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Back in February 2009, as I approached my 39th birthday, I had this idea of writing an essay a week leading up to my 40th birthday. I thought maybe I could capture some elements of that living-on-the-cusp year and perhaps turn them into a collection. Like a lot of seemingly good ideas, this one ran out of gas fairly quickly, and I squirreled the two essays I completed away in a folder deep in the bowels of my computer. I re-read them tonight, for the first time in a year and half. The first essay was not ready for prime time, as they say. But the second provides an interesting glimpse into what I was thinking about that winter — thoughts that led me directly to the writing of The Summer Son, my forthcoming novel.
I hadn’t remembered all of that until just tonight. It’s worth sharing:
February 16, 2009
My father lives upstairs from me, in a condominium whose physical structure is identical to mine, and that’s an odd bit of conformity when you consider just how different we are. He’s a man who has seen hardship and pain that I can’t conceive. He made his way in the world with his hands, while I’ve made mine, meager though it may be, with my head. He makes friends easily and keeps them for decades. I make acquaintances easily and release them like leaves in the wind.
And those are just the broad strokes.
Yet I find myself now wondering what I’m going to do with my thoughts on the man. At this late date, when he’s on the cusp of 70 and I’ve just rounded the last number between me and 40, he has dropped a surprise on me.
In my birthday card – Dad always picks out something verbose, letting the card maker carry the words that he cannot – he wrote something that left me thunderstruck, standing right there in his kitchen.
When I could speak again, I made him hug me, and for the first time in a long time, I wrapped both of my arms around his back and squeezed him tight.
A couple of days ago, on the social-networking site that is taking over my life, I debated with a friend the reason that our new president would self-identify as black when his racial makeup is equal parts black and white – and it’s the white folks who cared for and nurtured him.
She wrote: “But really, ask yourself how you would feel if you were Barack’s or Halle’s (Berry) mom: ‘I got them away from their father and I raised and sacrificed everything for them and now they identify with their non-present, purposely abandoning sperm donor …’ ”
It’s a provocative notion, and one I can confront in my own circumstance, the racial component aside. It was my mother who, when I was three years old, recognized that life with my father was untenable, that if I was going to have the best opportunity to grow up in a stable, supportive household, she was going to have to extricate herself from a bad marriage and start anew. Of all the gifts I’ve ever received, two stand above the rest: the decision by my birthmother to give me up to someone who could better care for me, and the decision by my mother to pull us out of Casper, Wyoming, and into life in Texas with Charles Clines – her new husband, my new stepfather and the great male role model in my life.
So, using my friend’s question, I’ll frame my own: Why, given Mom’s sacrifices, have I spent a good deal of my adulthood trying to corral a relationship with and an understanding of Dad?
Part of the answer lies in my response to my friend, given to her in an apologetic note after our words in a public square of Facebook grew too sharp: “I just got done writing a book (Past-Due Pastorals, which I’ve since taken out of print) that focuses largely on my father, a man I don’t know half as well as my mother and someone who hasn’t been half as good to me as she has. That doesn’t mean I disregard my mom. As I told her, it’s the things you miss in life that leave you searching, not the ones that are there for you.”
Put another way, my relationship with my mother is hard-wired into me. I can talk to her about anything, I can rely on her without question or fear of being let down. She was and is a constant, nurturing presence in my life. I never wanted for anything that matters where she is concerned.
Where Dad is concerned, I’ve always wanted.
When I was a child, that constant striving for Dad’s approval led me into some blunders of judgment. For years, I idolized him on superficial grounds: He was strong and tough, he drove trucks and wielded tools, and in the absence of parenting skills but awash in money, he gave me anything I wanted if he thought it would keep me quiet and out of his hair.
And so it was that I would go home to Texas from summers spent with Dad, fat and sluggish from all the food I wanted to eat and all the pop I wanted to drink, and I would have to learn to live again in a house with rules, where love was not a new motorbike but a well-balanced meal, where discipline was not a handful of quarters for the video arcade but an expectation that I would work hard in school and interact with the family.
I have a very specific memory of being seven or eight years old and telling my mother that she wasn’t as nice as my stepmother Linda, Dad’s second wife. It’s hard for me to write that now, knowing how wrong I was. In the years that followed, my opinion of Linda changed. I viewed her as an opportunist, a user and someone who leveraged her position as a wedge between my father and me. At one point, my mother wrote to Dad and told him that he wasn’t sufficiently active in my life. (This was not a plea for money, which he also owed, but for time.) Linda sent the note back and scrawled atop it: “Leave him alone.”
How it must have pierced my mother’s heart to hear me compare her unfavorably with that creature.
In later years, I stopped seeing Dad’s absences as something that made him mysterious and worthy of my yearning, and I just walked in my own direction. When he had a series of heart attacks in 1993, I was hundreds of miles away, in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I didn’t go out to Albuquerque to see him until the following spring, well after he had recovered. Our calls grew infrequent.
In the mid-’90s, he committed his heart to a woman for the fourth time. (Linda was Marriage No. 2 and Marriage No. 3; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.) His final attempt was his most successful. Mildred Leahy was the right person at the right time – a sweet, loving woman who could handle my rapidly slowing down rascal of a father. And it was Mildred who asked, point-blank, the question that was right in front of our noses: Why were Dad and I so distant?
On the side of that question where she could exert some influence – my father’s – Mildred went to work. I started receiving weekly phone calls, at her behest initially and then because we both found that we enjoyed them. On one of my visits to Albuquerque, Mildred asked me why Dad and I had been so estranged, and I very honestly told her. She urged me to take a fresh look at the man, and so I did. Here’s what I saw: a doting partner who would set out her breakfast every morning, along with a napkin upon which he would write “Good morning Sunshine. I love you.”
Just a few months before Mildred died, when she was dealing with the excruciating pain of the cancer that was killing her, she insisted that Dad and I take a long-planned driving trip through Montana, to visit the spaces and places of his early life. It was her last great gift to our relationship. After she was gone, I wrote a typically bad but heartfelt poem:
Hours from now I’ll be racing the weather south
To a place that should feel like home, much as I’ve been there
And yet confounds me each time
To a man I’ve known all my life
Whom I know less than a man I met last week
Closeness could never be counted in warmth or words
Just proximity, and only sometimes
But as my tread wears away I find
That none of that matters much
We come together for the right reasons
And stay apart because we’ve always done it that way
She never quite understood that
And she made him do it better, out of love
And made me do it better, out of shame
But she’s gone now
Pancake makeup and strident hair
Are my memories
But his are different
He needs me now
There’s nobody left
For as long as I can remember, my father’s friends, upon meeting me, would say something like this: “Your dad is really proud of you.”
Last year, as I acted on Dad’s behalf to buy his condominium here in Billings, his Montana-based mortgage banker said, “Your dad just goes on and on about you.”
These are wonderful sentiments, of course, and anyone would be proud to receive them. But please understand that the words come with a tinge of melancholy when I hear them from someone other than him, when I have to come to terms with the notion that he can say them, just not to me.
But perhaps I should be fair about this, as I’m guilty of the same thing. He brags to other people. I share my thoughts with a keyboard.
Before Past-Due Pastorals came out, Dad sat upstairs with a proof copy and read it over the course of an evening. His eyes are fading, shot through by macular degeneration. His reading level is low, the result of a childhood in which farm work was given more currency than book learning. No one seems to know just how much schooling Dad had. My mother figures that his day-to-day education ended around the fourth grade. A cousin says that he was in school off and on up until junior high. Whatever the case, reading is not pleasure for him; it’s work. And yet he dedicated himself to reading my book one night, and he bore my at times harsh assessment of him without complaint or recrimination.
He’s a big man, my father.
And I’d like to think that he recognized in those pages something that I badly needed to hear, something that he gave me for my 39th birthday in the words he wrote on my card: “The gift thats meant the most to me has been the joy of watching you grown into a special man I’m proud to call my son. With love, Dad.”
Some online destinations for your consideration:
- I’m part of the lineup of editors at The Blood-Red Pencil. If you’re a writer or an editor (or both!), I highly recommend that you bookmark this site. Tips cover all the bases: grammar, plotting, dialogue, marketing and promotion, etc. Check out my latest post, on pet peeves.
- Today, I dropped in at another of my favorite sites, 1st Turning Point, and offered up an essay on self-promotion. The reality for most writers is that it’s promote or perish. Gone are the days of dropping a book out there and washing your hands of it — if, in fact, such days ever existed. 1st Turning Point consistently offers sound advice on thumping your work without being a raging pain in the ass. Unless, you know, that’s your niche.
- Are you a Goodreads denizen? If you love books, you should be. Think of it as a Facebook for readers. I’d also invite you to add my upcoming novel, The Summer Son, as a to-read item. (I can safely assume you’ve already added 600 Hours of Edward, right? Right?)
- Finally, thanks to the fabulous Christopher Meeks, I just discovered Janet Fitch’s blog. The White Oleander author has some superb stuff there, including this essay on creating dialogue. She writes: “It’s like a racehorse, it can’t just carry any old thing, the pots and pans and old tires. You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, all that yack. It’s just for the conflict between one character and another. That’s it.”
I think I just swooned.
An advance reader copy of Jonathan Evison’s new novel, West of Here, arrived in the mail today thanks to a friend’s kindness.
Isn’t it beautiful?
At nearly 500 pages, it will be commanding my attention for some time. Tonight, I’ve mostly been staring at it and marveling over the look that was commissioned. It vaguely reminded me of something, and for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it hit me.
It looks like a classic novel from the late ’30s, early ’40s. Not precisely like those, but the combination of illustration, color and sweeping typography definitely evokes an earlier era.
And judging from the gusto with which Evison’s publisher, Algonquin, is promoting West of Here, perhaps “classic” is a fitting word.
This is one I can’t wait to crack.
Advance copies of Jonathan Evison’s new novel, West of Here, started landing on doorsteps this week.
The description will make you want to read it:
Set in the fictional town of Port Bonita, on Washington State’s rugged Pacific coast, West of Here is propelled by a story that both re-creates and celebrates the American experience—it is storytelling on the grandest scale. With one segment of the narrative focused on the town’s founders circa 1890 and another showing the lives of their descendants in 2006, the novel develops as a kind of conversation between two epochs, one rushing blindly toward the future and the other struggling to undo the damage of the past.
An exposition on the effects of time, on how something said or done in one generation keeps echoing through all the years that follow, and how mistakes keep happening and people keep on trying to be strong and brave and, most important, just and right, West of Here harks back to the work of such masters of Americana as Bret Harte, Edna Ferber, and Larry McMurtry, writers whose fiction turned history into myth and myth into a nation’s shared experience. It is a bold novel by a writer destined to become a major force in American literature.
Delicious, no? Well, check this out:
Apparently, Evison’s publisher, Algonquin, loves this book enough to give the advance copies packaging that is, simply, too cool for school. A couple of boxes, postcards, maps, a letter from the book’s editor and — oh, yeah — the book itself.
My friend Jim Thomsen, the lucky recipient of one of these packages, forwarded me some photos. Check it:
Isn’t that just the coolest damn thing ever?
In a few weeks, I’ll be sending out some review copies of my next novel — and I’m suddenly, surprisingly, sad to say that they’ll go out in plain padded envelopes. Maybe I’ll stick some Necco wafers in there, just to amp up my game a little.
Visit Jonathan’s website here. And better yet, buy his book. I have a feeling it’s going to be big.
The scant posting around here in the past few days has a direct cause: I’m mired in a stretch of 12 consecutive workdays and, dammit, I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m reminded of the quote from Gov. LePetomane in Blazing Saddles:
“Holy underwear! Sheriff murdered! Innocent women and children blown to bits! We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!”
(Actually, that quote has very little to do with anything, but as Boone said to Otter in Animal House: “Forget it. He’s rolling.”)
(I can do this connect-a-quote-from-one-movie-to-the-next thing indefinitely, so it’s probably best that it ends here. “You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have none of that. They’re not even amusing ACCIDENTALLY! “Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecodotes for you. Oh, and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it.” I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can you stand it?” I’d say, “‘Because I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy. Whoa.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest, you know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back — you would. Agh! Agh! Agh! Agh! And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea: Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”)
(Help me. Please.)
My new novel, The Summer Son, comes out in January. Certainly, there is a lot of seemingly interminable waiting — to see the cover (finally did), to get proofs, to hear from marketing, etc. All perfectly normal, and frankly, my publishing story has unfolded at lightning speed compared with most. I’m not good at patience, but it’s something I’ve had to learn to develop. If you think writing and publishing books might be for you, learn to live with the waiting.
Behind the scenes, though, I’ve been plenty busy. Starting January 24th and continuing for two weeks, I’ll be on a virtual tour to promote the book, doing guest spots on a series of blogs related to books, writing, culture, etc. So for the past week or so, I’ve been writing that material — posts on building characters, finding a publisher, real-life inspirations for fiction, fathers and sons, writing in Montana. I’m about halfway through that stack of work, and still other appearances will be in a Q&A format, so I’m awaiting questions from my kind hosts.
The goal, for me, is to have my plate largely cleared by mid-October, three months before The Summer Son is released. Then, I’m bearing down to finish the first draft of the next novel, so the cycle can begin again. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Just a quick post today, folks. The agenda is brimming.
This is a good one, though. The Denver Post is running a photo blog called “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943.” The 70 images were taken by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Absolutely breathtaking stuff. For those of us who weren’t alive at that time, the era is represented mostly in black and white. These photos bring it alive in living color, so much so that you almost feel as though you could step into the frame and join the scene. It’s that powerful.
Take some time and savor scenes from our past.
(The NFL is upon us again, and so I am a happy boy. Thus, the football-referencing post title. You’re welcome.)
In lieu of any pressing news, let’s do this baby roundup-style:
I’m throwing in with the gang of bloggers over at The Blood-Red Pencil, a wonderful site for writers and editors. My first post as a new member is scheduled to appear Aug. 19 (topic: promotion), and you can be sure I’ll link to it here. If you’re wrestling with a manuscript, wandering into the wild world of independent publishing, flogging your own work or minding your hyphens, The Blood-Red Pencil is an excellent daily stop. And I would have said that even before I wore the pledge pin.
Richard S. Wheeler’s blog has quickly become must-read stuff for me. Here’s his take on Dorchester Publishing’s decision to abandon mass-market books, particularly as it pertains to the Western genre.
It is tempting to suppose that one less publisher in the mass-market western field will strengthen the rest, but it doesn’t work that way. It means less rack space will be devoted to westerns, and they will be harder to find and the genre will be even farther from sight and mind.
People who traffic in the things-ain’t-what-they-once-were trade are simultaneously dead-on and off the mark. The problem: They’re dead-on in a no-shit kind of way (things are never what they once were) and off the mark in the sense that change is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. So it is that a writer at the New York Observer sees no Mailers or Updikes and thus concludes that fiction is culturally irrelevant.
I’m sorry about Theodore Dreiser being dead and all, but he had his time. Let’s allow Carlton Mellick III to have his. I’m not saying The Baby Jesus Butt Plug is a work of comparable merit to An American Tragedy (I’m also not saying it’s not). I’m saying it doesn’t have to be. When we have so many books that speak to so many constituencies — and so many ways to enjoy them — that’s precisely the opposite of cultural irrelevance.
Finally, this is about as entertaining as Glenn Beck gets. I cannot believe I just wrote that sentence.
I met with another book club last night — have I mentioned how much I love this? — and my host asked a terrific question:
“If the last page of your book were the first page of a different book, what would happen?”
Anyone who’s read 600 Hours of Edward would understand why I politely declined to answer. The open-ended conclusion allows readers to make their own choices about where the story goes, and I don’t want to intrude on that. This is the biggest reason — not the only one, but the biggest — there will be no sequel. Moving Edward into another story means moving him from that spot, and I don’t want to do that.
The whole notion of ceding control to readers fascinates me. Leaving wide-open areas for interpretation is tough to do — one need only look at all the horribly expository stories out there to realize this — but enormously satisfying for readers who don’t want to be spoon-fed.
Every time I talk to folks who’ve taken on my novel, I get a new insight into the story — some of them more surprising than others.
Last night, one of the book club members zeroed in on a scene midway through the book, as a flummoxed Edward fields increasingly angry e-mails from his online paramour, Joy-Annette, and can respond only by typing up his responses, printing them out and filing them away with his letters of complaint.
Here’s the passage:
Annette, or Joy, or whoever she is, writes three more times, and my green office folder begins to fill up.
I was going to write and see if we could work something out but I think that it is better to let it go. I think at this point, any making up would just lead to more of the same kind of misunderstanding and “drama.” I think your substantial, kind-hearted, sweet, beautiful in your own way, and so much more you will never know. But I cant go into something this emotional. My last boyfriend, whom I dearly loved and completely supported through so much stuff, took it and them he slammed another girl just a few short months ago. Therefore, I am looking for a less dramatic deal right now.
My head is swimming. You’re looking for a less dramatic deal? Somehow, I find that hard to believe.
I wish you would write back. I need to know what your thinking about all of this. Maybe there’s a way we could start over. I don’t know. Write me back and lets talk about it.
I think it’s funny — not funny “ha, ha” but just funny — that I’m the one with mental illness.
Your an asshole. I pour out my heart to you and you say nothing. Goodbye, looser.
Goodbye. And it’s “loser.”
I put the green office folder called “Joy — aka, Annette” away for the last time. It’s nearly noon, and I’m headed back to bed.
We were chatting about the comedy of Edward’s frantically responding to Joy-Annette’s shrill messages but filing them away (a key aspect of the book is that Edward does not send his letters of complaint). Then my questioner says, “Yes, but he sent one of those messages.”
No, I say, he doesn’t.
She insists that he did, that Joy-Annette wouldn’t have kept writing if he hadn’t. She pulls out the book. She deconstructs the scene. “He sent a message,” she says. I’m smiling. She’s convinced. And you know what? Maybe he did. I certainly didn’t conceive it that way, but really, my intentions don’t matter. Her sense of it does.
So Edward sent one of those messages, okay? Unless, of course, you think he didn’t.
Yesterday, I wrote a little ditty about literary fiction.
Turns out that mega-ultra-super-duper agent Nathan Bransford was doing the same thing. A robust discussion is taking place in the comments section, if you’re interested …