Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Master Butcher (Revisited) - 255/365

The Master Butcher (Louis Erdrich) – 255/365, BlackBerry 365, Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

To celebrate the World Premiere stage adaptation of The Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie, Liz and I have started reading the novel aloud to each other. I savor each moment. This will be second time I have followed Fidelis from Germany with his pristine set of knives and suitcase full of sausages, walked the streets of Argus, North Dakota with Delphine and Cyprian, and sat at the clean and ordered table of Eva Waldvogel.

The first time was at least five years ago when my relationship with Liz was just getting started. We quickly discovered that we both loved art, music, writers, and books — lots of books. Liz grew up in North Dakota and Louise Erdrich was one of her favorite authors (she had gone to see her speak in the 80’s at Moorhead State). To help win me over, and in a courtship ritual I didn’t find the least bit bizarre, she checked out two library copies of The Master Butchers Singing Club on CD, handed one to me and said, “I thought we could listen to them separately in our cars and compare notes. What do you think?”

Seven years and some odd months later….we learned that Master Butchers was coming to the Guthrie and vowed to pick up tickets. A few weeks ago when we attended The Scottsboro Boys, we stopped by the ticket window and sealed the deal. Then Birchbark Books (the independent bookstore owned by Louise) announced on Facebook that it had a few signed, First Edition copies of The Masters Butchers Singing Club for sale. I returned home that evening to find the book gleaming off the coffee table. And there on the cover, in a photograph taken June 8th, 1912, in Pforzheim, Germany, was the Master Butcher himself, Louise’s grandfather, Louis Erdrich.

Can you imagine having your novel adapted for the stage in such a prestigious venue as the Guthrie Theater? If the Guthrie’s photograph of Louise and her daughter on set before the preview opening on September 11th is any indication, it is a feeling of elation and pure joy.

We’ll be attending the play in October (with several friends) and will come back and check in later this Fall. According to Minnesota Monthly, director Francesca Zambello didn’t know Louise when she frequented Kenwood Café and picked up a copy of Master Butchers at Birchbark next store. But over time, “With Erdrich’s blessing (and advice), Zambello and Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman began condensing the sprawling family saga, set in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, between the world wars. There’s more singing and less butchering now. And that’s fine with Erdrich…”

In my humble opinion, The Master Butchers Singing Club is one of her finest. I can only imagine that Louise’s grandfather would agree. It is a book about the importance of place and culture, a universal story. There is a way that Louise’s books honor those who came before her, generations of ancestry in perfect imperfection. As above, so below. So may it be.

IMG_7690 PS Crop 5 x 7 Color

The Erdrich Sisters, Heid, Lise, Louise, Minneapolis, Minnesota, February 2008, photo © 2008-2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Additional Resources:

MPR Midmorning: From the page to the stage – The Master Butchers Singing Club. Kerri Miller’s interview this morning with Louise Erdrich and Francesca Zambello.

Minnesota Monthly Profiles Author Louise Erdrich, September 2010 – Staging Erdrich by Michael Tortorello including 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Louise.

Play Guide, Interviews, and Ticket Info on The Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie Theater.

Louise’s bookstore, Birchbark Books where you can get your own First edition, first printing, hardcover of The Master Butchers Singing Club signed by Louise Erdrich, or the newly re-issued Fishing for Myth from Heid Erdrich.

Bill Moyers interview with Louise Erdrich on Bill Moyers Journal, April 9th, 2010

Louise Erdrich on Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

-related to posts: The Company Of Strangers (On Louise Erdrich & Flying), Book Talk — Do You Let Yourself Read?

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A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experience meaning, the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.

~Flannery O’Connor, from “Writing Short Stories”

I’ve always been a fan of short stories. I subscribe to The New Yorker just to get a new one each week to read.

Short stories are magical. So compact and full of emotion. The good ones draw you in immediately without you realizing it. They’re a mystery, really. I’ve wondered what it takes to make a good short story work ever since the first time I tried writing one, over 20 years ago.

I can still remember the ancient-seeming Sabine Ulíbarri, one of my favorite Literature professors in college, raising a crooked forefinger into the air and saying that the short story began when something extraordinary happened in an otherwise ordinary life. Professor Ulíbarri’s seminar was held in a dim room—he didn’t like florescent lights—where a dozen or so students sat around a conference table and were so rapt by this physically small yet intellectually giant man’s charms that we endured his chain smoking.

He took his shaky hand and drew on the chalkboard an X in the straight-line trajectory of the life of a typical protagonist. Then he drew a bolt of lightening coming from the heavens above and hitting the X. “This,” he said in his booming voice, “is where the story begins.”

∞ ∞

Loving to read short stories and figuring out how to write them are two different things. The short story is a masterful art form, one that Alice Sebold in her stint as editor of The Best American Short Stories 2009 said provides

…endless access into another world, brought forth by an infinite number of gifted minds. A story about grief can comfort; a story about arrogance can shock and yet confirm; a story populated largely by landscape, whether lush or industrial, can expand the realm that we as individuals inhabit.

The dilemma for someone like me, who would love to comfort, shock, confirm, or expand a reader’s realm, is how to make my stories do exactly that. I don’t have an answer. I haven’t succeeded yet, although, if the truth be known I haven’t tried to hard enough either. However, all that is about to change.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

I just refused to die as a person who had 30 pages of a novel in her drawer.

~Elizabeth Gilbert, answering a question during an Albuquerque appearance

The rest of this post is targeted to people like me who write and write and write yet rarely venture to send our works out into the world where those who’ve succeeded in the literary arena might judge them. I can understand the resistance. Writing is hard enough. Getting our work published is a whole ‘nother matter. But if like me you want to accept yourself as a writer, you may want to consider seriously pursuing getting your writing published in literary magazines.

Right now I’m focused on the short story, but editors of literary magazines care about all kinds of writing. Literary magazines contain fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry, and some even publish haiku, photography, the graphic narrative, and other art.

Why should we try to get our writing published in literary magazines? According to Poets & Writers, “most writers get the attention of editors, agents, and other writers by publishing first in literary magazines.” Not to mention, many of these venues offer great motivation in the form of cash awards. In fact, this is one of the best times of year to compete in writing contests—the stakes can be anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to one or two or four thousand.

I just spent a large chunk of this past three-day weekend submitting a short story to several contests. I wrote the story a few years ago and even though I wasn’t happy with it then, I sent it out back then to a half dozen literary magazines for consideration. Not surprisingly, it didn’t get picked up, so I stuck it into a drawer where it sat for a few years.

Well, as often happens when you step back and stop thinking about a piece for a while (be it art or writing), I could see the weaknesses in the story when I looked at it anew. I spent several hours rewriting and editing until finally I had a piece I could be proud of. The next step was to send it out in to the world.

…Try, Try Again

I take writing and competition very seriously. I believe that all writers should compete—even if I now know this to be a quixotic quests—on a level playing field.

~Alice Sebold, Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2009

The Poets & Writers website is an amazing place, well laid out and chock full of excellent information for figuring out where to send your work. The site has a “Tools for Writers” tab that shows deadlines for Writing Contests, Grants & Awards in both a Submission Calendar format and in a searchable database where you can filter by genre, entry fee, and timing. There’s also the Contest Blog, with frequently posted gems, including interviews with authors who have won contests in the past.

NewPages.com—a website that touts the goodness of independent bookstores—also carries a list of Writing Contests categorized by monthly deadline. It has a list of hundreds of literary magazines—aptly named “Big List of Literary Magazines”—so that you can get a feel for those that fit your writing style and vice versa.

A source I didn’t find in either Poets & Writers nor NewPages.com is A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps women achieve their artistic goals by providing prize and grants, including a $50,000 biennial grant “to an American woman writer of merit working under financial hardship.”

It should be said, contests are not the be-all end-all of writing. Most important is getting your work published, which these sources provide just as much information about as they do contests and awards. But in the event you need that extra boost, now is an excellent time to vie for prizes.

Your Countrymen (and Women) Need You

It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ.

~Stephen King, “What Ails the Short Story,” in The New York Times, 9/30/2007

When he was editor of The Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King declared that short stories were alive but not well. Literary magazines have over time been relegated to the bottom shelves of magazine sections in most big bookstores, and even there only a few titles can be found.

So do your part. Read, write, edit, and submit. Then do it again and again.

Hints & Tips

Poets & Writers offers these common sense tips for submitting to literary journals and/or vying for writing contests:

  • Do research to determine which publications are right for you. In other words, know your market.
  • Each literary magazine has “a unique editorial voice, tone, viewpoint, mission.” Make sure that you read any literary magazine before you submit your work to it. (Many literary magazines have websites with archives where you can read past winning stories or other published pieces.)
  • Read about the contributors to compare their backgrounds and interests to yours.
  • Make sure to read the Submission Guidelines for each magazine. They differ. Some will accept only online; others only accept hard copies sent by mail. Some want 12pt. font with one-inch margins. One might have a word count, another a page count.
  • Specifically look for guidance on simultaneous submissions, meaning submissions of a single work to more than one journal or contest at a time. Most of the literary journals that I submitted to allowed for simultaneous submissions but asked to be informed immediately if the submission gets picked up by or wins somewhere else.
  • Some literary journals request cover letters and others do not. Some contests are done as a “blind review,” meaning that any identifying information about the author is stripped off during the actual reading/review. Poets & Writers suggested that where a cover letter is requested, try not to “discuss the merits or themes of the work you are submitting” but use the cover letter instead to provide a short bio and any past publication accomplishments.

Finally, beware of Writing Contest scams. My advice, and mind you this is only my advice, is to use a source that you trust (the way I trust, for example, Poets & Writers) to identify true literary journals and the contests they run. Others may be designed to simply get your dollars for a submission or reading fee.

Special Bonus: Sabine Ulíbarri

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For Christmas I got the 2009 Page-A-Day Book Lover’s Calendar, which features a different book each day. Guess which author turned up on the page for Wednesday, January 14?

Isabel Allende and her book Inés of My Soul.

I’ve never read that book, but based on the Page-A-Day write-up, it is a passionate love story that takes place in 16th Century Spain and Latin America—a sort of hot and spicy romance set in rich historical times. Which, I suppose, is why the title for the page is CHILE CON CARNE.

Chile with meat.

Chile con carne, January 14th page from the Page-A-Day 2009 Book Lover's Calendar, featuring Isabel Allende

Or, I suppose it could have just been a play on the word Chile, being that Isabel Allende is de Chile and that Doña Inés, protagonist of the featured book, ends up in Chile with Don Pedro.

No matter what the origin of Book-A-Day’s title is, I thought I’d provide my mother’s Chile con Carne recipe here. That way you can make a pot of steaming green chile stew to savor along with the heat of Doña Inés and Isabel Allende.

Chile con Carne

You’ll need:

  • A pound of pork
  • Tablespoon of olive oil
  • Tablespoon of flour
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • A large yellow (Spanish) onion
  • Five or six red or yellow potatoes, peeled
  • Four or so roasted, peeled, and deseeded chile pods
  • A package of frozen corn
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Chile con Carne, otherwise known ’round these parts as Green Chile Stew, is best made in a crock pot so that the flavors can simmer all day long and the meat becomes very tender.

First cut the pork into small chunks. (You can also use beef or chicken, but Mom always makes it with pork.) Brown the pork in oil in a large pan on the stove, along with a couple of cloves of chopped garlic and a whole chopped yellow onion. In the mean time, have your crock pot heating up.

After the meat is brown, add about a tablespoon of flour for thickening. (If you want a gluten-free version, use soy or rice flour.) Then add about four cups of water to the meat, and once the water starts boiling, put the whole thing into the crock pot.

Let the meat cook all afternoon, and about two hours before you’re going to serve the stew, add in the potatoes, peeled and chopped. (I like to cut mine into medium-sized pieces, not too small and not too big.) Also add the chopped green chiles, and 3/4 of the package of frozen corn. You may need to add more water.

Season with salt and pepper. Simmer on low for another two hours, and it’s ready to go.

NOTE: You can add fresh chopped tomatoes or any other vegetables, but the stew is wonderful with just the few simple ingredients above.

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In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable.

~Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

Good news from the National Endowment for the Arts. According to a report it released today, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” fiction reading increased for adults for the first time after a quarter-century of decline.

A New York Times article about the report stated that for the first time since 1982, which is when the US Census Bureau started collecting data on public participation in the arts,

…the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.

Wooo-hooo! People are reading again.

Fiction accounts for the new growth in adult readers (unfortunately, reading of poetry and drama specifically has continued to decline) and online book reading has gone up (something I personally can’t get into). Also up is reading among younger adults (ages 18-24) and Hispanics. ¡Viva!

Mr. Gioia attributed the increase in part to programs the NEA has underwritten, such as the “Big Read,” which is a library partnership to encourage communities to champion particular books, like The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

He also attributed the increase to things like Oprah Winfrey’s book club and the phenomenon of young adult fiction like Harry Potter or the Twilight Series. (I read the first five Harry Potter books out loud to my daughters and then got hooked and had to finish up the last two on my own.)

Not to put too much of the credit on our shoulders, but I think blogs that encourage reading (see our post “Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read” as one of many examples, and “The World According To Mr. Schminda (et al.)” for a list of about 100 must-read classics) have also played a small but vital role. Just peruse some of the links on our blogroll and you’ll see several fellow bloggers reviewing classic works of fiction or otherwise touting books and reading. And these are just a handful of the thousands of literary-minded blogs that have cropped up over the past couple of years.

I know I’m doing my part in countering the dumbing down of America. Right now, I’m reading the first Stephenie Meyers book in the Twilight series outloud to my youngest (one could argue it’s not exactly high literature nor age-appropriate for a nine-year-old, but hey, it took us more than three months to finish The Hobbit last year, and already in four nights we’re one-fourth of the way through Twilight).

Then on my own, I’m reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. (And yes, it is hard to switch between a 17-year-old in Forks, Oregon Washington who’s falling in love with a vampire versus a pair of Jewish escapists/cartoonists in 1930s Prague and Brooklyn.)

What about you? What book or books are you reading in this new year, and have you consumed more fiction of late than in the past? If so, what has compelled you read more?

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Isabel Allende, a portion of the book cover from Allende’s memoir Paula, (colors manipulated), photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Yesterday all day I thought about author Isabel Allende. In 2008 I read two memoirs from the large collection of fiction and creative non-fiction that she’s written: The Sum of Our Days—published last year—and Paula (1995). I hadn’t read any of her works in the almost twenty years since I devoured and loved her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1985).

The reason Allende was on my mind yesterday, January 8, was because that is the date each year that she starts a new book. That was the date back in 1981 when she received a phone call from someone in her native Chile saying that her grandfather, Tata, was dying. She was living in exile in Venezuela—her uncle and Chilean president Salvador Allende had been assassinated years earlier—and she summoned the ghost of her grandmother to help her beloved Tata.

I decided to write him one last time, to tell him he could go in peace because I would never forget him and planned to bequeath his memory to my children and my children’s children. To prove it, I began the letter with an anecdote about my great-aunt Rosa, my grandfather’s first sweetheart, a young girl of almost supernatural beauty who had died in mysterious circumstances shortly before they were to marry, poisoned either by error or malice, and whose soft sepia-tone photograph always sat on the piano in Tata’s house, smiling with unalterable beauty.

~Isabel Allende, from Part Two of her book Paula

That letter became an obsession for Allende, who was 40 years old at the time, married and with two children. After a 12-hour shift at her day job, she returned home at dark, ate dinner with the family, and then sat in front of a portable typewriter and wrote until overcome by exhaustion. The writing came effortlessly, “because my clairvoyant grandmother was dictating to me.”

The letter to her grandfather had become a novel, although Allende could not bring herself to admit it. She had spent her career up to then working as a journalist, writing screenplays and short stories—

…on the periphery of literature…without daring to confess my true calling. I would have to publish three novels translated into several languages before I put down ‘writer’ as my profession when I filled out a form.

She carried the papers with her in a canvas bag, and when the bag became heavy and she had 500 pages “whited out so many times with correction fluid that some were stiff as cardboard,” she knew she was almost finished. In two days, after several earlier tries, she wrote the ten pages of epilogue.

That first novel became an international sensation, a dense epic about the Trueba family, written in the genre of magical realism that characterized the works of so many Latin American novelists—think Gabriel García Márquez and the Buendía family of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was living in Spain when The House of the Spirits came out but didn’t read it until I returned to the U.S. and began studying about Latin America in a Masters degree program. The writing was fluid and floral, the sentences long and paragraphs thick. There were so many details and people and places that it was like making my way through a labyrinth, but I read it day in and day out, perhaps over two or three weeks, often re-reading sections I felt I hadn’t absorbed fully the first time.

Why it took me all these years to pick up another Allende book, I can only say that there was so much literary terrain to make up that I was overwhelmed to the point of paralysis as to who to read next. Allende wrote sixteen books after her debut novel, and each time I saw a review or otherwise heard news of a new title being published, it would register that I should take up with her again.


When an exuberant neighbor kept me in the parking lot of the post office for almost an hour this past summer gushing about Allende’s new memoir, The Sum of Our Days, which he’d checked out of the local library, I had no recourse but to take it on as my next book to read. In fact, he said he would place it on hold in my name the moment he returned it to the library, so soon the calls started coming that my book was waiting for me.

The writing in that memoir was so powerful, so magnetic, that it didn’t take me long to finish the book. The Sum of Our Days picks up with Allende’s life after the tragic death of her daughter, Paula. It tells the story of her “tribe”—her son and his wife who leaves him to be with a woman, her mother and step-father, her new husband who gives her a reason to finally let down her guard and allow herself to be cared for and loved.

The book gave me reason to immediately want to read the memoir Paula, which told the story of Allende’s daughter and the mysterious illness that took her young life (she was about 30 years old when she died). But it also tells the story of Allende’s own intriguing life, her family in Chile and the coup that forced her out, her first marriage and several careers. Allende’s pain was evident in that book, as was the strength it must have taken to be alive to her daughter’s death.

Allende is a writer’s writer, the kind of powerful force who inspires other writers. The two memoirs I read taught me as much about writing as any workshop or books about writing ever have. I want to go back and read everything else she’s written.

I want to know what emerges from January 8, 2009; I can be certain she has started a new story, a new book, just as I can be certain that the sun rose and set yesterday.

I began Of Love and Shadows on January 8, 1983, because that day had brought me luck with The House of the Spirits, thus initiating a tradition I honor to this day and don’t dare change; I always write the first line of my books on that date. When the time comes, I try to be alone and silent for several hours; I need a lot of time to rid my mind of the noise outside and to cleanse my memory of life’s confusion. I light candles to summon the muses and guardian spirits, I place flowers on my desk to intimidate tedium and the complete works of Pablo Neruda beneath the computer with the hope they will inspire me by osmosis—if computers can be infected with a virus, there’s no reason they should be refreshed by a breath of poetry. In secret ceremony, I prepare my mind and soul to receive the first sentence in a trance, so the door may open slightly and allow me to peer through the hazy outlines of the story waiting for me. 

~Isabel Allende, from Part Two of her book Paula

A Few Resources

Isabel Allende at the Lensic Theater, Santa Fe, NM, September 24, 2008 (Lannan Foundation podcast)
Isabel Allende Tells Tales of Passion (TED.com video)
Questions & Answers from Isabel Allende (author’s website)


Isabel Allende press photo © 2008 by Lori Barra.

-Related to post Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read

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Twilight Advance, advance ticket for opening day of Twilight, the long-awaited film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s young adult hit series, image © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Twilight opened at midnight last night, and I imagine theaters everywhere were filled with teenage girls dressed in black. My teen didn’t make it; today was a school day.

But guess who has a ticket for a showing tonight? Yep. The way I see it is, these are the things that eventually become memories when today’s kids get to be our age. Standing in line for over an hour to get a good seat in the theater on opening day of Twilight, or sitting two rows from the front of the screen and being unable to straighten your neck when the movie ends. Sweet.

I don’t remember standing in line as a kid to be among the first to see a movie or to buy a book. Maybe life was simpler then and less sales-driven. Or maybe my parents just wouldn’t stand for such nonsense.

I’m pretty sure it’s the deprived child in me that now indulges my daughters and last year endured the torture of standing—or, rather, leaning—in line, half alseep at one in the morning, so I could fork over $24.99 to a testy cashier and get Dee’s copy of the long awaited Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


What did we have that was even slightly similar? My older sisters swooned over The Beatles and Elvis, although I don’t think they ever made it to a concert. Jim remembers going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on his 13th birthday, although it wasn’t opening night. “Nah, we never went to openings when I was a kid.” And in general, we still avoid the crowds that come with any opening night.

Although, Em reminded Jim that we all went to see Wall-E the first night it opened this past summer. We were in Taos for the Taos Solar Festival, and on a whim the Friday night we rolled into town, we decided to go see Wall-E. We sashayed on in, bought our tickets, and sat smack dab in the middle of a mostly empty theater. We couldn’t believe our luck. No way we would have ventured to an Albuquerque theater for opening night of any movie, not even a Disney Pixar one.

But some people love the excitement of being among the first. It’s kind of like making history. Or, like I said, making memories.

How about you? Do you move with the throngs or do you hang back until the crowds thin?

-Related to posts My Kid Got Bit By Stephenie Meyer and Stephenie Bit Me, Too!

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Two old author friends, beloved by generations of readers and pranksters alike, came together for a brief reunion on red Ravine to talk about the challenges of publishing and staying relevant in today’s world.

I.P. Freely: It’s been ages, Seymour, ol’ boy. What have you been doing??

Seymour Butts: Likewise, I.P. What a pleasure to see you! Well, I never got married—just a perennial bachelor, I suppose. I live with my brother Harry and write books. Pretty sedentary life. Oh, although I just published a new book, inspired by the current financial crisis and the sudden rise of “Joe the Plumber.” It’s called Under the Sink, and it’s the first bestseller I’ve had since Under the Bleachers.

Freely: You don’t say?! Congratulations! Don’t tell me you’ve not been writing for that many years, though. Under the Bleachers must have been at its pinnacle back in the late 1970s.

Butts: You’re right, I.P. I wrote a lot of other books since then but none took off. I had a whole series—In the Locker Room, Women’s Sauna, Memoir of a Proctologist—but for whatever reason, they never made it out of manuscript. It was a bum deal, and I was pretty sore for a long time. How about you?

Freely: Well, Yellow River was great while it lasted, but it set off a host of copycats, notably A River Runs Through It. I was disappointed, of course, that Brad Pitt passed over our film script—in fact, that was a real pisser, but such is life. I had some blockage after that, but things finally got moving. I met a great woman, Toots, and we’ve been married for 15 years.

Butts: Hey, I noticed that red Ravine used your name for a title on a post about bathroom habits and stress incontinence. That might generate a stream of opportunities for you.

Freely: Doubtful, although I was pleased to see ‘em pick it up. Hey, I heard through the grapevine that “Seymour Butts” was the other title they were toying with. That would have been a nice plug for you.

Butts: Oh, indeed. It would have worked, too. Oh well, win some and lose some, or, as I say, see some and see none. It’s been grand talking to you, I.P. One last thing, do you see Mister Completely any more?

Freely: Nah, he got really depressed after his sole book, Hole in the Mattress, was such a downer. He and the Missus got a divorce.

Butts: Ah, that always a risk. Writing—it’s a hard life.

Freely: That it is, Seymour, that it is.

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By Bob Chrisman

Yesterday evening as I sat in my favorite coffee shop and drank my French press of Irish Breakfast tea, I finished Twilight, Book One of the Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer.

In August when I decided to read the series as a result of the red Ravine post My Kid Got Bit By Stephenie Meyer, the library waiting lists for each book spanned anywhere from 18 days to over three months. I placed reserves on all of them, including her new book for adults, and waited.

Fate ordained that I would read Books Two through Four first and then receive Book One. (Not as bad as my experience with Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, where I read the series in reverse order—kind of like a life review of the characters.) In the case of the Twilight Series, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t known how the tale began because each book told a complete and fascinating story.

Sometimes I read long into the night, well past my bedtime. After I finished New Moon (Book Two and the first book that arrived from the library) Meyer had transformed this 56-year-old, full-figured white guy from Missouri, not into a vampire but into a fan. (I still laugh thinking that ybonesy advised me when I told her I was going to read the series, “…just remember it’s written for young adults.” Maybe I should listen to the people who tell me to grow up.)

The stories are classic vampire/werewolf tales, but with enough differences and twists to make them new and refreshing. These vampires can be out in the sun (sort of). They live in the Pacific Northwest, where the sun rarely shines (something I knew to be true for years despite my friends in Washington and Oregon who insist, “But the sun was shining yesterday before you arrived”).

Some of the vampires don’t kill humans to drink their blood—for ethical reasons. The werewolves aren’t really werewolves (but I can’t tell you what they are, since that information doesn’t come out until the final book, Breaking Dawn). They don’t morph into hot-blooded killers only during the full moon and you can’t kill them with silver bullets.

Most impressive, these books are not small. Breaking Dawn is almost 800 pages long. The fact that Ms. Meyer has written books that require an attention span of greater than 15 minutes and that teenagers have read them impresses me beyond words. This woman has lit a fire under her readers, which is now spreading to adults who typically won’t read “young adult” fiction. (My name, by the way, has inched close to the top of the reserved list at my local library for her book targeted to adults, The Host.)

I would have moved blissfully through the world without the knowledge of Stephenie Meyer or the main characters in the Twilight Series books—Edward Cullen, Jacob Black, and Isabella (Bella) Swan—had I ignored the post on red Ravine, but my life would lack a certain richness that these books brought to me. A good story offers more rewards than I can sometimes imagine, and these are good stories. Not once did I feel like I was reading young adult fiction.

If you love vampire stories, read these books. Try to read them in order—Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn—but if that’s not possible, just know that you can start anywhere in the series and not be lost (slightly confused for a short time, maybe, but not lost). You will not be sorry.

Once you’re done, tell me, Are you an Edward or a Jacob fan? You can only pick one.

Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer whose pieces Hands, Growing Older, and Goat Ranch have all appeared in red Ravine.

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Raise your hand if you or someone you know is hooked on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of books. Chances are there are lots of hands in the air out there.

My twelve-year-old daughter got her copy of Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final book in the series, at a midnight release party last Saturday. She and her friends opted for independent bookstore Bookworks’ gathering, which included costume contests, psychic readings, and book giveaways.

Dee dressed in book cover theme colors of red, white, and black. She wore a red ribbon (from Eclipse, Book Three) on her leg, a red-and-white flower (from New Moon, Book Two) in her hair, and an apple (Twilight, Book One) tied to her belt. Had she found one, she’d have carried a chess piece (Breaking Dawn) too. 


Big disclaimer: I haven’t read any of the Twilight series books. However, I did hear all about them last school year on the days when I drove carpool for four mid-school-aged girls.

I learned about Isabella (Bella), the klutzy yet “normal” (which is to say, non-vampire and non-werewolf) girl, and Edward, the “vegetarian” (non-human-blood-sucking) vampire who loves her but also lusts for her blood. I learned there’s also a werewolf in the mix, Jacob, who becomes Bella’s good friend and eventual romantic rival to Edward.

I also found out that one girl in the carpool couldn’t stand the idea of Bella and Jacob together, whereas the other three were at least open to the idea. And I heard about all the funny things you discover when talking about books with friends: how they each envisioned Bella to look, how they all mispronounced certain place names, and just how excited they were about this series and the movie being made of the first book. (Release date: December 12. We’ll buy tickets in advance.)

But there was a lot I didn’t find out, such as the basic plot of the story, what moved it forward, and whether the writing is truly good (I think it must be; these kids are savvy readers). Especially after seeing Dee’s enthusiasm this past weekend, I’m left with an honest-to-goodness curiosity about the books myself.

Funny, Jim’s also cued in (now that he’s clued in) to the phenomenon of Stephenie Meyer. He pointed out this past weekend that her new book for adults, The Host, landed on the New York Times Bestseller list recently. And every other day, it seems, he is showing me yet another article about Meyer and Breaking Dawn.

The last such find, which appeared in the August 11 issue of Business Week, focused on how the series’ word-of-mouth success has come about because of Meyer’s unusual (for a blockbuster author) engagement with readers at book-signings and on social networking sites, her acting upon fan input (such as hosting a Twilight prom after a reader suggested it), and the way she has outwardly encouraged her fans to create related websites. For example, Twilight Lexicon was started with Meyer’s knowledge and blessing as a way to organize the books’ facts. It has since expanded to include a blog and a store, and is now one of the most popular places for kindred spirits to gather and converse.

Other articles highlight equally unusual aspects of the series and/or author: mother-daughter bonding over the series (Newsweek); increased tourism in the town of Forks, WA (Seattle Times), where Bella moves and her odyssey begins; and reactions to Meyer from the Church of Latter Day Saints, as the 34-year-old mother of three happens to be Mormon (Observer).

By now, Dee and her friends know who won over Bella. For some strange reason, I’m rooting for the werewolf. I’ll be in the dark until Saturday, though, when we pick up Dee from summer camp. I have a feeling we’ll hear all about Edward and Jacob and Bella on the drive home.

I also have a feeling that I might be part-way through Book One by then.


-Related to post Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read?

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Flannery O‘Connor -- The House I Grew Up In, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Flannery O’Connor — The House I Grew Up In, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

It’s almost time to leave the South. It seems like I’ve been gone forever. I had hoped to write more from the road but, I tell you, I’ve just been too exhausted when I drop into bed at night. That on-the-road research and writing takes a toll. And so does the heat. Yesterday it was 95 with a heat index of 108. Humidity like that saps my energy, and takes my breath away. This is the South of Flannery O’Connor.

To really get to know a writer, you need to walk in her shoes, live for a while where she lived, breathe the air she breathed, visit the places she called home. Flannery spent her childhood years until the age of 13 in the heart of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. She lived in an 1856 Savannah gray brick home owned by her beloved Cousin Katie. At the time the O’Connors lived in Savannah (from March 25th, 1925 to March, 1938 when the family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia) the population was three to four times greater than it is today.

According to the notes from a talk by Bill Dawers at the O’Connor home last December, a dozen or more people might have lived in the modest home in Lafayette Square in a dwelling that now houses only two or three. Savannah was more integrated with regard to race and class in the 1930’s, too. Before the automobile and the suburbs, nearly all Savannahians lived north of Victory Drive and people from all walks of life bumped into each other on Savannah’s city streets.

Flannery’s Neighbors, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

The two days we visited Savannah were sweltering hot; the evenings surrendered to cool breezes pooling off the river. We ate at a place called Moon River and walked through Greene Square (one of Oglethorpe’s many city squares) on the way back to our hotel room that night. Our visit was brief, as we spent most of our time down on St. Simons Island about 80 miles south; every minute counted. Our last stop heading out of Savannah was Flannery’s childhood home in Lafayette Square. She could see the spire of the Catholic church where her family worshipped from their second story bedroom.

The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation celebrated her March 25th birthday on Friday, April 11th, by having a cookout and celebratory burning of the 207 East Charlton Street mortgage papers that had just been retired. Their vision of establishing, preserving, and maintaining the birthplace of writer Flannery O’Connor began in 1987. I am grateful for their perseverance. 

A generous donation from Jerry Bruckheimer (whose wife, Linda, has long been a fan of O’Connor) restored a 1950’s kitchen back to the family library where Flannery learned to write and read. Many people have donated time, money, and original family furnishings, and the Florencourt Sisters, Louise and Frances, keep the aim true to the writer. It’s a partnership between many that works for the good of all.

My small donation was to purchase a few books before we left and the friendly and knowledgeable guide closed the doors for the day on Flannery’s childhood home. One came highly recommended — The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit Of Being. The guide told me if I want to learn about writing, read Flannery’s letters. I highly recommend them. Flannery called herself an “innocent speller” and I’m encouraged to see the humility she embodied through her casual misspellings and religious letter writing.

Before she flew back to Minneapolis earlier this week, Liz and I started reading the letters out loud to one another. My favorite time was sitting over Clarks Hill in the sultry afternoon heat, barely able to move, with the neighbor’s peacocks welting out their prehistoric caw in the distance. Flannery loved peacocks. In fact, she loved all birds, domestic and wild. Her letters are full of fowl references and a wicked Southern sense of humor that rattles my funny bone (I can relate, having grown up with it myself).

Lafayette Square, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

The Habit Of Being is a thick tome. I’m reading her letters in chronological order from beginning to end. The sweat that pours off of me each day I’ve spent in the South only reinforces childhood memories of the slowness with which people move, the Southern drawl that rolls off the front of the mouth, the sweet iced tea and grits, the longing for that one next simple breeze.

Flannery died in 1964 at the age of 39. She suffered from lupus. It did not keep her from writing two collections of short stories (A Good Man Is Hard To Find, Everything That Rises Must Converge) and two novels (Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away), and winning the O. Henry Award three times as well as being the posthumous winner of the National Book Award in 1972. Flannery lives on in her work and the lively letters edited by her close friend, Sally Fitzgerald.

  Savannh Gray Brick, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.    Savannh Gray Brick, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.    Savannh Gray Brick, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Though she doesn’t write much about Savannah or her childhood in the letters, Flannery calls Cousin Katie’s home on Lafayette Square “the house I grew up in.” She slept in the room on the second floor over the kitchen with bright windows that look out over what was then a dirt courtyard. At the age of five, she taught a chicken, a buff Cochin Bantam, to walk backwards in that very courtyard (there are 15 seconds of movie to prove it). And she makes this comment in a letter to Maryat Lee: “I think you probably collect most of your experiences as a child — when you really had nothing else to do — and then transfer it to other situations when you write.”

It is to this end, that our childhood homes hold the weight of being. Think about the house you grew up in. Is it surrounded by farmland, an urban parking lot, mountains, desert, rivers or streams?

I travel back to the quicksand, red clay, and gangly pines of the Southern hometown where I spent my childhood (same years as Flannery, birth to 13) in hopes of learning what I am made of. I always drive by the house I grew up in. It’s a part of me that has taken years to understand. I’m still gathering like a maniac. I’m still unraveling.

Flannery O‘Connor‘s Childhood Home, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Flannery O’Connor’s Childhood Home, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008,
all photos © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Post Script:

We were not permitted to take photographs inside the Flannery O’Connor home except in one location. I did capture a few images of the writer there. But I think I’ll save them for Part II. Part I is about home and the sense of place that surrounds us growing up. In Part II, I hope to talk more about what I’ve learned about Flannery from her letters, visiting her Savannah home, and the way she lived her life.

State of Georgia Historic Plaque, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.State of Georgia Historic Plaque, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.State of Georgia Historic Plaque, Savannah, Georgia, July 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

-posted on red Ravine, Friday, August 1st, 2008

-related to posts: Homing Instinct You Can’t Go Back – 15 Haiku, Memories Of The Savannah, Excavating Memories, Book Talk — Do You Let Yourself Read?

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What should we name the store?

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this. How about …  “VALLEY SUPERMARKET”?

SUPERmarket?? It’s not a supermarket. Smith’s in Taos is a supermarket. Albertsons in Santa Fe is a supermarket.

No, no, no, wait a second. This is big, man, this is huge. Our store is gonna be the biggest one this town has seen. It’s a supermarket, man.

Dude, truth in advertising. We can’t call it something it’s not!

Oh, and what do you think it is…  a mini-mart??

Exactly! “Valley Mini-Mart.”

Give me a break! We’re gonna stock, what?, six brands of bread! Circle K doesn’t stock six brands of bread…7/11 probably carries two.

Well, I’m not gonna call it a supermarket. Just ain’t gonna happen.

Well, it ain’t no mini-mart, that’s for sure.

OK, wait, we can make this work. Come on, we’ve gotten this far, haven’t we? Surely we can come up with something that satisfies both of us.

Yeah, you’re right. We’ll figure it out. We always do. Come on, man, I’ll buy you a Coke at the Gas-A-Mat and we can think about it some more.

Super-ettes and other Oxymorons, grocery store sign in Española, NM, photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

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           Minerva, 1889 - 1890, Roman goddess of poetry, music, wisdom, and warriors (Greek, Athena), bronze sculpture by Norwegian American artist, Jakob H. F. Fjelde, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Minerva, 1889 – 1890, Roman goddess of poetry, music, wisdom, and warriors (Greek, Athena), bronze sculpture by Norwegian American artist, Jakob H. F. Fjelde, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



The first black hole was discovered in the same decade that Star Wars was released (and not by Columbo, Charlie’s Angels, or Sonny and Cher). It was the 1970’s, and you were probably wearing Halston ultrasuede or cashmere, leisure suits, platform shoes, string bikinis, and hot pants. Or maybe you were more the Birkenstock type, sporting tie-dye jeans, crocheted vests (think orange and lime green), and bouncy, wide bell-bottoms.

In 1977, there was a world shortage of coffee and prices soared from 50¢ a pound to $3.20 (isn’t it around $12 a pound today?). You might have been playing a lightshow guitar (imitating Pink Floyd), or listening to the Stones, Roberta Flack, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Tony Orlando (knock 3 times), or Gladys Knight and the Pips, on your new Sony Walkman.


The Beatles broke up, Jack Nicholson flew over the cuckoo’s nest, Harold and Maud were the May/December romance of the big screen, playing next to The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, and Saturday Night Fever. Yes, John Travolta was hot (even before his Pulp Fiction days). So was Billie Jean King, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, and Jesus Christ Superstar (did you see Andrew Lloyd Webber on American Idol?).

If you are under 21 and voted during the 2008 Presidential Primary, you can thank the 1970’s — the voting age in the U.S. was lowered to 18. And Paper Mate introduced a new erasable ink pen, allowing you to wipe out those pesky voting mistakes in a single swipe.

But don’t jump too fast. It was before the age of the hanging chad. The Apple II computer had just hit the market, the first email took a lumbering ride across ARPANet (central backbone during the development of the Internet), and Intel’s first microprocessor 4004 (1971) contained 2,300 transistors (today’s will run 3,000 times faster).

            Study In Light, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Study In Light, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Study In Light, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

In the 1970’s Annie Hall was all the rage, along with Club Med, the VCR, streaking (yes, I tried it), and Pet Rocks (move over Sony the Pug!). Patty Hearst wielded her first machine gun, Son of Sam ran loose in the streets, Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, murdered 1-2 million people, and the Ohio National Guard shot and killed 4 college students at Kent State during an anti-war demonstration. Doesn’t that just blow your mind?

In the Me Decade, Elvis died of an overdose. So did Sid Vicious and Jim Morrison. Life and Look magazines were defunct by the end of the decade, along with cigarette advertising on TV, the draft, the VW bug (so they thought), and the Vietnam War. There was a recession in 1974 on top of an oil crisis in 1973 (what’s changed?). And TV would never be the same: Bonanza ended after 14 years; Gunsmoke after 20; and Ed Sullivan called it quits after 23 years.

You don’t see that kind of longevity in 21st Century media. Nor would you ever see televised daily proceedings of a national debacle like Richard Nixon and Watergate.


The world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in England, CAT-scans were introduced, the Heimlich maneuver perfected, and popular 70’s culture was buzzing with new words and phrases:  Murphy’s Law, Pro-choice, pumping iron, Punk rock, Rubik’s cube. Don’t rock the boat!

Money, money, money — 180,000 Americans were millionaires by the mid-70’s, an average hospital stay would set you back $81 a day, and a First Class postage stamp was 6¢ (Airmail, 10¢). The Metropolitan Museum paid $5.5 million for a Diego Velázquez portrait, while the Susan B. Anthony dollar took a political nosedive.

Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post in the 70’s, and Cosmopolitan blossomed with Helen Gurley Brown at the helm. But literature (and a few oddball tomes thrown in for good measure) still boomed under the watchful eye of Minerva, Roman goddess of poetry and wisdom.

You can tell a lot about a person by the books they read. You can also tell a lot about a culture. In the 1970’s, here’s what America was reading.

  Minerva, Goddess Of Poetry, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Minerva, Goddess Of Poetry, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Minerva, Goddess Of Poetry, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Minerva, Goddess Of Poetry, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

1 9 7 0 ‘ s – B E S T S E L L E R S


  1. Love Story; Oliver’s Story, Erich Segal
  2. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles
  3. Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway
  4. Travels with My Aunt, Graham Greene
  5. Rich Man, Poor Man, Irwin Shaw
  6. Wheels; Overload, Arthur Hailey
  7. The Exorcist, William P. Blatty
  8. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth
  9. Message from Malaga, Helen MacInnes
  10. Rabbit Redux, John Updike
  11. The Betsy, Harold Robbins
  12. The Winds of War, Herman Wouk
  13. Jonathan Livingston Seagull; Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach
  14. The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth
  15. My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
  16. Captains and the Kings, Taylor Caldwell
  17. Once Is Not Enough; Delores, Jacqueline Susann
  18. Breakfast of Champions; Jailbird; Slapstick: or, Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut
  19. Burr; 1876, Gore Vidal
  20. The Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart
  21. Evening in Byzantium, Irwin Shaw
  22. The Drifters; Centennial; Chesapeake, James A. Michener
  23. The Matlock Paper, Robert Ludlum
  24. The Billion Dollar Sure Thing, Paul E. Erdman
  25. Watership Down, Richard Adams
  26. Jaws; The Deep, Peter Benchley
  27. The Dogs of War, Frederick Forsyth
  28. The Fan Club, Irving Wallace
  29. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, Margaret Craven
  30. Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow
  31. The Moneychangers, Arthur Hailey
  32. Curtain; Sleeping Murder, Agatha Christie
  33. Looking for Mister Goodbar, Judith Rossner
  34. The Choirboys, Joseph Wambaugh
  35. The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins
  36. The Greek Treasure: A Biographical Novel of Henry and Sophia Schliemann, Irving Stone
  37. The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton
  38. Shogun, James Clavell
  39. Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow
  40. Trinity, Leon Uris
  41. A Stranger in the Mirror, Bloodlines, Sidney Sheldon
  42. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien; Christopher Tolkien
  43. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough
  44. How To Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong
  45. Delta of Venus: Erotica, Anaïs Nin
  46. War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk
  47. Fools Die, Mario Puzo
  48. Scruples, Judith Krantz
  49. Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
  50. The Dead Zone, Stephen King
  51. The Third World War: August 1985, Gen. Sir John Hackett, et al.
  52. Smiley’s People, John Le Carré


 Goddess Of Wisdom, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Goddess Of Wisdom, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Goddess Of Wisdom, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Goddess Of Wisdom, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


1 9 7 0 ‘ s – B E S T S E L L E R S


  1. Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask, David Reuben, M.D.
  2. The New English Bible
  3. The Sensuous Woman, “J”
  4. Better Homes and Gardens Fondue and Tabletop Cooking; Better Homes and Gardens Blender Cook Book; Better Homes and Gardens Home Canning Cookbook
  5. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, William Morris
  6. Body Language, Julius Fast
  7. In Someone’s Shadow; Caught in the Quiet, Rod McKuen
  8. The Sensous Man, “M”
  9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
  10. I’m O.K., You’re O.K., Thomas Harris
  11. Any Woman Can!, David Reuben, M.D.
  12. Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer
  13. Eleanor and Franklin, Joseph P. Lash
  14. Wunnerful, Wunnerful!, Lawrence Welk
  15. Honor Thy Father, Gay Talese
  16. Fields of Wonder, Rod McKuen
  17. The Living Bible, Kenneth Taylor
  18. Open Marriage, Nena and George O’Neill
  19. Harry S. Truman, Margaret Truman
  20. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, Robert C. Atkins
  21. The Peter Prescription, Laurence J. Peter
  22. A World Beyond, Ruth Montgomery
  23. Journey to Ixtlan; Tales of Power; The Second Ring of Power, Carlos Castaneda
  24. The Joy of Sex; More Joy: A Lovemaking Companion to The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort
  25. Weight Watchers Program Cookbook, Jean Nidetch
  26. How To Be Your Own Best Friend, Mildred Newman, et al.
  27. The Art of Walt Disney, Christopher Finch
  28. Alistair Cooke’s America, Alistair Cooke
  29. Sybil, Flora R. Schreiber
  30. The Total Woman, Marabel Morgan
  31. All the President’s Men; The Final Days, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
  32. You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis, Harry Browne
  33. All Things Bright and Beautiful; All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot
  34. The Bermuda Triangle, Charles Berlitz with J. Manson Valentine
  35. Angels: God’s Secret Agents, Billy Graham
  36. Winning Through Intimidation; Looking Out for #1; Restoring the American Dream, Robert Ringer
  37. TM: Discovering Energy and Overcoming Stress, Harold H. Bloomfield
  38. Sylvia Porter’s Money Book, Sylvia Porter
  39. Total Fitness in 30 Minutes a Week, Laurence E. Morehouse and Leonard Gross
  40. Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon, Theodore H. White
  41. Roots, Alex Haley
  42. Your Erroneous Zones; Pulling Your Own Strings, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
  43. Passages: The Predictable Crises of Adult Life, Gail Sheehy
  44. The Grass ls Always Greener over the Septic Tank; If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries–What Am I Doing in the Pits?; Aunt Erma’s Cope Book, Erma Bombeck
  45. Blind Ambition: The White House Years, John Dean
  46. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, Shere Hite
  47. The Right and the Power: The Prosecution of Watergate, Leon Jaworski
  48. The Book of Lists, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace
  49. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan
  50. The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson
  51. Gnomes, Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet
  52. The Complete Book of Running, James Fixx
  53. Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford
  54. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon
  55. Faeries, Brian Froud and Alan Lee
  56. The Muppet Show Book, the Muppet People
  57. The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, Herman Tarnower, M.D., and Samm Sinclair Baker
  58. The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise, Nathan Pritikin and Patrick McGrady Jr.
  59. White House Years, Henry Kissinger
  60. Lauren Bacall By Myself, Lauren Bacall
  61. The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong

     Study In Light, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.         Study In Light, downtown Minneapolis Central Library,<br /> Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
Study In Light, downtown Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, April 24th, 2008

-Resources:  1970’s Bestsellers List from Cader Books, Writer’s Dream Tools, and The Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library

-related to posts: The 1950’s – What Was America Reading?, The 1960’s — What Was America Reading?, and Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read?

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        On The Road, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

On The Road, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

In September 2007, I finished reading On The Road. It was the day the book turned 50. I have this thing for Kerouac. I consider him the James Dean of writers. I guess I’m easily swayed by myth.

On The Road didn’t sweep me off my feet like James Baldwin’s Another Country or Giovanni’s Room. And it wasn’t understated and elegant like John Williams and Stoner. The book dragged in places. The relationships were passionate but doomed. And I couldn’t understand why Sal clung to the inconsiderate, egotistical Dean like the stabilizing, wagging tail of a kite.

The story didn’t find ground for me until I found myself sweeping across the yellow prairies of Nebraska, pounding through the arid, western Colorado desert, and driving over the mountainous Continental Divide. I like Kerouac because he was a boundary buster. He helped other boundary busters – the artists, writers, poets, and musicians of his time – find their voices. He changed the definition of writer.

There has been a lot of hoopla over On The Road in the last year. Primarily because the 120-foot, $2.4 million dollar scroll he wrote it on (over 20 days in April of 1951) is touring the country. But Jack didn’t write On The Road in 3 weeks. He’d been gathering, composting, scribbling in a pocket notebook, and dreaming about it for years. He was a disciplined writer who sat down between travels and wrote with a vengeance. He had been living this story a long, long time.

On the eve of the book’s publication, Kerouac was so poor he had to borrow money for a bus ticket to New York from Joyce Johnson, his girlfriend at the time. When the book became famous, he’d been done with it for several years. And after he hit it big, Johnson recalls mobs around him at parties: “Women wanted him to make love to them and all the men wanted to fight him.”

         Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.     Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.     Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.     Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

One of the best Kerouac accounts I’ve seen is the Audrey Sprenger interview by Jeffrey Brown that aired on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, September 5th, 2007. Sprenger takes an honest look at Kerouac, beyond the myth, to see the writer as he was:

I think the continuing popularity of the book stems from the fact that Jack Kerouac was brave enough to defy social convention and comfort to do quite a radical thing, which was to simply be in the world and write about it. He was a deeply, deeply disciplined writer who was committed to documenting America every day as it was lived by people, and I think that he really captured the ways that people lived and spoke. And that is what he was committed to as an artist, trying to develop a new way of American writing which would be evocative of how people actually lived, whether or not it followed the rules of grammar or literary convention.

  -Audrey Sprenger, Sociologist, interview from On The Road, Kerouac’s 50th Anniversary Celebrated

Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.   Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.   Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.   Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

Kerouac died young, in 1969, at age 47. Was it alcohol, stress, Benzedrine, fame? Perhaps a deadly combination. We may never know. But On the Road continues to sell over 100,000 copies every year. I count myself among the minions.

Not all reviews are favorable. Suzanne Vega wasn’t a big Kerouac fan even after her Book Of Dreams. Herbert Gold didn’t give On The Road a good review at its release in 1957. But I tend to fall in the same camp as Kerouac scholar Douglas Brinkley, and can get behind what he says in a 2002 NPR article by Renee Montagne, Kerouac’s On The Road:

If you read On the Road, it’s a valentine to the United States. All this is pure poetry for almost a boy’s love for his country that’s just gushing in its adjectives and descriptions. You know, Kerouac used to say, ‘Anybody can make Paris holy, but I can make Topeka holy.’

I’m saving the best for last. Like the writers before him, Kerouac wrote haiku. He loved to do readings in Jazz clubs in New York. You can hear him recite Some American Haikus (a few of my favorites: the bottoms of my shoes, nightfall, in the morning frost) and read the history of his recorded haiku at Kerouac Speaks. It’s a gift to hear a writer step inside his own voice.

Jack Kerouac, On The Road, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved. 

After decades of never making it past the first few chapters, I’ve finally completed On The Road. And discovered Kerouac’s haiku in the process. It only took me 30 years. Who knows what my blocks were to reading it. Every book has its time.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Part III:

In the spring of 1949 I had a few dollars saved from my GI education checks and I went to Denver, thinking of settling down there. I saw myself in Middle America, a patriarch. I was lonesome. Nobody was there – no Babe Rawlins, Ray Rawlins, Tim Gray, Betty Gray, Roland Major, Dean Moriarty, Carlo Marx, Ed Dunkel, Roy Johnson, Tommy Snark, nobody.

I wandered around Curtis Street and Larimer Street, worked a while in the wholesale fruit market where I almost got hired in 1947 – the hardest job of my life; at one point the Japanese kids and I had to move a whole boxcar a hundred feet down the rail by hand with a jackgadget that made it move a quarter-inch with each yank. I hugged watermelon crates over the ice floor of reefers into the blazing sun, sneezing. In God’s name and under the stars, what for?

At dusk I walked. I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth. I passed the Windsor Hotel, where Dean Moriarty had lived with his father in the depression thirties, and as of yore I looked everywhere for the sad and fabled tinsmith of my mind. Either you find someone who looks like your father in places like Montana or you look for a friend’s father where he is no more.

    –On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957

-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, November 29th, 2007

-related to post, Kerouac Goes To War

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Norman Mailer died this morning. Here is a quote from Mailer:

I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.

Words to write by.

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 Writer’s Hands IV, hands of Bel Canto author, Ann Patchett, signing a copy of her latest book, Run, Fitzgerald Theater, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Writer’s Hands IV, hands of Bel Canto author, Ann Patchett, signing a copy of her latest book, Run, Fitzgerald Theater, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Part I.

Fitzgerald Theater (Inside), night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty; A Friendship, on MPR's Talking Volumes, St. Paul. Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

On a rainy October night, inside the haunted Fitzgerald Theater, Ann Patchett held the audience rapt. She has created a huge life for herself. A writer’s life. Awed by her confidence and poise, I was surprised to find she is also funny, and witty. Bel Canto was the novel that put her over the top. And earned her the alias, “Opera Girl.” But it was the memoir, Truth & Beauty, that drew me in.

The Write Kind Of Jazz, live jazz quartet, night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty; A Friendship, on MPR's Talking Volumes, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved My friend, Teri, read the book for one of Natalie Goldberg’s workshops. Then attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last summer (where much of the book takes place). She suggested I read it. Along with Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.

Suddenly, it was October, and Teri, Liz, and I grabbed dinner at Mickey’s Diner before walking across Exchange Street into the bustling, sold-out crowd at the Fitzgerald.

We found split seats tucked way in the left corner, right under the balcony. Opening with an airline joke about her lost luggage, Ann Patchett sat across from Kerri Miller wearing black Jazzin' With Ann Patchett & Kerri Miller, Ann Patchett & Kerri Miller enjoying the live jazz quartet at the Fitzerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. jeans, black boots, and a burnt orange scarf. Casual. It didn’t matter. Her comments on grief and loss stilled the room. It was her grieving process for Lucy that became Truth & Beauty. There was no tour when the book came out. She seemed happy to talk about the healing.

Part II.

At times, Ann had the audience in stitches. Other moments, there were tears. Later she would joke with us, pose for a few photos, and sign our books. She seemed glad to be there.

I listened with hungry ears. Teri and I nudged each other anytime we heard some snippet of wisdom, another link in the chain of making our way as writers. Liz took notes in the seat behind us (thanks, Liz!). And every once in a while we would explode into laughter at one of Ann’s jokes.

I soaked it all up. What did I learn?

  • She doesn’t have to write every day. She has no rituals or rules.
  • She doesn’t write between books. She rests.
  • After writing her books, she lets them go. She doesn’t read them again. She doesn’t even remember Bel Canto. She’s moved on.
  • The idea that’s cookin’ may not be the book at all.
  • Writing a novel is about faking it with authority.
  • Two words: pen pal. She has close pen pals.
  • A new definition of pornography was forged when Clemson University (in South Carolina) strenuously objected to Truth & Beauty being on the freshman class syllabus, claiming it was filled with “pornography.” There was a protest; Ann needed a bodyguard to make her speech.
  • Profound, close relationships between two women scare a lot of people.
  • Run, Bambi, Run!
  • The center cannot hold; the falcon cannot hear the falconer.
  • When you write a new book and go on tour, people really want you to talk about the last book because that’s the one they last read. (In this case, the last two books.)
  • She met her best friend and writer, Elizabeth McCracken, during the living of Truth & Beauty. She trusts her with her life.
  • She writes 98 percent for herself, 2 percent for Elizabeth, and no one else.
  • You can’t put love on the scales.
  • In her mid 30’s, she had no knowledge of opera, had never been to an opera, had never listened to an opera. But after Bel Canto, when something goes on in the world of opera, The New York Times calls “Opera Girl.”
  • Research brings her a lot of joy. She hates magic. Why? Magic is the most misogynist art form in the world
  • No experience matches the moment she finished her first published novel, The Patron Saint Of Liars.
  • She was two blocks away from the World Trade Center when it went down. She was holding someone’s hand. 

Part III.

               The Fitzgerald Theater (Outside), night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

The Fitzgerald Theater (Outside), night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, on MPR’s Talking Volumes, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

What I want to say is that Ann was inspiring. She didn’t pull any punches. She was at the same time vulnerable and strong. Very strong. She knows how to take the criticism of her readers, and the country. She mentors others, gives back. But also seems like she guards her time with her life.

The day after we saw her at the Fitz, she flew to Dallas. Or somewhere in the heart of Texas. The tour went on. I smiled when I thought about her missing luggage. I wondered if Run would do well. But I could tell it wouldn’t matter all that much. She’s already moved on. She’s looking in the eyes of a stranger, waiting for the next book. She’s doing what she’s wanted to do since she was 5 years old. She never wavered for a moment. She’s a writer.

In the moment of our death, we are closest to our life. And the person who is with us at that moment is the person that we desperately need. Because they’re the only person who really understands what we’ve been through.

  – Ann Patchett, Fitzgerald Theater, October 16th, 2007

Part IV.

Post Script:  Don’t take my word for any of this. To hear Ann speak about ichthyology, magic, Bel Canto, bodyguards, Opera Girl (and to find out whose hand she was holding), listen to her talk in its entirety at the link below (you might even recognize a familiar voice during the audience Q&A):

Live appearance: Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Patchett discussed “Run” with Kerri Miller and the Talking Volumes audience at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Related links you might enjoy:

Seattle Arts and Lectures: Elizabeth McCracken & Ann Patchett
Novelists, 5th Avenue Theatre, January 10, 2000

StarTribune Article on Ann Patchett
Setting Her Own Pace, October 2007
(you may have to register and log in to read)

-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

-related to posts: WRITING TOPIC: WHAT HAVE YOU LOST & F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Birthday Celebration

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What Have You Lost, Rainpainting Series, outside the Fitzgerald Theater, downtown, St. Paul, Minnesota, night of Ann Patchett, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

If you want to know someone, truly know someone, ask them about the things they have lost. No matter how long it’s been. It doesn’t matter. The things we have lost stay with us.

These are the words of Ann Patchett, author of The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, and Truth & Beauty: A Friendship. She wrote the memoir Truth & Beauty to grieve the loss of her friend, Lucy Grealy. The book was her grieving process.

What are the things you have lost? Have you ever lost face, your faith, time. When did you lose your virginity? What about your innocence. Did you lose your childhood, your dreams, someone close to your heart? Did you lose your keys the day you hiked the ocean cliffs of an Oregon beach and were left stranded in the dark.

Make a list of the things you have lost. Choose 1 or 2 items off of your list and do a 15 minute writing practice on each. Let yourself grieve. Take the time. What do you have to lose?

Grief is a debt you owe. After you pay, you can get to the joy.

-Ann Patchett on Talking Volumes at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007

-posted on red Ravine Sunday, October 28th, 2007

-related to post, The Parking Is Free

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  Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge      Rob Wilder
  Images provided by Anna Crowe, Bantam Dell Publishing Group, Random
  House, Inc.; Cover Art © 2007 by Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Picturequest; Cover
  Design by Lynn Andreozzi. Photo of author Robert Wilder © 2007 by Jennifer
  Esperanza. All rights reserved.

On Thursday, September 13, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed Robert Wilder, author of the recently released Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Part 1 of that interview can be found here. Part 2 begins below. We’d like to thank Robert Wilder and Anna Crowe for helping make this happen.

Interview With Robert Wilder – Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge: An Irreverent View of What It Really Means to Be a Teacher Today

red Ravine: So, Rob, I want to talk a little bit about your voice. In your writing, it’s edgy, humorous … have you always written with that particular voice?

Robert: No. You know, I wrote fiction for 16 years before I started writing non-fiction, and when I wrote fiction I always wanted to be the smartest kid in the class. I wanted to be a luminary like all those writers I loved. So I would write, wanting to be something that I wasn’t. I’d put on a voice that wasn’t really authentic.

What I found in my teaching, talking to students as well as telling stories to people, was that those two voices were really different. And I really liked the voice I used telling stories and being in the classroom. But I didn’t give myself permission to use it in my writing.

I felt I had to be smarter than I was, and what I realize now is it hurt my writing. I didn’t trust my own voice and it made my writing really watered down. There wasn’t a lot of energy in my fiction, I see now. But once I started writing stories about my family, where I didn’t really think anything was going to happen with (the stories), I wrote them for the pure joy of writing them and because I thought they were funny and I was interested in some of the tensions and interesting complications in them. Because I didn’t really think they were going to go anywhere, I gave myself permission to use all the parts of my voice that I used during the day.

I’m going to have a reading … and one of the things that’s interesting about writing is that, obviously, I use profanity and irreverence and things like that, and for me that’s sort of like a painter. I allow myself to use a lot of different colors and some of the colors that a lot of people would not use in their painting.

I’d like to use a wide range of language. I would like to be able to quote Shakespeare and make a potty joke if I think it’s funny or relevant. It’s the way I experience the world. During any given day, I hear very low humored, low language, and very high, and I like that juxtaposition. I don’t like the same note over and over.

I like complications of low notes, high notes, and all in-between. The voices in the book are closer to my voice in real life and the way I really think. And when I was writing before, that was the way I wanted to be rather than the way I was.

I had to get over that I’m not going to be Philip Roth or I’m not going to be Cormac McCarthy and I’m not going to be Toni Morrison. That I have to be who I am and be okay with that.

red Ravine: I was going to ask you — Are you that way in person? — but I actually just finished the Sub-Par chapter where you’re talking about taking your daughter, Poppy, out of the sleazy substitute guy’s class and it sounds like … you’re pretty funny in real life.

Robert: There are a lot of writers who write funny … like Augusten Burroughs … but if you met him, you wouldn’t think he’s funny at all. There are a lot of writers like that. Humor’s been part of my life ever since I was a kid, and it’s the way I deal with situations. It’s the way I put my daughter at ease and my son at ease. It’s the way I put my students at ease.

I think a lot of times, things for me are funny. A lot of people, maybe they get angry, but I think life is funny. I really do. I think there are a lot of things that we can stop and look at and say, “Isn’t that nuts?” But also that’s a celebration of how wonderful life is, you know.

I do joke around in class a lot. I use humor as a way to bridge the kids from their movie situations to books or a way that if there’s awkwardness in high school, which there is on a daily basis, I just say it’s funny, we’re all in it together, it’s okay. So it is more like who I am.

Some of the stuff, obviously, I don’t go that far in the class or with my children. I’ll think about how nuts or irreverent it is; obviously there’s a time and a place for all that. But in my writing, as you guys know through writing practice, I will allow myself to go where I need to go. And not to be editing or censoring myself as I go because that will kill any art.

What’s fun is I can go as far as I want and then … my editor and I eventually have a conversation about how far is it and, for a piece specifically, is this too far? Or do I need to push it a little bit? Those are great conversations to have.

red Ravine: When did you know, Rob, that you were a writer?

Robert: (laughs) That’s a hard question. It’s hard to answer that question. I still doubt it, you know. I think a lot of writers still doubt it. I still have to remind myself that I’m a writer. People meet me and ask me what I do, and I always say teacher first, just because it’s a more easy-to-understand profession.

That’s a really hard question. On some days you wonder whether you have more in you and other days you think you could write about something every day of your life. So I think I struggle with that identity, even with the books.

I think I’m slowly realizing that writing is my profession, it’s what I profess. But I can’t say I ever feel like one. I think a lot of writers feel this way, that the other guy is the writer (laughs). The other person has got 3 books or the other person is in the Times instead of this magazine.

But what I’ve done is give myself permission to say, “I’m going to write the rest of my life, no matter what the situation is.” I’d rather look again at writing as a practice that I like to do and that I want to keep doing for the rest of my life, no matter what happens, rather than earning the nameplate or the faceplate title “writer.” I’d rather say that I’m a “practitioner” and that I’m going to continue to practice no matter what happens.

That feels better to me because then I don’t feel like I have to live up to anything. Which I think if you say you’re a writer, sometimes, for a lot of people, they feel like they have to hit a homerun every time they step up to the plate.

red Ravine: Do you remember the first thing you wrote?

Robert: I wanted to do stuff like that as a kid, but we didn’t do those things. My dad was a banker and my mom was a stay-home mom. I remember trying to write stories as a kid and not being encouraged to do it. I took a cartooning class, I remember, when I was really little and it was fun. But I didn’t have talent in terms of drawing, so I was assigned to do the bricks in the back of the cartoon (laughs).

I was a pretty late bloomer. I wrote in high school; I had a creative writing class that allowed me to write. But you know there was no place for it, and I can say that honestly, it wasn’t until graduate school or when I moved to Santa Fe to write that I was ever really encouraged to write.

When you grow up in the suburbs of New York in the 80’s like I did, they didn’t want young boys to be writers. They wanted you to be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor, right? Or a soccer player. Or they weren’t looking at boys to be anything artistically inclined.

Even in college, I felt like I wasn’t included. A lot of these kids came from high powered boarding schools where there was great writing going on and they were starting these magazines and I wasn’t really included in that. I would be the kid with the soccer player hair cut in the back of the reading when Richard Wilbur came to Wesleyan. I’d be the kid in the back of the class. So I can’t say until I was almost in my 20’s and 30’s was I actually encouraged to pursue any art form at all.

Whereas my own children and friends’ children, especially living in Santa Fe, are. A friend of mine whose kid, they live in NYC, … came to visit us and we took (the son) to ride a horse and we said, “Wow, you’re going to be a cowboy.” He said, “No, I don’t want to be a cowboy! I want to be an artist.” I thought that was so cool that he thought at 3 years old that one of his professions might be an artist.

That never would have occurred to me at his age. My son and daughter both feel like they could be artists or writers or painters or musicians or whatever. I never thought that as a kid. I think it’s great now, but that wasn’t the truth for me.

red Ravine: Who were your writing mentors?

Robert: Natalie (Goldberg) is probably my main mentor, just because being with her and teaching with her has taught me so much about, not only writing, but also how to be a writer. In other words, how do you deal with all the “stuff” that comes with writing. She’s been an unbelievable ally and mentor and teacher. I can’t say enough about what she taught me and what she continues to teach me as a friend.

I have other writing mentors: Kevin McIlvoy in Las Cruces is a terrific writer but an unbelievable teacher. And Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell who are a writing couple, which is unfathomable to me how they can get so many amazing things done and be married and have children. So those people are all great writing mentors for me.

And also I think it’s important, not only writing mentors teaching you to talk about books and syntax and all this stuff, but I think it’s important to have mentors who have a lifestyle that’s similar to your own. So in other words, if you’re a writer and you have children, it’s great to be around other writers who have children. Not to say if you don’t have children, you can’t be around them, but it’s nice to know.

A lot of people now come to me and say, “How do you get all this done?” I like sitting down with other writers. I met with a graduate student, (former student) of mine who’s about to go into elementary education and early childhood. She said, “I’m so concerned about not being able to write.” I like showing her how to do it, if I can do it, she absolutely can do it. And to give her permission to do that.

I think it’s important to have people who have similar lifestyles who can show you where they get their work done and that it’s possible to be a really good parent and a good husband and a good community member and a writer. That you can do all that and there’s someone there cheering you on.

I always tell my students, my adult students, to email me if they’re ever getting down … you know, I’m not getting the laundry done, whatever it is. I’m happy to give them a little pep talk and say, “Here’s what I did today. I’m totally with you but, maybe if you try to do this. Or it’s totally okay that you take an hour a week to go write. It’s fine.”

It’s great to have people in your corner who are like that. And I’m lucky to have them as well.

red Ravine: That’s great. And you’re publishing with one of the best major publishers, Random House. How did you break through with this particular publisher and not some small publisher?

Robert: I’m almost hesitant to tell the story. It seems unreal and it’s not typical. What happened was, as I said, I was writing 16 years as apprentice writing and then I started writing the Daddy Needs A Drink stuff and it got a lot of attention. My current agent saw this piece in “Salon” from Daddy Needs A Drink and basically convinced me there was a book in it. I didn’t believe him.

Ultimately, he found me. And convinced me that I had a voice that needed to be out there. That there was a book in this. … He saw in me, or in the work, that there was something going on and that I really should pursue that.

Once he showed me how you write a proposal and how you do all these things, he showed all these people and convinced them, too. We ended up going with Bantam Dell. … We signed on with them for two books because I did tell them about the idea for the teacher book which they liked even though I hadn’t written it yet.

It just happened that way. And you know, it’s hard because it sounds like the old Hollywood where you go out and you get discovered. But I want to remind everybody when I tell that story that I was working for 16 years before that. It wasn’t all of a sudden I thought one day, “Wow, I’d love to sell a book.” I had an apprenticeship for a long time before I actually even thought about putting together a book.

red Ravine: Well, I’m watching the clock. We have about three more questions and I think we can get to them.

Robert: No worries, I’ll tell you when I have to go.

red Ravine: Okay. We’d like to know what you’re working on next.

Robert: What I’m working on next, which is going to be a big hard project, is: I’m going to work on what it was like growing up with my dad and my brothers, you know, living the Wilder life. What it was like for me to lose my mom at a relatively young age and then move into the clan of men. You know, what is it like to live with a dad and three brothers without a female figure in the house.

I think it’s going to be a little, uh, obviously it will be funny, but funny in a more poignant way, I hope. So I’m mining a lot of the early stuff with my family. A lot of people love it when I write about my dad and my brothers, and there’s a lot there. So that’s my next project and I think it’s going to kick my ass to be honest. But, I’m sort of looking forward to it.

red Ravine: Has there been anything you’ve been afraid to write?

Robert: Yeah, there are some things you’re afraid to write … like some of the darker stuff from teaching. … I would love to write sometime what it’s like to be a teacher and have your students die. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit over my years.

I’ve had a few students who’ve died in car accidents and so forth, and it’s a very interesting thing as a teacher. I know a few people have talked about it, how you’re not their friends and you’re not their parents, but you’re really close to them.

I read pages and pages of intimate things from these kids that their parents never get access to. I also spend a lot of time with them. I get to know them in ways a lot of people don’t. And then when they die or they leave or they get in trouble, you don’t know really where to place that in the emotional file cabinet.

I’d like to write about that. I haven’t figured out a way to do that yet. But it’s something I’ve been a little afraid of, and I haven’t figured out the right way to tell those stories. But I know a lot of teachers who have suffered like I’ve suffered with losing students.

You’re standing by yourself at the funeral. You’re not with the parents and family and you’re not with the buddies. You’re somewhere else. I’m interested in that. And I’m not sure how to do that yet but it’s something I would like to do.

Those are the kinds of things I need to write. As well as, I haven’t written a lot about my mother dying and what that was like being thrown into that. And I’m going to take my own advice and throw myself into the next project.

red Ravine: Do you struggle about revealing any personal information about your family or even students, sort of worrying that they might see themselves somewhere?

Robert: I do. I think about it quite a bit and my goal is, I’m never trying to hurt anybody’s feelings. If I think it’s going to be embarrassing to them, I’ll change a few details to protect their privacy. I think that’s fine. I don’t think that’s a James Frey thing.

If I think they’re going to be embarrassed, the other thing I’ll do is check with people. I’ll check with people and say, “Look, I’d really like to write about this and how do you feel about that?” Most of the time, they’re okay with it. In fact, I always think people are going to get upset. Nine times out of ten people ask me why they weren’t in the book (laughter).

Or I wrote something about a former headmaster who’s a teacher and a colleague of mine. I wrote a description of him and he loved it. It’s interesting; it wasn’t complimentary, but he thought it was right. Most of the time when people struggle a little bit, and then they read the book or they hear they might be in the book and they read it, everyone has said I’ve gotten it right. Even if they say it reminds them of something they didn’t want to remember, I don’t think anyone thinks I’m out to get them.

I don’t write tell-all books. And as for myself, I try to risk as much as I can without embarrassing my family. … The other thing is, I’m not trying to reveal stuff just to shock people. It has to fit in what you’re trying to write about. Is it organic to the piece? I think if it is organic to the piece, and you want to write about your sex life, write about your sex life. Great writers have done that.

We as readers can figure out when things are gratuitous and when they’re not. If they seem essential, even if they’re shocking, you say, “You know what, maybe I don’t want to read that kind of stuff but it’s part of the deal.” Versus “Wait, I don’t understand why this fits into this piece, I don’t get it.”

As a writer you always have to ask yourself, is this vital to the piece you’re writing? Where does this fit? How does it fit? If it fits, you’ve got to go with it. If it doesn’t, you can’t. You learn that over time. You learn that from writing, not from listening to other people.

red Ravine: We have two last questions. One is, for you, what does success as a writer look like and are you there yet?

Robert: I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit. For me, success means I would love to continue to get published and get paid a little bit. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a wealthy man from writing. So success for me is the ability to continue to write, to have time to write, where I feel like I can get away and write. That is success.

Most writers will say, when it really boils down to it, if they can continue to write for the rest of their lives, they’ll be happy. That is success for me and I think, as of now, I have it. Though I also have to fight for it.

So even though you have a book, you have to be careful not to get carried away. I mean look at Junot Diaz, who wrote Drown. It took him 10 years to write a novel … that’s a long time. And obviously he had a lot of fame and a lot of success, … a lot of speeches.

I would like to continue to be able to write for the rest of my life and have time to do that. I’d love to have more time than I have now, but I’m hoping eventually to get there. As of today, I feel like my life is pretty good. I’ve got a healthy family, we’re not in great debt, we enjoy a beautiful blue sky in New Mexico, I’m making a difference with my students…that for me is pretty successful.

I think if you start wanting all the things that you can’t have, that’s a really bad thing to do as a writer. But if you get some work done every day or every couple days, I think that, for me, is success.

red Ravine: What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?

Robert: Learning about writing practice is one of the keys. My idea for a new writer is to get your work done. I know it sounds really simplistic … and a lot of writers have said this, if you can get 500 or 1000 words done a day, that is a great thing.

Be careful if you think publishing a piece in a magazine or book will make you a happy person. Or will save your life. It won’t. It really won’t. What may help you as an artist is actually producing and writing every day. Or every couple days when you can. I think that’s the best advice people can give you.

Don’t listen to that Monkey Mind. Don’t listen to everybody telling you you can’t do it. Or you’ve got to produce something too quickly. If you can find time to do your art, then that will actually lead you and take you where you need to go. Be careful not to put the cart before the horse. I think there’s no other way to write but to write.

red Ravine: This is an excellent interview and it’s very inspiring, Rob, thanks so much for your time.

Robert: Oh, no it’s my pleasure. There are a lot of harder things to do in the world than to have people ask me questions. I appreciate you doing it.

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About the Author: Robert Wilder currently teaches high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is inspired daily. He has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and has a monthly column for the Santa Fe Reporter called “Daddy Needs A Drink.” He has been published in Salon, The Greensboro Review, The Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and regional magazines and newspapers. He is a Frank Waters fiction prizewinner and two of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives with his family in New Mexico. Visit him online at www.robertwilder.com.

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