Thursday, March 19, 2015

March 19, 2015
          Writers of the world, have you been working on your opus without a breakthrough for years?  Take heart. The mathematician Yitang Zhang, after decades of beating his head against a brick wall, intuited the solution to a very nearly impossible problem involving prime numbers while walking around in a friend’s back yard.  The only remotely comparable experience I’ve ever had was back in the summer of 2002 when virtually all of my novel Waiting for Teddy Williams came to me in a minute or two while I was driving very late at night on the New York State Thruway, near Batavia.  In small ways, however, I think we clueless scribblers intuit solutions to problems of character, story, language, and structure all the time.  To return to the field of mathematics – with a very bad pun – go figure.  Still, as I was putting the finishing touches on my own new novel (God’s Kingdom, St. Martin’s Press, Oct. 2015), it occurred to me that when it comes to the sources of creativity, there’s probably more in this world than is dreamt of in anybody’s philosophy. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

February Reading

There's an excellent article in the combined Feb. 17 and 24 issues of THE NEW YORKER magazine, by George Packer, called "Cheap Words: Is Amazon's Business Model Good for Books?"

After reading Packer's article with increasing outrage and anger, I can answer that question in one word: No.  By under-pricing both print and electronic books in order to drive "traffic" through their website, and otherwise monopolizing the bookselling business, Amazon is making it exceedingly difficult for serious publishers, writers, and booksellers, and therefore serious readers, to survive.  (Of course, Amazon doesn't usually refer to readers who shop at their online site as "readers."  In the Amazonian argot, readers are referred to – I kid you not – as consumers.")

That's why it's so important for readers, writers, and booksellers everywhere to support brave, new publishing ventures like Green Writers Press, in Brattleboro, Vermont, which is committed to publishing serious fiction, non-fiction, and poetry with place-based or environmental themes.  Using recycled paper and other environmentally friendly materials, Green Writers is publishing beautifully-made books by some of Vermont's and America's best writers.  Please look for the just-published poetry anthology SO LITTLE TIME and, next month, acclaimed Vermont poet Leland Kinsey's seventh collection, WINTER READY, as examples of what GWP is doing to keep both good literature and what's left of the natural world around us alive and well, in Vermont and far beyond.

And by the way.  If you have the slightest doubt concerning Amazon's ethical bankruptcy, but don't have time just now to read the entire George Packer article, please scan what he as to say about the working conditions at Amazon's "fulfillment centers" (aka warehouses), on pp. 73-74 of the magazine.  Where is Charles Dickens when we need him?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Winter Reading

Like many another native of upstate New York’s fabled “snow belt,” I became acclimated to two-day blizzards and 10-foot-high snowdrifts early on. I’ve never really minded cold weather. In fact, the older I become, the better I like our seemingly interminable winters here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
For one thing, I’m an avid cross-country skier. Then too, we’ve always heated mainly with wood: a bothersome, time-consuming, messy, and no longer particularly economical way to keep our old ark of a house on the edge of town marginally warm for seven months of the year. Just the same, I wouldn’t trade our frozen woodpile and cracked parlor stoves for the most efficient oil, gas, or electric heating system in the world. For all of its inconveniences, wood heat is wonderfully steady and comforting. Throwing another chunk of yellow birch or rock maple onto an open fire is one of the supreme luxuries of living year-round in the country.
Best of all, with our gardens put to rest for the season, the brook trout lying semi-dormant deep beneath the ice, and most of my long-time fishing and hunting cronies dead or in jail, winter is my favorite time to hunker down for some serious reading.
I try to read, or reread, at least one Dickens novel every winter. This year it’s Little Dorrit. As Dr. Johnson is said to have remarked about Milton’s Paradise Lost, I doubt that anyone ever wished Little Dorrit longer. Still, I take exception with the imperious air with which my Literary History of England dismisses Little Dorrit as a “serious falling off in power.” True, with Little Dorrit Dickens may have been warming up for Great Expectations, which came four years later. Half a dozen of the characters, however, including Mr. Dorrit himself, are incomparable. (Side story: I inherited my set of Dickens from our long-time village librarian, Mrs. Doris Alexander, who held the job well into her eighties. Mrs. Alexander often stayed on at the library long after regular hours, reading far into the night from those noble old volumes.)
“Dickens had not a Shakespearean understanding of evil,” pronounces my Literary History. Granted. I can’t argue that there are any equivalents to Iago or Richard III in Little Dorrit, though Dickens' attacks on evil human institutions – 19th-century British workhouses and orphanages, chancery courts, criminal penal codes – are unsparing. Ultimately, Dickens’ unique magic may reside in his celebration of that spark of divinity in mankind that accounts for our potential for goodness. In this regard, with the exception of the gospels of the New Testament, I can think of no other books that exceed any one of a dozen written by Charles Dickens, including Little Dorrit.
Speaking of long and terrific reads about fundamentally decent people, I’ve just finished Chad Harbach’s beautifully-written first novel, The Art of Fielding. Set mainly on the campus of an upper midwestern college, The Art of Fielding is a magnificent baseball novel. What's more, like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, Harbach's novel not only explores love of baseball, but love of life. There are five life-affirming major characters in The Art of Fielding, whose destinies are intertwined in highly dramatic ways. (My favorite is Schwartz, the college team’s hard-nosed and obsessively dedicated captain and catcher.) Cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2011, The Art of Fielding rekindled my own love for baseball. (With the Red Sox’s disgraceful self-implosion last fall, I feared that might be gone forever.)
After reading several outstanding reviews of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, I expected a lot from his National Book Award-winning account of the discovery, in the library of a medieval monastery, of the Roman poet Lucretius’s long-lost masterpiece, On the Nature of Things. I loved every page of Greenblatt’s brilliant story of Lucretius’s book-length Latin poem, which postulates the theory of atoms, and its influence in shaping the modern world.
Greenblatt, a Harvard professor with the great good sense to spend as much time in Vermont as possible, has written many acclaimed books. I’d missed his bestselling biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, so I plunged right into it as soon as I finished The Swerve. Not only is Will in the World by far the best book I’ve ever read about Shakespeare. It’s a delightful revelation of a world-class, contemporary scholar’s own mind and imagination at work, full of original insights about the connection between a writer’s life and art, and the creative process in general. Here are three that I found especially illuminating:
“There is no direct relation between the staging of various forms of restoration in Will’s plays and the renewal of [his father’s] lapsed application for the status of gentleman. Art rarely emerges so transparently from the circumstances of life and would be far less compelling if it did.” (My italics.)
“We scarcely know for ourselves, let alone for a person who lived four hundred years ago, how someone acquires a particular vocational desire.”
“There are few happy marriages in all of literature, just as there are rather few representations of goodness.” (Thus, I suppose, the extraordinary accomplishment of Dickens.)
Oh, my. How I wish I could put Will in the World in the hands of my long-time friend and writing mentor, the Vermont poet James Hayford. Jim died some years ago, still passionately believing that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote most of Shakespeare’s plays. We amicably debated the issue by the hour. I don’t know whether Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of William Shakespeare would change Jim’s mind. Probably not. But even as devout an Oxfordian as my poet friend, I'm certain, would have loved Greenblatt’s marvelously readable account of how the glover’s son from Stratford found, in his own rich life and imagination, the material and inspiration to create the greatest literature in the history of the world.
Speaking of world-class authors, please watch for Alaskan Travels, coming in March from Edward Hoagland. The Washington Post has called Hoagland “the Thoreau of our times.” Alaskan Travels (Skyhorse/Arcade) is the magnificent account of Hoagland’s exploration of our continent’s last great northern frontier. It features an unforgettable trip down the Yukon River and a moving love story. I had the privilege of writing a short introduction for Alaskan Travels, which I’ll post on my blog soon.
Skyhorse Press is also bringing out the first American edition of the award-winning British novelist Luke Jennings’ memoir, Blood Knots. Blood Knots is the best book I’ve read on fishing, family, and friendship since A River Runs Through It. It is also, in places, very, very funny. I’ll be writing about it in my Spring Reading blog.
Other news: Acclaimed essayist Garret Keizer has a terrific new book on privacy – Privacy is the title – coming from Picador this August. I just finished it, and I’ll never again take for granted our fundamental human right to be left alone to mind our own business and let other folks mind theirs. Garret demonstrates, in eighteen concise, eloquent chapters, how privacy – which, curiously, is not a right specified in the Constitution – is nonetheless essential to every Constitutionally-guaranteed right we have. (Garret, by the way, is one of the wittiest writers at work in America today. I laughed out loud several times over every chapter.)
On March 21, in collaboration with Marlboro College, the renowned independent filmmaker Jay Craven will begin shooting his new feature film, Northern Borders, based on my 1994 novel of the same title. (For more information on the film, please see Jay’s website:
Well. No one is going to wish this blog much longer, either. So I’ll close here by just noting that later this month I’ll post, on my website, one of the more outlandish chapters from my own new memoir, The Great Northern Express, coming from Crown/Random House on March 6. The Great Northern Express is an account of an utterly insane 100-city book tour I took a few years ago, with recollections from my first year in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom interspersed. Hope to see you at one of my upcoming book events – please check out my tour itinerary on my website.
In the meantime, who says the book is dead? Nonsense. Long live the book! Happy winter reading.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Here’s a piece of very good news. Long-time Associated Press reporter and book reviewer, Bruce DeSilva, has written an absolutely terrific literary thriller. Right out of the ever-so-hardboiled, ever-so-good-hearted tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, DeSilva’s Rogue Island (Tom Doherty Associates) is the funniest and best-written suspense novel I’ve read in years.

Meet Liam Mulligan, a newspaperman’s newspaperman, who covers the gritty, often-horrifying underside of Providence, Rhode (Rogue) Island. Mulligan’s a wonderful character. He’s on the run from his half-crazed, estranged wife, at odds with his boss (and, come to think of it, just about everyone else), and as anarchical – and ethical – as they come. He’s got a car named Secretariat that barely runs, a girlfriend who won’t sleep with him until he goes for an AIDS test, and a string of unsolved, murderous arson cases to investigate in the neighborhood he grew up in.

Liam Mulligan’s whole life seems to be an illustration of Murphy’s Law writ large. But he is determined to get to the bottom of the fires that are literally burning up his home town before his eyes. Fire, in Mulligan’s beloved Providence, has “become an absolute force of evil. I heard the fire before I felt it, the flames sounding like a thousand flags snapping in the wind. I felt it before I saw it, the heat like a backhand slap from the devil.”

Don’t be fooled, though, by the non-stop drama, horror and black humor of DeSilva’s first novel. For all its merits as a thriller, Rogue Island is a highly serious work of fiction combining a fascinating and authentic evocation of a 21st-century American city with a lyrical tribute to the dying newspaper business.

Up here in my corner of New England, far from the mean streets of Providence, Marion Page’s posthumously published Searching for Hannerester (Radiant Hen Publishing) is the lovely story of a strange and compelling young woman gone missing in the mountainous wilds of Vermont.

One day Hannah Esther Dunney, a hired girl on the remote, backcountry farm where narrator Carrie Stafford lives with her stubborn, silent father, simply seems to disappear right into thin air. When Carrie’s father becomes the target of a local investigation, Page’s story, like DeSilva’s Rogue Island, is impossible to put down. It’s one of those rare novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace that can be enjoyed on several levels, and with equal pleasure, by both young adults and older readers. Searching for Hannerester is, at once, an authentic account of life on a1950’s hill farm, an exploration of the social mores of small towns, and the story of several of the most touching and honest human relationships in recent fiction, YA or Adult.

Returning to the newspaper business, I want to mention Paul David Pope’s highly readable and informative family memoir, The Deeds of My Fathers. In 1951, Pope’s father, Gene, purchased the fabled National Enquirer, which he proceeded to transform into the quintessential supermarket tabloid. The story of the Enquirer simultaneously chronicles the rise of the celebrity culture and our insatiable greed for sentimental sensationalism, packaged as “journalism,” in twentieth century America. As Dominick Donne points out, The Deeds of My Fathers is also a riveting analysis of the way “money, crime, and power” have shaped the American vision.

My vision of the American West was recently expanded by S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon. This brilliant book by the former editor of Texas Monthly narrates the history of the Comanche Indian nation and its famous, mixed-blood chief, Quanah Parker. It’s the best non-fiction book about the West I’ve read since The Oregon Trail. S.C. Gwynne knows everything there is to know about the fearsome Comanche and their vast territory known as Comencheria, the arrival of the Spanish in the Southwest, the founding of the Republic of Texas and the Texas Rangers, and the natural history of the desert, plains, and southern Rockies. His insights into the culture of the Plains Indians in general are marvelously revealing. I loved everything about Empire of the Summer Moon. For me, it puts all literature of the West, from Little Big Man to Lonesome Dove, in a new perspective. What’s more, Gwynne is a most entertaining writer. His prose has the bite of a Texas sidewinder: “Because the [Comanche] did not have permanent villages, they were virtually impossible to locate; if you located them you were likely to wish you hadn’t.”

Finally, I just reread Oliver Goldsmith’s rollicking novel, The Vicar of Wakefield. This hilarious tale of an unlucky, 18th century English minister and his large family is thought to have been an inspiration to Jane Austen. In fact, there are some interesting similarities between the vicar’s wife and daughters and some of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. While there was only one Jane Austen, and there isn’t ever apt to be another, Goldsmith’s fiction may have paved the way for hers, to some extent, in much the same way Sherwood Anderson’s stories influenced Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s. What’s more, Goldsmith never forgets for a minute that one of the chief purpose of a novel is to entertain. “I don’t read for credit any more,” the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo recently remarked. Me, neither. The enduring merit of The Vicar of Wakefield is that it is very, very funny and lively. MFA writing students take note. It’s okay, once in a while, for literature to be fun to read. Dickens understood that, so did Twain and Shakespeare. We 21st- century scribblers would do well to keep that in mind.

The book as we know it isn’t dead yet – see the next essay I’ll be posting later this week on my Kingdom Journal – but the first step in keeping books alive in the electronic era is to make sure that the ones we’re turning out are vital and engaging to read – like Rogue Island and Empire of the Summer Moon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fall Reading

Fall has always been my favorite time of year. In the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where Phillis and I have now lived for 46 years, we have mud-time instead of spring. This past June our apple trees were hammered by a hard, white frost. Winters are long, summers fleeting, but fall, to me, is a time of beginning.
For instance, I’ve just begun two new novels. Novelists like to pick the right season to undertake new fiction. It’s important to feel invigorated when you’re getting a novel off the ground because there are no shortcuts or blueprints and, as I’ve often said at my book events, I really do have to teach myself how to write a novel all over again every time I start a new one.

Fall is an invigorating time to read, too. Thoreau says we should read as carefully, and with as much energy and dedication, as we write. Of course, that depends partly on what we’re reading. Read Walden hurriedly and you’ll probably miss what it’s all about. On the other hand, who needs to savor James Lee Burke’s Louisiana thrillers? I’ll tell you who: me. I just finished Burke’s The Glass Rainbow, for my money the best novel yet in his Dave Robicheaux series. Maybe there’s something that Burke, the poet laureate of thriller writers, doesn’t know about Deep South politics, weather, trees and animals, history, and families. I can’t imagine what, though. Most of all, he knows a great deal about the human heart. My favorite character in The Glass Rainbow? As usual it’s Dave’s best bud Clete, a hopelessly romantic, loyal, ultra-violent human wrecking ball whose anarchistic behavior on Dave’s behalf always reminds me that one of Burke’s main themes, whatever the plot, is friendship. That, and family, are about what Dave’s left with in a world that otherwise seems, like the world we live in, to have run totally amuck.

A few hours southeast of Burke’s murky bayous and off-the-beaten-path roadhouses, the alligator-infested swamps and high-priced condos of South Florida have long been the literary domain of America’s funniest serious writer, Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen’s recent Star Island is his most hilarious novel to date. In Star Island Hiaasen, who combines the ruthless satirical sensibilities of Alexander Pope with the laugh-out-loud comedy of, say, A Confederacy of Dunces, skewers the idiocies of American pop-culture bad girls and their fans. Wait til you meet Cherry “Cherish” Pye, who makes Paris and Britney look like Mother Theresa, not to mention the camera-toting paparazzi who dog her every step. I’m delighted to report that Hiaasen’s marvelous ex-governor, Skink, is very much alive and well – physically, anyway – in Star Island. And in Ann DeLusia, who doubles for Cherry whenever the singing star has a meltdown, by decoying the media away from Miss Pye, Hiaasen has created one of the most appealing young women since Ruby of Cold Mountain. You know what, though? I think who we’re really laughing at, in Hiaasen’s elegantly-written, no-holds-barred send-ups, is ourselves. For all of our crazy excesses, comic and otherwise, Americans have always been experts at self-satire. I know, I know. Even comic literature, in these grim, latter days, is supposed to be work, not fun, to read. So if you’re really set on not being entertained, please don’t read Carl Hiaasen. Oh, and by the way. Don’t bother with Dickens or Twain, either. You’ll just be disappointed.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of visiting Chelsea Green Publishing, in White River Junction. I came home with an armful of wonderful books. Somehow, I’d missed my favorite nature writer Janisse Ray’s Pinhook (Chelsea Green, 2005), a beautifully-written memoir of the watershed of that name connecting the Okefenokee Swamp and the Osceola National Forest. The word is that Ray, author of the acclaimed Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a hymn to growing up in her father’s junkyard near the last big stand of Georgia long-leaf pines, has a new book coming soon from Chelsea Green. Sign me up for half a dozen copies. She’s marvelous.

What press other than Chelsea Green would have the artistic and political guts and sense of humor to publish a book called Holy Shit? That’s right, Holy Shit is the title of Gene Logsdon’s “inside story of manure – our greatest, yet most misunderstood, natural resource.” Wendell Berry hails Logsdon as “the most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have.” I agree. Holy Shit is a charming and knowledgeable book about – well, just that.

I’ve admired Bill Kauffman’s books for years. His brand-new Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green, 2010) is his best yet. Bye Bye, Miss American Empire is a history of breakaway, secessionist movements in the United States. It’s a fearless and endlessly fascinating study of wing-nuts like Mississippi’s Robert T. Walker, our “first neocon. . . a pygmy popinjay out to rule the world,” and visionaries like Vermont’s leading “decentralist” scholar, my long-time friend Frank Bryan. Recently, a guy I know suggested in a letter to the local paper that Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom fence itself off, then put up a sign welcoming all who wish to come here to fish, hunt, visit or live – “as long as they don’t tell the rest of us how to conduct our lives and business.” Who might that be? Well, his initials are HFM and he was at least partly serious. I guess secession would be the next step. “Welcome to civilization,” somebody greeted me the last time I ventured down out of the Northeast Kingdom to Burlington. Oh? You go, Bill Kauffman. Bye, Bye, Miss American Empire is an appealing, elegantly written, and entirely American book.

A quick footnote. Watch this coming spring for Edward Hoagland’s latest collection of essays, Sex and the River Styx, from Chelsea Green. Sex and the River Styx is a beautifully-written tribute to what’s left of our embattled natural world, by the writer hailed by the Washington Post as “the Thoreau of our times.” It’s a heartbreaking account by one of America’s very finest writers, of our systematic destruction of the natural world. Three cheers for Edward Hoagland, and for Chelsea Green Publishing.

Literary updates from the Green Mountain State. Speaking of Burlington, that “ultra-civilized city” on the shore of Lake Champlain, there are glad tidings. The Burlington Book Festival, which just keeps getting better and better, will feature, from September 24 through September 26, a number of great writers, including Ann Beattie, Howard Norman, Rick Moody, Amy Hempel, Jon Clinch, Galway Kinnell, and Maxine Kumin.

Volume XII of the Vermont Literary Review, an excellent periodical published by Castleton State College, showcases a terrific selection of non-fiction, poetry, artwork, and fiction. For starters, try “Dixon Brothers,” a lovely and deeply moving short story by St. Albans physician and Vermont author Stephen Russell Payne.

Three Northeast Kingdom friends and colleagues have interesting and original works-in-progress. Barton’s Leland Kinsey, author of six acclaimed poetry collections, including In the Rain Shadow and The Immigrant’s Contract, is coming down the stretch with his seventh book, Winter Ready. Winter Ready – I love the title – is a new collection set mainly in the Kingdom in the fall. Lee Kinsey is my choice for our next Vermont poet. Frequently singled out as one of our most authentic and finest contemporary writers, Mr. Kinsey has also, through the Vermont Arts Council and various private foundations, brought poetry and poetry writing to scores of Vermont schools and thousands of young Vermonters. A seventh-generation Vermonter himself, he’s the ideal selection for state poet of Vermont.
Garret Keizer, whose recently-published The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want (Public Affairs) received rave reviews from the New York Times to the Stephen Colbert Show, has just signed a contract with Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series for a book on privacy. Privacy, as Garret’s forthcoming book will be called, couldn’t come at a better time, in my opinion. What, oh, what would Thoreau have said about the almost complete absence of this fundamental human right in our strange, electronic era? We’ll never know. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what Garret Keizer, a contributing editor at Harper’s and one of America’s foremost essayists and public intellectuals, has to say about it.
Kingdom novelist Don Bredes is concluding a young adult novel, Polly and the One and Only World, chronicling the odyssey of a girl working her way from south to north through an apocalyptic American landscape in the near future. Bredes, author of the popular Hector Bellevance literary thriller series, wrote a fabulous first novel, Hard Feelings, which just happens to be my all-time favorite first-person account by a fictional teenager since The Catcher in the Rye. I’m greatly looking forward to his new YA book.

And while my close friend Jeffrey Lent doesn’t live in the Kingdom, but rather in Chelsea, VT, and in his own wonderful equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, which is to say his imagination, I can’t wait for a crack at his forthcoming novel Luck On Sunday, which the acclaimed author of In the Fall and After You’ve Gone describes as his “Iraq vet/meth/suicide/home-invasion/almost-but-not-quite thriller.” If Jeffrey writes it, I’ll read it. So, too, you can bet, so will tens of thousands of other Lent fans. I do indeed regard him as Faulkner’s heir apparent.
Finally, I’d like to refer fiction readers to my guest review on of Howard Norman’s magnificent new Nova Scotia novel, What Is Left the Daughter. I think What Is Left the Daughter is the best book thus far by Norman, who is widely considered to be one of America’s very finest novelists. It’s set in a tiny coastal village during World War II. As always, however, Mr. Norman’s marvelously individualistic, honest, and appealing characters will reside in my heart, as well, for – well, forever.

“Read a thousand books, write one,” the adage goes. Most writers I know read and re-read hundreds upon hundreds of books for each one they write. Recently, I returned for the nth time to Lucky Jim and A Confederacy of Dunces. Which one, I kept wondering, is funnier? I don’t know. Maybe whichever one I happen to be reading at the time. Still, my all-time favorite comic novel is J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.

I just finished John Verdon’s first novel, an absolutely terrifying and exceptionally well-written thriller called Think of a Number. When Dave Gurney, NYPD’s chief homicide investigator, retires with his wife to peaceful, rural Delaware County, in upstate New York, he thinks he’s finished with serial killers forever. Not quite, it turns out. If, like me, you love to try to solve crimes alongside your favorite fictional investigator, get ready for a delicious challenge. Nelson DeMille writes that John Verdon’s Think of a Number is “unputdownable.” It surely is. Now I’m hoping to see more of Dave Gurney soon. Edgar Allan Poe would’ve loved Think of a Number, but I’m not at all sure that even the author of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” would have figured out whodunit. (No, I didn’t.)

Next on my list is Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, one of the saddest and best novels I’ve ever read (and re-read). It has the economy of a great short story and the emotional force of a Lucinda Williams’ ballad.

I have some September book events of my own coming up (please see the calendar of events on this website). At them, no doubt, I’ll be asked more than once what advice I’d give to beginning fiction writers. Read the greatest novels and short stories you can get your hands on, I’ll say. Then read ’em again. But wait. That’s it? Nothing more to add? I’m afraid not. I really don’t know what else to tell aspiring writers. Which, come to think of it, is what we all are, veteran novelists and beginners alike, each time we go to our desk and, as Edward Hoagland once wrote, “up on the tightrope again.”

Happy fall reading!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


My logger neighbor Ed called me a few weeks ago and asked if I’d like to see some pretty lumber. Well, sure. I don’t know a lot about lumber, but I was born in a company-owned woodworking town famous for its quartered-oak office furniture, and decades ago, after a week at the renowned MFA writing program at the University of California at Irvine, I bid a last, tearless farewell to the academic world, drove home to Vermont in two and a half days, and went to work in the woods myself. My boss was a former Prohibition-era whiskeyrunner, moonshiner, and poacher named Jake Blodgett, who became the inspiration for the logger and riverdriver Noel Lord in my novel Where the Rivers Flow North and, better yet, the namesake of my son Jake.

Ed was cutting tamarack, for deck flooring. I knew that tamarack lumber was very water-resistant, and was once widely used for stable and covered bridge planking. I didn’t know how beautiful it is. Ed’s boards were shot through with red and amber streaks, and a handsome ochre color similar to the color that tamarack trees themselves turn in the late fall just before they drop their needles.

That evening, after admiring the gorgeous red-and-yellow boards, and reminiscing with Ed about my long-ago stint as an apprentice logger up in the Great North Woods near the Canadian border, I was in exactly the right frame of mind to plunge into John Irving’s fifteenth novel, Last Night in Twisted River, which starts out in a remote lumber camp in northernmost New Hampshire, not far from my home in Vermont’s fabled “Northeast Kingdom.”

I say “plunge into” advisedly, because like a number of other books by John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River is lengthy: 565 pages, to be exact, counting the Afterword. It just doesn’t seem long. I spent most of my evenings during the last week of July and the first week of August with Irving’s latest ensemble of ever-so-human characters, who soon became my regular nightly companions. When I finished the story, I felt as though it could have gone on another 500 pages without boring me in the least. That’s a feeling I haven’t had with a long novel since I finished Lonesome Dove.

Last Night in Twisted River begins with two horrifying events: an accidental drowning during a log drive in 1954 on one of New Hampshire’s last wilderness rivers; and an instance of involuntary, but extremely bloody, manslaughter, in which young Danny Baciagalupo (Italian for “Kiss of the Wolf”) mistakes his father’s girlfriend for a ravaging bear and smashes in her skull with a lumber-camp frying pan, killing her instantly.

What ensues is the most memorable father-son road trip I’ve ever read. Danny and his father Dominic spend much of the rest of their lives fleeing a vengeful New Hampshire constable named “Cowboy Carl,” who is determined to find them and gun them down. Dominic, an expert chef, initially relocates himself and Danny in an Italian neighborhood in the North End of Boston. There, a sympathetic teacher helps launch Danny on his way to becoming a world-famous author. (He writes under the name Danny Angel, to avoid detection by Cowboy Carl.)

With the constable hot on their trail, Danny and his father move to Iowa City, then Vermont, then back to Iowa – where Danny Angel teaches at the famous writers workshop – to Vermont again, Toronto, and finally to an isolated island in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Place is important to John Irving, and his evocations of America (and its history from the War in Vietnam to the attack on 9/11/2001) are wonderful. Here’s the acclaimed author of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules on Danny’s island writing retreat in the Ontario wilds:

“The mid-February storm had blown across Lake Huron from western Canada, but when the wind and snow hit the Georgian Bay islands, the wind shifted and the snow just kept falling. The wind now blew from a southerly direction, from Parry Sound to Shawanaga Bay. From his writing shack, Danny could no longer see where the bay ended and the mainland began. Because of the whiteout from the storm, the fir trees on what Danny knew was the mainland appeared as a mirage of a floating forest – or the trees seemed to be growing out of the frozen bay. The wind whipped little spirals of snow skyward; these twisters looked like small tornadoes of snow.”

It’s the magnificent characters, however, that make Last Night at Twisted River such a remarkable novel. It’s hard to make a writer come to life in fiction. After all, writers spend most of the day, and many nights as well, alone with their imaginations. There’s nothing very dramatic about that. But Danny is such a fine creation, such a good, if deeply conflicted and self-indicting, father and son himself, that we come to care deeply for him, as we do for Dominic, and to hope against hope that they will be able to continue eluding the homicidal cowboy-constable from New Hampshire.

As usual, Irving generously treats his readers to a host of unforgettable minor characters. Many of them could have come right out of the pages of a Dickens novel. (John Irving credits Dickens, in his fascinating Afterword on his writing process, for inspiring him to want to write.) My favorite minor character from Last Night in Twisted River isn’t minor at all. Old Ketchum, a resourceful, blasphemous, violent, wildly hilarious yet ever-so-kind-hearted woodsman, Dominic’s best friend from his days as a lumber-camp cook, undertakes to “look out for” Danny (whose mother died young). Ketchum may well be the most vital character in this novel. I’d put him right up there with those marvelous old Texas Rangers in Lonesome Dove, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call.

I loved the Italian and Chinese chefs Dominic and Danny meet in Boston and Iowa City. And I won’t soon forget Ketchum’s two-fisted girlfriend, Six-Pack Pam, or Lady Sky (a strapping strawberry blonde who sky-dives naked!), or the trouble-making, “bad old broads” May and Dot, or a dozen others.

As a bonus, Irving has a good deal to say, in Last Night in Twisted River, about Danny’s (and his own) writing process. It’s all interesting; in fact, I’d recommend the novel to aspiring fiction writers for the solid information it offers on the craft of writing. Irving is especially insightful on the largely-overlooked virtues, in our era, of plotting.

Years ago, when I finished The Cider House Rules, I really didn’t see how John Irving could ever surpass that masterpiece. I think he has, though. Last Night in Twisted River is a great story, written beautifully and with unflagging honesty, emotional force, and artistic daring.

Finally, on a personal level, I’m pretty sure that my hero Ketchum (he has no known first name) would have approved of my decision to jettison my academic career forty-some years ago and go to work in the woods with Jake Blodgett. In fact, I’m one hundred percent sure he’d have approved. Now Irving’s old woodsman – like Pip, Huck, Queequeg, Gus and Woodrow, Lucky Jim and Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet – is my friend for life. That means a lot to me.

So thank you, John Irving, for helping to keep traditional storytelling, in the best literary sense, alive in this strange, electronic age we live in. Charles Dickens didn’t have many good things to say about America, but I think he’d have loved this quintessentially American novel by one of the greatest fiction writers of our time. I know I did.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Literary Discovery

In 1864, in the northernmost action of the Civil War, two dozen Confederate soldiers rode hell-for-leather down over the Canadian border into Vermont and robbed the principal bank of the booming Vermont railroad town of St. Albans. After shooting up the main street, killing an elderly local citizen, and trying to set fire to the bank and several other buildings, the raiders galloped back off across the border with nearly $100,000. Legend has it that the loot was buried at the foot of the mountain across the road from my house, not far south of the border. Of course, the buried treasure is just a local myth. Yet more than once I have glanced up at the steep, wild mountainside holding our hamlet in its shadow and thought, what if . . . .

It’s the same with literature. What masterpieces may have burned to cinders when the library at Alexandria went up in flames? Another Iliad or Odyssey? What new gospels may yet be unearthed in an urn in Egypt? There are precedents. Boswell’s letters turned up in a stack of wrapping paper in a notions shop in the French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. In 1930, the original manuscript of The Life of Johnson was discovered in, of all things, a croquet box. Then there is the American novelist Walker Percy’s astonishing account of the barrage of phone calls that he received from a New Orleans resident whose son, now dead, had written a “great novel.” After putting her off as long as he politely could, Percy finally, with enormous reluctance, agreed to look at the manuscript of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

This said, I fear that the legends of undiscovered literary treasures accumulating dust in garrets and locked away in forgotten trunks are, for the most part, just that: legends, as fabulous as that of the purloined gold on our Vermont mountain. So it’s still something of a mystery to me that I actually asked to read Beverly Jensen’s manuscript. In April of 2006, Katrina Kenison, the long-time editor of Houghton Mifflin’s annual Best American Short Stories anthology, mentioned to me that she had recently read a wonderful manuscript by a writer who had died in 2003. Having just participated in a lengthy judging process as a member of a jury panel with Katrina, I had a very high regard for her critical acumen and taste. So while there are few surprises that I dread more than the discovery, in my mailbox, of a thick padded envelope almost certain to contain an unsolicited manuscript to read and comment on, I heard myself say, to my own great astonishment, “I’d be interested in taking a look at those stories.”

In due time, the manuscript arrived. With it was a kind note from Jay Silverman, Beverly Jensen’s husband, explaining that she had written the enclosed book while raising their two children. It had been edited, after Beverly’s death, by Jay and by her writing teacher, Jenifer Levin, author of the acclaimed Water Dancer and other novels. Jay said that he would appreciate any advice I might be able to offer toward the end of publishing the book.

I sat down with the manuscript and began to read. What struck me first is that I felt that I knew these characters. I knew them the way I knew my neighbors of decades, and even my own family. Beverly Jensen’s hard-bitten country folk seemed real to me in a way that I had only very rarely experienced before. Reading her manuscript was reminiscent of the day I discovered Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and read it in a sitting. I finished Beverly’s book about ten o’clock that evening. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees on television, and I am a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation. But I had entirely forgotten about the baseball game. Instead, I had read a literary masterwork.

The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay chronicles nearly seventy years in the lives of two families related by marriage, the Hillocks and the Jensens. It opens with the starkly-titled “Gone,” narrating a crisis in childbirth, in 1916, of the author’s maternal grandmother, Mary Emeline Hillock, in a remote corner of New Brunswick. Its climax comes in 1966 with the catastrophic funeral of Mary Emeline’s husband, “Wild Bill” Hillock. Many of the stories are set in rural Maine, where the main recurring character, Idella, Wild Bill’s eldest daughter and the author’s mother, lived most of her adult life. Among my favorite characters are Idella’s philandering husband, Edward, with his capacity to incite all kinds of uproarious family debacles; Edward’s Dickensian mother, Jessie, who temporarily disowns her own daughter; and Idella’s wild and irrepressible younger sister, Avis.

What I find most notable about Jensen’s tales is their astonishing variety. Some, like “Gone” and “Pomme de Terre,” are as harsh and bleak as the rugged Maritime countryside where they take place. Both hinge on secrets as grim as any you’d find in Annie Proulx’s darkest fiction. “Cherry Cider” uses humor to reveal the profound contradictions of what it means to be a human being. Most depict the cultural and social realities of life in rural New Brunswick and northern New England. For this reason Beverly Jensen’s work will be compared to that of Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, with which it shares an appreciation for nature, highly independent-minded individualists, and the potential goodness of a world, however imperfect, that is still worth celebrating. Yet her fiction never veers too close to purely “regional” writing. There’s no hokey phonetic spelling to represent local dialect, not a drop of condescension or satire at the expense of colorful bucolic “characters.” Rather, like Faulkner and Frost, Beverly Jensen makes expert use of original images and sharply-drawn scenes to fix her people and their stories in our minds.

The book opens, for example, with an unforgettable image of Avis’s and Idella’s shoes hanging in a tree while the children scour the nearby woods for mayflowers to present to their pregnant mother. Bill’s worn-out workboots are “cracked like a broken chimney.” A cow “drawls” from the barn, and later in the book a treacherous frozen rain taps on a church like “thousands of little chickens picking on the floor and walls and windows.”

Stylistically, Jensen’s work is distinguished by the easy rhythms of good storytelling, reminiscent of, say, Joseph Mitchell and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Most of the chapters in The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay, Jay Silverman told me, went through multiple drafts and revisions. The result is easy to read, ever-so-hard to achieve. Consider the stately, simple prose of the following paragraph from “Wake”: “Idella closed the hymn book she’d held absently throughout the funeral and put it on the pew beside her. She’d done more watching than singing, absorbing the look of all the faces around her. They were simple faces with hard edges and lines like cracked cement across their foreheads and around their mouths and eyes. The lantern light made these crevices seem even deeper. These faces, tilted forward in song or bent down in prayer, had met storms and winds of one kind or another, head-on, all their lives. They worked fields that were best suited to brambles and wild grasses, struggling, Dad and Uncle Sam included, to unearth potatoes and carrots and turnips along with the rocks that seemed to multiply with every turn of a spade. These were the people she’d known as a little girl living up here so long ago. They hunted and fished and lived off the land and by their wits, which were more considerable and deep-rooted than their plantings, and hardier than an outsider might suspect.”

Beverly Jensen grew up hearing from her mother and aunt many of the stories that would make their way into The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay. Born in Westbrook, Maine, in 1953, Jensen graduated from the University of Maine and received an M.F.A. in drama from Southern Methodist. After a successful career as an actor, she left the stage to have her own family. In their home in New York, she would read her day’s writing to Jay, a professor at Nassau Community College, and a textbook author. Inspired by the contemporary fiction of Alice Munro, among others, she revised tirelessly. Yet Jay told me that Beverly wasn’t comfortable with self-promotion and networking. She was a writer, not a salesman, more like Idella than Edward in her ability to “recreate someone else’s thoughts and feelings.” As an actor, Jay recalls, Beverly studied her characters endlessly, determined to know every last detail about them. Her fiction illustrates the same capability to subsume her own personality to that of characters as diverse as Bill and Idella, Avis and Jessie.

For me, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay defines character-driven fiction, and the characters at the heart of this splendid collection are Bill, Idella, and Avis Hillock. If Jessie Jensen, Idella’s damaged mother-in-law, is the weirdest member of the extended family, Wild Bill is the most complicated. A man of violent outbursts and “black moods,” often drunk, sometimes abusive, he is, of course, his own worst enemy. “God help me, I’ll try,” Bill says of the formidable task of raising his small daughters. He does try, but it’s too much for him. He urges Avis to drink whiskey with his poker-playing buddies. There are hints that he encourages her, as a little girl and teenager, to sleep with him. Avis, for her part, is irrepressible, anarchistic, earthy and defiant. After moving to New England, she winds up linked with Boston crime figures and spends a couple of years in jail.

It is Idella, caregiver and fixer extraordinaire, who stands at the moral center and the heart of Jensen’s collection. She has a marvelous, ironical appreciation of all the feckless Hillocks and Jensens, though at times she is also their unwitting enabler. At her father’s funeral, she reflects about the arc of her life.
“Idella had left this Canada far behind and gone to find a better life. It was just being a maid, after all, and a household cook, but it had led to meeting Edward and marrying and having the store and house in Westbrook. She felt rich by comparison, wrapped in her squirrel coat, knowing she had a nice house to go home to down in Maine and a grocery to run. She’d set out, launched herself forward as best she could, and felt both relieved and saddened to have done so.”

While Bill, Avis, and Edward don’t ever really redeem themselves, they are redeemed for me, at least, by Idella’s great empathy for them. Her love is matched only by Beverly Jensen’s, whose superb fiction is a gift to all of us fortunate enough to read her.

In the end, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay is a greater treasure by far than any I could hope to find buried on a mountain. It is an artistic exploration of the capacity of even the most embattled of families to maintain its identity. “I’m stuck being a Hillock,” Idella’s drunken brother says bluntly in “Wake.” That each and every Hillock and Jensen in this collection should touch us so deeply is a tribute to Beverly Jensen, a writer of great humor, great compassion, and great knowledge of the human heart.

(For a full account of the remarkable story of how The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay came to be published, see Jay Silverman’s essay at