FESTIVAL OF STORYTELLERS I–A REJUVENATION OF MOI

I’m readying myself to launch a campaign to market my latest novel, Swindle in Sawtooth Valley, as well as the other five books that have been falling out of print recently. It will make six all in all. There will be more and more about this as the next weeks go on. However, it occurred to me that it might be interesting, if only to me, to recap where my writer self has been and where he might be going.

Watch for streaming events and interviews in the coming weeks featuring yours truly. I am excited to think I finally might be able to persuade folks to get out there, purchase my work, and read read read.

My publishing history has been checkered, meaning that if its meanders were pigmented and divided into colored squares somewhat like Joseph’s coat of many colors, it would look like a kids’ game scrambled. Starting I many a year ago I began writing and  writing  I submitting and enrolling in workshops and conferences. I got positive feedback that translated into meager results–a flash fiction piece here, a short story there, etc., none of which translated into cash. I never did have serious dreams of blockbuster success–pulitzers, movie deals and the like–but I did want someone to actually publish something of mine, and I wanted  people to read it and, of course, love it. For years, I typed and typed, looked for publishers, bought countless 9×12 envelopes, patronized our failing postal system (I like to think I’ve helped keep it alive, limping though it is.), catalogued reams of rejections (“does not fit our needs” seems to be a favorite sentence that accompanies the thrust of the rejection dagger.” I of course eschewed what we in the old days called “vanity presses”, organizations who were glad to put your words in print as long as you paid a generous toll. Not me. I wanted someone else to pay for the copyreading, the cover, the printing, and the distribution.

Then, along came Solstice Publishers. Suddenly, after all those years of typing stuff up and sending it in,  The Maxwell Vendetta was ready to hit the shelves, and my publishing career proper was born. Then came The Second Vendetta. A sequel to The Maxwell Vendetta. I had become the creator of a frontier family saga set in a part of northern california where I had grown up, still lived, and to which I was devoted. “Profound satisfaction” is not too strong a term to apply to what I felt about all this. History had always been a love of mine, and here was a chance to pen tales set in a period of history in a locale where I felt at home and to make my work available to one and all.

I then decided to extend my reach. I’d been dealing with people and events of the turn of the 20th century–1910-1914, to be exact. I didn’t feel as if I wanted to get more contemporary than that, so I turned the other way, jumping back into another period in which I felt just as comfortable and with which I was just as fascinated. Bonita was a 12-year old girl living in Yerba Buena (later San Francisco), privileged and spirited. Then it all fell apart. Spoiler? Maybe so. Read it and get the whole experience. The story gave me the chance to trace her coming of age through major events of the mid-19th century. The anglo settling of Mexican California, the Mexican-American war, the gold rush. Her adventures are many, painful, and triumphant. Bonita got a sequel, too. You Can’t Keep Her, traces the adult Bonita’s attempt to discover who her real parents were. I had great fun taking her back to New Orleans as she searched.

Then things went in still another direction. A writing colleague whom I had met through  a mutual internet friend (Les Edgerton by name), proposed a project that seemed completely out of my wheelhouse. Bob Stewart was a native Texan who’d been exploring the history of the woman who was the real, authentic Yellow Rose (know that song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas?”. That’s what this was all about.) Bob wanted us to collaborate.  The whole thing would be set during the Texas revolution of 1836. “But Bob,” I told him. “I know nothing about that event. Plus, all I know about Texas I got from reading the papers and driving through it one time years ago.” Well, he wouldn’t let go. Somehow he thought that his Texas Christian conservatism and my California liberalism could make a match. Intrigued and, frankly, flattered I agreed. The result was The Yellow Rose, the tale of one Emily West (or “Morgan” as she is known around San Antonio, et al) and her supposed part in defeating Santa Anna and the Mexican army and establishing the Texas Republic, all in the course of a few momentous months. We were both (justifiably, I think) proud of the book. I’m happy that Bob got a chance to see and hold it in his hands before he passed away shortly after its publication.

During all this, my book sales lagged from paltry to non-existent. Finally, Solstice cut me loose. I was nicely set up as a writer, but a sad excuse for a marketer. As benevolent as Solstice was in other respects, they gave their clients little or no help in the promotion department. It was up to us to find readers and persuade them to buy our books. I’m told this is a common circumstance these days. You don’t get book tours and interviews and all the rest unless you”re  an A-lister, which I wasn’t and still aren’t. So for that publisher, it was so long, Carl, been good to know ya. I don’t blame Solstice. They had to make a buck and I wasn’t helping.

I’m too old (80 at this writing) to go back to play that mailing game I did for so many years, but I am not ready to give up either writing or publishing. I finally turned to my current outfit, Readers Magnet. I’m paying a lot of money ($900 per) to put my books back in print after Solstice bid me farewell. At this stage in my life I have some money to spend, and I want to be able to get my books back out there as well as the one, Swindle in Sawtooth Valley, which never has been out there. This one is installment number three of the saga of the Maxwell family, that story which began so long ago with The Maxwell Vendetta

So, if you’ve been counting, that makes six historical novels. It makes six historical novels even if you haven’t been counting. That’s my total ouvre except for those short pieces I mentioned earlier.


INTO THE FLAMES–HOW FIRES END

Literature and textbooks and movies are replete with stories of the victors, the defeated, and the victims of WWII. Most often they are morality plays that portray the Nazi’s as devils and the allies as angels. It’s gotten so I automatically turn off my entertainment response meter when I see a swastika on screen or see the word “Panzer” or “Sherman Tank” on the page. I know what I’m going to get. Except for an occasional twist like Inglorious Basterds,” the story arcs are virtually identical. And even then . . .

How Fires End is a welcome anomaly.   It avoids two cliche pitfalls. First, we don’t get black hat nazis v. white hat western allies. Then, although the community in question originates in Sicily, it blessedly proceeds with no Godfathers or Mafiosi. What blessings.

Instead,  Marco Rafala gives us a complex interfamily drama so filled with pain and contradiction and love that it’s often hard to imagine. In the  macro picture, we are in the midst of the allied invasion of Italy during the waning days of WWII. Those allies, the good guys, blanket the place with explosives indiscriminately, spreading “collateral damage” hither and yon. Some of the people they bomb joined with the axis powers commanded by Mussolini. Bad guys? Well, when the tanks roll in and tell  you to join up or you and your family die, what are you to do? Others, never in uniform, were peasants trying to get from one end of each day to the other without losing legs, arms, lives, family. The most poignant story, one which haunts both a major character and the reader throughout the story, is of two young boys, too young to know better, finding an unexploded shell in an orchard. You can guess what comes next.

All of these folks, as I said, come from the same region of Sicily and bring their prejudices and grudges (and boy, can they hold grudges) with them, which means on the micro level, there are ugly incidents here in the USA town that have little or nothing to do with war at large. By more than coincidence, the immigrants settle in the small community of Middletown, Connecticut. Middletown is perhaps best known as the home of Wesleyan University, an ivy league-like institution that one would think of as scholarly and sedate. Turns out it is an island among these blue collar Europeans who bring their tribal loyalties and feuds with them while they work in the fisheries and factories that surround the unaware scholars. Thus do the conflicts in town mirror those in the nation and world.

Not only is Rafala’s perspective refreshing, not only does it bring new insight into a history of which few of us are aware, but it is a tale skillfully and touchingly told. Plenty of pain. Plenty of love. A sea of malevolence and goodness and unintended consequences. You don’t get something like this often. Go out and read it. You’ll be the better for it.


AN ARC, AN ARC, MY KINGDOM FOR AN ARC

LAUREN GROLL

Now, I seldom, maybe almost never, talk much

about the arc of a story. Even books I don’t much care for have one, for good or ill, and I tend to concentrate on character story in terms of reader impact. But I recently read two novels in a row that are very disappointing in the arc department. Not a frequent happening. It’s sort of liking spotting a dodo bird, then realizing it’s a mirage. Normal approach would be to treat them separately, first one, then the other, but their deficiencies are to similar, I’d rather clutch them together in my hot little fist and toss them into the nearest bin together. Unfortunately, the printed page is by nature linear, so first comes Lauren Groff,  it says here, is a two-time national book award finalist. I assume her other works are far superior to The Matrix because I respect that particular award and would hate to think the quality has sunk to this novel. I bought it because it sounded fascinating, a 12th century tale about a middle daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became a power-wielding nun and created a fascinating abbey shorn entirely of men. Sounds like a sure winner. Prose style is good. Characters are vivid. What could go wrong? Read on.

Hernan Diaz sets his In The Distance primarily in the American west in the gold rush era. Main character is Swedish, who is shipwrecked with his brother on the coast of South America (I think) and is saddled with the task of finding his brother, from whom he became separated in the wreck. Speaking no English, the only knowledge of his new-found land is that his brother was headed to New York, so he figures he should go there to connect. Not a bad setup, especially if, like me, you’re particularly interested in that time and place. See my novels, The Maxwell Vendetta, The Second Vendetta, Bonita, and the upcoming Swindle in Sawtooth Valley if you don’t believe me. I believe all three of these are far, far superior to either of the books I’m describing here.

And that’s enough said in general about these two tales. Obviously, their settings are disparate, but what they have in common are the distinct lack of what I refer to in the title of this article. Aristotle (How often do I quote him? Once again, seldom.) said a well-told tale needs a beginning, middle and an end. The arc. Not to be pedantic about it. I can point to plenty of stories whose progression are not exactly clean. The Sound and The Fury is one sometimes-baffling example. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is anything but linear. In the volumes under consideration, we have beginnings, certainly. Perhaps we have middles, but I don’t think you can have an ending unless there’s an ending. Matrix has no end except that the main character (at last!) dies, demonstrating nothing except perhaps that all human works–male or female–are pretty much in vain by the end. Beyond that statement, which doesn’t require hours of reading to arrive at. I admit to not quite finishing In the Distance, and I don’t usually quit on a book. Being an author myself, I feel disloyal laying aside the best efforts of another toiler in the literary vineyards. But once again, the main character trundles along from one crisis to another without much sense of progress. Does he reunite with his brother? That’s probably where the book is headed, but I don’t much know nor care.

As for this piece? At least it is now coming to a stop. You judge whether the stop qualifies as an ending.

HERNAN DIAZ

 

WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DIE

 

       Because I could not stop for death

It was Emily Dickinson who wrote that. I thought of her lines a couple of nights ago when we gathered to remember, to laugh and pray and praise our dear friend and colleague, Peter. He was a young man who, as the phrase goes, "died too doon." And I've been pondering what that phrase means. Is there a time when we (or someone) can judge--"All right. You're old enough now. This far. No farther."
                       
He kindly stopped for me –

Surely, Peter's passing was a shock and well short of the biblical "three score and ten" we are supposedly allotted. But then, what is "too soon"? Abraham Lincoln was 56 when he was assassinated. JFK was ten years short of that. Martin Luther King, Jr. 39.We'd probably agree, on these,  but what about all those others? That guy Adolph, for example? Was he too soon or too late? But those are exemplars, not answers. 
One way to put it might be this: "Too young" means way too soon to accomplish what a person might have accomplished had they been able to continue. Or  too soon for the rest of us (jealously) fully to treasure their gifts.  
I think that's a rather poor summation. But then, I'm not qualified to judge these things even though I seem to insist writing about them. When, I ask, should you to call a halt and when should you keep things going? Beats me. All I can do is love and remember and be grateful for the time we  had with him here below.

         Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
         Feels shorter than the Day
         I first surmised the Horses' Heads
         Were toward Eternity – 

 


AIRPORT FANTASY
>

 

An airport you’d think was set up as a place for transportation, and I mean the swiftest known on earth outside rockets and spaceships. But add it all up, the time, I mean, getting to and from an airport, sitting in airport waiting for a plane, for a delayed plane, a meal you’re paying 200% for, waiting for a rental or a bus or some other snailish form ground-wheeled transport, and you have to conclude that an airport is nothing more than a way station set up to block or at least delay your ability to take your butt from one place to another. Or maybe a storage locker for aluminum Da Vinci feathered creatures to rest up before or after some arduous journey from hither to yon.

Today there’s lots of glass to look through more taller and wider than anything I might need but still not enough to see what I really want which is what happened to put me here or what is going to happen when I leave. For I will have to eventually leave I think. There was a movie once about a guy trapped in an airport. I don’t remember much about it except that it wasn’t a situation a person would want to be stuck in.

But, I remind myself, I’m not stuck. I have options. I have a ticket in my pocket, which I could use to board one of those leap-into-the-sky machines. Or I could cash it in, get a refund, and walk out to somewhere else. Or I could skip the part about cashing anything in and just walk out.

But where would go?

I don’t know that any more than I knew it when I bought this ticket to—where was it again?—Boise, Idaho. Weird name Boise. Boy—see. Or is it Boyz—ee? I looked it up once, but those things never stick in my mind. The name itself has something to do with wood or trees. None of these things mean a thing to me or my life, so why would I gravitate toward this place? I must have laid down my cash because of some inner urge I was seeking to understand or to discover.

At any rate, now I don’t know why I started all this or why and figure I might as well give it all up and go back to what I was doing before.

Which was what, exactly?

And that was what she always said, Gretchen, that is. That she loved me and all and we had great times together but that she needed someone she could stick with and she could never stick with someone as aimless as I am. No goals, no direction. It’s as if she said I had no past or future, was born into the moment, whatever that moment was, and never moved beyond it.

She’s right, of course. But I always figured what was wrong with that? I love the moments, the moments of every day. What else is there to need?

Well that didn’t go with Gretchen, so she is now off somewhere else in some other moment that doesn’t include me. And as for me, it looks like I’m headed to Boise, or will be shortly, unless I cash in my ticket, or don’t, or just walk away, or just wander around the airport till someone apprehends me or interrogates me or arrests me. Then will I know why I’m here?

I don’t know. Real question is do I really care why I’m here? Or anywhere else for that matter?

These are questions to be asked as Falstaff says in some play or another as if it made or makes a difference.

I seem to recall that in that play, it doesn’t make a difference, and I seem to remember there is something about blackberries in that line, though what shakespeare was doing writing about blackberries or what Falstaff was doing talking about them I can’t imagine.

Maybe if I’d been less aimless (or more aimful?) about things, I’d know the answer. Or care.

As it stands, I am standing in a Southwest Airlines line, boarding pass number C22 and I guess I’m going to shuffle my way through this door that looks like it belongs in a bank vault and find out what I’m doing here. Or there.

I might even care.