“By the Book” Self-Own

My friend and author Rosemary Rawlins asked me to share an anecdote or two for her book club, which I’ll be joining in December for a discussion of my novel The Coal Tower. Sent her this self-interview, which I agree is “contrived”. To say the least, but anyway:

What books are on your nightstand?

Oh gosh, this is embarrassing.  My nightstand groans with four stacks of books, arranged in order of priority, more or less.  I tend to read several books at the same time, dipping in and out as I go, seeking little linkages that pop up from time to time, which, by the way, drives my wife crazy – she’s a straight through to the end and on to the next style reader.  On the priority stack today we have:  Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racist ideas in America (actually begins pre-colonially in 1400s); I’m up to the 1980s and the Reagan Era now, so almost done; Jose Saramago’s Blindness, next up in my morbid pursuit of pandemic tales that launched back in April with a re-read of Camus’ The Plague; Lawrence Weschler’s Waves Passing in the Night, about the sound engineer Walter Murch’s oddball celestial theories, and three books of poetry, Carolyn Forche’s new In the Lateness of the World, Galway Kinnell’s The Past, and Jamie K. Reaser’s Conversations with Mary.  All of these feeding a notion in some poems I’m scribbling that seem to be about human perception in all its glory and feebleness; and Fever, 1793, a young adult tale by Laurie Halse Anderson, that I hope will help me learn how to tell a Jamestown story for teens that I’ve been fumbling with.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I’m there now, in our living room stretched out on the sofa, afternoon light slanting in at the windows so there’s no need for a lamp, dog napping on the floor beside me, not a phone beep to be heard.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

This answer seems to change every decade or so, as it probably does for most people.  In my youth, as an earnest Southern Baptist it was The New Testament and then that ecological bible Thoreau’s Walden.  In college Whitman’s Leaves of Grass knocked me sideways.  I fell hard for Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo in later years, but to answer you today, I’ve been writing a story that imagines Whitman and Thoreau swimming together at Walden Pond, and it’s those two guys and their masterpieces that have me swooning all over again.

Your novel is set in Charlottesville, Virginia, so might be considered in the line of Southern fiction.  Are there Southern writers you especially admire?

I’m old school on this, I’m afraid.  Faulkner’s top of the heap, then comes Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy, Ellen Gilchrist, Barbara Kingsolver, Daniel Woodrell…. Writing The Coal Tower, I took a shot at reading the famous short stories by longtime UVA professor Peter Taylor, who wrote with such precision about matters of social class in dear old C’ville.  But his casual racism shocked me, and then it seemed to turn up in so many of the old lions I’d read:  Percy and Steinbeck and Hemingway, for instance.  But before I start to rant, ask me sometime about my years working restaurants in New Orleans, and encounters with Percy and dear Ms. Welty there.

Who is your favorite fictional hero?  And the best villain?

Jack Kerouac’s muse Neal Cassidy was, of course, a real person and by all accounts as supernatural as the various fictional versions that turn up in Keroac’s road novels, but yes, him.  The God of the Old Testament, when you think about it, is the model for so many fictional villains, and frankly, hard to beat.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And what stories do you steer clear of?

I love it when the writing gets caught up in itself, matches the pace of the events it tells, and squirts out a gripping truth or two so you have to put the book down for a minute.  All the writers mentioned above have done that to me at one time or another, creating these epiphanies on the page.  I have good friends who are mystery writers and SF writers, and I admire their work greatly. They too can squirt.  But those genres, otherwise, I don’t tend to go for.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Maybe no surprise, but I have a whole book cabinet devoted to nature writing, and I try to collect early editions of the books that knocked my socks off when I can afford them.  On that shelf a few oddities:  Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, Dr. Richard Rubens’ Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, and a pretty thorough collection of vintage Marvel superhero comics.

Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?

My dear friends who dazzle with their genius, yet struggle like so many artists to find the wide audience they deserve:  Terry Bisson, Liz Hand, Joseph Lanza, Katy Munger, Rosemary Rawlins, and Paul Witcover.  Among these, Rosemary’s new book, I mean wow.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

The only books in our house growing up were an old set of World Book Encyclopedias and their accompanying orange-bound Childcraft series.  But then came Dr. Seuss, Tom Swift, Jr., my first library card and the giant paper and ink proto-Google that was the Charlottesville public library. 

Favorite childhood literary character or hero?

Always the Cat in the Hat.  Have tried to live up to his example ever since – have a royally good time messing things up, if you must, but don’t forget to come back and straighten things out when you’re done.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

I’m that sneaky dad who slips books onto his sons’ nightstands in hopes they might put down their game paddles for a minute.  Most recently, Ta Nehisi Coates’ bound letter to his son Between the World and Me.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

I don’t know if they still do this, but back in the day, at a certain age, every kid at Fork Union Baptist Church was given their own paperback King James Version Bible.  I still have mine.

What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t?  Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’m trying to figure out what to do with Nabokov’s Lolita right now.  90 pages in, things getting pretty creepy, but boy does old Vladimir know how to lead you on, sneakily implicating you in what may either be a comedy or a horror story or both, and maybe that’s what’s so frustrating and intriguing about the whole thing?

What book would you recommend to the President?

To the impeached President, considering his notorious attention span, I highly recommend the aforementioned Cat in the Hat.  Especially those later pages where he and his minions Thing One (Ivanka?) and Thing Two (Jared?) clean up after themselves.  To the President-Elect, a fan of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, in which our hero bravely overcomes a monster ravaging the countryside, restoring peace and unity to the kingdom.

You have published fiction and poetry.  Do you prefer one or the other?

I started writing both around 9th grade and can’t seem to shake either.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

I’m useless at dinner parties.  I always end up wandering around outside, wishing I smoked and had that as an excuse, hoping no one misses me and comes looking.  But if three writers could join me on the stoop, just imagine Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, and I’d have to say Bruce Springsteen.  All of us, of course, our younger versions. I mean, if you’re going to wish!

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

Do you mean right before they die?  Maybe this book bequeathed to me by the poet Sarah Knorr, who died of cancer last summer, the poet M. S. Merwin’s final collection Garden Time.  Every poem like a last sigh of gratitude and wonder and not a comma or period anywhere.

What do you plan to read next?

Well, when I get through this first pile, on the top of the nightstand’s second stack – Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Autumn Postcard, Virginia

Exhaustion seems to be the order of the day.  The year has taxed everyone. Most of us have behaved admirably, but we’re tired.  And there seems to be no rest for the weary.  Here in Virginia, after the initial explosion of hospitalizations and deaths last spring, when my former students at hospitals here in Richmond wore the stripes of N-95 masks on their tear-streaked faces as they told of their labors, there was a lull across the summer, Governor Northam having imposed lockdown rules that seemed to work (at least among those of us who followed them), but here we go again. 

What a beleaguered summer it was, too.  For two months protestors marched on Monument Avenue, making a communal art project of the Confederate statues that came down one by one, until only Massa Robert is left (soon to fall).  Tear gas, cars set on fire, right wing provocateurs driving their F-150s through crowds.  Eventually, when the General Assembly came into session, some changes were made to policing, not enough but a start, and the protests petered out. 

A national exhalation last Saturday with the election decided for all except the die-hard MAGA contingent (ironic in a year of on the nose ironies that Biden won by exactly the same electoral college count as Trump had in 2016, and which he had touted as a “landslide”).  But this week, shoulders slump. What can Biden do?

Lonely.  No closure for so many things.  Our grandma, my dear friend Sarah, colleague Rondalyn’s husband all three dead but no funerals yet.  Chris’ other grandma in isolation in a New York nursing home all these months, anxious and confused in dementia.  My friend Corey in a low security federal prison where Bill Barr’s trial of herd immunity has killed at least 30 of his fellow inmates, where more than 1000 have tested positive. 

I teach via Zoom, my students stony-faced on the expanded Hollywood Squares style screen. I see them once a week for face-to-face labs, but in masks and goggles cannot make out who they are, have forgotten some of their names.  My boys completing their senior college year in their bedrooms.  All of us knowing this is not an education, that this whole generation in virtual school is getting ripped off.

Meanwhile, the powers that be grind on.  The stock market soars, the rich get richer, that old song.  Of course, Chris and I are lucky to have jobs, to have so far avoided the virus, to be resilient enough to carry on, all of us at dinner every night and our dog Buddy at our feet. So many have it so much worse, we all know that.

But I miss my friends, I miss the ceremonies and celebrations that mark milestones and offer closure, the interactions among colleagues and students at work, scribbling a poem over coffee at my favorite breakfast spot, going to a movie, having drinks with pals in a noisy bar, browsing museums, and jogging along in a local road race.  I’m an introvert, a loner, but maybe not as much as I’d thought. 

And with the cold weather upon us, the toughest months are coming.  A midnight call from the nursing home to say Grandma has developed a nasty cough, a friend coming off his last chance chemo, first holidays for families who have lost loved ones, laid off colleagues sending out resumes into a jobless void, my inmate pal getting shipped off to a faraway prison as a way to pretend they’re doing something about the virus, the President, of course, ignoring the pandemic entirely as he pouts about his loss over golf. 

Our fatigue is physical, emotional, spiritual.  We all need a good hug.  Somehow that socially distanced Wakandan salute doesn’t cut it anymore.  Trudge on, live in gratitude, one day at a time, yada yada.  You imagine that a time will come when all these photos of people in masks will spark nostalgia – as Springsteen sang, “One day we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”  One can only hope.