Showing posts with label Edgar Allan Poe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edgar Allan Poe. Show all posts

23 October 2020

Got Poe?


 

'Tis the season for all things spooky and macabre. Which all-time classic author comes to mind this time of year?

For me, it's Edgar Allan Poe.

I have a few things in common with the Father of the Detective Story. We both have called Richmond, Virginia and New York City home. We both share an affinity for ravens. And we both studied at my alma mater, the University of Virginia.

If you aren't familiar with Poe's UVA college days, here are a few factoids you may enjoy:

  • Seventeen-year-old Poe enrolled at UVA on February 14, 1826--yes, Valentine's Day--and remained through the full academic year, which ended in December.


  • Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, former US president, and founder of UVA passed away five months after Poe moved to Charlottesville. Though not confirmed, it is likely Poe met Jefferson at school functions and attended the memorial services held to honor the University's founder, including by wearing a black arm band.
  • Poe had an impressive athletic record while at UVA. He was a record-breaking swimmer, having swum six miles against the current on the James River. His running broad jump distance was 21' 6" with a running start of twenty yards.
  • Of the eight academic schools possible to enroll in at the time, Poe registered for two (modern and ancient languages). Of note, most students in those days enrolled in three schools, but Poe couldn't afford the extra fifty-dollar fee.
  • He was secretary of the University's Jefferson Debate Society.
  • Poe lived in a section of UVA's original academical village called The Range. His single dorm room, coincidentally and ominously No. 13, is now referred to as The Raven Room.
  • Mary Stuart Smith described Poe's dorm room (May 17, 1899) ~ There was one window, and opposite it, a door, both furnished with green blinds. There were two closets, one on each side of the open fireplace, with a book shelf, a single bedstead, a table, a wash stand, and a small travelling trunk. The walls were whitewashed, and adorned with quantities of spirited sketches in charcoal, drawn by the skilled fingers of the two-fold artist who was its occupant.
  • While living in 13 West Range, Poe etched a verse on the glass pane of his window:

Oh Though timid one, do not let thy
Form slumber within these
Unhallowed walls,
For herein lies
The ghost of an awful crime.

  • His nickname was Gaffy, the hero of a short story he wrote and read allowed to several classmates who had gathered in his room one night. According to legend, Poe flung the pages into the fire, destroying the only copy, after a friend noted it had repeated too often.
  • Poe wrote Tamerlane while at UVA. Later the University influenced two of his short stories, "William Wilson" and "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains."
  • Poe had a strained relationship with his uncle, John Allan, who was his guardian at the time and limited Poe's funding. By the end of the 1826 academic year in December, Poe had resorted to burning his furniture to keep warm. When he left for winter break, Poe had every intention of returning to UVA the following February, but . . .
  • Allan refused to continue financially supporting Poe at school, so he never returned to the University. Thus, he never graduated from college.
  • Poe left behind many personal debts, which Allan refused to settle. Worth noting, a century later, the University's librarian, Harry Clemmons, paid Poe's outstanding library fines.
  • UVA commissioned the sculptor George Julian Zolnay to create a bronze bust of Poe to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death.  The bust was displayed in Alderman Library before the renovations commenced this autumn.
  • If you ever visit Charlottesville, Virginia, stop by No. 13 West Range. UVA restored and furnished Poe's old dorm room to its period-appropriate spartan glory, though I suspect the  raven statuette was added later.

 . . . evermore.




Sources: 
The University of Virginia, Albert and Shirly Small Special Collections Library, The Raven Society, Bookman by C. W. Kent (1917), and Edgar Poe and the University of Virginia by F. Stovall (1969).


PS ~ Let's be social:

16 October 2020

The Macabre (True) Story of the Sunshine Lady, with an Appearance by Mr. Poe


It’s my unfortunate predilection to use my wife’s speaking gig and book tour absences as opportunities to eat and drink inappropriately. That alone can explain why and how I found myself a year or so ago in the darkened back bar at the Poe House in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a “quaint” town not far from where I live. The Poe House is an Edgar Allan Poe-themed tavern that is part wine bar, part music venue, part cocktail joint.

Poe and alcohol did not mix...well. Eight years before his death, Poe wrote a letter hoping to clear himself after W.E. Burton, a former employer whom Poe despised, circulated rumors of Poe’s drunkenness.

“I am temperate even to rigor,” [Poe wrote.] “At no period of my life was I ever what men call intemperate…. My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions. In short, it sometimes happened that I was completely intoxicated. For some days after each excess I was invariably confined to bed. But it is now quite four years since I have abandoned every kind of alcoholic drink—four years, with the exception of a single deviation…when I was induced to resort to the occasional use of cider, with the hope of relieving a nervous attack.”

Whatever the truth, it has certainly not stopped barkeeps from using his lugubrious mug to decorate various drinking establishments. I’m getting good at ferreting out such places, and I’ll get to them all someday.

Red Death. In a glass.

On this occasion, as I sipped my Mask of the Red Death*—a beverage containing Tito’s, pomegranate juice, grilled lemon, rosemary simple syrup, with a rosemary sprig—I continued to peruse the Poe House cocktail menu**, which featured drinks with names like Amelia, Absinthe Drip, Virginia Clemm, Poe-a-Tree, Tales of Mystery, That Girl, Insanity, and Brewed Nevermore (your basic coffee and bourbon concoction).

“You don’t have a Sunshine Lady cocktail?” I asked the bartender. 

“Is that a Poe story?”

“No,” I said. “It’s a Hendersonville story.”

If you spend time poking around the Oakdale Cemetery just off Hendersonville’s main drag, you will eventually encounter the most boring tomb imaginable. A rectangular, above-ground sarcophagus covered on all six sides with concrete. This is the final resting place of one Lelia Davidson Hansell***, who endures in local legend as the Sunshine Lady.

Charlotte Oberver, 1926.

She was born in 1861, and hailed from a wealthy family whose name graces a nearby college. She and her husband, Judge Charles P. Hansell, lived in Thomasville, Georgia, but resided in our mountainous region 18 months before the end of her life. Judging from Mrs. Hansell’s death certificate, I suspect that her relocation was in order to avail herself of the region’s “breathing porches.”  This is where one came to sit, and to breathe mountain air, theoretically extinguishing toxins lodged in one’s lungs. In this case both air and porches proved insalubrious. In December 1915, Mrs. Hansell expired at the age of 54 from pulmonary tuberculosis.

Then things got seriously weird. Edgar Allan Poe weird.

The story goes that Mrs. Hansell abhorred the notion of being confined to a tomb for eternity. She  extracted from her husband a promise to bury her in such a way that the sun would always shine upon her face. Acceding to her request, he entombed her in a sarcophagus topped with blocks of prism glass. This is the glass you find embedded in sidewalks of great American cities. “Vault lights” allowed daylight to illuminate the basements of major buildings in the age before electric light. Prism glass was clear when installed but turned purple as its manganese content aged.

I lived in Hendersonville—aka Hendo, aka Hooterville—for a year when we first moved to the South. The Sunshine Lady became one of my brief obsessions. I’d poke around the web whenever I had a spare moment, looking for specific details, and wrote a short story inspired by the tomb.****

I learned that for decades the Sunshine Lady became Hendersonville’s most morbid attraction. I found mentions of the grave in 1930s-era WPA Guides to North Carolina. I read accounts of children selling cups of water outside the cemetery gates, instructing tourists to rub a few drops with their fingers on the scuffed glass blocks in order to better peer at the tomb’s occupant. And I’ve found articles in which longtime residents swore that when they were children themselves they’d still been able to gaze upon the corpse’s skeletal countenance, framed by a beautiful mass of auburn hair.

I have no idea if that’s true or even possible, though Mrs. Hansell’s obituary praised “her character of unusual beauty.” The examples of prism glass I’ve seen are very opaque, but admittedly I’ve only seen aged specimens.

Eventually, the town fathers got tired of this hideous spectacle. A local historian writes, “Many people expectorated on the glass and for sanitary reasons the top will be covered.”

Guess they got tired of buying water from the local kids.


The San Francisco Examiner, 1927.

But I’m sure there were other reasons they altered the tomb. If I may be permitted to speculate, wise Appalachian soothsayers probably foresaw that one day this sleepy Southern town would be a mecca for people seeking microbrews, homegrown apples, quilted handbags, homemade country pickles and preserves, antiques, and cute carvings of black bears. Hooterville could no longer be known as the place where people came to gaze upon the grinning face of death.

In 1937, the tomb was refurbished. It looks to me like a couple of thick skim coats of concrete did the trick, but it’s entirely possible they replaced the glass blocks with cinderblock. Who knows.

I do know that it’s the creepiest thing we’ve got around here, and I could not sleep the night I first heard the story in a local coffee shop. How much of the tale is true? How much embellished? I suppose at this point it does not matter. What does matter is that an enterprising bartender simply must dream up a suitable drink to honor the city’s most morbid resident—and fast. My nerves are so shot I might be forced to guzzle cider.

* * *

* “Mask” was used in the title when Poe’s tubercular nightmare first appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1842, a month after he quit his post as the magazine’s editor. It’s been “Masque” since 1845 on.

** Alas, no Amontillado on the menu.

*** I’ve seen her forename spelled as Lela, Lelia, and Leila. The obit says Lelia, but the death certificate says Leila. I hate history.

**** My short story treats the whole legend as a ghost story. Download it free 'til the end of the month right here. And Happy Halloween!


See you in three weeks!


31 August 2020

Copy-Cat Blues


Back in the sixties, the best guitar player in my dorm couldn't read music. He played the first National steel resonating guitar I'd ever seen and he had old Library of Congress recordings of early blues players like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. He also had a turntable with a 16 RPM setting, which he used to play old LPs at half speed. It lowered the pitch one octave, and he could figure out the notes by ear at the slower tempo. He learned by imitation and nobody else on campus could touch him.


Remember the "Bad Hemingway" and "Faux Faulkner" contests, where participants had to produce writing lampooning the styles of those icons? I was one of two teachers in my department who encouraged students to enter the Bulwer-Lytton contest, too. One of my favorite student pieces is still a parody of Hemingway's "In Another Country" that began, "Most Saturdays, we girls would go to the mall, but this Saturday, we did not go to the mall."

You can learn almost any skill by imitation, but be sure to pick a suitable model. A decade ago, I was in a writing group with six other writers who critiqued each other's work in 40-page sections, and one member always gave us at least 30 pages of pure visual description. We kept telling him he needed more plot and action, but he never changed. After a few months, I told him I stopped reading five pages in because nothing was happening. A few months later, someone asked him to name his favorite novelist.

"Thackeray."

Mystery solved.

If you want to write, read authors in the genre or type you plan to write, too. If you want to publish, you need to understand what an agent or editor will buy. Today, that means models older than five or ten years won't help you. Tastes change and now there are even more distractions to reading than ever before: social media, streaming TV and film, sports, online music, games...the list grows longer every day.

I like some older short stories. When I conduct a short story workshop, I distribute a list that includes the old masters: Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, James, Crane. I stress that "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Young Goodman Brown" are good stories, but nobody would buy them today.

Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is 92 years old, but feels much newer. Even that would be iffy. If you want to sell novels, look at books published in your genre or field in the last three to five years. For short stories, look at magazines and anthologies. Join writing groups that post submission guidelines. For mysteries, I like The Best American Mystery Stories because the book lists the market where the story appeared, so you can find places to send your own work when it's ready. Look at Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Mystery Weekly and Black Cat, and anthologies, too. Ditto for Romance, Science Fiction, and Supernatural markets.



Would you go into a sports tournament without examining the other team? Of course not. Think of this as scouting reports for the championship. And don't rush.

25 October 2019

Spooky Writers, Forgotten Graves, and Vengeance from Beyond the Tomb




It's that time of year, when Pumpkin Spice becomes a thing, and sketchy Halloween costume shops take over even sketchier strip malls.  As the fall chill settles, one starts to wonder: Are those spookiest of writers, Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Biercetruly in their final resting places? Like, tucked away, with at least six feet of hallowed earth separating them (the dead) from us (the living)?





I can offer you no such surcease of sorrow.

In this corner, the friendly,
modern-day
Jack O'Lantern...
...and in this corner, a
Samhain-era Jack O'Lantern.
It's made from a turnip, and it
will swallow your soul.
Halloween, based on the Celtic Samhain (which itself comes from Chthulu-era pagan rituals), is the night when the dead come knocking. Some for treats, some for tricks, and some for righteous beyond-the-tomb payback.








Edgar Allan Poe. I dare you to photo shop
a straw hat onto this.
Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce specialized in tales where death wasn't always a sure bet. Both left this mortal coil with scores to settle. And there is grave uncertainty as to where either is interred.  These are three good motives for any unrestful spirit to don a hockey mask (or William Shatner mask, or fedora and sweater combo or, ok, there are a lot of costume options), grab a machete (again, options), and come calling this Halloween. One would hope that enough post-mortem praise has been heaped on Poe and Bierce to put contented smiles on their rotting faces; to sway them to let bygones be bygones.

Don't count on it.

If there's anyone who'd warrant vengeance from beyond the grave, its Edgar Allan Poe. The means are questionable, but the motives are as clear as a gold bug on a black cat.

First, Poe's death is shrouded in mystery. I don't believe he ended up in that Baltimore gutter wearing someone else's clothes just because he was at the tell-tail end of a bender. I like the cooping theory. In those days of rampant voter fraud (not to diminish our own era of Russian meddling), travelers were kidnapped, cooped up in rooms (hence "cooping"), and force-fed booze and drugs. A pretty sweet deal for some, but deadly for others. The blitzed-out saps were coerced into voting repeatedly at different polling stations. Their clothes were switched so they wouldn't be recognized.

Poe was found near a polling station, out of his head. He was wearing farmer's clothes, including a straw hat. There's no way that The Godfather of Goth cavorted amongst the literati of Virginia and New York in a straw hat like some Leatherstocking Tales reject. This man was cooped.

Rufus Griswold wrote a scathing
review of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
(pictured here). Whitman mockingly included
the review in later editions.
Second, Poe's reputation was sunk by Rufus (rhymes with doofus) Griswold, a third-rate literary rival. In popular culture Poe is often seen as a drug addicted outsider who mirrored the creepiness he wrote. Actually, Poe was a respected writer and editor, a literary celebrity who made a lot of his money in live appearances. He is probably the first American writer to live solely off his writing. Rufus Griswold was a hacky "anthologist" and the target of one of Poe's biting you'll-never-live-this-down criticisms. When Poe kicked off, punk Griswold saw his chance for cowardly payback.

Griswold wrote a scathing obit of Poe for the NewYork Tribune that was widely reprinted. Next, Griswold conned his way into being Poe's literary executor. He wrote a fake biography of Poe that appeared in Poe's anthologies.  It portrayed Poe as an addict, gambler and army deserter. This false image of Poe as an evil, pathetic genius stuck.

Edgar Allan Poe's grave marker.
It's likely that Poe is nearby.
Lastly, in 1849, Poe was dumped into an unmarked grave in the Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore. It wasn't until decades later when a succession of grand headstones attempted to mark the great man's final resting place. In a scene reminiscent of Poe's fiction, the city of Baltimore repatriated Poe's corpse to a more scenic view. The sloppy handling of Poe's remains gave rise to conspiracy theories.

In 1978, the Maryland Historical Magazine published Charles Scarlett, Jr's "A Tale of Ratiocination: The Death and Burial of Edgar Allan Poe." Scarlett proposes that through a series of grave-marker mix-ups, Baltimore botched Poe's reburial. Instead of digging up Poe, Baltimore disinterred the remains of Phillip Mosher, a young fallen soldier from the War of 1812.  Scarlett presents a pretty interesting theory.

George W. Spence, a sexton who oversaw the first exhumation of Poe, said that he lifted up Poe's skull, and "his brain rattled around inside just like a lump of mud." Brains rot pretty quickly. Bullets don't. If Phillip Mosher was killed in the War of 1812 by a shot to the head, the hunt for Poe's corpse continues.

Ambrose Bierce and skull.
Around the time when the search for Poe's grave began, a young soldier and Poe fan was facing real-life horrors that rivaled those that Poe wrote about.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez
put their own twist on the Ambrose Bierce
legend. Edited by yours truly.
I'm a film and TV editor, and I cut a horror flick that stars Michael Parks (lead on the ultra-cool TV series Then Came Bronson) as cantankerous author Ambrose Bierce. In it, Bierce falls in with outlaws, battles vampires, and eventually joins the ranks of the undead. That's one way to explain Bierce's mysterious disappearance.

Bierce, most famous for The Devil's Dictionary and his short story "An Occurence at Owl's Creek Bridge," was a Civil War vet who saw the bloody horrors of war up close. Bierce hilariously said war was "God's way of teaching American's geography," but he found little humor on the battlefield. He fought on the Union side in hellish battles at Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain. His writing is imbued with those experiences.  Bierce suffered a head wound at Kennesaw Mountain, which some claim was the cause of his bouts of booziness and unmatched orneriness.

Bierce's most famous story collection, which
includes "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge."
In his lifetime Bierce was known as a San Francisco journalist, but his lit legend is based on his short horror stories with surprise endings. "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge" is one of those works of fiction that has been repeated so often, and in so many mediums, that many are unaware of it as the source. It's the story of a Civil War Southerner about to be hung from a bridge. He is dropped off the side, but the rope breaks. The Southerner escapes to his home. As he's running into the arms of his wife he's stopped by a heavy blow to his neck. In the most famous of Bierce's twist endings, we learn the man imagined the escape during the time between his fall from the bridge and the rope breaking his neck.

Pancho Villa: General, Mexican revolutionary,
and maybe one of the last people to see
Ambrose Bierce alive.
In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce travelled by horseback, first to visit Civil War battle sites, then to Mexico. His stated aim was to report on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Many claim Bierce was running away from old age, seeking a one-way ticket to an adventure that would carry on into the after life. His last postcard was mailed from Chihuahua City, Mexico. Bierce was intending to ride out with Pancho Villa. What happened next is shrouded in mystery, but according to numerous eyewitnesses, Bierce died many deaths.

Bierce was killed at the Battle of Ojinaga, fighting the Federales alongside Villa.

Bierce was only wounded at Ojinaga, but eventually succumbed to his injuries at the Marfa refugee camp.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Icamole.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Sierra Mojada.

Others believe Bierce offed himself somewhere in the Grand Canyon, one of his favorite hangouts. There are no eyewitnesses, reliable or otherwise, to support this claim.

At least Poe got a coffin and a handful of mourners. If Bierce died in battle, he was likely dumped in a mass grave and burned. Death by firing squad meant he got his own hole in the ground but none of the other trimmings. There's a small monument for him at Sierra Mojada, but the remains of Bierce are nowhere to be found.

I'd say the best way to placate Poe and Bierce this Halloween is to read their works. You don't even have to read the scary stuff. Poe's tales of ratiocination starring amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin are a must for any fan of crime fiction. Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary holds up as a manual of biting-though-meaningful sarcasm.

You may want to read some Shakespeare, too. In 2016, archaeologists examined Shakespeare's grave using GPR scanning. The study showed that the grave was disturbed after Shakespeare was buried. GPR images also revealed that Shakespeare's skull is missing.


Happy Halloween!

I'm Lawrence Maddox. My latest novel Fast Bang Booze is available from Down and Out Books (downandoutbooks.com). You can contact me at Madxbooks@gmail.com.

11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)


In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:


  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 


Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!



20 August 2018

Blues and Clues


In 1963, folklorists took a closer look at the lyrics to an obscure 1928 Okeh recording called "Avalon Blues" and used them to track down long-forgotten guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, still alive and well in the town he described in the song. Hurt came out of retirement to become a headliner at folk festivals and coffee houses. His lyrical finger-picking became an inspiration for such upcoming musicians as John Sebastian, Happy Traum, Stefan Grossman and Chris Smither.  All because of an old record.

We talk about clues in mysteries all the time, but other genres use them, too. They may call them "plot points" or "turning points" or something else, but a clue is simply something that moves the character closer to his goal: solving the mystery, finding true love, uncovering the cure for that lethal virus. OR it may send the character or the entire story off in a new direction.

Thanks to TV, we're attuned to discussing fingerprints, ballistics and blood spatter. We know about documentary evidence, too (Like the Hurt lyrics), and those are in our sights even more now because of the Mueller investigation. Both Conan Doyle ("The Adventure of the Dancing Men") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Gold Bug") have stories that resolve because a character could decipher a coded message, and even the Hardy Boys carried on the tradition in The Mystery of Cabin Island.
Sometimes, though, a clue is less concrete, which gives us a chance to play a little and maybe sneak one past our readers. My favorite NON-clue is in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," which Holmes solved by paying attention to the dog that did NOT bark. A similar idea shows up in my current WIP.

Stephen King turns forensic evidence on its head in The Outsider, his recent novel which Rob discussed a few days ago. We have a man accused of murdering a child, and the DNA samples are undoubtedly his. That's fairly standard. But witness and photographs place him hundreds of miles away when the crime was committed. When the forensics and documentary evidence collide, the cops find themselves in Plan B and the book shifts from a typical police procedural into King's more familiar domain, the Twilight Zone. He does the what's-wrong-with-this-picture stuff as well as anyone else in the business.

Anyone here old enough to remember the TV show Hong Kong? It only ran for one season, starting in September 1960. Rod Taylor played a journalist, and in one episode, he narrowly escaped being run down by a taxi. Soon after that, a man he was talking to was shot. Everyone believed Taylor was the real target and the shooter had bad aim, but later in the show, Taylor tracked down the taxi driver, who told him that he had been paid to MISS Taylor with his cab. That showed that the dead man was the intended victim after all and the fake attempt on Taylor was to conceal the real motive.

My own Blood on the Tracks has Woody Guthrie trying to find a stolen tape of a forgotten rock band, and nobody can understand why anyone cares about the tape. Eventually, Guthrie learns that something may have been recorded OVER some of the tape and that the bad guys are after something besides the musical performance. Which means a different set of people might want it...

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie spends most of the book thinking Mr. Darcy is an insufferable snot and dislikes him for how he has treated her older sister Jane. Eventually, she discovers that he is trying to help her younger sister Lydia, who has run off with a wastrel and is in danger of ruining her own reputation (not to mention her life) and that of her entire family. When Lizzie finds that Darcy is buying the blackguard off, it makes her see him more clearly...and paves the way to their own happy ending.

Some of my favorite plot reversals (call them clues, too) appear in science fiction. Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" offers a manuscript from another planet that those beings give to earthlings as a sign of good faith. It's also a clue. When someone translates the entire text, they discover it's a cookbook and the double meaning of the word "serve" becomes important. The story became an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962, and many people cite it as one of their favorites.

Pierre Boulle's novel became the basis for the first Planet of the Apes film, and who can forget that closing shot of Charleton Heston looking at the mostly buried Statue of Liberty and understanding for the first time that he's not on a distant planet? The primates have become the dominant species on earth after a nuclear war destroyed civilization. Oops.

How about you? How do you give your readers the clue that moves the story off the tracks?


05 July 2018

The Wrong Books


I have a DVD set of the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, and I asked my husband if he'd like to watch it sometime.  He declined: "I'm not up for Tolstoy."  And what he meant by "Tolstoy" was War and Peace.  He'd tried to read it, decades ago, and stalled out pretty quickly, which I think happens to a lot of people.  A lot of people complain about its length, and at over 1,200 pages, it's long enough to complain about.  But then, Outlander is half that length, and then you've still got 7 more hefty books to go in that series.

But I think that reading War and Peace is a classic example of the wrong book.  I think one of the reasons why people avoid "great literature" is that
(1) they're told that it's great,
(2) there's this illusion that great = dull / hard to understand / heavy (ie., depressing), and
(3) they're started off with the wrong book.


L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpgSo, with Tolstoy, start with Anna Karenina, and make sure it's the old Constance Garnett translation:  Anna, about to go into the major midlife crisis in literature, her cheerfully cheating brother Stepan, her pompous irritating husband Karenin, her soon to be lover Vronsky (a/k/a the man who isn't worth it), future soccer mom Kitty, bewildered Levin (only a few jokes away from being played by Seth Rogen), Countess Lydia (think Texas cheerleader mom), and other classic characters all presented with wit, verve,  heartbreak, and amazing insight. As the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."


George Eliot.  Forget Silas Marner, (ESPECIALLY in schools).  Start the kids off with Adam Bede, with its amazing portrait of Hetty Sorrel, whose beauty is "like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry."
No one knows, no one can believe, that such an obviously childlike, innocent young thing like Hetty could be an egoist of the highest caliber.  And from that comes all the rest.
(NOTE:  My major problem with every production of Adam Bede is that the actresses cast as Hetty have been, so far, always sophisticated 20-somethings so that you can't get the essentially transgressive tragedy of Hetty:  it's the fact that she looks like a child that turns her seducer on.) 
Or Dostoevsky.  Don't start with Crime and Punishment.  Unless you're a huge Cormac McCarthy fan.

Start with The Brother's Karamazov, which is about one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet.  The Karamazovs are led by Fyodor, an absolute horror as a man and a father, whose constant womanizing and drunkenness never stand in the way of trying to ruin his sons' lives.  Dmitri's a sensualist, Ivan's an atheist, Alyosha's a novice monk, and Smerdyakov is illegitimate.  One of them kills Fyodor, and while we all say good riddance, the question is who and why and how...  Incredible writing, and even the saints are human.

Speaking of who killed Fyodor, what about mysteries?

Which Sherlock Holmes story should you try to start someone off with?  First off, a heresy:  I think the novels are inferior to the short stories.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, frankly, has too much padding for me, and as for A Study in Scarlet...

Me, I'd start someone off with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains "A Scandal In Bohemia", "The Speckled Band," "The Copper Beeches," and "The Red Headed League", among others.  The collection ranges from hilarious to deadly serious, and are what hooked me as a child.  After you read that collection, chances are you'll read all the rest.  I did.

Which Agatha Christie?  Personally, my favorite is Nemesis, which always seemed to have less mechanical plot (although the plot is very good) and more atmosphere.
"Miss Marple remembered saying to her nephew, who was standing her this Shakespearean treat, "You know, Raymond, my dear, if I were ever producing this splendid play I would make the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn't dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them."  — Nemesis
And then Miss Marple looks around to the three Bradbury-Scott girls...

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon, of course, but Red Harvest is fast and furious.
Ellis Peters:  An Excellent Mystery (my favorite of the Cadfael Chronicles)
E. X. Ferrars:  Frog in the Throat 
Josephine Tey:  The Daughter of Time, with a special shout-out to Miss Pym Disposes
Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy  
Dennis Lehane:  Mystic River 
Liza Cody:  Rift  

Oh, and if you want to try some poetry, try Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book - written in 1868-69, about a real-life Italian murder trial of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished nobleman, despite professing his innocence, has been found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia and her parents. They were all stabbed; he's admitted he suspected Pompilia of having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Each canto is a monologue from the point of view of a different character, including Count Guido and Pompilia on her death bed.  Multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, multiple excuses:  What's the truth?  Read it and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Speaking of the Brownings, here's a story for you.  Elizabeth Barrett, of course, was a well known poet in Victorian times, perhaps the best known poetess.  Her father - a Jamaican plantation owner who'd made his money off slaves and sugar - raised his family in England.  He was a family dictator, micro-managing his children's lives, and disinheriting each and every one of them as they married.  Elizabeth and Robert's courtship had to be done mostly by letter and only occasional meetings, because Edward Barrett would never have approved it.  In fact, when the 40 year old Elizabeth married Robert Browning in 1846, she literally had to escape while Daddy was out.  It worked, and they were married and moved to Italy.  

There have been some theories about Mr. Barrett's possessiveness:
(1) There was African blood (from Jamaican slaves) in the family tree, and Mr. Barrett didn't want it perpetuated.
"For the love of God,
Montressor!"
"Yes, for the love of God."
(2) He was simply a control freak, who wanted to keep his children under his control forever, and almost succeeded entirely.  He certainly seemed determined to keep Elizabeth confined as an invalid for her entire life.  
(3) The Barretts of Wimpole Street flat-out said that he wanted Elizabeth, and perhaps her sister, to be more ( ahem ) than a daughter to him...

BTW: Edgar Allan Poe greatly admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. Poe reviewed her work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that "her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven, and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex". 

I think that Edgar Allan Poe would have cheerfully made Mr. Barrett the object of my favorite Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  

Read the classics - it will take you to places you never thought you'd go.  Just make sure to start off with the right book.  

04 January 2018

Cultivating Hysteria with Pleasure and Terror


A couple of weeks ago, right before Christmas, I read "A Passion for Paris:  Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light" by David Downie, and learned a great deal about Parisian geography, architecture, and the Romantics.  I already knew most of the who was sleeping with whoms - as an historian, I've kept up with all kinds of gossip across the ages - but what fascinated me was the literary exchanges.
               "I have cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror." - Charles Baudelaire

For example, Charles Baudelaire (considered by many to be the modern French poet, and the French poet of modernity) was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. 

Charles Baudelaire in 1848,
portrait by Courbet
"In...1847, I came upon a few fragments of Edgar Allan Poe, and felt a strange sort of shock...[.] I discovered, believe me if you will, poems and stories that I had already thought of, but of which I had only a vague, confused and disorganised idea, and which Poe had managed to pull together and perfect...."  (Source

And Baudelaire promptly dropped (almost) everything, and spent his most productive years (1856-1865) translating Poe’s works into French.  Now he wasn't the first to do translate Poe, but he was the one who made Poe's work sing in French.  (Baudelaire's Translations at Gutenberg Press for free.)  And his translations became the standard throughout Europe.

First note:  Despite his obsession with Poe, when Baudelaire named his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal -- Flowers of Evil in English -- it was in homage of Nathaniel Hawthorne's highly appropriate Rappaccini's Daughter.  (Link here to read on-line)

Second note:  In Memoirs of a Drudge, James Thurber reminisces about working at the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune in Southern France.  (And why didn't my guidance counselor ever tell me about this job?)  Anyway, there were regular printers' strikes, and after one of them, the whole press room, half-tanked, got on a train for Cannes.  Promptly another argument broke out, this time over which was better, the original or the French translation of Poe's The Raven?  And would a real raven be more likely to say, "Jamais plus" or "Nevermore"?  "He returned with the claim the claim that our fellow-passenger to a man were passionately on the side of Jamais plus."  Betcha the translation was Baudelaire's...

"Remarks are not literature" - Gertrude Stein

Another interesting connection was between Gertrude Stein and Gustave Flaubert.  Apparently, Stein set out to translate Flaubert's Three Tales into English to improve her French, but it turned into her own Three Lives, which is certainly nothing like Flaubert's subtle, supple prose.  (I have tried to read her work, but found everything other than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to be breathtakingly, redundantly boring...) 

On the other hand, praises be to Gertrude Stein, whose gatherings in the Rue de Fleurus brought together almost every artist and writer of the early 1900s, launching friendships, love affairs, movements, feuds, innumerable rumors, and most of what we consider modern art.

"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." 
             - Gustave Flaubert

G. LEROUX.jpgSpeaking about original violence, meet Gaston Leroux (1868-1927), the author of  original Phantom of the Opera.  Maybe you haven't read the book, but I'm sure you've seen one of the 14 film versions and 4 stage versions...  (I remember seeing Lon Chaney Sr.'s version when I was a child - nightmare city!)  BTW - Some parts of Phantom are based on reality:  the "Paris Opera House" is based on the real Opera Garnier in Paris, which has underground tunnels and an underground lake. (To visit to the Opera Garnier, go Here.)  A chandelier did fall and kill someone.  There are a couple of stories about the Phantom himself:   one is that it's the ghost of a man whose skeleton was used (I don't know why or how) in a 1841 production at the Paris Opera of Der Freisch├╝tz.  The other is the sad story of Erik, one of the architects of the Opera Granier (who may or not have been disfigured - depends on the legend), but who ended up living underneath the Opera Garnier in his own apartment, with his own passages that led to his own "Box Number 5". 

          Phantom.jpg

Phantom alone should have ensured M. Leroux's fame, but he wrote more than that.  His 1907 super best-seller The Mystery of the Yellow Room has the singular honor of having spurred Agatha Christie to write mysteries.  She and her sister Madge were talking about various detective novels they liked, and The Mystery of the Yellow Room came up, which they both loved.  Christie said she'd like to write a detective novel herself, and Madge said “Well, I bet you couldn’t.” “From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story.” 
  • (A number of Leroux's works are available for free on Gutenberg here, some in French, some in English translation.)  
While I'm at it, a few more interesting bits about Agatha Christie:

Did you know that she was a surfer?  She and her first husband, Archibald Christie, went on a trip from South Africa to Hawaii in 1922, and along the way they learned how to surf.  It's speculated that they were the first English surfers to surf standing up.  Now if I could only find a picture of THAT.  

Studio publicity Gene Tierney.jpg
Did you know that The Mirror Cracked is based not just on Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott but on the actress Gene Tierney?  In 1942, she was volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen when a fan sneaked out of a rubella quarantine to meet her. Tierney was pregnant, and yes, she got rubella, and the result was that her daughter, Daria, was born deaf, partially blind, and severely mentally disabled. It broke her heart, and the child had to be institutionalized.  A couple of years later, Tierney was approached by the fan at a garden party who proudly told her what she'd done: "Everyone told me I shouldn't go," the starstruck woman told Tierney years later at a tennis match, not realizing what she was responsible for, "but I just had to go.  You were my favorite."  (Biography)  

Did you know that Agatha Christie qualified as a "dispenser" (a/k/a pharmacist) in 1917?  That's certainly one way to learn all you want to know about poisons...

Supposedly, she ‘saw’ Hercule Poirot twice in her life, once lunching in the Savoy and once on a boat in the Canary Islands.  And Miss Marple was based on her maternal grandmother who, just like Miss Marple, "always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and were, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right."  

Speaking of "seeing" a detective, how about "seeing" an author?  Look at the three portraits below. 


McKee Dagurreotype of Edgar Allan Poe  


These are all (supposedly) Edgar Allan Poe.  You tell me how Edgar Allan Poe's physical appearance went from the first daguerreotype (the McGee portrait, 1843 or earlier) to the middle portrait (an 1845 painting by Samuel Stillman Osgood) to the final, most famous, one (the "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype) taken in 1848.

And go a step further:  check out the various Poe portraits at the Edgar Allan Poe Organization website.  Frankly, most of them - except the last - look nothing like the image I've always had of Poe.  Who was this shape-shifter, anyway?  Was that why he was found delirious, in great distress, and in clothes that didn't belong to him?  Was there a possession of some kind?  I don't know.

“I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched.” ― 
Edgar Allan Poe

But he was always a master of cultivating terror with hysteria and pleasure...





















30 January 2017

Oops! That Worn't Work


Mary Maloney is a devoted wife and housekeeper. One day her husband, the police chief, announces that he wants a divorce because he has met another woman. Mary is quite angry and kills him with a blow from a frozen leg of lamb. She calls the police and provides am alibi for herself with the story that she'd been out to the store when the murder took place. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Noonan is further frustrated when he cannot find the murder weapon. Knowing of the long and hard hours spent looking into the case, Mary invites Noonan and the other investigators for a bite to eat. They dig into Mary's leg of lamb and Noonan, still thinking about the missing murder weapon, says, "For all we know, it might be right under our very noses."
— Plot summary of LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER, Alfred Hitchcock TV, Season 3 Episode 28. Apl. 58, written by Ronald Dahl (story) Ronald Dahl (teleplay).
What then of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of THE TELL-TELL HEART. The narrator is trying to convince us he is not mad, because he so cleverly treats the old man with such caring and delights. Although that blue eye with the film over it is still looking at him. He plans for a whole seven days. Going so stealthily at mid-night every night to the old man's room and looking in on him. Until finally the great plan comes together and as he quietly opens the door the blue eye looks a him. and after not moving for over an hour begins to hear the beating of the old man's heart.  That only adds to his fury,  he jumps on the old man, the old man screams. He pulls the man to the floor and kills him. The heart is silent.

Then he carefully cuts the corpse up and deposits it under the floor boards of the bedroom chamber. Can anyone who is mad clean up everything and it only took until 4 am. Just as he gets to his own bedroom, there is a loud knocking at the door, A neighbor had reported hearing a dreadful scream.
Three policemen come in. He explains he was the one who screamed waking from a nightmare. He tells then the old man has gone to the country. He takes them all over the house ending in the old man's bed chamber to show them all the old man's precious things are still there. He invites the police to sit and he puts his own chair right over the spot where the dismembered body is located. They sit and talk but after a time he begins to hear a ringing in his ears and then hears the heart beat. It gets louder and louder. he talks more animated and the police keep talking and act as if they don't heat the heart.

Finally he jumps up, rips up the boards and tells the police. "Here, here. I did it and here's the beating of his hideous heart."

Could we ever be as calm and collected  as Mary Maloney? To murder her husband with a leg of lamb then cook and serve it to the policemen who have been investigating?

Or are we as mad and strange as the man committing murder then when he has gotten away with it, slide into total and complete madness because he still hears the heartbeat of the man he killed?

Probably not. But we can write character's who are calm and collected and get totally away with murder. Or a character like the mad man in Poe's story.

However, in real life, just keep your imagination running when you're committing a murder on your laptop. And tell your muse to take a break your are going to cook dinner. You have everything assembled in the crock pot but the final step and notice you need a little more water. You turn the water on and nothing happens. How can that be? You were just using water about five minutes ago.

And your muse says, "How will you clean up all that blood from the kitchen floor if you don't have any water?" And there is quite a lot of blood when you shot your ex-husband who broke into your house, planning to do you bodily harm.

You look up the phone number in the local directory for City Hall to send a crew out to check out what is wrong, but you accidentally dial the police department because the print in the phone book is so small you had placed your finger on the wrong similar number.

"Oops, I dialed the wrong number, Lieutenant. I have a mess on my kitchen floor and suddenly I don't have any water."

05 January 2017

Gifted


Necklines plunged further, needing a chemisette to be worn underneath. Sleeves widened at the elbow, while bodices ended at the natural waistline. Skirts widened and were further emphasised by the addition of flounces.
Victorian Ladies, a/k/a Wikipedia
I trust that everyone had a Merry Christmas,  Happy Hanukkah, Silly Little Solstice, a Happy New Year, survived the holidays (this is harder for some than others - come to an Al-Anon meeting over the holidays some time and I'll show you), and were/are/will be gifted with good things.  We had a lovely time, thank you.

Other than the fact that our furnace went bad on Boxing Day, and we had a couple of days of Victorian temperatures in the house (50s and 60s) while waiting for parts to arrive. (BTW, now I understand completely why Victorians wore 37 pounds of clothing.  It wasn't all about modesty.)  We were lucky.  Considering it was 14 degrees outside, with a windchill of minus 5, when this happened, we were VERY lucky. Our plumber showed up by 8 AM, and our furnace, thank God! is fixed!!!  Huzzah!!!!

I did almost no writing over the holidays - too much going on for concentrated work, and when I did sit down at the old computer (or even the old pad and paper), I managed to distract myself really well. But I did get a lot of reading done.  I always get a lot of reading done.  I have a gift for reading.

I am very fortunate.  I started early.  My mother taught me to read when I was three years old.  (She always said she did it because she got sick of reading the same story to me every night before bedtime, and I believe her.)  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the old living room in Alexandria, VA, with an array of word flash cards that my mother made out of plain index cards.  I specifically remember putting the word "couch" on the couch.  I don't know how long it took me to actually learn to read, but I know that by the time I was four, I was reading [simple] fairy tales on my own.  I can't tell you how magical, how full, how rich, how unforgettable it is to read fairy tales at the right age, all by yourself.

Someone once said, they liked books rather than TV, because books had better pictures.  When you start reading young enough, they do.  Then and now.  I can still remember the worlds that those fairy tales created in my mind - so real that I shivered, walking down a snowy lane.  I could smell the mud under the bridge where the troll lived.  The glass mountain with the glass castle on top of it, and the road running around the bottom.  And it only increased over time.  I know the exact gesture that Anna Karenina made as she turned to see Vronsky at the ball; have heard the Constance de Beverley's shriek of despair, walled up in Lindesfarne; have seen the drunken Fortunato bouncing down the stone walls of the tunnel to the wine vault; have shivered slightly as drops of cool water fell upon the sunbather. For me, reading is a multisensory experience.

And I get drunk on words.  Let's put it this way:  when I read John Donne's poetry, I fell in love with a dead man, and cursed my fate that I never, ever, ever got to meet the man who wrote such burning words...  And I've had the same experience with others:  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Cavafy, Gunter Grass, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Laurie Lee, Rostand, Emily Bronte, Dickinson, I fall hard and deep and willing into words.

My office.  And this isn't the only wall covered with books.
When something gives you this much pleasure, you get good at it.  For over fifty years I've read every day, obsessively, compulsively, constantly. When I was a child, I knew that reading was the best thing in life, and there were too many books and too little time.  So I taught myself to read faster - not speed reading, I don't skip (although thanks to graduate school, I do know how to gut a book) - but I can read every word at an accelerated pace.  (My husband says I devour books.)  And I remember what I read. My mind has its own card catalog, dutifully supplying (still) plot and main characters (sometimes minor ones, too), as well as dialog and best scenes from a whole roomful of books.  And I think about a book, while I'm reading and afterwards.  I analyze it.  I synthesize it with other readings.  I'm damn good at reading.  It's probably the thing I'm best at.
BTW, this was one reason I really enjoyed graduate school, because (in history at least) you spend most of your time reading books - a minimum of 1 per class per week - and then writing an analysis to present to the class, as well as reading everyone else's analysis and arguing away about it.  I was in my element at last.  
Scenes from a Marriage DVD cover.jpgAnyway, constant reading as a child inevitably led to wonder about writing my own.  The real breakthrough into writing came when I realized that the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the "Little House" books was the same as the Laura Ingalls character in the "Little House" books.  Wow!  Real people actually wrote these! So I started writing.  I wrote very bad poetry on home-made cards for my family, and I wrote short-shorts (now called flash fiction).  I tried writing novels, but as a child I thought that you had to start at the beginning and go straight through until the end, without any changes or editing, and it never occurred to me that people plotted things out.  So I was 24 before I wrote my first novel (a sci-fi/fantasy that has been sitting on my shelf - for very good reasons - for years).  

Before that, I went through a folk-singer / rock star stage and wrote songs.  I wrote my first short story in years because someone bet me I couldn't do it (I won that bet), and then many more short stories that were mostly dull.  Until I had a magic breakthrough about writing dialog watching - I kid you not - Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage".  I stayed up all night (I was so much younger then) writing dialog which for the first time sounded like dialog and realized...  well, I went off writing plays for a few years.  Came back to writing short stories.  Along with articles, essays, and blog posts.

And here I am.  Good to see all of you, damn glad to be here.

Meanwhile, Constant Reader (thanks, Dorothy Parker!) keeps on reading.  And re-reading.  Speaking of re-reading, I don't see why people don't do more of it.  I mean, if you like going to a certain place for lunch, dinner, picnics, weekends, or vacations, why not keep reading stories / books that do the trick?  If it's a real knock-out, I'll read it a lot more than twice.  By now I've practically memorized the "Little House" books, "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass", "David Copperfield", "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Death of a Doxy", "The Thin Man", "Pavilion of Women", "The Mask of Apollo", "In This House of Brede", "The Small House at Allington", "Cider With Rosie", "Nemesis", "Death Comes for the Archbishop", "The Round Dozen", and a whole lot more, not to mention a few yards of poetry. Because I want to go to the places those books and stories and poems take me, again and again and again...  Or I'm just in the mood for that voice, like being in the mood for John Coltrane or Leonard Cohen or Apocalyptica, for beef with broccoli or spanakopita or lentil soup.

So, this Christmas, I reread some Dickens, Miss Read's "Christmas Stories", "Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates", and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales".  BTW, I have "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in the collection "Quite Early One Morning", available here, which includes "How To Be A Poet", the most hilarious send-up of the writing life I have ever read.  Excerpt:
"The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach.  This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential...  this poet must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo's hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and - most important of all, this can never be overestimated - a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down."  [Sound advice for us all...]
Reading, writing, good food, good company, good conversation...  life doesn't get much better than this.  I've found my calling, which makes me a very gifted person indeed.

Happy New Year!