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 Amazon.com 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:  Amazon.com 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 thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Soup and Salad: Merritt Tierce's Husband Has Read Her Novel, Encountering Tim O'Brien, Un-Slumping Sophomore Novels, Will We See Thomas Pynchon?, High Desert Journal's Subscriber Campaign, The Smell of Old Books, Literary Halloween Costumes, 10 Worst Opening Lines, Peyton Marshall Finds Her Goodhouse Setting, Staging Deliverance, Is Spokane the Next Brooklyn?, Emory Gets Flannery


On today's menu:

1.  At the Powell's blog, Merritt Tierce, whose debut novel Love Me Back is about a waitress addicted to sex and cocaine, talks about how she's been confronted with an unusual question:
     "Has your husband read it?"
     So far I've stifled the following responses:
     "No, has your husband read it?"
     "No, because he's not allowed to read. He has too much to do around the house."
     "Yes, and he's in therapy. I'm afraid our marriage might not make it."
     I suppose those who have posed this question to me could be making the most innocent of inquiries; after all, it's a normal enough thing to wonder about someone who makes any kind of art and has a spouse or partner. But the question still grates, because maybe what they mean is something more like, "Is your husband really OK with the fact that you wrote a book about someone who resembles you in several significant ways, and that person has sex with a lot of different people? Does your husband know that you may have had sex with a lot of different people? How does he feel about that, if so? And if he's OK with it, do you know how lucky you are?"
     Even if the asker doesn't realize those are the questions buried in their question, those are the questions I hear. And I can't help but think they wouldn't ask a male writer that question — had he written such a promiscuous disaster of a semi-autobiographical male character, he would more likely be asked, "What are you working on now?" or "What's your writing routine?" or "Who has influenced you as a writer?"
For the record, Tierce's husband has read Love Me Back.


2.  Jesse Kornbluth frequently re-reads Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, but until recently had never cracked open The Things They Carried; I'm currently re-reading The Things They Carried, but have never ventured inside In the Lake of the Woods.  While we have yin-yang reading experiences, we both agree on one thing: Tim O'Brien is The Man.  At his Head Butler blog, Jesse describes his virgin encounter with O'Brien's short story masterpiece:
     I read Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods every few years. Not because I forget the plot; I can tell you the story beat by beat. Now I just try to understand how O’Brien does it. There’s Vietnam. And magic. And politics. And a marriage. And a disappearance — or is it a murder? How O’Brien masterfully juggles all those balls is one of the most impressive achievements in modern American fiction.
     I promise you: You won’t put it down.
     So you’d think I’d have gone on to read the other two parts of what could be called O’Brien’s Vietnam trilogy — Going After Cacciato, the novel that won the National Book Award for O’Brien, and The Things They Carried.
     But for years and years I never looked at these early books.
     Then I went to Costa Rica — into the rain forest, actually — and because that climate is so much like Vietnam, I took along the paperback of The Things They Carried. One afternoon, when the temperature was 95 and so was the humidity, I sat down with this collection of short stories. Two hours and 271 pages later, I got up.
     You don’t get better reading experiences.
As for me, I'm traveling through the jungle with T. O'B. in preparation for a lecture I'm giving this Friday in Missoula at the art museum: "How to Tell a War Story."  The Things They Carried is the Big Read for the Montana and I'm honored to be just one small voice in the month-long celebration for this outstanding book.  O'Brien himself will speak in Missoula on Oct. 28 and it's bound to be a moving experience.


3.  "I'll third that!"  God bless Slate and the Whiting Foundation for coming up with the idea to recognize "the best under-recognized second novels of the past five years."  As someone who's fretting about the slump of his own (still uncompleted) sophomore novel, I'm happy to see the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List, "which will celebrate five terrific second novels whose first trips through the literary-pressdustrial complex may not have been all the authors hoped for...After all, Their Eyes Were Watching God?  Ulysses?  Giovanni’s Room?  O Pioneers!?  The Firm?  Second novels all."


Joaquin Phoenix and Benicio Del Toro in Inherent Vice
4.  A New York Times reporter probes Inherent Vice director Paul Thomas Anderson for the answer to the most pressing question currently plaguing the internets: will Thomas Pynchon make a cameo appearance in the film adaptation of his novel?
     Surely Mr. Pynchon, 77, would be tempted by such an inside joke? Told that other sources had confirmed a cameo, Mr. Anderson stared intently into his salad and poked around with his fork, either looking for an answer among the summer beets, fighting back a grin or both.
     “I’m staying out of it!” Mr. Anderson said eventually. “No. No. I just—.” He trailed off, running a hand through his shaggy, sandy blond hair, a pained look on his face. “Somebody spent a long time deciding not to have themselves out there. There’s a reason for that. So I’m just going to step out of that.”

5.  If you love the literature of the West and you aren’t currently a High Desert Journal subscriber, now is the time to atone for your sins.  It’s the Journal’s 10th anniversary, and the hard-working staff is about to put out the 20th issue.  In celebration they’re launching a 1,000 new subscriber campaign.  Right now, you can buy two subscriptions and get the third subscription free.  It’s well worth the price of three lattes.  For instance, in the current issue you’d find articles like “A Poet’s Guide to Huckleberry Picking” and “The Day Evel Knievel Died.”  Intriguing stuff, right?  As they say at the website, “Where other magazines are all hat and no cattle, High Desert Journal is a working ranch, bringing you the best art, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction we can find.”  In the video below, editor Charles Finn talks about the significance of the literary journal: “I'm inviting you to invest in a region of the country, to help promote the stories that come from the land.”





6.  “A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.”  That, my friends, is the smell of old books.  Or, if you want to be more scientific about it: toluene, ethyl benzene, and 2-ethyl hexanol.


7.  Have you picked your child's Halloween costume yet?  Book Riot offers a few suggestions:






8.  We hear a lot about great opening lines to novels, but what about the worst openers?  The American Scholar does us all a favor by listing “10 opening doozies, lines that make it difficult to continue reading”--like these from Thomas Wolfe's 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel: “A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.”


9.  At the FSG Work in Progress blog, Peyton Marshall describes how she came up with the setting for her debut novel, Goodhouse:
     I couldn’t sleep. It was June 2009 and I was returning from a friend’s wedding, staying in a cheap hotel outside of Sacramento. My husband was beside me, blissfully unconscious, as I sat there, stupefied by late night television, by the weeping beauty pageant contestants, by the pawn shop reality programs, by the people fighting in foam-padded suits. Over the years, insomnia had provided few benefits—a raw, twitchy nervous system, for example, or a suspicion on some days that my brain had been replaced with boiled ham—but all that was about to change.
     I’d recently started working on the book that would become Goodhouse. I’d been sketching different characters and scenes, unsure how everything fit together. I knew the book was set in a future version of a reform school—a place where the state was attempting to rehabilitate boys born with a genetic propensity for violence. But I couldn’t see where any of the writing was really going—not in a linear way. I was working within some kind of narrative cloud, and these scenes were like atoms orbiting a mysterious, unseen core.
     And then, in that dingy hotel room, insomnia paid off. A new program was starting, a paranormal investigation show with several muscle-bound hosts—linebacker-sized men who sprinted through dark hallways, startling at the smallest sounds. That particular episode was set in the now-shuttered Preston School of Industry, a boy’s reform school founded in 1894 in Ione, California. The institution itself had been housed in a giant Romanesque castle built on a hill. A grand and imposing structure that was thought embody a new way of thinking, a new commitment to reform instead incarceration, the Preston School was now in ruinous decay. I muted the volume on the television and just stared the structure itself; huge and turreted, built to intimidate and inspire, it looked like a castles from European antiquity, not a part of contemporary American justice.
     I sat up in bed. I actually felt my heart beat faster, spurred on by a jolt of recognition. I’d never had a moment like this before. This was my setting.
     “Oh God,” I said, elbowing my husband, maybe a little too enthusiastically.  “That’s it.”
     “What’s happening?” he said, sitting up. “What’s going on?”
     “That’s it,” I said. I pointed to the television. “We’re going to go there.”
     He groaned and lay back down. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
     “Not right now,” I said. “But soon.”


Nick Paglino, Bryce Hodgson and director Joe Tantalo in rehearsal
10.  “It was such a sprawling story: the vast wilderness, the river, the cliff.  And then Hollywood made it even bigger by making it legendary.  Now a theater company of modest means is trying to contain the tale on a 12-by-12-foot stage, hoping to concentrate its power by focusing on the language and the interior journey.”  The novel is James Dickey's Deliverance and the theatre company is Godlight.  I love the idea of stripping away the river, the cliffs, the dueling banjos, and just getting down to the core essence of Dickey's language.  From the New York Times article:  “The idea that works for us is that the audience is creating their own sense of what the wilderness is,” (Joe) Tantalo, the company’s founder and artistic director, said during a rehearsal break.  “If we had a woodland set, if we had too many markers of the environment, I think it loses the idea that it’s a work of the imagination.”


11.  What’s the deal with Spokane?  “I can’t tell you how many people, most of whom know Jess (Walter), said something to me about Spokane,” Vestal said.  “‘Spokane!  What are you guys doing out in Spokane?  What’s in the water in Spokane?’  There’s definitely some kind of regional energy going on right now.  And it’s an exciting thing to be a part of,” he added.  “A big part of it is just this community, support and friendship among writers.  It’s a nourishing dynamic right now.”
     That's Shawn Vestal speaking to a reporter soon after he won this year's PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for debut works of fiction, for his story collection Godforsaken Idaho.  “People afterward were asking me if I was OK,” Vestal said.  “I guess I seemed like I’d been hit in the head or something.”
     Those of us who were already familiar with Vestal's work were probably less surprised (but just as elated), but there does indeed seem to be something incredible being poured into the city's water with some of my favorite contemporary writers currently working in the area.  To name just a few: Jess Walter, Gregory Spatz, Nance Van Winckel, Shann Ray, Sam Ligon and--coming next year--Sharma Shields.


12.  It looks like a trip to Atlanta may be in order.  Emory University has acquired “a trove of Flannery O’Connor’s literary drafts, journals, letters and personal effects, long hidden from all but a few scholars.”  A good opportunity like this is hard to find.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan


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

(Note: for those of you who are reading--or who are about to read--The Ploughmen, the video contains a spoiler.  You might want to come back to the trailer after you've finished the book.)




From all outward appearances, Kim Zupan is a nice, mild-mannered guy.  That's why, once I got deeper into the pages of his debut novel The Ploughmen, it came as a jolt to find one of the central characters is such a cold-hearted monster.  John Gload, a septuagenarian serial killer, is like a Hannibal Lecter unleashed on the wind-swept Montana plains.  I had the pleasure of meeting Zupan this past weekend at the annual Humanities Montana Festival of the Book and I was relieved to find he was nothing like his character.  After all, I left our brief encounter with both hands intact and all the teeth still in my head.  Make no mistake, John Gload is a horrible, horrible man and he rightly ends up behind bars in the early pages of The Ploughmen.  That's where he meets Valentine Millimaki, a sheriff's deputy who works the graveyard shift at the Copper County jail.  As the book's jacket copy explains, "With a disintegrating marriage further collapsing under the strain of his night duty, Millimaki finds himself seeking counsel from a man whose troubled past shares something essential with his own."  Most of the book consists of cat-and-mouse conversations between diabolical killer and sympathetic lawman, and I've gotta say, I was held spellbound for the entire 256 pages of the novel.  Zupan spins his tale with sentences that are rich in imagery and complex in construction.  This is a book which encourages readers to slow down and savor its near-poetic language.  At the same time, Zupan ratchets up the suspense with a menacing undertow.  Here, for instance, are a couple of passages which illustrate what I'm talking about: our introduction to John Gload as he kills a young man at the start of Chapter One:
As if to fend off a blow he threw up his arms in front of his face and the first bullet went through his thin forearm and through the top half of his right ear and went whirring into the evening like a maddened wasp. The next as he turned to run took him high in the back of the neck and he fell headlong and did not move. The old man went to him and examined the wound critically. He turned the boy over. The bullet had come out below his nose and the old man considered its work, while the boy batted his eyes and took in the sky beyond the killer's bland and placid face—gray clouds of failing winter, a small black leaf, a black kite, at last an enormous wheel of March's starlings, descending with the mere sound of breath.
...and this from a few pages later,when Gload throws a sack of body parts into the water near a dam:
A fine spray rose above the dam's railings from the torrent roaring through the floodgates and when Gload finally stopped it appeared as a downy luminescent cloud above his head. He stood at the rail and watched the amber water of spring thaw surge through the sluicegates. He turned. Behind him in the curve of the dam, tree limbs wheeled about in a huge scum-covered whirlpool, rising and falling like the arms of drowning giants. Half-inflated plastic grocery bags like men-of-war bobbed in the wrack and there were animals so terribly bloated that they may have been cats or hogs and he could make out the dented prow of a skiff and there was all manner of floatable trash and slim branches fluted by beaver teeth and there were ducks and small waterbirds, their dead eyes gemlike in the glare and everywhere in the slime like a grotesque choir the round sucking mouths of voracious river carp.
I know I haven't said much about today's book trailer.  It's a simple, well-made video in which Zupan describes how he came to write The Ploughman--a process that took nearly a decade--and how it originated in his friendship with a former sheriff's deputy in Great Falls, Montana.  "This story percolated in my head for a number of years before it forced its way out," Zupan tells the camera.  The simmer-and-percolate period was well worth it and I, for one, am glad the novel has emerged for the rest of us.  The Ploughmen is, without a doubt, one of the best novels I've read this year.


Monday, October 13, 2014

My First Time: Bonnie ZoBell


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 Bonnie ZoBell, author of a new linked collection of stories from Press 53: What Happened Here.  The book focuses on the site where PSA Flight 182 crashed into North Park, San Diego, in 1978 and features the imaginary characters who live there now.  Bonnie's fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013.  She received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award.  She received an MFA from Columbia University and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College.  She is working on a novel.  Click here to visit her website.


My First Time Being Called the "B" Word

The review of my first full collection was written by the stunningly talented, gorgeous, and erudite C.A. LaRue at The Small Press Book Review.  Because it was so wonderful, I wanted to marry her or at the very least be her best friend.  I wanted to hang out and really really get to know her.  She's been very patient and accommodating with me, even though I keep telling her she's a goddess.  I suppose this might get on a lesser person's nerves.

Don't get me wrong.  Nearly every review I've ever gotten has made me more confident as a writer.  I love every one of them and the people who wrote them.  But this first full-length one for my first full-length collection, What Happened Here, vindicated some long-standing "ouchies" from my publishing career.

You have to understand that I'm 59 years old and have tried to get other books into print in my life.  Though I've published a lot of stories and that's worth something, and I've had some very healthy talks with myself about how subjective the publishing world is, and remind myself that many people don't get their first books published, I was completely devastated when I didn't.  I quit writing, at least for a while, and went into a funk.  Clearly I was fooling myself about writing fiction and just wasn't good enough, so why waste any more of my or the agents' and editors' time?

The good angel on my left shoulder kept reminding me that this didn't mean I couldn't return in the future to the book I'd nurtured and loved all those years and make it better.  But the bad angel reminded me, what about the fact that it took me ten years to write it and I knew in several months it wasn't going to find a home?  What about the fact that the book won a national award--you'd think that would mean I could sell it.  Obviously it wasn't a very good book award or I wouldn't have won it.  Good angel: Maybe you didn't send it to enough places.  And remember you got some excellent and helpful criticism of the book along the way if you decide to go back to it.  But what about all those agents who said, "We think it's a great book but we just didn't Love it."  What about the contests I entered and didn't even place in?

C. A., my goddess of a first full-length review, says, "The book opens, rather brilliantly, with a 42-page novella that serves to introduce the rag-tag group (who will later flow out into their own linked stories) and to set the tone for the overall collection, which moves from a view of doomed paradise to redemptive oasis."  I wanted to kiss C.A. for the use of that "B" word.  Later she adds that the book contains "some of the best writing I’ve come across in a long while."  Omigod.  I wonder if reviewers know how much a review like this means to someone who has been plugging away at it for decades.

C.A. LaRue is probably grateful I don't know what city she lives in, but if I did, I'd go there and take her out to dinner.  And buy her a lot of drinks.  Or maybe I'd babysit her kids if she has any so she and her husband, if she has one, can go out to dinner.  I'm a completely sane person.  Really.

A lot of years have gone by since that time I quit writing.  Memory has blurred.  Maybe the most important thing I need to remember as I continue on this volatile writing path is not those years of feeling awful but the ecstasy I experienced when I read C.A. LaRue's review.


Sunday, October 12, 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.


They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"I will not be transcribed": The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter


In 1971, I was a shy eight-year-old who mostly lived in his head.  Secrets?  Sure, I guess I had them.  Forty-plus years later, I can't remember what they would have been, but I'm sure they were of global importance to me as a young boy cloistered in his bedroom in Kittanning, Pennsylvania: desire for the cute girl in the third row in my elementary school classroom, the many hours I stayed up past bedtime reading books by flashlight under the covers, the money I regularly stole off my father's nightstand, etc.  I kept my cards close to my chest and rarely uncracked my lips.  Being quiet and private was par for my course and I doubt many people realized I was turmoiled with secrets.  I was anxious, had a troublesome stutter and wasn't all that great with interpersonal relationships.

Not unlike our nation's President at the time.

Like me, Richard M. Nixon was a man tunneled with the worms of worry.  We all know how his anxiety eventually blossomed but, as Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter write in the introduction of their new book The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, "Even though questions about Watergate hung in the air, the scandal never emerged as a major issue during the 1972 campaign.  As Nixon hoped, the break-in remained a story of interest mainly inside the Washington Beltway—it would explode only in 1973."


In 1971, Nixon was still in his first term of office and full of ambitious hubris, determined to make his mark on foreign policy.  Over the course of nearly 800 pages, Brinkley and Nichter detail Oval Office life during that two-year period.  The authors have heroically transcribed more than 3,000 hours of recordings Nixon made between 1971 and 1973 with a secret voice-activated taping system hidden in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and other key locations in the White House, and at Camp David.  It's a huge book covering a significant and, for the most part, overlooked, period of our nation's history.  The Nixon Tapes first caught my eye during a recent visit to Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana when the irresistible lemon-yellow dustjacket beamed from the shelf.  Though I don't generally gravitate toward political history, something about The Nixon Tapes drew me in.  The book primarily focuses on the year Nixon opened relations with China, negotiated the SALT I arms agreement with the Soviet Union, and won a landslide reelection victory.  While The Nixon Tapes fell outside my budget for that particular Country Bookshelf shopping spree (I already had three other books tucked under my arm), the book continued to tantalize me over the next week.  I finally broke down and bought the e-book version (saving myself some valuable shelf real estate and wrist fatigue), and I'm glad I did because one extra-bookular feature is a series of embedded audio clips which you can play while reading the conversation in the book, beginning with this exchange between Nixon and Alexander Butterfield, his Deputy Assistant, about sound-activated recording equipment which had just been installed in the Oval Office:
Butterfield: You’re wearing the locator right now and you’re in the office....It depends on voice activation—
Nixon: Right.
Butterfield: —so you don’t have to turn it on and off.
Nixon: Oh, this is good. Is there any chance to get two? You see, the purpose of this is to have the whole thing on the file—
Butterfield: Yes, sir.
Nixon: —for professional reasons.
That's right, Dick, keep it strictly "professional."

This morning, I started what will undoubtedly be a long journey into the depths of The Nixon Tapes and I thought I'd share snippets of the early pages to whet your appetite.

*     *     *

Nixon and Haldeman
On December 14, relaxing in the Oval Office, Nixon discussed his legacy, as it promised to develop at that point.  He tried out ideas with White House Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman:
HALDEMAN: There are a lot of good stories from the first term.
NIXON: A book should be written, called 1972.
HALDEMAN: Yeah.
NIXON: That would be a helluva good book. . . . You get in China, you get in Russia, you get in May 8 [his dramatic decision to bomb and mine Hanoi and Haiphong just before his summit in Moscow], and you get in the election. And it’s a helluva damn year. That’s what I would write as a book. 1972, period.
By and large, that is the subject of this book: the public policy that drove the most significant year of the thirty-seventh president’s first term.  The events of that “hell of a damn year” are presented just as they were recorded on Nixon’s taping system, uncensored and unfiltered.

*     *     *


On Nixon’s instructions, the Technical Services Division of the U.S. Secret Service planted mini microphones throughout the Oval Office in February 1971.  Five were concealed in the president’s desk, and two others were installed around the fireplace.  Telephone lines in the Oval Office and the Lincoln Sitting Room were also recorded.  Two more microphones were placed in the Cabinet Room.  A central mixer, housed in a decrepit locker room in the White House basement, was the switchboard that coordinated the recording machines, Sony TC-800B open-reel models.  Very few people knew about the taping system besides Nixon, Haldeman, Alexander Butterfield (who was responsible for its operation), and members of the Secret Service.

Soon after the system’s initiation, Nixon liked it enough that he expanded its reach.  The fact that everything he said was being saved appealed to his narcissistic sense of grandeur.  He believed himself a world leader of great geopolitical insight and military strategy, like Churchill.

*     *     *

The taping system gave Nixon an accurate record of his meetings and phone calls without the need for someone to sit in and take notes, which had been the practice before taping.  It was simple.  Nixon wore a pagerlike device provided by the Secret Service, and when it was within range of one of the taping locations, recording started automatically.  There was no on or off switch.  On some days we have recordings of almost his entire day as he moved between locations for different meetings or events.  While not all are decipherable due to intermittently poor audio quality, the Nixon tapes represent a trove for historians unlike any record left by other presidents during the nation’s history.  To fully transcribe Nixon’s tapes would take perhaps 150,000 pages, a task that may never be completed.

*     *     *


It is a loss to history that Nixon did not start taping earlier.  We have no private recordings of Nixon calling the Apollo 11 astronauts during their lunar landing on July 20, 1969, nothing touching on the antiwar protests that caused the White House to be ringed with buses on November 15, 1969, in case protesters breached the fences, no taped telephone call to request his limo when Nixon spontaneously visited protestors at the Lincoln Memorial during the predawn hours of May 9, 1960, no recording of Nixon’s famous Oval Office meeting with Elvis Presley on December 21, 1970.

After the disclosure of the existence of Nixon’s tapes in 1973, they became the talk of the nation.  At first, the president flatly refused to hand them over on the grounds of executive privilege and national security.  Nixon always assumed that the tapes belonged to him.  He most likely never intended to open them up to public scrutiny.  The U.S. Supreme Court believed otherwise, ruling, 8–0, on July 24, 1974 that Nixon turn over subpoenaed tapes.  Beyond the question of the tapes, or Nixon, the decision was a significant check on presidential power.  No one would be above the law, not even the chief executive.  The decision was a fatal blow to the Nixon presidency and led to Nixon’s resignation only fifteen days later, on August 9.  The tapes had damaged Nixon badly.  They were a key source of evidence used against him in the Watergate affair, the “smoking gun” that shot lethal holes in his reputation.  Under a cloud of shame, he fled the White House for Casa Pacifica, his home in San Clemente, California.  There, he continued to fight for ownership of his tapes.  Nixon died on April 22, 1994, never having recovered his tapes or his reputation, despite the admonition in President Bill Clinton’s eulogy: “may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”  In fact, Nixon’s death removed the final major obstacle to the public release of his tapes.

*     *     *

The National Archives and Records Administration has now released approximately three thousand hours of the tapes.  The remaining seven hundred hours are still classified either because of national security concerns or to protect the privacy of individuals, including Nixon, his heirs, or people still alive who were secretly recorded.  We have done our best in this volume to give a fair sampling of what was on Nixon’s mind during his first term.  We heard a lot of embarrassing, goofy, and comical moments on the tapes but included only a smattering.  More seriously, we could have made this a compendium of “gotchas,” as the tapes contain myriad bigoted slurs, put-downs, cursing, and off-color gossip, by Nixon and by others.  We have included some of those moments (for example, Nixon’s trashing of Indira Gandhi, Ted Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Jews, military officers, and gays, among others).  But our aim as presidential historians was to be fair-minded.  We have not set up straw men just to knock them down.  And we have not edited this volume in the hope of making Nixon look either “good” or “bad.”  We have left that determination up to the reader.

*     *     *

Alexander Butterfield
As I get into The Nixon Tapes, I'm starting to have a good appreciation for the challenge which Brinkley and Nichter had to tackle.  When they say the recordings were of "intermittently poor audio quality," they weren't kidding.  Many key passages are marked with a frustrating "[unclear]."  Take, for instance, this transcript from February 16, 1971, 10:28 a.m. (the first day of recording) when Nixon makes his intentions very clear:
BUTTERFIELD: You don’t have any questions on this other business that you might want me to answer now? This, this voice, I explained to the president that the secretary can’t—
NIXON: No. Mum’s the whole word. I will not be transcribed.
BUTTERFIELD: Correct.
NIXON: This is totally for, basically, to be put in the file. In my file. I don’t want it in your file or Bob’s or anybody else’s. My file.
HALDEMAN: Right.
NIXON: And my [unclear] today. The whole purpose, basically, is [unclear] so there may be a day when we have to have this for purposes of, maybe we want to put out something that’s positive, maybe we need something just to be sure that we can correct the record. But we’re going to [unclear] that’s all. And also, though, because I won’t have to have people in the room when I see people—
HALDEMAN: That’s right.
NIXON: —which is much better. I can have my personal conversations, which I want to have, and don’t have the people there, you know, which I’d much rather do anyway, unless I feel that I need them there to carry out something or as buffers. Then I’ll have them, of course. So I think it’ll work fine. It’s a good system.
HALDEMAN: Just don’t tell anybody you’ve got it and don’t try to hide anything [unclear]—
NIXON: [unclear]
HALDEMAN: Anytime that anything gets used from it, it’s on the basis of “your notes” or “the president’s notes”—
NIXON: That’s right.
HALDEMAN: —or “my notes” or—
NIXON: [unclear] For example, you’ve got nothing to use from this today. Just forget it. File it. Everything today will be filed.
HALDEMAN: Yes.
NIXON: Fair enough?
BUTTERFIELD: I think it’s gonna be a very fine system.
Likewise, I think this is gonna be a very fine book.