I am a believer, in books at least. For me, fiction makes the world real.
James Salter may have said it best when he was asked why : "To write? Because all of this is going to vanish. The only thing left will be the prose and the poems, the books, what is written down. Man is very fortunate to have invented the book."
After years of writing and revising, piling up manuscript drafts, and yes, lots of rejection, it is a wonder when you finally see the book you've spent half a lifetime imagining and bringing to life, that very book stacked so nicely in the window of your neighborhood bookstore - in this case, Malaprop's in downtown Asheville.
For all the folks who can't drive to Asheville, you can also order "The Half-Life of Home" from my Sacramento publisher, Casperian Books, for a rather nice price.
Order your copy here.
Italo Calvino dives into a good book.
Call me old-fashioned or just plain stubborn.
I’ve made my living as a journalist for the past thirty years in an industry everybody keeps insisting is in its death throes. And just for fun and my own sanity, I spend my other waking hours, working words into novels, that other mode that people keep saying is dead in our Internet Age.
I still believe in books as in physical folios of pages between covers, hard or soft, and not just pixels of an e-book on your new gadget from Amazon or Apple. I still believe in bookstores, independently owned, with their walls and shelves full of brand new books just beckoning to be opened and read.
It’s a great joy to have a new book to add to that stock of imagination that independent bookstores traffic in, and to go and meet like-minded people who love to read.
I’m excited that the book tour for “Half-Life of Home” is taking shape, thanks to my hard-working publicist Bridgette Lacy. We’ve lined up readings at a few independent bookstores across the state, and more are on the way. So mark these on your calendar and plan to come on out if you have a chance:
Malaprop's, Asheville, 7 pm April 13
City Lights, Sylva, 6:30 pm, April 19
Accent on Books, 3 pm, April 27
McIntyres, Pittsboro, 11 am May 4
Blue Ridge Bookfest, Blue Ridge Community College, Flat Rock, May 18
I spent most of the weekend with a new tripod, a mic and a stablizer for the iPhone that I checked out from work, practicing my video-making skills and spinning out my thoughts about the new book. We're making a bigger push as visual storytellers at the Asheville Citizen-Times and newspapers nationwide, trying to keep print journalism relevant in the world that Steve Jobs made with iPhones and iPads and other nifty devices.
The same pressures bearing down on the journalism industry are of course revealing cracks and crevasses in the publishing industry and how we buy and read books.
After you spend years and even decades on a piece of fiction, I still find it fun to go back and remember those first images that triggered that avalanche of words, the seemingly endless drafts, and the long round of edits to bring a book into the world.
"The Half-Life of Home" makes its official debut on April 1, fittingly April Fool's Day. I won't say that writing a novel is a fool's errand in the 21st century with our culture's attention deficit disorder, but it helps to have a sense of humor and perspective.
As I say in the video (to myself and the camera's eye), I didn't come from a long line of garrulous storytellers eager to spill all the beans and family secrets to an impressionable child. I grew up in a protective silence, with all the juiciest stories going on just out of earshot, for adults only after I had gone outside to play or been sent off to bed. But in that silence, the seeds of the imagination were planted. Growing up, I had to fill in the blanks, to imagine what I didn't know for a fact, feeling in the dark for what is unseen.I think that's why I was so ripe at age 15 when I discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe, who wrote about "the buried life," what it was like to grow up in a provincial, hillbound town like Asheville, NC, about a century before Asheville became such a cool little burg for hipsters and the creative class. Wolfe knew something about breaking out of silence, even if it was charging headlong into overwritten purple patches at times in his novel.
But reading Wolfe, I knew for the first time that, yes, I wanted to do what he had done, to write a book that told the truth about what he felt and saw in this strange, amazing life we share on this planet. I didn't realize it would take me another 35 years before I would publish that first book, but the time spent with all those words was worth it.
Styron as young literary lion
You can’t count me as any kind of Pollyanna. Give me a few overcast days in midwinter, a riff of Miles’s horn on the radio, and I’ll turn blue with the best of them.
But melancholy can be a pose, a romantic notion that the tragic is always more interesting than the comic, the mistake too many younger and serious writers tend to make.
I’ve been mulling over melancholia lately while reading William Styron. With the recent arrival of Styron’s Selected Letters, I’ve been re-reading his 1951 debut “Lie Down in Darkness” – a bestseller that propelled the 25-year-old writer into instant celebrity. Soon he was padding around the literary lion’s den with the likes of Mailer and James Jones and other red-blooded he-men writers of the Great American Novel.
Styron eschewed what he called the “Hemingway mumble school,” tending more toward the purplish expanses of his fellow Southerner Thomas Wolfe. “When I mature and broaden, I expect to use language on as exalted and elevated a level as I can,” the young Styron wrote his Duke mentor William Blackburn. "I believe that a writer should accommodate language to his own peculiar personality and mine wants to use great words, evocative words, when the situation demands them.”
I hadn’t read Styron’s novel in 35 years, not since I breezed through as a junior in a contemporary American Lit survey in college. In my bifocaled hindsight now, Styron’s book reads like a young man’s overly romantic vision, not of the Good Life, but of the Marriage Gone Bad – the sorry saga of the alcoholic lawyer Milton Loftis, his estranged Southern belle of a wife, Helen, and their two daughters, the impetuous Peyton, and the special needs daughter, Maudie.
The novel charts a single day in August, 1945, just weeks after the bomb feel on Hiroshima. Peyton has committed suicide in New York, and her body had been borne back by train to to the fictional Port Warwick in Tidewater Virginia. Over seven sections and 400 pages in my water-damaged Signet paperback, the book follows Loftis and Helen’s separate journeys to the cemetery, and through their back story of their sad marriage.
The opening is masterful, putting “you” into the steamy Southern landscape as the train pulls into the fictional Port Warwick. Throughout, Stryon has a muscular omniscient point of view that can see a fly land on a fat man’s face or how female golfers have to tug at cinching panties, an authoritative voice we don’t hear too often in our more ironic times with the nebbish narratives that have followed after David Foster Wallace.
Stryon labored mightily over the book, complaining in his letters how agonizingly slow he found writing. Unfortunately, it shows in the books, which becomes a long march through gloom, leavened by very little humor. There’s a reason that Shakespeare has a jester in King Lear, for a little comic relief and to add to the absurdity. Styron’s idea of comedy is sarcastic, picking on the wide-eyed Negro stereotypes of the time. In the Jim Crow era, pre-Civil Rights South before airconditioning and television, Styron unveils a benighted look at the prevailing racist attitudes. It’s not pretty to read.
But it’s still a young man’s notion of tragedy that turns his book into melodrama, the scenes slow to the pace of sticky molasses. There’s pathetic fallacy aplenty as the landscape echoes the alcoholic mood swings of Loftis or the high strung neuroses of Helen, and too often, Styron’s swagger wades too deep into the purplish patches that tripped up Thomas Wolfe.
In the end, I had to lay down “Lie Down in Darkness.” I don’t think too many readers will be taking that novel up, nor his “Confessions of Nat Turner” or even “Sophie’s Choice.” Styron himself admitted that his latter fame probably depended more on his slender memoir, “Darkness Visible” about his courageous battle against a debilitating chronic depression, than on his fatter, darker fictions. Styron reads now like a boy whistling in the dark, trying to keep his spirits up, but afraid to truly play.
I’m not arguing for sweetness and light, but that a maturer vision sees how to balance the light and the dark in any artful composition. I hold to what one of my teachers, Allan Gurganus, always insisted on: that humor and horror must go hand in hand, hopefully, in a single sentence. Mac McIlvoy suggested in one of his topnotch workshops that writers have to learn to “play in the dark.”
James Dickey, author and actor
Faulkner was talking of the South of course when he wrote “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” Hell, the dead don’t stay buried in these parts, not even if you try to drown them.
I was reminded of that the other night, flicking through the HD hinterlands of TV cable when I came across John Boormann’s 1972 thriller “Deliverance.” Even if you never saw the Burt Reynolds-Jon Voight movie, you’ve heard the iconic soundtrack music, “Dueling Banjos” originally written by Arthur Smith (though he had to sue to get his name recognized, but that’s a whole ‘nother tale.)
Poet turned novelist James Dickey did no favors to Appalachian natives in his bestseller with its depiction of “the Country of Nine-Fingered Men,” a dark land of sadistic hillbillies eager to sodomize Atlanta suburbanites out for a weekend adventure. Dickey tapped into a deep distrust and terror of residents living in the shadows of mountains. The Other is the toothless man living in the holler with an outhouse and a still up on the ridge. Decades after that movie was filmed in Rabun County, Ga., and over in Sylva, N.C. you still see the bumper stickers “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music.”
But the scene that lingered for me showed graves being dug up on the banks of the river slowly flooding to form a reservoir to power Atlanta’s urban sprawl. That scene was actually filmed, not in Georgia, but in South Carolina at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church cemetery which now lies 130 feet beneath Lake Jocasse.
We’ve been relocating cemeteries forever in these parts. Folks over in Swain County still grow furious over the “Road to Nowhere” promised by the government, but which never materialized after Lake Fontana flooded their small towns and family farms in the 1940s. The story was repeated across the Southern Appalachians where the TVA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built hundreds of dams, dislocating plenty of families and often covered the graves of their ancestors with waters much more than five fathoms deep.
So it comes as no surprise how often floods and forgotten graves show up in Southern fiction. The theme runs like a dark current through the reigning Appalachian master Ron Rash’s work, from his first novel, “One foot in Eden” and “Saints by the River” also based around Lake Jocasse in South Carolina, and in his current novel, “The Cove” where a TVA surveyor goes missing in a haunted holler slated for a lake.
Those lakes were built to provide electricity to growing cities and their suburbs whether in Charlotte or Greenville, S.C., or down to Atlanta, but the progress of rural electrification or air conditioning never comes without its own cost when we drown the last wilderness and pieces of our past.
An image of a relocated cemetery haunted my imagination and inspired me to write my novel “The Half-Life of Home,” I saw in my mind’s eye a picture of men digging up a graveyard, coffins swinging up into the air in an artificial resurrection.
The thirst for electricity, for suburban power was the culprit here, but not in hydroelectric dam, but in a nuclear repository. Since dams sprang up across the South, we’ve also added the strange cones and domes of nuclear plants across the region, with their irradiating wastes with deadly half-lives spanning millennia.
A remote cove in my neck of the woods actually came under consideration in the late 1980s as a potential radioactive reservation where East Coast’s stores of spent nuclear rods could be buried for ten thousand years. As a cub reporter I covered those heated public meetings where I heard a white-haired native warn that the region had already seen two forced migrations: the Trail of Tears and the TVA removals. The feds would be chasing other folks off their homesteads in the name once again of national progress.
Fortunately, that mad scientist-hatched idea died. We still have nuclear waste to contend with, but at least we’re not burying it in my backyard. Yet the seed was planted in my imagination. Men in moon suits digging up generations of graves. What if… what if?
Jesus said let the dead bury the dead, but it seems like the Southern writer’s morbid duty or at least his inclination is to keep pawing away at what’s been covered over, conveniently forgotten. We can’t let the bones rest, the skeletons in the closet. We are always like Hamlet hopping down in the hole, eyeing Yorick’s skull raised in our palm for the audience’s appreciation.
And in that sense, Faulkner was right. We breathe life into the past, put flesh on fossils, when we blow away the dirt of the grave or dive deep into the dark waters covering the beds of lakes and forgotten farms. Literature is too often about seemingly unbearable loss, but writing is a way of making sure nothing is ever forgotten.
It comes as no great secret or surprise that Southerners love to tell stories. When it comes to politics, the stories they tell themselves aren’t always healthy or helpful.
The South is getting some new grief as of late as New Yorker writer George Packer has stirred up the cyberworld with his musings on why the Southern mentality seems to have overtaken the Republican party.
Packer quotes W.J. Cash and his seminal “The Mind of the South.” Cash was an alum of my alma mater Wake Forest, an accomplished newspaperman who committed suicide in Mexico in 1941. But he did provide an excellent study of the Southern capacity for romance and self-delusion.
Cash debunked the myth of the aristocratic Old South of moonlight and magnolias, noting that most of the planters were only a few years removed from taming a wilderness into cotton fields. Their creed was a stubborn individualism where every white man largely had to fend for himself. Their churches preached an emotional fundamentalism that promoted not this world, but the next. Their political rhetoric favored the high-flown, the appeal to emotion.
In short, the South had no real mind, no reason, but “a natural unrealism of temperament (that) bred in them a thorough-going self-satisfaction, the most complete blindness to the true facts of their world,” Cash wrote almost 75 years ago.
Packer is right to point out that the Republicans seem to have suffered that unreality in the last election, riled by what they considered unreliable polling, unable to see what hit them until it was too late, and Karl Rove melting down in his memorable Fox News appearance on election night. Remember it was Rove, who in the Bush administration (truly Southern in outlook and temperament) chided a New York Times reporter for being a clueless “member of the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Rove might have been quoting from Cash’s own book.
There were plenty of people in the Confederate South who believed they could create their own country, based on slave labor, and hold back the world’s growing moral outrage, and the industrial changes that were already transforming the northern states.
What’s remarkable about Cash’s book is that he largely left the black perspective out of it. Growing up in his time, even as a progressive white Southerner, he wouldn’t have had much, if any contact with blacks beyond menial servants. He would never had guessed at the profound changes that the 1960s brought to our region, nor fathomed the idea that America at large would. Virginia, North Carolina and Florida helped elect the nation’s first African-American president in 2008, which speaks volumes about the changes that are still underway in the region. The GOP reclaimed North Carolina as a red state in November, but just barely.
This is the land where I was raised and where I choose to live and write about. There’s no denying the terrible legacy in this land, from slavery to the how the Cherokee and other native tribes were treated, to how Hispanic immigrants are hounded in some states, or gays and lesbians, or anyone who’s a little different. But that’s not the only story.
Some Southerners, some Republicans, (but also a great many liberal Northerners) seem stuck in their old stories about the South. What I resent as a fiction writer is the simplistic tale, the stereotype, the caricature that gives the lie to the reality I find changing day to day, year to year whenever I drive around the Southeast.
Yes, the South is going to rise again, but not that old moldy Confederate corpse of unreality and delusion. Things are getting real down in Dixie, maybe slower than in some other burgs, but give it time. That Confederate red block of states on our election maps will show their true colors when Southerners of all creeds and races and parties take their stand.
I made a quick jaunt up to Louisville, Ky., for Saturday's reading of winners and finalists in New Southerner's 2012 Literary Awards. Judge Silas Hall had picked an excerpt from my upcoming novel "The Half-Life of Home" for a second-place finish, but I saw a chance to get out of town.
I love road trips through the countryside, following after of explorers and writers who have come before me. You can see the geography change along the Appalachians from the rocky Pigeon River gorge that Interstate 40 cuts through from Asheville toward Knoxville, then up Interstate 75 through Tennessee into Kentucky over the Cumberland Gap where limestone bluffs and outcroppings overlook what was Dan'l Boone's first footprints here. Then onto into what I consider Wendell Berry's neck of the woods, headed through rolling pastures of bluegrass (now brown grass in winter) toward the Ohio River.
It was a real treat last to hear the poems of Amy Tudor, who won the James Baker Hall Memorial Prize for her poem "Studies in Extinction", followed by a knockout-out new as yet unpublished work. My thanks to editor Bobbi Buchanan for inviting me and for running such an excellent, high-quality magazine. You should check it out.
What can you say? Driving around the old-time countryside, you develop an appetite, and Southerners are known to wear their tastes on their sleeves. They button up with pigs-knuckles, cloak themselves with collards, and tailor themselves with stone-ground grits. Strange you say? Haven't you seen the strange denizens of Green Bay, Wis., wearing wedges of cheese on their heads this time of year?
For the more literal-minded, I should explain. Toast is a real place, a community outside of Mt. Airy, NC, Andy Griffith's hometown and the model for Mayberry. I took this with my old Nikkon back in the early 80s when I fancied myself the next amateur Walker Evans. I found this in an old stack of 8X10s during a visit to my folks down in Winston-Salem over the holidays.
Happy New Year! No hangover this morning. The collards are on the stove along with the hopping john for good luck. The football is about to begin along with a new calendar, counting off the handful of days until my novel is officially out.
I was honored when my pal Nan Cuba, author of the fine upcoming novel BODY AND BREAD invited me to join a blog chain THE NEXT BIG THING - a series of self-interviews by/with authors about what they’ve been working on.
Thanks, Nan, and I’m looking forward to seeing your novel coming this May.
So here’s what happened when I sat down with myself and asked a few probing questions to which I fortunately knew the answers:
Question: Let’s start with the obvious. What’s the name of your book?
Answer: THE HALF-LIFE OF HOME
Q: Can you give me the one-sentence synopsis?
A: Finding your family or losing the land: Royce Wilder, a real estate appraiser, and Kyle McRae, a homeless man, face those hard choices in unearthing long-buried secrets in the mountain community of Beaverdam, N.C.
Q: Sounds intriguing. Where did the idea for the book come from?
A: I had an image in mind that haunted me. Men in white spacesuits moving across a mountain. They were workers in HazMat suits shielded against radioactive materials, excavating a cemetery on a hillside, digging up the graves of long lost generations, removing them from their land. I had to write a book to find out what happened.
Q: What genre does your book fall under?
A: Literary fiction with a contemporary Southern Appalachian setting, but the book should appeal to any reader who likes a well-made story about ordinary folk facing extraordinary challenges.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: Place is character in fiction, I had the good fortune to once hear Eudora Welty say that during a reading in Asheville, and that’s proven true in my own writing.
For me, the primal heart of my fiction revolves around the mountain farm my grandparents owned in Watauga County near the N.C.-Tennessee line. The farmhouse and barn and outbuildings, the wooden bridge over the creek, the outcroppings and hemlocks up on the two opposing mountains, the Frozenhead and the Buckeye, all those things spoke to me as a young boy visiting on weekends. That land has since passed out of my family with the death of my grandmother, but it informs my dreams and my fiction.
Q: Who’s publishing your book?
A: Casperian Books out of Sacramento, Calif., is an independent publisher founded by Lily Richards, who still sees a place for finely crafted fiction in various genres in today’s fragmenting publishing scene. While too many books are being rushed out without oversight, Lily put HALF-LIFE OF HOME through its paces with some great suggestions and a close line-by-line edit. I couldn’t be prouder of the work she put into the production of my second novel.
Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
A: I started this book the day after I graduated from Warren Wilson College with an MFA in creative writing way back in January 1989. After spending so much time focused on writing short stories for workshops and answering to supervisors, I was determined to write a novel all by my lonesome. How lonely it could be I was soon to discover. It probably took me about six months to write a 400-page first draft and I still remember that sense of exhilaration: “I’ve written what looks like a novel.” But that was only the beginning. It took several more drafts before I talked an agent into taking a look around 1992. She sent it back with the suggestion to cut it by 100 pages. I did. She took it on and shopped it around New York. Eighteen houses all told took a pass and the agent cut me loose.
I went on and wrote another novel and then a third, “Cow Across America.” Then hiking one day up in the mountains north of Asheville, I came across what needed to be done with that first novel. I can still remember the bend of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail where the Muse suddenly whispered the solution. In the original book, the main character, Royce Wilder came across as an immature man, still acting out against his parents even as a grown man. I decided to split his character into two, a fretting father and an adolescent son in rebellion. Adding 14-year-old Dean changed all the family dynamics and the basic plot line.
Perseverance is what I’ve found really matters in a quarter century of making books. If a writer takes care of the writing, the publishing takes care of itself. “Cow Across America” won the Novello Literary Award from the Charlotte Mecklenberg Public Library and was published in 2009. Casperian Books took on “The Half-Life of Home” back in February of last year. The novel officially hits the shelves on April Fools Day (no fooling.)
Q: What other books would you compare this story to?
A: Wendell Berry’s “A Place on Earth.” Fred Chappell’s marvelous series of novels starting with “I am One of You Forever.” John Ehle’s neglected masterpiece “Last One Home.” Gail Godwin’s “Father Melancholy’s Daughter.”
Q: What about a movie? Which actors would you choose to play your characters?
A: It’s hard to put faces on characters who seem real but are in the end made up of words on the page. If I were a Hollywood casting director, I’d say Bill Murray possesses the wryness and interior self-doubt to play Royce. Joaquin Phoenix (Anyone see “The Master”?) has the angular angst necessary for the part of the homeless man, Kyle. I can see Allison Janney (remember her from The West Wing?) as Eva, Royce’s unhappy wife. One of my favorite all-time actors Robert Duvall as the aging uncle, Dallas Rominger. And if we’re going big-budget, why not Meryl Streep in makeup as the “witch woman” Wanda McRae.
Q: What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
A: Literature is about loss, summoning up a time and a place in words that will last beyond the lifetimes of our loved ones and the places they lived. Mountaineers have been forced off their land since the Cherokees were herded along the Trail of Tears. Homesteaders were forced out by the fed- eral government in the 1930s to make way for hydroelectric dams. After the war, they left their farms to find jobs in Piedmont cotton mills or car factories up north. As a cub reporter in the ’80s, I covered hearings where federal bureaucrats earnestly debated turning remote mountain coves into a national nuclear repository. That image haunted me: what if radioactivity leaking out of these ancient mountains forced people off their land?
Read Nan Cuba’s self-interview about BODY AND BREAD here.
Passing the baton, I’ve tagged a couple of writers who you should check out:
Marjorie Hudson is the author of ACCIDENTAL BIRDS OF THE CAROLINAS, a fine collection of short stories that was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Michael Jarmer is the author of MONSTER LOVE, a contemporary twist on Mary Shelley Wollenstone’s classic “Frankenstein.”
MaryJo Moore is a fine Native American writer and editor living here in Asheville. Her latest volume of wisdom is BEAR QUOTES.
You might also be interested in these writers who I know are part of the NEXT BIG THING chain.
Joe Schuster, whose book, THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN is a terrific baseball novel with a compelling human story.
Christine Hale, an Asheville memoirist and novelist whose guest blog will appear Jan. 5 here:
Happy New Year and happy reading in 2013.
The winter solstice seems appropriate a time to be starting a new blog. Tomorrow there's a sliver more daylight as we head into a new year and the launch of my second novel The Half Life of Home, (Coming courtesy of the fine folks at Casperian Books.) But I'm staking out my corner of the cyberspace to let readers know about upcoming events and share some thoughts.
Putting a new book out into the world is always a lark and an adventure. At these moments, I go back to one of my favorite writers - James Salter - and his thoughts from his memoir Burning the Days:
"When was I happiest, the happiest in my life? Difficult to say. Skipping the obvious, perhaps setting off on a journey, or returning from one. In my thirties, probably, and at scattered other times, among them the weightless days before a book was published and occasionally when writing it. It is only in books that one finds perfection, only in books that it cannot be spoiled. Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time The secret of making it is simple: discard everything that is good enough."
It's also nice to start a fresh page or a new blog with a bit of good news.
The good folks at The New Southerner have just put up an excerpt from the novel The Half-Life of Home as part of their 2012 literary contest. Thanks to Bobbi Buchanan and the final fiction judge Silas House for the honor. Check out the handsome online magazine at www.newsoutherner.com. I'll be in Louisville, Ky, for a reading Jan 12 with the other contest winners. Looking forward to a drive into the Bluegrass State.
Novelist, journalist, backpacker, aficianado of all things Appalachian.