find a DVD I hadn’t seen but might want to, and gave in to my memory of the hype surrounding the bestselling YA book. It turned out to be surprisingly good, and very touching. One scene especially grabbed me. It was the Sadie Hawkins Dance, when unexpectedly, the plaintive tones of a paired fiddle and pipe play the lead measures of the Victorian tune, “Endearing Young Charms”… then the insistent rhythm of “Come On, Eileen” filled my ears, sending me back to 1982…
I had been handling the identity campaign and promotional graphics for the local alternative, A.O.R.-FM radio station, WLIR. There were always concert tickets floating around, and someone asked me if I wanted to see a new punk band at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. The Beacon was uptown and had been an evocative, very seminal place for both Jazz and R&B since the 1940s. It was supposed to be undergoing a renovation, so I said “Sure, why not? Can I get three? Who’s playing?”
This is an excerpt of the short article posted on ReadWave. To read the rest, click here, and if you enjoy reading it, like it, etc.
Last year, a writer I know decided to crowd-source fund his latest publishing adventure. He wanted to produce a hardbound book in letterpress printing. Needless to say, it became a labor of love: a very limited print run in high quality. Some prefer the intense, crisp typography possible with the best letterpress equipment and skilled press operators. Letterpress is also unique in its ability to imprint colored and metallic foils into a cover or text style paper stock. I was thinking about how fast that technology morphed from the mundane daily printing of everything, to the arena of fine-arts handmade book production. I thought of the tools of the craft. Things like wide ink brayers, printer’s devils and type case quoins, now oddities that turn up at garage sales. Quaint items that few actually remember using.
Letterpress requires a specific skillset with a very long learning curve. It takes much longer to produce a print run, as well, so the costs are much higher. In fact, in its most basic form, letterpress took Gutenberg’s ideas and tilted the whole thing on its side. An individual page was made up of separate elements of foundry purchased headline and text typography, line by line; pictorial elements of either photo halftone etchings, woodblock cuts or steel line engravings, locked together into the page frame with the rest so that the page could be inked, then pressed into the paper stock. One at a time, until the quantity was reached and the next page had to be made up. It was all done by hand, by men wearing magnifying loupe visors. High tolerances were regularly achieved by the most skilled pressmen.
At the beginning of my earlier career as a graphic designer – now some thirty years behind me – I had a whole chest of tools I needed to purchase to ply the trade. Things like a set of really high-quality dividers, several compasses and beam compasses, ink ruling nibs, Rapidograph pens, agate rulers with a pica scale, Haberules with point-sized baselines cast on them, Linen counters, Type sizing scales… the list is very long and includes sets of dye marker pens in hundreds of PMS matched colors as well as lead holders and leads of various softness and color including a non-repro blue one. Even a relatively short time later, these same tools are now considered quaint reminders of bygone technology in the graphic arts. Many recent graduates of college graphics programs might only recognize them from images they’ve seen in text books. My grandsons now enjoy using my drafting tools.
I recall that when I began my graphics career, letterpress printing had turned over almost the entire farm to offset printing. There were still a few things that letterpress was preferred for, but mostly at that time it was offset printing that had its day and still does. High speed production, photo-mechanical plating, faster color separation and paper handling made books much less expensive when offset printed. It was the same for all printed communications from magazines, to flyers to instruction manuals or corporate annual reports. Today, offset presses run faster than ever, but the rising cost of paper, production time and electricity have slowly made it much more expensive than it was initially.
On my desk, I recently lined up a series of antique tools of the letterpress days. I love the hand worn surfaces of the printer’s devil (type quoin key) and quoins. They were in their way, responsible for the fairly recent advent of majority literacy. If you think about the ways books were produced before high-speed letterpress, by hand: a page at a time, then bound by hand-stitching; it’s no wonder that the average person could never afford to actually own books. As the costs of print production came down, the rates of literacy went up all over the world.
Which brings us to the present. I imagine someday, someone will assemble a group of old tools on a table and take a similar picture. It might include a smart phone, a Paperwhite Kindle, maybe a usb cable tied around them and a CDROM lying nearby to reflect the rainbow. The photographer may want to use it to illustrate an article about vanishing technology. The quaint past.
We humans just never get tired of stories, and as the ways we devise to get stories from the storyteller’s lips into our ears change, so will the tools that those who make books will create and use to keep us all entertained and educated. The technologies and formats will change. Many won’t be around anymore, but the readers (or listeners) will always be there, waiting to be swept away in someone else’s words.
Pope Francis has called the internet recently, a gift from God, because it brings people together. It certainly does that. All of us who use it, know that open conversation between people of diverse nations and cultures is deeply rewarding. Sharing our thinking and our work, quickly and openly enhances our humanity and expands our minds. This strengthens our higher selves, and improves the quality and impact of our work.
However, there is another side of it. He also cautions against obsession with the web, as he concludes that this can actually leave us isolated. Recently, I’ve heard that an editor friend has been forced to abandon his social media involvements because of the trolling. In this particular case, a personal online vendetta by someone whose fragile ego was perceived to have been damaged by my friend, contributed to his depression until he could bear it no longer. His own words appear in his blog, where he apologizes for what he sees as a lapse of the high ethical standards he has always exhibited in his professional life. He seems to have been genuinely sorry that he just couldn’t bear up under a barrage that began in 2010. I certainly don’t blame him for sitting the next round out.
I have another friend, an accomplished novelist, who has fought the good fight against this type of behavior online, for several years now. He jumps into the trenches and digs down deeper, exposing the often pathological need among those who troll regularly, to lash out at others. He has also sustained injury from his fearless stance, but most of us who have been the target of online trolling or foul play take the course of least resistance. We tell ourselves it doesn’t mean anything. We try to let the handfuls of thrown shit, roll off our backs.
It doesn’t always work, though. Sometimes it piles up, forcing us to reconsider our own worth. This can lead to a downwards spiral into a closed-off, sad existence. You may think that this is hyperbole, but the stories of writers and artists whose writing stopped after repeated online assaults, are legion. People who choose self-expression in any form, whether fiction or fine art, usually have several things in common. One of these is an increased level of felt emotion and another, greater empathy than many others. Writers especially labor to make their thinking as accessible as possible in their work. Clarity and logic are important goals that require serious commitment to achieve. I know it’s a struggle for me, sometimes.
Writers tend to make good targets. Many writers strive to remain open-minded and detail-observant to multiple sides of each issue, to digest as much complication as they can. But it can leave us vulnerable to public attacks. Of course, that comes with the territory, but it also is one reason why schoolyard mentality pranks and public flayings cause many of us so much pain. Some may choose to react publicly, but most of us simply withdraw. In withdrawing, we do ourselves more damage as we cut ourselves off from the expansive freedom and contact we crave. This freedom is a key component in our ongoing writing, painting, or making music. Stifling another human being from pursuing their happiness is nothing to be proud of.
A benefit of the internet, often highly touted in posts and articles, is the anonymous freedom of speech it affords. But that is also a two-edged sword. Someone filled with obsessive rage or the need to get even in a big, public way, can easily adopt a new identity designed for ease in disseminating hate-filled bias, fringe rants or personal attacks. Even innocent fun can have a dangerous side to it when anonymity provides the perfect cover.
I hope that as the web matures, this kind of brainless, mean-spirited or obsessive behavior will diminish, but I seriously doubt it will in the near future. In the meantime, all I ask of people who have opinions that differ with mine, whose experiences differ from mine, and whose idea of what makes a book enjoyable differ from mine is try to apply the ethics they use in face-to-face living, to their behavior online. If you feel you’ve been hurt by something I’ve posted, or a book I’ve written, make an adult attempt to contact me so we can discuss it like adults. Lashing out online and trying to poison the well only results in magnifying the pain and discomfort.
Besides, shouldn’t we all really be engaged in trying to help each other whenever we can? If you feel the need to run a childish prank upon some unsuspecting author or blogger, at least apologize after the fact, publicly. Man up – or should I say, Human up. Think before you type or text. Your words online last a long, long time and even if your reaction was a momentary lapse of judgment, the potential it carries to do real harm will last and last. Especially, try to cut those of us who try to provide a good story or image or song for your entertainment, some slack. If you can do it better, then do it. Meeting your own goals is better revenge anyway, than finding a victim to tear down.
A discussion about how to actually use all the suggestions once they start coming in. Feel free to add your own findings from experience.
I recently received some partially useful criticism from a book advertising site. Since the Indie Explosion began, some eight years ago, with the advent of print-on-demand production equipment that could actually produce a trade-quality product, sites offering to advertise your book have sprouted everywhere. Many of these make wonderful assurances that their criteria for selection are set so high, readers can safely find a title that satisfies their interest with none of the poor editing errors that self-published books are still “known” for. (There’s that self-published guilt thingie, worked as a marketing tactic) I spent a lifetime, pre-fiction, in marketing and advertising, so I know a good pitch when I’m on the receiving end of one. Still, just because it is a pitch doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid crit. The problem is that it can be hard to know which to absorb and which to toss. Some days it feels like everybody wants to tell me how to write my book. I trust my editor, but everyone else? How do I separate the wheat from the chaff?
Having just completed my sixth novel, I’ve learned just how important honest criticism can be. I’ve forced myself into a perpetual, smiling thank-you mode, when it comes to anyone offering “notes” on my work. Traded critiques, Beta reader reports, reviews, even rejection letters all can provide just the right combination of suggestions to help me improve my writing. Every time.
Notice I said “all”. When we decide we want to write stories in book-length, many of us realize they are going to need some help. Many also expect that there are lists of do’s and don’ts – rules – that will teach us how to write a best-seller of we can only stumble upon them.
I’ve found in my own stumbling that no such lists exist that will work equally for every writer. A list compiled by one writing critic, really only expresses their own personal preferences, plus rules from teachers and professors they have adapted over the years and massaged into a shape that works to support their own opinion. Along with the variations that abound between readers and writers, there are also genre considerations, target market considerations and many other criteria that a writer must confront while they perfect their own craft. The lists that writers who have known some success, sometimes provide to new writers, are usually compiled over an entire writing career. For a good reason. Everything changes all the time. We’re not all set up on a level, clear floor, shooting arrows at stationary targets, but at moving, nebulous shadows from a pitching deck.
In addition, we probably won’t ever reach a level in our writing that will happily usher us through an open doorway with a clap on the back, saying “You’ve arrived!” Instead, it’s an ongoing process of elimination, addition and adaptation that will go on for our working lifetime. If we’re serious about our work and its readers and keep an open mind, we might get lucky more than once or twice. But, just at the moment when we think we’ve learned a thing or two, the next book will throw us into a tailspin of self-doubt. We’ll reach out for something to break our fall. That’s when we might grab hold of a bit of criticism as if it will help us sprout wings.
Chances are, any one item or note of suggestion will only help a little. There will always be other issues that will need a different perspective, and that is why we need all these bits and pieces over time, to actually learn the process that works the best for us.
Now most of the advertising sites, similar to the one I mentioned, are also the front door to a service offering. Editing and proofreading are only the most typical. I ran the notes that I had received past my editor, whom I’ve trusted for several years now. She told me that when she read the book in question, she didn’t find enough of the specific fault, to slow down her reading and enjoyment of the story. She also said, in effect that the errors which one former high-school English Lit teacher finds in any given manuscript may not be caught by another. It’s all quite subjective, once basic competent writing has been learned. “You don’t write your books for only an audience of former English Lit teachers, do you?”
No, but then again, I hope that some of them will enjoy my books, so I need to know what they will be looking for. If a literary agent that sells lots of YA books has a specific criticism of my YA work, I need to know that as well. If a reader who enjoys Historical Fiction has a nagging issue with one of my characters, I need to know that, too. I need it all. It becomes an ongoing, open-ended conversation leading to more conversation. Do I immediately rush to the keyboard to make all the suggested changes? Not always.
From the huge pile of broken rules, honest critique, reader comments, and so forth, I can assemble a roadmap to improve… wait for it… THAT book. Not every book. My own process makes writing to formula determined by market completely impossible, but maybe not for another writer, but some scraps learned in one may be collected and saved for future use. What works for me might not work the same way for you or your story. The main thing to remember, I’ve learned, is to consider frequency of criticism — are several readers commenting upon the same thing – and whether making any suggested changes will damage the story or change the intended voice. If they do, and it works, then it’s one more thing to add to the process pile, but if it doesn’t, you can get side-tracked so badly it becomes hard to return to the work at all. You have to be discerning and careful.
I usually see it in visual terms. Some film directors like the technique provided by a jumpy, hand-held camera. Others are quite adept at the highly polished, pared down to the bare minimum, cryptic school of action, while others are great at dream sequences and back story. No producer would want all of them collaborating on one film. You can’t have it all in one story. Besides, it’s your story. It will tell you (if you listen) how it needs to be told. You have to pick and choose which criticism you take to heart, and which you keep a wary watch for, just in case. It’s a juggling act, not a level on a ladder. Writing Rules are more like signposts you use as you pass them than perpetual hand holds. Writers remain eternal students of the form. The day we figure it all out is the day that our next book will probably be a disaster. Keep the conversations going, pile up the suggestions and use what works.
A number of years ago, I took public transportation to work every day. My job was many miles away, so the bus ride, including transfers, took over an hour. One of the regular stops was the County Jail complex. Over time, I got to recognize some of the other travelers as folks who enjoyed a chat. They came from all walks of life, but a singular lack of luck was shared by all in some way. One of them was a young man whose family threw him out after he tested HIV positive. On the surface, he appeared to be the kind of person I’d been identifying mentally as “street people” since college.
During these rides, to and from work, I grew to understand which days he was in the mood for a chat and which days he wanted his space. Whenever we spoke, the conversations were rarely about ourselves or the weather, but about matters that affected people’s lives. Big, important subjects. He spoke clearly and with passion and obvious intellect, but at the same time, it was clear to me that he had substance issues. His arms, when exposed, showed needle tracks and over the time we were acquainted, his health deteriorated steadily. After a week I noticed he was not riding the bus anymore. I asked another rider who told me he’d died.
We never really know how another life will impact our own when they intersect. Each of us carries burdens and some of the burdens are so heavy they eventually wear us down. If we’re lucky to have grown up with lighter ones, we can learn to show some human respect for those of us who struggle every single day. If they are able to reduce the burdens they carry, their success is wonderful to see. If they don’t, some small acknowledgement of the effort they put into the fight is the least we can offer them. We all start out the same, but we take different paths, and sometimes, we are lost along the way. It happens.
Neil Ansell’s intimate memoir brought this lasting memory back to me. His title refers to a sparsely inhabited Scottish Island named Jura, which is the Saxon translation of Deer Island. Oddly enough, it still is teeming with deer and plays a very special role. His tale recounts the story of a restless young man, seeking an anchor — ultimately, a place he could call home for even a single night. He travels across the UK, through cities and through fields, sleeping on floors and under the stars. Along this journey he crosses paths with all kinds of people in a wide range of circumstances.
Some are gritty, stark places on the edge of society where the glint of broken glass in the gutter can bring a smile. Some are small, cloistered spots where there are few signs that any others had trodden there before and nature still holds sway. Into each comes the young traveler refining his sense of self every time he shoulders his pack.
The narrative is beautifully descriptive and it brought me into each setting, gently but firmly. Author Ansell’s experiences teach an important lesson. Since we don’t always know the exact nature of those we meet as we follow our chosen course, we should, at the very least, try to find something of value in everyone and use that as the basis for our interaction.
At one critical point in the narrative, Mr. Ansell wisely chooses to rely upon the better nature of people who, on the surface at least, seemed not to have any good points at all. He was rewarded in like manner. A small, recovered memento of a chance acquaintance takes on an important meaning. One not fully expressed until he finds the exact place where he can finally come to terms with it and act on his feelings, creating a lasting connection to this wild, beautiful island.
I’m grateful that Neil Ansell’s ragged journey is one we can all share. Illustrator Jonny Hannah’s steel-etching style spot illustrations insert just the right bit of whimsey. The author’s prose, pared down to easy, conversational essentials; shines like a beacon of pure white light. A very quick read; it’s nonetheless a jewel destined to endure. I hope it reveals something possibly left behind, to all who read it.
Neil Ansell is also the author of Deep Country, another memoir describing a Five-year slice of his life that is also very memorable in its connections to the larger world of living things.
Ben Tarnoff’s upcoming book The Bohemians, follows the early writing careers and interactions of several literary giants thrown together in San Francisco during the exuberant days during and immediately following the Civil War. The Gold Rush days were past, but the future still appeared to be limitless. Mark Twain and Bret Harte, outspoken flamboyant newsmen of the day; several emerging poets and their supporters, created a loosely organized moveable feast of literary talent that reinforced their self-imposed, outsider stance. Their “salon” endured only a short time but the author makes the point that it was very productive and very influential. By sheer force of will, they persuaded the Eastern Literary establishment to take notice. As a result, an authentically voiced, “American”, frontier-driven literature was shared with the world to influence generations of writers to follow.
I don’t normally read much academic non-fiction but in this case, I’m very glad I made an exception. Tarnoff’s prose led me right into the bars, parlors and frantic newsrooms of post-civil war California and nearby Nevada. His discussions of the high levels of literacy in the shabby mining camps and along the muddy streets especially surprised me. As a transplanted California Bat Area native, I don’t recall that point ever being mentioned in my years of public school history class, but it certainly makes sense.
This book gave me the most well-defined idea of the nature of California after the gold rush of 1848 that I have had the pleasure to read. Tarnoff has done an amazing amount of research also, into the growth of these diverse writers, their work and influence. He brings a fresh light into the lives of these literary giants when their future paths were still uncertain. The many changes that occurred over a relatively short period of time are astonishing but his engaging narrative carried me along at the perfect pace. Some reads can be exhausting in their pacing, but Tarnoff skillfully left me time to easily digest his insights into the motivations and demons working on young writers still trying to find their feet. The author has such a clear understanding of the writing process itself, reading this book gave me new insight into my own, often murky process.
Readers and especially those of us who write fiction, owe a huge debt to these hard-speaking, rough-spun writers who emerged from the heady stew of San Francisco’s evolving urban character. Mr. Tarnoff has produced a wonderful read that is both highly entertaining and packed full of useful information. His writing voice at times verges gently upon a period style, but in this context it’s completely forgivable and in fact, helps create more immersion for the reader. This is a memorable read and a unique learning experience I highly recommend, especially to writers and voracious readers of American authors’ work. The Bohemians is published by The Penguin Press and releases March 24th.
Actually, my muse is on my mind. Literally. This time of year, all living things, writers included, tend to withdraw a bit from the frenzied, adventurous life they lead. This is the time when resting up seems to be the day’s occupation. Some might see this as unnecessary down-time, but when content is more important than just productivity, a period of reflection is needed. Regularly. This helps writers like me achieve a perspective into their work they can’t find always on the keyboard.
Last night I dreamed of a huge change in the world. A change at the very core of life’s hierarchy. In my dream, the impending change is first discovered by a lab worker, in a sudden change in the way the spider in the storeroom is spinning her web. Now, the results of the change cascaded all around my sleeping brain, but I won’t actually be able to weave this nebulous, waking impression into a story, until I’ve had sufficient time to digest the images. I need to let the ideas sift through until I can grab hold of them.
We’re all bombarded daily by odd glimpses into something we are only able to partially understand. It can happen while you’re driving to work, picking up your mail, or drinking your morning coffee. Maybe a subtle shift in the clouds of milk in the cup. Maybe something in the way the winter light hits the shades lower and stronger. I’ve learned that although all of these little impressions may reside in my head, the ones with latent implications for a work in progress or a new story idea, can only be expected to blossom over time.
So, in keeping with the idea of useful rest, I have been known to nap occasionally, but as you can see, my mews (sp: muse?) seems to know how to make the best use of any given situation.
Some of us have been through the wringer since this past January. Others have seen their dreams fulfilled, their families healed and their lives find their groove. As we’ve done since our most ancient ancestors prayed and watched for the days to lengthen again, we’ll all spend time with those we love to consider the year we’ve just tread over. We started this year’s journey 12 months ago, and wherever the road has taken us, we’re further along. I wish everyone the joy and cheer this Season can bring and the hope and promise we need as the New Year beckons. Peace, to all. Take the moments you need to appreciate those gifts that haven’t changed and the love you share with those you care for. Happiness may be elusive, but each of us will discover the moment. It may be a landslide or it may be a gentle rain, but happiness will surely find us all, even if for just a heartbeat, in the coming year.