Saturday, October 25, 2014

Early Thoughts on the Composition of Fobbit, With Detours into Thumb-Slicing, Car Bombs, and Tim O'Brien

Aug. 31, 2009 (Butte, Montana):  Work on Fobber [the early working title for Fobbit, before I became familiar with the common term for the "stay-back, stay-safe" soldiers who populate the Forward Operating Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan] continues apace.  I rise at 4:30 every morning, work out on the elliptical for 45 minutes, then sit down and write for anywhere between one and two hours.  Some days, it’s writing; other days, it’s just typing.  Today, I was distracted and the words had a hard time coming.  Tomorrow will be better.  Today’s total word count: 60,324.

Author at Work Rest (2009)
Sept. 5, 2009:  I made beef stew today.  While cutting the carrots, my left thumb got in the way of the knife and the blade sliced right through my nail and took off most of the tip.  Without hesitation, blood welled up, filling the sides of my cuticle and running over the meaty part of my thumb.  I turned to the sink and put it under water.  When that didn’t staunch the flow, I one-handedly grabbed a paper towel and wrapped it around the thumb.
      Ordinarily, this scenario wouldn’t be a problem, but Jean is out of town for three weeks, back in Virginia helping my parents pack their condo there and move out to Bozeman.  I pressed her speed dial on my phone.
      “I just cut the tip off my thumb!”
      “What?!  The whole whole tip or just part of it?”
      “Well, there’s still a flap hanging on.  But it’s pretty bad.  I’ve got it wrapped in a towel now, but should I put ice on it, too?”
      “I don’t know.  I guess so.”  Her voice was not burdened with sympathy.
      So, I’ve spent the rest of the day with a thumb enlarged by a paper towel rubber-banded around it.   It took nearly three hours for the bleeding to stop.  In that time, however, Jean did call back twice to ask how I was doing.

September 7, 2009:  Currently reading: The Naked and the Dead (for a lesson in how to construct Fobber) and the Library of America’s just-issued Raymond Carver: The Collected Stories (for a lesson in how to write like a motherfucking god!).
      Today’s final Fobber word count: 65,861.

Sept. 27, 2009:  Fobber progress: 78,835.  A good day today.  Wrote Gooding’s diary entries for his first trip into Iraq.

Sept. 30, 2009:  First snow.

Oct. 14, 2009:  A piss-poor Fobber day.  Got up at 4:20, as usual.  Showered right away without working out, since I have to be to work early this morning.  Got coffee, came downstairs and was immediately distracted by the Internet.  Mindless surfing for far too long drained the batteries and so I only typed (wouldn’t even qualify it as “wrote”) 51 words today.  Overall, the word count stands at 93,923.

Oct. 22, 2009:  Tim O’Brien spoke in Helena today, as part of the city’s Big Read program (they’re reading The Things They Carried).  Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger introduced O’Brien to the crowd of about 250 crammed into the basement of Carroll College’s Student Center.  Bohlinger went on and on about O’Brien’s story “On the Rainey River,” treating it as if it was memoir.  It was my understanding that even though the narrator is named “Tim O’Brien,” the story is partly (mostly?) fabrication.  But when O’Brien got up to speak, he acted as if it was all Fact, none of it Fiction.  Only at the very end of his lecture did he mention, in a toss-off line, that the character of the old man Elroy was a “composite” of many people—his father, his preacher, the townspeople, God.  Did O’Brien just want to avoid embarrassing the lieutenant governor?
      During the Q&A, someone asked O’Brien about his writing habits.  He started by saying he got up at 7:30 every day—I wanted to sneer “Lightweight!” but kept quiet.  (I’m writing this journal entry at 5:20 a.m., preparatory to diving back into Fobber after an absence of three days—much too long away from it.  Word count, by the way, is now at 98,363.)  O’Brien said his writing process is like trying to capture the contents of a dream: “You know how when you wake up, and you go into the kitchen, reach for the orange juice in the refrigerator, you’re trying to remember all those scraps of the dream you just had, but the longer you’re awake, the harder it is to remember the details?  Well, that’s how it is with me and my stories.  If I don’t write every day, then when I come back to whatever it is I’m working on, I might be able to remember the details of the plot’s action, but the passion, what drove me to write the story in the first place, is starting to dissipate.”  So, he writes every day to keep up the enthusiasm for what he’s working on.
      During the reading, O’Brien also told us about the fact that he’s what you’d call an “old father,” a man who had children late in life: he’s now 63 and has two sons, ages 4 and 6.  Recently, he caught his four-year-old peeing into the wastebasket in the bathroom.  “And this was not just any wastebasket, but a wire-mesh wastebasket—”  (much laughter from the audience)  “—and not just any old wire-mesh wastebasket, but one that was sitting on top of brand-new maroon carpeting which I myself had installed.”  (more laughter)  “Well, I raised my voice—not something I usually do—and I kept repeating over and over, ‘What are you doing?!  What are you doing?!’  I was so upset, I had to go into my study to cool down.  When I came out a hour later, I went to Sam and talked to him about it and again asked why’d he’d been peeing into the trashcan.  Eventually, he told me, ‘It’s because I have two heads, Daddy.’  ‘Two heads?’  ‘Yeah, one head said “Mommy won’t like me doing this.”  The other head said, “But it will be fun.”’”  (Cue the gales of laughter).  Later, O’Brien said he turned this incident into three or four pages of prose and that it’s the germinal seed of his next book.  “I don’t know where it will go from there—I know I want to avoid writing about Vietnam again—but I know I have to follow wherever it takes me.”

October 24, 2009:  Hit 100,000 words in Fobber today.

October 25, 2009:  While I’m typing a particular funny scene in Fobber, I get a “Breaking News” e-mail from the Washington Post.  Two suicide car bomb attacks in Baghdad.  “At least 132 people were killed and 520 wounded…The blasts, which the Interior Ministry said were carried out by suicide bombers, detonated under a pale gray sky, shattering windows more than a mile away.  Broken water mains sent water coursing through the street, strewn with debris.  Pools of water mixed with blood gathered along the curbs, ashened detritus floating on the surface.  Cars caught in traffic jams were turned into tombs, the bodies of passengers incinerated inside.  The smell of diesel mixed with the stench of burning flesh.   ‘Bodies were hurled into the air,’ said Mohammed Fadhil, a 19-year-old bystander.  ‘I saw women and children cut in half.’  He looked down at a curb smeared with blood.  ‘What's the sin that those people committed?  They are so innocent.’”
      There’s nothing particular funny about this kind of déjà vu.  I squirm while writing Fobber.  How can I make readers laugh about the U.S. in Baghdad while blasts are still cutting children in half?  I can only hope my intent is in the right place.

November 17, 2009:  Fobber word count: 122,043.  I’ve been on a roll lately.

December 9, 2009:  Been in a slump with Fobber for days, perhaps even weeks.  I’m at a point in the narrative right now—Lieutenant Colonel Strong [later, Duret] wakes up and we’re told he’s going to die that day—when the novel’s culmination is scheduled to begin.  I’m reluctant to write those scenes, however.  Instead, I’m planning to go backwards in the novel and try to insert things I’ve missed.

December 24, 2009:  Been off and on with Fobber lately.  Blame it on holiday stress, which leads to a foggy mind, which contributes to depression, which easily links to inactivity at the keyboard.  I find, however, that on the days when I tell myself to just go downstairs and write one perfect sentence, just one, that those are the days when I end up staying longer at the computer.  Maybe I don’t find “the perfect sentence,” but at least I type more than one.  Today’s word count: 134,620.

Laughter Salted With Tears: Boy With Loaded Gun by Lewis Nordan

It’s been too long since I last posted anything here about the late, great Lewis Nordan.  I try to bring him up in conversation at least once a year (more often, if I can), just to keep his flame alive.  The Funniest Writer You Never Read shuffled off this mortal coil in April 2012, and I’m still mourning his passing.  His publisher, Algonquin Books, has done a fine job of keeping the fire stoked with logs--including recently re-issuing some of his best works like Wolf Whistle and Music of the Swamp.  I was thinking about Buddy Nordan this morning as I browsed through the archive of my older, pre-Quivering Pen book reviews.  When I came across Boy With Loaded Gun, I remembered how much I enjoyed this memoir and thought I’d share it with you here.  This review, published elseweb about 14 years ago, was written long before Nordan died.  In re-reading it, my laughter is only more heavily salted with tears.

*     *     *

Behind every comic’s smile is a grimace of pain.  The laughter, the one-liners, the puns are there to mask the wounded heart, the losses, the disappointments, the self-doubts.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Lewis Nordan, he’ll tell you all about sorrow.  Then he’ll turn right around and spin a funny story to ease his marrow-deep pain.

Nordan is in a three-way race with Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor as the best American humorist alive.  We’re talking about someone who goes for the genuine, well-earned laugh.  Someone on the order of Mark Twain or Robert Benchley or James Thurber.  Smart writing that will have you rolling on the floor with laughter while you turn the pages (and most likely earn you a paper cut in the process).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you haven’t yet discovered Lewis Nordan, then you’re leading a pretty dull life.  In the last fifteen years, he’s written seven books—three novels, three short story collections and one that was a hybrid (related stories that formed a fairly smooth narrative).  All were set in the South and most featured a young character named Sugar Mecklin (really a thin disguise for Nordan himself).  Flat-out funny, every one of them.

But between the laughter, there were moments of deep tenderness, scenes of great heartbreak, whole passages that swept me up in lyrical beauty so that I sat back and exclaimed, “Well now!  This big ball of soil we call Earth is really populated with sweetness and light after all.”  That’s the effect Nordan has on me—one minute I’m choked with laughter, the next I’ve got a lump in my throat.

Now I realize those seven books were a prelude to what is probably the book Nordan considers his most important: Boy With Loaded Gun.  The book jacket calls it “a memoir,” but I’m not inclined to believe it’s all true.  In fact, Nordan himself begins the book with a droll conversation on the subject:
      I couldn’t decide whether to call this book a Memoir or not, so I put the problem to my wife. I said, “If you were working at the Library of Congress, how would you list this one?”
      She said, “Nordan, Lewis.”
      I said, “No, I mean—”
      She said, “ISBN whatever.”
      “Fiction or Nonfiction,” I said. “It seems to fall somewhere between the two.”
      She said, “You made up your memoir?”
      “Names mostly, you know.”
      She said, “You didn’t mention my name, did you?”
      “I changed your name, I changed all the names, that’s what I’m saying.”
      “If all you changed was names—”
      “And conversations. I made up some conversations.”
      “Still—I’d say Memoir.”
      “And maybe I exaggerated some stuff too. Some of the painful stuff, death and like that.”
Needless to say, I kept my shaker of salt handy while reading Boy With Loaded Gun.  What to believe, what to disbelieve?  Well, certainly the most hilarious parts—the anecdotes of his childhood, the caricatures of the folks back in his hometown of Itta Bena, Mississippi—read like something out of his fiction.

Here’s how he describes himself as a fifth-grader:
I could fold back my eyelids and bend all my fingers at the first joint and throw both my thumbs out of joint. I lighted farts with a Zippo lighter I had won at a carnival, as boys my age crowded near to see the blue streak fly out of the seat of my pants. At the same carnival I paid a full dollar to enter a tent where a so-called flatulence artist plied his strange trade. I was astonished and impressed, even inspired, by his ability to blow out a series of candles from across the room. I wanted to be like him. Secretly I hoped his vocation might someday be mine.
His parents order the household’s first TV and he gets so excited, he dons his Superman cape, leaps off his porch and falls flat on his face.

He goes to New York City to meet the beatniks, checks into a fleabag hotel, gets up to use the shared bathroom down the hall, then discovers he’s locked himself out of the room.  Did I mention he was naked as a jaybird?

He meets his father’s first lover—a midget.

And so on, all of it funny and a little sad and wistful.

But then the tale turns dark.  There are deaths, betrayals, adulteries, more deaths, alcoholism, divorce and more adulteries.  If we are to believe that what’s on these pages is the truth—or, at least, the truth filtered through his brain’s Fiction Sieve—then Nordan is to be commended for his courage.  It is painful to watch him peel back the scab that covers all the wrong-headed things he’s done in his life.

Once the scab is gone, the healing begins.  I get the feeling that writing Boy With Loaded Gun was cathartic for Nordan, that he’d waited years to squeeze this poison out of his system.

I don’t think this is his best book (read Wolf Whistle or The Sharpshooter Blues for examples of classic Nordan).  It’s episodic and, here and there, reads like something out of a 12-step program.  It certainly won’t appeal to readers who can’t bear to watch a man destroy himself with drink and adultery.  Once the laughter fades, there is only squirming left.

But, as I said before, there are moments of throat-lump beauty between these covers.  The chapters “The Man I Killed” and “A Body in the River” especially moved me.

Through it all, there is Nordan’s distinct voice—something like a cross between William Faulkner and Lake Wobegon.  I think Boy With Loaded Gun would be most successful as an audio book—but only if read by the author himself.  I once had the pleasure of hearing Nordan read the New York City episode (the one where he gets locked out of his room, then wraps himself in toilet paper to cover his nakedness) while it was still a work-in-progress.  I only caught every other sentence.  The laughter in the room kept drowning him out.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier, The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter, and There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Congratulations to Lewis Parker and Carl Scott, winners of last week's Friday Freebie contest: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Gravity by Elizabeth Rosner, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante.

This week's book giveaway is a trio of short story collections: The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier, The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter, and There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  One lucky reader will win all three paperbacks.  Read on for more information about the books.

The ten riveting, emotionally complex stories in The Game We Play examine the decisions we make when our choices are few and courage is costly.  Topics include a young couple facing disease and commitment with the same sharp fear, a teenager stealing from his girlfriend's mother's purse to help pay for her abortion, and a father making a split-second decision that puts his child's life at risk.  Here's some praise from Paste Magazine: “Lanier's deceptively breezy prose may pour off the page as easily as water flows from the tap, but her unassuming way with words actually requires great finesse.  Apparently fluent in the unvarnished dialect we speak in our own thoughts, Lanier adroitly avoids the trap of trying too hard to sound clever.  Instead, she relies on cutting wit, keen powers of observation, and an easily swollen heart to shine light on awkward truths in a way that renders them almost deliciously painful.  Without glamorizing youthful malaise, her flawed but endearing characters bump—and sometimes grind—against each other, leaving the kinds of bruises that turn into lingering regret and inconvenient wisdom.  In The Game We Play, Lanier manages to be understated and unflinching at the same time and strides forward with a confident, highly compassionate debut.”

In the pages of The Freedom in American Songs, you'll find some indelible characters.  Meet Xavier Boland, the untouchable cross-dresser, who walks loose and carefree as an old Broadway tune.  Meet Miss Penrice, a lost old woman forced by wartime to parent a child for the first time.  Meet a Zamboni mechanic turned funeral porteur, Madame Poirer's lapdog (and its chastity belt), a congregation of hard-singing, sex-obsessed Pentecostals, and more.  With The Freedom in American Songs, Kathleen Winter brings her unusual sensuality, lyrically rendered settings, and subversive humor to bear on a new story collection about modern loneliness, small-town gay teens, catastrophic love, and the holiness of ordinary life.  Praise for The Freedom in American Songs: “Winter’s quirky second collection offers 14 stories filled with extraordinary individuals living within artfully rendered landscapes.  The three ‘Marianne Stories,’ set in a village on the east coast of Canada, are filled with wonders and discoveries, from the beauty of splits of wood in winter to raspberries out of season.  Marianne’s visit to a Pentecostal service is a comic delight.  The second section ranges from the cross-dressing Xavier of the title story to Claire, who is visiting Florida’s Sanibel Island as a respite from the Montréal winter, to a homeless flamenco dancer, all rendered in vivid, empathetic language.”  (Jane Ciabattari, “Between the Lines,”

“Love them,­ they’ll torture you; don’t love them, ­they’ll leave you anyway.”  In the three darkly-imagined novellas of family life in There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In, both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child.  Here a devoted mother commits a terrible crime against her own son in order to save him; an aging poet exploited by her own children struggles for survival; a young nurse fears murder at the hands of her brutal husband.  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's newly-translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes.  After her work was suppressed for many years, Petrushevskaya won wide recognition for capturing the experiences of everyday Russians with profound pathos and mordant wit.  Among her most famous and controversial works, these three novellas—The Time Is Night, Chocolates with Liqueur, and Among Friends—are modern classics that breathe new life into Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Together they confirm the genius of an author with a gift for turning adversity into art.  Praise for Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: “This celebrated Russian author is so disquieting that long after Solzhenitsyn had been published in the Soviet Union, her fiction was banned—even though nothing about it screams ‘political’ or ‘dissident’ or anything else.  It just screams.”  (Elle)

If you’d like a chance at winning all three books, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 30, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 31.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Slipping Into the Skin: Down in the River by Ryan Blacketter

Down in the River
by Ryan Blacketter
Review by Christian Winn

It’s the hot end of summer when I sit down to re-read Down in the River, Ryan Blacketter’s remarkable, darkly startling and endearing debut novel.  I’m in a park abutting my own city’s river, and it’s got to be 90 degrees in the shade.  But, I’m feeling cold–the chill wrap of wet air all around me on an early winter evening as I stand amidst pines outside a café in Eugene, Oregon.

By the end of page two, it is not August in Idaho, and I am not a forty-seven-year old writer drinking iced coffee in the quiet afternoon.  I’m Lyle Rettew, and I’m sixteen, and I’m feeling lost, doomed, wishful, haunted, and still so cold.  I’m the new kid in town watching would-be friends I long to connect with mill about the café.

Then it’s on to page three, and I’m fully into Ryan Blacketter’s world once more, and so happy to be here.

Such is the power of great fiction–to be transported, to live within characters’ skin and spirits, to understand how it is to stand in that cool clutch of trees as Lyle does.  Blacketter puts me there so vividly, with tight, detailed, heartfelt passages such as this:
A far train shrieked a high note of panic. Then came the ding ding of a warning gate. The air sang with the freight passing and he heard it occasionally under the rain. When the headlights of a turning car swept the grove, trees staggering in light and shadow, he went toward the café door, hesitated, then ducked back into the trees. He didn’t want to be laughed at.
This passage is wholly indicative of the precision of language and emotion of the entirety of Down in the River, and this is what stitches artful meaning into the often macabre and shrouded plotline where Lyle, in the fractured aftermath of his twin sister’s death, endeavors to break into a mausoleum to steal a young girl’s remains.  His motives are noble, at least within his youthful sideways mind–he wants to lay this girl peacefully to rest, deliver her to her rightful grave.

Thus begins the quest at the heart of Down in the River, as Lyle successfully extracts the remains and sets off with the bones in his backpack.  Along the way Lyle endeavors to enlist Rosa, the girl he’s deeply into, to come with him on this morbid and heartbreaking quest.  Events unfurl and the dark tension rises as Lyle tries to explain to the kids he knows, the adults he is fleeing, and to himself just how right the decision really is.  He's snatching these bones in order to save this young woman’s soul, and maybe his own.

Blacketter so wonderfully describes instances of physical and emotional grace in this troubled, dim narrative, especially as Lyle and Rosa come together through all these genuine, if twisted, events.
He opened his coat to the bottleneck poking his shirt, grinning. He pulled out the Mad Dog, broke the seal, and drank. They crawled into the concrete mouth and sat down on the grass. Into the whale’s hole sprinkled a circle of snow in front of them, drawing their eyes while they ate. Then Rosa pushed herself back, leaning against the concave wall so that her head was bowed. Her moonstone earrings took the dim light into them. Her face was lost in the black, but her anxiety and fatigue drifted into him like a mist.
These startling, real, gorgeous lines made me sit up from my perch beside the river, and say, “Wow,” aloud, feeling the stark chill and longing of these kids on the run.

It’s rare to be transported so vividly and convincingly into a cold, broken world like Lyle and Rosa’s, but Blacketter does it for 208 wise, tight, beautifully dark pages.  And as Lyle’s quest unfolds with messy inevitability, I am rooting for this young man, I am living as this young man, I am learning to feel as skewed and caring as Lyle does.  And what a pleasure this is, and what great inspiration to a fellow writer the experience of Down in the River is.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.

Christian Winn is the author of Naked Me, a short story collection now out from Dock Street Press.  He lives in Boise, Idaho where he writes and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at Boise State University.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Soup and Salad: Afghanistan: Our Undescribed War, Writers and Their Day Jobs, Small Presses and Their Authors, 50 Best Films About Writers, Weird and Wonderful Bookstores

On today's menu:

1.  At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brian Castner (author of The Long Walk) wonders where he can find the poetry and fiction coming out of the war in Afghanistan:
If World War II is the Good War, Korea the Forgotten War, Vietnam the Bad War, and Iraq the New Bad War, then Afghanistan, it would seem, is the Lonely War. Or maybe the Ignored War. It is, at least, the Undescribed War.
He's got a valid point.  Two of the novels he cites, Elliot Ackerman's Green on Blue and John Renehan's The Valley, are in my To-Be-Read queue, but there are scarcely any other recent or forthcoming titles by Afghanistan veterans on my shelves.  (Two other novels by non-veterans, Wynne's War by Aaron Gwyn and The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, are also on that same TBR list.)  Castner's article is well worth the read for anyone even remotely interested in war literature.

2.  Ah, the dreaded, necessary and (occasionally) beloved Day Job.  Nearly every "working" writer has one, whether they like it or not.  I've had a few over the years: cook, dishwasher, soldier, pizza delivery driver, janitor, clerk at a video-rental store (remember those?), tutor at a community college, storage yard caretaker, and, currently, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.  So, I can really relate to this article, which talks to writers like Catherine Lacey (Nobody is Ever Missing) and Shane Jones (Crystal Eaters), who works as "a writer/event planner/logistics person.  It's a pretty standard desk job, I think.  I answer phones and emails and print signs and banners."  Jones' advice in what to look for in a Day Job is pretty much what I'd say:
I don't want to take my work home or work extra hours. I look for a day job that pays well and doesn't tax me mentally. If you want to produce creative work look for a job that doesn't burn you out mentally and allows you to daydream a little. Bookstore clerk, parking lot attendant, late night security patrol at a college, lifeguard at the YMCA, things like that are good.

3.  Shane Jones pops up again in this feature about small presses at Poets & Writers.  Jones describes the feeling of going small with Two Dollar Radio:
      After publishing two novels with Penguin I was told by my editor that if sales didn’t increase it would be difficult to proceed with a third book. The following year was a brutal time of stagnation—e-mails to my agent on where to submit next that went unanswered, erratic editing on my book, and fits of jealously over friends’ publishing deals. I would gladly have this time mind-erased.
      I had been a fan of Two Dollar Radio for more than a year when I submitted Crystal Eaters on a Thursday afternoon. I had become frustrated being at a large literary agency and a major publishing house—an experience that at its worst resembled answering office e-mail. I occasionally felt like I was doing something wrong when it was impossible to be doing something wrong. My time spent with independent presses in the past (Publishing Genius, for example) was more akin to building a tree house in the dark by candlelight, hoping you create something to stand on. Crystal Eaters was accepted Monday morning and a contract came days later.
      What appealed to me about Two Dollar Radio was a combination of things: from its dedication to publishing outsider voices all with a cohesive aesthetic (I’m still not sure how they pull this off) to a publishing philosophy that mixes family closeness and punk aesthetics (think of a record label like Drag City). I wanted to be there. I wanted to go back to the tree-house feeling. When Eric Obenauf sent me an acceptance letter just under a thousand words long (keep in mind, this is four days after submitting a book I had sat with for more than a year) I was excited again. It felt raw and dangerous to be publishing a book like this again. Not only did Eric have a vision for Crystal Eaters (which he would help expand fifteen thousand words and cut thousands more), but there was also a close, loose, “let’s just do this” vibe. Things felt fun again, and if it doesn’t feel fun, why do it at all?
Indeed, indeed.  The rest of the article highlights presses like Red Hen Press (and author Pete Fromm), Black Balloon Publishing (and author Kevin Clouther), A Strange Object (and author Kelly Luce), and several others.

4.  Flavorwire ranks the 50 Best Films About Writers.  My favorites on the list: Manhattan, My Left Foot, The Royal Tenenbaums, Julia, Midnight in Paris, Iris, Misery, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard, Adaptation, and Barton Fink.  And, yes, there are some glaring omissions--most notably the movie that perfectly nails the relationship between writer and creation: Stranger Than Fiction.  Maybe you can think of some others they missed?

5.  Are you sitting at a desk in your windowless office cubicle (perhaps at your Day Job--see above) and wishing you could just get away from it all?  Well, I can't whisk you off to Finland or take you on a shopping spree along the Champs Elysee, but I can offer this refreshing tour of "weird and wonderful bookstores" around the world, like Atlantis Books in Greece:

I love the caption for this one: "In 2004, two Oxford students were on holiday in Santorini, got drunk and decided to open a bookshop.  Despite niggling doubts once they sobered up, after graduating they filled up a van and drove back.  They run a small printing press in the back room and have signs saying you can ‘rent a cat’ while you read."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: If Not For This by Pete Fromm

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

You've probably noticed the blog feed has been particularly full of books by Montanans this year.  There's a good reason for that: the Big Sky state has produced some exceptionally-fine literature for our shelves lately.  Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks, The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan, The Home Place by Carrie La Seur, High and Inside by Russell Rowland, and Tom Connor's Gift by David Allan Cates are all novels by Montanans which made their way onto my 2014 reading list.  Add If Not For This by Pete Fromm (author of As Cool As I Am) to that lineup--well, okay, I haven't read it yet....but I vow to do so before the year is out.  The lovely trailer for Fromm's latest novel certainly gets me in the mood to read this love story of two river rafters who are faced with some very hard challenges.  Here's the jacket copy synopsis:
After meeting at a boatman's bash on the Snake River, river runners Maddy and Dalt embark on a lifelong love affair. They marry on the banks of the Buffalo Fork, sure they'll live there the rest of their days. Forced by the economics of tourism to leave Wyoming, they start a new adventure, opening their own river business in Ashland, Oregon: Halfmoon Whitewater. They prosper there, leading rafting trips and guiding fishermen into the wilds of Mongolia and Russia. But when Maddy, laid low by dizzy spells, with a mono that isn't quite mono, both discovers she is pregnant and is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they realize their adventure is just beginning. Navigating hazards that dwarf any of the rapids they've faced together, Maddy narrates her life with Dalt the way she lives it: undaunted, courageous, in the present tense. Driven by her irresistible voice, full of wit and humor and defiance, If Not For This is a love story like no other.
The video, produced by the good folks at StraightEIGHT Films, moves gracefully, sensuously--like the deliberate current of a river (with one cutaway to whitewater rapids, which hints at the turmoil of Maddy's condition)--and ends with a series of blurbs, like this one from Ron Carlson: “In If Not For This, Pete Fromm brings us a rich, deeply felt book, so full of kindness and kind people that it’s an absolute phenomenon.”  To paraphrase Maddy, I can hardly wait to launch into this book and get swept downstream.

Monday, October 20, 2014

My First Time: John Abraham-Watne

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is John Abraham-Watne, author of the new novel Our Senior Year, a story that deals with high school, "quarter-life crisis," friendship, religion, and love.  John lives near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis with his wife Mary and their two cats, Marble and Scout.  He has done freelance journalism for the Minneapolis Examiner since 2009.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Book

My first time getting published finally happened, after twelve years of work, last month.  My debut novel Our Senior Year had been patched together in my mind since my own senior year of high school in 2002.  Up until then I had bounced among friend groups, usually older than myself, and was now faced with the possibility that I didn’t have many friends my own age.  Thankfully, the people I embraced that year became some of my best friends ever; some of them even show up in the novel.

I was struggling with many emotions at this time.  I thought I was in love, but I also hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to actually speak to a girl.  I was attending a religious youth group in another rural town and attempting to be a better person.  Yet this was the year I (mostly) discovered alcohol and partying, and did plenty of both on the many gravel roads criss-crossing the corn and soybean fields outside my hometown.  I was attempting to be better and yet I was embarking on the quest that would ultimately cause me to disown the religion I was brought up with since birth.  All of these contradictions and more continued on throughout the year.

So what caused the actual book?  Like many nerds before me, I often enjoyed delving into fictional universes more than the one that surrounded me.  The first stirrings came as I approached the end of my senior year.  The more I thought about things, the more they started to come together like a movie in my mind.  Things in this early version of the book got really dark and involved a lot of death and destruction, and reflected my sour world view as I made my way into post-secondary education.  It would remain that way, in one sorry-looking first draft or another, through most of my college days as I fantasized about the writer I was to become without doing much actual writing.

The big push came after I was married a decade later.  My wife and I had been living in the same space for about a year when she finally let me have it.  I had been moping and feeling sorry for my writing career since I had started doing freelance work for the Minneapolis Examiner in 2009.  I was cranking out blog posts bemoaning the state of international affairs and our current federal government’s intransigence, but had also branched out to interviewing local politicians and public officials in Minneapolis.  My wife must have had enough one evening because I recall her telling me, rather vehemently, to “finish the book.”  I wanted people to take me and my writing seriously, so why not take this route?  I’d had the idea in one shape or another rolling around my head for the past decade.  I may have been a victim of what holds many writers back: If I finish the book, that means I have to let other people read it.  I’m not sure how much terror this notion instilled in me, but I did know that if I was serious about trying to be published I’d have to let this story escape the confines of my head.

As is usually the case during arguments like this with my wife, she was right.  I buckled down, started writing every day, and damned if I didn’t finish that thing within the year.  The next step was finding an editor.  So, I did what most starving artists do: I turned to family.  My wife’s cousin had an English degree and was a teacher.  I asked if she would take a look at my novel, and thankfully she did!  She mentioned later that she had no idea what she was getting into (who would?) but was glad to see the book had things like actual structure, plot development, and believable characters.  About six months later we had our first major sit-down discussion, and she told me all that she thought needed work.  To this day I am grateful to her for doing this for me.  This book would not exist without her efforts.

Her work on the novel allowed me to make it much better, and in another few months I was ready to submit it to a publisher.  I got the contact information for North Star Press and sent them the first few chapters.  After a lengthy amount of time, they responded, saying that they'd publish it!  This was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Looking back, I still can’t quite believe that I would hold a copy of this story in my hands some day.  This is a testament to the fact that if you put your mind to something, have the proper support network, and simply do the job, you can accomplish anything.  Even if nobody likes the book I will always have this accomplishment, and no one can take that away from me.  So I say to anyone reading this who has a similar dream: just do it.  Don’t let self-doubt trap you into a fictional universe of your own in which the idea of publishing seems so much better than the reality.  Reality is messy; people are eventually going to have to read your work, so get used to it.  Trust me, the benefits far outweigh whatever you think the costs might be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Molded by the Bookstores of Our Youth: Steve Ashley Keeps On Booking in Jackson, Wyoming

Writers are molded by the bookstores of their youth.  Or, maybe it's their public library; or, it could be that shelf of books in their family's living room.

In my case, it was The Valley Bookstore.  Growing up in Jackson, Wyoming in the 1970s, there were two stores devoted to selling new books: Teton Bookshop and The Valley Bookstore.  I divided my time equally between the two.  As a teenager, I didn't buy a lot of books--I was a low-budget library checker-outer--but I have fond memories of whiling away afternoons in both bookstores, touching new dustjackets, riffling through pages, and staring at author photos and putting my face in that space on the back flap.  All the time, I was being molded by my bookstores, my writerly clay patted and carved and fired in a kiln.  I have Steve Ashley and The Valley Bookstore to thank for the way I turned out as much as I do the Teton County Library and Mrs. Schlinger, my ninth-grade English teacher.

Teton Bookshop eventually closed, but The Valley Bookstore continues to hold its own in Jackson and, in the hometown newspaper clippings my parents regularly send me, I was happy to see an interview with store owner Steve Ashley in a recent issue of the Jackson Hole News & Guide.  The newspaper has very generously allowed me to reprint that article by Jennifer Dorsey here for those who might be interested in seeing a small, but significant, part of my humble beginnings as a writer.

*     *     *

Steve Ashley has a 1950s-era photo of his father’s store, Jackson Sporting Goods, which sat a short distance from the Wort Hotel.  Next to the sports store is the Valley Shop.  Ashley remembers going in there at age 10 or 11 and buying every James Bond book in stock.  The young bookworm grew up to take over the book side of the Valley Shop and create Valley Bookstore.

In an era when one bookstore after another around the U.S. has folded, he has kept his going for more than 35 years.

“I have a box of bookmarks from bookstores across the country,” he said.  “I was looking through it, and I was amazed at how few were still around.”  The following is his story, edited and condensed.

Photo by Bradly J. Boner
Q:  Can you share a bit of Valley Bookstore’s history?

A:  The bookstore goes back to ’48.  It went through a number of owners and combinations.  The Valley Shop was owned by Dick and Fran Lange.  They had books, and they were kind of a stationery store with art supplies.  Then they sold to Wes and Virginia Marks.  They had camera supplies and books and stationary.  They sold it to Grant and Maralyn Larson.  He moved it across the street to the Pink Garter when it was first built.  It was kind of tucked in where Pinky G’s is.  They had office supplies and books.

Q:  How did you acquire the business?

A:  In 1977 I was pining for the West, so I came home.  I was living in Boston.  I went to Middlebury College in Vermont.  I was a history major.  That was not marketable.  The one thing I did know was books, because all I did was read from the youngest age.  Grant decided he would sell the book side of the Valley Shop.  My father co-signed a loan.  I bought the books and changed the name to Valley Bookstore.  Grant moved the office supplies business.  There were three bookstores in town at that point.

The Valley Bookstore is located in Jackson's quaint Gaslight Alley

Q:  When did you move from the Pink Garter to Gaslight Alley?

A:  It was probably in the early 1980s.  We started in a small space where Cowboy Coffee is now.  We needed to grow, so we moved [to the back area].  We grew and grew.  We were a 4,500-square-foot bookstore.  It was one of the best bookstores in the West.  We also expanded to another store, the Muse Stand.  That was a newsstand with music and magazines.  We brought newspapers in from all across the country.  That lasted about five years.  That was the heyday.  We had both stores and 40 people working for us.

Q:  How many employees do you have now?

A.  In the summertime we have six people.  I have employees who have worked for me for 21 years.  Karilyn Brodell has been here for 21 years, Stacey Smith 19 years, my son Owen on and off for 13 years and Erika Stevens 13 years.  My wife, Anne, goes back to the Pink Garter days.  I hired her when I opened the bookstore to work for me.

Q:  What do you do?

A:  I’m losing my hearing.  That’s why I don’t work upstairs.  I’ve always been the person who orders the books.  Now I do the receiving, too.  I’m the behind-the-scenes guy.  I make sure we’re the kind of bookstore I want to be by getting the right books in.

Q:  What kind of customer mix do you have in terms of locals and tourists?

A:  When we first got into the business we relied on tourists quite a bit.  Summers were quite important.  In the ’80s and ’90s, when wasn’t a factor in Jackson Hole, there wasn’t a choice: if you wanted a book, you came downtown.  For that reason, locals carried the bookstore.  That’s changed to the point where we are now back to where we were in the ’70s, where we need our summer business, which is tourists, to make it through the rest of the year.

Q:  How does that affect your product mix?

A:  I choose a mix of books for the summer for tourists to come in and say, “Jeez, I might never see that book again.  I’d better grab it now while I can.”  I want them to feel like they found a special spot.  In the offseason we do cater more to the locals.  I’ll bring in more literary fiction that the locals won’t necessarily have read about or seen.  The bookstore swings as the seasons go.

Q:  What sells best?

A:  A bookstore should reflect your home.  In that sense we should be full of nature history and Western history, so people can come in here and understand the land they’re in.  Jackson is a literary community.  People here read good books.  We’ve always had the best fiction and a big biography section.  Lately the children’s section has really taken off.  People are less inclined to buy children’s books over the Internet.  In the summer a third of our sales are children’s books.  There are so few independent bookstores, let alone ones with gorgeous woodwork like ours.  When people come into Valley Bookstore it’s a unique experience.

Q:  What are some examples of books you promote in the summer?

A:  What we try to do is find local histories that would appeal to residents and tourists and put them out front.  White Indian Boy, about Uncle Nick Wilson, for example.  Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark is another one.  It’s about the second group of fur traders to come through Jackson Hole.  I just finished it, and I loved it.  There’s a book by Mary Beth Baptiste, Altitude Adjustment, about her being a [Grand Teton National Park] employee here for years.  It’s a book that locals would like to read, because it’s all about us, but it also gives tourists a really good sense of what the valley is about.

Q: has been a big competitor?  What else?

A:  There are all kinds of stores selling books.  The big box stores like Costco and Sam’s Club.  And you see books in a lot of different stores now.  If you’re a fishing shop, you have fishing books.  If you’re a kitchen store, you have cookbooks.  It all makes good sense.  But that wasn’t a part of the landscape in the late ’80s.  So that shifted.  And there were these big chains that were selling books at 40 percent off.

Q:  What about Kindles and other e-readers?

A:  I do think they have been a piece of the puzzle when it comes to the closure of some bookstores, but what we have found is that after people got them they found they liked to use them but not all the time.  Customers tend to mix it up, buying an e-book when it is convenient, but many still prefer the smell and feel of books made of paper or the bookshelf lined with books, and I suppose something for the bathtub as well.

Q:  Valley Bookstore has downsized from the 4,500-square-feet days.  How else have you coped with the commodification of books?

A:  We did a couple of things that were smart.  We started “Sanctuary on the Square.”  We were “a quiet place to come, and 10 percent off if you’re a local.”  We still do that.  It was just so people knew we were doing what we could to give them the best possible value.  As kids we’d go in and help my dad in his shop.  We drank a lot of soup in those days, and we’d fill the empty cans with worms.  There were 12 worms, and you always put in a 13th worm.  You always do just a little bit more to make sure your customer is satisfied.

Q:  What makes Valley Bookstore unique?

A:  We’re just a bookstore.  Ninety-five percent of the store is books, and that’s because it’s what I love.  I think it’s important for the community, for children and adults to have the opportunity to hold a book and smell a book and have the epiphanies those books provide.  Books for me have always been some of my best friends.  When I was at the Holderness School [a prep school] back East, I read The Lord of the Rings and then went back to The Hobbit.  It was late ’67.  The Doors came out with the album Strange Days.  Great album.  I read Tolkien listening to that album again and again.  I was 2,000 miles away from home.  It grounded me.  It gave me something that made me feel really good.  Books have done that for me many times over the years.

Q:  Any other good book memories?

A:  We lived through the Harry Potter years.  We had the midnight book-release parties.  My kids grew up with the books.  They gave them a sense of what friendship can be, what justice is.  One year, when the second [Harry Potter] book came out, the books were shipped by freight, and they were still in Salt Lake City the day of the party.  So I had to get in our Suburban, drive down to Salt Lake City [a 600-mile round trip], pick up the books and get back by midnight.  Everything could have gone wrong in so many ways.  People wanted the books.  In the end that’s what booksellers do is get book for people.

Q:  Are you glad to have been a bookstore owner?

A:  This has been a great business.  If you’re going to sell something, hands down selling books is the best thing there is.  With books you have something new coming out very week.  At the same time I get whatever books I want.  If you have a bookstore in Jackson for 35 years, you hire a ton of people over that time.  One of the things I love is that when I go to the grocery store, chances are I’ll see someone who worked for me and is still a friend.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Gravity by Elizabeth Rosner, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Congratulations to Melissa Seng and Amber Kalbes, winners of last week's Friday Freebie: Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican and The Human Body by Paolo Giordano.

This week's giveaway is a trio of books which will bring a little international flavor to your shelves: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Gravity by Elizabeth Rosner, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante.  I have two copies of each book to give away to two lucky readers.  Scroll down for more information about the books.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is a luminous and unforgettable tale of two women, destiny, and identity in Afghanistan.  Kabul, 2007: The Taliban rules the streets.  With a drug-addicted father and no brothers, Rahima and her sisters can rarely leave the house or attend school.  Their only hope lies in the ancient Afghan custom of bacha posh, which allows young Rahima to dress and be treated as a son until she is of marriageable age.  As a boy, she has the kind of freedom that was previously unimaginable... freedom that will transform her forever.  But Rahima is not the first in her family to adopt this unusual custom.  A century earlier, her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life in the same way--the change took her on a journey from the deprivation of life in a rural village to the opulence of a king's palace in the bustling metropolis of Kabul.  Crisscrossing in time, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell interweaves the stories of these two remarkable women who are separated by a century but share the same courage and dreams.  What will happen once Rahima is old enough to marry?  How long can Shekiba pass as a man?  And if Rahima cannot adapt to life as a bride, how will she survive?

Gravity is a full-length poetry collection that can be read as an autobiographical companion to Elizabeth Rosner’s novels, The Speed of Light, Blue Nude and Electric City.  Composed over a period of some twenty years, Gravity is Rosner’s profoundly searching, blazingly honest account of her own experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors.  In these direct and revealing pages, Rosner traces the earliest remembered resonances of her parents’ past and her own dawning awareness of the war history that colored her family home during her youth in Schenectady, New York.  She recounts her false starts in raising the subject with her father (a survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp), his piecemeal revelations, and their eventual travels together to the sites of the nightmare in Germany.  And she evokes, courageously and heart-wrenchingly, her own search for identity against the gravitational pull of her parents’ experience and the traditional upbringing they’ve given her.  This extraordinarily powerful book reminds us that three-quarters of a century is a blink of an eye, that history happens at home, and that the past is something we all embody, knowingly or not.

Since the publication of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante's fame as one of our most compelling, insightful, and stylish contemporary authors has grown enormously.  She has gained admirers among authors--Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Strout, Claire Messud, to name a few--and critics--James Wood, John Freeman, Eugenia Williamson, for example.  But her most resounding success has undoubtedly been with readers, who have discovered in Ferrante a writer who speaks with great power and beauty of the mysteries of belonging, human relationships, love, family, and friendship.  In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third Neapolitan novel, Elena and Lila, the two girls whom readers first met in My Brilliant Friend, have become women.  Lila married at sixteen and has a young son; she has left her husband and the comforts her marriage brought and now works as a common laborer.  Elena has left the neighborhood, earned her college degree, and published a successful novel, all of which has opened the doors to a world of learned interlocutors and richly furnished salons.  Both women have attempted are pushing against the walls of a prison that would have seen them living a life of misery, ignorance and submission.  They are afloat on the great sea of opportunities that opened up during the nineteen-seventies.  Yet they are still very much bound to each other by a strong, unbreakable bond.

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of all three books, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 24.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Trevor D. Richardson's Library: A Rob Fleming Dilemma

Reader:  Trevor D. Richardson
Location:  Portland, Oregon
Collection size:  300-ish, plus a lot of comics
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  Early 20th-century printing of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, my favorite fictional character
Favorite book from childhood:  The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Guilty pleasure book:  I don't really read things that I'm ashamed to admit, but the closest would have to be The Chronicles of Narnia because the religious symbolism is often a little heavy-handed.

I just moved to a new place and my books are still heaped about the living room in short towers.  I keep thinking about Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.  Rob Fleming (or Rob Gordon as played by John Cusack in the movie) has a fairly extensive record collection that is his crowning achievement.  Throughout the story, he has this ongoing ritual that seems to be a coping mechanism for the drama or disappointment of his personal life: Rob can't stop rearranging his vinyl.  In his search for the perfect system--having tried alphabetically by artist and then by album name and a bunch of others--Rob begins arranging the records in chronological order of when he purchased them.  The process becomes a kind of catalyst for him to reflect on his life and it inspires some of the events of Hornby's novel.

Right now, I am sitting in my new domicile, facing with the same dilemma of Rob Fleming/Rob Gordon from High Fidelity.  What is that ever-elusive perfect arrangement of one's own library?  In my last place, the books were arranged by size at one point, then by color later on.  They've been ordered alphabetically by title and then by author.  They have even been ordered by genre ranging from “analysis of astrophysics” to “surrealist/psychedelic fiction.”  As with many other elements in my own life--and the Rob Fleming in me can attest to this fact--none of it seems right quite yet.

Moreover, there is a reason why my library consists of 300 books instead of a couple thousand.  I lend them out or straight up give them away more often than even I, myself, would like.  It's difficult to explain the urge.  I have the heart of a hoarder where my books are concerned, but I also have a strong desire to create the perfect library and sometimes there's a book here or there that just doesn't quite fit in.  It's a bit like trying to fix your hair in the morning and, after fighting with that one unruly strand for several minutes, you finally decide to pluck it out.  It is not easy--the hair and the book are a part of me--but they simply aren't falling in line and must be gotten rid of posthaste.

Today I am considering a Fleming-esque approach to my books.  Not quite chronological, but still biographical in nature, I want to arrange things according to the many phases and various obsessions of my 29 years.  I begin with the collection of Hardy Boys novels I have kept since elementary school.  At the time of their discovery, my family had recently moved into a new house outside of Manteca, California, and I not only discovered the joys and horrors of a dank, eerie basement, but the leavings of the prior occupants.  Among the boxes of creepy, dusty dolls and rusty bicycle parts had been almost the full collection of The Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon.  I made it the mission of my childhood to complete the collection and, despite having outgrown the series by quite a few years, I still keep an eye out for the final two I lack whenever I go book hunting.

Within this same category, I suppose I would have to include The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.  Yet this brings to mind an interesting question.  Should the biography of my book collection be based solely on when I first read these books, or when I most loved them?  If the latter, Tom Sawyer is still fairly current, where the Narnia books should have their place somewhere around my eighth grade year.  A year of trial and uncertainty, following a move from California to Texas, in which I took comfort in the escape from our world into a world of fauns and lions and griffins and talking badgers.

This autobiographical library will not be an easy task.

And what of my comic books?  I have some issues from the early nineties that should technically be squeezing themselves in between The War of the Worlds and The Jungle Book.  When did Superman die again?  1992?  What about when Bane broke Batman's back and Bruce had to stop wearing the cowl for a while?  Surely these issues must land somewhere between the time I was devouring the writing of H.G. Wells and the time I had gotten really into reading the original stories that inspired beloved Disney films...

No, not an easy task at all.  Perhaps I should go back to color-coding the covers and call it a day.

Next, I move on to an obsession with classical literature that began in my adolescence.  According to the biography of my library, this began with Sherlock Holmes, but rapidly spiraled into J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Melville, Tolstoy, Miller.  I remember it well.  Like so much of my literary life, the urge was inspired, or perhaps “caused” is a better word choice, by music.

Like some of the people in Rob Fleming's life, I had friends of that tribe who used their knowledge of music, particularly upcoming and underground stuff, as a kind of bludgeon to browbeat the people around them into some kind of submissive or subservient position.  They were that brand of nerd, the loser, or slacker who realized that the music scene existing outside of Top 40 artists gave them power.  I got as caught up in this wave as I was caught up in the wave of spiritual adrenaline that went with big tent revivals and the promises of Christ.  All of which I have since, gratefully, recovered from.  With music, it happened rather suddenly.  I recognized the band that was “it” one month was suddenly “sell out” dross the next.  The fickle nature of this scene left a bad taste in my mouth and I went in search of things that would last.  This search took me backward in time to things that had been proven and were still going strong.  I began to read old books, the ones that you find on a New York Times must-read list.  And, as for music, I began listening to early 20th-century jazz, blues, and eventually folk.

Folk brought me to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, The Band, Pete Seeger, The Staples Singers, Neil Young and tons more.  In literature, it brought me to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey.  I suppose this will have to be the next shelf of my library, the next subcategory.  On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Howl, Sailor Song, Demon Box...this era became the next obsession.

It was at this stage in my reading life that I began to seriously consider pursuing writing as a career.  The words of Ginsberg and Kerouac, Kesey and, eventually, Hunter S. Thompson, ignited something in me that never cooled.  Following the track and history of the Beats, I found Naked Lunch and William S. Burroughs.  Following Burroughs and realizing that so many of these people were all part of one community, largely featured in Kerouac's books, made me see all the interconnecting webs of that era in literature, music, and art.  Bob Dylan was inspired by Kerouac.  Hunter S. Thompson was inspired by Bob Dylan.  Bob Dylan was inspired by Hunter S. Thompson.  Ken Kesey was featured in Thompson's Hell's Angels during a chapter set at his La Honda estate.  It was an endless cycle of influence feeding into and out of itself, influencing America in kind, and eventually influencing me.

My pursuit of writing, however, did leave me kind of jaded as I rapidly began to realize that there was very little else I cared about.  I couldn't imagine myself doing any other job, for example, and my late teens and early twenties were troubled as I suffered unusually powerful growing pains as a struggling writer struggling with newfound responsibilities.  I had staked a lot of myself on faith because of my time in Texas, but in studying literature and pursuing creativity, I began to feel an awakening that made things about that faith not quite sit right.  By the time I was 20, writing was the only thing I believed in anymore.  Books, that was it.  I had no religion, no patriotism, no love of money, no passion for any career outside of telling stories, and, of course, no resources, finances, credit or anything else to my name.

This is when I found the writing of Chuck Palahniuk and, in the space of five months, I read everything he had ever written.  The humor of destruction, the nihilistic poetry that made light of so many of our culture's sacred trusts, and the consistently poverty-stricken characters stubbornly maintaining their outsider status both in terms of their living conditions and their intellectual outlook on life, all resonated with me.

Even now, despite having since outgrown Chuck, I find myself thinking about my library in relation to this line from Fight Club, “I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable.  I was close to being complete.”

This library is a sculpture – take a title or two out, add a Norman Mailer book here or a Thomas Disch novel there, and I could be complete...

As for Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor was a particular favorite as it told the story of a guy brought up in a suicide cult who lacked the faith to take his own life when the call came.  Growing up religious and grappling with my own agnosticism, it just felt right.

My wandering 20th year of life took me to a town called Denton, Texas, north of Dallas, where I wound up writing my first novel.  In Denton, I met Shea, who loaned me his copy of Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins.  My obsession with the writings of Palahniuk ended that day and I was now vehemently, even vigorously, centered on this new set of books.  I read Woodpecker in two days.  Then I spent the next week at the local bookstore, unable to afford a copy of anything larger than a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet, basically stealing a chapter here or a chapter there, reading Jitterbug Perfume on the fly.  Since that time, I have gotten all of Tom Robbins' books and even had the pleasure of attending a reading of his autobiography, Tibetan Peach Pie, this past June at Powell's Books.

In Tom, I found something that made me realize how narrow and juvenile the vision of Chuck Palahniuk's books had been.  I saw people, like me, with the same outsider perspective, the same distrust of society's values or disconnect from social norms, but instead of being miserable about it, they were filled with wonder and daring.  I realized that, like Bob Dylan said, “When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

I turned a corner and began to explore America, not in search of answers or something new to believe in or really anything at all, but just to go because that's what Amanda from Another Roadside Attraction would do or because that's how the great king in Jitterbug Perfume managed to live forever.

The biography of my book collection is starting to look increasingly optimistic.  Filled with this new vigor, I stopped seeing things as the next scene or the next historical moment I had to devour and began to just search for what I liked.  I found Neil Gaiman and read four or five of his books.  I started reading books about physics and math, getting a big kick out of a little known book called Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife in which I learned about the tug-of-war between math and religion going back to when Time was still in diapers.  Then, much later than I should have, I finally got around to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and, embracing a lifelong love of science fiction, got into Philip K. Dick, Orson Scott Card, and tons more.

Not long after, I wrote Dystopia Boy, my own addition to the annals of science fiction and a love note to everyone on my book shelf.  I learned how to add danger to my voice by obsessing on Hunter S. Thompson for a while.  I found humanity through Tom Robbins.  I found music and poetry and that lowdown eloquence of the poor from listening to too much Bob Dylan and reading too much Kerouac.  J. D. Salinger taught me how to talk in my writing rather than just speak.  Palahniuk showed me how the incendiary can be hilarious.  And my love of the classics held up the firm belief that if something is good, it is timeless, if the writer does his job right, it never suffers the fate of so many bands that my old friends liked for a minute and cast aside like autumn leaves the next.

Like Rob Fleming's vinyl collection, I can see my life in the literature I've consumed.  I have often been a little behind the trends, but typically that's just because I want to make sure what I'm spending my time on is going to last.  It's just another variation on the eternal question Tom Robbins asked all those years ago: How do we make love stay?

Trevor D. Richardson is the founder and editor of The Subtopian and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files from Montag Press.  A West Coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon.  His numerous short stories have appeared in magazines like Word Riot, Underground Voices, and a science fiction anthology called Doomology: The Dawning of Disasters.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.