Showing posts with label On the Road with Del & Louise. Show all posts
Showing posts with label On the Road with Del & Louise. Show all posts

27 May 2016

Update: Raymond Queneau

By Art Taylor

As I've mentioned a few times before, I often start a writing session with a little bit of reading—most frequently from a writing guide of some kind, to ease me into thinking about craft. In a column earlier this year, near the start of the semester, I talked briefly about Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which I had begun delving into a page or two a day. Here's what I wrote then:

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

That page or two every day or so has continued intermittently over the semester—as has my writing, I'm sad to say (too intermittently)—and there's still a good chunk of Exercises in Style left to go. But I've finally decided to put the book away without reading it in full.

As even a quick glimpse at the book's cover reveals, Exercises in Style has its champions. Italo Calvino said that the book "gives rise to a whole range of wildly diverse literary texts," for example, and Umberto Eco compared it to "inventing the wheel."And while that back cover quotes the original Washington Post review, the Post review of this new edition declares the book simply a "revolution."

I'll agree. There's something exciting about the variety of approaches Queneau employs in telling the story, the range of storytelling techniques and tones, the way that all of it opens up a little wider the world or writing, our understanding of that world. "Apotrophe" begins "O platinum-nibbed stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibusilistic cause." A few pages later, "Telegraphic" offers something drastically different: "BUS CROWDED STOP YNGMAN LONGNECK PLAITENCIRCLED HAT APOSTROPHISES UNKNOWN PASSENGER UNAPPARENT REASON STOP...." In between are brief exercises in the senses, among them "Olfactory" ("In that meridian S, apart from the habitual smell, there was a smell of beastly seedy ego, of effrontery, of jeering, of H-bombs, of a high jakes, of cakes and ale, of emanations, of opium, of...."), "Gustatory" ("This particular bus had a certain taste. Curious, but undeniable."),  and "Auditory" ("Quacking and letting off, the S came rasping to a halt alongside the silent pavement").

All these are terrific and provocative. But then I hit several sections of "Permutations" including "Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters," which begins "Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da he nt ar re at pl rm fo an...." And I'll admit I'm not sure what to do with it—or more to the point, how reading such passages might help boost my own writing, though I'm sure even these specific passages might well have sparked other writers' imaginations.

After hitting that section, I found myself browsing ahead rather than reading straight through. And now I've found myself putting the book aside.

A couple of questions for others here:
  • What craft books (I use that term very loosely) have successfully sparked your writing?
  • And how often do you put aside books—any books, not just writing books—without reading them in full? 
I'm curious particularly on that latter question—since readers tend to have very strong opinions about whether a book once started absolutely needs to be finished.

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IN OTHER NEWS: I was very pleased that my fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti chose my story "Restoration" from Crime Syndicate Magazine's debut issue as the "best mystery story I read this week" over at his blog Little Big Crimes. "Restoration" was a real departure in many ways for me—a quick foray into more speculative fiction—and it struggled for a while to find a home, both in more traditional crime fiction publications (too much science fiction) and in the few science fiction magazines I submitted to (not enough for them). Given all that, I was thrilled when it found a home at the edgy and excellent Crime Syndicate and especially pleased now that it's gotten such a kind reception at Little Big Crimes. Thanks so much, Rob!

And finally, a quick plug for an upcoming event between now and my next column here—a very special one for my wife and me. On Monday, June 6, at 6 p.m., my wife—Tara Laskowski—and I will be giving a joint reading at the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Maryland. Tara will be reading from her new story collection Bystanders and I'll be reading from On the Road with Del & Louise. While it's not entirely uncommon for Tara and I to appear on the same program, what makes this event special is that June 6 is our seventh wedding anniversary! At least we'll be together for the evening, right? Anyone who's in the area, please do come out to help us celebrate. :-)


31 January 2016

Road Trips

by Dale C. Andrews
The spaciousness of it astounds me; this is the kind of country you dream of running away to when you are very young and innocently hungry, before you learn that all land is owned by somebody, that you can get arrested for swinging through trees in a loincloth, and that you were born either too late or too poor for everything you want to do.
                                                 Peter S. Beagle 
                                                 I See by my Outfit 
On July 7, 1919 a young army captain named Dwight David Eisenhower joined 294 other members of the army and departed from Washington D.C. in the military's first automobile caravan across the country. Due to poor roads and highways, the caravan averaged five miles per hour and took 62 days to reach Union Square in San Francisco.
                                                 Interstate Highways: The Largest Public Works Project                
                                                     in History 
                                                 U.S. Department of Transportation, Government Printing Office

Time to run away from home!
     Today, January 31, the lingering remains of the blizzard of 2016 will be in the rear view mirror. We are on the road, driving from Washington, D.C. -- where February (the longest month of the year) begins with tomorrow’s sunrise -- to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Any readers who have followed my posts with regularity over the last few years may well recognize a routine here. Every winter my wife and I retreat to the south for five weeks, leaving our adult son in charge of house and cats.

       Each year our drive takes us along Highway 81 through the Shenandoah Valley and then Roanoke.  Eventually we veer off on I-75 through Knoxville, and then on to Chattanooga, where we will spend the night.  The next day we will begin heading south again, past Lookout Mountain, site of the Civil War battle that bears its name. Fleetingly we will skirt Georgia before our southerly run continues down the State of Alabama, through Birmingham, and then just east of Monroeville, where Harper Lee still resides. Eventually we will cross the Intracoastal Waterway where we will likely stop for lunch at Lulu's (owned and run by Jimmy Buffett's sister).  And then we are there. All of this, except the last few miles, is on interstate highways that plot a rhumb line to the Gulf. 

       When you feel like getting away, well . . . there is nothing like a road trip. Driving the highways speaks to me, as it does to many, as resonantly in my 60’s as it did in the 60’s. The road beckons many of us, and that is reflected throughout our lives, and often our literature. 

      As a college student sometime back in the mid-1960’s I remember wandering into the West End Library in Washington, D.C. looking for some light reading. Something that was decidedly not a text book; escapism while falling asleep. In my search of the shelves I eventually stumbled onto a volume entitled I See by my Outfit authored by Peter S. Beagle. It turned out that Beagle was already moderately well known for his rather macabre first novel, A Fine and Private Place -- don’t confuse that one with the Ellery Queen mystery bearing the same title -- and was probably even better known for his second novel, The Last Unicorn, which, according to one science fiction poll was named the fifth all-time best sci/fi novel ever. But when I wandered into the library that day I had read neither of those books, nor had I heard of Peter Beagle. And my eye had been caught by a non-fiction work Beagle published between those two early novels. What the Hell. I checked it out. 

       I See by my Outfit is an account of a trip that is easy to describe but (as Beagle demonstrated) difficult in the execution. It recounts the adventures, encounters and reflections of Beagle and his close friend Phil Segunick as they purchase matching Vespa motorbikes and then proceed to ride them from New York City to San Francisco, all so that Beagle can reconnect with his girlfriend. The title? It derives from the ballad Streets of Laredo and, more specifically, from the Smothers Brothers’ parody of that song, which Peter Beagle and his companion sing out as they take off across America on their sputtering scooters:  I see by your outfit, that you are a cowboy . . . . Get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy too.

       So that is the premise. But what the book is about is two young hippy kids who forsake everyday obligations and take off in an ill-thought out adventure. And in doing so they discover America -- the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly.

    As a college student trying to figure out what I needed to do to make something of myself this turned out to be seminal escapism. I couldn’t put the book down, and though I do not own a copy I remember it well to this day. As a youngster still learning the tools needed to successfully join the rat-race of life what could be more tempting than this romance about folks my age who on a whim decided to hit the open road? The idea of just chucking it all. Not worrying about next year let alone the next decade. Forgetting about college. Forgetting about Nixon and Viet Nam. Just getting on a friendly little Vespa and cruising down those long open highways. 

       I See by my Outfit, never a best seller even in its time, is a now an obscure example of road trip literature. It's still out there, though.  Centro Books re-issued Beagle’s coming of age travelog in paperback in 2007, and finally, as of last November, it is also available as a Kindle e-book.

     There are, however, lots of other example of readily available road trip parables -- non-fiction as well as fiction. If you hanker to hear from other authors who took to the highways you might try the granddaddy of road trip tales, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, or Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent. Bryson's road trip yarn focuses on smaller roads and towns, as does William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, so if that's what you are looking for either might be just your thing. In the fiction realm you could try Cormack McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road, or Stephen King’s The Stand, much of which occurs on the road. Tom Wolfe’s early success The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test sort of splits the difference between factual narration and fiction as it follows the drug-induced meanderings of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters crossing the country in their psychedelic school bus named “Further.” Or you might try Angels by Denis Johnson, a road trip featuring some really seedy bus stations.  In their own way each of these works, fiction or non-fiction, real or imagined, set in the past, present or imagined future, echoes Simon and Garfunkel -- they've all come to look for America.

       Looking for something more recent?  Perhaps a road trip tale that serves up a little crime and mystery along the way? My SleuthSayers colleague Art Taylor’s newly published On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories is at the top of my “to read” list. In fact, it's already loaded on my tablet, stowed safely in my overnight bag behind the front seat.  And all of Art's interconnected stories, as the title suggests, take place on the road.

       So all of this is on my mind as I drive southwest on I-81. Back in the 1960s as tempted as I was by I See by my Outfit I couldn’t make myself do it. There was college, then law school, then the career. And there was family, and there were kids.  But that freedom I lacked then I now have in retirement. You just have to be lucky enough to live long enough. Also on my mind, though, is the highway itself, and the network of other interstate highways that criss-cross America making all of our road trips, real or virtual, possible. 

       I think back to a story my father used to tell. He was born in 1916 -- yikes! 100 years ago.  This story probably dates from the early 1920s, when he was a small child. He grew up in St. Louis, but his family previously came there from Vandalia, Illinois, about 75 miles to the east. They had always visited Vandalia relatives by train, but there came a time when his father, my grandfather, decided that the trip could be done by automobile. They decided to give it a try.

       According to my father the family started out from St. Louis early in the morning, without a map, heading east across the Mississippi. After the vaguely familiar streets of East St. Louis, Illinois had been put behind them they were in the unknown.  Every few miles my grandfather would slow down, hail someone by the side of the road and ask how to get to Vandalia. The roadside sage would stroke his chin and opine on the road to follow, at least for the next few miles. When those directions had been followed (or discarded as ill-advised) my grandfather would hail the next person he saw road-side and repeat the question.

       According to my father the family eventually reached Vandalia -- again, 75 miles away -- just over 13 hours after they had departed St. Louis. It is, however, unfair to blame all of this directly on bad directions and the meandering roads of rural America in the 1920s. Some of the delay was more indirect -- resulting from the eight blown tires that my grandfather had to repair roadside along the way.
The Madonna of the Trail statue in
Vandalia, Illinois.  (In front of the first
Illinois capitol building)
       Such was the state of our roads 100 years ago, and that is what Captain Dwight Eisenhower, as recounted in the quote above, encountered when he was ordered in 1919 to see if it was actually possible as a practical matter to drive coast to coast from east to west. Most of the roads Eisenhower traversed were two lane pavement laid over the original trails connecting adjacent towns.

       Vandalia was actually pretty lucky as it happens -- it was situated at the end of the National Road, the first major highway constructed by the Federal Government that had some sense to it. The road followed the Old National Trail that began in Cumberland, Maryland and was the route traveled by settlers headed west. In towns spread out along the trail, you can still find “Madonna of the Trail” statues, one in each state, commemorating those pioneers. One stands, to this day, in Vandalia

       Construction of the National Road was begun in 1811, and ended in 1837 when the road had reached Vandalia. The plan was to continue the project until the National Road reached St. Louis -- which would have made things easier for my grandfather -- but the panic of 1837 and the resulting national financial collapse put an end to those ambitions. So there was some order and logic to the route when a traveler attempted to drive from the beginning of the road, in Cumberland Maryland, to Vandalia. But after Vandalia, on the roads my family drove in the 1920s, anarchy reigned.

       Aside from the National Road, and a few other similar national projects, roads in the United States were originally constructed mostly at the whim of localities -- black top and portland cement strips of two lanes, climbing every hill, dropping into every valley, skirting property lines and connecting nearby towns as best they were able. There were virtually no roadside signs, and there were few maps. And that was the transportation chaos that Eisenhower encountered in 1919 when he was charged with determining whether a coast to coast automobile road trip was feasible. 

The National Road
       Things did improve. The National Road, with Federal help, became U.S. 40, and it did finally reach St. Louis and beyond. Highways 50 and 66 managed to span the country. But those United States roadways in the 1940s and 1950s were still difficult, at best. Eisenhower noted all of this, and never forgot his 62 day transcontinental road trip. It’s a shame he didn’t record his journey. It would have been a great addition to our literature of the road. 

       In any event, when Eisenhower commanded the Allied forces in World War II he had the personal experience from which to compare the German autobahn network with our congeries of two lane asphalt. Eisenhower knew that we needed to profit from the European approach to road building, and some ten years later as President he was finally in a position to do something about it. Largely through his efforts Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and, once signed into law, the United States embarked on the greatest public works project in history -- the design and construction of the national Interstate Highway System. Funded by a Federal gasoline tax, the Interstate Highway System now ecompasses some 46,000 miles of dual lane limited access highways, connecting us as a nation. 

The Interstate Highway System
       We live with and on the Interstate Highway System, and we have for 50-some years. Given this, it is difficult, sometimes, not to become complacent. We are tempted to act as though these highways were always here. But Eisenhower’s vision made a huge difference for America then and now. Here’s how the History Channel summarizes it
Today, there are more than 250 million cars and trucks in the United States, or almost one per person. At the end of the 19th century, by contrast, there was just one motorized vehicle on the road for every 18,000 Americans. At the same time, most of those roads were made not of asphalt or concrete but of packed dirt (on good days) or mud. Under these circumstances, driving a motorcar was not simply a way to get from one place to another: It was an adventure. Outside cities and towns, there were almost no gas stations or even street signs, and rest stops were unheard-of. “Automobiling,” said the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper in 1910, was “the last call of the wild.”
        There are ongoing debates today about whether, and how, we can continue to fund the marvelous infrastructure of highways connecting our towns and cities. The Federal Highway Trust Fund, the source for building and maintaining the Interstate Highway system, is supported by the gasoline tax, which sits now at 18.4 cents for each gallon of gasoline purchased.  That rate has not risen since the Clinton administration. In the intervening years inflation has taken its toll. And, ironically, as we continue to build more efficient cars fewer gallons of fuel are used, so fewer per gallon taxes are collected. All of this at a time when the highways, now often more than half a century old, are in need of infrastructure investments. Whether, and how, that problem can be solved is a debate for elsewhere, not here. But suffice it to say that maintaining the highway system we have built will only become more difficult. In 2008, for the first time, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, fueled by that gasoline tax, was in the red. And without additional funding that deficit will continue and will grow every year.

       Those concerns aside, it is still our luck now -- today -- to be able to freely roam these united States on our own, behind the wheel. Unshackled, we can live and write about the experience.     So, for the road trips we take, and the road trips we write about
-- here's to you, Ike! 

       I'm on I-75 now; I-81 is well astern.  Is that Chattanooga up ahead?  'Bout time to call it a day.

05 September 2015

Fresh Starts

by Art Taylor

As many of you know, Art Taylor is a busy and talented guy. He has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity, and three consecutive Derringers, and has twice been a finalist for an Anthony. His work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Washington Post, Mystery Scene, and many other publications, and one of his short stories (along with stories by our own Rob Lopresti and David Edgerley Gates) was named in the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” list in the upcoming Best American Mystery Stories 2015. His novel On the Road With Del & Louise will be released in September. This guest post is his first column for SleuthSayers, and he’ll come on board permanently next month. Please join me in welcoming him! —John Floyd
 

First of all, thanks to John for the introduction here and the invitation to join SleuthSayers—and to everyone here for the warm welcome!

The title above—"Fresh Starts"—gives a nod toward this post being a debut and not simply a guest outing, though there's more to it than that, drawing on thoughts sparked both by where I'm at right now (more on that in a minute) and by my forthcoming book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, which was the occasion of being invited for a guest post here in the first place. In the process, maybe there are some useful reflections ahead on the novel in stories as a form or on craft generally.

As I'm drafting this post (always draft, always revise), it's the first week of the semester at George Mason University where I teach—and these first weeks of school have always held a magical sense of new beginnings, not just as a professor now but hearkening back to my own earliest school days, new classes, new teachers, new subjects—usually new clothes too, trading out well-worn shorts for a couple of pairs of stiff Levi's. January 1 may be the time for resolutions, but to me, late August and early September have always felt like the true start of a new year. And though the soon-to-be-falling leaves might suggest for some a turn toward dying and death, autumn itself always fills me with a sense of possibility and of anticipation.

As a writer, I tend to think generally in terms of narrative, I guess—possibilities, plot points, the arc of a storyline—even as I reflect on my own life. So memories for me are grounded not necessarily by calendar year or birthdays ("I was eight when....") but by school year: This happened in kindergarten, this in fifth grade, this my junior year of high school, this my freshman year of college.

Maybe other folks are somehow dominated by seasons too with their stories, whether autumn or others: holiday tales and traditions; sordid spring break or spring fling stories; or those summer romances that generally fade with the return to school. How many freshmen college students have just recently had tough talks with their high school sweethearts? And if they haven't already, many of them surely will soon. More adventures to be had ahead, more thrills, more heartbreak, more everything.

I've been thinking of "fresh starts" too with my book coming out in a little less than two weeks—and not just because it's my debut (of sorts; I've been writing a long, long time, after all) or because the title characters, small time crooks trying to go straight, talk time and again (and again) about the need to make a fresh start themselves. More to the point, it's because the novel is structured as six short stories, each with its own beginning, middle, and end—a concept that's already caused some trouble. Isn't it a collection then? because a novel is....

Short response to question/confusion: Each short story does offers its own fresh start, sometimes timed with the fresh starts that the characters are trying to make, and its own independent resolution, but together the six stories tell an overarching, evolving story of this couple's search for stability and for each other and for a sense of family and a place to call home—longer, stretchier narrative threads.

But even with that short response, I recognize that there are more possibilities for readers to stumble (one early Goodreads review complained about my "chapters" being so long) and there are aspects of such a structure that all us writers should consider as well with such a project: pacing, of course; the overlap between an individual story's narrative arc and the large story's broader arc; and—to keep circling back—the trouble of the "fresh start" for each component story.

Years ago, a friend of mine sent a manuscript for me to review—a terrific story overall, characters in crises both internal and externals, plenty of conflict, no lack of drama, but I was concerned about how the chapters always ended on a note of resolution, relief, calm. Some writers try too hard to close each chapter on a cliffhanger (need to get the readers to turn the page!), but this was the extreme opposite, and I suggested very simply that she just break up the chapters differently, slide those chapter breaks back a little on the interweaving narrative arcs of plots and subplots—makes those breaks somewhere in the rising action rather than always after the falling action.

Stole this from the internet; my own arcs would be more like a mountain range.


Del and Louise get in plenty of trouble—both with one another and with others: a series of house break-ins against a recession-addled real-estate market; plans for a wine heist; a hold-up in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, etc., along with their continuing struggles to connect, stay connected. But with each story, I was trying to draw some resolution to the tale at hand (real estate robberies, wine heist, etc.) before making those fresh starts in new directions, even as longer, larger conflicts persist.

I hope that I paced it out OK. I can't help but wonder about the potential side effects of the breaks that result by these being stories. They could look like chapters, couldn't they? And how would that work?

I can't help but think of real life, of course, as I'm maneuvering through the fictional troubles of my characters. A friend of mine told me not long ago that he needed a break from everything: job troubles, relationship troubles, other troubles—and that was the word he kept coming back to: "break." So I asked him whether he meant "break" in terms of a "taking a break" (a vacation, for example) or in terms of "making a break"? ...meaning making a break with some bad choices, bad plans, bad circumstances. There was, I pointed out, a difference.

A renewed you and a new you are two different things as well. As Louise in my book says about another character, "He couldn’t get away from who he was, I thought—then realized maybe none of us could."

New Year's resolutions, the optimism and anticipation of a fall semester's first week, the opening paragraphs of the next in a set of linked stories—even that friend's sense that catching his breath might help recharge him to deal with lingering troubles.... I keep wondering if "fresh starts" are generally illusory, arbitrary—just a matter of shifting that "section break" to a different place in the ongoing narrative.

In real life, we hope not, of course! Unlike Louise's doubts, I remain optimistic about the possibilities for change: those resolutions, that renewal...even redemption. And I hope all that for my friend, always.

But in fiction, of course, it's the conflicts we crave—continual almost, a heap of grief. For Del and Louise, each new opening fortunately leads to the next round of conflicts—life as an escalating set of troubles.

Circling back, circling back again...and having said all that, I've got high hopes for my own new beginnings here at SleuthSayers, of course! May all my essays and reflections here go smoothly—saving any challenges and conflicts for my fictional creations, out there on other pages.

Looking forward to chatting and interacting with my fellow blog mates and our readers on future posts!