DAY 41, June 28, 2013, DEER PARK, MI — This has been a miserable biteybug season. Multitudes of ravenous mosquitoes, no matter the temperature, and on SW wind days there are hordes of stable flies, those fast little flies who bite with stainless steel teeth and with the intention of taking off small chunks of flesh until you disappear. We loathe stable flies and we are forever trying to calculate where the hell they are. If they’re here at the cabin, will they be on the Lake Superior beach 300 yards north? And viceyversa. So far we’ve been unable to discern a “tell,” which makes the damn things impossible to detect. We have also been beset by the usual crowd of lake spiders, and this year more pine beetles than normal, plus we have scads of Junebugs bouncing off the windows, walls and sliding glass door. This would be a banner year for visiting entomologists.
We have WiFi on the premises in our cabin this year, negating my periodic schleps to Mike and Monica Brown’s Deer Park Lodge, where an outside picnic bench served as my long-time, sometime office. Miss the social part, but the convenience of tapping into the electronic world from our kitchen table is undeniable and much relished. Thanks to Max Stinson for making this happen.
As is usual, my thoughts are ahead on future, as I try to finish the first draft of MOUNTAINS OF THE MISBEGOTTEN, by the end of August. Last April I finished the first draft of BROWN BALL, and I am leaving that in a drawer until October before I look at it again. This is the story of a 13 year old white boy playing in an all-Hispanic baseball league in San Antonio, Texas in the summer of 1956, which is the summer the city’s public facilities were integrated. Not in any of my series, this is a thing apart. What happens to it will depend in great part what I do to it next, but for now it is out of my mind. I suspect all authors operate like this with multiple projects at varying stages of completion or conception. The thing is most writers don’t have the time to talk to each other!
This past year I joined the New York-based International Association of Crime Writers, North American Branch. Sent them $60 dues and never heard from them again until a week or so ago when they wanted me to re-up and I asked what happened to weekly updates and quarterly newsletters. Upshot, I’ll get this year’s membership for free. They neglected to add me to the list last year! I guess this made me a member in good standing financially with no standing whatsoever professionally or personally in the organization. Funny.
One of the aspects of writing that’s holding my interest again this year is that of “voice.” What do I mean? The late, great David Foster Wallace wrote,”That distinctive singular stamp is one of the main reasons readers come to love an author: the way yo9u can tell, often within a couple of paragraphs, that something is by Dickens, or Chekov, or Woolf, or Salinger, etc. The quality is almost impossible to describe or account for straight out– it mostly presents a vilse, a kind of perfume of sensibility — and critics’ attempts to reduce it to questions of “style” are almost universally lame.”
To me, Wallace is describing the authorly (nonce-word?) voice and personal stamp, a unique way each of has of looking at the world and putting what we see and think into words. I sometimes wonder if my stories carry such a stamp, but I doubt we can determine that for ourselves. Aren’t we at least a bit surprised the first time we hear our voice played back from a recording? The public voice rarely sounds like the one we hear in our heads, the internal one lacking sound. We are left to write what we might and not concern ourselves with such things. yet I do wonder, and I’m sure other authors do as well.
Ultimately this voice/style thing comes down to our actual sentences and how we create them and build and stack them into paragraphs and scenes and chapters, and so forth. Short story master Isaac Babel wrote, “A comma can let us hear a voice break, or a heart.” That’s brilliant! And he told us, “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period at just the right place.”
Esther Forbes, author of the Newberry Medal-winning Johnny Tremaine, according to George Saunders, once of our best-ever writers, said Forbes “suggested that the sentence was where the battle was fought. “
“With enough attention,” Saunders wrote, “a sentence can peel away from its fellows and be, not only from you, but you.”
That’s the quality we each and all seek in our craft and work, I think, with varying days of success and or failure.
The thing about writing, at least for me, is that it is an all-out commitment and controlling obsession that never abates for long. My friends, I think, have little concept of the kind of time and concentration required. While I am long retired from my salaried suit-days, I’m in full employment in the world of scribblers! My friends are almost all retired and look upon me as one of them, though I continue to bang out 8-12 hour writing and reading days, reading being a critical component to improving your writing craft. Most of my boon companions seem to see my writing as some kind of hobby and belief I ought to be out socializing in the twilight of my life, or as Washington Irving put it, “being arrived at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity.” Thus I get regular drop-ins and calls to “come out and play and when they ask what I’m doing and I growl, “Working,” they chuckle.
There are other aspects to this game readers and fans never see and rarely hear about, but I’ll share some of them.
Earlier this week I got an invitation to be interviewed by a radio network out west. I’d never heard of the outfit and passed the request to my publisher, who also had not ever heard of the organization and after some research determined it to be a place where anyone can have his own talk show, for a cost. The sound equivalent of self-publishing. Because the invitation avoided identifying who would do the interviews or what specifically they might be interested in, I politely declined the offer.
Another bugbear involves people wanting me to sit in with reading groups after they have read one of my books. We should gather in some comfy living room and quaff apple jack or Nehi grape soda, or vintage Calvados whilst jaw-jacking about the book. What in hell is going on in this country, and why are we increasingly attracted to group-grope activities? Play dates for kids AND dogs, and reading groups? Lions and Tiger and Bears, Oh My! Gawd, we get more like the Japanese every day. Is there a uniform of the day for writing groups? I don’t know, and don’t care. See, as a writer I view a book as between me the creator and you the reader, no priest or interpreter, or Bible-study group necessary You read it and get what you can from it. I feel the same way as a reader.
Reading groups? Think about this. let’s each have intercourse with the same person (different times), then get together and talk about the experience. Really? I don’t think so. My reaction to a book will not be the same as yours and even if it was, who cares and what does that add to the reading experience? Don’t get me wrong, I love it that groups buy my books, but to actually talk about them with me — I…don’t…think…so!
My favorite is a guy who comes up to me and says, I bought your book and passed it around to 35 friends, and when I reply, “Therefore taking 35 royalty payments out of my wallet, I usually draw shocked and blank stare. That’s right, I write for a living. it’s also a lifestyle, but writing has to pay the bills. People don’t get this. If you really wanted to be supportive you’d say I convinced 35 friends to buy your book.
Now I don’t want to turn negative here, because I don’t feel that way, but I do think if people want some insight into a writer’s life they ought to hear some real things, not just a bunch of pie-in-the sky platitudes about the importance of books. I get frequent requests from libraries whose approach is invariably identical:” We are a tiny, small rural library but have loads of your fans would love to host you here and can offer an honorarium of $100.”
Well, I’m a small author, the far end of the JK Rowling-Stephen King spectrum of number of books in print or royalty dollars in the bank. I live on what I make from this work.
The latest request came from a library 4-5 hours away. I patiently replied that what they saw as a two-hour commitment to talk to fans, was for me a seven-day commitment — minimum. A day to drive over, a day there, and a day to drive back, plus gas, and then at least four days to prepare because I don’t do canned (repeat) presentations. Each group gets something unique. Ergo, being offered a hundred bucks for seven days is a bit of a kick in the creative cajones. My actual fee, for the record, is $750 for an original presentation and appearance, no matter the setting (library, etc). Sometimes I ask room and board and gas, depending on the time of year, etc. And sometimes I ask only for the fee and pay expenses from that.$750 doesn’t strike me as a high fee for the work involved and most rural libraries apparently feeling the same because I have made many, many such journeys over the years. Sometime two geographically close institutions will join forces to bring in writers.
So here we sit on another foggy morning, the mosquitos hovering in swarms, and all the fireworks and gun morons are already commencing fire in preparation for Independence Day or whatever they think they are making noise about. One guy across the lake goes through a clip a day and I’m sure this keeps the doctor (psychiatrist) away, though I’m guessing the practice is in preparation for a black helicopter invasion by the One World Government, or those damn Liberal gun-snatchers, whoever arrives first. Think: A lone cowpoke with his .45 Colt against turbine-powered choppers armed with missiles and 20 mike-mikes, or more. Now THERE’s a picture of skewed reality.
Next blog will be mostly photos of all the good stuff we’ve seen this summer and spring, including the three largest fish I’ve caught, a smallmouth, a bluegill, and a sunny, not a single trout. Have not been trout fishing yet and prolly won’t until. Bullshido camp in late July. Take care and be safe. A story is calling my name. Over.