Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Circuitous Tale of a (Finally) Successful Book, Part 1


I've mentioned here and there on this blog that I've created a collection of stories--half historical in nature--all set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  I received the wonderful news not long ago that the book has been accepted for publication by Dialogos/Lavender Ink, a press run by the legendary poet and novelist Bill Lavender, who worked for so long for the University of New Orleans press.  (Yes, that's him in the picture.) As a general rule I hesitate to say that everything happens when it's supposed to--because that's kind of like saying everything happens according to God's will (which is a lie)--but in the case of Island Fog being accepted for publication, I have to say that I am glad it's happening now rather than, say, five years ago.  And thus begins my tale of how this collection came to be.  I'm going to break it into two parts, because the tale will take some time.

I started several of the stories in Island Fog perhaps twelve or thirteen years ago--during a trip I made with my family to Nantucket.  As is my wont, I was up before everyone else each day, trying to get a little writing done along with downing some come-alive coffee.  I hadn't planned on writing about Nantucket before I went, but ideas for stories just started coming to me.  In fact, I had so many story ideas--and was so afraid I might lose them--that I did something I've never done before: I started a brand new story each day of that vacation, writing as far into a story as I could before the family awoke and then leaving that story behind to begin a new story the next day.  In this fashion I laid down the tracks for the stories that now make up the second half of my present book.  But I hardly thought of them as a book back then.  They were just stories I wanted to nail in place in order to get back to later.  And I did, struggling mightily to read my atrocious handwriting, which turns from ordinary small/bad to illegible during the fury of engaged composing.

Eventually, I finished every one of those stories and in the years that followed I edited them mercilessly, revised a few significantly, and kept sending them out to various magazines.  A few were accepted and were long ago published (but not the title story, one of my favorites, which is one of the many reasons I'm so happy the book will appear).  A story about a plumber who hears some painful facts about his wife's death during a breakfast at a diner was published in 2005 in the now defunct Dana Literary Society Online Journal; a story about a couple struggling through the emotional fallout of several failed pregnancies was published in the journal Oasis, also in 2005; a story about a ghost tour leader haunted by his former male lover was accepted by Seattle Review and, after a wait of numerous years, finally appeared in 2009. 

It wasn't too long after the Nantucket stories began to be accepted by journals that it occurred to me I had a neat little set that could form a solid portion of a story collection.  Not enough pages to make a whole collection, but perhaps a half.  So I gathered together some non-Nanucket stories I thought worked all right together and combined them with the Nantucket stories to make a book I called--tah-dah!--Island Fog.  To the non-Nantucket stories I added the section header "Off-Island"--using stories that I thought had an enhanced sense of place--and the Nantucket stories were given the section header "On-Island."  Very clever, I thought.  The headers, and the organizational strategy they highlighted, would make this disparate group of fictions seem to belong together.  Well, in truth they didn't.   At least not enough to convince me or any of the many contests and small presses I submitted the book to.  Not knowing what to do, deciding the collection was a misft, I finally put it aside.  I didn't do anything with it for a long time except to occasionally submit one of the Nantucket pieces to a seemingly appropriate journal.

Well, what should happen except that I returned to Nantucket in 2011--for the first time in several years--having more or less finished my Van Gogh novel, having started this blog, and suddenly having historical fiction on the brain.  Lots of new ideas for Nantucket stories came to me, except this time all of them were historical in nature.  Like the first time, I started as many of the stories as I could while I was on the island, but I think I only managed to get three underway.  Later I drafted a fourth and, still later, a fifth. Certain characters I just could not get out of my head.  I had to write them: a retired whale ship captain who long ago was stranded at sea and forced into cannibalism (inspired, I know, by the real life story of George Pollard, commander of the Essex); a whaling widow who feels the first inklings of lesbianism; an African-American schoolteacher walking through some mid-island streets on a foggy afternoon, early in the twentieth century; a self-satisfied twelve year old, the son of a sheep farmer, who has befriended a half-Indian boy early in the nineteenth century.  I fleshed out these characters' stories, having a ball with them, and at some point--I can't remember when-- it occurred to me: I've got a new Island Fog book now.  The real Island Fog.

Next post: The process of getting done, getting it out, and getting it accepted.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Echols visit affects


[Hey Creating Van Gogh readers.  Like last week, I am dual posting this entry on Creating Van Gogh and my new blog Payperazzi.  That's because the post continues, and concludes, a string of posts I started last summer on CVG regarding Damien Echols and his visit to UCA.  In the future, I'll restrict this blog to what you would expect to hear about: historical fiction.  Payperazzi, meanwhile, will continue to embrace subjects related to the writing life generally and the teaching of creative writing.]

In my lifetime I've been to scores, maybe even hundreds, of writer events: readings and craft lectures and question-and-answer sessions and presentations of all sorts.  To be frank, not all of these events prove to be worth the time and effort.  Sometimes the writers are dull; sometimes they are distracted; sometimes they are borderline jerky.  Other times, of course, the writers are on point, engaged, animated, excellent.  Attending those events proves to be quite a valuable investment.   But--again, just to be frank--I can't really claim that even the most excellent of writer events is actually life-changing.  Not for me; not for the writer; not for the audience.  Until now.  Having attended and participated in a two-hour long Q & A last Monday featuring Damien Echols and about fifty UCA Writing students, and then, later that evening, helping to moderate his public appearance at the Reynolds Performance Hall, I can tell you that lives were most certainly changed by Echols's visit, especially his own.

When Echols was released from death row in August, 2011 he and his wife Lorri Davis immediately left Arkansas, crossing the river into Memphis where they spent a night in a hotel celebrating with friends.  The next morning they boarded a private plane for Seattle, where they passed a weekend and then traveled to New York, moving into an apartment that a friend graciously lent to them.  There they lived for a year until problems with the building forced all its occupants out; then Echols and Davis moved to eastern Massachusetts, where they still live.  Not once during this two year period did Echols consider returning to his home state, even for a brief visit.  He was all but certain he never wanted to return.  And who can blame him.  As his puts it now, because it's literally true, "the state of Arkansas tried to murder me." (For a crime, I remind everyone, he did not commit.)  During his visit to our campus he admitted that not until just a couple months ago was he sure that he'd actually be able to go through with his agreed upon gig as artist-in-residence at UCA.

I am so glad he did.  He talked eloquently and graphically about the brutal beatings he endured in prison, especially early in his tenure, when no one was paying much attention to him and his case.  Guards beat him so badly he pissed blood.  Except for the fact that another prisoner mentioned the beatings to a Roman Catholic deacon in the habit of visiting the prison, and the fact that this deacon warned the prison authorities he would squeal to the public if the beatings did not stop, Echols would have died there.  Already on death row, awaiting execution, his life held no value for anyone at the prison except to serve as a punching bag.   He also talked eloquently about the challenge of keeping up a literary life behind bars: denied access to pen and paper except for gifts given to him from those on the outside; having to writing lying in bed--a concrete slab with a wafer thin pad stretched across it--because of the absence of any chairs; forced by guards to write only with the narrow ink-filled plastic tube on the inside of a pen because they removed the pen's hard outer shell; wrapping the tube with wadded toilet paper to give himself a firmer grip on it.  Of course these were not the only challenges.   He talked of others: the fact that prison lights are almost never extinguished; the facts of rats and crickets and mosquitoes as one's constant companions; the fact of almost unending screams, requiring him to keep a small tv on constantly as white noise; the lack of basic nutrition and medical care; the absence of physical contact with other people and the world at large.  Echols related that one visitor to his cell told him that conditions there did not even meet the basic requirements of the Geneva Convention for housing prisoners of war.

The students and the evening audience at the Reynolds were spellbound and immensely supportive.  At the Reynolds, Echols received standing ovations both at the begininng and end of his talk.  Reading the reaction papers my students wrote in the days following I could tell how deeply affected they'd been.  This was not just mere appreciation for a celebrated visting writer who said some smart things.  This was respect and even awe for a man who lived through hell and survived, even flourished, as an artist.  I think it's safe to say that none of the students in attendance felt they wasted their time; and none of them will soon forget Echols's visit.  I know I won't.  But even more gratifying was an e-mail I received on Wednesday from David Jauss, a writer and teacher who lives in Little Rock and who for years has been an adamant agitator on the behalf of the West Memphis Three.  That's David on the right.  (I learned on Monday night that David was the one who transcribed the thousands of pages of Damien's journal writing that Lorri managed to smuggle out of prison for him.)  David and a few other advocates had dinner in Little Rock with Damien and Lorri last Tuesday night.  David told me that at the dinner Damien repeatedly mentioned how moved he'd been by his reception at UCA, how glad he was that he'd decided to come.  Echoing something he said to the Reynolds audience on Monday night,  Damien told the dinner group that he would remember the visit for the rest of his life.  That alone made me feel fantastic, assured me that we'd done a good job hosting and interviewing him.  But then David said something even more important: Damien and Lorri now want to make regular visits to Arkansas.  It is difficult to overstate what a profound psychological shift that is for Damien Echols and what an important step it can be for his healing, for his resurrection as a whole person, and for the cause--ongoing--of legally exonerating the West Memphis Three.  As David said to end his email, "And that's all thanks to UCA."  Well, it's thanks to a lot of people: to everyone who came and listened and asked and applauded.  But it's also proof that sometimes literary events can matter as much as life itself.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Damien Echols live!


[This entry is being dual posted on Creating Van Gogh and my other blog, Payperazzi.  While the subeject of a visiting writer to my campus fits the themes of Payperazzi better, I began posting about Damien Echols's visit to UCA on CVG last summer.  So I figured I should continue that string.}

After months of working out the logistics--dates, times, locations, content--and months of media attention, public questioning, public support, pockets of alarm and even broader acclaim, Damien Echols's appearance on the campus of University of Central Arkansas is finally happening tonight.  For making this all come to pass, many thanks are owed to Dean Terry Wright and Associate Dean Gayle Seymour of the College of Fine Arts and Communication; also to Associate Professor of Writing Francie Bolter--who has spent innumerable hours ironing out the many nagging details of Echols's vist.  Thanks goes too to University president Tom Courtway and Provost Steve Runge for supporting this important artist-in-residence event, and to the UCA Police Department, which has taken security concerns very seriously.  Very very seriously indeed.  Let me just say that the University of Central Arkansas is lucky to have such a superbly trained and thoroughly professional force on its campus.  (Other locations in this state are not so fortunate.)   The greatest thanks of all, however, goes to Mr. Echols himself: first for surviving the ordeal of being falsely accused, absurdly convicted, and made to sit on death row for eighteen years, for surviving that and being able to tell his story as compellingly as he does in his memoir Life After Death; and of course for being willing to return to his home state for this very special visit to my campus.

A couple months ago I mentioned on this blog (follow this link to the post) that Echols's looming visit to UCA had resulted in some fervent, hateful, spitting emails from certain elements of the Arkansas public to certain people at my university.  Reading those emails one could sense the mania, the literally hysterical blindness that led to the conviction of the West Memphis Three in the first place.  After all, their conviction came about despite the fact that there was no physical evidence against them; none at all.  And several of the key "eyewitnesses" against the Three, including the most damning ones, have long since admitted that the accounts they gave in court were complete fabrications set up by the West Memphis police either through coercion or bribery.  The paper thin case against the Three was--from the start--nothing but a cage of lies and panic, and, when you get right down to it, an inexplicable fixation by authorites to "get" Damien Echols.  So much so that when seven years ago DNA tests were finally conducted on hairs found on the bodies of the victims, and those tests proved that none of the Three were involved--and in fact proved that a stepfather to one of the boys was involved, a man with a history of violence toward children--the authorities in West Memphis did not feel compelled to reopen the case.  They preferred to let Damien Echols rot on Death Row.  To say the least, the vendetta was personal.

I'm happy to report now that those early angry e-mails to UCA have turned into a tidal wave of support.  So many  people have taken me aside, or emailed me, or e-mailed Dr. Bolter, to say how proud they are that UCA invited Mr. Echols, and how happy they are to see him free and thriving.  The UCA Police report nothing but supportive phone calls to their office.  Meanwhile, our students, most of whom have at least heard of the West Memphis Three case, are eager and curious to hear from a man who had to endure what he did and who still managed to keep on writing.  Writing quite brilliantly, in fact.  In terms of what a person has to fight through to keep flourising as an artist there's only one case that I can think of that tops Echols's, and that's the case of Christy Brown, the Irishman born with cerebral palsy in the 1930s and who from simple determination and the ability to control one part of his body--his left foot--made a career for himself as a novelist, poet, painter, and memoirist.  (He had to type, write, and draw exclusively with that foot, a feat brilliantly mimicked by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1989 film My Left Foot.)  And this issue is crucial, because as all of us in the Department of Writing have been saying since we first thought of bringing Mr. Echols here, we aren't interested in rehashing the 1993 Robin Hood Hills murders or the subsequent police investigation.  Those subjects have been rehashed to death.  Instead, we are eager to meet a living man and listen to him talk about writing: about what writing can mean for a person and how a person manages to keep doing it despite the most oppressive of conditions.  We are eager too to meet his wife Lorri Davis, she who meant so much to Mr. Echols while he was in prison and obviously means so much to him now, who arguably saved him, and without question is responsible for bringing the lion's share of his writing out into the world.  We have Lorri Davis to thank for keeping that writing alive for the rest of us to cherish.  If this seems like a perfectly innocuous, completely understandable reason to want to bring a visting writer to campus--well, it is.  But if we have to employ UCA police as armed security personnel both inside and outside site where Mr. Echols will speak, we will. Because Echols has something to say, and after years of enduring brutal oppression and unthinkable prejudice, he darn well has a right to say it.  I for one am looking forward to tonight.